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Orient Express to Unveil India's Most Ambitious List

For 20 years, the Orient Express at New Delhi 's Taj Palace Hotel has been a fine-dining restaurant with an impeccable reputation. Now, it's ready to set tough benchmarks in the wine business, says SOURISH BHATTACHARYYA

As Orient Express, the most prestigious European fine-dining restaurants in India , turns 20, it is getting ready to unveil a wine list that promises to set new benchmarks in quality and pricing in the country. Located at Taj Palace Hotel, which is in the heart of New Delhi 's Diplomatic Enclave, Orient Express has been known as a great food destination, but its new wine list, which will become operational by the end of February, will have 479 labels, including as many as 32 verticals - an astounding feat by our standards.

Spurred by Raymond Bixon, the American-born Managing Director of the Taj Hotels, and encouraged by the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence that Orient Express had earned in 2005, Taj Palace EAM (F&B) Thomas Abraham and his General Manager, Sarabjeet Singh, pegged their ambition a notch higher.

They have set their sight on Wine Spectator 's Best Award of Excellence, which means stretching their already crowded wine list from 250 labels to 450-plus. And the list will have a heavy-duty French presence - First Growths, spectacular wines that figure lower down in the 1855 Classification (Lynch Bages, Lagrange and Cos d'Estournel are some of them) and even top-rated seconds (Les Forts de Latour, for instance).

"Our high-end customers desire to go French. When they come to a restaurant like Orient Express, they expect nothing less," says Abraham, whose inspiration has been Les Amis , Singapore (where he had dinner last November during Wine for Asia 2005). Famous for its French-dominated wine list, the restaurant earned Wine Spectator 's Grand Award of Excellence.

"It was a call we had to take," Abraham continues. "We have a certain client profile and a position in New Delhi . Our new food menu matches up to this profile with features like a page devoted to caviar and ingredients like sturgeon fillet and Kobe beef. We can't have a great menu and a great client profile but a sub-standard wine list. It is no longer enough to have a minimum list."

Abraham has benefited from the advice of an American sommelier who has been the Taj group's wine consultant for two years (he refuses to disclose his identity). And unlike his peers in other hotels, he has the unusual advantage of dipping into a company-approved wine list consisting of 600 labels.

Having spent three months on the list, poring over Robert Parker's Bordeaux ratings with the diligence of a new convert, and after proof-reading it eight times (the last thing he'd want is Wine Spectator to deduct points for bad spellings, the bane of many an Indian wine list), Abraham is confident that he finally has everything he must to surprise his guests and impress Wine Spectator 's mystery judges. Abraham's strategy is to wow his guests with the sheer depth and variety of his wine list, giving them no excuse to drink anything but wine. Wines today account for 50% of the beverage sales at Orient Express, which is double of what it was just two years ago. What's more significant is that two years back, the restaurant had not more than 60 labels, "mostly ordinary wines, with a few high-visibility labels thrown in, because people valued them only for their high prices." The "high-visibility" labels, mostly Bordeaux First Growths, hardly ever moved because they were over-priced beyond acceptable levels.

The first thing that'll strike you about the wine list is that it's reasonably and rationally priced. In the verticals, for instance, some of the older vintages are priced lower than more recent ones, just because they were not the best, or hadn't yet opened up. Such transparency is unusual even by international fine-dining standards. And the prices definitely will gladden the hearts of wine lovers.

Abraham has followed a three-tier pricing policy. Base-level wines have the highest mark-up, which slides as the list goes up the quality ladder. "We're selling Bordeaux First Growths at 80% beverage cost," declares Abraham and his list's right-hand side shows he's not giving a sales spiel. Ironically, when the Orient Express wine list was irrationally priced, what sold were the wines priced between Rs 1,500 and Rs 2,000. Today, most wine sales are in the Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 range. Moral of the story? People get the confidence to trade up only when prices are reasonable.

Apart from managing prices, Abraham has raised the bar in inventory management. He has convinced importers - and he can't stop praising Brindco's Aman Dhall and Sanjay Menon of Sansula/Sonarys for being visionaries - to give two or three bottles of each vintage of each wine in the verticals list. That helps him reduce unsold stocks and the panic in the purchase department. "Moreover, we have to continually look at windows and opportunities to move the slow labels," Abraham declares.

For the importers, it meant taking a tough call, because they will have to pay hefty local registration charges for each vintage of each label. They were willing to "take that extra step" obviously because it gives them the first-mover advantage in the premium wine category. After all, when people are trading up, the market for Bordeaux 's top growth and premium wines like Vega Sicilia, Joseph Phelps Insignia or Ornellaia is bound to swell. "Nobody knows what will sell. It's a gamble," says Abraham. It's a gamble, yes, but one that'll put Taj Palace in a league of its own.

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