Like the Rothschilds, the father-daughter duo has got artists like Jatin Das to paint their labels, and they still set up facilities in different states to play the 'excise' game.
Kapil Grover still remembers the day when he sat for a grand dinner at home, and silver trays laden with gravied quail and gotli pav were brought out of the kitchen, even as his father, the formidable Kanwar Grover, pioneer of India’s wine industry, opened up bottles of some pricey Mouton Rothschild that he had acquired at a Christie’s auction. This was in the 1960s and much before Grover senior was to set up Grover Vineyards (in 1988), the company known for its French-style wines and quality consciousness today. But the memory of that meal has stayed on with the family — to resurface now, you can say, when Grover Vineyards may be seen to have done a Rothschild itself! If not in terms of its wine, then in terms of the labels, writes Anoothi Vishal.
“Almost 50 per cent of the collection must have been drunk that day”, says Kapil, still talking of that meal and the fine Bordeaux that washed it down. On the table, in front of us, are bottles of the Grover wines; the Sauvignon Blanc and the Viognier, a Rose and more, each bottle with its own, striking new label — the Grover “art labels” launched earlier this month. In a tradition borrowed from the iconic Rothschild, the company commissioned works by senior Indian artists, including Paresh Maity, Jatin Das and Rekha Rodwittiya, for its labels that were unveiled recently. But unlike the Bordeaux chateau, famous for commissioning a new art label every year (from Chagall to Warhol, the biggest names in Western art have contributed since 1945), Kapil says this exercise will not be undertaken annually: “The logistics involved are too huge. Can you imagine registering each label individually, in each state, every year?” he points out. That, though, is just one of the many problems that hampers wine-drinking in India. But more on that later.
“You know who has organised the event from which wine is being served,” breaks in Karishma, Kapil’s daughter and the third generation of the Grovers in the family business, with a smile. While dad — a whisky-drinker by the way — roots for the La Reserve, matured in oak barrels, twenty-something Karishma, set to be the new driver of the company’s growth, is championing the Viognier, a newer varietal that she feels will do well in Indian given its “fruit expressiveness”. Because she has graduated from the University of California, Davis, in viticulture and oenology (she is the first Indian woman winemaker), because she will be working in Bordeaux this year with the legendary consultant Michel Rolland (who also consultants with Grover Vineyards), and because she has new plans for India’s oldest wine company, we should possibly go with her choice. But we don’t.
It’s a hot afternoon and the cool Rose is a natural choice, especially with its stunning label by Rodwittiya. There is a short hunt for wine glasses at the India Habitat Centre room in New Delhi where I am meeting the duo and then a longer wait as the wine cools off in an ice bucket — neck down. “I always chill a bottle upside down because you pour out the wine from there first,” Kapil explains. As we take the first careful sips, the Grovers, father and daughter, both remember their first collisions with wine.
As a 19-year-old in London, Kapil remembers sitting at Gaylord’s, drinking an “awful” Portugese Mateuse Rose, trying to match it with Indian food. It was his first taste of wine. Karishma too apparently didn’t quite like her first drop but decided to get into the business anyway, not because, as both chime in, it was a given but because, as she says, she is “the black sheep” in the family. “I am the only one interested in science, everyone else has been in the arts.” But studying medicine seemed too much hard work which was when her father suggested that she give wine-making a thought — which, for all its romance, involves a fair bit of chemistry too.
Rolland was about to visit the Grover winery off Bangalore. And Kapil told his daughter that she could come along on the condition that she not open her mouth. “She opened her mouth a fair bit,” smiles the father, “But I had the best four-five days of my life,” finishes of the daughter. The Grover family, though, was unsure about whether Karishma, a foodie, had enjoyed the food or the wine more — especially since, with Rolland around, hospitality was elaborate: “Tandoori lobsters, wine paired with food, the works,” finishes Kapil.
Unlike its competitors (the big three in Indian wine have always been Indage, Sula and Grover), Grover Vineyards has not quite expanded its portfolio in a big way (“it takes 10 years of work to develop a new varietal,” Kapil contends). It’s still seen as somewhat old-fashioned company that has resisted the pull of the mass-market (even when, pre-slowdown, talk about 25 per cent annual growth for the next 25 years was social conversation.) This year, in August, on the other hand, we will see new wine emerge from the Grover’s new, second winery — in Maharashtra!
“I was forced to set up a facility in Maharashtra,” says Kapil, elaborating on what is generally seen as a stand-off between domestic lobbies in Maharashtra and Karnataka: Both states having levied high taxes against wine from outside their respective states. Maharashtra started the trend and Kapil says he was losing out, having to pay Rs 250 per bottle extra in the state when this amount was being used by competitors for efforts such as marketing. In August, when the Rs 10-crore new facility spews out its wine, that should be taken care of to an extent.
But aren’t consumers the real losers? I ask, especially since Karnataka (Kapil is on the state’s influential wine board) too has levied high duties against outside wine? Kapil defends this position by saying that local farmers will benefit as they have in Maharashtra, before reasoning that what really should happen is that import duties be restructured so as to put up barriers against cheap alcohol but not quality stuff. “Last year, France converted 540 million litres of wine that it could not sell into industrial alcohol. They could have given it away free,” he points out in his argument about low-quality wine-flooding India.
What both the Grovers are convinced about is the fact that for all the hullaballo, only the top two per cent of our population can be wine-drinkers. “That still means 20 million people. Right now, the wine market in India is just six million bottles a year, so there is plenty of scope for growth,” Kapil points out. As we discuss the “elite” wine-drinking culture in India (“farmers drinking wine in Nashik in a wine bar is just for the media’s consumption,” Kapil says), Karishma narrates an interesting story: “I met a group of students from a wine-making institute in Kolhapur and their teacher who had come for a visit to our winery. Even the professor was drinking wine for the first time,” she says in wonder. She will be happy selling $50-and-above wine both in India and abroad, she signs off. But father has the last word really: “It hurts when I spend a lot of money buying wine (obviously to check out competition) that is not good.” Well, that would hurt us too!