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 thegoodlife@livemint.com

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 thegoodlife@livemint.com

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.

//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.jsI 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 thegoodlife@livemint.com

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?

wine-kHdC--621x414@LiveMint

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 thegoodlife@livemint.com

Spirits of India

Cocktails have an intrinsic problem. Unless they are well made/well balanced, they are too sweet for my taste.

MISSING THE INDIAN SPIRIT
By
Shoba Narayan
chai--621x414

Korea has soju; Japan has sake; America has bourbon; Mexico has tequila and mezcal; Germany has schnapps; Scandinavia has aquavit; France has wine; Greece has ouzo; Britain has beer; Portugal has port; Spain has sherry; Turkey has raki; Brazil has cachaça; Peru has pisco; Scotland has Scotch; and India has…what? Chai? Horlicks? At a time when national spirit is high, shouldn’t we consider a signature spirit as well?
The strongest contender in this area is feni, says Vikram Achanta, co-founder of Tulleeho.com, a beverage education and consultant company. “But feni is still to rise above a state-level curiosity and shed its tag of being a country liquor,” he says.
If Goa, the land of the good life, has not been able to market its tipple, where do mahua, chandrahaas and handiya, the fermented spirit of Jharkhand, stand? And really, it is these local tribal distillations that ought to be our starting point.
In the luxury world, three things are revered above all: revenue, brand identity, and provenance. Indian tribes have been distilling spirits for as long as the Scots have—look where they are with their single malts and look where we are with our local liquors, the names of which even we Indians cannot pronounce.
All is not lost. Things can turn around faster than you can down a gin and tonic which, by the way, was invented in India.
Take tequila, for instance. Fifty years ago, it was a nonsense drink: pungent, unrefined, highly alcoholic. The Mexican government, in its wisdom, decided to throw its weight behind marketing tequila. Enter lime and salt; and a hop, skip and jump to frozen margaritas and tequila shots. Before you knew it, tequila had become a party drink. “Now, tequila has taken the luxury route with 100% agave and boutique producers,” says Yangdup Lama, co-founder of Cocktails & Dreams, a bar and beverage consultancy company in Gurgaon.
Local liqueurs are something that Man Singh, owner of Jaipur’s Narain Niwas Palace and Castle Kanota, knows something about. His family recipe for chandrahaas contains 76 ingredients, including saffron, rose and anise. Rajasthani liqueurs contain herbs, dry fruits and flowers. They taste good and are perfect after a meaty meal of lal maas or safed maas. They haven’t crossed borders though and remain with the home or palace, made in small batches with recipes zealously guarded.
Italy does the same thing with limoncello, except that they market the heck out of it. The fact that a particular limoncello is made using a family recipe is used as a virtue. With the variety of tropical fruits that we have, with our penchant for mixing spices and our heritage for distilling drinks, you would think that at least one of these liqueurs would have made it big.
Part of the reason is that we—country and government—are deeply ambivalent about promoting alcohol. On the one hand, prohibition does not work. Yet, on the other, should we actively encourage drinking? One place to begin would be the North-East and Himalayan states where tribals distil spirits anyway. Just as non-governmental organizations and the government promote small-scale, village-based industries and crafts, says Lama, why not encourage handcrafted spirits in a controlled and refined fashion? Instead, we import and pay premium prices for beer, wine and spirits that are produced in small batches in Europe.
The only area where local players have jumped in is wine. Here too, we are planting imported species of grapevines, be they Sangiovese, Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. Our wine industry is basically a copycat business where consultants and grapevines are brought in from abroad. Still, it begs the question: Why isn’t there a KRSMA, Fratelli or Sula type player in the spirits space?
Amrut Distilleries has done great work with its Amrut brand of single malt and there are now me-too players like Paul John and, to some extent, Tilaknagar Distilleries. What we lack are the mavericks and lone rangers who chase a spirit just because; who distil or die as it were.
Desmond Nazareth is a candidate. His 100% agave and 51% margarita mixes are produced in Andhra Pradesh and bottled in Goa under the brand name Desmondji. It is a start even if isn’t original or, for that matter, Indian. Offering greater hope is Desmondji’s orange liqueur that uses Indian sugar cane and Nagpur oranges.
None of these—Indian spirits or liqueurs—are marketing to the luxury market that is waiting to be tapped. Indians have travelled everywhere and tried out artisanal spirits, beers and wines. This consumer confidence can translate to sales of locally distilled quality spirits if there is a player with imagination and staying power. In these compressed time cycles, what took Scotland several centuries and Mexico 50 years to achieve with their national spirits can happen in India in a mere 10 years—witness the burgeoning Indian wine industry.
Or can it?
Bangalore-based drinks consultant Heemanshu Ashar believes that the Indian market is not ready. “Chasing one national drink is a pipe dream,” he says. “If even the chai we drink is prepared differently in different regions, how can we be united by one drink? We are a nation of choices—multiple choices—so let’s rejoice in that.”
Only a Rajput riding across the horizon with his chandrahaas, or a Himalayan distiller carrying his home-made spirit in a flask, can change this scenario. I am hopeful.

