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Vineyards Yield Grapes of Raj

South Asia: An Indian businessman worried about torturing his French guests with low-quality wine. So he decided to make the good stuff himself.

July 08, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DOD BALLAPUR, India — On a freighter bound for France, a steel container carries a precious cargo of wine with a full-bodied bouquet, fit for laying one or two cultural myths to rest.

The 12,000 bottles of red, white and rose are destined for the cellars of some of the best restaurants in Paris, where upstart Indian vintner Kanwal Grover is about to make his stand in a city where noses turn up at the very mention of imported wine.

After 20 years of meticulous work, from testing soil samples and 35 types of vines to selecting the best cork, Grover intends to prove not only that India makes fine wine, but that the vintages also go nicely with curry.

For now, French vintners aren't terribly worried, sommelier Franck Thomas said from Paris, because most of the 50,000 bottles Grover Vineyards expects to sell over the next year will go to restaurants serving Indian food.

But Thomas, who was voted Europe's best sommelier last year by international experts, not only took time to visit the Grover vineyards as a guest last month, he spent a whole evening tasting its wine, a major coup in itself.

"I was fairly impressed by the quality of the red," said Thomas, who also owns Les Dunes restaurant in Cannes. "It's not a great wine, but it's a good wine."

Not effusive praise, yet a stunning endorsement for a winery founded just over 12 years ago, in a country better known for gripes than grapes.

Grover, 75, made his money in machine tools and branched out into partnerships with foreign firms, such as defense contractors and the French rocket company Arianespace, which Grover's Hindustan Export & Import Corp. represents in India.

As India slowly began to open up its economy in the early 1980s, and French executives arrived to talk business, Grover was embarrassed by the extremely limited wine lists here, where most palates prefer rotgut whiskey and beer.

"A lot of the export directors and the managing directors of these companies were wine lovers," said Grover's son, Kapil. "They were the sort of people who would drive one hour to have a nice meal and a fine bottle of wine.

"There were four or five plants being opened by the French people in India. My dad would get a look at [the visitors] at lunchtime, and they would not have had their wine, and he would say, 'My own country is becoming a punishment station.' "

In the development of nations, don't underestimate the value of a good bottle of wine.

India's imported French wines were awful and ranked among the cheapest sold in France, Kapil Grover said. But by the time various Indian government agencies had taken their cut, with duties and taxes that still amount to more than two-thirds of the cost of a bottle, that price was ridiculous, he added.

The elder Grover decided that producing a good domestic wine was the only sensible thing to do.

That wouldn't be easy in a country with no tradition of winemaking and where the most popular vintages are still made from table grapes, with sugar and caramel added to smooth the edges.

But Grover was on a mission, driven by pride as much as taste, and he didn't hesitate. He found an immediate ally in Georges Vesselle, a former director of Champagne maker G.H. Mumm & Co. and such an expert on bubbly that headlines called him the "pope of Champagne."

After reading that Vesselle was helping the Chinese get into the wine business, Grover wrote and asked him to do the same for India, which he agreed to do at a meeting in December 1980.

"They got along absolutely famously, to the extent that after four hours, Mr. Vesselle took out a 1945 Bouzy Rouge," the younger Grover said. "And when Dad was leaving, he said, 'Oh, I completely forgot to talk about the Indian project.' Mr. Vesselle obviously knew about his passion and said, 'OK, it's my turn to visit you in India.' "

Vesselle brought cuttings of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and virtually every other variety of French vine and planted them in two spots to begin the experiment, Grover said.

"We had no equipment," he added. "And we had absolutely no idea how to make wine."

So, for the next seven years, Vesselle sent French students to India on their holidays to crush grapes with a 2-pound press in their hotel rooms and then fly 100 or more bottles back to the master's laboratory in France.

Then the Grovers went to France for blind tasting. Vesselle didn't tell them which vines each wine came from until they said which ones they liked, and he eventually convinced them that the best place to start a vineyard in India was in red, sandy loam about 20 miles north of Bangalore.

The first vines were planted in 1989 on 20 acres at the foot of the Nandi Hills in southern India. The vineyard, on land leased from small farmers, is now spread across 120 acres and is still growing.

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