India's First Wine, Food and Hospitality Website, INDIAN WINE ACADEMY, Specialists in Food & Wine Programmes. Food Importers in Ten Cities Across India. Publishers of delWine, India’s First Wine.
Skip Navigation Links
About Us
Indian Market
Wine & Health
Wine Events
Retail News
Contact Us
Skip Navigation Links
Wine Tourism
Book Review
Photo Gallery
Readers' Comments
Video Wall
Media Partners
Ask Wineguyindia
Wine & Food
Wine Guru
Gerry Dawes
Harvest Reports
Mumbai Reports
Advertise With Us
US Report on Indian Market Released
Top Ten Importers List 2015-16
On Facebook
On Twitter
Delhi Wine Club
Counter Point- Robert Joseph –Enfant Terrible of Wine Industry

Posted: Thursday, 06 November 2014 16:44

Counter Point- ROBERT JOSEPH –Enfant Terrible of Wine Industry

Nov 06: Robert Joseph is a well known English wine journalist, writer, critic, author, producer and a sought out speaker on the international wine circuit, whom Subhash Arora interviewed in Germany and Georgia to get some interesting revelations that may run counter to many current beliefs in the wine industry with a special reference to the Indian and Chinese industry and their growth comparison

Click For Large ViewWhen I formed the Delhi Wine Club in 2002, I decided to buy an interesting and useful wine book for the members so it would become an easy reference guide for them. There weren’t too many books and many didn’t have the quantity we required. After visiting several book shops and going through 40-50 books we zeroed in on a book called K.I.S.S.-Keep it Simple Stupid. It was a few years later when I met Robert Joseph for the first time that it was he who had been one of the lead authors of the simple-to-follow, interesting book that imparted more than adequate knowledge to novices and wine lovers without being intimidating.

I have met him on several occasions since, in several countries and am always amazed at his outlook on the industry, running counter to common beliefs. He always leaves you with food for thought. A veteran in the industry for four decades, he is also a fellow judge, panel president and one of the Directors at Mundusvini where I have participated for 8 consecutive competitions.

I chatted with him at length during my previous visit to Germany and later in Georgia where I had gone to visit several wineries and where he is working with the National Wine Agency to help promote their wines in the export market.

Here are excerpts from my chat that centred on his career, experience and especially as it related to the Indian industry and the Chinese counterparts.

Early days

‘I grew up in South England surrounded by food and wine, working in the restaurant and a hotel my dad owned. In those days customers in the restaurants used to have the same meal and got bored but could taste wines to change the monotony. I got interested in the wine lists instead of going to the university that I should have done. I stayed on in the hotel. Those days the bosses of the wine companies used to come to the hotel and they taught me a lot about wine.’

That ‘70s Show

My brush with wines really started in the early ‘70s after UK joined the European community in 1973 (precursor to the European Union that was established 20 years later in 1993-editor). We were going through a conformational period when we had to follow labelling rules. It was not uncommon till then to produce a barrel of the same wine in North Africa and sell it as Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape or Beaujolais or even Nuits Saint Georges!  Nobody knew about the laws and nobody was controlling it. We had now to label according to the French Appellation. It was an interesting time and a very crucial period in the modern history of wine.

Taste of Burgundy

In 1975 when I was barely 20 years old, the hotel was sold. I decided to go to Beaune in Burgundy to learn about their wines for 6 months. Bordeaux was easy to understand as there were books on it. But I didn’t learn Burgundy wines completely even in 5-6 years but it was enough and I returned to England after six years.

Back in London it was the Wine and Spirits magazine where I started writing about Burgundy. I had also a column in the Sunday edition of Daily Telegraph which sold 7000 copies but supposedly had a readership of 2 million! I also brought out my first book on wine, called the Wine List. It had everything about wine and was published by the publishing Division of Guinness in 1984.

International Wine Challenge is born

‘While at the magazine we wanted to taste 50 wines and named the article as International Wine Challenge. English wines came first in that article. Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson and many producers said one couldn’t do it like that! Italian and Spanish producers wrote to us that we couldn’t do it if we wanted to judge their wines. They would like to enter in a proper manner and hence the IWC was born.

We started with 200 samples in the first year but the number doubled every year reaching 9000 wines- at which level we were stuck for a while. Meanwhile Decanter started another Competition around 2005 when our magazine and the IWC competition were sold. I decided to do something different then.

Nobody reads wine articles

I had been giving free advice to people and decided to put my money were my mouth was and decided to produce wine in 2005. In the same year my son was born. I was not sure if writing alone would earn me a living. I am very glad I took the decision. Few people can now make money from writing about wine.

Most people are not interested in reading about wine. The rich people were drinking good wine- but never read my stuff. So I said why bother writing about it. I used to go to parties where I’d meet sophisticated and rich people better educated than me and drinking good wine. They had never read any of my articles which were being read by a few people but the same people again and again.

