Napa Valley wines

Inside Napa Valley wineries: part II

In theory, making organic biodynamic wines is simple; just let nature do its job. Let the grapevine dance with the moon, dodge the sun, discover the stars

Napa’s Screaming Eagle. Photo: Eric Risberg/AP

Napa’s Screaming Eagle. Photo: Eric Risberg/AP

Beyond the blue yonder where chocolate-coloured grapevines stretch as far as the eye can see, a plant is making choices about its future. It is gnarly and old. Its snaking brown roots sink deep into the land that has been its sole and only home; a land that made its name through Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa, they call this place. It used to be farmland until the 1970s.

A young Stanford graduate, Robert Mondavi, moved there to start a winery in 1966. That changed everything. More wine buffs followed suit. In 1976, Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant in Paris, concocted an audacious plan to gain fame, publicity and posterity. “Judgment of Paris”, he called it—a blind tasting pitting French wines against others.

To everyone’s shock, several bottles from Napa won over the Burgundy and Bordeaux varietals. The French judges tore up their sheets in shock and dismay. Those two wineries still exist in Napa: Chateau Montelena, run by Bo Barrett, who is married to Heidi Peterson Barrett—the winemaker who created Screaming Eagle, Napa’s most expensive wine (talk about pairing and pedigree); and Stag’s Leap, whose Cabernet Sauvignon made the cut.

The vineyard I am standing in makes a restrained version of the famous “California Cabs”. Frog’s Leap—like Peter Cellars in Sonoma Valley—follows organic, biodynamic practices, although I doubt that they bury cow-horns into the earth as advocated by Rudolf Steiner, who invented biodynamic agriculture.

In theory, making organic biodynamic wines is simple: You let nature do its job. You allow the grapevine to dance with the moon; dodge the sun; discover the stars; and synchronize itself to the earth’s magnetic and gravitational fields. The grapevine, as the folks at Frog’s Leap say, “knows when the birds visit, it’s on familiar terms with surrounding insects and their life stages and it takes a cue from the acorns falling off the nearby oaks. In short, everything in its environment is a clue.”

If the flapping of insects reduces, the vine knows that frost is coming and the insects have gone underground. If the birds brush against the vines joyfully as they ride thermal currents, the vine intuits things about the weather. The chatter of adjoining plants—the roses, mustard, oats and dandelions—is a negotiation about nitrogen, minerals and other nutrients. Who takes what?

Based on these clues, this single grapevine sets forth a cascade of actions: when to allow bud-break; how to attract pollinating insects to procreate; how many clusters of grapes to grow. The plant has to give up eight clusters for that single glass of wine you are holding in your hands. So treat it with respect.

The wine that we drink these days is a far cry from the time the Romans dropped pieces of toasted bread into their wines to temper its high acidity. They would “toast” each other with stirring speeches after quaffing bad wine. The Egyptians used to give their daughters bottles of mead—a type of honey-wine—as part of the dowry, thus sending the couple with honey-wine on their honeymoon.

What makes a wine good? Some part of it has to do with rhythm and routine. Grapevines get comfortable in the spots they have inhabited for years—they find familiar spaces in the sun and soil. They reveal themselves slowly through the changing seasons and the blooming of flowers and berries. The winemaker touches every vine and every cluster of grapes. She knows every crack in the soil. She stumbles against a rock. The next day, she walks around that section—unthinkingly and automatically.

A collection of memories—from grapevine and winemaker—goes into a bottle.

A lot of it has to do with continuity and recognition. Years and years of harvests and the memories they engender, layered like sediments across the sands of time. Every new vintage ruffles that memory. The early frost of 2016 reminds the winemaker of 1998. He makes daily adjustments as the clarion call of the harvest season approaches. He stays up nights to stave off the frost. He puts machines to work. They are shaped like windmills and press warm air against the earth on frosty nights. He measures the “brix” or the sugar to make sure that the acid and sugars are balanced. He prays and makes choices—“let’s harvest a few days later.”

A collection of memories becomes a brand name. Myth and metaphor get passed down generations of winemakers. Some vintages surprise—like a coloured feather floating amid a cloud of dust.

In Europe, this deep sense of continuity and rootedness is centuries old. In Napa, it took 40 years versus the 400 years that it took to build a brand in France and Italy, and still Harlan Estates is able to sell a bottle of its wine for $750 (around Rs.51,000). Prices have shot up too fast, they say. And yet, there is a waiting list for these wines.

Why do we love the things we do? Certainly, it is not an objective exercise. Wine is about taste but it is also about ethos, nature and memories. The reason we choose a wine to drink has to do with complex layers of emotion, romance, nostalgia and finally, taste. All plants are entwined with the soil and climate they inhabit; the grapevine more than most. It offers a home to bugs, bees, flowers and the odd dash of frost. It is a microcosm of the climate, soil and wind of the place it calls home; its terroir, in other words, echoes nature’s alternating exuberance and restraint. In that liminal space between the sacred and the profane, a glass of wine comforts the soul and spirit.

Drink it reverentially. Because it comes from nature; it echoes nature’s exuberance and restraint. And because it is the result of countless choices made by hundreds of vineyard workers and thousands of grapevines.

This is the second in a two-part series on Napa Valley wines. Shoba Narayan is drinking a lot of Napa wines these days. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Napa Valley. Wine. Sonoma Valley. Part 1

People in America, California particularly, have access to a ridiculous amount of great wines, many sold direct from wineries through wine clubs.  Here is a sampling.  Naturally, this being written for an Indian paper, there is an Indian angle.


