Raising a Glass to Curry

One in four people in Britain eats a curry at least once a week. Couple this with British people’s growing love of wine and you’ll see why Ashraf Sharif’s business idea has been such a hit. Balti Wine, his simple range of five wines to complement spicy foods, is already revolutionising the drinking habits of curry lovers and the company looks set to grow from strength to strength.

“It’s no gimmick,” insists Sharif, 53, whose headquarters are in Newton Heath, Manchester. Indeed, it took four years of extensive research in collaboration with Manchester University’s food science department, and samples from around the globe, before Sharif and his advisers were happy with the grape selections.

“At first, Indian wines seemed the obvious answer, but we found people didn’t like them because they’re not used to them,” he says, explaining that the wines they eventually chose come from the Southern Hemisphere. The New World, he explains, tends to make wines that have an upfront fruity style that complements the spice in the food.

“These wines – three whites and two reds – each have a ‘chilli rating’ from one chilli to five, helping drinkers to choose which one is appropriate for their selected food,” he adds.

Since the company’s launch in 2004, Balti Wine has sold over 700,000 bottles, which retail at between £10 and £15 in restaurants. Sharif now supplies 65 per cent of the North-west’s Indian restaurants and six per cent of all Indian restaurants nationally. “Between 50 to 100 restaurants a day are taking on Balti Wines,” he says.

Having started off selling the wines from his car boot to restaurants in Manchester’s “curry mile”, Sharif now employs 21 staff and is currently in the process of getting wholesalers to stock the products so that restaurants and major multiples can buy the wine in bulk. His next step is to enable consumers to buy Balti Wines off the shelf, where he expects bottles to retail at around £5.99. To this end, new management has been ushered in to establish close links with major off licences and supermarkets such as Morrisons and Tesco.

Meanwhile, an injection of fresh capital from investors has enabled the company to open an office in the US, with a view to cracking the lucrative North American market. “Although Indian food is behind the UK in terms of popularity, it is growing astronomically,” says Sharif. Indeed, Balti Wine is already stocked in 13 US states.

The company has even been approached for stocks by cruise operators and airlines. Balti Wine has already secured a lucrative contract to supply wine to P&O cruises, and the company has started producing mini-bottles for airlines. “Our biggest company is Compass Trading and they supply 17 airports and nine docks around the country.”

Sharif’s entrepreneurial skills first showed signs of promise at the tender age of 13. “I sold knitwear in Manchester markets,” he says. Born into a poor family in Pakistan, he moved to the UK in 1960 where his father worked in Manchester textile mills. He learned to spot and create opportunities, though, and he used the skills he’d learned from the markets to set up a shop selling records while he was still at school.

It was a CCTV camera in this shop that gave him his first truly entrepreneurial idea. It was the early Seventies and home video machines were just becoming available. Video tapes were very expensive to buy and there were no Indian films on the TV. He borrowed heavily, invested in five machines, recorded films on to blank tapes and started to hire them out. By the Eighties he had 66 video rental shops throughout the North-west and a loyal clientele.However, technology moved on and competition from Sky meant that he had to close. It was his next business that saw his first foray into the drinks world with Xes, an aphrodisiacal drink with the slogan “Liquid pleasure in a bottle”. All set to be distributed globally, there was one problem – Red Bull. “It launched simultaneously and with its multi-million pound marketing campaign, I didn’t stand much of a chance,” says Sharif. “But it wasn’t all negative. I learned a lot about the drinks industry and the experience taught me the power of branding.”

Increasingly determined to use these skills to build a sustainable company, Sharif looked for a gap in the market and that’s when he hit upon the idea of wines to complement curries. “Beers that complement curries were already household names, but there was nothing when it came to wines,” he says. “I think there was a myth that wine doesn’t complement spicy food, but it’s a perfect complement to any kind of food. You just have to find the right wines for the right food and that’s what we did.”

The reviews have been promising. “Balti have really done their homework,” wrote Andrew Fraser, wine writer for Metro Newspapers. “We tried the Ugni Chardonnay, which was quite unpleasant to drink on its own, but then I had a plate full of the very spicy Lamb karachi and immediately it was transformed.”

Next year, the company is launching the Balti Wine Awards to recognise the best Balti restaurants in the UK and will be enlisting the support of Bollywood stars. “The restaurants have been good to us. They’ve kept us in business. To thank them for their support, we want to reward them,” says Sharif.

Indeed, restaurant owners were enthusiastic right from the start, he says. “A lot of them have no wine knowledge and they’re scared of the names of European wines, which mean nothing to them. Our idea was so simple – the three-chilli wine goes with vindaloo, the two-chilli wine goes with something milder, and so on.”

Balti Wine will soon be launching a rosé and sparkling wine, and the company is also looking into developing a non-alcoholic wine. “The image of curry eaters as lager louts who pile into Indian restaurants at 11pm is outdated,” insists Sharif. “Curry is as upmarket as any other cuisine now and people eating it appreciate good wine.”

By Kate Hilpern.

www.baltiwine.com