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The new wine drinkers

Restaurateur Ashish Dev Kapur offers pointers on making wine fun and accessible to everyone

Ashish Dev Kapur. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Ashish Dev Kapur. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Every wine has a story, or at least it does for wine aficionado and restaurateur Ashish Dev Kapur, the man behind Mumbai’s The Wine Rack, which opened in January. The space merges a wine shop with a casual café to emerge as an unusual hybrid that puts the spotlight on wine. In a country which consumes 48% of the world’s whisky, this is a brave move, but it also mirrors a growing interest in wine in the well-travelled Indian. Kapur lays out four pointers for restaurateurs and wine growers to create a new ecosystem of wine:

Fusing the old and new worlds of wine

The evolution of Indian vineyards is creating new interest in wine. “The first wave of wine producers, Sula and Chateau Indage, started off in the conventional way, with standard varietals like Chenin, Shiraz and Sauvignon. Fast-forward 10 years and it is really cool to see local winemakers taking boutique grapes and planting them in India," says Kapur. He gives the example of Fratelli, which has vineyards dedicated to the Italian Sangiovese, while Charosa grows the Spanish Tempranillo. Kapur believes that in order for a wine-drinking culture to expand in India, it is important to have big local and international winemakers. “From a retail perspective, wine bars are a great way for foreign winemakers to introduce their wines in India as thekas (liquor shops) can be pretty unpleasant places," says Kapur.

Creating a wine democracy

For Kapur, wine doesn’t have to be synonymous with a stiff four-course meal. “The world over, wine is so much fun, and that is exactly what we want to do. We had to break the intimidation around wines," says Kapur. The Wine Rack, which takes this idea seriously, mimics a shop where 5,000 bottles of wine are stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves. Each bottle is arranged by grape or country and there are cheat-sheets that make choosing a fun process.

It is important to get winemakers to come and talk about their wines and offer tastings to make sure that they are accessible. Ambience plays a large part in making wine accessible, as does the food it is paired with. The Wine Rack is located in a mall overlooking a children’s play area.

For Kapur, wine can definitely be an easy drinking event, and everything is tailored to that, from food to design. The menu, designed by celebrity chef and MasterChef Australia contestant Sarah Todd, is what Kapur calls comforting, but with fine-dining ingredients like red-wine-infused duck kulchas or truffle churros.

Pairing value with taste

Wine drinking in India has a complicated relationship with pricing and quality. “I don’t think that drinking wine is about a developed palate or its lack thereof because I feel people are ready to drink wine, but do not consider it value for money," says Kapur. According to him, the important question we need to ask is, “Would Indians drink more wine if the pricing was right?" The import duties for foreign wines are 180% and the markups in restaurants make even a low-quality wine expensive. For most consumers, limited knowledge means they wouldn’t want to risk upwards of Rs4,000 a bottle and then get it wrong. For him, then, the onus lies with restaurateurs, who should mention the prices upfront, and also not be biased towards prohibitively expensive wines. He considers a good bottle of wine a mix of value, the chateau, and the grape, as well as packaging.

Telling stories

“I can walk you through the notes but telling stories is so much more fun. Our job is to demystify and break the barriers around the wine, but, at the same time, to not make it frivolous," says Kapur. “Whenever I see bankers or dealmakers, I offer them a bottle of Chianti Classico. It is what I call a hustler’s wine," says Kapur.

Legend has it that a horse race was proposed to end a long-standing land feud over the Chianti vineyards between neighbours Florence and Siena in the 13th century. Two knights were supposed to embark on a race when they heard the crowing of a rooster and the distance they covered would determine the new borders of each kingdom. The Florentines kept their rooster hungry in a box, and it started crowing the moment it was let out, which was an hour before its counterpart. Needless to say, the Florentine knight won the rights to all the vineyards in the area. The black rooster has, ever since, been immortalized on the label of Chianti. “The idea is to lead you in with the story, and, then, after a glass, if you are still interested, we can chat about the tannins and so on," says Kapur.

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