Inside Napa Valley wineries: part I

An Indian winemaker gets the best out of California terroir

At the Nicholson Ranch, the entire process from planting the grapes to bottling the wine is done in-house. Photo: Shoba Narayan

At the Nicholson Ranch, the entire process from planting the grapes to bottling the wine is done in-house. Photo: Shoba Narayan

Nicholson Ranch was the last stop on Day 1. By then, Platypus Wine Tours had taken a group of us wine tourists to three Napa Valley wineries in California. Buena Vista, because it was the oldest; Robledo, because it was the first to be owned by a migrant Mexican worker; and Peter Cellars, because it was a one-man show by a transplanted Brit.

Everywhere, we paid the $15 (around Rs.1,020) tasting fee to swirl and sip aromatic Merlots, austere Pinot Noirs, buttery Chardonnays and refreshing Pinot Grigios. Most of these wines never make it to the market—they are sold in-house to tourists like us.

Our tour bus reached Nicholson Ranch around 5pm.

“This winemaker is Indian,” said our guide, Andy.

Inside the tasting room, several glasses had been laid out. A cheerful young man talked about the winemaking process. Unlike many Napa wineries that buy grapes or subcontract the winemaking process, Nicholson Ranch is an “estate” wine—the entire process from planting the grapes to bottling the wine is done in-house.

The owner, Deepak Gulrajani, graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and worked in finance before founding the winery along with his ex-wife, whose family owned the land. The vineyards were planted in 1996. Four years later, he had the wine caves dug. Between 2000-03, he took over the entire process from vine to wine. The undulating hills allowed Gulrajani to create a “gravity-flow” winery, built over multiple levels to take advantage of gravity rather than pumps or equipment to get the grapes from the vines to the wine-crush to the barrels in the caves.

Gulrajani’s wines are terrific and I am not just saying that because he is Indian. We carried a glass of his delicately layered Pinot Noir outside. Situated between the Napa and Sonoma valleys, the estate high up on a hill offered sweeping views. The evening sun ricocheted off the yellow mustard plants that alternated with the chocolate-coloured grapevines that were dormant, awaiting the “bud break” that would start the next wine cycle. Songbirds dipped in and out of the flowers; a gentle breeze caused the yellow mustard to sway; the sun warmed our backs. The Pinot Noir was throwing out scents of berries and spices—la dolce vita.

They say Pinot Noirs are the hardest to grow, but really, it could apply to any varietal. Blame it on Sideways. The movie and its famous monologue about this “haunting” and ancient grape caused Merlot sales to drop after its release. Today in California, Sonoma Valley—closer to the water and cooler as a result—grows cool-climate grapes. Napa Valley, between two mountain ridges, is famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon wines, with alcohol levels getting higher and higher.

Worried that I would be sozzled by day’s end, I did the only thing I could over several days of wine tours. I sipped and spat out the wine in the “dump buckets” that were lined atop the counters. The pleasure of wine is through the nose and the mouth, I rationalized; from the aromas it exudes and the mouth-feel. You don’t have to swallow. Katsuyuki Tanaka, one of the world’s most respected wine tasters, is a teetotaller.

Yountville is the prettiest town in Napa. We stayed at Vintage Inn, because it was more reasonably priced than the Calistoga Inn that all our friends recommended.

I asked two of the Platypus guides where to dine in Yountville and both said Bottega, where it’s a little easier to get a reservation than its more famous neighbour, The French Laundry. The restaurant was packed on a weekday night. Unlike many fine-dining restaurants, we didn’t get artfully arranged vegetables that left us hungry. The sommelier, Amgad Wahba (of Egyptian descent), poured us some of the best wines we tasted on the trip—most of them, except a Barolo, from Napa. “Chefs these days balance the dishes so well that the old adages about drinking a muscular wine with a steak and a light wine with a salad don’t necessarily hold true,” he said, comforting this vegetarian.

Next to Bottega restaurant is the V Wine Cellar. I walked in and got talking to Bruno, a Frenchman who works there. When asked about the best labels in Napa, he and his colleagues named “Screaming Eagle”, which retails for $2,000 a bottle.

Heidi Peterson Barrett, who got this wine its reputation, is a cult figure in Napa. The daughter of a wine pioneer, she created the first Screaming Eagle wine that got 99 points from wine critic Robert Parker. That, coupled with limited production, drove up its prices. V Wine Cellar does wine tastings for $75, where they pour wines from excellent vineyards along with cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery. Those in the mood can top it off with a cigar in their patio.

I tried—unsuccessfully—to get Scott Lewis, the proprietor, to pour me a glass of Screaming Eagle. He shared a wine he was developing for the Indian market. It was infused with peaches, chillies and cloves. I didn’t like it.

This is the first of a two-part series on Napa Valley wines.

Shoba Narayan hopes to meet Heidi Barrett and drink a Screaming Eagle at some point. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Also read | Shoba Narayan’s previous Lounge columns .

Can you smell and taste through cyberspace?

Technology has conquered two of the five senses: sound and sight. What about the other three?

