Friday June 29, 2001
Coffee Republic, the chain of coffee shops, is to scale back its expansion plans in a move that analysts say means that it is unlikely to post a profit this financial year.
New chief executive Peter Morris, who took over from co-founder Bobby Hashemi two months ago, said that the company's plans to open 40 new coffee shops in the year to next 2002 had been over-ambitious. The figure has been cut by ten.
''This is a more realistic goal in view of the current market,'' Mr Morris said. ''There's a lot of competition for new units. We need to avoid feeling pressured to put flags on the map; we need to focus on good returns.''
In the year to this April, the company failed to meet its target of opening 30 shops - managing just 20 new outlets while closing three old ones. It posted an operating loss of £2.53m - 15% less than the previous year. Turnover was £21m, with like-for-like sales up 8.4%.
Analysts at house broker Investec Henderson Crosthwaite said management changes and a slower expansion plan would mean a pretax loss on continuing operations of about £800,000 for the year to next April. It had previously forecast a profit of £400,000.
Yesterday, shares in Coffee Republic, which runs 82 coffee shops across the UK, closed down 0.5p at 18.25p.
In a note to be published today, Investec is expected to maintain a three-year sales growth forecast of 60%, after which it expects to see consolidation among competitors.
With Starbucks and Costa, Coffee Republic holds 50% of the Britsh market share, according to most recent figures. Mr Morris said he expected Coffee Republic to maintain its share of about 8% in the current financial year, despite forecasting a drop in like for like sales growth to 5%.
This is considerably less than the 20% growth rate at the peak of the coffee shop boom, and falls short of the 15% like-for-like increase posted recently by the smaller Café Nero.
Coffee Republic chairman Nicholas Jeffrey said: ''The UK espresso bar market is forecast to grow to 2,400 brand outlets by 2003. We plan to continue with our expansion programme and to be trading over 200 outlets across the UK by the end of 2004.''
May 6 2001 Sunday Times
CLOSE BROTHERS, the independent merchant bank, has been appointed to sell the fast-growing chain of "cafe bars" owned by the Parisa retail group. The 20 outlets focus on Mediterranean-style food and include micro-breweries and a range of 250 wines.
Parisa also has Right Choice and Booze Buster, the cut-price off-licences, and the Wine Cellar brand. The group is owned by Nader Haghighi, its chief executive, and CVC and Bridgepoint, the venture-capital houses.
Haghighi, a flamboyant Iranian immigrant, built up Parisa after he led a management buyout of the off-licences from the Greenalls group in August 1997. He went on to launch his first cafe bar in 1998 in Putney, south London.
A former Pizza Express dishwasher, he had taken over the management of the Greenalls shops in 1994. At the time the chain was a mixed collection of 500 high-street and local off-licences.
The group now has 400 off-licences, 330 trading as Booze Buster and 70 as Right Choice. It had sales last year of £190m.
Parisa has most recently been mooted as a potential bidder for Oddbins, the 246-strong chain of high-street off-licences put up for sale by Seagram, the drinks arm of Vivendi Universal. It is believed the deal would be worth about £65m.
Other bidders are thought to include J Sainsbury, Southcorp, Australia's biggest wine producer, and Nomura, the Japanese investment bank, which already owns Thresher and Victoria Wine.
It is probably only in the past ten years or so that coffee has managed to find a place for itself in the England way of life. In the early 1980s there were hardly any cafes in London, like the typical ones in Paris, Vienna or Milan. The culture of Cappuccino and a Danish was still alien to most of the ''Yuppies'', after all in the 1980s you had Champagne not Coffee.
However, with the opening of the Channel Tunnel and the more European Friendly culture of the 1990s, London started to become more European and cosmopolitan. At first, places like The Dome and Café Rouge started springing up, followed by the smaller and sometimes one-off shops. Today, the consumer is totally spoilt for choice. Walk down any street in London today, and you will see several café shops and cafés trying to lure you in to spend your £1.20ish on a cup of their special brew!
