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Passion Drives India's Own Wine Advocate

Aakash Singh Rathore spent two years taking nerve-jangling rides on rural roads to discover some gems and plenty of warts in India's fledgling wine industry. Sourish Bhattacharyya meets the writer of the no-holds-barred guide to Indian wines.

For a nation with a per capita consumption of a teaspoon of wine a year, we have more wine writers than wine labels.

In this crowd of pretenders, freeloaders and some serious amateurs, Aakash Singh Rathore stands apart. He's different because he has taken the pains to study vine cultivation and wine making, even as he was reading philosophy and the law at the Michigan State University . He assisted his philosophy professor, who taught the world's only course on the philosophy of wine, to update his acclaimed guide to the Rhone Valley , the famous French wine region.

Thereafter, he travelled across Europe , teaching during the day, writing his doctoral dissertation in Belgium , finding a soulmate while studying German at the Goethe Institute in Berlin, quaffing a different wine every evening for ten years, and travelling to wineries in the summer.

Wine, says Rathore, became a part of his growing-up experience after his father, who was a professor of psychoanalysis at Columbia University, bought a winery in Michigan that was disastrously named Strawberry Fields (their wine label had strawberries on it, which was undoubtedly an unwise marketing ploy).

"You can't expect a professor who was then writing the Psychoanalytic Interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita to make wise investment decisions," says Rathore of the winery that set him on the road to understanding wine.

When the US-born professor of philosophy and law arrived in India with his eclectic collection of wines - for bread, he's preparing an ambitious inter-disciplinary course on the philosophy of law at Delhi University - and his wife, an Indian diplomat posted at the Pakistan Desk of the Ministry of External Affairs, he already had the evolved palate, cultivated eye and critical nose to be qualified to write India's first wine guide.

He did it with the dedication with which the American lawyer-turned-wine guru, Robert Parker, put Bordeaux on the world map.

He went, uninvited and unwelcome, in a taxi from one winery to another in Nashik, Pune, Sangli and Bangalore, and even on a wild goose chase in Himachal Pradesh (and at Sula, he was told to go because he was asking too many uncomfortable questions), bought two bottles of each label (judging by his unflattering reviews, many of them weren't worth the investment), and tasted each wine at least a couple of times to be able to form an unbiased opinion.

"Cultural prejudice, and not a geographical problem, has prevented domestic wines from taking off in India . Each time I go to an Indian restaurant and ask for an Indian wine, the waiters look embarrassed, yet they're happy to serve foreign plonk. Our elite must start believing that India, despite being in the torrid zone, can produce great wines," says the author of The Complete Indian Wine Guide (Roli Books, Rs 295), who sees India emerging as the No. 2 zinfandel destination after California . Rathore's mission was expensive, because he had no writing advance, and at times it was heart-wrenching (like when a young French wine-maker, who was terribly lonely in exile in Narayangaon, begged Rathore in French to find him a girlfriend).

Rathore was driven by the determination to be the first to write the complete story of India 's wine industry, warts and all. For inspiration, he kept turning to a book he had discovered in Budapest - it is called A Bor Metafyszika (The Philosophy of Wine).

The book's popular Hungarian writer, Bela Hamvas, relates Hungary 's 14 wine districts to 14 types of women apparently found in the country. It was responsible for the Hungarians discovering, after the fall of socialism, that they had great wines, apart from Tokaji, the legendary dessert wine. It fuelled their pride in their resurgent wine industry, though not in a hyper-nationalistic and uncritical way, and helped it take on competition from the highly subsidised French and German wines. "Protectionism cannot help an infant industry," declares Rathore. "Nationalism can. A developing country has a responsibility to itself."

Guided with this belief, he has been able to discover gems for us - two of them, from Nashik's Sailo Wines, are hilariously named Et Tu Brutus and Mark Antony. Rathore insists that the 30,000 bottles of these two unknown and unheralded wines are sold within two months in Maharashtra , Dubai and Tokyo .

