Ignisis was founded to put Indian wine back on the map – now it’s trying to spice-up the cider market too. Steve Dyson finds out more from entrepreneurs Alok Mathur and Gorvinder Butter.
Like many of the best ideas, the origins of Ignisis can be traced to a fateful evening of excited banter over drinks and curry. Friends Alok Mathur and Melvin D’Souza were sitting at a reputed Indian restaurant in Oxford in late 2008 when they realised they were being forced to drink either Indian beer or French wine with their meals.
The conversation started with them asking each other why they were drinking European wine in a curry house, when India itself could boast thousands of years of wine-making. The reason, the story goes, is that India fell victim to the phylloxera epidemic in the 19th century caused by a louse that wiped out vineyards across Europe and Asia; then, under British colonial rule, India became too used to consuming beer and whisky to have the will to revive the industry.
But hold on a minute – the pals discussed – surely a few Indian wine producers revived the industry in the late 1980s and 1990s, didn’t they? If so, why isn’t it stocked in curry houses across the UK?
That was the lightbulb moment that, several weeks later, became an idea and then, in 2009, resulted in the registration of Ignisis, based in Solihull. The plan was to make new wine from an old region a competitor in a global industry; the company’s first brand was Soul Tree Wines, launched in 2011.
“The original idea was to put Indian wine on the map in the UK and beyond,” recalls Mathur. “And it’s now perhaps the only Indian wine business to be based outside India, in the heart of the major wine drinking region of the world.”
Mathur was born in Haridwar, in North India’s Uttarakhand state, in the early 1970s. He was raised in various parts of India, taking a degree in engineering in the city of Indore before joining Tata Motors in India in 1993; in 2000, he moved to the UK to help manage Tata’s UK operations, before returning to education to take a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School in 2007.
That’s when he met Ignisis co-founder Melvin D’Souza, who was born in India in the mid-1970s and brought up in Nasik, the wine capital of India, in the western state of Maharashtra. D’Souza went to the United States for his undergraduate degree and then worked in the family business of poultry genetics in India, managing sales and marketing across Asia and Africa, before taking a sabbatical in 2007 to go to Oxford to study business.
After graduating, the friends became co-founders and are still majority shareholders of Ignisis. But it’s only Mathur, the company’s chief executive, who talks to me, while D’Souza is a shyer if active director who prefers to remain in the background. Instead, joining Mathur in our BQ interview is Gorvinder Butter, himself a minority shareholder in Ignisis and also the company’s head of sales.
Mathur, now aged 46 and living in Solihull with his wife and two children, says: “The early period in Soul Tree, sales was about loading the boots of our cars with cases of wine and literally driving around the Midlands selling and delivering to Indian restaurants. The first breakthrough was a listing with a small but prominent wine distributor just outside London, helping with early scaling up and paving the way for future listings.
“It was nearly another year before a second distributor put its faith in the brand. We had six wine distribution partners by the end of year two, and we’re now distributed by nearly 30 small-to medium-sized wine and drinks distributors in the UK, with distribution arrangements in the US, Canada and Germany.”
Soul Tree Wines was entirely self-funded by Mathur and D’Souza until early 2015, when it crowd-sourced £364,000 from 218 investors in 16 countries. On the sales front, there are three price segments for the Soul Tree portfolio: a distinctive sparkling wine, retailing at around £13.99 to £14.99; a core range at around £9.50; and a reserve blend at around £12. In restaurants and bars, the core range sells for anything between £14 and £32.
“It’s been an interesting challenge,” says Mathur. “It’s primarily a remotely-produced, biological and perishable alcoholic drink that’s packaged in glass, placed into a metal container and shipped halfway across the world.
“On arrival in the UK it’s then sold under a new brand and into a new and unknown market segment, and by a business with no previous experience or expertise in wine. It has taken hard graft, persistence, and resolution over the years to build the skill levels, the experience, and the networks and connections, as well as to learn the nuances of the wine industry.
“We realised early on that, with Soul Tree, we were really in the business of education, as practically no-one we would meet would have ever heard of Indian wine. We focused on the Indian restaurant sector to leverage the natural association of food with wine, and poured our hearts and souls into making it work.