How do you describe a wine in words?
Shoba Narayan suggests we reach into our own heritage: A Chenin blanc could be called “Insipid, like Aunty Maria’s pork vindaloo”

The killer app, at least in the fields of wine, perfume, cheese, or anything that relies on olfactory and gustatory sensations, will have nothing to do with curing male baldness. The killer app for wine and perfume will be the ability to transport scent and taste through cyberspace. If you could click on a wine bottle that is displayed on your computer and smell the aroma of the wine it contains, all the wine descriptions that we struggle to come up with will be rendered useless in an instant.

There are some things that words have trouble conveying. What Arthur Schopenhauer said about “the inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable”, could well apply to the scent and taste of an aged Pinot Noir; complex fragrances, be it from Roja Dove, Byredo or Dior; unpasteurized cheeses; or to come back to Schopenhauer’s quote, the sound of the children’s choir at an old church in Goa at dusk. These are things that have to be experienced in person. When you try to convey the experience to someone who wasn’t there, you grasp unsuccessfully at words.

As a species, we have gotten very good at describing what we see, but even after 100,000 years of practice, we haven’t come up with the proper way to communicate things that we experience through our other senses. Music-streaming apps have simplified the audio part of it. Nowadays, if we want to share with friends abroad the ecstasy of listening to Mukhtiyar Ali’s Sufi music, we simply send them a YouTube, SoundCloud or Spotify link. That hasn’t happened for taste and smell. How do you convey the vibrant masculinity of a Barolo? Even saying this sounds pretentious and sexist.

This, then, is the conundrum for wine lovers: How do you convey the taste of a favourite wine to a friend who lives far away? For now, words, feeble as they are, will have to do. And they aren’t doing their job well at all; witness the finger-pointing and controversy over wine terms.

The problem gets worse because words frame and manipulate the wine-drinking experience, as Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing at Stanford University’s graduate school of business in the US, knows very well. Prof. Shiv has conducted numerous studies on how descriptions affect our experience of the wine. In one famous study, he hooked up subjects to an MRI machine and gave them some wine to drink (now that’s a study I would like to participate in). When he told them that the wine was expensive, the pleasure receptors of the brain lit up. The subjects didn’t merely think that they enjoyed the expensive wine more; their bodies and brains behaved as if they did. To quote the paper, “Our results show that increasing the price of a wine increases subjective reports of flavor pleasantness as well as blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks.” The next time you pour a friend a glass of red wine, tell her that it is a Château Margaux. The simple statement will enhance her pleasure at having it.

How then to describe wine? Two columnists have come up with solutions and written books in the process. The Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague, known for her no-nonsense approach to wine, says you need but five words to describe all wines: acidity, aroma, balance, structure and texture. Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer says something similar but uses seven words: insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise, and nuance. While I love Teague’s light-hearted columns, her words don’t help me very much. Neither do Kramer’s. They are far too broad to be useful.

// have a few terms that I use to jog my scent and taste memory with respect to wines. Herbaceous (like Indian gooseberry, or amla), jammy (best described by a Tamil phrase, kozha-kozha) and minerally (like drinking water from a copper pot), among others.

But minerally too is a description that has come under attack. In an article published in the Australian Journal Of Grape And Wine Research in June 2013, titled “Exploring Minerality Of Burgundy Chardonnay Wines”, three scientists from the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon, France, studied how “wine experts conceptualize minerality and to explore whether they can judge wine minerality in a consensual way.” They concluded, “Wine experts showed strong disagreement in their minerality judgements…”

So if nobody agrees on anything, what are we to do? Are words superfluous in the wine universe? How can we convey the pleasures of a particular bottle of wine?

One sommelier quoted in Bianca Bosker’s 29 June article in The New Yorker, “Is There A Better Way To Talk About Wine?”, describes a Barolo as tasting like a “male ballet dancer”; a “Baryshnikov in a glass”, as the writer says.

If you open this door, India has oodles of poetic descriptions to fit our wines. The proverbial Elizabeth aunty, whose home-made wines are famous all over Kottayam, could describe a Malbec as having the “balance and spikiness of very good Navara (or, more correctly, Njavara rice”. Debashish babu of Kolkata could describe a particular Cabernet Sauvignon as “flabby—like the Brahmaputra in spate”. Or you could sip a Chenin blanc and say, “Insipid, like Aunty Maria’s pork vindaloo.”

We Indians have tasted wines for over 5,000 years. According to K.T. Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion, Sita promised to pour 1,000 jars of wine into the river Ganga in the hope of safe passage back when their exile ended. When they returned, Ram gave her maireya, a spiced wine (a ghastly concoction according to me). Their entire city was reeling with drunken orgies. Presumably, a few of the citizens described the wines that they tasted to their neighbours.

We need to reach into our history, heritage and local vocabulary to describe wines in a way that resonates and makes sense to us. Goa, with its prodigious practice in the art of living, would be a good place to start.

This is the second in a two-part series on wine tasting. Shoba Narayan didn’t know that Kinvah, a local wine brand, was named after a festive drink in the Mauryan era. She tweets at @shobanarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Can wine be described well?

Lots of nice wine tastings coming up in Bangalore.  One with Food Lover’s Magazine.

How best can you describe a wine?


