When the editor of Lounge and myself first met to discuss the column that would become Pursuits, I was categorical about one thing: I would not write about food. I already struggled to produce a food column every Sunday for Brunch and I doubted I had anything left to say on the subject.
But given that the Mint reader sounds like the sort of well-heeled guy or high-heeled girl who sips expensive wine (probably while listening to Dark Side of the Moon) and that Lounge has so little about wine most Saturdays, I’m going to take a stab at a wine article. My excuse is that wine is not food and that this is a practical, rather than technical, piece.
WW III: Good, reasonably-priced wine is our right. Sign up for the wine-war cause
u People seem to be drinking more wines than ever before. Aman Dhall, probably India’s most successful wine importer, tells me this is the biggest growth area in the booze business and that sales are skyrocketing.
u This should be a good thing but my sense is that we are being ripped off. One of the more sensible things that Arun Jaitley did when he was commerce minister (entirely selflessly because he does not touch alcohol himself) was to allow hotels and restaurants to import wine at zero duty against their foreign exchange earnings. This move, nearly unprecedented anywhere in the world, was prompted by the hotel industry’s claim that foreign tourists wanted to drink wine with their meals but baulked at paying the high prices that the existing duty structure led to.
Bizarrely enough, this means that good French wine should actually be cheaper in an Indian restaurant than in an equivalent place in New York, London or Paris. In Western countries, restaurants work on a wine mark-up of around 300%—a bottle that they buy at $20 goes on the list at $60. These huge mark-ups are justified on the grounds that all restaurants have to pay the rent, and therefore need to treat wine as a profit centre.
In the old days, before Jaitley abolished the duty structure, most hotels applied minimal wine mark-ups fearing that a 300% multiplier would make wine too expensive. When they complained about the duty structure to Jaitley, they promised that they would pass on the saving from any drop in duties to the customers.
But, of course, they did no such thing.
It is now routine for Indian hotels to impose mark-ups of 300 to 500%. Though wine prices should have come down dramatically because of zero duty, they have actually gone up.
Every time I think of the profits the hotels make, my blood boils. Take something as basic as a glass of non-vintage Moet & Chandon champagne. I reckon that most hotels buy the full bottle at around Rs1,800 or so. But at some Oberoi properties, a single flute of Moet can cost in excess of Rs1,000 (or even Rs1,250 according to some shocked punters).
If that isn’t cheating the public—and the government—then I don’t know what is.
My suggestion is that any hotel found imposing a wine mark-up of more than 50% should have its import licence cancelled. After all, these guys got the duty concession on the grounds that they were attracting tourists, not so that they could make even more money.
u We are also being ripped off with spoilt bottles. It cannot be a coincidence, that something like one out of every three bottles I’ve tried at top hotels has been off. At New Delhi’s Orient Express recently they opened three bottles one after the other and all were off.
This isn’t necessarily the hotel’s fault. Wine storage has improved but the hotel has no way of knowing how the wine was treated on its way to the hotel’s cellar. It may have been left out in the Mumbai docks for a month waiting for customs clearance.
Good hotels will encourage you to return a bottle that tastes off. At the Orient Express, the waiter tried each wine himself and agreed that it was off. But there will be exceptions. At the Maratha in Mumbai, a foreign sommelier insisted that a foul-smelling bottle of white Burgundy was fine. Eventually, she conceded that it was off but blamed the hotel’s storage, thereby committing two faux pas at a stroke.
u Be very wary of waiters who try and hustle you into ordering wines that are too expensive. At a stand-alone restaurant in Mumbai (which I will not name because I feel sorry for stand-alones that compete with big hotel chains), the manager insisted that I should drink a Burgundy of his choice rather than the more modest California Pinot Noir I had ordered. The wine was terrific—but it was also four times the price—something he neglected to mention.
At Mezzo Mezzo at Mumbai’s Marriott, I ordered a bottle of Tignanello, one of my favourite Italian reds. A waiter insisted that he had a better idea and pressed me to order a wine that was 30% more expensive. It wasn’t that he knew anything about wine or was making an informed recommendation. He had just been told to push wine sales up.
I hope that as customers become more sure of themselves, these rip-offs will stop. Till then, a few rules. Don’t bother asking restaurant managers for tips on which wine to order. Most of them know less than the average guest. They’ll just push the wine they want to get rid of. Do not treat the tasting ritual at the beginning of the meal as a formality. There’s a good chance that the bottle may be off. If you feel it’s not right, ask the manager to taste the wine. At a good hotel, he will agree with you. And if it is a bad hotel, you should have no hesitation in holding your ground and telling him not to rip you off.
All revolutions involve a certain amount of bloodshed. Just make sure that in India’s wine revolution, it’s not your blood that is shed.
Write to Vir at email@example.com. Read his previous columns on www.livemint.com/vir-sanghvi