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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Thursday, 17 June 2010 15:31

Barista Delhi Wine Concept doomed to Fail

While Barista Lavazza  added the second Café selling wine, in Bangalore a couple of weeks ago, its maiden project in Delhi selling Sula wines is languishing and quietly sliding towards failure, unless the company has some serious plans of revival, writes Subhash Arora ,who has observed the project go down steadily right from inception. 

‘These coffees are a peg above the rest…They contain alcohol…Cheers to Coffee’ -a standee on each floor welcomes the customer who walks in  for a coffee or a casual conversation over a glass of wine in the Defence Colony Barista Café in Delhi –a very popular venue for   informal meetings, casual dates or a rendezvous  or simply time-pass. Besides hinting to the customer that there is some alcohol in some of the coffees the café has on its menu, there are no visible signs letting him know that  wine and beer are also available.


Whereas during the earlier visits, one did find a wine menu with a few of Sula’s variants like Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc selling at Rs.229 a glass and Rs. 449 a pint (whatever it meant to the company, was never clear), the wine list is not visible anymore; neither is wine. First the girl behind the counter said whatever they had available in liquor was being put in coffee, but on being quizzed about wine with coffee, she was flustered.

DelWine’s request to contact the area manager for clarifications did not impress her and she said they were not allowed to give the phone number to anyone. She did feign calling someone and said the number was busy, but well after the cappuccino cup was finished, she had apparently not been able to contact the right person.

The whole encounter would give the impression to a layman that something quasi-illegal was going on. Beyond doubt, a company with the backing of Italy’s biggest coffee company Lavazza, with a presence in 90 countries and holding a 47% share of the retail café business in India would never do such a thing.

This, in part, reflects mishandling of the project since inception. The staff is ill-trained and incapable and disinterested in selling wine. It may be natural for a customer to walk in for a shot of espresso or a glass of wine during any time of the day in Italy, but in India all the problems related with wine and alcohol co-exist; even when one does not talk about the heavy customs, excise duties with 20% VAT sprinkled as a topping.

It is as important for a barista (bartender) selling coffee to know about wine to be able to sell it as a separate product. With zero knowledge getting worse with no training and casual guidance by ill-informed colleagues , failure is imminent. Every time I visited the café (it is practically in my backyard), there was never a hint or suggestion from the person behind the counter or any signage showing that wine was also available. The frosting on the windows was the only indication to those who are aware of the complex local excise rules. To a coffee drinker sitting by the window, it has become anyway more pleasant as it gives a bit of privacy.

There was a big splash and hype about the exclusive agreement between Sula and Barista in Delhi for their whole range of Indian wines in December last year. Khan market was slated to open in January according to the company. ‘Khan Market store is going to start selling wine next week,’ said the girl behind the counter, who otherwise, despite her blue apron that said espress yourself, really could not express anything about wine. The grapevine has it that the café has run into some road blocks for selling wine and alcohol. ‘We have stopped selling wines and will come back with a new wine list here,’ she said, having seemingly suddenly learnt during the time it took me to finish my ‘cappucio’.

The Mumbai Barista was to start serving wine in January at the departure lounge of the airport. It has not opened so far, according to the information with the staff. The one in Bangalore was to open by March 2010. Open it did, but a couple of months later, in the presence of Sanjay Coutinho, COO of Barista Lavazza, where several dignitaries were invited. The customary speeches were informative enough for the guests to learn that an exclusive tie up had been made with a different partner this time- The Four Seasons Winery- the subsidiary of Bangalore based wine company.

For Barista, adding wine to its portfolio may be an adventure or an experiment but for wine lovers it would be a tragedy if the experiment were to fail. It would be another thorn in the rosy story of increasing wine consumption in India, in which the government cannot really be blamed, at least for now. The wines are Indian and prices fairly reasonable. What is required is a real partnership between the coffee and the wine producers and a long term joint commitment. The staff must be adequately trained not only to learn about wines but also how to sell. Wines need to be stored and served properly and the display has to be visible and attractive enough within the constraints of the law. The baristas need to be given special incentives to sell wine.

The usual refrain from the staff is that most people come to drink coffee only. They forget that the company’s slogan when they started the business was to entice people to hang around and relax-coffee was almost incidental. One still remembers the chess board, scrabble boards (was there a guitar in one of the stores!) and the newspapers which are still around. Perhaps, wherever possible, like in Defence Colony Delhi, the wine customers could be encouraged to sit on the first floor and given munchies with wine to make a voluntary separation between the teetotalers and wine drinkers- at least for the initial period, till people get it right in their heads that its normal for others to have wine or beer when they are having coffee.

It must be treated as a special and separate product to learn about and sell. Only then, the wall between coffee and the wine market would be broken. How about a slice of pizza with a glass or two of Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc, followed by a shot of espresso or macchiato-like it is common in Italy? The market is already there-but it needs to be expanded.

In the meanwhile, one hopes the experiment in Bangalore is a success and even if the Café in Khan Market does not open ‘next week’, (the initial license costs are very high, besides the procedural hiccups) it is important that the slide towards failure in Delhi is stopped by the Barista management. Taking a long term view they must commit themselves to make it a success and score another first in the country, so that the next time we visit a Barista, we need not say ‘cheers to coffee!’ but  simply ‘Cheers’ will do.

Please visit our earlier detailed article six months ago,

Subhash Arora



Jason Price Says:

Thanks Subhash for your article, it was indeed very interesting. I am from Melbourne, Australia and now living here and I very much enjoy my wine. I agree with you that there is a time and place for wine, because I consider wine "part of an experience", whether it be a nice relaxed environment, good music in the background, good company, good food and most importantly good wine. Unfortunately, Barista cafe unless they can seperate the crowds score a zero on all the above mentioned factors. The current environment includes screaming kids, impatient staff, and the general "fast food" layout is annoying at best. I most certainly will not be having a casual wine at Barrista in the short to medium future, let alone a coffee. A nice bottle of South African or Australian wine at home will do me just fine, but I still long for the abovementioned conditions. Cheers Jason

Posted @ June 19, 2010 12:34




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