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Sumedh Singh Mandla makes all the right noises for a chief executive of a wine company.

He drinks only wine. Mandla prefers still wine to sparkling wine, which he says is a growing segment but will always remain much smaller than the former.

“I’ve tried everything, but I never had a liking for spirits or beer. I’ve been drinking only wine since a long time. I drink regularly, say two glasses in a couple of days or so. But I’m not a very heavy drinker. I’m not someone who can finish off a bottle, despite the fact that I was in Goa and in the hospitality and beverage industry," he says.

Mandla, a hotel management graduate from Goa’s IHM institute—Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology & Applied Nutrition—is CEO of Grover Zampa Vineyards, a rival of Sula Vineyards which dominates India’s fledgling wine market.

We meet over a glass of wine at The Park, Bangalore. Unsurprisingly, the wine is one of Grover’s, a red wine from its La Réserve collection that costs 800 per bottle.

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Mandla, who is from Jammu and Kashmir, moved to Goa to study hotel management when his parents didn’t let him pursue his dream of joining the army.

After spending more than a decade working in the hospitality business at the Taj in Mumbai and Goa, and Marriott in Mumbai and Sydney, Australia, Mandla decided to move to the beverage industry in 2004. As CEO at Aspri Spirits, he ensured it became one of India’s top importers of wine and spirits—from being one of the top 10 importers to being No.2.

His success at Aspri caught the eye of the revamped Grover Zampa, which was looking to take on Sula in a more meaningful way. Grover Zampa was formed in 2012 after Grover Vineyards, one of India’s oldest wine companies set up in 1988, and Vallée de Vin, owned by liquor industry veterans Deepak Roy and Ravi Jain, decided to join hands.

Grover Zampa, backed by Reliance Capital among other investors, poached Mandla from Aspri in February, offering him the role of chief operating officer. He was promoted to the CEO’s role in October.

“The area of exposure in this job attracted me. As you grow you need to have exposure to the production side. I have two wineries that I control, so the learning is huge and there’s the opportunity to work with international experts. So there’s a huge refinement in my knowledge of wine. Plus, there are exports, which I couldn’t do in my previous job," he says.

Mandla estimates the wine market in India is growing at 18-20% this financial year and the figure may go up to 25% by year-end.

He says Grover is on track to achieve its target of increasing revenue by more than 100% this financial year as it enters new markets.

With a presence in 14 states, the company has launched in eight new states this year, including Haryana, Odisha, Assam and Meghalaya, as well as countries such as the UK, Sri Lanka and Dubai.

“We’re going to smaller and more difficult markets now. We have to create demand there. If we don’t take a lead, these markets will never grow. Once you go there, do tastings and other events, that’s how you convert people. Export is also a big focus. We’re looking to export about 20% of our premium wines (wines priced above 500)," he says.

Grover has also launched three new labels this year, including its first port wines, priced at less than 200. The company now has as many as 26 labels, covering price points ranging from 100-1,700 per bottle.

In the wine business, brand image and perception matters as much as anything else. So why would a premium winemaker risk hurting its image by selling inexpensive port wine?

“We entered the port wine or fortified wine segment because it’s a huge segment. It’ll help us increase our reach. But we don’t make money on port and it’s not a focus for us. It helps us get into the interiors and allows us to sell more premium wines. It also helps us bring logistics costs down. My focus is on wines over 500. We need the others because it drives your wines with a bigger segment of the population," he says.

Over the next three years Mandla wants to increase Grover Zampa’s share of the premium wines to 30-35%—it’s less than 20% currently. He says the company will continue to launch new premium labels and enter new domestic and international markets.

“We’re also working on the possibility of opening a spa resort in Nashik. With a hotel we can convert more people more easily. A resort offers the opportunity for many people to come to one place and do tastings and also see how the wine is made," Mandla says.

When we met, Mandla, dressed in a black suit, was travelling to Grover Zampa’s winery near Bangalore. He says he works some 10-11 hours a day, a good part of which is usually spent in travelling to the company’s wineries in Nashik and Bangalore, and to the various markets in which Grover sells its wines.

Some 40 minutes into our meeting, Mandla takes a sip of what he calls India’s best red wine.

La Réserve, along with Chêne—Grover’s most expensive wine at 1,700 per bottle, launched this year—and the company’s sparkling wine, Soiree Brut, are Mandla’s favourites from Grover’s stable.

However, he isn’t shy of praising wines made by other Indian companies.

He particularly likes Fratelli’s Revello range and the Merlot by Vallonné. “In the past, I could understand when people said that the quality of Indian wines wasn’t great. But now, most producers make at least one or two wines that are very good and can be compared with international wines," he says.

Since joining the company, Mandla’s top priority has been to improve the quality of the wine.

For several years leading up to the merger, experts had criticized the quality of Grover’s wine, blaming it partly for the company’s declining sales. “The perception in the past that Grover’s quality had declined had a lot to do also with the storage conditions at retail. Wines were not being stored in conditions that were great. For example, in Kerala, we found stock that was stored there for three years and we were supplying to that market every month. So there are a lot of challenges with the distribution and the way the wines were stored. It’s not fair to blame only the wine producer," says Mandla.

Grover is expanding its vineyards’ team, working more closely with Simon Robertson, an Australian viticulturist who now visits the vineyards more frequently, and is experimenting with non-French grapes, such as Spanish.

The company is also aggressively promoting its participation in international wine festivals, for along with wine tastings, awards at such festivals are considered an ideal way to market wines. They’ve tasted success.

Mandla says Grover has won eight international awards in different wine festivals this year, including five at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards. “We won another three awards in the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition. It’s a big opportunity for us to promote our wines and get international recognition," Mandla says.

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