PUNE During the winter of 2005, when the Grape Growers Association held its annual general meeting at Gultekdi in Pune, none in the media had expected that they will get a big story out of the event. The National Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar was delivering the speech, and by five minutes he was to finish it, not much had transpired.
Finally, before he concluded the speech, Pawar said if the grape growers have to raise their income, they should grow the variety that can be sent to wineries. His next comment: And the wine made of it should be allowed to be sold in grocery shop – “Let wine flow like cola”. When the news appeared in media, it stirred up a storm as opposition including Shiv Sena, which was then the main position party with Ramdas Kadam being the leader of the opposition, launched a caustic attack against Pawar and his party. It was a different matter that Kadam owned a bar at Kandivali in Mumbai, and, after latest government decision, allegations are made by BJP’s Kirit Somaiya that the new policy will benefit Shiv Sena leaders like Sanjay Raut as his family has stakes in the wine business owned by prominent industrialist. Raut has refuted the charges though.
More than 15 years later when the state government has allowed the wine to be sold in supermarkets and walk-in stores across Maharashtra, we know that its seeds were sown in 2005.
These shops, once the new policy is implemented, will be able to sell wine at a flat annual licensing fee of ₹ 5,000. The decision has predictably invited criticism from opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has called the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government’s move to turn Maharashtra into a “liquor capital.”
Whether one supports the government decision or not, wine has always been close to those in power. Its formal introduction into government policy was made 21 years ago when the Congress-NCP government was then headed by Vilasrao Deshmukh who introduced the Maharashtra State Grape Processing Policy 2001. Wary of being politically incorrect, the Vilasrao Deshmukh government at that time avoided using wine into its title and instead restricted it to grapes, which the farmers related with more.
The policy was introduced to give a fillip to the nascent industry growing around the Pune-Nashik belt. The policy offered a tax holiday for the wine produced in Maharashtra for two decades that ended this month. It also offered a slew of other concessions to the wine sector, including no stamp duty and registration and land at concessional rates. While the policy helped wine production in Maharashtra from 712 kL in 2002-03 to over 20 million litres in 2008-09, with the number of wineries jumping to over 75 in the same period.
Those were the heydays of wine production in Maharashtra as many among those connected to political leaders saw wine as a vehicle to add value to their crop. After all, the reasoning went that wine grapes fetched only ₹25 a kilogram, while wine was selling for ₹300 per bottle, and if there was no excise duty involved, one would be able to make a tidy profit.
If Vijay Mallya’s father Vittal Mallya collaborated with Dr Rossi to start producing Cinzano vermouths at Baramati, his son as the chairman of UB Group, too saw the same logic when he strived to launch wine tourism in Baramati, Pawar’s pocket borough, through Four Season winery in 2007-08. The winery had a 51 per cent stake of United Spirits and 49 per cent of local grape growers backed by Pawar.
In neighbouring Akluj village in Solapur district, the two Mohite-Patil brothers – NCP leader Vijaysinh Mohite Patil’s sons Ranjitsinh and Arjunsinh who are currently with BJP – joined hands with Delhi’s Sekhri brothers and an Italian family to produce Fratelli. But it was Sham Chougule of Indage who pioneered the first genuine wine and set up a winery at Narayangaon although Sula wine from Nashik became the country’s top brand as the founder Rajeev Samant understood the Indian market better.
However, the falling demand due to global recession and higher taxes in key markets played havoc in 2009-10 and 2010-11 as it led to a glut in the wine market, eventually resulting in Maharashtra’s big bang wine story going sour. The market flooded with an oversupply of wine amid demand not picking up forced many wineries to stop producing wine in 2009-10. Another reason that adversely affected the market was farmers were encouraged to cultivate wine grapes like table grapes which increased their yield. However, wine requires the opposite approach, with relentless pruning and discarding of grapes to focus only on the best. Most of the vineyards ended up producing poor wine, which would have no chance in the export market and even falls short in the developing domestic.
Today, if the country has over 110 wineries, around 75 of them are in Maharashtra although only 40 to 45 are operational currently. Of these, just around 15 to 20 units are into direct marketing, while the rest are involved in contract manufacturing.
If the MVA wants to promote wine to help grape cultivators, the BJP too has its share in it even as it is opposing the latest decision currently.
In a bid to promote wines made in the 40-odd vineyards and wineries in Nashik district in north Maharashtra, the Maharashtra government, then headed by Devendra Fadnavis, had organised its first wine festival — ‘India Grape Harvest, Wine Festival’ during February 2018. The festival, aimed at promoting agro and wine tourism, was an initiative of the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC), a government subsidiary that works for tourism development in the state.
Despite all promotional measures, wine consumption in the state during the financial year for 2020-21 was just around 70 lakh litres. The beer consumption on the other hand stood at 30 crore litres, country liquor 32 crore litres and Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) at 20 crore litres. The wineries hope that with the government allowing the sale of wine at departmental stores, its consumption will increase.