Wine Passage to India

Wine Passage to India

Dhindori is 150 miles from India’s commercial and show business capital, Mumbai. The final hour of the drive from the capital to the burgeoning wine region is a nerve-jangling, back-straining experience. Once there, though, I am greeted by Sunil Patil, the farm manager of Sula Vineyards, who offers me a sinfully sugary cup of tea.

As we stand on red laterite soil 2,700 feet above sea level, we are looking at two faces of India: In one corner of this vineyard stands a prehistoric earth-and-grass hut that belongs to a family of nomadic shepherds tending to a flock of mangy goats minded by a shriveled-up dog; all around it are the stately green rows representing India’s hot-weather wine industry.

It is an industry fueled by a sudden and passionate interest in wine by a population that has traditionally been whisky drinkers.

“Wines have become must-haves at weddings, fashion shows and product launches,” says Ashwin Deo, managing director of Moët Hennessy India, who has seen the Champagne market grow by “two to three times” since 2001. This Valentine’s Day, young couples drank only Moët et Chandon in special promotions at 100 restaurants in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. In India, a bottle of bubbly, and not the elaborate wooing rituals described in Kama Sutra, has become an essential ingredient of courtship.

“India is like Japan a generation ago,” says Frederic Engerer, president of Château Latour. Engerer recently hosted a US$325-per-head vertical dinner at Mumbai’s Indigo restaurant, and it was sold out. “Twelve years ago, when we entered that market, we were nowhere; today, Japan gives us 20 percent of our business,” he says.

Pierre Lurton, president of Château d’Yquem, expressed the same optimism when he visited India in 2004. He was

delighted to discover that d’Yquem sorbets had became a fashion statement at weddings of the Indian jet set.

Rajeev Samant, a Stanford graduate and former Silicon Valley executive, is the owner of Sula Vineyards, a 1.2 million-bottle winery in Nashik, India’s wine hub, a three-hour drive from Mumbai. At the Asia Grand Forum of Wine Evolution 2006 in Paris, Samant reckoned that 7.2 million bottles of wine were sold in India in 2005. By 2010, India’s wine consumption is expected to triple, making it a robust market for over 21.6 million bottles. Premium domestic wines will account for 47 percent and bottled imports for another 25 percent (The missing 28 percent? “Goan ports” made from molasses-based extra neutral alcohol.)

The 47 percent figure spells big money for the domestic wine industry, likely to be worth Rs20 billion (US$445 million) in five years. Not surprisingly, land under vine has more than quintupled from 375 acres in 2000 to 2,000 acres in 2005. This may be a mere 2 percent of the 200,000 acres under table grape cultivation, but the acreage will go up because of new entrants in the wine business, like wineries in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, which almost mirrors Bordeaux’s terroir. All of India’s winemaking is now taking place in the western state of Maharashtra and a few kilometers away from the country’s IT capital, Bangalore.

This sudden interest in wine is a startling development in a country that has a deeply ingrained love for whisky. India’s best-known film comedian was named after Johnnie Walker, though the actor was an abstemious Muslim. Vat 69 is what three generations of Bollywood’s heroes have drunk to drown their cinematic sorrows. Indians drink more Scotch, goes a local saying, than what Scotland produces in a year.

By contrast, the people of India drink just a teaspoon of wine per person per year. But that number is deceiving due to the country’s enormous population. (India, experts estimate, has 20 million individuals with “first-world” lifestyles and spending power.) To the upper and middle classes, wine has cachet.

“The intellectual side of wine drinking appeals to the Indian middle class brought up on a diet of literacy and mental pursuits,” says Sanjay Menon, a pioneer in India’s wine trade, who estimates the wine-drinking population to be in the neighborhood of one million. Indians love to talk about food; wine is now enriching that conversation. Nakul Anand, Group Chief Executive of ITC’s Hotels Division, is more direct: “Indians love to brag. Wine gives them bragging rights.”

Changing Times, Evolving Palates
Merrill Lynch and Cap Gemini’s World Wealth Report 2005 estimates that the population of “high net worth individuals” in India (individuals with a net worth of US$1 million or more), which grew from 61,000 to 70,000 between 2003 and 2005, will double to 140,000 in 2010. As India turns its back firmly on its pink past, when the notion of consumption was dismissed with contempt, it is transforming into a high-growth (8.1 percent in 2005-06), high-spending, high-saving economy. The upper crust, backed by a strong middle class of 160 million, is setting the agenda for the new consumption culture.

