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The Young Dreamer Who Put Indian Wines on the World Map, and Made Nashik Our Own Napa

Posted: October 25, 2015 at 2:34 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

I wrote this article first for Man’s World and I am reproducing it as a tribute to the 15th-anniversary celebrations of Sula Vineyards. In a little while, the sparklers will be uncorked at the St Regis, Mumbai (I hope the bottle of Sula Brut are sabred in the St Regis tradition), and the man who’ll take the centrestage will be Rajeev Samant, the man who, riding on a wing of a dream, put Indian wine on the world map. Here’s his story:

THE SUN was casting uncertain shadows on the famed ‘Nine Hills’ of Nashik’s wine valley as the flitting monsoon clouds kept veiling it. The day couldn’t have been better for the July 6 launch of Soleil, the outpost of the celebrated Goan eatery, La Plage, at Sula Vineyards. As the Sula Brut Rose competed with the Dindori Riesling for the parched palates of the guests — an eclectic mix of Sula Vineyards Founder-CEO Rajeev Samant‘s family and friends, Mumbai’s Page 3 regulars with short-skirted lovelies in tow, and a sprinkling of journalists — and the jazz band played languorously in the background. Selections from Soleil’s unconventional menu — prawn mango curry and chicken cafreal roast and an unforgettable urad dal with fleshy oyster mushrooms, among other notables — waited at the table to keep tempting us back to them.

In this crowd, it wasn’t hard to recognise Suresh Samant, the father of the man who has put Nashik on the wine map of the world, and straddles 70 per cent of the country’s wine market, exports to 25 nations (including China and Germany), gets listed by Marks & Spencer across the U.K., and buoyed by a new round of funding by Reliance Capital, Singapore’s Ravi Viswanathan and the investment arm of the founders of beer giant Anheuser Busch InBev, commands a valuation of Rs 700 crore. The father’s probing eyes, their glitter not dulled by age, have been inherited by the son, whose middle name is also Suresh. A self-made entrepreneur who, back in 1970, broke free from the shop floor of the Mahindras to launch a company specialising in underwater repairs of damaged marine vessels, Suresh Samant remembered with a wry smile the time when the land covered with vines in front of us was a neglected plantation where papaya and mango trees grew in chaotic abundance.

Nashik is where Suresh Samant was born, raised and schooled in a humble municipal institution, but back in 1993, when his Stanford-educated son returned home after quitting his finance job at Oracle (a combination of a heartbreak, general boredom and work permit blues made him take this plunge into the unknown), the family was seriously considering selling the ancestral patch because no one had the time to devote any attention to rustic pursuits. By then, Suresh Samant was heading two companies, the other being Samson Maritime, a busy operator of ocean-going tugs and offshore vessels servicing the oil exploration business.

For sentimental reasons, he chose to keep the land. Rajeev took charge of it, returning to his father’s roots and unwittingly scripting his success story. After experimenting with different fruits, including the area’s famous oranges, Rajeev took a call that shocked and surprised his father. He decided to clear the land and plant wine grapes with the express purpose of producing an alcoholic beverage whose market was still in its infancy — and was just seeing two relative newcomers, Chateau Indage and Grover Vineyards, slowly but surely edging out the established yet undrinkable brands produced from local table grapes: Bosca from McDowell’s Baramati winery and Ruby or Golconda from Shaw Wallace’s Hyderabad facility. Suresh Sawant may have been taken aback by his son’s almost theatrical move, but he made the first nominal investment that put Rajeev on his chosen path. Twenty-one years later, he can look back and say with pride, “The rest is entirely Rajeev’s story.”

It was indeed an act of bravery for a young man with a Bachelor’s in Economics and Industrial Engineering, and then a Master’s in Engineering Management from one of America’s finest universities, to dream of producing wine in Nashik with wine grapes and not with everybody’s favourite Thompson Seedless, the variety that went into the making of the then famous sparkling wine from Chateau Indage — Marquis de Pompadour (or MDP in trade parlance).

It was impossible then to set up a winery — you had to go to Delhi for a licence and foreign direct investment (FDI) was out of bounds — and it took Maharashtra bureaucrats two years and a half of persuasion by Rajeev to see the light of day. Sula was the first winery in the state to obtain a licence after a freeze of 15 years; in rapid succession thereafter, 75 more were issued to establishments that have seen a mixed bag of success. The licence arrived at bullock-cart speed in mid-2000, more than four years after Rajeev, with help from his Sonoma Valley winemaker friend, Kerry Damskey, had planted his first crop of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc in 1995-96, and completed his first harvest in 1999. Only a man driven by a dream could take this leap of faith. He even raised $100,000 by betting on Amazon. Wine, for him, was a symbol of the country’s post-liberalisation economic renaissance.

