Notes on Wine and Social Justice in India

Ξ September 25th, 2008 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

This December Mumbai, capitol of the Indian state Maharashtra and the financial capitol of India, will be the host of the first India International Wine Fair. From the site’s Home page:
 
In the context of India’s rapidly growing appetite for wine consumption, the India International Wine Fair is India’s first large international exhibition dedicated entirely to the wine industry. Bringing together the country’s entire community of wine importers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers, along with noteworthy large-scale buyers including hotels, airlines and restaurants, the event is the single most important platform for international and Indian wine producers, exporters and marketers to firmly establish themselves in the Indian market.
 
Of India’s approx. 123,000 acres of vineyards only 1% are dedicated for wine production. The balance are table grapes. The country’s major players, accounting for 90% of all domestic wine production, are the Indage Group, Sula Wines, and Grover Wines.
 
There is a great deal of insecurity in India, I would argue, over wine quality and the cultivation of a dependable domestic market, two interrelated concerns. Of the latter, though it’s true wine consumption continues to increase it is still estimated at no more than a “half a teaspoon per capita“. (Another source puts it “at about a tablespoon” !) Indeed, included in that half teaspoon are drops of imported wine. The India-based United Breweries Group, to mention but one company, recently announced the launch of an additional 30 new labels for wines from France, South Africa, and Italy. Existing labels include wines from New Zealand and Australia.
 
While it is important to note that for 2009 India’s domestic production is estimated to be around 2 million cases and imports at approx. 200,000 cases, still, imported wines remain the measure of quality. Grover Vineyards, for example, hired Michel Rolland back in 1995. An article from 2000 explains it this way,
 
Grover’s is India’s only vineyard devoted to producing wine exclusively from French varietal grapes, and in the process trying to alter the drinking habits of a nation that inherited a preference for beer and whisky from its British colonisers.
 
In explaining why Indians never developed a widespread taste for wine, producers here cite the law of supply and demand: there has been no supply of good wine, thus no demand.”

 
And this from Grover’s website,
 
Unlike other wine makers in India today, Grover Vineyards is the only company that shuns ordinary table grapes, while exclusively using only French wine grapes, selected from the original thirty-five varieties of the Vitis Vinifera species.
 
In 1995, the project sufficiently attracted the attention of the world-renowned oenologist, Michel Rolland, to offer his expertise to the Indian venture. His expertise in wine making sees him as ‘consultant oenologist’ to over 100 companies all around Europe, South and North America and Asia. In India, Rolland is affiliated exclusively with Grover Vineyards.

 
The push to improve domestic wine is central not only to winning new consumers but also to open international markets. Mr. G. Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV recently visited India. In this WLTV episode he discusses very well the quality issue. Yet there is a third rationale to improve domestic wine: to refine a country’s image. To produce quality wine is to a nation’s cultural stature what nuclear deterrence is to foreign policy.
 
The state govt. of Maharashtra, the locus of India’s fledgling wine industry, has been a cheerleader for the same, but at the expense of other agricultural sectors. In an excellent article in Outlook India Payal Kapadia writes,
 
“It’s clearly a case of misplaced priorities as far as governance goes. Over the last two years, the Maharashtra government has developed an unprecedented inclination towards the wine industry even as thousands of desperate cotton farmers caught in a debt trap in the eastern Vidarbha region of the state are committing suicide by consuming pesticide.
 
“[T]he prognosis has never been so good for the wine industry and vineyards in Maharashtra. Every few months, a new sop is announced: a simplified licensing procedure for new wineries; plans to eliminate excise duty, already down from 100 per cent to 25 per cent; and the classification of wineries as a food processing industry to avail of the soft loans offered by the food processing department. Two wine parks have been set up in Sangli and Nasik, providing infrastructure to wineries, including a one-year diploma course on wine management. Besides, Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar is busy championing the cause of wine, arguing that it be treated as a soft drink rather than an alcoholic beverage. After all, what better way to boost domestic consumption than by making wine more accessible?”

 

In fact, suicide among India’s cotton and table grape farmers is so notorious that the ugly phenomenon merits its own Wikipedia entry.

 

Another ‘must read’ article from the SF Chronicle, March, ‘08, reads,
 
While India’s economy surges forward on the crest of globalization, thousands of farmers are taking their own lives every year to escape mounting debt and an uncertain future. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, at least 87,567 farmers committed suicide between 2002 and 2006. In Maharashtra state, there were 4,453 suicides in 2006, the last year for which statistics were made available, an increase of 527 compared with 2005. Sharp increases have also been reported in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states.
 
The reasons for suicide include,
 
crop failure due to agrochemicals, climate change, lower prices due to U.S. farm subsidies, state restrictions on export trade, and the dumping of surplus crops in an oversaturated domestic market.“(ibid)
 
The nested Russian dolls of economic and cultural factors are far too numerous and complex to explore here. Neither am I qualified, frankly. Suffice it to say that the historically conjugated extremes of wealth and privilege, rival states’ politics and competitive ambitions, and the lingering malignancy of the caste system serve to make wine a terribly overdetermined beverage in India.

Per capita income in India is a little over 33,000Rs, which at today’s exchange rate is about $720 US.

QED.

 
I myself would very much like to attend the India International Wine Fair in Mumbai if only to hear, beneath the chatter of traders, merchants, politicians and the international wine cognoscenti, the sound of 450 million hands pounding on the windows of the Grand Hyatt.
 
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One Response to ' Notes on Wine and Social Justice in India '

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  1. Raj Mody said,

    on January 31st, 2010 at 11:34 am

    An insightful peek into the emergent indian wine scene and the politics associated with it.

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