It is to woo this consuming class that the wine industry’s top honchos have been visiting India’s principal markets, New Delhi and Mumbai. Just in the first two months of 2006, the cities have merited activity-packed visits by top executives and winemakers from Château Latour, Pernod Ricard, Maison Louis Jadot, Weingut Gunderloch, Torbreck and the dazzling Italian heiresses Alessia Antinori and Gaia Gaja.

Like their peers in the luxury segment, they’ve been coming here to establish their first mover status in a market that may be small now—4.2 million bottles, out of which 3 million are domestic labels, priced at US$10 or more—but growing in volume at a promising 30-35 percent per year. Even Bollywood, India’s social barometer, has taken notice of the incipient wine culture. In a recent production, Bluffmaster, critics noticed the bottle of wine that stood between India’s teen heartthrob Abhishek Bachchan and the film’s female lead, Priyanka Chopra.

Images such as these combined with the efforts being made by global brands to develop the market are impacting domestic wine sales in a big way. So much so, this year, two of India’s three main wine producers did not have enough grapes to produce the quantities required to satisfy the demand of the domestic market.

Restaurants, Clubs, Societies
India today has restaurants like the Orient Express (New Delhi) and Zodiac Grill (Mumbai), both managed by the Taj Group of luxury hotels. Both also have extensive, intelligently structured wine lists. They offer 520 labels, including 32 verticals and an ambitious offering of 20-25 wines by the glass, says Shirin Batliwala, the group’s vice president of food and beverage.

Fine-dining restaurants like Mezzo Mezzo at the J. W. Marriott in Mumbai, Antonio Carluccio-inspired I.T-alia at The Park Bangalore and Hip Asia at the colonial-era Taj Connemara in the southern city of Chennai are setting the pace for India’s emerging wine culture. The ITC Hotels, which are bravely promoting the idea of pairing Indian food with wine, have just unveiled a “wine dossier” with 166 labels. The company has also bought Bornolli Rocco stemware and Eurocaves for their restaurants, and created temperature-controlled cellars for wine stock. For Indian five-star hotels, which still account for 70 percent of India’s imported wine sales, this is a generational change.

They have finally figured out that they can earn more from a bottle of wine than a shot of Chivas, and they are pulling out all stops for it. “India is three to five years away from a wine revolution,” says importer Aman Dhall, a management graduate from Boston University and former Diageo executive, who started with supermarket wines but now has a portfolio of over 360 premium labels. “Indians in the 25-40 age bracket consume 65 percent of imported wines, and these are mostly New World wines.”

To prepare the ground for the “wine revolution,” Menon and Dhall have been organizing wine dinners and exposing F&B managers to visiting winemakers. Dhall has rolled out a plan to fly in an impressive lineup of celebrity chefs to promote the idea of pairing wine with food, a notion that Indians still find difficult.

Wine sales across Taj hotels have grown by 24 percent by the bottle and 20 percent by the glass; at the Maurya Sheraton, ITC’s signature hotel in New Delhi, the number of bottles consumed has jumped from four to 120 per day (including banquet wines and giveaways) in just a year. At Diva, Ritu Dalmia’s acclaimed Italian restaurant in Delhi, wine sales have soared from 60 bottles a month to 600 a month in five years.

“Our wines priced US$225 and above are bought mainly by our Indian clientele,” exults Dalmia, a self-taught chef who honed her skills at Anna Tasca’s culinary school in Sicily. “The big change that has taken place is that wine is no longer an expat indulgence. An 18-year-old Indian girl confidently asks for a bottle of wine when she’s on a date. So does her 75-year-old grandmother when she’s out with her friends.”

This tectonic shift in values is no longer confined to the big cities, but, as Reva Singh, who edits the country’s first wine newsletter, Sommelier India, found out, the urge to know more about wine is becoming a part of the small-town elite culture as well. She little expected subscription requests from towns like Pune, Nagpur and Shillong, ignored largely by wine marketers, but these places are driving numbers for Singh.

