A recent headline on the Indian Wine Academy website caught my eye. “Death knell in Delhi for fine wine,” said an article by Subhash Arora, president of the academy and the Delhi Wine Club. While the jargon about transfer permits and “not being gazetted” can make your head swim, the fact is that the Delhi government has increased the excise duty on wines to 150-200%, making it, according to Arora, the second worst state in India in this regard, after Maharashtra.
Wine list: A good bootlegger tops ours.
This is a shame. More and more urban Indians are drinking wine, and I would argue, they should. Wine is as nice a social lubricant as the single malts my erstwhile editor swears by. Better, I would argue, for wine is good for you. The problem is that Indian wine is an orphan with an image problem. Unlike liquor, wine lacks a lobby. Wine lovers can protest all they want but there is no concerted effort by any coalition to make wine accessible to the masses.
We Bangaloreans take our tipple seriously. Whether it is a corporate launch on the lawns of the Taj West End, lunch at the Rogue Elephant, coffee at Koshy’s or drinks at Caperberry, the talk inevitably comes around to two things: rants against the 11.30pm closure of pubs and the state of Indian wines. Admittedly, this is a small, self-selected group, and some of this harks back to Bangalore’s “pub culture”, in which drinking was viewed with a benign, non-judgemental eye.
Bangaloreans—like the Goans—know how to hold a drink. All of which is ironic preamble to the fact that the one thing Bangalore lacks is decent wine at reasonable prices. Some local wines are good. Others, as epicurean Stanley Pinto says, “aren’t fit to strip paint with”. Pinto runs the Bangalore Black Tie—a group of foodies who dress in tuxedos and gowns and dine out once a month at city restaurants—and I am a member.
Last year, the local government imposed a “special additional fee” on not just imported wines but also non-Karnataka wines. This means that if I have to drink a Nashik wine, I have to cough up Rs300 more than you folks sitting in Mumbai. This means that a Yellow Tail Shiraz that sells for $5 (around Rs250) in the US costs three times as much here. Members of the Bangalore Wine Club have been up in arms over these price hikes, calling for a boycott of the local Grover Wines because Kapil Grover is part of the Karnataka Wine Board, which recommended taxing non-Karnataka wines. From the point of view of the Karnataka wineries, however, these price hikes are a tit-for-tat measure against the Maharashtra government and its seven-year-old protectionist policies. Last year, Karnataka returned the favour, at twice the rate that Maharashtra had imposed, and we, as consumers, suffered.
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There are ways around this that mostly have to do with travelling abroad. Bringing the allowed two bottles of wine and then some when you come back from overseas trips is a good, if expensive, way to sustain your wine habit. But what if you don’t go abroad that much? I buy my wine at my neighbourhood store, Thom’s, where it is stored poorly. When I spend Rs1,500 on a wine and it turns out to be so-so, I cannot tell if it is the wine or the storage. Some say that the state’s godowns, where wines are stored between vineyards and retailers, are “criminally unprofessional”, that most wines are destroyed before they arrive at stores.
So I called Alok Chandra, co-founder of the Bangalore Wine Club, with one simple question: How can one get decent wine at reasonable prices in India and more specifically, Bangalore?
“Go to your friendly neighbourhood smuggler,” he retorted.
Say what? Did he really want to be quoted saying that, I asked.
“Why not?” said Chandra. “The government is making criminals of all of us.”
Pinto not only agreed with Chandra, he offered to give me the telephone numbers of three smugglers who would deliver French, Italian, Chilean and Australian wines to my home, at prices that “cock a snook at the idiot authorities”.
The problem is that the authorities don’t care. They sell about 5,000 cases of wine a year and 10 times that amount of liquor. Wine is—and is perceived as—elitist. Wine drinkers are a minority in India, and perceived as a wealthy one at that. So “tax the buster” seems to be the government’s approach.
Chandra buys his wines at Spar supermarket and Metro. Pinto suggested Peekay Wines at Crawford Market, Mumbai. I bought a Chateau d’Ori Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc for Rs322 each—lower than the Rs400 I pay for Kinwah, a new Karnataka winery. I also got the Tiger Hills Chardonnay I had been wanting for Rs520. Since they had a two-for-one offer on Vin Voulet, I got two bottles of red. All were satisfactory. All are finished. I am back to square one.
There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Two months ago, the Maharashtra government proposed to bring down the excise duty on out-of-state wines if Karnataka would reciprocate. Apparently, Karnataka didn’t reciprocate, for Delhi too has now raised the excise tax on wines.
Look, I know all this wine talk sounds pretentious at some level. I mean, who cares? It’s only wine, not world peace or the budget, you can say. Okay. Let me make a somewhat complicated argument. If state governments lower taxes, then wine will be accessible to more people and not just the elite. Perhaps this will make the man who drinks toddy or illicit arrack reach for wine instead. He will get his kick—and I know I am stretching here—except it will be healthier.
Shoba Narayan recently had a terrific 2005 Chilean Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon at Italia restaurant in Bangalore. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org