Sunday, 2 February 2014

At India's Woodstock, A Soul-Stirring Offering of Food, Wine and Music

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

SULAFEST, without doubt, is India's Woodstock. A celebration of youth power. A showcase of good wine, food and pop fashion. A music programme packed with the best of electronica and world music. A crowd that deserves to be held up as a model of self-discipline.
When the late lamented Chateau Indage pioneered grape stomping as a marketing gimmick to glam up the wine business, wine snobs would turn their noses up and just about tolerate the publicity that the Chateau got as a result of it. No one then could imagine that the tradition would get a life of its own and grow into a cultural festival under the leadership of Rajeev Samant of Sula Wines, the Chateau's challenger and nemesis.
Sula put Nashik on the world wine map after Samant, with help from his Californian winemaker, Kerry Damsky, changed the face of a district that was previously famous for having Asia's largest wholesale onion market. Today, Sula has 238 contract farmers, supervised by a team viticulturists, growing 17 varieties of wine grapes, some of which, such as Pinot Noir (at a place named Sangvi near Pune), were considered impossible to sustain in India. In the same way, Sulafest has ensured the district's place on the tourist map -- it's a pity that the event lasts just for two days.
When you have a 20-artiste lineup with Dub Pistols, The Dualists, Vasuda Sharma, Susheela Raman and DJ Anna leading the pack, you know Sulafest 2014 is a "gourmet music festival" not to be taken lightly. There's food for every taste bud -- from shawarma and kaukswe at the Food Court next to the Main Stage to piping hot and deliciously juicy kathi rolls at the Electrozone, which has a very different vibe and music that just sucks you in. It grows on you, especially after you've had a blueFROG bottle filled up with a heady vodka and watermelon juice combo (Rs 800). You can also have a Mount Gay rum mojito (highly recommended at Rs 300), or a shot of Grant's, or an Asahi beer, or any Sula wine that catches your fancy. If you wish to take some home, my good friend, Rinku Madan, who's presiding over the Club Sula stall, will take your order and have your choice shipped to your home.
Now in its seventh year, Sulafest has put Nashik
on the world tourism map and become
India's No. 1 gourmet music festival.
Image: Courtesy of blueFrog
Or you can grab a preservatives-free, sparkling fruit juice (Rs 100) -- apple, pink guava or passionfruit, take your pick -- from Pune's Good Juicery, which was launched last year by a South African resident of the city, Michelle Bauer, and her food technologist friend Julia Madlener. I was talking to Michelle's friend, a New Zealander named Brendan (not McCullum!), and he said the company insists on sourcing its fruits from India (each can of Good has 40 per cent fruit juice). Passionfruit is an exception, naturally, but Brendan surprised me by saying that the company has zeroed in on a vendor in Kerala. Imagine having passionfruit from Kerala! It reminded me of what celebrity chef Vikas Khanna said to me some time back: "There's nothing that isn't grown or eaten in India." Of course, he wasn't talking about fruits, but octopus cooked Keralan style!
I was lucky to catch up with Ajoy Shaw, Sula's talented and forever happy winemaker. He treated me to a Rasa 2007, a 100 per cent Shiraz, which still has maintained its ruby red hue bordering on purple, its luscious tannins slithering down my thirsty throat. Sula is re-launching Rasa 2007 as a Collector's Edition wine. Shaw said it was a pity Sula couldn't hold back stocks of its top-end wines -- my favourite, Dindori Reserve Shiraz, being one of them -- for later release. The demand for Sula wines invariably shoots ahead of the supply.
I asked Shaw about his preparations for the tough-as-nails Master of Wine examination. He said he wakes up sometimes at 3:30 in the morning to prepare for it, because he has full-time job to do. The process is expensive. It requires extensive wine tasting opportunities, which are not easy to come by in India, unlike, say, in London, where you have such events every week. And there's a lot of emphasis put on your English writing skills, which a biochemist such as Shaw may at times find challenging. I had heard the same story from Sonal Holland of ITC at the Chandon launch in Mumbai. But something tells me, both will eventually become India's first Masters of Wine.
Sulafest is not only about food, wine and music. It's also about conversations and memories that remain with you for a long time after the curtains have come down on the event.