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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Tuesday, December 23 2008. 10:50

Blog: Le Meridien: All That Glitters is Not Gold

The newly refurbished Hotel Le Meridien might have added a lot of sheen and gleam to the Delhi property, but it still has to cover miles before it makes the grade as a wine-destination hotel, feels Subhash Arora who had another dejecting wine experience recently.

I don't remember the last time I had a glass of wine at a banquet at this pristine hotel. Many of my NRI friends choose this venue for its glamorous and glittering appearance for weddings. But I have often wondered what fascinates them to select the one-for-one (buy one, get one free) Riviera wines at such events. Perhaps, it gives them the illusion of the French or Italian Riviera!

When I ask my friends the logic of selecting this table wine, they would invariably tell me that the brand was suggested by the management- their diktat does not go beyond Black Label whiskey. When I ask the banquet incharge, I am told it was the choice of the clients. So I never get to know the truth or drink the ubiquitous table wine served in those 'glasslets'.

But things reached their nadir at a recent banquet dinner I attended, where a lot of foreign wine producers had also been invited. The white wine being served caught my eye. Factually it would be wrong to categorise it 'white'. The bar counter was full of dark golden colour liquid in petit glasses. I picked up one glass and nosed it. It was off and oxidised. So I picked up another-it had the flavour of perhaps horse-p**s, far removed from the cat's pea that Sauvignon Blanc is typically credited for.

Every glass had contents of undrinkable liquid being passed off as wine. The first thing I had the bartender confirm was that it was not a sponsored wine. I was told the hotel was charging Rs. 1250 a bottle for this Indian wine (Rupees one thousand two hundred and fifty per bottle!). The Indian bubbly was even more expensive at Rs. 1500 a bottle (the government diktat of 250% cap on the cost price for wines does not apply to Indian wines)

The foreign producers were giving the looks of disappointment and disbelief (can India really produce wine, is what their looks seemed to suggest!) and seamlessly shifted to the red wine being served from the stable of a competitor. When I asked the bartender why they were serving the rank bad wine, I was told that the organisers had insisted on this brand. 'But did they also agree to accept even undrinkable wine and pay for it because they had insisted on this label?'

As he was dumbstruck I requested to talk to his senior, who had 'conveniently' left the hotel and there was no responsible person around, he said. He did sound sympathetic to the plight of people like me being inflicted with bottles of oxidised wine.

A couple of attempts to try and find the right person in the 'Banquets' to talk to did not succeed during the next few days, nor did anyone call back which I had requested (perhaps my business card was misplaced) to did deeper into the facts.

A day earlier, the same hotel had refused to let another Indian producer display in the bar corner a small banner displaying an award they had won in a prestigious wine competition and letting the guests know which wine was being served. 'It is our hotel policy not to allow any display,' had been the curt reply. Was it due to the excise laws, I asked. The bartender feigned ignorance.

Out of curiosity, I decided to meet a senior officer in the excise department a couple of days later. He advised me that strictly speaking, the poster display would not be allowed as it could be construed as advertising which is not allowed by law for any alcoholic products. But he did concede that well-meaning actions like this were generally ignored by the excise officials.

The issue here was not what brand was being served or which varietal, or which vintage and whether the wine was past its prime. The question is also not if it was stored improperly at the importer's end or the hotel (though my experience suggests that the fault would be with the storage at the hotel). The point is that the hotel was merrily pouring out bad, oxidised wine by the bottles and charging the organisers good money when it ought to take the bad, oxidised bottles back and not charge for the same. That the producer lost a lot of goodwill that evening is an intangible loss. It is a good thing that bad and off wine would not cause a health problem or else many unsuspecting wine drinkers would have found themselves in a hospital!

Perhaps the organisers did not want to raise a big stink out of the stinking wine as the evening seemed to go well otherwise. But if the hotel star rating system gave any weightage to the wine service, Le Meridien would be a four-and-a- half star hotel, despite all its glitter- and the old fashioned banquet glasses would not be the only cause of demotion!

Subhash Arora


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