The year was 1999. Sweet, sparkling, and chilled red wine was not exactly the first choice of beverage in the Philippines, where beer and gin pervade festivities and the neighborhood hangout. If it were offered in fine dining restaurants and clubs, the wine choice would be dry (the sugars have been converted to alcohol) and served at room temperature.
Then, a welcome disruption arrived, in the form of a man with a vigor of a crusader. His name is Vicente “Nonoy” Quimbo, chief executive officer of Novellino wines. That year, he aimed to start changing an entire country’s drinking habits.
Now two decades later, the CEO is not done with his crusade just yet.
Twenty Years Ago
At a young age, Nonoy Quimbo learned the art of making money with whatever is at one’s disposal. Both his parents were public school teachers, but on the side his mother would sell various goods in Barangay Baclaran, Parañaque City. As a witness to the way small ideas could turn into a good source of income, Nonoy decided to get a BS Business Administration degree at the University of the Philippines. He graduated in 1969.
With his aptitude and years of experience, he later took a major role in a soft drinks company, which brought him to different places around the world. (He speaks Spanish, by the way, after having stayed in South America for a while.) But even while carrying the vital role in an international corporation, he was never too far away from his entrepreneurial aspirations. He wanted to produce his own wine.
“I said I’d do it, and I’d do it in the Philippines because it’s not just where I grew up, but this is where I saw the opportunity as well," Nonoy tells ANCX. "I come from a soft drinks background. I felt that the business model for soft drinks could also work for mine, where you bring in raw materials, then you partner with a bottler, then you produce a product. That’s the way I envisioned it initially.”
Nonoy shared his idea with the Metro Pacific group of companies (the parent company, First Pacific, is an investment management and holding company, and was co-founded by Filipino tycoon Manny V. Pangilinan). Soon, Metro Pacific launched their own wine, in partnership with an Italian brand name—but it didn’t take long before the company decided to leave the consumer business. Nonoy, a determined dreamer, saw this as a favorable time to start running his own wine brand. Besides, he wasn't totally sold on the existing product: “I didn’t think the product they produced was sweet enough.” He bought out the wine business from Metro Pacific, and started a company that we now know as Novellino. The ambition—and what a colossal one it was—was to make the Philippines a wine-drinking country.
Instincts kicked in, followed by research. There is sweet wine, and there's dry wine, he says. “And then we saw that there’s very little wine drinking in the Philippines,” Nonoy recalls. “I had this theory that they didn’t like dry wine. So I said, ‘Why not make sweet wine?’ The Filipino tongue likes sweet. I had friends and other people try the sweet versions, and they liked it. Sweet was a low-brainer.”
Nonoy knew that if he wanted to stay afloat, he had to listen to the desires of his public. “The problem was sweet wine was more difficult and expensive to make. But I said, ‘I really want to do this. If I want to be in the wine business here, I cannot force something that the market rejects.’”
But taste was just a fragment of a complicated relationship with Filipino drinkers. For his company to show its “credibility” and to compete with the best wines, Nonoy shares they had to “hide behind an Italian image at first.” It was a bonus that their winemaker, Francesco Nosenzo, is Italian. Consequently, they had to find a name to suit their image. “It has to sound something like new, a new kind of wine,” Nonoy says. “The word ‘novel’ came up. It also turns out that our winemaker comes from a town called Novello. It kind of jived.” Now, with millions of bottles produced in a year, no one dares question Novellino’s credibility—and lineage.
“We are a Filipino wine,” Nonoy says proudly.
Novellino wines began production with four varieties: classic red wine, classic white wine, light sparkling, and heavy sparkling. As the brand grew, they developed flavors, and expanded their types of wine, where they infused peach, blackberry, strawberry, and natural citrus fruits. The Novellino red wine and the strawberry-flavored types are some of their best sellers. They now have 15 products under the Novellino name.
But Nonoy, who is turning 69 years old this year, is looking farther into the future for Novellino. With him in that vision are his family. Posterity, Nonoy says, is as important as their business strategies. “There’s a lot of things that I still want to do, but just because of age, I don’t have the same energy as I had 20 years ago, when I started this,” he says, smiling.
His situation was different, too, when he started this business 20 years ago. At the time, Nonoy was living in the United States with his wife Myla, and two sons, Carlos and Chris. “When we started, we needed cash flow to get going as a family—the kids were going to college and stuff like that,” Nonoy recalls. Myla ran a restaurant in the U.S., while Nonoy would help out, sometimes filling in for the dishwasher—all while intently developing his wine business.
In 2009, Nonoy decided to come back to the Philippines, while his family stayed in the United States. That year, Chris, who is turning 32 years old in July, graduated with a degree in Economics at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
“Of course, the dad always plans to let his children join him,” Nonoy tells us, looking at his son who was sitting across from him at his office. But he admits that even after Chris graduated from college, he had no expectations his son will join the business. In fact, Nonoy went through what he calls a “challenge,” when Chris was still in college.
“Chris loved music so much he wanted to shift to a music course; I was starting to get worried,” Nonoy tells us, laughing at the memory. “I allowed him. I even spent money for his studio time and all that. I did everything to support him, but deep inside I didn’t want him to do it. Sometimes you need to let your son go. Eventually, he took up economics, which I prefer, but again I did not force him [to join the business].”