KRSMA Estates has invited me to a tasting of their wines next week, and frankly, I am a little nonplussed. Not because I dislike their wines, which I don’t, but because there is this whole brouhaha in wine circles over the esoteric terms and pretentiousness of wine descriptions. You know the kind I mean? Descriptions that attempt to illuminate the wine-drinking experience by stating that one of your favourite Rhône reds tastes like a mixture of tar, wet leather and the inside of a man’s shoes (notice the specificity—not the insides of a woman’s shoes, but the more robust, stinkier version that comes from the male chromosome). And this is supposed to entice you?

Robert M. Parker, the influential American wine critic, is often considered the originator of these long, often meaningless descriptions. He once described a Haut-Brion as having “a sweet nose of creosote, asphalt…” and an array of berries. Having never tasted asphalt, and having no idea what a creosote is, this description is absolutely useless to me.

Actually, the credit—or discredit—for wine descriptions does not go to Parker. It goes to Ann C. Noble, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, whose famed department of viticulture and enology offers short wine appreciation courses that are on my bucket list.

It was Noble who came up with an “aroma wheel” to describe the flavours of wine. Ironically, she invented it to streamline things in the wine world; to bring some order into the way wines were described; to give a methodology that would simplify, not complicate things. Look at how that turned out.

Today, there is a reverse trend: wine professionals trying to puncture the opaqueness of wine descriptions. The American Association of Wine Economists has “waged a nearly decade-long crusade against overwrought and unreliable flavor descriptions”, as illustrated in a recent article in The New Yorker by Bianca Bosker titled, “Is There A Better Way To Talk About Wine?” The article quoted several sources, including the Journal Of Wine Economics, which stated that the wine industry was “intrinsically bullshit-prone”. No surprise there as anyone who is caught standing next to a swish-and-sip bore at a party can relate to this.

Some wine descriptions make sense. You drink enough Australian Shiraz and you will learn to identify the thick, viscous, fruity taste that is often described as “jammy” by aficionados. The same grape varietal, when grown in France, does not have this taste, but I have never had the pleasure of drinking an Hermitage Syrah to be absolutely certain of this.

For me, “minerally” wines are easy to identify. They taste pretty much like the water I drink first thing in the morning. A year ago, a well-meaning aunt gifted me a copper lota and told me to drink from it. It would change my life, she said. For the record, it hasn’t. But I continue to drink from copper and brass containers anyway.

My aunt’s recipe for drinking water could give a minerally wine a run for its money. She stores the water in a mud pot, pours it into her copper lota to steep overnight, downs it first thing in the morning in one shot and then proceeds to vomit. I have tried the first part of this experiment, and, I have to admit, the water tastes of copper, mud and some unidentified metal flavour that could be categorized as “minerally”. It tastes, in other words, like the Chablis wines I love.

Some descriptions just don’t make sense to me. What does “flinty” taste like? Do you have to lick a rock to figure out flinty? Some try to be overly helpful by listing a wide range of berries that the wine is supposed to taste like. Having never tasted a linden berry or even a raspberry in its natural, just-picked state, my palate has no clue how to process this information.

Which is why I was glad to see wine guru Jancis Robinson describe the 2005 vintage of Burgundy reds as “surly and tough” early in their lives. Surly, I can relate to. Surly is how we pucker up when we taste some tight reds that have been stored for far too long in state warehouses—although people call that tannic as well.

When I choose a wine, particularly if I want to impress someone, I don’t go by the description. I usually pick one with a long French name—the more syllables the better. Château de la Tour, Château Tertre Roteboeuf, Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes, Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Domaine Georges Roumier—winners all, and ones that I aspire to drink after I win the lottery. Château Palmer is highly rated, but it is too easy to pronounce; it could use a few more syllables that cause your tongue to coil itself into asanas. It sounds like an American winery aspiring to be French.

The same applies to Indian vineyards that pretend to be European. York and Reveilo make decent wines, but isn’t it about time they lost the European wannabe nature of their names? The same goes for Fratelli and its highly regarded wines. Why not choose something like Akluj, the town in Maharashtra where the winery is based, which even non-Indians can pronounce easily and which references their terroir in that most French of ways? The Indian wine consumer is evolved enough not to need such pretensions. Particularly when we can come up with authentically Indian names such as Mandala, Grover’s, Deva, or my current favourite, Sula’s Rasa Shiraz—now, that’s a name. Contrast that with Chateau d’Ori, sans provenance or soul. Give me Dindori anyday.

This is the first of a two-part series on wine tasting. Shoba Narayan loves the name Amrut even though she isn’t a single malt buff. She tweets at @shobanarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Gifts 2014

This could have easily been a photo feature.

The best gifting ideas from 2014

A list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear for Christmas
Shoba Narayan

It is just before Christmas. You are probably in the throes of figuring out what to buy for family, friends and co-workers. Here is a list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear. The logic of choosing these objects was simply this: I saw them during the course of this past year and they stuck in my head—because they are unique, innovatively designed, and beautiful.

Perrin Paris: Glove Clutch Eiffel How many of us wrap our hands around a clutch? Now imagine if we could slip our hands into a glove-clutch. I saw this on Instagram and wanted it instantly. The Perrin Paris glove clutch has turned the hand into an ornament. Prices start at $1,850 (around Rs.1.17 lakh).
The Perrin Paris glove clutch;

Sophie Hulme box tote in raspberry Because it has cute animal eyes on it. At $700 a bag, it is reasonably priced compared to what you have to shell out for, say, Dior’s stunning Be Dior Flap bag, which costs about $4,400; or LVMH’s Capucines bag, without the littered logo thankfully, that costs $5,600.


