Karishma Grover: Pass the wine
The chief winemaker at Grover Zampa on the importance of making wine more inclusive, and clamping down on its snob value
Stillness is not Karishma Grover’s strong point. She likes moving “at a certain speed”. And that goes for her conversations too, which move fast and change subjects: from an underpass-obsessed Bengaluru to a dull-orange frog on a wall to actor Keanu Reeves stomping grapes, and winemaking challenges. And she talks about each of these subjects with the same passion and energy.
We are walking around Grover Zampa’s vineyard in Doddaballapur, about 45km from central Bengaluru, on a hot March afternoon. Grover, 33, is the chief winemaker at India’s second-largest wine company and the Doddaballapur vineyard is their oldest.
As we go further into the vineyard, she strikes up a conversation about what seems to be one of her biggest pet peeves—how stressful it is to buy and consume wine.
“People often ask me what glass they should drink wine in. I don’t care! Like teacups, man,” she says. “It’s not going to make your experience bad if you don’t have the right glassware.”
“Wine has to become more accessible and inclusive,” says Grover, who is dressed in blue jeans, a black T-shirt with the Grover Zampa name on it, and sturdy shoes. “The only way to do that is to talk about it in a casual way.” That “casual way” of thinking permeates everything, right down to her wardrobe. Jeans double up as everything, from daily vineyard-walk wear to formal meeting attire—much to her sister’s horror.
“My sister dies every time I get out of the house because I’ll tell her I’m going for this formal thing, should I wear blue jeans or black jeans? And she’ll ask me, ‘do you not have something that’s not jeans?’ and I tell her, yes—shorts,” she laughs.
Grover doesn’t believe in maintaining a superiority complex when it comes to knowing how to pronounce those hard-to-get European grape names. She picks Viognier as an example. Grover Zampa was the first to use the Viognier varietal of grape to launch a fermented barrel version of white wine in the country, in 2007.
But Indians haven’t accepted it with enthusiasm yet. Sure, there is taste to contend with when it comes to Viognier—it is heavier than other white wines—but the weird spelling has also worked against it, says Grover.
The more we talk about it, though, the more approachable it will become. Like the Sauvignon Blanc that is popular with Indian consumers, despite having a “random ‘g’ in it”, simply because it has been talked about so much, she says.
Grover is not alone in this pursuit of demystifying wine. A growing breed of winemakers and retailers believe educating people and clamping down on the snobbery is crucial. Of course, there is also a financial incentive.
In terms of volume, wine is not even a two-million-case (each case has 9 litres) business in India annually. Even gin is significantly larger, at around 2.5 million cases. Whisky, the undisputed industry leader, is a 195-million-case market, according to data from research firm International Wine and Spirits Research.
Wine is still a fledgling category mainly because it is considered too expensive by a majority of consumers, especially when they can get a bottle of whisky and a bigger kick for their buck for the same price. Increasing snob value will only make it that much tougher for the wine industry to expand.
She is doing her bit by creating short Instagram video clips of her explaining winemaking, and her company’s collection, in an easy-to-understand manner. These clips are called Wining With Karishma, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reference that dates back to 2002.
The Grover vineyards were started by her grandfather, Kanwal Grover, in 1988 with the Doddaballapur winery. Production began in 1992, and international wine consultant Michel Rolland came on board in 1995.
Karishma interned with Rolland at age 16, in 2002, at her father Kapil Grover’s suggestion. “My dad said, ‘come do an internship with Michel, but you can’t talk, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, and basically you have to pretend you are not here because you whine too much,’” she says with a laugh, adding that her father was paranoid about his daughter joining his workplace.
She allayed those fears, though. The internship inspired her enough to study winemaking. She did a bachelor’s in viticulture and oenology from the University of California, Davis (2003-07), and interned at Cakebread Cellars, Napa Valley.
When she returned to India, she decided to do another internship at Grover Zampa. But she became so involved that she never left. She started small after joining the company full-time in 2008—trying everything from winemaking to despatching and marketing—before realizing that her passion lay in production. As she puts it, she knows what is leaving the winery but she has no idea where it goes.