After several business ventures, a stint at a start-up, and work experience at the retail company Target Corporation—where he worked as a buyer—Chris went back to the Philippines in 2012. “My dad came to me with an opportunity,” Chris tells us.
While Chris knew that Novellino was already doing good business in the beverage market, he did not expect the size of it. “I had no idea how big the company was at the time, and up to what extent. I didn’t know it was a household brand.” He told himself he’d give it a year to figure things out. Six years later, he’s made the Philippines his home.
Chris is now president and general manager of Novellino wines. By his own admission, he still has a lot to learn—mostly from his father, who has taught him more than enough life lessons to last a lifetime. One such lesson is this: it pays to listen to your father. To make his point, Chris tells us a story of how when he was around 10 years old, Nonoy prohibited him from riding his bike unless he had his helmet on. After a big fight, a stubborn and angry Chris finally wore his helmet. “Within two revolutions of my bike, I fell over, and my head hit this rock. My helmet split into two,” he recalls. Listen to your father.
Disagreements are expected when fathers and sons work together, and Nonoy and Chris have their share of clashes. “There a many times he would disagree with me,” Chris says, laughing. “Maybe my outlook is different because I’m younger. Sometimes I don't get my point across as an employee; sometimes I just need to be a son. I will say, ‘Dad, if you love me, you just gonna have to give this a chance. If it fails, it fails. Let’s give it a chance.’ It can go both ways.”
Nonoy gives his side: “When I talk to Chris sometimes, even about business, I say, ‘Okay, I’m talking to you as a boss right now. You better hear me.’ There are times—so at least there’s no misunderstanding— that I tell him, ‘I’m talking to you as your dad. So you have to listen to me like I was your dad.’”
To make the rules clearer, two years ago, Nonoy asked lawyers and professionals to write a legally-binding family constitution. The family spent three days in a hotel room to finish the written document. “The whole idea is the succession,” Nonoy explains. Included in the constitution are guidelines, such as the three levels of participation by a family member: first is by default; second is by appointment; and third is by choice, if they wanted to join the management team.
There are also sets of rules for joining the company—even if one is already a family member. “They have to have a college degree,” Nonoy says. “They have to have at least two years of experience in a corporation, for example. So if Chris had a son who was a renegade, no college degree, and he wanted to join the company just because he was a son, then sorry, he couldn’t join.”
“It was like a family counseling session,” Chris says of that hotel room meeting.
Chris's brother Carlos is an investment banker in the United States, and has put up a wine business there, as well. Nonoy jests, “Chris and I are hoping it eventually fails, so he can join us. No, he’s not yet part of the business. He will be. We’ll see.”
One piece of evidence of the success of Novellino is the 1.3-hectare winery in Canlubang, Laguna province. With an office space that embraces a Filipino design aesthetic, the winery is a leap from the 300-square-meter original space in Valenzuela City.
The automated plant works impressively, despite the fact that the entire company only has 17 employees—including Nonoy and Chris. A quick tour around the area would give the visitor a glimpse of how Novellino wines are made; how each bottle goes through a process more thorough and complicated than the usual wines. Unlike dry wine, where it is mostly fermented to the fullest to remove all sugar, in sweet wine, the grapes go through partial fermentation using a machine. This means that not all sugar is converted into alcohol, giving the product a low 4.5% alcohol content. To stop fermentation, the solids also have to separate completely from the liquids.
Novellino wines use “standard quality” grapes from Italy, Spain, Chile, and Argentina (depending on the time of purchase, which should align with the time of harvest). They then work up these grapes to get the quality they want. Inside the plant are 13 fermentation tanks, which can produce 30,000 liters of wine each.
Dispelling the notion that sweet wine is less sophisticated, Nonoy says, “You don’t have to be embarrassed about your taste—that you like sweet. Sweet is sophisticated because sweet wine goes through a sophisticated process.”
As Novellino celebrates its 20th anniversary, many things are in store for the brand's loyal—and multiplying—followers.
Nonoy says his crusade is not done yet. Through the years, they have tapped a wide array of customers, from people looking for dessert wine to people just looking for a night cap.
Although the brand has dramatically converted a formerly non-wine drinking country into what it is now, the Quimbos know they have a lot more mindset-changing to do
To continue with their mission, one product they will be launching soon is the wine tap.
“There’s still a cultural barrier around wine drinking in restaurants,” Nonoy says. He mentions a few famous pizza restaurants and thinks, “It should be natural to have wine in those. The wine tap can be a way to introduce wine to that market, and bars, as well.”
The long-term plan comes from the ambitious mind of someone who wanted to turn a beer-and-gin country to a wine country and succeeded. “We have proven in a non-wine drinking market, like the Philippines, that you can actually create a market. There are so many other none-wine drinking markets in the world. We would like to replicate our model and partner with people in Vietnam, for example, or Cambodia, and convince them that they can do something like what we did. We now have a nice model to show them.”
While the crusade of Novellino wines continues, it is worth pondering on the brand's 20 years of ascendency in a once-untapped market. The country’s drinks-loving palates are ever so thankful. Cheers.
Photographs by Daniel Soriano