How to sell old wine in new bottles
Indians like irreverent mavericks. We don’t know what to do with the too-polished ones
Prince Robert was in Bangalore to showcase Château Haut-Brion. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.
Prince Robert of Luxembourg was in town the other day to suss out the Indian market and showcase the wines of his prestigious estate, Château Haut-Brion. A courtly, elegant man, he was perfectly polite as he talked about his wines and why India was important to them. “We have had more and more visitors to our estate from India,” he said. “It is the No. 3 country that ‘likes’ us on our Facebook page. Your cuisine is subtle and multilayered like our wines.”
Indian cuisine can be described in many ways but “subtle” is not the first adjective that comes to mind. Japanese cuisine is subtle. Indian cuisine is, well, sensual.
A stream of European vintners are coming through India; a pattern that will only increase as the search for the next big market after Japan and China intensifies. India is a logical choice. It has a young, aspirational population. There is a growing tier of well-travelled, global Indians who demand and consume premier crus and prestige cuvées as a matter of course. They have well-stocked cellars; bring back favoured bottles on annual trips to Europe; have never travelled on a Shatabdi train, or dined at a Moti Mahal. These are the consumers that luxury brands want to reach out to, typically over a private dinner.
The Leela Palace in Bangalore seems to be a favoured venue. At these tastings, brand ambassadors mingle with their guests; talk about their links to India and how they believe it is going to be an important market. There is only one issue: They all sound the same. It is as if one massive PR firm has given them all the same script.
Here is some advice for these fine wine ambassadors: Eschew European reserve and speak from the heart. Speak in lyrical poetry, not in numbers and prose. Don’t be afraid to reveal yourself, kinks and all. Indians like irreverent mavericks. We like a little gravel in our people. We don’t know what to do with the too-polished ones. Mumbaiyya English is a good primer into the way Indians talk and feel. If the mannerly Japanese are about form, if the practical Chinese are about function, Indians are about sentiment. Touch our hearts and you’ve got yourself a convert.
In the last couple of months, two legendary brands, Dom Pérignon and Château Haut-Brion, have held events catering to a small group of people. But here’s the thing. The small group of Indians who can buy a Dom Pérignon or an Haut-Brion will probably buy both. Or else, they will make choices for personal, quixotic reasons. One person may choose a Dom Pérignon because it complements light vegetarian food; because the 1998 Rose is mind-blowing; or because champagne can be sipped through the evening without getting a headache. Another may go for the Haut-Brion because it pairs beautifully with grilled meats; or because it is nuanced, layered and fills the mouth with aroma and flavour. The point is that neither of these brands needs to overtly sell to the Indians they invite to their events. They need to connect with this group in a way that is subtle yet authentic.
Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave for Dom Pérignon, came close in this aspect. Sure, he spouted the party line— “India is so spiritual; so soulful; so profound and layered.” But he was also assertive and unreserved in revealing his pride and vulnerabilities; his philosophies and failings. Maybe winemakers become like the wines they create.
“The 2003 (vintage) is very close to my heart because it was so challenging and risky. I had to grow up for it,” said Geoffroy. “Maybe I am a better person because of that vintage because there is a lot going on and yet you have to remain humble. I like the challenging vintages. Some of the most outstanding vintages for Dom Pérignon have been easy to create but to me, they are not meaningful.”
Vintners have a memory for climate. Mention 2003 and they will all say “scorching heat”. This then is why we pay unseemly sums of money for a bottle of their great vintages—because in the end, we are paying for the marriage of rain and soil; for the fickle muse that is the grapevine; for the earth’s bounties and vagaries; and because, when we sip a great vintage, it feels like we are sipping Mother Nature’s smile.
Prince Robert thinks in vintages; and in locations of wine stores. Mention Brookline, Massachusetts, US, and he can reel off a wine store in the area. His list of favourite vintages will make a wine-lover green with envy: 1945, 1959, 1961, 1975, 1978, 1982 and 1989.
I enjoyed Prince Robert’s company and his wines. But next time, I wish he would reveal to India the young backpacker he once was—the one who travelled through India and Nepal. Indians like people who are edgy and a little off: more Munnabhai than Maharaja. Dom Pérignon’s Geoffroy is hardly a Munnabhai but somehow he has managed to preserve his edge in spite of the rarefied echelons that he travels in.
As for his champagnes, I must admit bias. A recent milestone birthday in my family deposited a tonne of his bottles on my doorstep. They were exquisite.
When she cannot drink Dom Pérignon, Shoba Narayan drinks Cremant de Limoux Brut. Write to her at [email protected]
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
Hahaha.. nice column!
Problem is that these wine ambassadors are peddling the same old wine in new Indian bottles. Prince Flauntleroy can slap himself (in all his backpacking or beedi smoking or betel chewing glory) on the label. Merely hammering dents into a BMW and painting it black and yellow (or green) won’t make it appealing (or even affordable) to an Indian crowd.
The main problem with wines, and most true oenophiles agree, is that they were always designed for the blandish western tastes. Ancient India did have its earth and honey based “wines” but religion and culture all but kicked them out. (Can you imagine Namboodiri brahmins swilling Reisling alongside sambar sadam!) Real wine lovers yearn for the good stuff – Syrahs and PNoirs and Barolos – that go well with the earthy and spicy flavors of Indian fare. (Yes, OK, I admit I am cribbing Chadmal and Soon, but damn it they are right!)
The Prince would do well to study Indian luxury tastes in jewelry and fashion. We are not stringy or tawdry people. We are rich and bold and complicated and, yes, heavy people, and we see through the label in a heartbeat. Peddling Haut-Brion under a label of Kingfisher Exclusive is pointless. Instead put the real fizz (heh) in the product and make it the king before you call it the Maharajah HB .. and the masses – all billion of them! – will come.
Hi Navrang: I wish you would send this comment to “[email protected]” so that my editors can considering publishing it.
Shoba, I forwarded, but it bounced back. You and your editors are welcome to publish it though…
Too late for that now, Navrang. Thanks.