Q&A with an Indian Wine Importer – Neethu Sheth

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Neethu-blog.jpgNeethu Sheth left her work at an investment bank in New York, when she married and moved to Mumbai. In 2007 she founded The Wine Rack, a company that imports wines from South Africa and New Zealand. Over the last few years she has seen many aspects of the industry change and in some ways become more difficult. Despite this, an innate passion for wine is what keeps her going. Edited excerpts from a Sommelier India interview:


Q. Do you feel the role of a wine importer in India is particularly crucial?
A. An importer definitely plays an important role as there are multiple agencies – customs, excise, the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) – each with its own set of rules and regulations to deal with when it comes to importing wines. So while the customs paper work is standard, coordination and adherence to the rules of different agencies is crucial. Furthermore, each state has its own excise rules and pricing structure regarding imported wines, which requires the need for a good distributor for debonding and subsequent deliveries. Having an importer’s and distributor’s license has definitely made it easier for The Wine Rack to manage the entire operation from inbonding to deliveries as a seamless and streamlined process.
Q. What are the challenges faced by a wine importer?
A. Having to interact with multiple agencies is a challenge. There is always a new hurdle to deal with, a new change in policy. It would really boost business if the agencies were in sync with one another, and if policies would remain unchanged once they are in place.
Q. Do you feel there is a need – and scope – for imported wines?
A. While there is a variety of Indian wines and some of them are very good, imported wines certainly help us in evolving and growing our consumer base. Of course, the demand for imported wines comes only from the high income strata due to our hindering duty structure. Foreign wineries are keen to sell their wines in India, but the duties and processes make it difficult. It is extremely challenging to achieve the volumes they expect especially for premium wines.
Q. Do you feel there has been any shift in demand in recent months?
A. In terms of the overall demand, the economic downturn has certainly affected the demand for wines. Consumers are opting for mid-range wines. This would mean wines priced between Rs 2000 to Rs 5000 at a fine-dining restaurant, and under Rs 2500 at a retail outlet. In terms of preference – within their price range – consumers are still curious and they are willing to try new varieties and wines from wineries they haven’t heard of, or wines they haven’t tasted before. Ultimately the Indian consumer wants value for money, approachable, friendly wines.
Q. What is the Indian consumer looking for?
A. In terms of preference, there is a distinct demand for red wines over white wines. Consumers like trying out New World wines as they are easy to understand. You don’t need too much wine knowledge to understand New World wines as they are very approachable and their labels provide information. Also they are competitively priced.
Q. What do you as an importer focus on bringing to the consumer?
A. The main focus is to offer consumers value for money wines. Apart from the regular portfolio, we try to bring in different wines such as a Gewürztraminer from South Africa, a wine that is traditionally produced in France and Germany. Wines from boutique wineries are invariably expensive as small quantities are produced and the process followed by them is labour-intensive. So while we do import them, the bulk of the portfolio is mid-range wines. We work very hard to provide excellent customer service – an interesting variety of wines that reach the customer in good condition. This includes both the inside and outside of the bottle. After all, life is too short to drink bad wine!
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