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From metallurgical engineering to selling cult wines, this IITian follows his passion

BY  Subhi Khanna/The American Bazaar
Lala Wines sees India as a virgin market for wines but is cautious due to excise regulations that make it difficult to import and sell in India profitably.

Nish Gera, an alumni of IIT Bombay with a degree in metallurgical engineering, is an entrepreneur, writer and consultant. He recently co-founded Lala Wines, a start-up which aims to bring little-known boutique wines from the Pacific Northwest to wine lovers in the United States and Europe. With over nine years of experience creating and executing marketing and product strategies for clients across a wide range of industries, including food and beverage, financial services and the public sector in the United States, the United Kingdom, and India, Gera lives and works in New York City.

Gera’s business partner and co-founder of Lala Wines, Tilar Mazzeo, is the author of The New York Times best-selling oenobiography The Widow Clicquot, which won the Gourmand 2008 award for the best work of wine literature in the United States. Other books include The Secret of Chanel No. 5 and the forthcoming Ritz at War, on French luxury icons. She has also written best-selling guidebooks to the small wineries of Sonoma and Napa counties (the Back Lane Wineries series) and her feature articles have appeared in venues including Food and Wine Magazine. She is a professor of English and creative writing, with a decade of experience in the European luxury market.

Gera, in an exclusive interview to The American Bazaar, says he had no prior interest in the wine business, but since he met Mazzeo through a common friend, has become a connoisseur and purveyor of wines, himself. Excerpts from the interview:

Is Lala Wines also a vineyard?

We’re not a vineyard – what we do is partner with many vineyards and winemakers, mainly in California, Washington and Oregon. Also, some of our wines are rated in the 90+ range by Wine Spectator and Robert Parker, others are “cult wines” that have a very strong following and can only be had on an allocation basis. The name Lala Wines comes from a trio of Cote Rotie wines in France collectively called “La La” (La Mouline, and La Turque) which had ratings of 100 from Robert Parker, symbolizing high quality, limited production wines. We compete with other wine clubs through our unique positioning in the market — there is almost no other online wine site which focuses on these “back-lane” wines.

How did you get interested in starting up your own company?

It stems from the desire to create something from scratch and the absolute thrill that comes with it, a bit like having a baby, I’d say. What makes it all the more urgent is if you truly believe in the concept and the market niche that your company would be filling.

Not many Indians are in the business of selling wine in the US. What inspired you?

Tilar Mazzeo
I’ve been what I call a passionate amateur when it comes to wine, which I only discovered when I moved to the US about nine years ago. The inspiration, I have to say, came from trips to far-off vineyards both in the US and France. My business partner and Lala Wines co-founder, Tilar Mazzeo, was a big source of inspiration as well. Her relationship with wine goes way back and shows up in her amazing books.

How did you research and discover your brand?

We always knew we wanted to focus on small-production wines, which come from wineries producing less than 1,000 cases a year. Which is also a currently unfulfilled market niche. A lot of the research for the brand was very hands-on: visiting wineries in Napa, Sonoma, meeting with winemakers and tasting different wines.

What’s special about the wine you offer?

What’s special is 99% of the wines we carry are not available in wine stores across the US, even in “wine-aware” cities like New York and Chicago. And because these wines are produced in smaller numbers, they tend to be more interesting, have a distinct sense of “terroir” and you can see a huge departure from the larger California brands. You also see differences from one vintage to another.

How has the response been so far?

The response has been excellent. We launched about two months ago and a lot of the marketing so far has been word of mouth. We are now working to get the message to a much wider audience and putting more effort into the marketing.

Are you interested in expanding your business to India?

Yes! Very much so! India is a virgin market when it comes to wine and has the big advantage of a wine drinking community that doesn’t have the biases that exist in the west about varietals, terroirs, etc. But – and this is a huge but! – india has excise regulations that currently make it prohibitive for us to profitably export to it. However, there is a lot of talk of that changing. So, fingers crossed!

What’s your personal preference in wines: red or white?

This is probably the trickiest question I get asked. My response: this week, I am loving the Petite Syrah from Olabisi vineyards (currently available on www.lalawines.com). I highly recommend visiting their tasting room in Napa, when you’re there. Perfect wine for a cold winter evening in New York City, by the fireplace.

What food do you pair your favorite wine with?

The Olabisi Petite Syrah pairs beautifully with lamb, grilled or stewed, or any hearty winter meal.

How do you compare the wines from the US to those from France and Argentina?

US wines are completely underrated! The Pacific northwest produces some amazing wines but 85% of the market is captured by less than less conglomerates. We are trying to change that – one glass and one wine drinker at a time. I love my French wines but the joy that comes from opening a bottle from one the 400+ “back-lane” wineries in California, is something else.

(The interview was first published at The American Bazaar)

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