The Coffee shop has grown from a small corner in a café Rouge where you could have a coffee without ordering food, to places like Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Coffee Republic to name but a few; where the whole culture of the place is based around coffee. You don't go to these places for their gourmet cooking. The attraction is that hot, steaming cup of coffee you buy first thing in the morning!
Today, Londoners are spilt for choice when it comes to coffee places. Ask anyone who works in London to list the names of the coffee shops they know off-hand, and you will get a list of at least ten different places right away, most of which will invariably have the world ''Coffee'' in their name: Newspapers and magazines set competitions to find the best Cappuccino in London and write the columns about how to achieve that ''coffee shop taste'' at home. Even television programmes like Ally Macheal are filming scenes around Cappuccinos, showing the sexy side of your morning coffee!
Most of the top coffee shops that have started to open branches around London have managed to offer a high quality cup of coffee, in an aesthetically pleasing environment, with good services at a reasonable price. So, how do you stay ahead of the competition? The idea of merchandise with the shop's brand name have been picked-up by most of the coffee shops, but one establishment that seems to be on the right track is Costa Coffee.
As well as offering all the above, we have the Costa Coffee ''CARD''. The idea is the same as the loyalty cards used by Supermarkets. Titled ''Sharing a love of coffee'', for every cup of coffee purchased at a Costa Coffee shop you get a stamp (in the shape of 3 coffee beans), once you have collected the maximum 10 stamps, the 11th cup is on the house! Simple idea but I tell you when you are faced with so many choices between coffee shops, you go to the one that gives something back and eventually feels more like home. Costa Coffee then decided to look beyond their usual customers and came up with the great idea of coffee shops in Airports. You can now have a decent cup of coffee in the terminals at Heathrow while waiting for your flight that has been delayed or share your precious last moments with your loved ones flying off.
The management of the Company then went even further, why stick to people with two feet on the ground, why not follow them up all the way to 20,000 feet? Well, that is exactly what they did. You can now enjoy a frothy cappuccino while flying on ''GO''(the low cost airline from British Airways). You have to pay for your Cappuccino/ café mocha etc.., but I tell you it is worth every penny. You can even buy one of their sandwiches or Danish. So Forget about all that dreary food on the plane, Costa Coffee TO THE RESCUE!
So, where do the others go now? Compared to Costa coffee, even Starbucks with its superior cup of coffee feels a bit tame. Yes, they have bought Seattle Coffee Company, and will be refurbishing all the branches into brand new Starbucks; but it still feels like they should do something extraordinary to stand out! May be that could be the first coffee shop on the moon, or the ''Space Village'. At least they would be higher up than cost Coffee. I will leave you to come up with the next big idea in coffee shops. Where can they go from here? How about hearing from the coffee shops themselves. Maybe Mr. Bobby Hashemi of Coffee Republic can enlighten us. Over a Cappuccino perhaps?
Bobby Hashemi's Coffee Republic-
Anyone who was in the US a few years ago could have predicted that Starbucks coffee-mania could soon be exported to the UK. But ''anyone '' didn't. Bobby Hashemi did. He got the idea for Coffee Republic when he was a student in New York and set up a pilot store with his sister Sahar in London's South Molton Street.
Their aim was to offer top coffee in a fresh environment with No.1 service from students recruited like the ''barristas'' that they have in Italy. His model was successful and Hashemi set about finding the money to expand. His operation being too small to attract venture capitalists, Hashemi went in search of an investor.
He sent his business plan to Oxford Venture Capital Report (VCR) which is like a dating agency for investors and entrepreneurs. Coffee Republic appeared in the April 1996 issue of their report and Hashemi met several potential investors before agreeing to a deal. He received £300,000 from an investor for 50 percent of the firm guaranteeing a further £300,000 if performance targets were met.
But why did the investor do it?
His investor still prefers anonymity but has revealed he was 'attracted by the energy and drive of the entrepreneurs, and by the force of the idea whose time had come.'
The fact that Hashemi's investor had already established a branded clothing empire of his own proved a great asset.
The investor appreciated the amount of investment Coffee Republic would require and provided judgment, creativity and contacts. He opened a lot of doors to Coffee Republic.
