New York is one of those strange cities where you can only buy wine in a licensed liquor store or winery. On your way home from work you cannot walk into a grocery store or a supermarket and pick up a bottle or two. A debate is raging over whether to turn over this prohibition era law. Regardless of the outcome, we in the Indian wine world can learn from the New Yorkers. Shiv Singh discusses how.
The debate in New York has put the groceries against an alliance of distributors, liquor and wine store owners. In fact, this group warns that with the new law a third of the 2,700 independent liquor stores in the city will go out of business. The government is leaning towards letting the grocery stores carry the wines not because it thinks it is the right thing to do but because the city needs the revenue.
The wine stores owners grumble about the competition (primarily the grocery chains) killing their business overnight by their ability to discount their offerings and wrangle better deals from the distributors and the producers. The store owners also think that its unfair that they are not allowed to sell cheese, bread and other foods that naturally pair with wines while the grocery stores can. These wine stores do have a point.
When I’m in New York, I shop at Whole Foods and salivate over the thought that I’ll finally be able to buy my wine right after choosing a cheese and vice versa. As a wine consumer, how can I not want that. But then I also frequent a few local wine shops that carry some more high end wines and give me fabulous service. I’m torn on the issue as a result. I would hate to see my local wine stores go out of business. I definitely won’t get that service in a grocery chain. But I do believe that in the long run the stronger wine stores will hold their own and opening up sales to the grocery stores can only help the industry.
Still that leaves the question as Indians with a nascent wine market in India, what can we learn from this? We’re a unique culture with unique purchasing habits, storefront types and liquor laws that make the prohibition era US ones look like libertarianism.
What matters in our market is access and there isn’t enough of that. There aren’t enough good wine stores with the kind of service that they should have. Wine stores need to be educating consumers about the wines and how they pair with food. That’s missing. Many of the wine stores are still sleazy affairs with poor lighting and temperature regulation. The grocery stores aren’t too much better either though some modern supermarkets are springing up across the country. A few carry wine but it still doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
India needs better access to wine. Wine stores that are approachable, inviting, educational and truly representative of the world of wine and everything that it has to offer. These stores need to carry food items too. And not just cheeses but also offer (or at least discuss) Indian foods that can be paired with the wines. The wines stores in a sense need to be more like boutiques. A place that you’d rather shop at than send your maid too.
Can the Indian wine market support many of these? Real estate prices are still too high for most entrepreneurs and the margins in retail may not be good enough. But they’re needed and it means that the country needs a few wine benefactors to invest in this area for the sake of the Indian wine consumer. Benefactors who will jump start more retail consumption. The government also needs to relax the laws and lower the license fees. The Indian wine industry needs this desperately. The last six months have shown that the industry should not depend on hotel and restaurant sales. Otherwise, the country will be stuck with antiquated laws hurting wine consumers as New York has been. The Indian wine story will be still born.