V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR
In a country where men generally drink whisky or brandy, a big investor will have to look at other groups to grow his wine business.
Mr Ravi Vishwanthan is doing just that. The 57-year-old, a French citizen who has been living in Singapore for the past 20 years, is a big player in India's wine industry. And he is targeting the country's women and middle-class to rake in the rupees.
"People in India are getting more interested in wine," he told tabla! during an interview at his office in the Telok Ayer area. "They are keen to know how an agricultural product is turned into wine and the benefits they can get from drinking it.
"The drinking habits are changing fast. Ten years ago, if you went to a wedding in Mumbai or Bengaluru, you would get only whisky and beer. Today at every wedding there is wine.
"Women in India generally don't drink hard spirits. They like wine, sparkling wine or champagne. Drinking wine is fast catching up with educated urban women and the middle-class who often travel overseas and see what the rest of the world is drinking."
He is betting big on the burgeoning interest and spending power of these sections to grow his wine business in India. One idea he has to woo these groups is the sommelier-at-home programme. "Indians, especially women, are usually reluctant to ask questions about wines at restaurants," he said. "So a sommelier goes to their place with a selection of wines, high-end cheeses and glasses and gets them involved in a tasting session."
Mr Vishwanathan believes the Indian wine market has potential for huge growth and he will have to come up with different innovative programmes to get the millions into drinking his wines. He made headlines in January this year when VisVires Capital, the Singapore-based fund management company that he manages along with other investors, acquired three Indian wine companies.
It picked up Charosa from the Gulabchand family, Bengaluru-based Myra Vineyards and Four Seasons, owned by the world's leading liquor company Diageo. The pumping in of Rs120 crore ($23 million) has made Mr Vishwanathan the biggest consolidator in India's wine industry, noted The Economic Times, which also dubbed him reclusive.
The Indian Wine Academy's newsletter delWine declared him "King of Indian Wines" even before his company invested Rs60 crore late last year to become the major shareholder in the family-run Grover Zampa, one of India's top vineyards based in Doddaballapura in Karnataka, during its merger with Nashik-based Vallee de Vin. In 2014, VisVires and Mr Anil Ambani's Reliance Capital bought a 30 per cent stake in Sula Vineyards, the largest winery in India, only to exit four years later to Belgian family office Verlinvest with a 20 per cent return.
According to The Economic Times, Mr Vishwanathan, following his latest acquisitions, has become India's second-largest wine producer within just over a year. His companies produce around 250,000 cases a year, while Sula, which has a market share of 60 per cent, makes around 1 million cases.
"I don't like to talk too much," Mr Vishwanathan said during the meeting at his office. "My e-mails are also very short, no flowery and lengthy language. My background is that of a mathematician, not a businessman."
He revealed that he wanted to be a scientist after he graduated in mathematics "from a couple of engineering schools in France". His parents had migrated to France in 1962 from Pondicherry, a former French colony now known as Puducherry, when he was a month old.
"Love for mathematics led me to banking," he said. "I worked in investment banks (such as Banque Indosuez, Mitsubishi Finance International and Credit Agricole Lazard Financial Products in London) before starting an investment company with my friends. I moved to Singapore in 2000 to manage its Asian operations.
"I started another investment company in 2000 before leaving it to start VisVires in 2012. Some of my partners in VisVires come from families in the wine-growing regions of France, so wine comes naturally to us."
Mr Vishwanathan's India wine connection began in the 1990s when, as a banker, he travelled to the country on work. "I noticed that Indian wines weren't too bad," he said.
Grover's wines were among the first he tasted. Around the time he started VisVires, Grover was looking for investment, and he, along with partners, put in "a small stake".
Mr Vishwanathan sees big growth for Grover in the Indian wine market. It currently produces 30 million bottles a year as against China's 1.5 billion and France's 3 billion, while the global annual production is 36 billion.
"Compared to China, production in India is only a spoonful," he said. "Given the growth of the middle-class, which is westernised in consumption habits, we expect wines to grow rapidly in India as a business. Grover has the potential to be a large player."
He has major plans to develop Grover, including building a new winery, a wine spa and a premium import portfolio that is open for pre-orders. He is also wagering on a wine tourism boom. In Nashik, an ancient holy city in Maharashtra, thousands of visitors throng local wineries for tastings, weekend stays and even weddings.
The Grover winery in Nashik is about three hours from Mumbai airport and will boast 70 villas, cafes, bistros and fine-dining options.
"We have a growth rate of 40 per cent every year and so we are constantly looking out for more vineyards, facilities and infrastructure," said Mr Vishwanathan. "We are by far the fastest growing wine group in India."
Grover has racked up an impressive 129 international wine awards in competitions since 2013 - "more than all the other Indian wine producers put together", Mr Vishwanathan pointed out. But the maverick is not satisfied with his companies' wines making a mark in 33 countries, including France. He wants to take advantage of his existing stake in the Chateau d'Etroyes winery to export Burgundy wines under the La Reserve brand into India.
"These will be the best available Burgundy wines in India and for much less than in French retail," he said.
Mr Vishwanathan, who has a house in the Botanic Gardens area, is also keen to bring some of his Indian companies' premium wines to Singapore, but he is wary of the market.
"It is a difficult one as every brand in the world can be found here," he said. "Our idea of being in Singapore is to get good visibility (the wines will be sold at Raffles Hotel among other high-end restaurants). Our core business will be selling in India."
Mr Vishwanathan earlier had a bitter experience doing business in Singapore as Buyan and Saha, restaurants he started along with his wife Julia Sherstyuk, a former professor at Saint Petersburg State University and writer, folded within a few years. (The couple have a son.)
"Ravi has immense knowledge of wine, has a fantastic wine collection and keeps himself updated on what is happening around the world of wines," said Mr Vivek Chandramohan, chief executive officer, Grover Zampa.
"He is always optimistic and pushes the limit to try new things. His biggest plus point is that he has conviction in the business and his people."
Mr Vishawanathan created a world record in 2011 by bidding 30,000 euros for a bottle of vintage Veuve Clicquot Champagne discovered in a shipwreck in Finland which he gave as a gift to his wife on their 10th wedding anniversary.
His 10,000-bottle personal cellar in Singapore too is full of rare vintages.
"Our philosophy in India is not to make the best wines but wines that can sell," he said.
"Our objective is not to become No. 1. Being No. 1 or No. 2 doesn't make much difference when the market is in the hands of three or four people."
"Women in India generally don't drink hard spirits. They like wine, sparkling wine or champagne. Drinking wine is fast catching up with educated urban women and the middle-class who often travel overseas and see what the rest of the world is drinking." - Mr Ravi Vishwanathan (above at his winery near Bengaluru and left at the Grover Zampa vineyard in Nashik, Maharashtra)