Building a culture
For a long time, India’s wine culture was non-existent and its wine could be best described as plonk. With names such as Golconda made from grapes such as Bangalore Blue, Indian wine basically took the enamel off your teeth. No wonder the country turned to whiskey, which for decades reigned supreme.
In 1984, a failed engineer named Shamrao Chougale began the somewhat pretentiously named Chateau Indage, and laid the foundation for India’s wine industry. Down south outside Bangalore, Kanwal Grover began Grover Zampa Vineyards in 1988. It is now the second-largest wine label in India, after Sula. Today there are more than 110 wine labels in India, mostly in Maharashtra and Karnataka.
“India, without question, is the El Dorado of the wine world thanks to a huge aspirational middle class that is fluent in English and therefore can read up about wine,” says distributor Sanjay Menon of Sonarys. “That said, given that a lot of people still consume alcohol as a pre-dinner piss-up, this thing of the host saying: ‘What will you drink, whiskey or wine?’ may still persist.”
Part of the problem is India’s crushing import duties which are 150 percent for wine and port. That may change soon, thanks to lobbying by industrial bodies, and Australia has gained first-mover advantage. Last April, India and Australia signed an agreement with a preferential tariff agreement for premium wines. No doubt the US, Europe and other nations will follow, now that India is negotiating trade agreements with these countries.
If import duties come down, then the wine floodgates will really open in India. As Shailendra Pai who owns boutique winery, Vallonné says: “From being an alcoholic beverage that was alien to us, wine has now become mainstream. At Vallonné, we often see families where people drink wine with their parents and grandparents. It’s heartening to see how a lot of elderly people are being introduced to wine by their middle-aged children or younger grandchildren. And we are increasingly seeing this in the past five years or so.”
Wine may be an old culture but it is – quixotically– a young person’s drink in India. People associate whiskey with the dads and granddads (still an all-male drinking culture in India), but perhaps the greatest change may come from an unexpected quarter: women. Says Krsma’s Chigurupati: “People used to buy wine for gifting, but now, with more women drinking, they prefer wine to whiskey.”