Shoba Narayan likes her martini shaken and not stirred. With a side of olives. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

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.

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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.

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Wine Palate

Wine wisdom: figure out your palate

The problem with wine-talk is that unless you are in the company of oenophiles, no matter what you say, it sounds pretentious. You can blather on about the bouquet of a good Frescobaldi or the greatness of the 2009 vintage. For the average person you might as well be talking about Gaussian elimination or Markov chains. Terms like bouquet, finish, and terroir mean specific things to experts but are meaningless to the general population. In India, the problem is compounded by the fact that imported wines are stored and transported in shoddy conditions, turning conventional wisdom on its head. Red wines can end up too tannic and white wines too sweet or “baked” as some call it. In addition to figuring out what to drink, in India you have to figure out how to drink your wines.
Consider Chilean Merlot. Most people say that New World wines are young and ought to be drunk fairly quickly. Depends. Some merlots (or shirazes or insert your favourite grape) that are available in India are too raw, too unbalanced. They have to settle down before you can drink them. My brother opens the bottle and puts it in the fridge for a day before actually drinking the wine. My solution has been to decant it for 3 hours; pouring it back into the bottle, and drinking a glass or two the following day, after it has calmed down. Perhaps it is the way these wines are transported and stored, or perhaps it is simply my palate.

Palate is a term that sounds pompous but really isn’t. In fact, it is the simplest way by which you can decide what wines you like. Some of it is logic and some of it is just you. Being vegetarian, my taste veers towards aromatic, dry and off-dry, cool-climate wines. Low alcohol content (under 12%) is nice to have but not always possible, particularly in New World wines. After trying out several, these are my current picks. Bodega Colomé Torrontés, Viogniers (Sula and Four Seasons), Riesling (German or Alsace), Vouvray (Loire Valley), and Pinot Gris (Navarro Vineyards of Mendocino if you can get them). These in my view go well with light vegetarian food. I used to like Gewurztraminer but haven’t had a decent one lately. I think Chardonnays are “blah”, and I haven’t met a Sancerre I haven’t liked, perhaps because its alcohol content hovers around 10%.

The opposite too must be true. If you relish a heavy juicy steak or a rich complex biryani, I imagine that your palate veers towards heavy-bodied French, Italian and Spanish wines made from grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tempranillo.

Tolerance for bitterness is an underrated aspect of your palate. If you are one of those who can tolerate karela or bitter gourd and revels in 85% dark chocolate, then it opens up a whole range of wines that have a tinge of bitterness. Italian reds are a start. I drank a wonderful Amarone at a dinner at the ITC Grand Chola’s Italian restaurant in Chennai. It was high in alcohol (14%) but deliciously bitter. Wine wisdom says this bitter tinge is due to the phenols in wines and otherwise moderate people have devoted reams of prose supported by chemical equations to describe exactly why wine becomes bitter (and they say this as if it is a good thing). Most people describe Cabernet as bitter but the Sauvignon rounds it off. Another quixotic phrase is “minerally with hints of asphalt”, which is akin to saying that you are drinking concrete. Somehow, this is viewed as a positive by wine critic Robert Parker and his acolytes. A phrase and type of wine I like is “dry wine”. To me, this means that the wine is not sweet. Then again, I don’t have a sweet tooth and if I had to pick between gulab jamun and bhujia sev, the latter would win each time.

