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The woman who makes wine

March 08, 2008 12:49 IST

International Women's Day may mean different things to different people and you may even be toasting on Women's Day with a glass of rose.

For Kavita Chougule, owner of India's first and only 'luxury boutique winery', Tiger Hill, it is, however, possibly also a day to remind herself of two things -- that 'one of the biggest wineries in the world is run and owned by a woman, Julia Gallo' and that she herself has 'never wanted to be known as an idle rich woman'.

While Chougule's family may be somewhat different from the Gallos (and thankfully, since the empire founded by Ernest and Julio Gallo from an immigrant family in the US, now on to its third generation, has been controversial to say the least), it is her second statement of wanting to be something more than a rock-sporting socialite on the Mumbai circuit that strikes a chord.

Being married into a 'wine family' (to Vikrant Chougule of the Indage group, the largest wine company in the country) may have its advantages but what this Chougule has done is gone a step forward with a whole new concept in the bustling market for luxury in India: Not just luxury wine but luxury wine resorts too.

If Tiger Hill is being pitched as a stylish wine from the first boutique winery in the country -- small quantities are made from hand-picked berries in the 200-acre vineyard, imported Italian and French oak barrels are used for a style of wine that is quintessentially new world, and the packaging is stylish with each label being individually hand stuck -- it is not only a move away from the image of the larger Champagne Indage group, best known for their wines for the mass market, but a step further.

Integrated with the winery and the surrounding vineyards is a small but legit resort: a 20-room hotel with a restaurant and a spa where you can take advantage of the fashionable vinotherapy, first developed in Bordeaux in 1999, using grapeseed oil and discarded skins of grapes, which have anti-oxidants and hence anti-ageing properties.

Vinotherapy spas are now popular all over the world, particularly to be found in France, but now a similar experience can be had in our own Napa Valley, erÂ… Nashik.

Chougule has tied up with a French company for the products that are already being used at her spa though the techniques, at the moment, are very Indian -- Ayurveda, Kerala Vaidyashala style! On the anvil are a string of such wine resorts and one that will immediately come up in a couple of months will be at the Kolhapur Palace, a property that Chougule owns.

A palace? Well, if not a 'chateau' then a similar place that conjures up luxury and history. But Chougule does have a background in both belonging, as she does, to a royal Maratha family. Her father is the 'current royal' from Surgana, near Nashik, and her aunt is married to the '12th descendent of Shivaji'. What she also has a background in is, well, grapes, having grown up in Nashik.

However, the present concept only came to her on one of her travels abroad. "Being married into a wine family meant we would always go for vacations to these beautiful vineyards. I remember the time when we had gone to Cape Town, it was a very pretty estate and at the end of it we had a fabulous meal with the likes of exotic ostrich meat. It was then that I thought that we had nothing like this in India," she says.

Thus, after her partner in her fashion design business (she has a degree in fashion from London and her label still sells out of stores like Kimaya and Samsara) opted out, the wine resort it was. The Nashik one comes not just with a wine lounge bar and a shop from where you can buy your bottles in the manner of any self-respecting vineyard abroad but also a full-fledged fine dine restaurant.

One of the surprises that the new culture of wine in the country has thrown up is in the number of women taking to it. For a country with wide-spread taboos, religious, cultural, and those to do with gender, it is indeed a big change that even middle-class women today are enjoying their glass of bubbly like never before.

Chougule acknowledges this, saying that when she was growing up, it was only on special occasions like birthdays that a bottle of Champagne would be opened up and if people drank wine, they would only look for French, but all that has now changed. More than anything else, she herself has now begun to "truly understand and appreciate wine".

On the other hand, many of the technical and economic aspects of her business are closely looked after by her husband and a 'very competent team'. In the end, Chougule maintains herself to be a strictly 'creative and hardworking' person -- not the society lady you'd imagine. So be it.

Anoothi Vishal in New Delhi
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