Now with 11 Central London stores, Coffee Republic has gone on to list on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) where it raised £3.5m to roll out across London before going national.
During the office hours the city of London is still one of the most densely populated areas in the country which creates a lucrative lunch market for the local caterers. The composition of the lunch customers in the City of London in the weekdays is about 70% office workers, 30% passers-by and residents. The office workers and service providers need to have quick breakfast, lunch and snacks in their short breaks. This was traditionally catered by the made to order caterers. The appearance of self-service supermarkets and fast food outlets like McDonalds has changed the scenario. The fast food customers find the traditional approach time consuming, inconvenient and expensive. In the 80s Benjys pioneered a new style in the fast food by combining café, sandwich bar, supermarket, And McDonald serving . The new system has improved over since and other major players like PERSY'S, Pret a Manger, Kellys, Eat and Treats entered the market, as a of fact this is a dominant market culture at the moment and the fast food industry is constantly growing there.
Just to survive in this very competitive market a player should be aware of what is happening there.
To reduce the costs and increase efficiency, a trend has already started in the City among the employers to:
1. Out-source staff
2. Out-source services.
3. Abolish the staff canteens, out-source the catering services, or replaceit with the luncheon-Vouchers
4. Move out of the City
5. Ask the staff to work for them from their residence using the ever-improving telecommunication facilities.
Items 2 and 3 above are a blessing to the caterers in the city, while the other s have a negative effect on them. Although the paces of these measures have been pretty slow, acceleration has already started. Caterers in the city are advised not to panic (there is still time to adapt to the new environment), but do not ignore the criteria.
The other issues, which affect the market drastically, are trends and fashions, health, environment, weather, politics, economics, and competitions.
Trend used to be to lunch at pubs and restaurants, then having a sandwich at the made to order sandwich bars, then launching at McDonalds or similar outlets, then buffets and self services, and now sandwich supermarkets like PERSY'S. The favourite lunch once used to be fish and chips, then burgers and fried chickens, then pizza, then sandwiches, and now everybody is craving for Tex-Mex.
The next issue is the health every now and again our customers are pre-occupied by BSE, CJD, salmonella GM, foods, or get obsessed with free-range products, organic food, fat-free, low calorie, health foods, etc. To my experience these have all been issues that dominated the market for a short while giving way to the next one. While ignoring them is a big mistake blindly falling in their traps is even a bigger mistake unless a major market research has been carried out (these is always a very profitable niche market for the health conscious, but getting involved in it requires a proper market research).
Mr Reza Taheri
The next issues is the economy, when the economy is booming customers are mostly extravagant, while in the recession or a period of uncertainty people tend to spend less especially on food. At the moment it seems that the providers of a meal at £4.99 or less per head are booming, the ones of over £25 per head meal providers do not experience any charges, while the caterers who are aiming at markets between these two are generally suffering and having a hard time.
Competition is another worry for the caterers in the city. Not only they have to watch their existing competitors, almost every day a new food outlet is appearing in the area. My advice to the city is appearing in the area. My advice to the city caterers to handle the competition is as follows:
1. Share the existing market in a win-win situation between themselves (e..g. one aiming at the cheap end of the market and the other one at the high end, one takes care of sit in customers and the other one take away ones).
2. Combine the two outlets and get a bigger, better, and more profitable one in a form of company or partnership (a good example of this approach is Marks & Spencers).
3. Co-operate with the competitors to promote the market they are both in to get more business to be shared between them (e.g, mark the area more attractive to customers).
4. Encourage more competitors to the area in order to give the area a reputation to be a food centre with lots of choices, attracting more business to the area.
5. Out-perform their competitors.
6. Go beyond their customer's expectations.
7. Innovate and be always at least one step ahead of their competitors.
8. Use customer loyalty schemes.
9. Get to know their customers, get friendly with them and show them that they care about their customers.
10. Be aware of events, changes, and advancements in their markets and respond to due course.
11. Lead their business and market not manage it.
There must be, if the records are correct, at least three people called Nader Haghighi. One of them lived in the ancient city of Shiraz during the time the Shah still ruled Iran. In the early 1970s, as a child from an impoverished family, he set up a street kiosk selling bric-a-brac at the age of nine, becoming the family's sole breadwinner...