Dibbern China, Black Forest pattern, designed by Bodo Sperlein Dibbern China by Bodo Sperlein I saw this collection at the home of a woman who is part of my book club. It has haunted me since. Of course, at €28 (around Rs.2,200) a teacup, it is likely to remain in my dreams. But what a collection! German precision mixed with Japanese minimalism and a bit of Fornasetti’s whimsy.


Lee Broom’s light bulbs Cut lead crystal bulbs by Lee Broom I saw these light bulbs in a magazine and loved them. They are made of cut lead crystal and the beauty is that you can do away with those ugly lamp shades that we use to hide incandescent bulbs at homes. These are perfect for India because all you need to clean is just the bulb itself. I thought they were made by designer Tom Dixon, but they are not. I discovered the name of the designer by typing in “crystal light bulbs” on the Internet. Lee Broom, take a bow. They are priced at £109 (around Rs.10,900) each.


Akris I don’t own anything by Akris. I don’t know anyone who wears Akris. Actually, not true. I know of a Baltimore, US, based CEO of an Indian pharma company who wears Akris. But I wish I lived in colder climes so I could wear their winter coats. Their summer line doesn’t bust my cockles, but fittingly for a Swiss company, they know their wool. Just buy one of their wool coats and you can very well wear rags inside. You won’t take off the coat and nobody will have eyes for anything else.


Fountain pens I love fountain pens. I own a Ratnam pen, a Lamy and a Parker Sonnet, all gifts. Were I to buy one, I would buy the Monteverde, because it is black, sleek and costs Rs.5,600 at William Penn—a far cry from the Rs.100 Camlin pen I used to write with but cheaper than the cult retractable Pilot fountain pen which retails at around Rs.12,000 on

Champ de Rêves pinot noir 2011 A bottle of Champ de Reves pinot noir 2011 I bought this at a wine store in Washington, DC because the winemaker had signed it. At $45 for a bottle, it is a luscious aromatic wine, particularly if you are one of those who was charmed by that famous monologue in the film, Sideways, about the “haunting” primitive beauty of a good pinot. This winery makes only one type of wine—pinot noir—and they make it well. Eric Johannsen, I have a bottle signed by you and it’s a keeper.

F Pettinaroli, Milano If I lived in Europe I would be writing these words on Pettinaroli’s papers. I tried ordering their Mignon organizers online and had a devil of a time. I satisfied myself with a Moleskine and our own Rubberband Paint Box series notebooks instead. and

Javadhu-scented powder I bought this powder at the Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Kumbakonam. It is made in a small town called Mukkudal in Tamil Nadu. It retails in colourfully packaged 5g bottles for the magnificent sum of Rs.55 each. If you are done with khus, vetiver and rose, try javadhu.


Coloured gems and jewellery The Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring Bulgari, Graff, Van Cleef & Arpels, you name it. They are selling jewellery that would match the jewel tones of our Kanjeevarams and Banarasi weaves nicely. Maybe start with a Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring.



Happy shopping!

Shoba Narayan plans to buy a lovely teapot this Christmas season. Suggestions are welcome. Write to her at

Wine glasses

How to balance multiple readerships is my challenge.
Wine one week; heritage conservation, the next; and wildlife, the third. How to make wine glasses palatable for the activist so that they don’t dismiss it as frou-frou?
I often think of narrowing down my writing to one topic. Just can’t figure out which one will sustain my interest.

In search of the perfect wine glass

A goblet being gilded at a unit of Baccarat in Nancy, France. Photo: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP

Read more at:

