How Sulafest Has Changed the Map of Nashik’s Wine Country Forever
DESPITE INDIA’S wealth of culinary traditions, and the depth of our bio-agricultural diversity, we have shied away as a nation from projecting our food heritage to the world. Culinary tourism, or agri-tourism, may be a worldwide employment and revenue generator (even if our Ministry of Tourism doesn’t think so), yet no one here has thought out a strategy to channel the magnetic attraction of our kitchens or our farms. Rajeev Samant, founder-CEO of Sula Vineyards, therefore deserves the accolade of seeing a growth opportunity — not only for himself, but for the community around him — where his older compatriots did not see any. And here’s how he did it.
After putting Nashik, Maharashtra, on the country’s wine map — it was till then a district town famous only for its old-economy industries (notably Samsonite) and its proximity to three religious destinations (Shirdi, Timbakeshwar and Igatpuri) — Samant was smart enough to figure out that he had created a worldwide interest in the destination. Located on the right bank of a 50-year-old Gangapur dam on the river Godavari, Nashik’s wine country looks beautiful in a superwaif sort of way (gaunt yet quite an eyeful), surrounded by nine rocky foothills of the Sahyadri range, which are responsible, along with the expansive lake of the dam, for its unique microclimate.
No matter how hot it gets during the day, Nashik’s wine country cools down as the sun goes to sleep behind the hills. In the wine world, this “deviation in diurnal temperatures” is considered extremely desirable for growth of grapes, and as we know by now, a wine is as good as the grapes that are used to produce it. Its stark looks, the lake nearby and the romance of wine turned out to be a heady combination for Nashik.
Samant cashed in on it, added music of the Goa trance kind, plus food from Mumbai’s trendy restaurants, and launched Sulafest nine years ago. Around the same time, he first opened a tasting room to encourage thirsty souls from Mumbai and Pune to head to Nashik to quench their thirst and satisfy their curiosity, and then a boutique hotel named Beyond. Before the world could say Sauvignon Blanc (the white wine grape variety that Samant popularised in India), Sulafest became a big footfall magnet and hefty sponsorships followed. It has also carefully nurtured its image of being squeaky clean (not even a whiff of drugs, unlike in other major music festivals) and safe for women (coming from Delhi, it was a culture shock for me to see young women walking fearlessly late at night in short skirts and shorter shorts on the narrow, dark lane leading up to the parking lot).
A couple of years ago, Samant upped the ante by getting Goa’s La Plage restaurant to open an outlet named Soleil in his vineyards. The sleepy narrow rural road leading up to the vineyards started seeing traffic snarls for the first time in their history.
Today, as Sulafest heads towards its tenth anniversary next year, wine tourism has become the company’s second biggest revenue earner, and its neighbours are following in its footsteps, changing the face of this rural outpost once famous for being Asia’s largest onion market. York, a winery run by the suave and passionate Gurnani brothers (Kailash, a former racing car driver, and Ravi), now has a tasting room and restaurant named Cellar Door, which receives an average of 50 guests a month.
A little farther away, Pradeep Pachpatil has turned his not-so-successful Soma Winery into a hotel with a popular restaurant (Culture Kitchen) and villas for families who wish to live in greater comfort, and its sprawling lawns have become a popular venue for weddings. For Sula, though, it must have been a moment to savour when its old rival, Grover Vineyards (the country’s oldest-running wine company), launched the Great Grover Wine Festival on the same days as Sulafest in its backyard in the rural hinterland of Bangalore. Wine tourism has taken off; it is time for culinary tourism, limited now to sporadic private initiatives, to find its place in the sun.
HOW A FINANCIAL ANALYST BECAME A WINEMAKER
IT WAS at Sulafest that I met Karan Vasani, the winemaker responsible for the superlative reds being produced by Sula Vineyards. I was pleasantly surprised to listen to him narrate his own story. The bright-eyed youngster from Mumbai started his working life as a financial analyst at the well-known credit rating agency, Crisil, and after four years, he decided to pursue an MBA in America.
When he was preparing for his GMAT, he found himself reading up the greatest wine writers of the English-speaking world, starting with Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, instead of poring over guides and assessment tests. That sealed his decision to make a career switch. He chose to become a winemaker, quit his job and moved to New Zealand to become a student of viticulture and winemaking at Lincoln University. Thereafter, he worked as winemaker in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, and he’s now at Sula.
Why is it that guys in the financial world forsake their proverbial world of fast cars and glam girls to take up more demanding career tracks, such as being a winemaker or running restaurants? I am good friends with two of them who are doing exceedingly well in the restaurant sector – Ashish Kapur, formerly of GE Caps, and the founder of the Yo! China franchise, now best known for The Wine Company, and Sid Mathur, formerly of Citibank, now director and food and beverage head at Impresario Hospitality, and a key figure in the team that has rolled out Social. They work much harder now than they have ever had to do, and they have to deal with such daily irritants as obnoxious lower-level officials demanding their haftas and other sundry favours, but there’s something about the restaurant business that gives them the kind of adrenaline rush that makes them feel on top of the world after a hard day at work.
In the case of Vasani, it was the anticipation of delicious discoveries that made him trade the comfort of a financial analyst’s life for the financially less rewarding career in winemaking. Kapur, with the benefit of hindsight, says he would have burned out in his mid-30s. Instead, he’s in a business where fame, money and people’s goodwill come in equal measure and together, these more than make up for the occasional adventure with a cop or an excise official.
DELISH CHEESE FROM GOATS IN WINE COUNTRY
MORGAN Rainforth, the chef among the trio that founded La Plage in Goa (and now also run Soleil by La Plage at the Sula Vineyards), has made some of the finest goat cheese that I have eaten a long time. Lusciously creamy and without the salt attack of feta (the world’s most famous feta cheese produced in Greece), Rainforth’s creation is a welcome addition to the expanding repertoire of European cheeses made in India, from places as diverse as Flanders Dairy at Brijwasan near Delhi, Himalaya International Co. in Paonta Sahib, Himachal Pradesh, ABC Farm in Pune, Acres Wild in the Nilgiris (by Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak director and Aamir Khan’s cousin, Mansoor Khan), and Le Ferme Cheese in Auroville.
I was curious to find out about the quantity of milk produced by the goats being reared in Dhindori, a wine-rich tehsil of Nashik. Rainforth said it could be a kilo or two per day and he got about 2.5 kilos of cheese from 10 litres of goat’s milk. The entire process of curdling the milk and maturing the cheese takes Rainforth three weeks, and the maturation takes place in the temperature- and humidity-controlled environment of Sula’s winery. India’s wine capital may just also become a gourmet cheese producer.