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Mon, Aug 13, 2007 - Page 11 News List

Indian wine makers face challenges

CULTIVATING GROWTH New wealth is propelling an interest in industry but competition is rising both at home and from abroad

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , GUNDAMAKERE, INDIA

The Delhi Wine Club meets at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Delhi on July 29. The tiny Indian wine market is poised to grow by leaps as the country's whisky-drinking elite cultivate a taste for wine.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

They used to grow millet in the lap of these gentle hills, and mulberry trees to eke out silkworms. Today, the land is home to Kapil Grover's shiraz vines.

Grover's father, Kanwal, fueled by a stubborn passion, began growing wine grapes here in southern India as early as 1989, several years before the Indian economy shed its socialist garb and the moneyed classes multiplied. Last year, the winery produced 1.25 million bottles, easily double the production of two years ago.

Today, Grover watches the bittersweet fruits of globalization ripen. Luckily for him, the tiny Indian wine market is poised to grow by leaps as India's erstwhile whiskey-drinking elite cultivates a taste for wine. At the same time, stiff competition looms: Prompted by complaints filed by the EU and US at the WTO, New Dehli reduced tariffs on imported liquor last month, potentially making a shiraz from Coonawarra, Australia, for instance, as affordable as Grover's offering from Gundamakere.

Tariffs must be capped at 150 percent now, from rates that were as high as 550 percent.

While more than a third of all Indians live on less than US$1 a day, the country's nose for wine, an outgrowth of new wealth and world travel among India's swelling ranks of the rich, can be discerned in the wine clubs sprouting across India's new-money citadels, the vineyard wine tours and the wider variety of wines now available at upmarket restaurants.

"Lately, it's a style statement," said Aslam Gafoor, a hospitality industry executive, at a wine tasting in Bangalore.

Several Australian varietals were offered that evening at the host restaurant, Olive Beach, with a ratings card for the tasters.

Wine is hardly a cheap thrill here. Olive Beach offers a 2003 Sassicaia for about US$400 (and occasionally sells it). A 2005 Cake-bread Cellars sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley goes for US$100 at the Park Hotel, not far away.

Indian supermarkets are preparing to devote shelves to wine; right now, buying wine means jostling with the drinking masses at state-owned liquor shops.

New wineries are being established, including one by Seagram, the first foreign liquor company to start producing wine in India. Sula Vineyards has opened a tasting room on its estate in Maharashtra.

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