Wine Competitions

The profession side of wine - how to make, sell and distribute it interested me. In 2005-6 I received a call from Meininger’s, the publisher who wanted to talk to me about a consumer magazine. I told him not to do it but to start a wine competition. For a short eight year period, I took IWC to other countries. The publishers were not interested in other markets so I asked them to give me franchise in other countries. From 1997 to 2006 I started them in India, China, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Russia, Poland and Vietnam. Also, I worked in other challenges in different ways. That gave me insight into other markets. At one time I was doing 5 competitions. But from 2005-06 MWBI I got involved with Mundusvini competition.

The problem with these competitions is that one never makes much money. As soon as one starts making some money (most people think erroneously that these competitions should not make any money at all!) a new competition is born and neither makes any money.

Creating brands-Le Grand Noir

Click For Large ViewRobert wears his producer cap as he tells me about the Le Grand Noir he co-produces in the South of France. It has grown over 10 years to about 2 million bottles sold in 20 different countries. It is beginning to achieve what we set out to prove- that a brand can be created without money or being a multinational only, with a good product, distribution, quality price and marketing.

We have an ambition to reach 3 million bottles (250,000 cases). I have now a better understanding of the way wine is distributed and marketing than wine writers who cover only half the aspect of wine by not talking about this aspect. This is like talking about a restaurant and the quality of food but not food service and décor.

So I am doing more consultancies now and helping distributors, and yes-I have changed. I have stopped writing for consumers. The K.I.S.S. you so fondly talk about is what I use in China for education as a training book. My new book Wine Marketing Handbook should be out by the end of the year.

Indian Market-Slow due to culture

Indian market is a slow market. Unfortunately there are some handicaps and difference with the Chinese market. Culturally, we cannot get away from the fact that you have a large number who do believe in several religions where alcohol is not well regarded in a broad sense- this includes liquor and wine.

Culturally, many right people don’t seem to promote wine-Bollywood and cricket stars are not currently available to promote wines like in other countries. (During one of the trips in India he had narrated to me an instance of meeting and tasting with one of the Khans in Bollywood. He is a connoisseur but when Robert asked him to promote wine culture, he smiled and said in a lighter vein that he would have his head chopped off by his Muslim brethren if he did that-editor). In China they would do it- Jackie Chan went on to promote Lindeman’s. Wine is very much a part of daily activities in China, unlike India.

Prohibition and Prohibitive

Yours is the only country in the world where Prohibition is still there (he was not considering the Muslim states, of course). Yours is the only country in the world where there is a Dry Day. It is one of the few countries where you have dry states-one of the countries where there are likely to be more and dry-ish states.

There is always a talk of Duties in India. They are high but even UK has a similar picture where the duties are relatively high but still we are free to do things. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be so in India.

Gift culture is a lot in China and Japan. You have it in India too but not so much. Wine in banqueting has become very popular, I must admit.

Chinese Explosion

It is fair to say that Chinese dictatorship which is benign (though some may argue with that) has a non elected government that has the responsibility of feeding and keeping the health of citizenry. President Xi Jin Ping of People’s Republic of China had made a decisions that when the reforms worked and people had enough money in the pocket for their basic money needs, he wanted to control their gambling and alcohol.

He could not stop their gambling but he understood that most alcoholic drinks are made from staple food. He wanted to support the wine industry and wean people away from spirits.  There has been a financial explosion there for 15 years and wine culture has been on the increase. Many are government owned or controlled wine companies.

Hong Kong became liberal through Beijing as well. China was responsible for HK being duty free-many people don’t realise that. The wealthy can smuggle from Hong Kong but it is relatively small and in any case smuggling is a tradition like it is between Canada and the US (closer to home, Nepal and India share that tradition -editor).

Wine and Health

Wine and Health concepts are properly understood and followed in China. Women drink wine daily for their skin. Wine is not a handicap. When I go to China they say-can you get me Lafite?-In India they say- can you get it for me cheap! If you are looking for cheap-it is not possible!

For Indians living overseas or visiting, if duty alone were a problem, they would be drinking wine. But they don’t want it. Nobody has created a level- they just don’t buy wine . One of the things to change will be the Indians in the IT industry who are surrounded by Americans who are fine wine drinkers. There will be a wine culture in India-but it is not imminent. There is a lot of food and wine talk in India and China. But I think talking of Bordeaux wines with Indian food is ridiculous. Biggest wines are in UK where sweet Rose is drunk but why not in India, I wonder. Screw-caps are not as popular as they should be.

Wine education is not flying in India-whereas  it is in China. It is not seen in the popular culture yet in India- even though I see it feature in Bollywood. I am not saying there is no hope for wine culture. But for a would - be exporter Vietnam is a more interesting market right now- I can sell half a container more easily there.

