Rajiv Singhal probably has the best job in the world. As 'Ambassador for Champagne' in India, his duties include drinking champagne and getting his compatriots to drink it. And he does it very well too – on July 22, the French government gave him the prestigious National Order of Merit award in recognition of his "pioneering role in introducing various French wines to India – particularly champagnes".
Singhal's job profile may seem all fun and games, but it's hardly that. India is not a wine-drinking country. We like our liquor hard and in large measures. So it's no mean achievement that under Singhal, Indians have begun drinking more of the bubbly. India imported 360,000 bottles of champagne last year, a substantial jump from the 100,000 bottles that were brought into the country just five years ago. Indians would be drinking even more of it, says Singhal, if champagne weren't so expensive, thanks to the very high (amounting to 400 percent) taxes that differ across states. "In Gurgaon you will get a bottle for Rs5,000-6,000; the same will cost Rs10,000 in Delhi, Rs25,000 in Hyderabad, and in Chennai, Rs80,000," he says.
Delhi-based Singhal is a mine of such tidbits of information, culled from his long experience of marketing French wines in India. "Champagne as we know it has existed for only 300 years. Up to the 18th century, wine could only be traded in barrels in France. But champagne can't be made in barrels, only in bottles because the carbon dioxide produced as a result of the reaction between the grape and yeast needs to be captured –that's how the bubbles are formed. In 1728, Louis XV passed a royal edict saying wine could be transported in bottles. That's when the history of champagne as we know it begins. In those days, champagne was very sweet; each bottle contained 300 gm of sugar (today it contains 12 gm of sugar), and so it was consumed more as a dessert wine than an aperitif. It is only post-World War II that champagne caught the fancy of everyone."
For the Bania boy from a conservative family where even opening a bottle of wine at home was frowned upon, the tryst with wine started by accident while he was at the Yale University in the US for a post-graduate degree in economics. A person with "zero cooking skills", who set the first alarm screaming the one time he tried to cook in his student pad, Singhal had to depend on the generosity of friends and acquaintances for his meals throughout his stay in the US. And every time he'd go to someone's place for dinner, he'd carry a bottle of wine.
In 1993, Singhal came back to India. Having failed to get the job he wanted with a multilateral organisation like the United Nations or World Bank, he decided to turn entrepreneur. Those were the early years of economic
liberalisation in India, and Singhal took advantage of the relaxation in export-import norms to get into international trading, becoming a distributor for English ceramic tableware brand Churchill, and later, Villeroy & Boch.
Sometime in the early noughties, he became the agent for a French wine company. But he gave it up in a year after he found that his "opportunities as a commercial entity were limited", thanks to the myriad controls, excise laws, registration and licence norms that govern the liquor business in India.
In 2001, Singhal was appointed country director for Sopexa, the company that promotes French wines and cheeses across the globe. And so began his journey of discovery of the esoteric world of French wine. He travelled to vineyards in France to meet wine makers, owners and traders, sitting in on blending classes and learning how different cuvees are mixed before bottling. "Once I was at a dinner in Champagne when someone said that bottle is bad. I said, bring it, I want to smell. I wanted to know what was bad about the bottle, because the concept of 'bad' in India is very different. I could smell nothing bad in the bottle, and then my host showed me. Since, the wine-makers in Champagne always drink freshly-made wine, their palate is pure. But it takes time to understand the nuances," says Singhal.
Singhal's enthusiasm and interest in wines are infectious. Given his understanding of the Indian wine drinker and his generosity – he's ever ready to open a bottle and make a convert – it's little wonder that he's been such a success as a wine evangelist.
Singhal can be credited with bringing the first sommeliers to India. It was he who persuaded hotels to start serving wine by the glass – it was always by the bottle earlier – and add depth to their wine list. Realising that he had to break the perception that wine was not compatible with Indian food, he started food pairing exercises at which journalists, chefs and socialites were invited. At one such programme, he put an Indian chef, a French sommelier and an American tea master together on a stage to pair food, wine and Darjeeling tea!