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LEADER ARTICLE: Through The Wine Glass

The past five years have seen a dramatic shift in the drinking habits of affluent urban Indians. More and more sophisticated city-dwellers are giving up their old hard liquor habits and switching to the softer option of wine. In the 90s, wine was still an afterthought at celebrations or evenings out at the club, but with increased availability of good, affordable locally produced wine, drinking patterns are changing fast.
During the last three years the trend has accelerated, with wine consumption in India jumping 25 per cent annually, a rate that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. What are the reasons for the spurt in wine drinking, and what was the tipping point?
One of the biggest factors is the social acceptability of women having a drink. Until recently it was still a tiny subset of women who would drink openly, while today most college graduates think nothing of having a glass or two on a social occasion. Women naturally gravitate towards wine, which has the dual benefit of being more socially acceptable than hard liquor, and also more suitable to a woman’s physiology.
That shift is mirrored in Bollywood, where not so long ago a woman who drank on screen was perceived to be a vamp, seductress or fallen woman. Then in Dil Chahta Hai you had Aamir Khan gifting a bottle of wine to Preity Zinta, and that set the trend. Today’s heroine enjoys a glass of wine with her man, as Priyanka Chopra does with Abhishek Bachchan in Bluffmaster, with absolutely no aspersions cast on her character by the audience. The same actresses, potent role models for young women, are seen daily on Page 3 holding glasses of wine at fashion shows and gallery openings. Look up the archives from just 10 years ago and you won’t see any wine in evidence.
Look at the number of gyms sprouting all over and it’s clear that health has become much more important among the affluent and educated. Wine gains from this trend, as it’s perceived as a much healthier choice than spirits. The media has extensively covered the health benefits of wine, especially red wine, over the past few years, and this definitely influences people’s opinions. Indians have the highest rate of heart disease of any ethnic group, so many doctors are advising their patients to switch to wine.
Increased affluence also tips the scales towards wine. Spirits get you high much cheaper and that’s a huge factor in a cash-poor society. Until recently college graduates earned Rs 4,000 a month in their first jobs, which really didn’t afford them enough spare change to drink relatively expensive wine. Today’s graduate might pocket Rs 20,000, which is more than enough to enjoy the finer things in life on a night out.
As we Indians travel more and more, we visit societies where wine is the main tipple. This is a huge influence. In the US today more people drink wine than beer, a quantum shift for that country. The UK is headed the same way. Of course, in continental Europe wine has been a way of life forever. As India integrates into the global economy, it becomes more important for business people to be able to speak a common language with their counterparts abroad, and wine is a global language today. Vineyard tourism is booming all over the world, including in our own Nashik. Someone who visits a vineyard is much more likely to become a wine drinker.
As locally produced wine becomes better and easily available, it creates pride among locals who then support the wine. This has been the trend all over the world. When Sula was launched, a lot of people scoffed about us not being able to stand up to imports. But there were many others who were thrilled to see a good wine being produced in India, and would serve it with pride in their homes.
The acreage under wine grapes is expanding in India, and soon you’ll see a multitude of labels at all price points, with decent varietal wine costing as little as Rs 150 a bottle in a year or two. That will make wine affordable to the middle class. State governments are playing their part by treating wine and beer differently from spirits.
Maharashtra, the leader in wine consumption and production, sparked the revolution when it waived excise duty on wine.
Recently, it allowed grocery stores to retail beer and wine. At one stroke this will increase availability of wine and will put attractively packaged wine bottles in front of shoppers for the first time. Before this, our wine shops did not have the best environment. Now with food chains stocking and promoting wine, you can bet that it’s going to become a shopping cart staple.
What lies ahead? It’s instructive to look to China, which has come from nowhere to be one of the world’s top 10 wine producers and consumers. The phenomenon is also seen all over Asia, which followed the same trend from spirits to beer to wine. India is now the latest country to embark on that path.
Today, smaller cities are seeing big consumption gains, not just the metros. States like Punjab, which were considered hardcore spirits markets, are seeing wine consumption double. For an Indian wine producer, these are the best of times.
The writer is CEO, Sula Vineyards.

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