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Wine in a Million

by Aiden

The rosé life of Aman Sachdev, Co-founder of The Wine Merchant and La Casa Nostra.

By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales

Much like his restaurant La Casa Nostra, wine connoisseur Aman Sachdev is warm, inviting, and exudes Italian charm. As he greets us at the entrance to his sun-drenched and rustic eatery, he radiates a quiet pleasure at what he’s achieved here – and rightfully so. La Casa Nostra, opened in 2016, is only one of many businesses started by Aman that’s disrupted the scene in Thailand, and he’s looking to add more to his list. “I’m probably a little bit crazy,” he says with a laugh, “every few months I have new ideas, and for me, I think it’s important that when you have an idea, you try it. Because if you don’t try, you never know. Without risks, you don’t learn.”

Thai-Indian by birth, Aman was born and raised in Thailand, attending the International School of Bangkok (ISB) and then Assumption University (ABAC) before moving to Italy when he was 17. There, the breadth and quality of the wines available was a revelation. “For me, it’s been wine since the beginning,” he reveals. “Ever since I was 14, I’d have wine with my parents, and I was that kid who, on a Friday night, would have a glass or two of wine with my uncle after school – no whisky or crazy partying for me! So I loved moving to Italy; the wines there are priced very well, and the selections are amazing.” However, when he moved back to Thailand in 2009, after almost a decade and a half in Italy, the price of wine in the country was, in his words, “truly shocking! It was extortionate.” As he pours us a carefully chosen vintage from the wine cellar attached to the restaurant, he jests, “I had to find a way to support my wine habit, so really, I started to import wines out of necessity.”

Aman started by contacting small wineries without export managers, and offered to fi nd importers for them in and around Thailand – in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and beyond. “I started as a sort of brand ambassador or agent,” he explains. “I knew about these small wineries, and I thought to myself, why not contact them? And that’s how it all started. Two years in, I realised that there were plenty of opportunities in Thailand to distribute these wines myself.” Having studied Business Management & Marketing at John Cabot University in Rome, and some oenology as a hobby, on top of his experience importing Thai silks to Italy for high-end interior decorators, Aman felt that he was in a good position to take up wine distribution in Thailand.

However, the decision didn’t come without some scepticism, even from a source close to home: “a few years after I had successfully established The Wine Merchant with my business partner Nan Pattira, my father revealed to me that he initially thought it was a little crazy to start a wine importing business,” Aman tells me. “He said that there were already a lot of importers in Thailand, and that the supermarkets here had thousands of wines available. He wasn’t sure how I would survive, and what I could bring to this sphere that was unique.” Nevertheless, Aman persisted, driven by his passion and his belief in the uniqueness of his concept, which was offering superior wines at reasonable prices. “There used to be a lot of rich Thai wine-drinkers who would travel to, for example, Hong Kong and hand-carry several bottles of wine to Thailand,” he recalls. “Instead of them having to do that, I offered them good prices already in the country. All my wines are offered at the same price to both hotels and private customers.”

The first wine distributor to ensure wine markups weren’t unaffordable, Aman shares the lasting mark they made in the industry: “eight years ago, champagne from Champagne, France was about THB 3,000 per bottle wholesale here
in Thailand. I can truthfully say that I was the first to sell champagne here for less than THB 2,000 per bottle, and now, that’s the standard price in most places. The other wine distributors had enjoyed a honeymoon period for too long, and we disrupted the scene – that’s what I like to do, I disrupt what’s been happening for a long time.”

Indeed, in 2016, Aman started another disruption in Thailand’s F&B scene in the form of La Casa Nostra, a restaurant built around the concept of, in his words, “good wines, for good prices, in good glasses, and in a casual atmosphere.” Together with Nan Pattira, Aman partnered with Italian chef Alessandro Frau to create a restaurant that has one edict: every single bottle of wine offered to customers will only be marked up from its wholesale price by THB 500. “It doesn’t matter if they order a THB 20,000 Château Mouton Rothschild,” Aman advises as he shows us the cornucopia of wines in the restaurant’s wine cellar, “the markup will be the same. You can check the price of the same wines in restaurants in France – it’ll be cheaper here! And because of that, we don’t allow people to bring bottles from outside, which is what guests often do in other restaurants that mark up their wines two or three times the wholesale price.” The results are clear – La Casa Nostra sells 600-900 bottles a month, a far higher turnover than places with higher markups, but allow corkage fees.

“Guests are encouraged to try not just a glass of wine – in top-tier Zalto wine glasses, by the way – but an entire bottle of an affordable but high-quality vintage. If they like it, they’ll open another bottle, and if they drink more, they’ll eat more. It’s a concept I borrowed from small wine bars in London, and it works,” Aman explains. And because of this, other restaurants in Bangkok have also followed suit. “It’s important to be the first in any concept,” he tells me, “that way, the people who follow are one step behind.”

Another first is his app, Virtual Wine Cellar, which is the first wine delivery application in Thailand. Through it, customers can specify the kind of wine they want, and from which region, and they can see real-time availability of stock. “You can order them all in wholesale price,” Aman says with satisfaction, “and we deliver within two hours within Bangkok, from one bottle to an entire crate, every day including Sundays.”

Having successfully created so many disruptive businesses, I ask Aman what he attributes his success to, and he says it’s taking risks, and cutting your losses when it’s time. “Not everything will be successful,” he tells me. “For example, back in 2015, we opened a wine distribution office in Singapore. But in the end, while you can control many things, you can’t control the mentality of people. We weren’t breaking even because the overhead costs were far more than the value of wines we could store in bonded warehouses in Singapore. After a year, we closed our office there – and that was fine. We learned from the experience, and the loss wasn’t too great.”

As for advice for others looking to start their own businesses? “Don’t start a wine business – leave it to me!” Aman quips with a laugh. More seriously, he imparts, “I’m no expert in this, but for me I was lucky to do what I love. When you do what you love, you’re not working, you’re enjoying yourself. Follow what you love, do what you like; don’t do what other people tell you to like. Even in my case, with my two daughters, although I encourage them to help me with the wines after they graduate, you never know! I can’t force them, and I don’t want to.”

When asked where he sees himself in the future, Aman chuckles. “Retired,” he replies. “But not yet…there are still many things to do. We’re entering the spirits scene this year – single malts from special distilleries. And who knows what new ideas will come in the next few months?” For someone who thoroughly enjoys what he does, the future is, well, pretty rosé.

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