It’s 3 am and, at the Barcelona-El Prat airport, Rojita Tiwari is hurriedly emptying part of her suitcase. Stuck with extra luggage at the drop-off counter, the 30-something has a tough choice to make: two bottles of Priorat’s full-bodied red wine, or two bespoke dresses that she had got done after much effort. It wasn’t that difficult a choice really; how could she leave behind the sinful mix of Garnacha and Cariena grapes? “My first love will always be wine,” says Tiwari, smiling. And she knows by years of understanding and experiencing the fruity punch.
Passion for wine is rare in India, but there has been a significant rise of interest in the beverage. Sales shot up 17 per cent in 2014-15, along with a sharp decline in that of imported distilled drinks such as rum, vodka and whiskey, says a recent report. And women too are travelling down the heady road. Tiwari has been writing about wine for years and has gained enough knowledge to be called for judging international wine competitions. Many others have made the drink their own—making, learning (all have diplomas and degrees in wine), writing, selling, consulting, but, most importantly, travelling to France, Italy, Germany, Spain, New Zealand, America, Canada, South Africa, Israel and other places for it. “In wine,” says Tiwari, “experience is the best teacher.”
The face of Grover-Zampa, Karishma studied at the University of California, and became the wine-maker in her family, which owns the second leading wine brand in India.
In fact, the first Indian ‘Master of Wine’—the biggest title in the industry, with only 353 holders—is a woman, Sonal Holland.
“The Indian wine industry has come a long way since my first day here, when I saw wine being served before, rather than with, food,” says Cecilia Oldne, global ambassador and vice-president (marketing) of Sula Vineyards. “I had cringed that day and could see we had a long way to go.” Sula is now perhaps the most recognised and sold wine brand in India, selling 850,000 cases in 2015-16, against 150,000 cases of Grover-Zampa and 100,000 of Fratelli. Oldne’s wine journey dates back to when she was nine, and visited a vineyard in the French Riviera with her family. She didn’t get to taste the wine then, but imbibed the country air, animals, scenic farms and laughter. “Now, every time I open a bottle of French Chateau, I relive the day, and that is why I love wine,” she says. “It is more than a bottle.” Oldne’s love for wine took her from studying it to making her own in France and South Africa, and eventually moving to India to oversee full-scale production.
Other women in the industry have similar stories to tell. Karishma Grover, co-owner and wine-maker of Grover-Zampa, recalls a time when a friend gave her a bottle of great wine. “I kept it for two years, taking it from place to place, very carefully, until at another friend’s graduation we decided to open it,” says Grover. As luck would have it, when arriving at the friend’s place, the bottle slipped and broke. “I haven’t ever kept a bottle, swearing by the ‘you buy wine to drink it’ formula,” she laughs. Grover, who grew up in the business of wine, needed little push to find her passion and went fast from studying oenology and viticulture to leading production at Grover-Zampa. Some, like Kiran Patil of Reveilo Wines, chanced on the wine business first and fell in love with it only later. “We had been stuck in corporate jobs for the longest time, until my husband one day decided to take charge of his ancestral vineyards and, instead of supplying grapes, produce our own wines,” says Patil. “I followed him soon to manage the sales and marketing.”
Kiran was stuck with a corporate job before she followed her husband into the wine business. Marketing and sales director for Vintage Wines, she helped launch the Reveilo label in 2006, a rising name.
Holland, perhaps one of the biggest knowledge banks on wine that we have, and Madhulika Dhall, founder-owner of boutique wine store La Cave, have their husbands to credit for their vast experience of wine. “My husband is British and we would often, on our trips back to London, have lots of wine,” recalls Holland. The love affair started then. Over time, it led to inspiration from wine expert Jancis Robinson and Holland decided to give India its own Robinson.
Dhall’s husband worked in the wine industry and introduced her to the beverage. “I travelled and experienced wine because of my husband,” says Dhall. “The great memories made me want to bring back the experience to India, and share it with the people in a comfortable setting,”
For Reva K. Singh, founder-editor of Sommelier India, India’s first wine magazine, it was a coming together her love of wine, a family inheritance, and her love of writing. “I always wanted to have a magazine of my own,” says Singh. “I would tear pages and bind them to make a rag mag, and when I got the opportunity to actually do it, I couldn’t think of a subject better suited to my own interests and lifestyle.”
Owner of La Cave, one of the few wine boutiques in the country, Madhulika travels the world for the love of wine, and makes sure she brings back a few bottles for her customers.
Farzana Contractor, editor of Upper Crust, food and wine magazine, jokes about her first tryst with wine with her friends in Panchgani. “We poured some Golconda wine for all, and wondered how much soda to add!” she exclaims. She first loved wine through her lens, photographing the glistening glass filled with red or white, until, like Tiwari, who writes ‘Drinks and Destinations’, she found the wonders of taste and began writing about its discoveries.
The stories of these women are unique, yet have parallels—like wine. “It may be red, but will be different, varying each time,” says Holland. Their struggles as women in the industry are similar: “Almost nonexistent as wine was the ladies’ drink, except for the concern of failure of the enterprise.” Their love for wine also sings the same song. “There is more to wine than the bottle. It is friends, food, art, love, conversations and more,” says Dhall. “The future of wine lies in breaking the myths that surround it.”
Holland says, “The first thing I tell anyone wanting wine is, ‘Drink it, don’t be afraid.’” Grover insists, “I don’t care what I drink out of. Of course, a wine glass would only add to the experience.”
The first Indian Master of Wine, Sonal is a wine expert, advises hotels across the country, runs her own wine academy and has recently started the Soho Wine Club to offer world wines.
Contractor recalls an incident where everyone was being served wine at an anniversary dinner, and she exclaimed as to why her dog should be discounted, and put some in the dog bowl! Holland believes the lack of knowledge creates fear, but that now we are getting to know more about wine every day. Patil says this lack of knowledge prejudices Indian consumers against Indian wine, but Oldne points out that modern marketing and sales is reducing the prejudice against Indian wine.
The Indian wine market is seeing an annual growth of 15-20 percent and there are 45 Indian wine producers today. For the industry, this is just the start. “We are still toddlers, the growth potential is too vast to even imagine just yet,” says Holland. That is certainly worth raising a toast to.