From importing edgy space tech equipment to making India’s finest wines, the Grovers have traveled many worlds over 25 years of passionate wine making. Bishan Kumar reconstruct the storied journey in conversation with the scion of the Grover Vineyards family, Kapil Grover.Chairman, Grover Zampa Vineyards Ltd.
Stories are like vintage wines – they get better with age.Every telling adds a new layer of human imagination,enhancing their texture and flavour. When it comes to real life stories, the mix is even headier, the narrative sparkling with life-embracing experiences, nostalgia and acquired wisdom. The story of Grover Zampa Vineyards, the oldest functioning winery in India, is a lesson in passion, grit and self-conviction. As the iconic brand celebrates its 25-year journey, let’s raise a toast to the spirit of entrepreneurship that paved the way for new possibilities. And while we do that, let’s also get down to savouring the essence of a lifetime’s experience, as shared by Kapil Grover, Chairman, Grover Zampa Vineyards Ltd. WHEN THE CALLING COMES KNOCKING In the early 1960s, the Grovers were as far removed from wine-making as anyone could be, being in the business of importing high-tech equipment for India’s space programme and defence production. But Kanwal Grover (Kapil Grover’s father) got a taste of the winemaking process during his various business trips to France in the early 70s. Intoxicated by the sheer beauty of wine-making, he decided to transform his passion into a lifetime vocation and thus were sowed the first seeds of wine-making as a business venture in India. However, it was one thing to have a dream and another to convert it into reality. In the 60s and 70s, wine-making in India was unheard of. It took tremendous amount of patience, hard work and conviction to finally make Grover Vineyards a reality. As they say, destiny favours those who boldly venture forth in their conviction. Kanwal Grover began to visit France frequently and opportunities took him closer to experts who would help him set up his own vineyard in India. One in particular, Georges Vesselle who was called the ‘pope of wine’, was to play a very important role in the life of the Grover’s. Even as Kanwal began wooing French experts to India who could help him make quality wines, he read about Georges Vesselle going to China and thought of inviting him to India. Recalls his son, Kapil Grover, ‘Dad felt that if George Vesselle could go to China, he could come to India too. He kept writing letters to George and after 30-35 letters, George finally relented and asked dad to meet him when he was in France next.’ And then one day, Kanwal landed at George’s door and therein began a new relationship and a new chapter. George Vesselle was the Mayor of Bouzy and the Technical Director of Champagne Mumm Vineyard in France. He made his own champagnes and also the Bouzy Rogue, the only red wine made out of Champagne. It did not take long for the two wine connoisseurs to bond and over time strike a close friendship. Says Kapil recollecting some pleasant times, “We (mom, dad, my brother Karan and I) would often go to meet George and we were treated like royalty. At that time his (George’s) English was particularly bad and every time he struggled to find an English word, he would scramble to his cellar and bring out a bottle of Champagne just to organize his thoughts!” Though Kanwal very passionately pursed George to bring him board for wine project in India, George remained largely non-committal. But things changed when they realized that they were born just 10 days apart in 1925. “ As soon George realised their close birth dates, he disappeared into his cellar and brought his rare Bouzy Rogue 1925 from his private collection. “ Kapil recalls that the whole day had gone drinking wines and wines and now it was time for us to leave and they had not yet discussed Dad’s Indian project. Finally , Georges said, “I see passion in your father for wines. I am going to Thailand in October –November ( 1982) and I will stop for two days in India and see what can be done.” The unique friendship made Vesselle accept the challenge of growing French grape varieties in India.
