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The paradox of wine

By Alok Chandra in New Delhi
January 29, 2005 14:32 IST
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It never ceases to amaze me that while wine is a low alcohol beverage that is good for health, our policy-makers continue to lump wines with spirits insofar as taxation and regulations are concerned.

The notable exception is Maharashtra where a strong farmer's lobby has catalysed far-reaching changes, and the new policy actually helps to produce (and sell, and drink) wine.

We Indians have always been sanctimonious about drinking -- witness the absurdity of prohibition in Gujarat, or rules that allow a person to vote and drive and get married at 18 but not to drink till 21 (25 in Delhi!).

Such rules will obviously get flouted. Perhaps one could blame the Hindi movie stereotype where one drinks only to get drunk -- have you ever seen the hero (and, god forbid, the heroine) having a civilised glass of wine with food?

This mentality is also reflected in our PKK (piye-khaye-khiske) behaviour at parties: all drinking is done before dinner, which is always served late; one rarely drinks while eating (since one is standing), and people leave almost immediately on finishing their food.

Paradoxically, when abroad or in a good hotel, we will happily sit and eat, and wash the fish or chicken down with the white and the mutton or steak with the red, never mind that you are paying three times what the same wine would cost in retail.

Maybe wine does have a civilising influence -- after all, even the Americans have started drinking wine, and in particular after the TV programme The French Paradox was aired on 60 Minutes in November 1991 which quoted research ascribing the better cardiac health of Frenchmen (who ate more fatty foods and exercised less than Americans) to their intake of red wine.

Red wine sales doubled in the US the following year, winemakers in Napa and Sonoma celebrated, and shippers of French Bordeaux could do no wrong till 2003 and Iraq.

It's a pity that the most good French and Italian wines are out of reach to all except the small minority that can pay the astronomical prices -- either at retail or in the five-star hotels.

For a long time Delhi's denizens were quite happy lapping up Barton & Guestier wines available through the grey market @ Rs 300-350 per bottle -- only, what was generally available was the vin de table.

The only imported French wine I know that is available today in more than one city is the Albert Bichot Domaine Long Depaquit Chablis (Rs 1,225 in Mumbai, Rs 1,575 in Bangalore), although the Michel Lynch Bordeaux (Rs 1,150 in Mumbai) is worth a try.

And there is a superb range of Italian reds presently available only in Mumbai: the Chianti Ruffino (Rs 875), the Ruffino Riserva Ducale (Rs 1,900), the Modus Toscana (Rs 4,150) and the Mazzi Brunello di Montalcino (Rs 5,000).

If you're stunned by the prices, consider this: while the best French and Italian wines have no compare, they are costly, and it is no accident that lower-priced good value wines from the New World (Australia, Chile, South Africa) have made such huge strides.

You have only to try stuff like Tarapaca from Chile (Rs 710 in Delhi, Rs 800 in Mumbai) or Hardy's Stamp of Australia wines (Rs 650-750) to see what I mean.

So the paradox of wine is that here is an alcoholic beverage (bad), which is actually good for health (good), made from grapes grown by farmers (good) but consumed mostly by affluent urbanites (bad), and where less is more (a lower yield is thought to give better quality) and more is less (the higher the price of the wine, the lower the quantity available).

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Alok Chandra in New Delhi
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