Thursday, 7 November 2013

FORTUNE COOKIE: Max India Boss Analjit Singh Says Cheers to South African Wine

This column first appeared in the 7 November 2013 edition of Mail Today. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.


By Sourish Bhattacharyya

A COUPLE OF fortnights back, I had written about the discovery of Masterchef South Africa finalist Guy Clark by Max India chairman, Analjit Singh (current worth: $705 million, estimated by Forbes.com), which culminated in the opening of Uzuri Deck & Dining at M-Block Market, Greater Kailash-II. The multi-millionaire has now sent ripples across the wine world by buying into one of South Africa's youngest and much-acclaimed wineries, Mullineux Family Wines.
Singh's "complete love affair" with South Africa, as we are informed by the wine writer Tim James (http://grape.co.za), started with his maiden trip to that country during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, thanks to his soccer-obsessed son. It was then that he discovered Franschhoek, an exclusive enclave near Cape Town established by the French Huguenots in 1688, and now famous for its wineries as well as award-winning restaurants (including Le Quartier Francaise, which was ranked 36th in the San Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants of the World in 2011). He bought a mansion house, the Dassenberg Farm, in that exclusive neighbourhood and James writes that it is being re-landscaped in a major way.
Max India Chairman Analjit
Singh has invested in the young
and acclaimed Mullineux Family
Wines in South Africa owned by
Chris and Andrea Mullineux
Mullineux Family Wines was established in 2007 by a young accountant-turned-winemaker Chris Mullineux and his American wife Andrea, a graduate of the famous viticulture and oenology programme of the University of California-Davis -- they had met, as you'd expect from a wine fairytale, in Champagne and instantly fell in love. They started the company with investments from the British serial entrepreneur and philanthropist Keith Prothero, who had made his money in the finance business in Hong Kong, and accountant Peter Dart.
Within a short time, Mullineux acquired a stellar reputation with its portfolio of wines (three with the coveted five-star rating) produced in the granite- and shale-based terroir of the Swartland, a young and tiny wine region 50km north of Cape Town that was previously famous for being the home of South Africa's oldest colonial hotel, The Royal at Riebeek Kasteel. The viticulturist Rosa Kruger, one of South Africa's great "wine innovators" (to quote FT's celebrated columnist Jancis Robinson) and fairy godmother to the Young Turks of her country's blossoming wine industry, introduced Singh to the Mullineux couple.
For Singh, who's seriously looking at bigger forays into food, wine and hospitality, to mastermind which he has appointed Hector de Galard to Max India, it seemed like just the kind of match he would love to seal. An opportunity presented itself when Prothero, who has also financed the London fine wine store, The Sampler, and is funding a charity working for the welfare of South African children afflicted by the foetal alcohol syndrome, announced that he would like to sell his stake in the business. Singh's Leeu International Investments Limited ('Leeu' is the Afrikaans word for 'lion', or Singh!) picked up this stake, making him the first major Indian investor in an important South African wine company.
Last fortnight, I had written about Hindustan Construction Company's Ajit Gulabchand and his massive investment in Nashik's Charosa winery. If Indian investors of the stature of Analjit Singh and Ajit Gulabchand pump money into the wine business, whether in India or around the world, then the profile of the country's wine market will transform dramatically. What the country's wine business desperately needs is an infusion of corporate culture into its daily operations to help it rise above its infantile presence. It will definitely help the country's wine producers to stop behaving like small farmers and make common cause to grow the market, and also get the government to start taking the business seriously. At the moment, the Indian Grape Processing Board is a joke dominated by small-time farmer-producers led by officials who essentially use the organisation to collect frequent flier miles by organising study trips around wine-making countries. People like Analjit Singh can change the face of this unorganised business.

