Lucknow’s Wine Movement at the Taj Lucknow

General Manager at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Lucknow. Vinod Pandey is a wine evangelist

Vinod Pandey, GM at the Taj Mahal Hotel Lucknow has made it his mission to promote the wine-drinking culture in a city known primarily for its food heritage, writes Kaveri Ponnapa

In the first decade of the 2000s, the Taj Mahal West End, Bengaluru, with its celebrated, lush tropical plantings, heritage trees and colonial architecture was the location for some of India’s finest wine promotions, paired with Indian cuisine. The menus were memorable, mas were the pairings.

Masala Klub, the modern Indian restaurant conceived by the Taj’s then Corporate Chef, Hemant Oberoi, introduced lighter versions of Indian dishes from across the country, while remaining true to their original flavours. The luxury hotel boasted one of the finest wine lists in the country and a French sommelier interacted with guests at all three of the hotel’s restaurants, offering wine recommendations by the glass, or more elaborate choices. The stage was set for a surge of interest in wine.

The driving force behind these exceptional presentations was Vinod Pandey, then Head of Food & Beverage at Taj West End, and currently General Manager, Taj Mahal Hotel, Lucknow. A man with an abiding passion for wine, his 28 years in the hospitality industry have been dedicated to sharing his knowledge of wine with guests.

Seated with a glass of wine at the elegant Awadhi restaurant, Oudhyana, (see page xxx) we traced Pandey’s journey from a wine-lover to a Level 3 WSET aficionado, who combines his passion with a commitment to spreading wine awareness.

“My interest in wines started in my earliest years in the hospitality industry,” Pandey says. “Since then I have consciously promoted a wine drinking culture, by planning wine fairs, curating wine menus, organizing wine dinners, formal sit downs and more. As a wine enthusiast, I like to remain active in championing wine drinking and wine appreciation. Working with the Taj Hotels has given me immense exposure to wines, as well as many opportunities to be part of prestigious wine dinners at The Chambers, Taj Mahal New Delhi, Taj West End, Bengaluru, Taj Bengal, Kolkata, The Gateway, Nashik and now at Taj Mahal, Lucknow.”

A serendipitous move to Taj Gateway, Nashik, catapulted him right into the heart of India’s wine country.

“Nashik, as we know, is the wine capital of India,” Pandey says. “I had many opportunities to understand the winemaking process by visiting wineries during harvesting and being involved in the process of winemaking, observing the journey of grape to glass. It was exciting and rewarding to meet winemakers, understand the terroir, and the uniqueness of different wine styles.”

Pandey’s efforts resulted in the successful positioning of The Gateway Hotel, Nashik as a Wine Hotel, with four wine-themed suites, namely Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “Keeping to the theme of wine, I worked with an artist to create a long painting on canvas,” he says, “which measures 150 feet, depicting ‘Grape to Glass — A Journey of Winemaking from Vineyards to Bottling’.”

He expands on the run of extraordinary wine experiences and dinners with which he was involved from conceptualisation to presentation through the years. “I was part of organizing some exceptional wine dinners in the country,” he says, citing iconic names such as Château Lynch Bages with Jean Michel Cazes; Château Pichon Lalande with Jean-Guillaume; Château Pontet-Canet with Melanie Tesseron; Bodega Vega Sicilia with Pablo Alvarez; Antinori Estates from Tuscany; Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Peter Lehmann Wines, Barossa Valley, Australia. “My most memorable wine dinner was with Jancis Robinson MW and Count John Salvi MW, at The Gateway Nashik, where all the wines on the menu were Indian.”

Lucknow, a city known for the elegance and refinement of its traditions, customs, architecture and above all its heritage of evolved gastronomy was a complete contrast to the wine-loving cities where Pandey had previously worked.

“Lucknow was a challenge,” he observes, “both in terms of the availability of wine, as well as the culture of wine drinking. Our guests are global travellers but, as in many Indian cities, spirits such as Scotch whisky and Single Malts are preferred. I had to work hard to introduce a wine drinking culture into the dining culture of the city.”

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Elaborating on how he went about it, he says, he worked with the wines available in India to enhance the wine offering both in terms of the quality and the country of origin. “We placed Indian wines of excellent quality at competitive rates as strongly recommended on our list. However, to have a comprehensive wine list one had to include international wines such as Barolo, Chianti, Chablis, Sancerre, and top champagnes for celebration like Dom Pérignon, and Moët & Chandon. With the addition of easy-drinking wines such as Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Merlot and Chardonnay, we were able to offer a wide choice to our guests.”

Pandey saw a trend emerging over many decades of observing people make their initial forays into wine. To encourage guests to taste the wines on offer and experiment with what suited their palates, he introduced attractive initiatives.

“I began selling wine by the glass from a caddy presented at the table by servers, offering a selection of three white and three red wines ranging from Rs400 to Rs600. Besides this, we offer a wine- paired four-course menu titled ‘Daawat e Khaas’ at Oudhyana. At Saqi, our bar, we serve flights of wine, as well as wine and cheese platters to residents in the comfort of their rooms. We also began offering formal four- and five-course menus paired with wine for our elite guests in banquets.”

The hotel offers an array of wines to banquet guests, to give them the option to choose wines other than Indian labels and Jacobs Creek which are typically everywhere. With ongoing wine activities and promotions, the hotel has seen 100% growth in wine consumption within a year, something Pandey finds justifiably rewarding.

“In my experience,” he observes, “choices are quite varied: wine drinkers who are just beginning to explore, prefer wines at a competitive price, and tend to stay with Indian wines or affordable New World wines. Others choose by the grape, looking for Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and so on, again at moderate prices. Then there are the wine connoisseurs, who are well versed with country, pricing, vintage and in many cases, individual wine producers too. They look for the Barolos, Barbarescos, Montepulciano, Super Tuscans, Bordeaux and Burgundy, to name just a few.”

Pandey is focused on raising awareness of wine and food pairing and nurturing a culture of drinking with a meal. “The most important aspect of creating a culture of wine drinking coupled with fine dining is to have a well-trained team,” he says. “We are proud to have talented wine enthusiasts as managers and bartenders who promote wine appreciation at the hotel. Initiatives such as wine visibility, pricing, tasting sessions and the inclusion of tasting notes make it easy for a guest to select a glass or a bottle of wine. Introducing wine tasting sessions by trained sommeliers, and above all, offering affordable wines by the glass has encouraged guests to explore and experience wines for themselves.”

While Lucknow may not be the typical wine city, it is frequently visited by heads of State, international travellers and eminent guests. Oudhyana, the celebrated Awadhi restaurant at the Taj Mahal hotel often hosts high-profile dinners and banquets.

“When it comes to pairing wine with Awadhi food”, says Pandey, “we choose wines that are lower in tannins and higher in acidity to balance the richness and spiciness of the food. Secondly, we consider the meat or vegetables used in the dish, while selecting the wine, and pair body with body.”

Pande says, “Pairing Indian food with wine is a task for advanced wine lovers and sommeliers who do not shy away from unusual combinations. I studied WSET 3 to better understand the finer points of wine and share the benefit of my experience with guests.”

In his opinion some of the best wine options for Indian food include Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, Garnacha and Shiraz. Clearly a man with a mission, Pandey concludes, “I would like my team to receive more training and study WSET levels to be better sommeliers. My dream is to establish a Wine Club in Lucknow, along the lines of those in Bengaluru, Delhi, Kolkata.”