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, where he was engaged to turn around a vanity winery, was not. 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, a politician who saw wine as a way to the top, 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…” To counter this, he takes a spice grinder and “lots of hot sauce 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 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.” Last year the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, based in London and the world’s leading supplier of wine education, taught 43,254 students in 60 countries, many of them of distinctly mature years. Nayan now tutors candidates for the Master of Wine exam, the pinnacle of wine education but, 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.
After Adelaide, his first time in charge was working for Reh Kendermann of Black Tower fame, who needed someone to oversee the 2007 vintage. “I jumped at the chance of working in Pfalz [wine region] – 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 it 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 farther east you go, the more your technical expertise is needed and financially rewarded. Hence Kazakhstan and the Ukraine.
In the Ukraine he was hired by the 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.”
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,” he says, almost surprised.
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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 (Available from Hedonism, and The Drink Shop www.thedrinkshop.com)
• 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 South Western Russia (not currently available in the UK).
• Lagvinari Lagvini Rkatsiteli 2011 (Georgia) is the result of a joint project between Isabelle Legeron MW and Eko Glonti. Macerated on skins and stems in a qvevri for six months. (From £21. Available through The Georgian Wine Society georgianwinesociety.co.uk and Buon Vino www.buonvino.co.uk)