Over the last two decades in the SF Bay Area, I’ve run into several Indian American Silicon Valley moguls who have given my pedestrian self the impression that to really, really have arrived in life you must, besides traveling first-class, know your dry from your sweet and your varietal from your bouquet. They made it clear that the route to becoming a wine snob might not lie by warehouse stores and in gallon jars. Indians, they swore, have never been wine connoisseurs.
While the Hindu scriptures of the Vedic age refer to “Soma,” an intoxicating drink offered by Brahmin priests, winemaking and wine appreciation have never been organic to the Indian way of life, at least in recent history. Muslim conquests and colonial rule blurred the way the Indian subcontinent perceived alcohol. The British Raj pegged down generations of Indians to the sway of whiskey and scotch.
These drinking traditions take time to supplant. “The second and third generation of Indian Americans may have begun to appreciate wine but the first generation is still into Johnny Walker Blue Label and Chivas Regal,” says Raghu Sawkar, owner of Sonoma’s Sawkar Family Vineyards.
Rajat Parr, a celebrated Indian American sommelier who oversees the wine program for the Michael Mina group of restaurants, sees several reasons for the resistance among the older generation of Indian Americans. “Usually the whiskey drinker is not a wine drinker,” he says. And sipping wine, in contrast to drinking hard liquor, demands savvy and etiquette. He points out that the difference in attitude may indeed be cultural. “In India, you drink before you eat,” he says. The concept of harmonizing food with beverage and savoring the symphony is new for the Indian American palate.
Sawkar says the problem also lies with mindset. “Indian restaurant owners need to offer a much more decent wine list,” he says, though he underscores the inherent resilience of the Indian American clientele in coughing up premium price for a good bottle of wine.
But the times, they are a-changing.
Deepti Illa, Vice President of Marketing and Managing Partner at De Novo Wines, sees changing perspectives among the people she meets. She feels wine is becoming more acceptable among Indians, sometimes even for health reasons: it helps the heart and is easier on the stomach. She sees another development. “I see more Indian women choosing to drink wine. I guess they see it as a more “acceptable” drink,” says the woman who calls herself the wine “demystifier” for Indian Americans in the SF Bay Area.
While talking to Deepti Illa, it’s easy to fall in love with the idea of drinking wine. She distils the issue of food and wine pairing down to this: “Everyone’s palate is different. Go with what works for you.” At some point in the conversation, Illa lets drop that she recently bought some excellent imported wine at bargain prices. Rest assured, I tell myself. Costco may well be a pit stop on the road to both wine knowledge and wine snobbery. Illa says she tells wine lovers to explore and even go online looking for fine boutique wines that may never see the shelves of a physical store.
In 1992, Rajeev Samant, a one-time Silicon Valley engineer, went back to his hometown in India. Realizing that Nasik had potential as a wine region, Samant established Sula Vineyards, Nasik’s first winery in 1999. Today Nasik is considered India’s wine capital with 35 wineries and Sula is also considered a pioneer in sustainable winemaking.
After Samant’s successful experiment, it was only a matter of time before Indian Americans succumbed to the charm of the perfect California climate. Some have experimented with backyard vineyards, like Mohini and Balu Balakrishnan, who found that their new home deep in the hills of Saratoga came with a ripening one and a half acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. When they decided to bottle their estate reserve wine from a barrel set up for them in their garage, they ended up learning how to bottle, seal, label, store and, of course, savor the 300 bottles of a wine labeled “Mohini,” not just an eponymous appelation but also a dedication to an avatar of Hindu god Vishnu.
Others have plunged into wine entrepreneurship with gusto. These wine philosophers have sought academic degrees in viticulture and enology. Their minds have steeped in wine and soaked in oak.
They have dug in and planted vines, acres of them. They have harvested and hauled grapes. They have blended into the local landscape, becoming respected activists in mainstream wine-growing communities. In some cases, they have capped off their work by labeling their wines with ethnic names that raised a toast to their Indian heritage.
Indian American wine bottles are creeping into wine lists at upscale Indian restaurants in the country. Their names are seeping into wine blogs. They are stealing awards. Along the way, these passionate winemakers are teaching fellow Indian Americans how to swirl their wine (in the right glass) and observe loftily that “something is unforgivably tannic yet surprisingly smooth.”
Vintners believe that education, and that certain savoir-faire about wine, is key. According to snobsite.com, “Central to the very premise of wine appreciation is the notion that it requires an advanced skill set; that, in order to fully understand and enjoy the experience of sniffing and sipping fermented grape juice, one must have a cache of special knowledge to which mere ordinary people do not have access. Wine snobbery is, therefore, the default state of the wine enthusiast.”
Realizing that wine snobbery, like wine itself, was an acquired taste, I hit the wine trails. And en route, I found myself taking a detour to uncork the lives of enterprising, spade-and-shovel Indian American wine entrepreneurs who have been putting their money where their nose is.