With these parameters, I have figured out my palate. I am a vegetarian who likes medium-dry aromatic wines and can tolerate bitterness. For me, Australian Rieslings, Austrian Grüner Veltliner, fino sherry, and Champagne hit the bullseye every time. Each palate has its quirk that goes against the grain. For me, it is Sauvignon Blanc.

When you tell people you are vegetarian, the first wine they will point you to is Sauvignon Blanc. I like my Sauvignon Blancs floral and aromatic. La Grille Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley was a recent favourite. It used to be available at the Mumbai-based Wine Society of India, a club for oenophiles. Australian and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are too herbaceous in character for me; too grassy; not aromatic enough. With the type of food I have at home—salads, and typical Indian fare—a medium-dry Riesling works really well. I am told that Rieslings from the Finger Lakes in New York, US, are quite wonderful, but they are hard to access in India. The Wine Kart, an online store, sells German Rieslings but they are mostly over Rs.3,000.

Given all these constraints, I have decided to turn to Indian wines. Enough of asking friends to shlepp wine over for you; enough of paying triple the price for a bottle of Yellow Tail that costs $5 (around Rs.315) at Walmart in the US. Home-grown wines may be the solution.
There are several wines that are being talked about in Bangalore. More about that—next week.

Shoba Narayan drinks Viognier and Brut with her adai and avial

Chateau Haut-Brion

How to sell old wine in new bottles

Indians like irreverent mavericks. We don’t know what to do with the too-polished ones
Shoba Narayan

Prince Robert was in Bangalore to showcase Château Haut-Brion. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.
Prince Robert of Luxembourg was in town the other day to suss out the Indian market and showcase the wines of his prestigious estate, Château Haut-Brion. A courtly, elegant man, he was perfectly polite as he talked about his wines and why India was important to them. “We have had more and more visitors to our estate from India,” he said. “It is the No. 3 country that ‘likes’ us on our Facebook page. Your cuisine is subtle and multilayered like our wines.”
Indian cuisine can be described in many ways but “subtle” is not the first adjective that comes to mind. Japanese cuisine is subtle. Indian cuisine is, well, sensual.
A stream of European vintners are coming through India; a pattern that will only increase as the search for the next big market after Japan and China intensifies. India is a logical choice. It has a young, aspirational population. There is a growing tier of well-travelled, global Indians who demand and consume premier crus and prestige cuvées as a matter of course. They have well-stocked cellars; bring back favoured bottles on annual trips to Europe; have never travelled on a Shatabdi train, or dined at a Moti Mahal. These are the consumers that luxury brands want to reach out to, typically over a private dinner.
The Leela Palace in Bangalore seems to be a favoured venue. At these tastings, brand ambassadors mingle with their guests; talk about their links to India and how they believe it is going to be an important market. There is only one issue: They all sound the same. It is as if one massive PR firm has given them all the same script.
Here is some advice for these fine wine ambassadors: Eschew European reserve and speak from the heart. Speak in lyrical poetry, not in numbers and prose. Don’t be afraid to reveal yourself, kinks and all. Indians like irreverent mavericks. We like a little gravel in our people. We don’t know what to do with the too-polished ones. Mumbaiyya English is a good primer into the way Indians talk and feel. If the mannerly Japanese are about form, if the practical Chinese are about function, Indians are about sentiment. Touch our hearts and you’ve got yourself a convert.
In the last couple of months, two legendary brands, Dom Pérignon and Château Haut-Brion, have held events catering to a small group of people. But here’s the thing. The small group of Indians who can buy a Dom Pérignon or an Haut-Brion will probably buy both. Or else, they will make choices for personal, quixotic reasons. One person may choose a Dom Pérignon because it complements light vegetarian food; because the 1998 Rose is mind-blowing; or because champagne can be sipped through the evening without getting a headache. Another may go for the Haut-Brion because it pairs beautifully with grilled meats; or because it is nuanced, layered and fills the mouth with aroma and flavour. The point is that neither of these brands needs to overtly sell to the Indians they invite to their events. They need to connect with this group in a way that is subtle yet authentic.
Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave for Dom Pérignon, came close in this aspect. Sure, he spouted the party line— “India is so spiritual; so soulful; so profound and layered.” But he was also assertive and unreserved in revealing his pride and vulnerabilities; his philosophies and failings. Maybe winemakers become like the wines they create.
“The 2003 (vintage) is very close to my heart because it was so challenging and risky. I had to grow up for it,” said Geoffroy. “Maybe I am a better person because of that vintage because there is a lot going on and yet you have to remain humble. I like the challenging vintages. Some of the most outstanding vintages for Dom Pérignon have been easy to create but to me, they are not meaningful.”
Vintners have a memory for climate. Mention 2003 and they will all say “scorching heat”. This then is why we pay unseemly sums of money for a bottle of their great vintages—because in the end, we are paying for the marriage of rain and soil; for the fickle muse that is the grapevine; for the earth’s bounties and vagaries; and because, when we sip a great vintage, it feels like we are sipping Mother Nature’s smile.
Prince Robert thinks in vintages; and in locations of wine stores. Mention Brookline, Massachusetts, US, and he can reel off a wine store in the area. His list of favourite vintages will make a wine-lover green with envy: 1945, 1959, 1961, 1975, 1978, 1982 and 1989.
I enjoyed Prince Robert’s company and his wines. But next time, I wish he would reveal to India the young backpacker he once was—the one who travelled through India and Nepal. Indians like people who are edgy and a little off: more Munnabhai than Maharaja. Dom Pérignon’s Geoffroy is hardly a Munnabhai but somehow he has managed to preserve his edge in spite of the rarefied echelons that he travels in.
As for his champagnes, I must admit bias. A recent milestone birthday in my family deposited a tonne of his bottles on my doorstep. They were exquisite.
When she cannot drink Dom Pérignon, Shoba Narayan drinks Cremant de Limoux Brut. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Master of Wine

