This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Nayan Gowda is 42 and one of a new breed of latecomers to the world of wine. He came back to his native England in 2007 after four years immersion in an oenology degree in Australia and is still living out of a suitcase. He is not proud of this. 'Ladies prefer a more stable gentleman, I know', he comments ruefully.
Since learning the ropes of winemaking at the relatively mature age of 35 he has overseen vintages in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Hungary, England, France, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Ukraine was fun. Kazakhstan was not. He was essentially engaged to turn around a vanity winery there. When he arrived, he found the tanks that should have been ready for that year's harvest filled with the last three vintages. The owner was a politician who saw wine as a way to the top. Having registered the names of the president and his family as wine names, the politician asked Nayan if he thought he could make a fair copy of the president's favourite wine. Nayan said he thought he probably could, and was then told the president's favourite wine was Petrus..
This was only part of the problem in Kazakhstan. The other was that during his four-month stint he was required to remain inside the workers' compound in the evenings. 'At least in Ukraine there were bars', he complains. And Kazakh food, so important to a man who was once a chef at The Ivy in London, was a disappointment, too. 'For somewhere that's been on a major international trade route for thousands of years, there's a real lack of flavour. They don't seem to have absorbed culinary influences. At least in Ukraine you have the influence of Tartar culture, but in Kazakhstan they don't even seem to have Chinese or Asian spices. I always take along a spice grinder and lots of hot sauce as well as my 1.5 kg spice survival kit wherever I go, and I always make sure I cook for the winery staff. They liked my food in Kazakhstan but there was no one to share my bottles of wine with because no one liked wine.' Except the president perhaps.
It was while working for The Ivy that Nayan became fascinated by wine, thanks to the then owners' insistence that the chefs matched wines to their dishes. His parents are teetotal Indian doctors. He was meant to be a lawyer but a particularly successful stint running the rag committee at Sheffield university led to his being headhunted in his second year and offered what seemed in the early 1990s the princely sum of £22,000 a year by a major national charity. By the mid 1990s he was 'a bit disillusioned' by charities and did various jobs. 'I have so many interests and like to do many things at the same time' was how he countered my incredulity when he mentioned casually that one of them was with a circus. A cookery course at Leiths led eventually to The Ivy, where he discovered he has an allergy to potatoes in any quantity and was invalided out of the restaurant business for good.
'I then went into a period of wilderness years without much direction, but started to put myself through the ladder of Wine & Spirit Education Trust courses.' (He now tutors candidates for the Master of Wine exam, the pinnacle of wine education.) In the late 1990s he worked for fine-wine merchant Armit 'doing marketing database sort of stuff, bringing them up to Berry Bros standard online with proper, targeted offers and things that hadn't been done before'. The way he tells it he fell into a position as a highly paid project manager at JP Morgan. 'I initially took a two-day job doing power point presentations. I know nothing about IT or finance, but the processes are the same wherever you are. I've always been quite good at getting jobs done, and I can communicate with people, which helps. And I was paid a lot – something that had never happened to me before.'
By the end of 2001 he 'wanted to go back into creating flavours' and had accumulated enough capital to apply to the famous winemaking course at Adelaide University, for which he is full of praise. 'It's amazing, and has a deserved reputation worldwide. I did look at Davis [in California] but it was expensive, and it's very research-based and I wanted something practical. When I was in Australia the exchange rate was very favourable. I lived like a king. I was buying first growths at auction there. It's a fantastic place.'
He plans to work the 2014 vintage with his Tasmanian friend Joe Holyman of Stoney Rise, although in fact he met him in Burgundy, which has its claws well and truly into Nayan Gowda.
After Adelaide, his very first time in charge was working for Reh Kendermann of Black Tower fame, who had asked Australian wine employment agency Bibber to find them someone to oversee the 2007 vintage. 'I jumped at the chance of working in the Pfalz – but in the end I never actually saw a grape because everything was bought as juice. That really was an industrial process; add sugar and yeast, set the temperature dial, come back after a week and put through the centrifuge. It was very odd, but fascinating in its own right.'
He describes his ideal way of working as more holistic than a flying winemaker jetted in to check the sugar levels and pHs. 'Most of the work I do is around change management; improving processes and practices in the vineyard, winery and business as a whole. It's very hands-on, so I only take on one client at a time; working with them on a day-to-day basis; literally showing them physically how things can be improved. It's very time-consuming, but I feel it gives better results than consultants who just point and look at numbers.'
His experience has taught him to look east. In France, for example, a hired winemaker is regarded as an agricultural worker with wages to match, whereas the further east you go, the more your technical expertise is needed and financially rewarded. Hence Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
In Ukraine he was hired by prototype flying winemaker Jacques Lurton to join a team of three working near Sevastopol for Finns keen to explore the possibility of making world-class wine specifically for the Russian market. Did it work? 'Without doubt, but like all post-Soviet countries there has been a serious lack of investment, a return to poor practices, and a lot of neglect in the vineyards and cellars. Lots of work is needed. We basically did a face-off between us and the native Crimean winemakers. We split the grapes between the two teams and the result was that the Ukrainians didn't like our wines and vice versa. But the powers-that-be preferred ours and the project is now in its third year. They'll be making 50 million bottles of wine at that plant.'
I asked Nayan whether he ever felt like playing a part in what might be called the vinification of India but he said, 'I go back to India every two years to see my extended family in Bangalore. Three things count against me with any ambitions of being involved in wine in India. I'm not white enough; I'm not French enough; and neither am I Indian enough. I've been involved on the fringes for some years (for example, I presented a couple of seminars at a wine conference in Bombay a few years ago; and I've helped a couple of companies with a route to market); but I see that as the extent of my involvement at this current time.'
Today he is trying to settle down a bit with some more permanent work, and making the most of London from Vinosity Consulting's base in Tooting. 'It's a wonderful, vibrant city and the wine and food scene here is amazing. It's brilliant really', he says, almost surprised.
NAYAN'S 'WILD EAST' PICKS
Zorah, Karasi Areni Noir 2011 Armenia
An indigenous and ancient variety, still grown on its own rootstock. A rich, complex and exotic wine (from Hedonism Wines and The Drink Shop). [Read José Vouillamoz's tasting note on the 2011 and mine on the 2010. Both very enthusiastic – JR]
Vedernikov, Krasnostop Zolotovskiy 2010 Krasnodar, Russia
An amazing find at the London Wine Fair this year; brilliant people, and brilliant wines. Indigenous to the Rostov region in southern Russia (not currently available in the UK).
Lagvinari Lagvini Rkatsiteli 2011 Georgia
The result of a joint project between Isabelle Legeron MW of the RAW Wine Fair and Eko Glonti. Macerated on skins and stems in a qvevri for six months (from £21 The Georgian Wine Society and Buon Vino)