Corkeyed: Millennials are changing India’s wine industry

On an oppressively-muggy Mumbai night, on 22 April, 11 women congregated in an air-conditioned refuge called The Wine Rack, unwound over a blind tasting session, and played an unwitting role in stirring India’s wine industry from its slumber.

Mumbai’s Biggest Wine Bar

The Wine Rack is Mumbai’s biggest wine bar, with floor-to-ceiling racks of 300-plus wines from 45 countries. Fourteen of its 21-page bar menu is dedicated to vino. The ambiance, with distressed walls and mood lighting, is ‘aspirational-chic’, a breed of millennial-frequented establishments that have spread across the city’s former mill lands like a gentrification fungus. Places like these infused new life in beer and gin. They may also rip the straitjacket off of wine’s image.

And so it was in The Wine Rack that the 11 overwhelmingly-millennial (23-38 years old) women described three unidentified red wines in ways that’d make purists keel:

“Number one was like a bad boyfriend.”

“The first is like a good date. Two are philosophical. Three is a friend.”

“The second one was mysterious, but opened up slowly.”

“Really? It left a bad taste in my mouth. Like my ex [peals of laughter].”

“I’d say wine number three is fun, flirty, and forgiving…”

“Wait, how can wine be forgiving?”

In vino veritas (In wine, there is the truth)

The Wine Rack session was one of the monthly wine events organized by Sonal Holland, India’s only Master of Wine — the highest qualification in the wine world — and the woman behind the India Wine Insider report. Its 2018 edition (paywall), co-authored by industry research firm Wine Intelligence, reveals that over half of India’s wine drinkers are millennials.

That they prefer Indian and new world (non-European) wines over the old world (France, Italy, Spain, Germany). That women have a higher propensity than men to spend more on this alcohol, which is unseen with beer and spirits. This was a finding in the 2017 version of the report too, which revealed women were willing to pay an average of Rs 2500 ($36) per glass of wine in fine dining establishments. For men, this average was Rs 2124 ($30.5). For retail purchase, the average was Rs 1250 ($18) for women, versus Rs 1124 ($16) for men.

Based on anecdotal industry observations, Indian millennials are also describing wine in ways hitherto unheard of. Now, the crux of blind tasting is to either guess which wine originates from where or pick the best in a lot that’s unidentified. This is done to eliminate inherent bias towards, say, a French wine over any other. Tastings, whether blind or not, are prone to grandiloquent descriptions, such as ‘“steely”, “cassis”, and “freshly-opened can of tennis balls and fresh new rubber hose“. But newfangled descriptors, like the ones used at The Wine rack, tend to be experiential and anthropomorphic rather than exacting.

Little Knowledge 

“Millennials are drinking more wine but have little knowledge about what they’re drinking. Yet, they have no baggage about it. Wine snobbery doesn’t intimidate them, because they don’t relate to it in the first place,” says Holland.

This nonchalance towards the fineries of wine, the emergence of new wine-producing countries, and multiple retail formats are changing the way Indian winemakers think. They’re being pushed to acquire vineyards that would never have been on their radar and to experiment with processes, price points, and packaging. They’re being pushed to unlearn.

But for some, unlearning equals sticking a thumb in the face of all that’s holy. Aficionados are sour about businesses bending to millennials, who shun wine pedagogy with the indifference of the Grim Reaper. Why not appeal to them without dumbing wine down to the fruity stuff, spritzers, and wine in cans, they ask? Valid questions. But the old school has musty corridors.

So it’s in newfangled schools like The Wine Rack that Sonal Holland increasingly teaches. She circles the group’s community table in her crisp ankle-length pants, black-white-gold striped shirt, kitten heels, and immaculate make-up. Her manicured hands gesture and her drop earrings dance as she explains what goes into evaluating wine quality. Remember ‘BLIC’, she sums up. Short for Balance, Length, Intensity, and Complexity.