Nader Haghighi, pennyless refugee
By Darius Sanai
The Independent (London)
November 8, 2000
BORN IN IRAN IN 1960, BY NINE HE HAD HIS OWN KIOSK. BUT BY 1980 HE WAS A PENNILESS REFUGEE IN A CROYDON BEDSIT. THEN A JOB SKIVVYING AT PIZZALAND GAVE HIM HIS BIG IDEA. NOW HE RUNS PARISA, THE QUICKEST GROWING OFF-LICENCE CHAIN IN BRITAIN. MEET MISTER NADER HAGHIGHI, A BUSINESSMAN WITH BOTTLE.
There must be, if the records are correct, at least three people called Nader Haghighi. One of them lived in the ancient city of Shiraz during the time the Shah still ruled Iran. In the early 1970s, as a child from an impoverished family, he set up a street kiosk selling bric-a-brac at the age of nine, becoming the family's sole breadwinner. The second Haghighi was a penniless refugee holed up in a bedsit in Croydon, south London, in 1980. A young man from a Middle Eastern country who spoke no English and had no friends or contacts in Britain, he worked as a kitchen porter in a local Pizzaland surrounded by an alien nation.
The third Nader Haghighi is sitting confidently in a plush office in the City, sipping mineral water and outlining the expansion plan for his company, Parisa, the fastest-growing cafe and off-licence chain in Britain. "It is my aim to become one of the country's biggest leisure retailers within the next few years," he says. This Haghighi, aged 41, is worth at least pounds 30m. Parisa, of which he is founder, chief executive and the largest individual shareholder, has more than 500 shops, cafes and bars across Britain under various brands, employs more than 4,000 people and is developing two new high-profile cafe/restaurant brands with 35 establishments set to open in the next 12 months. Turnover in the 12 months to the end of September 2000 was pounds 187m, with a pre-tax profit of pounds 14m.
The three Haghighis are, of course, all the same person, making his growing success in the British retail market all the more remarkable. He created Parisa in 1997 through a pounds 56m management buyout of the off-licence operation of Greenalls. Since then the group has diversified its retail operation, running the Right Choice and Booze Buster cut-price chains, the upmarket Wine Cellar off-licence-plus -cafe concept and the trendy Parisa Cafe-Bars, of which 35 more are due to open across the country in the next 12 months.
He cautiously confirms reports that he is seeking to take the company public in the next 12 to 18 months. "We haven't finalised the timescale for flotation, but it will happen sometime in the foreseeable future," he says. A flotation could see the company valued at up to pounds 100m. There are also rumours, which Haghighi won't comment on, that he is negotiating the takeover of a large high street leisure retailer which would transform Parisa from a medium-sized company into one of the industry's prime movers.
Haghighi is launching an ambitious new concept, PerSia, a Persian restaurant with a bar and a dancefloor, early in 2001, with the aim of starting a new trend of eating and dancing Persian-style. "My country (Iran) doesn't always have a good image in Britain," he explains, "and this is my way of promoting all the most wonderful aspects of it." Both Parisa and PerSia are named after his daughters, though he has yet to find a concept to name after his son, the less exotically named Oliver.
Haghighi would know a thing or two about the wonderful aspects of Iran, as his hometown, Shiraz, is a beautiful historical oasis of palaces and walled gardens. His childhood was far from romantic, though, and one can't help thinking it's a rather different aspect of Iran's historical legacy that Haghighi has transplanted to Britain a tireless instinct for doing business founded in the city's 3,000 -year history as a trading centre. "I love customers," he says. "My life has been all about the enjoyment I get from giving customers what they want."
Haghighi, known in the industry as a lively character not averse to a little self-publicity, is fond of saying he has been in retailing for 32 out of his 41 years. His customer experiences started when he was even younger. His father's dry cleaning shop in Shiraz "was never a very good business", he says, so from the age of five he took to the streets, selling glasses of home-made chilled plum sherbet to parched shoppers and office- workers during the hot Iranian summers.