Nationalism may have propelled Rathore, but he did not lose his critical eye. During his peregrinations, he stumbled upon many stories that never get written about the Indian wine industry. Just as the wine-maker associated with a big label was informing him how he was using pinot noir (which was an impossible thing to do in our weather) for his sparkling wine, a shipment of grape concentrate landed from Australia .

India's nascent wine industry, the writer discovered, didn't follow any of the rules that governed wine production elsewhere in the world. "They make wine in the same way as a builder makes a building - without any regard for the rules," says Rathore. "You can't bank forever on the ignorance of the consumer. The big players will fall because the consumer will rise. "The industry isn't doing anything to deserve our devotion."

The big players, who've seen the demand grow beyond their expectations, are coping with their changed fortunes by mixing imported bulk wine and grape concentrates at will. They are buying wine grapes or finished wine they haven't supervised from farmers who, encouraged by Maharashtra's liberal grape policy announced in 2001, have moved from table to wine grapes. And when they say their wines have been aged in French oak, they mean oak chips. Not only that, they have signed unfair contracts with grape farmers who turned wine producers and discovered that they did not have the marketing wherewithal to promote their product.

"Their production capacity serves those with the marketing power, who have a very short-sighted view of the business," says Rathore. Deep inside the book, so deep that the words just tend to get lost, Rathore launches a scathing attack on the monopolistic tendencies of the industry's three big players. "The big problem that any new . winery faces in India is breaking into the market, which is entirely controlled by Indage, followed by Sula and Grover," he writes. "These big companies can be ruthless, forcing smaller wineries to sell their product to them and to agree not to market their own wineries as long as big brother is buying their wines. This is a severe blow to the small wineries, because without marketing they will get nowhere."

The up-and-coming wineries are fortunate to have an eloquent, sympathetic yet critical spokesman for their cause. Sanjay Menon, a pioneer in the wine trade, keeps lamenting that India doesn't yet have a wine critic in the way the world understands the term, because the media is obsessed with who pinched whose bottom at a wine dinner. The critic has arrived, but can the industry stomach his plain talking?


Rathore, Unplugged

The first author to put Indian wines under a scanner comments on our homegrown labels

The Big Guys .

Grover is seriously under-performing. Their best wines are their new ones, the 2004 Cabernet Shiraz and the 2004 Viognier-Clairette.

Indage is a strange bird. . Notice that out of 16 wines, only four were good or above. Indage has the means to change this scenario, but it is not clear whether it has the will.

Sula has been . a classical example of how to sell widgets . . It had not been selling very good wine, but still it had been selling well. Thankfully, the 2005s are much superior to the earlier years - seems they bought up the right small-timers.

The Old Survivors .

Bosca is a tragedy. They have the means to improve their facility and consequently their products, there is no will to make any improvements.

I put 'wine' in quotation marks because I am not sure that the beverage that Shaw Wallace sells as wine [ Golconda ] is actually entitled to the name.

The Newbies . The Bluefolds wines not just warrant attention, they command it.

Dajeebah is off to a pretty good start, but they have a lot of work ahead.

Flamingo has a potentially outstanding product, but they need to make sure that they do not mess everything up with poor marketing and poorer label design.

Greno is a high-tech winery [backed with] the experience of growing fruit. The problem is, I am not sure if they have anything very special or unique to guide them through the rough waters created by the stormy competition.

N.D. Wines is making some of India 's finest wines. The problem is poor marketing. . Consequently, they were forced to sell their wine in bulk to Sula, which has somewhat immorally, though not quite illegally, bottled it as its own products.

At Rs 257, Mark Antony will, in the near future, be a good wine and possibly India 's best bargain.

Vinsura is probably the most exciting new domestic producer of wine. . Right now, they are making one or two of India 's best [wines]. If they get lucky, . and find a market of their own, they will surely be India 's premier wine brand.

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