One factor that is spurring the revolution is marketing consultancies like the New Delhi-based Indian Wine Academy (, and clubs like the Delhi Wine Club. Go to any Delhi Wine Club dinner and you’ll find out why the wine world views India as an exciting emerging market. What makes this disparate group bond together is their American education and strong professional credentials. They are what Pico Iyer calls “global souls.” The trend is irreversible. “Seven million Indians are traveling abroad every year, to study, to do business and to spend their rising discretionary income. The more they travel, the more they get exposed to international lifestyle trends. Wine has become a global lifestyle statement,” says Dalmia.

The Wine Society started out as the Table de France, a travel trade and hospitality industry group dedicated to the promotion of French food, wine and culture. Back in 1997, it was a far-sighted step to bring together what Kulbir Singh, a founding member, describes as “like-minded people who love to drink wine and want to know more about what they drink.” And the person who made this possible is Ghulam Naqshband, a travel trade veteran whose table is the city’s envy.

Up from Moonshine
As Sunil Patil, a plant pathologist and the farm manager of Sula Vineyards, took us through rows of young vines that had just yielded Sauvignon Blanc for the 2006 harvest (the Indian season stretches from late January to early April), it was difficult not to admire the strides made by an industry that started selling wine made with table grapes—Thomson Seedless and Bangalore Purple—and fermented in cement tanks.

The pedestrian quality of India’s original wine labels, Golconda and Bosca, and “Goan port” turned off a generation of Indians from wine. These are what Aakash Singh Rathore, a philosophy professor and author of The Complete Indian Wine Guide, calls “sinister brews” and they have been singularly responsible for giving Indian wine a bad name.

You can sense the change. Pernod Ricard, which has been present in the market with Jacob’s Creek wines, entered Nashik with a 100,000-liter facility (its capacity is expected to be ramped up as the domestic market grows). The talk of a likely foray into wine by the country’s biggest beer and spirits maker, United Breweries, has also energized the market. And with Singapore-based private equity funds and one of India’s biggest business houses, the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Enterprises, investing in domestic wine companies, the industy is on a roll.

It was exposure to quality wine, and the language of international business, that spurred the two pioneers of India’s wine industry into action.

“If you like something, you want to have it closer to home,” says Shyam Rao Chougule, explaining why he got into the wine business. Chougule is a structural engineer and frequent traveler who developed a taste for wine on his trips abroad. Yet, upon his return, he found it impossible to get a decent bottle in India’s leading five-star hotels. In 1988, he signed contracts with 600 farmers, then built his winery in sun-baked Narayangaon, which is situated on the highway from Mumbai to Pune.

Chougule launched Marquis de Pompadour, the first sparkling wine from India, known globally as Omar Khayyam. He has gone on to create 22 (and counting) still wine brands. He created a sense of excitement about his wine offerings—and the wine experience in general—by getting Mumbai’s monied set over to his vineyards for the annual grape crushing
ritual, which is nothing more than an excuse for rich and famous people to schmooze with sartorially challenged pretty young things. Shyam Rao’s two sons, Ranjit and Vikrant, are heading what is today India’s first publicly listed wine company, Chateau Indage, which is diversifying into hotels, restaurants and wine bars.

The roots of Chougule’s original competition, Grover Vineyards, date back even further. The company was started by Kanwal Grover, an importer of rocket launch equipment, who got into the wine business after realizing that Indian beer didn’t please his French principals at the dinner table. It was in 1982 that Grover, joined by his son, Kapil (who had never seen a vineyard in his life), started plantation trials with vine cuttings the father would carry in suitcases from France. For their experiments, which were supervised by French experts, the Grovers planted 33 varieties in 21 locations that had been selected after a study of temperature patterns across 10 years.

Having hired a young Frenchman, Bruno Yvon, as winemaker in 1992, the Grovers selected a spot for their winery near Bangalore and signed Michel Rolland as a consultant two years later. Together, they have proved it’s possible to develop a Bordeaux-inspired style in a latitude far removed from the world’s wine capital. Things may change when Grover’s daughter returns from UC Davis, but as of today, his wine portfolio is firmly rooted in the French tradition.

The Grovers, with Champagne house Veuve Clicquot picking up a 20 percent stake, have been focused on making their La Reserve, a Cabernet-Shiraz blend aged in French oak; a Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon; an unoaked Cabernet-Shiraz; a Shiraz rosé, made almost entirely for the French market; a Viognier and a Sauvignon Blanc.
A Whiff of the New World


But it is Rajeev Samant who put marketing pizzazz into Indian wine. Samant quit his job at Oracle to take charge of one of his family’s neglected businesses, a table grape plantation in Nashik, in 1995. Like a handful of visionary farmers in Nashik, Samant was quick to figure out that the market for Indian table grapes was drying up because of competition from cheaper Chilean varieties and objections from green watchdogs to pesticide residues in Indian consignments.