The family of eight - five brothers, a sister and his parents - all lived in one room. "It was a very important lesson for my future business life," he says, "when you learn from a very young age how to live with people and get along with them, whatever the circumstances." Haghighi is an outgoing, well-built man who rips off his tie and undoes his top button as soon as he settles down on the sofa in a meeting room at his company's PR firm in the City. Beneath his informal friendliness is the absolute determination and quickness of wit that has seen him rise so far in the industry. He also has an astonishing memory for figures, remembering everything from company results to key dates in his life to prices of his products instantaneously.
Haghighi's father died when he was nine, leaving the family with no income at all. There was no social security in the Shah's Iran, so the young businessman enlisted the help of one of his brothers to set up a wooden kiosk on Darius Street, the city's main thoroughfare. "I went to the bazaar in the morning and I bought a selection of goods which catered for the impulse purchaser, things like chewing gum, shampoo, toothbrushes and nuts," he says. Haghighi often talks like this, in grammatically perfect sentences laced with marketing jargon, a result of learning English while on the job after he arrived in the UK.
In Iran, he would go to school in the mornings, and then, as his schoolmates were hanging around or playing football, would man the kiosk during the afternoon and evening, doing his homework in the breaks between customers. "When I started running the kiosk, I found myself confronted with the complexity of running a business at a very young age," he says. "Even in a small environment like a kiosk you still have to worry about cash flows, the profit you're making, the merchandise you're buying and where you source it from. You have to work out how best to present your proposition to the consumers who were passing by in the street who would just look at the merchandise with one glance."
The kiosk business went well, with the young Haghighi the family's sole breadwinner in his early teens. When he was 17 he had enough money to start a shop, a clothes boutique on the spot where his father's dry cleaning shop had been, which he says "did very well". He bought a house for his family and saved up for his studies, as he still wanted to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a doctor.
In 1979, when Haghighi was 19, Iran erupted in revolution. Although his family had been in opposition to the Shah, Haghighi decided to leave the country, leaving his family - and his money - behind. "I thought it was a good time to come to Britain and try and pursue my studies as a doctor," he says, diplomatically, when asked why he left.
In those days Iranians didn't need a visa to come to Britain, so on 20 May 1979 the 19-year-old Haghighi found himself blinking at the damp hubbub of south London. He arrived in the country with a little cash in his pocket, two words of English ("yes" and "no") and one contact, an Iranian expatriate with whom he lost contact after his first week. He found a space in a bedsit in Croydon, got a job as a kitchen porter, and enrolled in an English course at the local higher education college.
"I really wanted to become a doctor but in the first year of my arrival I realised that the fees were very high, the cost of living was very high and it would be impossible. So I considered what to do with my life, and the only thing I knew well was retailing." Needing to earn money anyway, he quit his kitchen job and became a part-time shelf-stacker at a Thresher's off-licence in Croydon. Haghighi says his manager "had an autocratic style" and would not listen either to customers' requests or suggestions by his own staff. Meanwhile the young charge was observing what customers asked for, and which brands and kinds of wine were the most popular.
After a few months, the manager went on sick leave for four weeks and Haghighi was asked to run the shop. "I made a great success of it," he says. "What I had learned from an early age was to consider what customers wanted, look at what we had and work out how we could enhance it. The merchandising was very poor, so I enhanced it, and the shop had a high working capital, which I reduced." In those four weeks, Haghighi says, he made "a big difference", and when the old manager came back he was sacked and Haghighi was given his job.
There followed a stellar rise within the off-licence group. Within 18 months he was asked to be regional manager of the west London area, and moved the area's profits from being bottom of the list of 43 regions to top within six months. "It was very simple," he says. "It was about understanding what the consumers wanted, and we ensured through training, delegation and coaching we actually got the management to respond. We had to roll up our sleeves, clear and remerchandise the shops and make the consumer environment better."