Avtar Singh Sandhu
Mushal Winery & Vineyards, Sonoma, California.
Rows of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc grapes press into Avtar Singh Sandhu’s home in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley. “Papa planted every grape you see here. Ours is the steepest hillside vineyard in Dry Creek Valley and it was a jungle when he got it,” says Sonia Sandhu-Torre, his daughter, talking about her father’s 100-acre property. Inside the house a portrait gallery of family members adorns one bedroom wall; the family’s ancestral village Muchchal, in India’s Amritsar district, inspired the name “Mushal.”
Engineering consultant Avtar Singh Sandhu first sipped wine in 1962 in Berkeley, California, where he pursued a Master’s degree in structural engineering. It changed his life forever. Sandhu’s hobby fermented into a passion. “He’s a Jat Sikh. Jat Sikhs love alcohol, as you know,” Sandhu-Torre laughs. “And he has farming in his blood, so this is what he always wanted to do.”
India-based Sandhu, who visits his vineyards in Sonoma for six months of the year, strolls through 14 blocks of orchards every evening to check on his vines’ wellbeing. “When you’re growing grapes, you have to be there. The minute you walk away and leave it to others it’s not the same because they don’t care. It’s not their money, papa tells me,” his daughter says, pouring a Mushal Merlot Rose 2009 which won the Gold award at the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
“He won’t wait for the farmer. He’ll get up at midnight and at 6 a.m. to turn on the pumps. The attention he puts into each grape is unbelievable. He’ll bite into one and say ‘This doesn’t taste right, I have to water it more’.”
Sandhu has been an active part on the Geyserville Planning Commission; everyone in the region knows him and loves his hospitality. Sandhu has shown hardened steak lovers the masala-strewn path of the lamb curry. In a business in which few Indian Americans chose to root themselves, Sandhu became a spokesperson for the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, fighting for better prices for grapes purchased by winemakers. “How good the grape is determines the quality of the wine,” says Sandhu-Torre, adding that winemakers demand quality of grape but hesitate to pay.
Today, this retired vice president of Bechtel Corporation is clearing new vine trails: stepping up exports of California wine to emerging markets like India.
Sawkar Family Vineyards, Sonoma, California
The love for wine made vascular surgeon Raghu Sawkar travel through the world’s wineries during the years he was practicing as a physician in Cleveland Ohio. He compares collecting wine to collecting art. “At one time I had 40,000 bottles in my collection,” he says. “I used to trade them.” Sawkar’s passion also found him belonging to a wine club in Cleveland, Ohio, where his wine compadres challenged one another by sipping, swirling, and spitting out the year and the pedigree. “Nobody knew what was inside each brown bag.
We had to taste it, describe it, identify the year and the region the bottle came from. Out of ten we used to recognize five or six bottles.” Sawkar says that a connoisseur might soar to the level of expert after 25 years of soaking in the knowledge and seeking precision every time,
In 1998, Sawkar moved away from his career and his hometown of Cleveland to enter the greener pastures of Napa Valley. He bought 23 acres at an altitude of a 1,000 feet in the Sonoma mountains, created the Sawkar Family Vineyards, and hired Kerry Damskey, an internationally recognized winemaking consultant, as his winemaker to craft his namesake wines. Sawkar decided to educate himself fully by enrolling full-time in Napa Valley College to pursue an associate degree in viticulture and wine technology. Today, Sawkar is also a consultant winemaker for a handful of young vintners in India, after training as assistant winemaker to Damskey.
Sawkar is a walking encyclopedia of wine facts and a barrelful of anecdotes on the wine world. He talks about the time when Robert Parker was invited for tasting at his wine club. Parker is the creator of The Wine Advocate that has over 50,000 subscribers in over 37 foreign countries. The Wine Advocate influences trends and buying habits around the world. Wines live or die by Parker’s ratings. When Parker was invited to the club, he was presented with ten bottles, the last of which, Sawkar says, was a teaser bottle that he threw in from Sula Vineyards in Nashik, India. Parker identified precisely nine of the ten bottles and nailed the teaser to the precise region. “I’m not sure about this last bottle. It doesn’t belong in any of the other categories. I suspect it’s from the new world.”
Divya Wines, Malibu, California
The name for Divya Wines was inspired by the Sanskrit word for “divine,” a nod to the beauty of the Malibu coast cresting the Santa Monica mountains. When Ravi Achar and his son Chris sensed the need for a wine collection that paired well with the strong flavors and spicy aromas of South Asian and Pan Asian cuisines, they partnered with Beverley Hills-based attorney Arnold Peter and former tennis star Ashok Amritraj to launch Divya Wines in the fall of 1996.