In 1997, Samant went back to the U.S. to meet Kerry Damsky, a Dry Creek Valley wine consultant. He returned home with a suitcase packed with Zinfandel cuttings. He obtained some Chenin Blanc cuttings from a Nashik neighbor, Hambir Phadtare, a former Michigan Sate University sociology professor. Thus armed, he launched himself on the road to making wine.

Samant’s Sula wines have an unofficial brand ambassador in Liz Hurley, the British actor and supermodel, who’s dating the jet-setting, Bombay-born Arun Nayar. Hurley served Sula at her 40th birthday bash, inspiring the flamboyant mayor of London, Chris Patten, to serve it at a brunch.

In an Indian market that equated French wine with fine living, Samant rewrote the rules of business by introducing New World-style Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Zinfandel Blush and a Cabernet-Shiraz (a combination that delivers great results in Indian conditions). Samant can be credited with creating a market for New World wines, the biggest gainer being Chile, whose wines have seen a tenfold growth between 2000 and 2005, from 930 to 10,500 nine-liter cases. His example, moreover, has inspired a number of grape farmers in Nashik, grappling with an uncertain international market and falling prices, to move on to wine production.

The state of Maharashtra today has 36 wineries, including 18 in Nashik, and they have mostly resulted from the state government’s 2001 unveiling of its Grape Policy, offering tax breaks and subsidies to domestic wine producers. These wineries employ Italian pneumatic presses, French winemakers, American and French oak barrels and stainless steel fermentation tanks.

For the farmers (who had switched from onions after a series of bad crops a couple of decades back), wine means value addition and a way to trade up in life. As Prahlad Khadangale, one of the eight co-owners of Sankalp Winery, makers of Vinsura wines, explained to us, wine grapes are cheaper to produce because they require fewer people to work on them, five times fewer pesticide sprays, and half the quantity of scarce water.
Quality Quagmire in a Seller’s Market
The problem with Indian wines, though, is quality. At the ground level, as Damsky points out, there are few qualified winemakers. Some of them are like Sula’s Ajoy Shaw, a biochemistry major who picked up the skills on the job and on visits to vineyards abroad. The rest are like Vinsura’s M. P. Sharma, a retired chemistry teacher who learned winemaking using a do-it-yourself kit from a Boots department store during a visit to England in the 1970s. To bail the industry out, the Maharashtra Government has created the Grape Processing and Research Institute in Sangli, about 180 miles from Mumbai, where Damsky is the only qualified winemaker on the faculty.

Even if the institute helps companies tide over their hunger for qualified hands, the industry has to address the problems of poor storage and the near-absence of temperature control in the fledgling retail segment. It must also get more serious about quality control.

Rathore recalls a visit to a big-label winery. Just as the winemaker was informing him how he was using Pinot Noir (which seemed highly improbable) in his sparkling wine, a major shipment of grape concentrate landed from Australia. The barely-out-of-diapers wine industry, quickly learned Rathore, did not follow any of the rules that governed wine production elsewhere in the world.

The big players, who have seen the demand grow beyond their expectations, are coping with their changed fortunes by mixing imported bulk wine and grape concentrates at will. They are buying wine grapes or finished wine they haven’t supervised from farmers who have just moved to wine grapes. And when some of them say their wines have been aged in French oak, they actually mean oak chips. “They make wine without any regard for the rules,” Rathore says. “They can’t bank forever on the ignorance of the consumer.”

To be taken seriously by the world, the Indian industry must address these quality issues. Otherwise, Indian wines will remain poor cousins at home and mere trophy acquisitions at curry-in-a-hurry restaurants abroad.

No doubt, it will happen. The marketing forces are too strong to ignore. “This is the time for wine companies to invest in India,” says Diva’s Dalmia. “Four years from now, they won’t know what has hit them.”

Sourish Bhattacharyya is a Delhi-based journalist and editor of delWine, the Indian Wine Academy’s e-newsletter.

Published on August 1, 2006

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