SERENDIPITY MEETS PASSION
Over a series of dramatic and, in retrospect, funny incidents that would put any filmmaker to shame, the stage was set for the first big steps. Says Kapil, looking back and laughing indulgently at what now seems like naïve passion, “So we had George Vesselle coming over and here we were — Grover Senior & Grover Junior — not even knowing what a grape plant looked like!” He adds, talking about the challenges they faced then and the significant things
that happened, “We were headquartered in Mumbai and we had to hunt for information on grapes and vineyards. Fortunately we read about Dr. Bhujbal, a famous researcher in grape growing and I promptly reached out to him. Not getting any response to my telegrams (there were no mobile phones then) I decided to meet him anyway, along with George. Little did I know that our paths had crossed already, although we were hardly aware of it. “ “So, while Vesselle and I went around Pune trying to meet this grape expert Dr. Bhujbal but he had had already left for Mumbai to meet my dad! You see how destiny works? We then went to the office of Maharashtra State Grape Growers Association and met President of the Association, Appasaheb Bankar, a legend who later became the Director Vineyards for Chateau Indage. It was quite an interesting sight – one speaking Marathi and a little English and the other French and little English! But in those few hours spent with Appasaheb and visiting vineyards, we got to know everything about grape-growing in India, including the vineyards.”
THE JOURNEY GAINS MOMENTUM
Through these experiences, George Vesselle was convinced that it was indeed possible for some wine grape varietals to grow in India and assured the Grovers as much, albeit with a clear disclaimer that it would take them at least six to seven years. But there was no looking back by then for them and soon the three began travelling across the country looking for land to grow grapes
– from Karnataka and Andhra in the South through Maharashtra and right up to Gulmarg in Kashmir. They finally zeroed in on Maharashtra and Karnataka. The going was not easy of course. “We could not buy land in Bangalore those years as nobody was ready to come forward and sell land. We had to
get into a lease agreement. I used to spend three-four months at the Windsor Hotel in Bangalore, meeting the farmers every day in the morning and meeting scientists from ISRO in the afternoons. Those were long days. Then in the evenings I would phone dad, telling him that there was no progress and that I didn’t know what to do!” Finally, after a lot of struggle, the Grovers acquired land and in 1992 the first 5,000 bottles came out of the winery in Bangalore. They planted eight grape varietals including Cabernet, Shiraz, Grenache and the lesser known
Clariette. And there were other challenges too, such as getting approval from the Centre for foreign investment in the wine project. From 1976 onwards, the Centre had stopped issuing license for wine-making and there was a lack of clarity over the issue. It was only in 1989 that the Grovers finally got their license. By then George Vesselle had retired and Kanwal Grover began to look for a new expert. Interestingly, it was again in France while travelling through Bordeaux in 1994, that he met Michel Rolland, the world’s most influential enologist. It was not an easy task, convincing Michel Rolland to come on board. Says Kapil, “Michel thought that dad, at the age of 60, was crazy to take on the challenge of making wines in India.” But Kanwal Grover’s genuine passion struck a chord with Michel, who agreed to come to India and visit the vineyard. Since 1995, Michel Rolland has been advising Grover Vineyards in grape-growing, harvesting and wine-making techniques, bringing with him the best French traditions to produce soft, rich, opulent and distinctive wines. It is also to Michel’s credit, that the Grovers were able to introduce the Cordon system of vine training in India, which has
proved to be hugely successful, according to Kapil Grover.
THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE SHOW
Every successful venture is the result of individual personalities, aspirations and dreams all coming together. Kapil Grover, while describing his own personality, talks about his childhood, his family and the early influencing factors, “I was always very sporty, although I also did well in my studies. I inherited my love for sports from dad. He was a sportsman first, and that was our bond. My mum was more artistic and my brother, who is an architect, is more like her. Mom and he would go out to the theatre, while dad and I would go watch some sports. The best traits I inherited from dad were his generosity and his zest for life. From mom I acquired a strong sense of duty. Dad passed away three years ago at the age of 84. He had a good life.”
Summing up his philosophy of life, Kapil says, “I have always looked at the good side. If I meet
someone I give him 100% of my trust.” Kapil Grover has indeed given his full life to making wines in India . His journey continues, many milestones yet to come!