There was a time, about a decade ago, when the wine dinner phenomenon reminded me of the early days of fashion shows. Readers of a certain age may remember those fashion shows. In the ’80s and early ’90s, when Indian fashion was still a cottage industry, designers would be asked to organise fashion shows at any and every event: awards functions, restaurant openings, and even birthday parties.
It was not that anyone who watched these shows cared very much about fashion. It was
a) that the shows provided live entertainment
b) they gave women an excuse to pretend to be knowledgeable about clothes ("His clothes are just like Dior, na?") and
c) the guys loved the babe action.
How else would middle-aged men get to stare quite so openly at young girls? This way, as they ogled the models on the ramp, they could pretend that they were checking out the clothes.
The wine dinner served a similar purpose. About a decade ago, most of us knew nothing about wine. But a wine dinner with some French, Italian or American winemaker was an invitation to covet because
a) it meant free food and wine,
b) the women could dress up and
c) both men and women could pretend to be sophisticates who knew all about wine ("This is a very light Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc.")
But as the years have gone on, both the fashion industry and the wine business have changed. These days fashion shows are directed mainly at the trade and held in decidedly dodgy locations. And wine dinners have become more democratic. They are no longer freebie events but are usually ticketed which means that anyone who cares about wine and food can pay (though prices are usually highly subsidised), can attend and can interact with some of the best winemakers in the world.
There are some parallels, however, that everybody tries to avoid referring to: the sense of failure that haunts both the Indian fashion industry, which has failed to produce a single internationally respected designer of great consequence despite predictions to the contrary, and the wine business, which has refused to reach the size we once expected. The reason so many foreign winemakers began coming to India a decade or so ago was because they thought we would be the next China. But while wine consumption has soared in China, Indians have not taken to good wine as quickly as predicted.
The very first wine dinners I attended were organised by Sanjay Menon, who is not only the most knowledgeable person I know in India when it comes to wine, but is also the man who almost single-handedly created the wine culture in our country. Sanjay is passionate about wine and though he is a significant importer of fine wines, he is essentially a wine evangelist. He has promoted wine because he cares about it, not because he hopes to turn a quick buck. (My guess is that if he were more cold-blooded and less passionate, his business would be even bigger than it is today.)
Sanjay’s wine dinners were the most fun because, in his quest for perfection, he would not only get the most relevant information out of the visiting winemaker so that the rest of us could learn but he would also insult the food and beverage manager, humiliate the chef and make one or two of the better-looking lady guests blush. But nobody minded (except for the chefs and the F&B managers, perhaps, come to think of it) because Sanjay is a great life-enhancer and fun to be with.
Now, as the wine business has grown, many other importers have entered the fray (Aman Dhall is easily the biggest) and wine dinners are routinely organised in every major city. Dharti Desai who runs Fine Wines N More, another top importer, once told me that it was the response in such cities as Lucknow that she found most surprising and gratifying.
The problem – from my perspective – with wine dinners in India is that our chefs do not understand wine and most of India’s so-called sommeliers are either charlatans or simply do not know how to pair food and wine. (I will now pause, so that outraged sommeliers can take to Twitter to tell us what geniuses they are and what a fool I am.)
The consequence is that the food served at these dinners is usually rubbish. At one such dinner, a famous Indian chef tried to pair a First Growth Bordeaux with chili. At another, for Pichon Longueville, the food was so bad that we all sent it back. Great wine usually does not need great food. The quality of the wine should be enough for the dinner to be a success. On the other hand, when chefs make dishes that actively interfere with our enjoyment of the world’s finest wines, it can be annoying.
Because some top winemakers still hope that India will go the China way, they continue to visit our country regularly and bring bottles of their wines for us to enjoy. In recent years, I’ve been to dinners where such great wines as Mouton Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Latour and Dom Pérignon have been served in generous quantities at hugely subsidised rates. (The winemakers take the hit because they see it as a long-term investment.) Had I not attended these dinners, I would probably never have tasted these wines.
Sometimes though, you can get lucky and find food that complements the wine. India’s greatest wine-collector is the industrialist Dhruv Sawhney, who not only has an outstanding cellar but generously shares it with other wine-lovers at the dinners he organises at the Delhi Taj. Dhruv is too rich and too classy to charge anybody for dinner. But he is also very careful so he organises at least two tastings of the food and the wine before approving the menu.
Because Dhruv is well-known in the global wine community, great winemakers seek him out. Last year Château Margaux brought Alain Passard to cook at its wine dinners. Passard is one of France’s greatest chefs and his specialty is the cooking of vegetables. So Passard cooked his vegetarian menu at ticketed dinners in Bombay and Bangalore. In Delhi however, Dhruv paid Passard personally and the dinner was by invitation only. (And free!)
Passard’s food drew a mixed response from Indians (an entire course consisted of two roast onions, for instance), many of whom found it too strange and too little. (Some of the guests then went out for a second dinner). But the Château Margaux people loved it, so I guess you have to be French to understand that kind of thing. On the other hand, a recent Haut-Brion dinner at Le Cirque (Sanjay organised both the Margaux and Haut -Brion visits), where the food was less complicated, was a particular triumph.
The single best food and wine dinner I’ve ever been to, however, took place in Bombay last week. It was hosted by the International Wine and Food Society (IWFS), and was not cheap (Rs 20,000 per head). But two things made it exceptional. The first was that IWFS (in the shape of Sanjay) coaxed Gagan Anand out of his kitchen and flew him down from Bangkok with five chefs and 200kg of high-quality ingredients.
The second was that Gagan cooked in the most perfect venue I’ve ever seen for a wine dinner. The Four Seasons in Bombay has opened a new private meeting space with a vast open kitchen. There were around 30 of us on five round tables and we were encouraged to wander into the kitchen and see how the food was made. Plus Gagan came out and explained each course to the diners.
Sanjay chose the wines (between 93 to 96 Parker points if you care about that sort of thing) and when you consider that there were seven wines and twelve courses, the cost did not seem needlessly excessive. (IWFS makes no profit and Gagan did not charge a fee). Plus, we got to eat all of Gagan’s greatest hits: the foie gras with red onion
, the sandalwood-smoked chicken, the lamb chops with beet puree, the mushroom
, the truffle and pepper soup etc.
Adarsh Jatia, whose family owns the Four Seasons in Bombay, was at my table and he told me he intends to use this remarkable space for more wine dinners and to create pop-up restaurants for visiting chefs. I hope he does, because this, I think, may be the future of the wine dinner: invite small groups, get a great chef, get somebody like Sanjay to choose the wines and let guests understand the food, the wine and the pairings by interacting with the chef and the sommelier (in this case, Sanjay).
Clearly, the wine dinner, like the fashion show, has come a long way from its beginnings. And I’d still rather go out for a good dinner than a catwalk extravaganza. At least, this way you get good wine. At the other thing, all they have is coke.
From HT Brunch, September 29
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch