The winter chill, mixed with the aroma of fresh green and red grapes coming in from lush green farmlands, has made the Nashik air heady and romantic.
This is that time of the year when the grape harvest begins in around vineyards spread across 100,000 hectares (240,000 acres) in western, southern and central Maharashtra, for despatch to scores of wine producers in the region.
"We plan to crush nearly 10,000 tonnes of grapes, 20 percent more than 2014. The farmers will receive over Rs.40 crore," a beaming Rajeev Samant, CEO of Sula Vineyards, arguably India’s biggest wine producer, told IANS.
The 2015 harvest will be celebrated by the unique Gourmet World Music Festival with more than 10,000 revellers expected from around the country. The performers include Sameer Gadhia of Young The Giant (US), Gentleman’s Dub Club, Will and The People, Yes Sir Boss!, Lucky Ali, Nucleya, Swarathma, Sandunes and many more, along with wine crushing, wine tasting, wine & music pairing and the like.
This year, the climate during the ripening phase was almost perfect, barring a short spell of unseasonal rain and hail, but the wine grapes escaped major damage, though the table grapes took the brunt of the inclement weather.
Maharashtra produces 75 percent of India’s wine and table grapes and the remaining 25 percent comes from Karnataka, with some other states also now gradually entering the growing business.
"However, only two percent of the total plantations grow wine grapes, compared to 90 percent in Europe and the US, where consuming wine is a part of the dining culture, unlike India where serving any wine or liquor is still considered taboo," Samant smiled.
The grape industry directly employs around 300,000 farmers, foreign experts/consultants and others, again negligible compared to 90 percent employed by the industry in Europe, he explained.
The industry, which was discouraged during British rule, took birth in 1980s with Indage, the country’s first wine producer, starting its operations. In 2000, when Sula Wines was launched, it proved to be a game-changer. Within a couple of years there were over two dozen such companies, encouraged by the progressive Maharashtra Grape Processing Policy of 2001.
There were certain compelling political reasons behind encouraging the wine industry, including support of some top leaders like Sharad Pawar and an overall attempt to arrest the growing influence of the state’s powerful sugar lobby.
According to Samant, presently it costs around Rs.70,000 per acre for cultivating wine grapes and up to Rs.90,000 per acre for table grapes. The fruit thrives in highly fluctuating temperatures with warm days and very cool nights – ideal conditions that Nashik offers.
This year, an estimated 25,000 tonnes of grapes will be crushed with an industry target of quadrupling output to 100,000 tonnes by 2020 as more and more farmers are shifting to cultivating wine grapes, Samant added.
Sula alone works with over 300 grape-growers in Maharashtra and Karnataka with 10-year guaranteed buyback arrangements, spurring a huge growth in rural employment and incomes.
Strangely, India ranks virtually nowhere with just 12 ml (0.012 litres) per capita wine consumption vis-a-vis China’s 1,000 ml (one litre), Britain’s 12 litres and France’s 40 litres.
Moreover, wine accounts for barely one percent of all the alcoholic beverages produced here, but Indians top the global charts in per capita whisky consumption, Samant laughed.
He lamented that there is no central level wine policy in the country although in the US and other countries, as also in Europe, there are exclusive wine universities imparting education, besides spirited wine and business policies promoting the industry.
"Lately, foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Indian wine industry is growing. Most companies have foreign advisors and technical collaborations… Indian wine even graces tables in Britain, Japan, Germany and the US, but domestic growth itself is a major challenge," Samant said.
The company’s wine range includes varieties of Sula Reds, Whites, Rose, Sparkling and Desserts and select imported brands from around the world, with options for online shopping and home delivery.