Haghighi says the most difficult aspect was not sorting out the shops but getting the company's own management and staff behind him. "But I found it relatively easy to do because I had done that in my own home as a child. If you live with your whole family in a small room you learn the art of motivating other people, ensuring they share the challenge of life."
Through the 1980s, Haghighi worked through the ranks of Thresher, making board level in 1989 when he became national operational director. He remained in the post until 1994, when he was headhunted by the Greenalls group to become managing director of Cellar 5, their struggling off-licence chain, moving to Warrington, which still houses the headquarters of Parisa.
"Straightaway," he says, "I came up with a new strategy which was based on market segmentation. I looked at the portfolio of properties we had in different market sectors and the portfolio of consumer groups and created new brands that would fill the aspirations of those groups." He developed the Right Choice convenience store chain and started a new upmarket wine store chain called Wine Cellar, where wine shops shared premises with cafes, meaning you could buy your bottle of Shiraz in one room and wander over and drink it with a chicken sandwich in the next, all the while enriching the coffers of the man from Shiraz who ran the place. The division's profits grew under Haghighi's guidance from pounds 2.9m in 1994 to pounds 6.7m in 1997.
The Wine Cellar shops typify Haghighi's way of thinking. Spacious and well-lit with bouncy, friendly staff, they offer an array of Middle England's favourite wines - Australian Chardonnays, cheap clarets, New Zealand sauvignons - at good prices, without showcasing anything particularly unusual or exotic. They are safe, friendly places to buy familiar wines, just as his Cafe Parisa cafe-bars are welcoming, good value but not particularly exciting places to eat.
The innovation came with the combination of off-licence and eating place, with his outlets being the first in Britain (after a court battle) to allow you to purchase alcohol to drink either on the premises or to take home. The innovation continues in much more dramatic form next year with the launch of the PerSia restaurant chain.
The Cafe Parisa concept itself was only launched in 1998, a year after Haghighi led the management buyout of Greenall's off-licence operation. With the support of his senior management and two venture capitalists, CVC Capital Partners and Bridgepoint, he completed the buyout on 8 September 1997. "There was a clause in the agreement saying we could not launch a leisure retailer (like a cafe or bar) for 12 months, so we opened the Parisa Cafe-Bar in Putney (south London) on 8 September 1998," he says, grinning.
There are now 15 Cafe Parisas, with an aggressive opening campaign over the next year, and almost 500 Wine Cellars, Right Choice shops and Booze Busters, concentrated in the Midlands and North of England near the company's historical headquarters. It has not all been an easy ride for the new company, though. In 1998, as the off -licence industry was consolidating, Haghighi spent considerable effort in negotiations trying to buy either Thresher or Victoria Wine, only to be rebuffed when Allied Dunbar and Whitbread, their owners, formed the First Quench alliance between the two groups, leaving Haghighi as a minnow.
"That created an obstacle, and 1998 was a lousy year in the off-licence business generally," he says, with the combination of a rainy summer, an increase in the number of illegal imports from the continent and the industry's consolidation leading to a change of tack on Haghighi's part and the emphasis on leisure retail - the cafes, bars and restaurant - which the company continues to this day.
The creation of PerSia is Haghighi's boldest move yet. Persian food may be one of the world's great cuisines, but it is relatively unknown in Britain. Will consumers take to eating Persian then dancing the night away on the restaurant's dancefloor? "Consumers in the UK have Indian, Thai, Chinese, French and Italian food but little chance to try one of the world's most ancient and distinguished cuisines," he says. "We have to create an environment that is modern, chic and stylish and maintains all the values of Persia."
With his chefs and designers, he has spent seven months creating an environment that is "airy, modern and great fun" and a menu which is "both healthy and traditional". The first restaurant is opening in Manchester, he says, "because it is recognised as one of the most difficult venues in Britain for a cafe-bar to open. The competition is very tough. But I've always told myself that if you're creating a new proposition for the consumer you need to experiment with it in a tough environment." If the pilot restaurant in Manchester has a successful first few months, he plans another five PerSias next year, with more to come.