Rajeev and Damskey, who had started working with a couple of wine entrepreneurs in Nashik, met through a common friend, and their friendship evolved into a long-lasting business partnership when the athletic Californian with a ready smile and Harry Potter spectacles arrived at Rajeev’s door with a bag full of Zinfandel cuttings in the mid-1990s. Steered by Damskey and a hands-on Rajeev, who has put pruning shears to good use at harvest time, and also Ajoy Shaw, a microbiologist-turned-winemaker who joined them in 2000, Sula, by the turn of the millennium, was an instant hit. Though its sparkling, blush and still wines showed every sign of immaturity, their success took their creators by surprise. It seemed the company could never produce enough to keep up with the demand. It’s the same story now, albeit with a twist: Sula now has a problem with satiating the German market’s thirst for Sula wines!

For Rajeev, the journey has been a dream ride since 1993, when he came back home but did not opt for the comfort zone of his father’s company. He has the Midas touch. The awards that his wines win keep getting better (most recently, Sula’s limited-edition Rasa 2012 was the only Asian entry, among 405 wines from 26 countries, to get a silver medal at the prestigious French government-sponsored competition, Syrah du Monde). He has had unprecedented success in turning Nashik, a district without an airport, into a tourist magnet, with 1,70,000 people from across the world visiting and living at Sula (at its well-managed boutique hotel, Beyond), or rocking to the beats of Sulafest, India’s first music and food festival. He’s now also into producing and popularising grapeseed oil, wine merchandising, and organic farming — the asparagus, spinach, goat’s cheese, free-range eggs, honey and other produce from his organic farm (apart from freshwater scampi from the neighbouring Gangapur lake) go into the dishes served at Soleil. As Florence Tarbouriech, La Plage’s flamboyant co-founder (her husband, Morgan Rainforth, is the chef), described the experience, she can actually choose when to pick her spinach — no other restaurant in the country can claim to have its own two-hectare farm.

Change for the better has been one of the two constants in Rajeev’s life, the other being his singleton status. Rajeev is seen often in the company of pretty women from different continents, especially when he’s unwinding at his home in Goa, but he refuses to divulge anything about his conjugal plans. “Where’s the time?” he asks and moves on to other subjects, shedding no light on the biggest mystery of his life.

Well, he does have a busy calendar, as he sets targets for a host of new projects: setting up a state-of-the-art winery with the capacity to process 5 million litres a year; turning the original production facility into a boutique hotel; giving a push to the cultivation of tempranillo red wine grapes (Spain’s gift to the world first introduced into India at Ajit Gulabchand’s Charosa vineyards); and continually upgrading the Sula experience for the tourists who throng the destination. “When you visit Sula next year, you’ll have three new things to do,” Rajeev says, hardly sounding like a man in a hurry to take time off to get married.

THE BEST OF SULA

Being a Sula fan since 2002, I have realised one thing: you can never get tired of Sula wines, for each year the company surprises you with a marked improvement in quality or a new product that leaves you with a wow feeling. Here’s my pick of the five Sula wines that I must have when I can:

Rasa Shiraz: After Sula’s winemaker, Ajoy Shaw, indulged my taste buds some time back with a pour of the sumptuous 2007 vintage, I instantly fell in love with this much-awarded rarity, which is now available only in a Collector’s Edition. The problem with good things is that they come in small quantities, so you won’t easily find this limited-production wine, aged for 18 months in oak and not released into the market if the vintage is not up to the exacting standards set for it. The best place to look for it is the Tasting Room at the Sula Vineyards. Check out the 2012 vintage, which just got a silver medal at the Syrah du Monde, the most anticipated international competition devoted to Syrah/Shiraz.

Dindori Reserve Shiraz: Produced from grapes grown in the Dindori taluka of Nashik district, this wine, which exudes the warmth of a welcoming host, is aged for a year in new oak. Silken tannins and a luscious body, smooth and tempting, define this wine, which needs to be served slightly chilled after it has breathed for some time. I love it with smoked cheese, though I had it with Kolhapuri chicken the first time I sampled the wine at the old family cottage that has made way for the company’s ceaseless expansion.

Sula Brut Rosé: A temptress of the palate with a million playful bubbles giving it a refreshing crispness, this salmon pink beauty is a perfectly balanced, bottle-fermented rosé sparkling wine — a blend of Chenin Blanc  and  Zinfandel  grapes. It’s best drunk chilled, as it is, to give a new life to jaded taste buds, but you can also pair it with dal makhni, murgh malai kabab, smoked salmon and dark chocolate.

Sula Sauvignon Blanc: This is the first white wine to come out of Sula — and it has found many converts ever since. The first sip of the wine will tell you that it tastes remarkably like a Sauvignon Blanc produced in Marlborough, New Zealand. It has pronounced herbaceous notes, the aromas of bell peppers and freshly cut green grass tantalise the nose, and it brings a refreshing acidity to the palate.

Sula Late Harvest Chenin Blanc: This dessert wine is nectar in a bottle. It greets you with the aromas of mango, honey and tropical fruit, making it the perfect ending to a long Punjabi meal. It’s not cloyingly sweet, because it balances the acid with the fruit, and that makes it right for drizzling over piping-hot jalebis or gulab jamuns. It has shown that Indians can make a decent dessert wine as well.

To read the original article, go to http://www.mansworldindia.com/fooddrink/heady-times/