Photos of People Trying Wine for the First Time at One of India's New Vineyards
“I thought it would taste of apple.”
Newbie wine connoisseur Kritika Patel. All photos by the author.
"Any wine ending in 'blanc' is going to be white," explains Inderpreet Singh Renu in his softly spoken, accented English.
It's not even midday, but inside the grand vaulted-ceiling tasting room at Sula Vineyards in Maharashtra, India, Renu has already begun the day's first wine-tasting.
Around 20 people of mixed ages gather at the polished concrete bar, eagerly leaning over the Sula-branded bar mats, ice buckets, and magnums of Sula's Brut Tropicale that dot the table. They're all hanging off Renu's every word.
The room gently purrs at the optimum 18 degrees Celsius, while a comforting odour of cheese-rind hangs in the slightly damp air. Wine barrels, proudly stamped with Sula's smiling sun logo, line the red brick wall behind.
And then, as if to remind us that we're not in the Old nor the New World of wine, but in the developing one, where marketing and subtlety go together like Donald Trump and balding, you clock the four enormous wine bottle replicas that punctuate the room. The largest of which, at 15-feet tall and still wrapped in cellophane, is of one of Sula's bestsellers—the Sauvignon Blanc.
As visitors pose for selfies in front of the giant bottles, Renu, a 25-year-old Sikh Mumbaiker who first tried wine four years ago, will repeat his "blanc" line six times to around 150 people.
On the busiest of days, he'll say it as many as 10 times to 1,000 people.
"Don't you get tired?" I ask.
"Yes. But what other job pays you to drink wine everyday?" he says with a smile.
Like most numbers in India, Sula Vineyards' are absolutely mind-boggling. Around 240,000 people visited the winery last year alone, and since its first vintage in 2000, production has grown from 15 acres producing 4,000 litres to more than 2,000 acres producing over 8 million litres.
And while Sula's might not be the most visited winery in the world, CEO and founder Rajeev Samant believes it could well be the one where the most people taste wine for the first time.
"I base my claim on the fact that India is one of the world's fastest growing wine markets, and we are by far the largest wine tourism operation in the country," says Samant. "And we have by far the largest population of people who have never tasted wine and are starting to do so now."
Adesh Dhuru is one such person. Following Renu's instructions, he sips his glass of Sula Chenin Blanc carefully, sucking air through his teeth as he does so.
"It tasted a little bitter, but that's because it's my first time," he says. "I thought it would taste of apple."
Of the four wine tastings I attend, around one in five include those trying wines for the very first time. These range from college students to timid housewives, corporate sector workers, and pilgrims en route home from Trimbakeshwar—an ancient Hindu temple around 25 kilometres away.
But why go to a winery to taste wine, and not just buy a bottle to drink at home?
"For starters, most people don't consume alcohol at home as a rule," says Samant. "The only time you drink is when you get out—many households are like that."
That's certainly the case for wine first-timer Neelakshi Kulkarni, from the nearby city of Nashik.
"I liked the sparkling wine more," she says. "It tasted like sugar cane juice mixed with grapes. I won't drink more wine after this, I don't think.
"Or maybe I'll drink some sparkling," she adds a moment later.
Eighteen-year-old Kritika Patel is here with her family, visiting from the neighbouring state of Gujarat.
"The sparkling wine is really awesome!" she says giggling. "It's very strong for me, but it's also very nice. I'll drink more wine in the future, but only Champagne."
But not everyone's convinced.
"Frankly speaking, I didn't like the wine," says a defiant middle-aged woman named Uma Raja early on in the tasting. "Why do I have to drink wine? It tastes like alcohol—it hits the back of your throat."
"I won't try any of the other wines," she adds before walking out the tasting room.
Thankfully, Raja is an anomaly. Everyone else at the Sula Vineyard appears thrilled by the experience, with the vast majority taking to the sparkling and dessert wines the most. Except for Nikil Aggarwal, a logistics worker from Delhi, for which Sula Vineyards is a diversion from his Hindu pilgrimage tour of Maharashtra.
"I liked the Rasa Shiraz because it was a totally different taste. Totally different to the Riesling, I preferred it because it's stronger," he explains.
The group tour and tasting lasts around an hour and six wines are tasted in total. Renu explains how the tours are kept deliberately entry-level, assuming almost no prior knowledge whatsoever from the attendants. Still, I can't help but smile every time he describes Shiraz, and not Syrah, as being a French grape—picturing the legions of French farmers turning in their graves as he does so.
During one tasting, he goes off-script altogether and explains how: "In France, they only drink wine at mealtimes and not water, and that's why French people are so beautiful."
As for Sula's wines, what's striking is how much better they taste here, at source, than elsewhere. While all winemakers suffer from having their wines transported badly and stored at the wrong temperature, in India, where cities like Delhi reach 45 degrees Celsius in the summertime and can drop to zero in winter, it's a whole other story.
Add the fact that most shops selling wine are little more than overheating stinking garages with dirty crates of bottles stacked up under fluorescent lights, and you have a serious issue on your hands.
Here at Sula, where the wines are kept under the right conditions and served at the perfect temperature, they taste just great. I'm particularly impressed by the Riesling 2016, which has bags of minerality and an ever so light buttery note.
While it's still a touch on the sweet side (generally speaking Sula's wines are made for the Indian palate and have a slightly higher sugar content as a result), it's freshness more than compensates.
To quote Ankita Jawale, a smiley student living in Mumbai: "The Riesling is my favourite so far, it tastes so smooth. I'd love to have more wine in the future."