Anyone who has stayed in a hostel has a resource-constrained mindset towards food. I don’t care which college you went to. Standing in line and waiting for a finite amount of food does something to your psyche. It makes you think of food, not as a pleasure to be had, but as a resource to be grabbed. It has taken me several decades to get out of this mindset.
I write this as I drink a 2011 Chateau de Fontenille from a wine goblet with a curvy bottom that is shaped like Jennifer Lopez’s—there is no other way to say this—flight path if she were sitting on a boomerang. The wine is golden in colour and goes straight down—like the Congress party. It is available in Bengaluru for about `2,000 and is a blend of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris, muscadelle and semillon.
The best part of this wine is that the grassy acidity of sauvignon blanc is hidden, or at least balanced, by the other grapes. I have not had a sauvignon blanc that I like in years. Friends have been raving about Charosa’s version but I haven’t tried enough of their wines to agree. I don’t like sauvignon blanc’s herbaceousness. If I want that taste, I’d rather eat ajwain (carom seeds).
The wine is from the lesser-known area of Entre-Deux-Mers, between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers in France. I have a case and enjoy it with the manchego cheese that my friend, Phyllis, brings for me from the Whole Foods Market in New York.
The main point of this passage is not the wine but the fact that I am drinking it from a glass that I love. As a college student, if you had told me that people would pay good money for dishes from Rosenthal, Noritake, Villeroy & Boch, and Versace, I would have sputtered out the hot hostel bondas that were served on greasy, grainy stainless steel plates with a side order of a scowl.
Behavioural economics has shown that the environment in which you eat matters just as much as what you eat. A study conducted by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab enlisted an actress who would wear a fat suit and dine with fellow students. The study discovered that people do eat more when they are with heavier people. Moral of the story: When you go out to eat, sit with a thin friend.
Does drinking wine from a pretty glass make the wine taste better? I was about to find out.
My wine glasses are in a state of flux. As newly-weds, we bought Baccarat crystal glasses, which got destroyed on one memorable evening when my husband and I threw them at the wall to… check if they would bounce. When the children were little, we bought pewter glasses from Royal Selangor in Malaysia. They look like Roman amphora now, after many washes in the dishwasher. This year I decided to get a whole new set that fulfilled a specific criteria: They had to look good and feel good; and not be so expensive that I would un-friend those friends who broke my wine glasses. That meant removing Bottega del Vino, Schott Zwiesel and Spiegelau from the list; not that they are easy to get in India.
The glasses I bought are by a Thai brand called Lucaris. I bought a set of six at HomeStop for under `4,000. The wine glasses from the “Tokyo Collection” are expansive—not expensive. They are better than Riedel which, in my view, has become an overexposed brand. When you can walk into a Macy’s at Tyson’s Corner Center mall in the Washington, DC area, or at 1MG Road in Bengaluru, and buy Riedel glasses for 50% off, then you know that the brand, which once marketed itself as exclusive, is actually not.
I know wine tumblers are all the rage, but I think they were designed with breakage in mind rather than the beauty of the glass itself. A tumbler doesn’t give me the feeling that I am drinking wine. It’s like drinking filter coffee in a cup. It may serve the purpose but it just ain’t right.
Being south Indian, I’m not as finicky about chai. I know that it perhaps tastes better in a kulhar, but I like drinking my green or masala tea in thin, clinking China cups, with a pretty glass teapot that has an infuser in the middle so that you can see the beautiful tea liquor turn golden. Pour the tea into a glass cup the way the plantation folk do it and you can enjoy your tea in a way that “Nair, single tea,” will never equal.
I have gone from being a utilitarian diner to a finicky one, especially as far as the serving ware is concerned. It had to happen of course. I grew up eating on banana leaves where you had to build dams out of white rice to protect the rasam from running over. There is a charm in that. But there is nothing wrong with the plates that Thomas Keller has designed (I think the Taj group has them in its New Delhi restaurant), pretty linen napkins, sleek cutlery or silverware as the Americans would have it; and wine goblets that curve like a certain part of the anatomy.

Shoba Narayan drinks Kusmi tea from a translucent teapot. Write to her at

KRSMA and Champ de Reves

My policy towards free stuff pretty much echoes my editors.  As far as travel goes, some magazines allow me to take free travel. The Taj group for instance, will email and say, let us send you here “just to experience.”  Of course, there is no free lunch and the assumption is that you will write about it for someone. I hate these golden handcuffs.  These days, I only take free trips if an editor assigns an article on the destination.  Otherwise, it is a waste of time.

Same with wine.  Indian wine-makers like to send free cases to whoever they believe will help influence.  The thing is that it is not THAT expensive to buy a bottle, so then I think, “Do I want to be beholden to these people?” and usually it is not worth it.

So it was with KRSMA.  Their marketing person, Sneha, emailed me saying that they wanted me to taste their wine.  Since I had already bought and tasted their wines, I didn’t reply.  Then, the founder, Krishna Prasad Chigurupati wrote.  Now, this is a guy, who has run marathons in every continent (along with his wife, Uma).  So I am sorta in awe of them.  I have never met them or spoken to them by phone even.  But Mint Lounge did a story about them, which is how I know about the marathon thing.  To combine wine, a pharmaceutical business, and marathons takes some doing and these guys are “punting at a high level,” as someone I know (NR) would say, so I didn’t know what to do.  Take my wine, says this guy Krishna.  I’ll buy it, says I.  Please send us your address, says he.  I don’t reply for ages.  Bottom line: I got this wine for free and I am sort of upset about it because it reflects all the issues I have about the food and beverage industry on so many levels: about objectivity in reviewing when the publication doesn’t have the money to review; and whether reviews actually work in terms of what they are supposed to do.


So I got a few KRSMA wines some months ago, and I have been trying them. Here is the good stuff. I believe that KRSMA is in it for the long haul and I believe that they have the means, the passion, and the know-how to make good wine. By that I mean that this couple has travelled and tasted the best; they have high standards; and while it is a commercial venture, they are after the glory as well. They are a class act and they won’t skimp or nickle and dime. Here is a photo of the founders.

Are their wines good? Comme ci comme ça. I haven’t had a good sauvignon blanc in ages, and I liked theirs. I think part of the trick with wines is figuring out what you like. I like karela and grapefruit and so I like bitter stuff: Gruner Veltliner is a favorite wine. KRSMA’s sauvignon blanc had that tinge of karela/grapefruit complexity with a hint of bitterness that I like. I also don’t like oaked chardonnays and theirs is unoaked. I don’t like high alcohol wines and all their wines are under 14% alcohol even the reds. I don’t like their reds as much as I do their whites, but that is an India problem. In my view, it is hard to make decent reds in India.

I had a great red recently. I got it in DC with an autograph from the winemaker. It wasn’t that expensive: under $100, but man, the aroma. Better than the last Burgundy pinot I tried. The bottle had an autograph from “Eric,” and I am keeping it.


Indian Wine

The wine club that I belong to is informal and wonderful. We meet, drink good wine and talk about life.
Below is a wine we drank recently.


Just kidding. That was a gift from my wine-collector brother-in-law. At the Oberoi Bangalore, we tried this and it was amazing.

