Dec 9, 2008

Food - India;In the vineyards of Nasik


Now, when the economy is in slowdown mode, it seems to be boom time for Indian wine. A look-in at a wine challenge hosted by Sula where wine gurus test out what Nasik has to offer.

The consensus seemed to be that India makes decent whites, some great reds like Shiraz and the dessert wine rocks.

With the slowdown coming in slow motion, I ran away to one of my favourite places in Maharashtra — Nasik. Nasik, is one of India’s biggest industrial areas. Historically, Nasik was always known as an industry town, like a Durgapur or Bilaspur, and the two main industries here were always automobile components and electrical parts.

In recent years though, the industrial reputation has been eclipsed by another, rather glamorous, reputation for Nasik — as India’s Napa Valley. Ask anyone about Nasik today and the first thing that they will tell you is that Nasik makes wine, some of the best in India. Two of India’s three main wine companies — Sula and Chateau Indage — are based in Nasik. (The third, Grover, is based in Karnataka.)

A new dynamics

This twin engine of growth has great things for Nasik. When I went to the town about a year ago, the once-sleepy Nasik was buzzing. There was a new mall street in the heart of the city and at Sula’s popular Tasting Room crowds flocked every evening to nibble cheese and sip wines with names like Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (which, by the way, is one of Sula’s most popular and in-demand wines. It is a sweet, slightly dry, dessert wine that is sold out even before it can be properly distributed. You can, it seems, never get it in Mumbai stores).

I attended a wine challenge where a host of global wine gurus tried a phenomenal 43 wines in a few hours, hosted by Sula’s always affable and impatient Rajeev Samant and then drove down to the industrial area to talk to some old friends in manufacturing. What is happening in Nasik today is a microcosm of what is happening to the industry, especially small and medium industry (the real street, as it were, as opposed to Dalal Street).

At Sula, Rajeev spoke about innovating at a time when demand is slowing. In the next one week, Sula, India’s best known wine producer, will uncork a new bottle. It is an entry-level wine, both red and white, most likely called Samara which will be priced at Rs. 150 a bottle. This will be one of the cheapest wines ever produced and sold in India, even cheaper than the earlier entry-level wine from Sula, Madeira.

The new cheap wine, hopes Samant, will offset some of the losses from falling demand of his top-end sparklings and oaky reds. The slowdown also opens up another major opportunity for him — to acquire capacity.

In the last few years, buoyed by loud cheers for the wine industry, several small players have rushed in to set up vineyards in Nasik. Many of these have little brand name or wine-making expertise. Some supply to large vineyards like Sula. The slowdown means the market for many of these players would be wiped out and big names like Sula, who have been eyeing acquisitions, will pick up some vineyards which will greatly boost capacity and will, in all probability, come cheap.

The main purpose of my visit was to meet Gina Gallo, who was my guest also on my TV show Talk Back, and is the heir to California’s Gallo wine fortune (her grandfather and granduncle Julio and Ernest created the idea of New World wines and started what has now become Napa Valley). She said the next few months will give a never-before opportunity to Indian wine. As people cut down on spending, they will be looking for more value for money. “They would be looking for new things to try, things and varieties that are exciting and affordable,” said Gallo.

Here’s what seems to be the core mantra, or at least ought to be the core mantra, for winemakers in Nasik:

* Stick to what you know best

* Innovate. Do not follow any set rules. (Especially not the ones made by the Europeans!)

* Match food with wine. So keep local tastes in mind. What is the point of creating wines that go beautifully with greasy duck if your usual clientele has never touched it?

* Break the taboo. Drinking alcohol is frowned upon in most parts but since wine is less of a taboo and since drinking wine is still relatively tiny in India, make it a social thing. Make it something parents, kids, assorted aunts and uncles can do together. (In this the Sula vineyards have succeeded. Every time I go, the Tasting Room seems to be teeming with local gentry and now they even have an amphitheatre and a barbecue which is very popular.) Wine has a natural advantage in this. It is milder, at least most of the Sula stuff is milder, than hard liquor and therefore there is less of a chance of rolling drunks on the Sula stairways. Also, when you make something a family thing, it becomes less hazardous. You are less likely to swig dangerous levels of alcohol under the wife’s stern eye and if you know you have to drive the kids home.

The consensus seemed to be that India makes decent whites, some great reds like Shiraz and the dessert wine rocks. But as usual, there are tons of clowns in Nasik who want to make Merlot. Now Merlot is not something that does well in the Nasik conditions, it is just, said the experts, something that we do well and yet, one joker from a local hotel insisted that his guests love Merlot! This of course had the foreigners shaking their heads in amazement.

Now, my guess is that the reason so many guests order Merlot is because they have no clue but it seems like an exotic name to order and so they keep gulping down rubbish pretending to enjoy it. This sort of stupidity goes on regularly. I, for instance, see it all the time in Delhi where people who spent most of their lives munching on tandoori chicken insist on ordering sushi. You should see them when the wasabi kicks them where it hurts.

Funny economics

So this is the funny thing about economics. Here you are thinking that everyone in the wine belt would be crying but lo behold! They have never seemed happier and people seem to be pouring in saying that the time has come for Indian wine!

Finally, the only thing that marred my trip was the renamed Taj. They call it Gateway now. It’s a lovely, old sprawling property but the Gateway name sounds tacky. Like it’s a Minnesota motel. And all the clever copy with Sania Mirza and Manish Arora can’t save that.

No comments: