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October 21, 2005

Red or White'? asked the blonde waitress with her faint East European accent as we walked into the party.

There was the din of loud conversation, tinkling glasses, soft sound of smooches as people greeted each other with the elaborate rituals of excessive affection, and to top it all the saxophone from the jazz quartet in the background. It was difficult to hear what she was saying.

'Black label with soda and ice,' said my companion smoothly. He had arrived from Mumbai the same day and was in an expansive mood as we entered this Californian corporate party. One could see in him that state of glow, which affects all of us on the first day of a foreign tour.

'Red or White please?' asked the waitress again looking a little bit confused and impatient.

It was the turn of my friend from Mumbai to look perplexed.

'Red is all right, if you don't have Black,' he said. 'These days, I go for the blue label actually,' he said to me in a whisper, as the waitress left.

I assessed the situation, not difficult since I had made the same assumptions several times before awakening to current realities. I stepped in to do some inter-cultural-English to English translation, which comes with the job of any diplomat. She meant wine -- Red or White -- and was not talking about Red label Johnny Walker, I explained.

Sorry if I have lost you. If you are one of the hundreds of millions of Indians for whom Red Label, Green Label etc connotes only the teas, you will need a long education in whiskey snobbery. But if you are again one of the hundreds of millions of Indians for whom names of red/black/blue label whiskies are as familiar as characters from Sholay [Images], you will empathise with my friend's predicament. To think that you go into a flashy business party and are offered wine and no whiskey is a bit of a shock.

And yet this is what reality is in California and increasingly, as I find, in much of the Western world.

As Indians we have been brought up on Whiskey. Put it down to the colonial legacy and all that. Before you protest and let loose the NGOs on me, let me confess somewhat shamefacedly that I am not focusing now on the majority of the masses for whom any drink, including clean water, is a luxury.

Yes, I am being insensitive, elitist and exclusivist. I also plead guilty for ignoring the convictions of millions of teetotallers, all the good men and women for whom any talk of any kind of alcohol is sinful. My apologies and this story is not for you. But my deviant mind still suspects that there are yet, particularly among Rediff readers, a sufficient number for whom these fundamental questions between whiskey and wine is of some interest. It is in this spirit that I intend to dilate on this 'spiritual' issue.

Class distinctions are inherent to human nature as Marx said. This is true of the drinking classes, as well. Hence there is an elaborate protocol for alcohol. Generations of hostel students in India believed in the goodness of good old Indian rum. XXX signalled the fashionable proletariat in the universities and it still does.

As we grew up, though there was always IMFL -- Indian Made Foreign Liquor -- a very inelegant acronym dreamed up by some excise department, the Hindi films showed the well heeled and the upper classes drinking something else. VAT-69 was the initial icon of Scotch whiskey in the Hindi cinema, which left an imprint on the Indian imagination till ever so slowly Johnny Walker came walking. (As any historian of Bollywood will tell you Johnny Walker was not originally the name of the comedian, but of the drink which got identified with this comedian and his method of inebriation.)

It is today a well kept secret that more Johnny Walker whiskey is drunk in India than has ever been bottled in Scotland, its home. The reason is simple. The brand has acquired such a symbol that the bottles are continuously recycled in India, with god knows what. An entire segment of the bootlegging industry has just specialised in this craft and red and black labels have become household names... well in whiskey drinking households. I am getting carried away with the sociology of whiskey drinking in India. My purpose was different, was to look at the interloper 'wine' in this scheme of things.

Brought up in this environment it comes as a surprise to most Indians when they travel abroad that whiskey is not the automatic first choice for drinking classes. You are not only expected to accept and appreciate wine in sophisticated circles, but are also supposed to be knowledgeable. And let me assure you that it is not easy.

Wine has always spelt trouble, literally so. Who can either spell or pronounce Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon, names of regions or grapes, but all terribly complex. I cannot, after a lifetime in diplomacy, and have always suspected that the whole point of the wine snobbery was for the French, the masters at this, to establish their one-upmanship. But it is not just the poor colonised like us that are intimidated. Most Americans were too, despite their familiarity with grapes and wines, of which California is no small producer.

The wine wars between the US and French are legendary. I am told that people did imbibe Californian wines but it was held that they could not be compared to the inimitable and almost mystical French wines. You see, the French has developed this notion of terrior, an exotic concept for the land, the air, the history and the culture in which specific grapes are grown in France [Images].

In 1976 history was made. In a 'blind tasting,' that is a competition in which experts sip wines without seeing the labels or knowing their antecedents, the Californian wines were judged superior to the snooty French wines. Napa valley, the wine growing areas in California had triumphed over the terrior and have never looked back.

Today, as I said, the question that you are asked is 'Red or White', to know which wine you would rather start with. Then there are a hundred other choices and an education that cannot be completed in a life time. The colour, the bouquet, the taste, the after taste and a hundred other attributes are discussed and analysed till the whole discourse raises to such dizzying levels that you are more drunk with the talk than the drink.

The ever pragmatic and as the Europeans would have, the ever philistine Americans have tried to simplify all this. One Mr Robert Parker thought up the idea of giving marks to bottles of wines based on his expert palate. He is now known as 'a million dollar nose' since based on the judgement of his palate and his nose fortunes are made or lost for winegrowers. Thus today if you see a score of 90 on a bottle on the Parker sale, you can assume that it is a superior wine, no matter what its colour, acid content and other attributes. Makes life simple for the uneducated.

The French however have scoffed at such efforts and will tell you that a wine is like a woman, each different, each exquisite, not to be compared and to be loved one at a time. Wine drinking for them is a sensual experience; for Americans there is no experience including the spiritual which cannot be quantified and put on a scale!

Guess what. There comes a time in life when you drink, not to get drunk, but to hold forth. You are then ready for wine. Against all my attitudes and upbringing I am slowly turning into an oenophile. No, it is not a disgusting disease or a perversion. It is the word for a wine connoisseur. Who knows, one day in the future I may be able to educate you more about when to go for 'Red' and when for 'White.'

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

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