The route to Napa is through Nashik
Making a case for encouraging domestic production and consumption of wine in India
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I am on the phone with Xavier de Eizaguirre, whose name is less consonant-ridden and hard to pronounce than a self-respecting south Indian name (Venkataramanan, for instance). Eizaguirre is the chairman of Vinexpo, a trade fair for the wine and spirits industry. He is in Mumbai to drum up support for Vinexpo Asia-Pacific 2014, which is to be held in Hong Kong from 27-29 May.
As someone who drinks wine in the fond hope that its tannins will make my complexion look as radiant as Catherine Deneuve or at least Charlie Chaplin, I am as good a candidate as any for a discussion on wine.
So why is Eizaguirre here? After all Indians drink abysmally low quantities of wine. We probably drink more Woodward’s Gripe water or Safi blood purifier. The answer lies in the numbers. According to a new survey commissioned by Vinexpo, Asia is where the markets are.
Though we drink very little wine compared to China, the growth in still and sparkling wine expected in India between 2008 and 2017 is a whopping 68%. We are still low on the totem pole, below Thailand, the Philippines and even Vietnam in terms of quantity, but we are expected to make the biggest gains. The top 10 wine-consuming countries are the US, France, Italy, Germany, China, UK, Argentina, Russia, Spain and Australia. Going forward, wine consumption in most of these countries is expected to stay the same or fall a little. Only the US, and to a much greater degree China, are expected to substantially increase the amount of wine that they imbibe.
India starts from a low base but we have a young population that is discovering new lifestyles. Even though there is huge debate and disagreement about whether our spicy cuisine goes well with wine, it has become more a matter of managing our cuisine and wine pairings, rather than doing away with one or the other. Indians have discovered wine, no doubt about it. Some say fruity white wines pair well with our spicy food while others say we need big bold reds to stand up to the spicy heat of our food.
The Indian wine market is probably where the US was 40 years ago and where China was a mere 15 years ago. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Napa Valley was still farmland, and Americans were drinking jug wine. Today they produce 350 million cases. In three decades, they have become one of the top five players. Local wineries have increased not only the production of wine but also the consumption of wine.
China’s story is a little different. The Chinese market didn’t involve moving from jug wine to Bordeaux and Burgundy. They went straight for the jugular as it were, finding and buying the finest vintages and driving up prices in the process. China consumed over 155 million 9-litre cases of red wine in 2013, a figure nobody would have dreamt of in 2008. From 2008-12, Chinese consumption of still wine went up 136.8%. Compared with that, the expected growth there from 2013-17, of 33.8% (for still and sparkling wine) and 33.17% (for red wine), is paltry.
This is why India is interesting. The question is whether it will follow the US or China model. The US treats wine the way Indians treat jewellery. We are savvy consumers of jewellery, buying it for personal use and enjoyment; and yes, to show off during weddings. China treats wine like a branded good—an Hermès bag, for instance—something to buy for effect and to impress; to show off. My hope is that we will follow the US model.
The best way would be to encourage domestic production and consumption, according to Kripal Amanna, publisher of the Food Lovers magazine; an assessment I agree with. For us, the route to Napa is through Nashik. Or Bangalore. If local wineries thrive, more Indians will drink wine.
Some part of it has to do with pricing. Indian wineries are selling products at ridiculously high prices. “The monthly Indian per capita income stands at $85 (around Rs.5,100). An average wine bottle costs between 12-16% of this,” says Amanna. This worsens when you move from retail to F&B establishment. “And therefore, most Indians find their spiritual solace in other beverages.”
It is in everyone’s interest for the prices to come down. Only when the Americans began drinking $10 wines did they develop a palate and then buy more expensive bottles. Pricing an Indian wine at Rs.750 and above makes little sense if you want to build a market. The sad part is the government policy views low-alcohol wine as a luxury product with equivalent taxes while high-alcohol toddy is not accorded the same stifling penalty.
Wine clubs are proliferating all over India. The time is ripe for local producers to capture and grow this interest. An informal club I belong to served some nice white wines recently: an aromatic white from Château de Fontenille and a 2008 Aussières Blanc Chardonnay from Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). The members of this club travel frequently and bring back wines. They do give Indian wines a try but prefer to pay two-three times more for wines of guaranteed quality. They are the market.

Shoba Narayan is willing to lobby for lower prices for Indian wines.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
Comment E-mail Print 39 First Published: Sat, Apr 05 2014. 12 17 AM IST

Music, Wine, Stories

Listening to Ann Patchett’s “storytelling” interview on Fresh Air with Teri Gross. Doing a storytelling lecture for a friend’s firm in a couple of weeks so prepping. Listening to Flamenco mixed with Bhimsen Joshi’s Mian ki Malhar on iTunes Radio– available in India, who would have thought? Drinking a fresh New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and an equally good Indian sauvignon blanc by KRSMA wines– again, who would have thought the day would come to compare these wines?

Reading “A life in three octaves– the musical journey of Gangubai Hangal.” Which has made me interested in Veena Dhanammal. These were ‘devadasi” women or courtesans who advanced and advocated music. Women of substance. Sitting across my Malu studying physics for her exams. She has just switched my iPhone docked in Bose to Hindi music.

The music program with Chitra went off well. Youtube clip here.

We hope to take this gig on the road!!

