In the midst of helping to organise a screening of “Bottle Shock” for Terroir (the Madras Wine Club), an unexpected email. Would I agree to take part in a wine competition as a member of a panel of judges headed by (no less than) Steven Spurrier? By Mukund Padmanabhan.
(Note: This article was first published in The Hindu on August 9th, 2009.)
I shake my head in surprise at the happy coincidence. “Bottle Shock” is based on the event – the Judgment of Paris — that earned Spurrier a place in wine history.
In 1976, the Englishman — then a wine merchant in Paris — held a competition between French and Californian wines, reportedly convinced that the latter could not win. He was hopelessly wrong, a mistake of truly momentous significance. The blind tasting saw Californian wines rated best in each category, a result that changed the fortunes of Napa Valley and altered the insular way the old world looked at new world wines.
The Sommelier India Wine Competition ( www.siwc.in), which will be held in Mumbai this November, is organised by Sommelier India, the wine magazine, and the Wine Society of India, of which Spurrier is Chairman. (The Wine Society of India is a private limited company that makes wine available to its members but also provides information and education on the subject.)
The competition is by no means the first or the only one of its kind in India. Under the umbrella of TASTE, the India International Wine Fair will hold its third India Wine Challenge next January, also in Mumbai.
But what makes the SIWC interesting is the entry of the country’s only wine magazine into the wine competition segment. And, the promise of a consumer-led competition as opposed to one that is organised by the trade such as the Indian Wine Challenge. Moreover, Spurrier is hugely experienced when it comes to wine competitions, having been Chairman of the Decanter World Wine Awards, which assesses 10,000 wines and whittles this huge number to a few highly deserving winners under blind tasting conditions. Sommelier India’s editor Reva Singh says the competition came about partly because she had reason to believe that the third edition of the India Wine Challenge had been cancelled. “But, it was also a natural for a wine magazine to do,” she stresses. “Our readers constantly ask us which wines to drink and why we don’t rate them.” So, when Steven Spurrier showed an interest in holding one, “it seemed like the ideal opportunity”, she says.
As with wineries, with wine competitions too, the more the merrier. The India Wine Challenge has built a big base of label entries and has a strong international character. The SIWC on the other hand, wants to have a strong national focus, focussing on wines, both domestic and foreign, that are available here; it likes to distinguish itself as an “Indian competition created by Indians” and judged by “a panel that is predominantly Indian or international wine experts based in India”.
Why judge wines? What purpose does it serve? Partly, the answer is that with the proliferation of new vintages, it meets consumer demand. People simply want a stamp of approval, want to be told what to drink. Also, people just love the business of ranking, contests with winners and losers. If Robert Parker’s rating system is so influential, it is not merely because he is a respected and powerful wine critic. It is also because the system (an inspired idea) is a ready reckoner for wine lovers around the world to make their purchases.
Spurrier, now a legend in the wine industry, famously declared that there is hardly a true word in the script of “Bottle Shock”, which, in true Hollywood fashion, has taken many liberties with the facts. But is he anything like the crusty and somewhat forbidding upper-class Englishman that “Bottle Shock” portrays him as? “Not at all,” replies Reva comfortingly. “He is a perfect gentleman and far from snobbish.”
I can’t wait to find out.