Nepali Times
Vino nirvana in Kathmandu

Put, for Bruce Owens, the truth Included the Valley\'s secret wine stash.

In wine is truth. If, indeed truth is to be found in wine, veritas has become far more readily available in the Kathmandu Valley since I first began to pursue it in this fair land over a decade and a half ago. The search for truth in this particular form always becomes particularly pointed during what Americans and Europeans rather chauvinistically refer to as "the holidays," for Christmas is a time in which the most acculturated American, regardless of her faith, grows nostalgic for the season\'s gastronomic indulgences. Though buffalo brain soup and stuffed goat lungs became my favorite foods shortly after my arrival here, I never became immune to the weaknesses of this season.

Thus, as a lover of the aged fruit of the vine, I found myself in mid-December of 1983 stunned by a miraculous vision one day at my favorite Pulchowk "fresh house" a place in which, paradoxically, one could find only food that had either been tinned or frozen. There, situated atop one of the stores three refrigeration devices, was a display of bottles: Russian Champagne,Vermouth, Vodka, and a bottle of Barsac. All were available at the handsome price of 400 rupees each the equivalent of about 2,500 of todays rupees. This was an extraordinary sum for someone who counted each rupee spent as a fraction of an hour that could not be spent in Nepal.

But this was Christmas, and this was Barsac. , by the way, is a special appellation from the Sauterne region in France, a place famous for its unctuous yet refined dessert wines, which are desserts in and of themselves. A bottle of Barsac would be the perfect surprise for my Christmas feast co-conspirators. I felt compelled to negotiate with the sauji, who had somehow managed to extract these goodies from some long-forgotten Rana cellar, and who was actually placing himself at some risk by displaying such merchandise without license to sell it.

This particular sau was no stranger to the peculiar impulses that arise in bideshis at this time of year, having worked as a research assistant to a British anthropologist for some time. Though I knew that he knew he had me at a disadvantage, I was driven, so I pointed out that, given the 1958 date on the bottle, the odds were 50/50 that its contents would be good only for dressing a salad.

After some discussion, a price of 200 rupees was settled upon. Not one drop of this Barsac was spilled on lettuce. In fact, it was probably the finest Barsac (if not wine of any kind) that I will ever have the pleasure of drinking. Though I can never know if, in fact, this particular bottle was as superb as I recall it to be, the drinking of it was extraordinary. Wine at that time was simply not available in Kathmandu if one was neither a diplomat nor rich. I had heard stories of bottles stored in godowns somewhere, but also understood that extensive
documentation of some sort or another was required for the privilege of buying it. Occasionally one would be offered "wine" by well-meaning Nepalese while on trek, only to find that the proffered beverage was made of pineapple or some other unlikely fruit, and glowed in the dark in some noxious shade of yellow or orange.

The genuine article once mysteriously appeared in a Bishalnagar supermarket window, cheek by jowl with an enormous bottle of mayonnaise, French perfume, and a short-wave radio, all priced about the same.My how times have changed. Though an assessment of the history of the beer situation in the valley warrants another article, it should also be mentioned that in the early eighties there was only one local beer available and it was a matter of good fortune if the particular bottle one acquired had bubbles in it. This only exacerbated the seriousness of the wine situation. Now, of course, all beer has bubbles, and most restaurant menus include almost as many kinds of beer as dishes. (I sometimes wonder if occasional water shortages are due to the demand at the numerous breweries that have sprouted up in the valley.) But back to wine. The problem has shifted from its rarity to its prevalence.

On a recent desperate search for a voltage converter late one Saturday afternoon, I found wine at every super market and grocery I explored (but, alas, no converter). It now seems easier to find wine in Kathmandu than in Paris. But, the question arises, would one want to drink it, and at what price? Having been pressed into the role of sommelier at a friends house during my visits to Kathmandu, I am pleased to say that "drinkable" bottles are readily available. The mystery has shifted from how it is that wine appears in stores next to mayonnaise and frozen fish, to how it is that one need pay only a few dollars more for the privilege of drinking the same fruit of the vine here as one does in the countries that actually grow it.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)