Yohan Handoyo will never forget his first encounter with wine more than a decade ago. Enticed by a flowery review in a Sydney newspaper, the then student at the University of New South Wales saved up enough money to buy the five-star rated bottle.
“Then I called up my drinking buddies and said, ‘guys, let’s be civilized’,” he recalls, laughing.
“The only problem was, none of them knew how to open the bottle. In the end, after a few phone calls, we somehow managed to open the bottle using chopsticks, and drank the wine out of coffee mugs.”
It’s a different story these days for French-speaking Handoyo, who went on to write the first Indonesian-language book on wine, Rahasia Wine ( The Secret of Wine ), winner of the prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook award in 2008. He travels extensively in search of good wines, their stories and histories.
“I travel to study,” he maintains. “When I was in Chile, I found out what makes their wine good but reasonably priced. They managed to overcome the two biggest cost structures: cost of land and cost of labor. Nowadays most wine-producing regions in the world have similar technology. Objectively speaking, it’s pretty much the same everywhere.”
Now selling an average of one thousand bottles each month at his wine house, Decanter, in Kuningan, South Jakarta, Handoyo is a witness to an emerging new lifestyle well fitting Jakarta’s insatiable affluent society.
“Wine is the best social lubricant,” he says. “We’ve got people come in groups, asking for bottles. They know it’s cheaper that way.”
Since its establishment in 2008, the restaurant has registered a continuous growth in sales. “It’s not that people are drinking a lot more, but now they know more about good wines. It’s an indicator of their growing awareness,” said Handoyo.
Celebrity chef Rinrin Marinka, a social drinker with a penchant for Australian cabernet sauvignons and sauvignon blancs, agrees that there’s a brewing new pleasurable lifestyle.
“Like food, wine brings people together, and alcohol helps them to be more at ease and loose,” she says.
The young woman, known as one of the judges on MasterChef Indonesia, also finds no contradiction in pairing wines with local food, known for its rich use of spices.
“Not all Indonesian food goes well with wine, but lamb dishes or rendang ( West Sumatran beef in spices ) certainly do.”
The facts today do reflect growing wine consumption in the Indonesian market. As Indonesia’s wine drinkers move beyond “entry-level”, they are bringing a boon to the wine industry in the country. Between 2005-2011, according to data from the Wine Australia Corporation, wine consumption in Indonesia increased by 25 percent annually.
“Eighty percent of our wine sales come from red wines, then white, rosé, sparkling and sweet wines,” says Handoyo.
It’s a similar trend elsewhere in Jakarta, including at the city’s first and largest wine boutique, VIN+, located in Kemang, South Jakarta, and with branches at points across the city.
“Generally, entry-level consumers tend to prefer sweet wines, be it red or white, but we do sell more red than white,” says Yolanda Simorangkir, general manager of VIN+ Kemang.
Customers look for Lambrusco, a dry, refreshing Italian red wine, or Moscato, a lighter-styled white wine, also from Italy, to name two of the best sellers at the store. It sells an average of between 3,000 to 4,000 bottles per month, with prices ranging from Rp 250,000 to more than Rp 1 million per bottle.
In recent years, industry players have noticed a changing sophistication in local taste buds, enabled by flourishing wine clubs, classes on food and wine pairing or wine tasting, as well as wine and cheese expos — all of which are geared toward educating the public on how to best enjoy wine.
“We still have customers buying sweet wines, but I’ve noticed how many of them have developed a wine palate and started looking for more complex characteristics. These are people who are willing to spend more,” she says.
“In the early days, importers and retailers told customers what to buy; but it’s different these days, they tell us what they want.”
Changes in government regulations are also cited for boosting wine sales and accessibility.
Before 2007, only state-owned enterprises were allowed to import wine and alcoholic beverages. But by April 2010, strict government controls had been relaxed, giving way to private official distributors to import directly any duty-paid wine and alcoholic beverage, within a mandated quota. Also in 2010, the Finance Ministry waived import duty and luxury tax on alcoholic beverages, but applied a fixed excise duty.
Compared with imported bottles, it’s still a much smaller niche for locally produced wines from Bali. Based on data from the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, most imported wines in Indonesia come from South Africa ( 30 percent ), Chile ( 20 percent ), Australia ( 20 percent ), with France, other European countries like Italy, Germany and Spain and the United States accounting for 10 percent each.
The other factor is simply a uniquely receptive local market.
“There’s something interesting about the Indonesian market, how it’s very perceptive toward new products,” says Handoyo. “Look at how we embraced Twitter. Look at how we embraced the iPad. Years ago, who would’ve wanted to eat raw fish? But just look around now, there are Japanese restaurants everywhere.”
It’s in line with a 2010 report by Nielsen Indonesia Consumer Research, which found Indonesia’s young, married, urban-dwelling professionals live by the motto “work hard, play hard” and have considerable disposable income. With a middle class eager to spend, wine retailers are eyeing an expanded market in the years to come.
Wine lovers are also expanding their horizons in tasting different vintages.
“The most common misperception is that the best wines only come from France. But just you introduce Chilean wines, and people will go all for them,” says Handoyo.