“This has helped Soul Tree become the biggest Indian wine brand in the UK. But there’s still a long way to go before India’s seen and accepted as a mainstream wine-producing region.”
Meanwhile, as the reputation of Soul Tree Wines spreads, Butter wants to tell me about the company’s relatively new ODC drinks range. This idea of creating a funky collection of fruity ciders was born in the middle of 2016, and released onto the market in September 2017.
Butter says: “Fruit cider is one of the fastest-growing segments in the alcoholic drinks sector at the moment, but is relatively new. A handful of brands dominate a rather prosaic marketplace, and are yet to truly capture the imagination – and loyalty – of consumers.
“Yet other drinks have seen rapid evolution in recent years: there’s been a gin revolution; craft beer is more exciting than ever; and brands like Fever Tree have even made mixers sexy. Fruit cider is surely next.”
The enthusiastic Butter was born in Bedford in the early 1980s, raised in North London and educated at Parmiter’s School near Watford. He studied business information systems at the University of Wolverhampton and then worked for the Cobra Group in direct sales, quickly becoming a manager and training sales teams. After a few roles in recruitment and IT sales, he decided his real passion was in the drinks industry, and he joined Ignisis.
Now aged 34 and living in Solihull with his wife, Butter says: “ODC is a challenger brand in the fruit cider space and wants to change the status quo perceptions of the drink. Fruit cider is relatively young with fickle consumers and low brand loyalty.
“Yet it’s the drink of choice of millions of coming-of-age consumers who desire experiences rather than drinks and to whom brands are, increasingly, social currency. We think ODC combines the values of ‘craft’ with the excitement of a consumer brand to involve and truly engage with the millennial consumers of today.
“ODC takes the world of cider by the horns and injects it with a heroic dose of mojo. If you prefer the unimaginative, the conventional, or the boring, look elsewhere.”
The early challenges for ODC cider have been completely different to those faced by Soul Tree Wines. To start with, ODC is stepping into a growing but highly-competitive marketplace, without the clear Indian niche that Soul Tree Wines possessed. Also, the cider sector is dominated by a small number of large players who control the majority share of the market.
“We’re still new,” admits Butter, “but ODC is breaking through the noise and the clutter by focusing hard on a distinctive brand strategy, marketing, and communication. The key to success is juxtaposing the trendy ‘craft’ element with consumer engagement, creating an engaging, memorable brand that uses real, exotic fruit, is all natural with no artificial flavours, colours, or sweeteners, and that is vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free.”
In case you’re wondering, the meaning of the acronym “ODC” is a company secret, according to Butter. Its current range of exotic fruit ciders includes “Mango Fandango” and “Pomegranate Panache”, both 4% alcohol by volume (ABV) and selling for between £2.49 and £2.99. The drinks are currently listed at several cash-and-carry stores and wholesalers, mainly in the Midlands, London and the South East of England.
There are also several ongoing conversations with various pub groups and retailers, and Butter feels ODC is on the cusp of a breakthrough. The business will soon be looking to raise funds to support its aggressive growth plans. Taking ODC ciders and Soul Tree Wines together, Ignisis is aiming at combined annual revenues of £1m in the next 12 months, and £5m by 2020.
Ignisis currently has seven staff, including its winemaker based in India, and over the next few years plans to launch Soul Tree Wines in India as well as consolidating its reach into the North American and European markets. The aim for ODC ciders is to focus first on the UK and then to look to India, the US and Eastern Europe as primary export markets.
It’s a passionate plan, and this drive comes through again when Mathur comes back into the conversation with top tips for other would-be entrepreneurs. “Find something you’re truly passionate about, then pour your sweat, blood, and tears into it,” he says, without blinking.
“Be ambitious but realistic and prepare for setbacks, and be clear on what value your idea adds and how you can compete. And find experienced mentors to guide you through the maze of opportunities, challenges, emotion, and critical decision-making.”
That’s not bad advice coming from someone whose business dreams to mix our traditional drinks markets began over a few beers and a curry ten years ago.
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