Who is the father-and-son team behind one of Singapore’s top wine distributors?
After 16 years in the business, Pinnacle Wine & Spirits’ Tan Kim Hai and Caleb Tan have come to understand that bringing in what the market needs instead of banking on trends is the key to success.
Unlike most wine distributors, Tan Kim Hai, managing director of Pinnacle Wine & Spirits, did not start his business after a love affair with wine. He fell into it by chance. It was, in his words, a happy accident.
In 1998, he was working as an accountant for a Swiss-owned multinational FMCG distributor when they were approached by a Canadian multinational conglomerate to distribute its wine brands in Singapore. The latter was attracted to the former’s distribution network in the local supermarkets.
However, after Kim Hai and his team had secured the distributorship, none of the managers wanted to take on the wine portfolio. Wines were new territory for the staff, who were used to managing everyday grocery products. “My colleagues were declining it. They said there was going to be a lot drinking and nightlife. In the end, I volunteered to manage the portfolio, on top of my role in finance,” recalled the 63-year-old, with a chuckle. “I built my team from scratch.”
In 2003, following a massive restructuring at his company, Kim Hai was retrenched. By then he had established a good rapport with the wineries in his portfolio. “We had built up the business quite nicely for them. They told me: ‘Wherever you’re going, let us know. We are prepared to come along.’” In 2004, he set up Pinnacle Wine & Spirits, got the wineries on board, and hired his old team.
Since his portfolio then comprised largely of “supermarket wines”, which weren’t the types that appealed to hotels and restaurants, he decided to diversify his range. “Dealing with supermarkets could be a difficult or one-sided affair when it came to listing fees and charges,” he said. “We decided to move towards premium wines and look at the top tiers of on-trade wine distribution.”
His big break was getting the distribution for Gaja, a top wine producer based in Piedmont, in 2009: He had met the winery’s charismatic owner, Angelo Gaja, at a wine event in Burgundy. A few months later, Angelo rang him to discuss the possibility of carrying his wines in Singapore. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Birds of a feather flock together. With Gaja on board, Kim Hai managed to sign on other Italian wineries as they wanted to “associate themselves with the same portfolio”. “I think [the wineries] studied every market, and found that Gaja tends to work with the top distributors in each country,” said Kim Hai. Gaja’s wines are served at Otto Ristorante and Oso Ristorante.
By 2014, he had a “clean break with supermarket distribution”, focusing only on the on-trade sector. Today, Pinnacle Wine & Spirits’ portfolio consists of 30 wineries, nine of which are Italian producers like Alois Lageder, Brovia, and Ca’Marcanda. In recent years, the company has also roped in American wine brands, as the wines have been popular with its steakhouse partners like Cut and Wolfgang’s Steakhouse.
“When it comes to deciding which brand to take on, you have to bring in what the market needs, not what you personally like or want,” said Kim Hai. “Sometimes you think there will be 1,000 people who will love a particular wine, but the 1,000 people may not be there.”
Reading the pulse of the market has been left largely to Kim Hai’s son, Caleb Tan, 31, who joined the company as its business manager in 2013 after completing his studies in Australia. Caleb does most of the legwork, meeting clients and sommeliers, and attending tastings. His wife, whom he met at a food and wine trade fair, is in charge of the administrative work, finance and inventory management.
Caleb said: “Sometimes my dad may not pick up on the trends. I hear from the sommeliers so I cater to what they want. In recent years, we took on some minimal intervention or natural wines from Australia, but we don’t jump on the bandwagon for the sake of it.
“Many younger drinkers are willing to try new stuff but I think people will always go back to the classics, whether they are wines from classic regions or traditional varieties. So we’d want to develop the classics in our portfolio – we still need to plug a few gaps; we don’t have any wines from Rhone Valley or Sancerre.”
Kim Hai agrees that his son is more in tune with the market and has no qualms deferring to his views. “I don’t insist on my ways because I’m more senior than him,” he added.
“But we don’t want to be a trendsetter. There are people who enjoy being a trendsetter, but financially it can be painful. Not every trend will take off,” he said. “However, on an exceptional basis, if there is a product that isn’t mainstream but offers an interesting angle or story, we’d take it on.”
Chateau Musar – Lebanon’s most famous wine producer – in their portfolio is one such example. The winery, which practises organic winemaking, is known for its expressive wines that age well; a style preached by its late winemaker Serge Hochar, who was trained in Bordeaux.
When Kim Hai was appointed as Chateau Musar’s distributor a decade ago, his staff weren’t exactly enthusiastic, fearing that the obscurity of Lebanese wine would hamper their sales and marketing efforts. But he had faith in the brand’s reputation, reminding his team that “they were not selling Lebanese wine but selling Musar”. It took a few years for the sales to hit a healthy margin. Today Chateau Musar is one of Pinnacle’s top three brands, alongside Gaja and Burgundy producer Domaine Meo-Camuzet. Fine-dining restaurants Les Amis and Odette carry Chateau Musar’s wines.
Pinnacle is also considering spirits as an avenue of expansion. A year ago, they began distributing Clase Azul, a premium tequila brand known for its hand-painted bottles. The spirit is available at Lavo Singapore.
With COVID-19 reducing restaurant capacities, Pinnacle has been pivoting towards private customers, who form about 20 percent of its sales volume. “We are bracing ourselves. Like the financial crisis in 2008, you only saw the real effects of it a year later,” said Caleb who, along with his wife, will eventually take over the family business.
Kim Hai said: “I consider myself semi-retired. Operationally, Caleb and his wife keep me well-informed. If I don’t sense any danger, I’ll leave them alone. As to when [Caleb] wants to take over, I’m waiting for him to tell me.”