Sparkling wine

I wanted to meet two sisters in the food and wine business. Their elderflower juice was so aromatic.

Wines, economy and culture preservation
What kind of wines would you put together for an office party?
Shoba Narayan Mail Me
Wines, economy and culture preservation
Juliette (right) and Marie Mommousseau were in Bangalore recently. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
A reader wants to know: What kind of wines would you put together for an office party, assuming a budget of Rs.2,000 per bottle?
I put this question to Juliette Monmousseau, deputy managing director of the United Spirits owned Bouvet Ladubay.
Predictably, she says, “I would use Rs.1,850 to buy a bottle of Bouvet Ladubay Brut and use the leftover Rs.150 to buy a CD of Ram-Leela the movie.”
I am with Monmousseau, her chef-sister Marie, and Abhay Kewadkar, head of the wine business of United Spirits Ltd. It is 4pm at the ITC Gardenia, Bangalore. Later that evening, the Monmousseau sisters will showcase their sparkling wines at a special dinner. Chef Marie has smuggled a black truffle the size of a sweet lime to shave on top of one of her salads. It smells of earth and pig.
We discuss the number of Indian brands that are coming out with sparkling wines. Sula launched three new sparkling wines two months ago.
“Your wines are overpriced,” I tell Kewadkar. “Chandon retails for Rs.1,200; Fratelli at Rs.995 and Sula at Rs.1,075.”
“Those are Bombay prices,” Kewadkar shoots back. “In Bangalore, each of those bottles will cost a few hundred rupees more because of taxes. Plus, those are all locally grown and bottled wines. Ours are Loire Valley wines, in hand at Rs.1,850.”
Kewadkar is an old Bangalore hand. He began as a winemaker with Grover wines (Grover Zampa Vineyards) and has now morphed into a steely-eyed winemaker-businessman with his eye on the bottom line. He speaks about European wines in an earthy Maharashtrian accent and as a result, doesn’t come across as pretentious. I like Kewadkar, even though I don’t care much for the Four Seasons brand that he manages. If you asked why, I would be hard-pressed to come up with a reason. The wines are decent, but somehow I don’t like the packaging design, and the fact that the name has no connection with India. Newer brands like Mandala, Big Banyan and Deva are more confident in their branding approach. Their names allude to India. Four Seasons dumbs down its wines, if that makes sense.
Bouvet Ladubay’s sparkling wine is good. Chef Marie brings out her walnut oil and a fragrant elderflower juice that she will use to prepare her dinner. The two sisters and their father, Patrice, manage the brand, even though Vijay Mallya owns it: something that isn’t widely advertised in the European press. “…though no longer owned by the family, is still operated and managed by the fourth generation of Monmousseau family,” is how a typical press report is phrased. The French don’t like us Indians and Chinese buying up their brands. I can relate. The Goans don’t like the Russians taking over coastal Goa.
Later that evening, I attend a scintillating discussion with Arvind Panagariya on his book, Why Growth Matters (co-authored with Jagdish Bhagwati), which recently made the Financial Times Books of the Year 2013 list. It is a heated, heartfelt discussion by a group of optimists who care about India. There are the lefties like me who don’t completely buy into the “economic reform above all” approach; who question whether it is inclusive enough. There are others—bankers, CEOs and entrepreneurs—who believe that the growth model is the best solution for poverty alleviation. Over bottles of excellent wine, we argue into the night.
The discussion—as always—turns to China and how it has lifted millions out of poverty through its growth-oriented approach. Yes, but China has lost a lot in the process, I argue. It has divested the scholarliness that once permeated its culture—one that is beautifully described in Bette Bao Lord’s book, Spring Moon. China’s hurtling growth has swallowed the gentler arts like calligraphy, degraded its environment, and most importantly, squandered its culture. China was once the mother lode of all the arts that travelled to Korea and then ended in Japan. Ceramics, calligraphy, watercolour paintings, and pretty much every refined art form that we laud in Japan originated in China. But these are not the things the world associates with the country any more. How to put a price on what has been lost? How to balance growth with culture and indigenous arts?
There are a few cultures that have achieved this. The Japanese model has been sequential. When Japan was a basket case, nobody knew about its culture. Once the economy started ascending, everyone wanted a piece of the culture. I recall Harvard Business School students studying Japanese in the 1980s and 1990s as a way to access the culture. Once Japan’s economy triumphed, the world paid attention to its arts. China is at the stage where the world knows its economy but little about its arts. Indeed, the long lines of Chinese who worship at the altar of Louis Vuitton seem to care little about their own culture. If it follows Japan’s sequential model, a focus on culture will follow the growth of the economy.
Other countries—those in Scandinavia in particular—take the concomitant approach where they preserve their culture while growing their economy. France—more than any other country—has managed to preserve its culture and arts and keep them relevant with its changing economy. It has—to put it crudely—managed to monetize its culture and therefore preserve it in a changing economy. Wouldn’t that be a good model for India to follow? Economists will question France’s taxation policies and lack of reforms, but France is still the mecca for anyone interested in fashion, perfume, arts, jewellery, watches and wine.
Perhaps Bouvet Ladubay should present its wines to Indian economists such as Panagariya to to prod them to ponder on whether economic growth and culture-preservation can happen concomitantly. Then again, Panagariya is a teetotaler.

Shoba Narayan is listening to J’ai Deux Amours by Dee Dee Bridgewater to accompany her sparkling wine.