By Suneha Dutta
JESUS IS said to have turned water into wine. Now, Mizoram is trying its hand at wine-making to turn its grape industry around. It has started producing wine of its own, joining the likes of Goa and Maharashtra that produce indigenous wine.
Interestingly, Mizoram is a ‘dry’ state where liquor production and consumption is prohibited. But it is eager to get rid of the ‘dry’ tag. Like Gujarat, Mizoram has been observing the Liquor Total Prohibition Act since 1997. Alcohol was prohibited, and the grapes produced could not be used for large-scale commercialisation despite Mizoram cultivating the Labrusca grape, which is suitable for producing high quality wine. The locally produced wine has been named Zawlaidi, which means ‘love potion’ in Mizo.
After the Act was amended in 2007, it was in July this year that the government decided to kickstart the wine industry, which entailed the sale of wine made from grapes. Wine production began in September and distribution a month later. For good measure, the drinking age limit has been kept at 18.
Understandably, the people are excited about Zawlaidi, both as consumers — since alcohol is being made legal after 13 years in this Christian-dominated state — and also as citizens, who will now get employed at the new wineries.
Mary Khiangte, a 19-year-old from Sercchip is excited about the upcoming industry. “It feels great that Mizoram is making wine, which is considered a luxury by many,” she says. “Maybe, it is better that Zawlaidi is available only in Mizoram. This way we can make sure all its imperfections are corrected before the wine is sold outside the state, isn’t it?”
So, does the relaxed drinking age limit of 18 years thrill Mary? (The age limit in Delhi and Maharashtra is 25 years.) “It is obviously convenient. That does not mean we will keep drinking. After all, isn’t there also a cap on the amount of alcohol that can be bought?” she is quick to add, referring to the limit on the sale of wine to four bottles per person.
Deputy Director of Horticulture Veanlalruata Chenkual says the wine industry was set up to provide employment and channelise the huge grape cultivation in Mizoram with an incentive of commercialising it and generating more revenue for the state.
“Before the wine industry started, the grapes cultivated in this region could not be used to make a good profit,” says Chenkual, who is also the managing director of the Grape Growers Society, a cooperative set up by the cultivators. “People used to concoct wine at home.After fermentation, some concoctions acquired an alcohol content and would be illegally sold for a small profit.”
Chenkual says the factory-based production will ensure that farmers get a fair price for their crop. Each farmer now gets Rs. 35 per kg of grape. Production under government scrutiny will also ensure that the quality of the wine available legally in the market is excellent. The wine-making process will be monitored by experts from liquor major Shaw Wallace, who will also train and guide the wine-makers in Mizoram to ensure that Zawlaidi conforms to international standards.
AT PRESENT, there are two units producing Zawlaidi — one each in Hnahlan and Champai districts. They aim to produce two lakh bottles of wine in 2010-11. In Hnahlan and Champai, nearly 70 percent of the population is engaged in growing grapes, mostly of the Labrusca variety, from which Zawlaidi is made. The Hnahlan Grape Growers Society claims that it has earned a revenue of Rs. 27.82 lakh from selling 20,957 bottles of wine since 16 October. There are 14 licensed vendors across the state who sell the wine.
Wine-making is a huge leap for Mizoram. But not everyone thinks that it is a proud milestone on the path to progress. In Bawngkawn locality of Aizawl, the clergy has protested against the introduction of wine. “The alcohol content in Zawlaidi is as high as 14 percent. It will have as bad an effect as any other alcohol. How can this be allowed?” asks a priest.
The clergy is wary that this government-sanctioned drinking might affect society. As a result, the Church and some community groups have prohibited the only vendor selling wine in Bawngkawn from continuing his business.
An alcohol content of 14 percent is high when compared with beer (6 percent) and other wines (12 percent). But Chenkual says that is precisely why the number of bottles per person is restricted in Mizoram and the government has kept it at 14 percent, even though the amended Act allows up to 16 percent.
Chenkual says the protest is a gimmick on part of the Church to draw attention. “The wine industry is for the farmers’ benefit. We are monitoring every aspect of wine consumption and distribution. Their fears are baseless,” he says.
Aizwal resident Felly Vanchong, 22, says, “Yes, maybe the alcohol content is high but so are the restrictions. Producing or drinking wine is not a sin, so I don’t think it is against any morals as some of the churches are claiming.”
For now, Zawlaidi is distributed under tight controls. Other than the sale limitation, timings are truncated — from 10 am to 4 pm. Priced at Rs. 170 for a 750 ml bottle, Zawlaidi is costlier than the cheapest variety sold in Maharashtra and Goa.
SOME, LIKE 43-year-old Francis Zohming from Champai, feel that Zawlaidi will bring plenty of recognition to Mizoram. He is as enthusiastic about this ‘love potion’ as the youngsters. “I never thought that Mizoram would be producing wine someday. It wasn’t even a distant thought. But it definitely makes a lot of sense, because almost everyone I know in my district is involved in growing grapes. This can change many things for our economy,” adds Zohming.
While lingering questions remain about the ill effects of alcohol, it cannot be denied that it provides new opportunities for Mizoram. As Chenkual says, the people were already consuming homemade alcohol, so why not ensure that at least the quality is regulated?
‘Zawlaidi’s alcohol content is as high as 14 percent. It’ll have a bad effect,’ warns a priest
Chenkual says the state government wouldn’t mind introducing Zawlaidi to other parts of the country but it cannot be done without the support and some incentive from the Central government.
Mizoram is keen on being in the same league as Goa but only time will tell whether the ‘love potion’ will bring in positive attention and money to the state without the negative impacts.