I don’t know that I’ll ever become a Master of Wine (MW), but that is a pipe dream.  As a result, and in the interest of furthering my knowledge– yes, really– I’ve been sampling a lot of wines.  I thought the simplest thing would be to chronicle a series of blog posts on wine.

One of the objects I am coveting is a decanter.  I am not a fan of Reidel, mostly because I’ve broken their glasses.  But their decanters! Pure eye candy.

Check out this site for some of those witty and visually interesting ones.

My favorite: The Black tie, Swan, Amadeo, and Escargot.  See if you can guess which is which.

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Champagne

A piece about my favorite beverage.  I have been trying to write columns without using the letter “I” in it, as a kind of New Year resolution.  This was very hard with this piece because my instinct was to begin the piece by saying, “I love champagne.  I can drink it with lunch and at night.”  But I changed it to “What’s not to love?” in the third person.

The great bubbly paradox

How to choose your champagne and savour it
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First Published: Fri, Jan 18 2013. 06 07 PM IST
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The Dom Pérignon Power of Creation event in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Photo: Aneesh Bhasin

Can champagne come from California? That is the question that is causing a kerfuffle among certain circles in Washington, DC. In the menu for US President Barack Obama’s second inauguration on

21 January, alongside provenance-announcing dishes such as steamed lobster with New England clam chowder sauce and Hudson Valley apple pie, is a sparkling wine listed as “Korbel Natural, Special Inaugural Cuvée Champagne (California)”. The champagne lobby is “popping mad” while the American press want the French to “put a cork in it”.
It all bubbles up from punctuation. The champagne lobby wants the drink to be labelled California champagne instead of champagne (California). Champagne, they argue and rightly so, must come from Champagne, France.
This then is the great champagne paradox. People love it and yet, sometimes, they don’t know what to do with it. It is festive, bubbly, tingly and nothing signals a celebration like the popping of a cork. Warm day, alfresco lunch, jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery and a perfectly chilled brut champagne. What’s not to love? But here’s the thing: In blind tastings, the average consumer cannot differentiate between flutes of, say, Cristal, Ruinart or Dom Pérignon. Forget prestige cuvées.
Social scientists go to great lengths to prove that the average consumer cannot differentiate between, say, a Spanish Cava, a Lamberti Prosecco, and real champagne. Just google “champagne versus sparkling wine”, and you’ll see videos in which wine store owners prove—with much glee—that their consumers prefer a $10 (around Rs.550) sparkling wine to a $50 bottle of champagne. Seen in this light, the Obama transition team’s choice of an American bubbly can be rationalized. After all, they must have thought, bubbles are bubbles. Might as well pick an American one.
The trick for champagne brands is to distinguish themselves in this crowded field of 10,000-odd producers. So far, the top brands have done it through association and storytelling. They cash in on events such as Formula One and cultivate artists such as David Lynch and Jitish Kallat. The purist in me baulks at spraying sweaty drivers with champagne, but it must be a successful marketing strategy for GH Mumm.