NO GAMBLING AT DRY & VEGGIE BANGKOK DIWALI DOS
I WAS in Bangkok on Diwali eve, on an assignment for one of my many current employers, and I was struck by the sight of women brightly dressed in the Indo-Thai style accompanied by plainly clothed men with flat white turbans and flowing beards zipping into the porch of the busy Sheraton Grande on Sukhumvit Road in their sport cars, conversing with each other in the Thai language as spoken by the locals. They lent colour and buzz to the lobby of the busy hotel.
I found out that they were members of Bangkok's Namdhari Sikh families, which are at the forefront of local businesses, and Diwali-eve parties are occasions for them to bond. For the hotel, which is owned by an old Punjabi business family settled in Thailand, these parties mean good business. And the seriousness with which it takes this business is apparent from the presence of an Indian chef, Janmejoy Sen (formerly of The Imperial New Delhi), catering especially to the social calendar of the Thai capital's vibrant Punjabi community.
Unlike Delhi's Diwali parties, where high stakes rule the gambling tables, single malts and Barolos get flashed, and an array of exotic dishes (from fondues to anda paranthas, which were hugely popular at a party hosted by a builder-hotelier this past weekend), the ones in Bangkok are strictly dry and vegetarian, and gambling is a big no-no. Namdharis (or Kukas), who constitute 60-70 per cent of the Thai population of Indian origin, are vegetarian and teetotallers. Their code of simple living forbids them to gamble and explains the everyday nature of the simple clothes worn by the men. I am told the non-Namdhari Punjabis aren't bound by such considerations, but thankfully, they haven't imported the culture of gambling.
The Diwali-eve party that I got a glimpse of was a tasteful affair. The hotel's event planner had got the venue decorated with Thai silks and flower arrangements, an old-fashioned band was in attendance with a pianist playing old Hindi film numbers and contemporary Thai tunes, and the food spread was a delight. From vegetarian sushi and quesadilla, to khao suey, pad thai and pastas cooked live, to Vietnamese kanom baung yuan (coconut rice pancakes), to matar paneer, naan and pedas, it looked as if the kitchens of the world had come home to roost at this Diwali-eve party. You can take Indians out of India, but you can't take India out of them!

COOKING UP A STORM IN THE DESERT
THE Bollywood stars who attended Nita Ambani's 50th birthday, and the 55 private jets that ferried them and the other celebrities and captains of industry who attended the celebrations in Jodhpur, may have cornered media mind space, but who were the chefs who kept the country's A-List eating out of their hands?
As you'd expect from an event of this class, super chef Hemant Oberoi of the Taj Group presided over the Umaid Bhawan Palace dinner where the best dishes of the hotel chain's top restaurants, from Blue Ginger to Wasabi, were showcased. At the Bal Samand Palace high tea followed by dinner, Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent rolled out his signature phulka tacos, but the fillings were strictly vegetarian, and six designer chaats, including dahi batata poori with wasabi peas and caramelised onion kachoris served with blue cheese sauce.
The equally inventive Abhijit Saha, the chef-restaurateur behind Bangalore's Caperberry, served molecular gastronomy canapes and desserts carrying his creative imprint. The surprise of that evening, though, was a caterer from Surat named Tapan Choksi. He laid out a wow Gujarati spread that his mother, who's in her 70s and very close to Kokilaben Ambani, personally got made over two days. She made sure the dinner turned out to be a wow experience that the privileged guests wouldn't forget in a hurry.

RIP: CHARLIE TROTTER, 1959-2013
WHEN I woke up to Sabyasachi 'Saby' Gorai's Facebook post on what Charlie Trotter meant to him and other young chefs of his generation, I got a sense of the vast circle of influence of the Chicago chef-restaurateur who passed away on November 5. Trotter was 54 when he died, which only compounds the loss, for the man who read Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, talked management (Businessweek brilliantly describes him as a 'Master Chef with a McKinsey Mind'), took foie gras off the menu in 2002, and was one of the most revered chefs of his age, could have shaped at least a couple of more generations. Aspiring chefs have devoured his books, his restaurants have won a procession of honours, but we'll always remember him for his famous line from his cameo role in My Best Friend's Wedding: "I will kill your whole family if you don't get this right!"