“Everybody asks how come you don’t know the business numbers, considering this is your grandfather’s company. I don’t care. I’m doing the production, and that’s my love. The problem with taking over the company and becoming the CEO is that it will take me too far away from production and I’m not ready to do that,” she says.
So the company has professionals running the business. The family holds around 24% stake, while Singapore-based investor Ravi Viswanathan and Reliance Capital together hold about 32%. The other major stakeholders are the promoters of Vallée de Vin, the company Grover Vineyards merged with in 2012 to form Grover Zampa Vineyards Ltd.
We taste a few key wines from the Grover stable. We start with a refreshing Zampa Soirée Brut and move on to a La Réserve Blanc, then an Art Collection Shiraz Rosé, and round it off with the company’s flagship La Réserve Red. We both agree on our love for the rosé, but Grover says she cannot pick one favourite drink—it depends on where she is, and her mood.
The temperature dips ever so slightly in the evening, and our conversation turns to a slightly difficult subject. In the years leading up to the merger, Grover Vineyards was criticized for its quality and experts attributed this as the reason for declining sales.
“There was a chemical being used in the vineyard to treat a pest, which was leaving a residual taste in the wine. It was not dangerous, and we did do residual pesticide testing, but it created an off-odour in the wine. We then decided that we didn’t want to go aggressive on expansion because we didn’t want to be forced to produce quantity when the quality didn’t match,” says Karishma Grover.
Grover Zampa’s revenue grew 6.54% to Rs57.77 crore in the year ending 31 March 2017, according to documents filed with the Registrar of Companies. During the same period, it registered a profit of Rs18.98 crore up from an annual loss of Rs14.44 crore the previous year.
But at 220,000 cases per year, Grover Zampa is about one-third the size of the country’s No.1 winemaker, Sula Vineyards Pvt. Ltd. Grover, however, is not worried. In fact, she is quick to praise Sula.
“Sula’s role in the industry is to expand it and that’s what they’ve done really well. They’ve made wine well known in India. People think of wine and they think Sula, and that’s not a bad thing. You need somebody who’s driving that,” she says.
In an industry as challenging as winemaking, that kind of open appreciation is probably more valued than in other industries. Winemaking is capital intensive, grape availability is a challenge, and, within that, quality is a bigger ask; finding land and water is another arduous task. Then, of course, as with all other alcoholic beverage categories, dealing with the excise policy landscape is another big challenge, says Grover.
The conversation veers into other topics, like how baffling she finds Bengaluru’s obsession with underpasses. Every single entry into Yelahanka—in the northern part of the city where she lives when in Bengaluru—is through an underpass, she tells me. She spends most of her time in southern Mumbai with her parents (and calls herself “happily single”) but is in Bengaluru for at least one week every month.
She’s amused when I ask her about a complaint on TripAdvisor that they don’t stomp grapes on their vineyard tours. “A lot of people have that impression because of A Walk In The Clouds (the movie). If Keanu Reeves were here, he can stomp all he wants!” she quips. But, she adds, grape-stomping leads to waste because even the people who do the stomping do not want to drink wine made from those grapes.
We’re distracted by a colourful bird that trills past us, and she tells me that the vineyard has a lot of birds, and an orange frog that is almost always perched high on the wall of the women’s restroom.
But we circle back to her favourite pet peeve at the end the day.
One of Grover’s biggest fights is getting everyone to agree to serve only Indian food with wines. A rosé, she says, will work beautifully with regular Indian staples like dal chawal or sambhar rice. She agrees that wine goes really well with the fanciest of meals, and that it can most certainly make for interesting technical discussions, but feels that it should not end there.
“I’ve had people tell me how wine is a story in a bottle and wine is poetry. And I ask them, what is the last poem you read? If you can name the last poem you read, I’m willing to go down this conversation path. Realistically, it doesn’t happen because nobody is going to read a poem now—you start with a haiku and you’ve lost your whole readership.”