After 14 years of experience in viticulture in partnership with Ronald Semler at the Malibu Family Wines, the Achars chased their dream of concocting a new wine for a new market. “We wanted it to be recognizable to our community through its name and its label artwork.
But we didn’t want to be too ethnic so non-Indians would turn away from it,” Chris Achar says, adding that they must indeed have found the perfect balance, because Divya has garnered tremendous excitement in the non-Indian community as well. Divya’s label artwork draws inspiration from Indian mehndi designs and the logo includes a “d” which has the side of an elephant’s head worked into it.
In recent times, Divya’s signature Cabernet and Chardonnay bottles, besides gracing the Oscar party of Slumdog Millionaire, have turned up at many philanthropic causes in southern California. Divya Wines supports organizations like the America India Foundation and also sponsors events such as the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.
The father and son duo like to think of their effort as another step in the direction of the evolution of the Indian American community. “In the past, when an Indian American walked into an Indian restaurant he could order an Indian beer. Now he can walk into one and order a bottle of Indian wine.”
Kalpana Mohan, a newborn wine snob, will now retire to her whine cellar where she will—over a chilled 2008 Chateau Soucherie Rose de Loire—reevaluate every old friendship based on the friend’s wine savvy and etiquette.
Food and Wine Pairings
Sipping wine between bites of food? The taste of your wine changes depending on what you are eating. The acids, tannins, and sugar in the wine react to the food to offer a different taste. Sommelier Rajat Parr discusses these and more in Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World’s Top Wine Professionals, the book he co-authored with Jordan Mackay. Below are his pairing suggestions for popular Indian cuisines.
• North Indian Mughlai cuisine (Chicken Makhani, Tandoori Chicken etc.): This is mostly red wine food. Suggested wines: Northern Rhone (French) Syrah. St Joseph or Côte-Rôtie.
• Chaat Bites (Bhelpuri, Samosa, Tikki etc.): German Riesling is the best with sweet, sour, and spicy dishes.
• Indian Chinese Fusion (Gobi Manchurian etc.): Light white wines pair well with this cuisine.
Suggested wines: Riesling and Pinot Gris (dry) from Alsace. Even a German Riesling will work if the dish is a little sweet.
• Bengali Cuisine: Seafood lends itself to white wine. Suggested wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc from the Loire valley.
• Chettinad Cuisine: Back to German Riesling for whites and light Gamay-based wines for red. Serve a Cru Beaujolais chilled.
• Kerala Coconut-based Cuisine: Due to the richness and heat of the dishes German Rieslngs are best. Serve Kabinett Rieslings with these dishes.
• Goan Curries: Light Northern Rhône Syrah, Saint-Joseph, or Côte-Rôtie.
• Parsi Cuisine: Light Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, Pinot Gris. Delicate reds for light meats and bold Syrahs for the heavier dishes.
A Glossary of Wine Terms
Appellation: A defined viticultural growing region, whereby specific grape varietals are grown, harvested and made into wine. Example: Sonoma County, Napa Valley.
Backward: Term is used to describe wine that is high in alcohol content and tannins.
Barrel Fermented: White wine that is fermented in an oak barrel instead of a stainless steel tank.
Barrel Tasting: Samples of wine taken directly from the barrel and poured into wine glasses for immediate tasting.
Body: The weight and tactile impression of the wine on the palate that ranges from light to heavy/full.
Bouquet: The characteristic aroma or “nose” of wine in a glass.
Breathing: When wine is decanted, allowing it to react with air.
Decant: To pour wine from one container to another, in order to remove sediment and aerate the wine. Decanters are the clear glass vessels that have been used for this purpose to pour off the clear wine into the decanter. Aerate the wine also brings out its aromas.
Dry Wine: A wine in which the sugars are almost totally fermented, producing a wine with no perceptible sweetness.
Horizontal Wine Tasting: A wine tasting that has a selection of wines from the same vintage (year that the grapes were harvested) but from different estates or vineyards.
Organoleptic: A method of evaluating wine by taste, smell, and sight rather than through chemical analysis.
Tannic: is used to describe wine that has a certain mouth feel caused by tannins. Tannins are found in the skin, stems, and seeds of wine grapes but can also be introduced to the wine through the use of oak barrels and chips or with the addition of tannin powder. The astringency from the tannins (grape polyphenols that affect color, age, and wine texture) cause the dry and puckery feeling in the mouth following the consumption of red wine.
Terroir: A combination of soil, climate, environment, and growing conditions in the vineyard
Varietals: Types of wines made from a specific varietal of grapes. Example: Chardonnay, Merlot.
Vertical Wine Tasting: A wine tasting that has a range of wines from different years from one estate or vineyard.
Vintage: A wine’s vintage refers to the year that the wine’s grapes were harvested, not the year the wine was bottled.
Courtesy Deepti Illa