Dharti Desai is my kind of woman. “Can you give me a little more please?” she halts in mid-sentence and asks the waiter politely as he opens a bottle of Italian red (selected after prolonged scouring of a wine list with more have-nots than haves) and pours a minuscule amount in her glass for her to taste. “It’s lovely,” she says.
If this were a piece for a glossy men’s magazine, I would say that Desai, dressed in a pale pink jacket, bright pink shirt and accessorized with diamonds and colour-coordinated Ferragamo bag, looks like a fine bottle of rosé herself.
But since this is Lounge, we’ll use a more appropriate descriptor. Desai is a frank-speaking, gutsy, single mother who taught French for many years before deciding she wanted to be a direct marketing entrepreneur and then, just under two years ago, added wine importer to her CV. Equally important, she’s fun to drink with. “There’s a tradition when you do cheers with wine. You have to look into the person’s eyes, otherwise you’ll both have bad sex for seven years,” she says, and we hurriedly clink our glasses together once again, this time staring intently into each other’s eyes.
Well balanced: Desai says Indian wine drinkers are price sensitive, aspirational and ready to try anything.
Ordering wine at Vista, the coffee shop at Taj Lands End in Bandra, is no easy task even for an entrepreneur who imports 151 brands of the good stuff from 8 countries and supplies to “95% of hotels in Mumbai and New Delhi”, in addition to organized retail.
“I like New Zealand whites and Italian reds. Let’s get one of yours,” is my brief to her.
“Fingers crossed they have it,” she says, before ordering a Brunello from Montalcino, in Italy.
“I’m sorry, it’s out of stock,” the waiter says after checking the cellar or wherever it is they store their bottles. He has returned with another Sangiovese, that lovely grape indigenous to Tuscany.
But it’s not available by glass.
“We’ll try the Argentinian Malbec then,” she says.
“I’m sorry, it’s out of stock,” he replies and Desai goes into another huddle.
“We’ve gone back to Italy,” she reports after the waiter is sent off once more.
It’s not entirely the hotel’s fault. The wine business recently came to a standstill in Maharashtra just before and after the announcement of the state government’s new excise policy on 28 August that radically changed the way excise was calculated and resulted in the prices of imported wine increasing by 10-20%. “All of us, without exception, couldn’t move anything at all for 75 days in Maharashtra as we waited to figure out what the new MRPs would be and then get approvals on the new price list. It was a big hit, there were no sales at all for 75 days,” says Desai.
“There have been days I’ve said to myself ‘what was I thinking?’ getting into this business. What I did for direct marketing seems like no challenge compared to the roadblocks I have encountered in this business,” she adds.
Still, Desai has nearly doubled her sales target for the current financial year to 10,000 cases from last year’s 5,500 cases. It’s not going to be easy, especially since the timing of peak wine sales—between October and February—comes slap bang in the midst of a global economic crisis. But Desai is confident consumers will drink their way through the festive season. To be on the safe side, she’s also targeting states and cities such as Haryana, Rajasthan and Hyderabad, where it’s easier to do liquid business. Karnataka recently announced hefty duties on wine produced outside the state and in Goa, importers must pay the government Rs25,000 for every variety of a label they sell.
Desai’s other initiatives include tying up with a UK-based tour operator for truffle and wine tours to Italy, promoting wine hampers for Diwali, running an updated wine portal and online wine club and, of course, introducing us to new wines.
Next month, the Ferragamo fan is bringing Salvatore Ferragamo to Mumbai and Delhi to launch his Tuscan wines here. Finewinesnmore (more because they sell grappa, limoncello, rum, tequila and luxury juices, too) recently announced it would also market wines by Chateau D’Ori, from Mumbai-based software developer Ranjit Dhuru, who grows his own grapes and has a winemaker from Bordeaux.
Despite the impact Desai’s determined to make, if she meets next year’s sales targets, she will have just about a 5% share in the business. Yet, it’s taken her just two years to be counted among the country’s top 10 wine importers. “The secret is to keep doing what you love doing and don’t worry about anything else. Everything eventually comes. If there’s passion, you have to succeed,” she says.
That’s the mantra that has always driven the girl who grew up in Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Chennai as her father, a one-company man for 30 or so years, travelled with his family across the country on assignment with Dunlop Tyres. Along the way, Desai discovered the French language and became a teacher with Alliance Française. She continued teaching with the same organization when she moved to New York after an arranged marriage that she exited when her daughter was 18 months old.
In New York, one of her students was a direct marketer and that’s how Desai discovered DM. She signed up for a diploma at New York University and on a visit to Mumbai in 1994, she convinced her brother Mehul to turn DM entrepreneur with her. Three years later, they started Regency Direct Marketing India Pvt. Ltd, a direct marketing consulting and alternative media company, and followed that up with print production company Mail Order Solutions India Pvt. Ltd. in 2001.
When Desai moved back from the US in 2005, she was unhappy with the variety of wine available locally. Acting on a hunch, she sent an email questionnaire to the 300,000 people on her DM database. “Fifty per cent of the people responded even though I didn’t offer any incentive. I was blown away by how much interest there was in wine,” she says.
After some more research, she announced that she wanted to enter the wine business. Her mother, a working woman turned homemaker who had always told her daughter she should never make the same mistake, was appalled. After all, Desai’s freedom fighter grandfather had gone to jail for the cause of prohibition. All of Finewinesnmore stationery and brochures have a stamp that reminds consumers to drink responsibly and in moderation, courtesy mum.
Desai spends her time scouring the markets for new wines, entertaining international clients or travelling to vineyards across the world (she’s just back from Italy, Switzerland and Germany and is next headed to Argentina, Australia and South Africa). In her free time, she hangs out with her water sports-loving daughter Anjali, who will be 10 this month.
Over drinks, Desai shares a cellarful of quirky wine facts. Like the Karnataka-Maharashtra wine battle, reflected in their respective excise policies. Or the fact that it takes anywhere from 45-60 days for a bottle of wine to reach your table from its point of origin. Ask her what our wine drinkers worry about most, and the answer comes pat: “What’s the right temperature to drink wine? How do I pronounce this label? Where can I buy this wine?”Oh yes, and more often than she would like: “What is wine made of?”
Born: 5 March 1967
Current Designation: Founder and CEO of Finewinesnmore. Also president and co-founder of both Marketing Capital Company India Pvt. Ltd. and Regency Direct Marketing India Pvt. Ltd
Work Profile: Taught French at the Alliance Française in Mumbai and New York for many years before setting up the three companies, two in partnership with her brother Mehul
Favourite Wine Destination: The Moselle region of Germany, especially during white asparagus season
Reading: Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Sea of Poppies’. ‘The Hungry Tide’ is a favourite
Wine Introduction: Her first time was in Paris on a trip with fellow teachers. The 22-year-old didn’t know about sipping and spitting and in half an hour she was hit