Cristal chose to go the other way by refusing to associate with the rap star Jay-Z and his drawing power—something which requires spine or stupidity or both. Dom Pérignon throws amazing, over-the-top parties such as the one I would have loved to attend. A couple of years ago, Dom Pérignon took over Ferran Adrià’s restaurant, El Bulli, just before it closed for a private dinner with paired exquisite vintages. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and editors in New York still talk about it.
Other brands that don’t have the clout—or marketing budget—of Dom Pérignon associate themselves with events that further their story. Piper-Heidsieck, supposedly Marilyn Monroe’s favourite champagne, used to sponsor marine events. Krug sponsors high-end restaurant events, mostly in the US. Pommery—owned by the art-loving Vranken family—sponsors the Frieze Art Fair. Taittinger, a favourite of James Bond, sponsors—naturally—literary festivals connected to author Ian Fleming. Ruinart, the oldest champagne house, sponsors the cocktails at Pavilion of Art & Design (PAD) as well as antique fairs. And then there are the objects: designer accessories such as Marc Newson’s champagne cooler for Dom Pérignon; Nendo Studio’s Kotoli picnic basket for Ruinart; and Porsche Design’s stunning champagne cooler for Veuve Clicquot that stores 12 magnums in one sleek case.
India is a small market for champagne producers, but it is one that some are cultivating. Rajiv Singhal, the Indian ambassador for champagne, says India consumes the highest percentage of the high-value prestige cuvées in the world—10-15%; relative to champagne-crazy Japan, where it hovers around 8%. That said, only 40 brands have entered India; and of those, five brands drive 85% of the market. Moët & Chandon and Dom Pérignon lead the pack, followed by Veuve Clicquot, Krug, and Ruinart. Indians have—and only a wine person can say this without irony—“good drinking habits”, according to Singhal. “We drink a lot and we are regular, consistent and deep drinkers,” says Singhal. Add to that the desire for ostentation and the focus on conspicuous consumption, and you have a market that could, well, bubble over.
Played right, the Indian desire to splurge on weddings and birthdays could be a godsend for champagne brands. People in Delhi are still talking about a big-ticket birthday party in Udaipur given by a real estate mogul and about how bad the wine was.
Among the Bric countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, India consumes the least amount of champagne (about 300,000 bottles a year), while the other three have all hit one million bottles. In comparison, champagne’s largest export market, the UK, consumes 34 million bottles a year. That’s a steep curve. India is, to use marketing jargon, a nascent market.
How to play it is something that occupies the minds and budgets of the top brands. “Indians are a cynical bunch of people in many ways,” says Gaurav Bhatia, marketing director, Moët Hennessy India, which markets Dom Pérignon through small but over-the-top events. “Let’s face it. Only a few can afford a bottle that costs Rs.17,000. So our target audience is a few hundred Indian families.”
In a weird way, India’s high import taxes have made champagne one of the best deals in the fine wine category. You can get a decent champagne for around Rs.5,000 from a retail shop. And while whisky drinkers will not switch to champagne, wine aficionados can choose between the second wines of a Bordeaux first growth which will cost about Rs.9,000 and a basic champagne. If all else fails, you can try the Korbel and call it champagne; although the French will hate you for it.
Although Shoba Narayan likes Cristal and Ruinart because they are maverick and underdog, she’ll drink any vintage champagne with pleasure.