James Lawrence –www.wineandfoodtravel.com
, April 4, 2011
The key to surviving on the roads in India is your horn power, not your horsepower. I discovered this within 15 minutes of landing at Mumbai airport–the din from the sound of every driver constantly beeping their fellow road users outside the airport was deafening. The horn tells the other driver and the pedestrian everything: that you are here, you want to over take, get out the way or simply to say hello. Just what you need after 28 hours without sleep.
To say that India is an assault on the senses is probably life’s biggest understatement–never had I felt so unbelievably tired yet wide awake in a country. I stood in awe of the sheer volume of people and constant noise and excitement, even at 4am when we landed at Mumbai–a lesson in organized chaos if ever there was one. Be prepared to queue and smile sweetly at immigration. Meditation can help! We had traveled to Mumbai to film at Sula Vineyards; India’s largest and most respected winery nestled in the hills of Nashik northeast of Mumbai. If road conditions are good you can travel to Sula within 3 hours–so Mumbai was the natural first point of call. Working with Wine Spotlight, a business that specializes in producing films for the wine industry, I was here to interview and interrogate the founder of Sula, Rajeev Samant, and help produce a documentary charting Sula’s story. Our poor driver had been up all night waiting for us but still cheerfully helped with our mountains of luggage as we started our journey to Sula. It takes some getting used to, the constant barrage of car horns every second but you adjust. Just get a bit of sleep first. Arriving back in the UK a week later the roads seemed eerily quiet and I almost longed for the din of a Mumbai traffic jam. On the journey to Nashik we stopped at a little roadside cafe for some tea. One of the wonderful things in India is experiencing these surreal moments that you are unlikely to experience anywhere else–sipping tea at a roadside shack while a herd of cows march by. A sacred animal according to Hindu tradition, the cows seemed to sense that they owned India and could wander around as they pleased. Being jet-lagged, it took me a while to work out whose tongue was caressing my leg, a first for me. The journey to Nashik was worth the price of my visa alone, winding roads take you high into the mountainous landscape of India’s premium wine region. It is stunningly beautiful. Nashik has a long tradition of agriculture and table grape growing; the collection of wineries nestled here is a relatively new development. Amazing to think there are now over 40 wineries in Nashik. Arriving at the Sula compound, you could be fooled into thinking that you had taken a wrong turn into California. As far removed from the image of European wine estate or Château as you can imagine, Sula is a Napa Valley-style lifestyle winery in every sense of the word. Modern buildings are pleasantly integrated into the landscape – Sula has a tasting room and terrace bar, two restaurants, a concert amphitheater and spa hotel. Keen to enjoy the facilities but by now almost comatose, we slept for a few hours at Rajeev’s lovely bungalow. Not a bad weekend retreat. It’s amazing what a few hours sleep can do. Having now felt revitalized and ravenous, we set off to sample our first bit of Indian-Italian cuisines. Both restaurants at Sula are excellent value and well placed, as they face the vineyards which slope down towards the roadside, however, with a week of Indian food ahead of us we fancied an early break. Over lunch we discovered that Sula is a leader in sustainability in India, recycled water, solar power, all very impressive. An example for other wineries in the world to follow. No time like the present so we started filming that evening. Sula is extremely popular at the weekends with families and couples and even on a Wednesday the tasting room and bar was full of office workers enjoying a well earned glass of wine. You could see how this wonderful stuff is slowly but surely becoming a part of the Indian mindset as a drink preferable to beer or spirits. I interviewed several groups who professed to enjoy sweet wines over dry. The Indian palate seems to long for sweetness, if it was not for the high import taxes then the Sauternais could make a killing here. We filmed a tutored tasting, where the sommelier, who had worked in Benares in London, instructed a curious group of Indians how to taste the Sula Viognier and Syrah. Sula produce an impressive array of wines, including a sparking Brut, dessert wine and several whites and reds. It was lovely seeing a group of people so new to wine really embrace and get excited by it. It reminded me why I fell in love with it. After filming we enjoyed too many glasses of Sula wine and soaked up the view across the Nashik Valley. I had been in India less than 24 hours and already I was hooked, the warmth of the people, physical beauty, the chaos, noise, every bit, whether good or bad, I loved. The food is not bad either and we ate copious amounts at the Sula restaurant before collapsing into bed. Catch Part 2 next week–visiting local villages, filming the harvest and stampeding bulls! P.S. The title of this blog is a reference to the fact that half the population of India refer to Mumbai as Bombay, partly a generation thing. So the visitor could easily be fooled into thinking they are two separate cities, and in a sense they are. The older part of Bombay bears little resemblance to the newer, post-British Colonial ruled Mumbai.