One of the reasons that growth has been a problem, and that is now changing- is that the Indian industry has been using wrong varietals. French consultants have been advising Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance. Some people are producing wine for tax breaks, knowing the government policy-but not passionately. This is changing quickly though. We can’t overlook the Grover Story- once it was the best in India. But I think passion was not there. But I find Bangalore as an interesting area. They now make wine in Maharashtra in order to get into that market. In China, the best areas are not near the market.

Producers are very self congratulatory in India. Even the new-comers quickly claim to make the best wine. The Chinese make a lot of bulk wine unashamedly. They are now growing out of that phase and BIO (Bottled-in-origin) is more than the bulk now. Those bulk wine producers are building up their own vineyards fast. China is learning from it experiments and mistakes. With everything else they are long-term in their plans- building for 20 years horizon. Ten years ago we talked about both Chinese and Indian markets - China has since grown a lot whereas India has not.

Wine Culture in China vs. India

‘When I go to a bar in China, I see Chinese women drinking wine in a glass in the evening. There are Retail chains selling wines. In Indian Retail, distribution has been an acute problem. It’s now available in the shops in the Malls but very late in the game. Meantime, we have new chains with franchise business with 700-1000 stores selling food and wine in China.

Recently there has been a clampdown in China on entertainment and corruption, with a ban on gifting. In short term the market has taken a big hit. I think this is the best thing that has happened to the industry. There is more focus is in daily consumption level-and wine education’.

Comparing the Indian wine culture with China, he says, ‘India is a 3-city story - Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi. We are talking about 20-30 such cities in China! It’s so huge and widespread that nobody knows what is happening in other areas in China. In China, people are travelling a lot to Europe. Millions of Chinese travelling are imbibing western culture. There is inverse racism in dealing with Indians- because of English language, cricket and Commonwealth.  

Robert visited India first in 1985. ‘I was there when Indage started production of sparkling wine. I would have been perhaps the first outsider to observe the process but unfortunately I got grounded in Mumbai as there was some strike,’ even as he confirms matter-of-factly that Indage was using only Thomson Seedless grape variety for their sparkling wine Marquis de Pompadour and Omar Khayyam.

‘We do not have young, committed and focussed people in India. Retail distribution is of course improving. But young people coming back from overseas do talk about development of Indian wineries.'

What does he think of the possibility of a Sula Grover-Zampa merger as a possibility as suggested by one of the common investors? ‘It makes a real business sense if they join hands. Lindeman is a good example of consolidation in Australia-why not in India? Pernod Ricard even has spirits and wines. LVMH owns many competing Champagne brands running independent businesses like Moet Chandon and Krug. We must understand that we must have a big and wide distributor system. Selling wine deeper is important. Look at Apple stores and the number of such retail stores that have mushroomed!

Quality of wines

Despite high quality wines, there is no established global brand name in wine as in whiskeys, barring maybe champagne as a brand. No Duty-Free shops have the same brands in every country, except champagne. Antinori and Torres have started global promotion now. Not having these brands in duty free shops is an industry problem.

FSSAI as a protectionist policy

Click For Large ViewRobert is not quite up to date about the burning issue of FSSAI procedures that are causing havoc in India. So I explain to him the Act and ask him his opinion.

‘In USA there is a labelling control. You say FSSAI need 2 bottles for tasting! How do they test them? What sort of experience do they have of wine. I don’t know how to believe. Is it a scandal? Are people dying of spurious wine? I believe it is a made - up problem- a way of protectionist measure- other countries are not doing it! I believe it is an avenue for corruption. UK has no such laws. I supply my French wines to Tesco without any such tests required.

Indian wine has good future

Robert concludes by conceding that Indian wines have good future-but in future. China has gone ahead out of India in the meanwhile and many producers are losing interest. He might be slightly prejudiced or out-of-date about a few aspects but hits the nail on the head on most issues. One hopes he is proved too pessimistic in the near future and our President and the government realise the benefits of wine culture.

He was also critical of the media and producers and other authorities responsible for wine promotion. They should apprise the government of the risk of diverting cereals towards alcoholic products and urge them in the use of fruits like grapes to ferment liquids.

Subhash Arora

Tags: Robert Joseph, Wine List, International Wine Challenge, Le Grand Noir

If you Like this article please click on the Like button   


Want to Comment ?
Please enter your comments in the space provided below. If there is a problem, please write directly to Thank you.

Generate a new image

Type letters from the image:

Please note that it may take some time to get your comment published...Editor

Wine In India, Indian Wine, International Wine, Asian Wine Academy, Beer, Champagne, World Wine Academy, World Wine, World Wines, Retail, Hotel


Copyright©indianwineacademy, 2003-2020 |All Rights Reserved
Developed & Designed by Sadilak SoftNet