The Parisa group also has an internet operation: winecellar.co.uk, which is recognised in the trade as being one of the better online off-licences, and which is developing next year with the launch of Parisa.com, a more comprehensive "leisure portal". But Haghighi plainly doesn't want to give up the delight he gets from dealing with the consumer in person.
It is now 21 years since Nader Haghighi arrived in Britain, with an imminent flotation an apt coming-of-age ceremony. His whole story seems like something more likely to happen in America than on Britain's more conservative shores. Did he encounter much racism during his rise to the top? "Not at all," he says. "When I moved here from Iran I decided to adopt the British culture and live as a British man; if you actually become British I think there's no reason for racism. "Sure," he continues, "with the difficulties of language, education and environment I had to work harder than anybody else and I had to be more focussed than anybody else, but at the end of the day, if you are determined and you have a clear vision of what you want and when you want it, then you can do anything." He says he considers Parisa to be "only the beginning" of his business career. Given what has happened in the last 32 years of his life, one can only imagine what kind of Persian empire the man from Shiraz will be in charge of by 2032.
"What drunkenness is this that brings me hope? Who was the Cup-bearer, and whence the wine?"
One ancient Persian legend says that Jamshid, a grape-loving king, stored ripe grapes in a cellar so he could enjoy grapes all year long. One day he sent his slaves to fetch him some grapes. When they did not return he decided to go to the cellar himself only to find that they had been knocked out by the carbon dioxide gas emanating from some bruised fermenting grapes. One of the king’s rejected, distraught mistresses decided to drink this poisoned potion, only to leave the cellar singing and dancing in high spirits.
The king realised that this fruity liquid had the wonderful and mysterious power to make sad people happy. When Alexander overthrew the powerful Persian empire he entered Darius’s palace in January 330 AD. During one of the conqueror’s orgies soldiers raided the wine cellars. In a drunken moment Alexander ordered the destruction of Persepolis. Shiraz, lying 5,000 feet above sea level, yet only 100 miles from the sea, had the essential combination of factors necessary to a successful vineyards. To the Persians, Paradise was called Khollar – a village in the mountains beside Shiraz.
The region supplied Baghdad with wine under the caliphs. In the 12th and 13th century Persian poets such as Hafez extolled the beautiful maidens, roses and wine of Shiraz. According to Jean Chardin, a young French jeweller who spent most of his time in 17th Century Persia, the wine of Shiraz was famous in Europe and many members of the European trading companies imported it under contract from governors with royal authorisation. Shiraz had its own bottle-making industry and wine was transported in large jars in baskets over long distances. Chardin gives a fairly full account of the wine trade in his A Journey to Persia.
An Ancient Wine Server
"This wine which is so excellent and famous, is called Shiraz, and for the beauty of its colour and the delight of its taste is considered to be the best in Persia and throughout the East. It is not one of those strong wines which pleases the palate straight away." The Shiraz grape was probably the root of the Syrah grape often found in hot places like the Rhone Valley in France. The wine business was still in full swing in the 19th century when a British doctor with the telegraph company, C.J. Wills, wrote how his friend and neighbour in Shiraz , the Mullah Haji Ali Akbar, approached him with the proposition that they should make wine together in Dr Wills’ house.
"I cannot make wine in my house," said the Mullah. "I am a Mohammedan priest. But if I ask the Jews to make it for me things will be even worse, because the wine will be dreadful, and I am a connoisseur. If I make it at your house, Sir, it will be first class and I will kill two birds with one stone. You and I will have good wine and there will be no scandal about it." In the 1920s European archaeologists digging in the ruins outside Shiraz discovered immaculate drinking cups of gold shaped as fierce lions and winged ibex. Local wine production was encouraged under the secular Pahlavis. On the eve of the revolution there were plans to export Shiraz wine with French assistance. In 1979 many wine bottles were smashed by Islamic fanatics.
A few Shirazis continued to make their own homemade wine despite the threat of being publicly flogged if caught by the moral police. These days Shiraz wine is not Persian but rather a produce of Australian and South African vineyards. Still, many Iranian restaurants in London will insist that what the customer is drinking is the real thing. It is a myth that seems to bring a smile to many sad faces in exile.