Rajeev Samant: The Winemaker
Sula Vineyards CEO Rajeev Samant on his journey from Napa Valley to Nashik and the challenges that remain
Rajeev Samant, 49, used to be a gin and tonic guy. Samant’s G&T, in fact, was famed at Stanford University, from where he graduated in 1990 with a dual degree, a bachelor’s in economics and a master’s in engineering. “I had a secret ingredient up my sleeve—rose and lime juice cordial,” he says. “At all the parties, I used to be the mixologist.”
But this was more than 25 years ago, when he was yet to “get acquainted with wine”. Today, he is the chief executive of Sula Vineyards, India’s largest producer of wine, with a 60% market share.
We meet in the lobby of a hotel in New Delhi Aerocity and settle down for a chat over cappuccinos and cookies.
Sula will crush more than 13,000 tonnes of grapes in 2016, up 20% from last year, according to the company. Samant says they are well on track to sell one million cases in 2016-17.
“We continue to be the pioneers of the Indian wine industry. Every two years or so, we come out with a new wine that nobody has produced before,” says Samant. “We now export to more than 25 countries and are listed on the menus of Michelin-star restaurants. It says a lot about the quality that we have sustained over time.”
Yet there are new, urgent challenges. “Global warming and climate change are among the biggest,” he says.
Sustainability is the company’s primary focus area today—reducing waste, reusing and recycling its topmost goals. It has recently appointed a chief sustainability officer.
“Every inch of the roof of our Nashik plant is covered with solar panels,” says Samant. “About 40% of our power consumption comes from solar energy. We want it to reach 70% in the near future.”
Water conservation is his next target.
In April, the Maharashtra government declared drought in 27,723 of the state’s 43,000 villages. Scanty rainfall and erratic weather patterns in the recent past have affected Sula’s production as well. “We recycle every single drop of water we use. But there is a long way to go,” says Samant.
“Sustainability is an essential but a very new concept in India,” he says. “In fact, India is one of the major resistors at global climate change negotiations. We have to start changing our position.
“We have to find a way to reach our economic goals while being sustainable. India is one of the main sufferers of global warming,” says Samant.
Wine is particularly susceptible to the challenges of global warming because grapes are delicate, dependent heavily on the terroir of the place where they are grown. “The soil is very important. It needs to be a good mix of clay, silt and sand. If it’s very deep clay, it is that much harder. Wine grapes love the Mediterranean climate—warm days, cool nights, dry weather, not too much rain,” says Samant.
Samant vividly remembers tasting the first bottle of wine that Sula produced, in 2000. “I was sitting with Kerry (Kerry Damskey, the master winemaker from California who helps Samant in winemaking) on the veranda of our Nashik home. ‘Are you ready?’ he asked. I nodded. And then he poured. The wine was cloudy. It was unfiltered. It was the first fermentation. But it tasted amazing. It was the best white wine made in India.”
It was the result of painstaking work done through a decade full of indecision, wandering, research, learning and perseverance.
In 1991, Samant joined Oracle in Silicon Valley as finance manager but quit two years later. For a year, he backpacked through the US, Asia and India, before returning home to Mumbai in 1994 and asking his father for a job. He refused. Rajeev’s father Suresh Samant owns Samson Maritime, a maritime and oil services firm. “But my father said he would support me if I did anything on my own,” says Samant. “My father is a first-generation entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship, therefore, is in my DNA.”
Samant did decide to do something on his own. What, he did not know then.
It was in Nashik that Samant found his calling. His father wanted to sell some land he owned. Samant asked him not to and started experimenting with organic farming. He grew roses, tomatoes and teakwood but soon realized that “the infrastructure and economics were not with me there”; organic farming is labour- and cost-intensive and unless it was done on a large scale, it wouldn’t be profitable.
He also realized that while Nashik was a cradle for table grapes, nobody was making wine. “In that moment, everything came together,” he says.
Samant started growing table grapes in 1995 and wine grapes in 1996-97. The first crush was done in 1999. Sula was founded in 1999, with Rs3-4 crore in seed capital, on the 20-acre plot that his family owned. The money came from family, friends and banks. “We had to mortgage everything,” says Samant. “If the wine business didn’t work, we could lose all of the Rs3 crore and some more. It was all or nothing.” Today, Sula is worth more than Rs1,000 crore and buys grapes from 3,000 acres of vineyards, mostly under contract farming.
Its wines are priced from Rs250-1,750 in Maharashtra. The medium-bodied, food-friendly Sula Cabernet Shiraz, the herbaceous, crisp and dry Sula Sauvignon Blanc, and the semi-dry Sula Chenin Blanc that works as a delightful aperitif are some of Sula’s best-sellers. Samant says Maharashtra, Karnataka, Delhi and Goa are their biggest markets.
“I had never thought Sula would become this big,” he says.
Not surprisingly, he is now primarily a wine drinker. “I have wine fridges at home and I have all my Sula wines there as well as the wines that we import, such as Hardys and Cono Sur.” When he wants a break from wine, he falls back on the old favourite: a good gin and tonic with a dash of nostalgia.
Sula has put Nashik on the world map, says Samant. “Some people might disagree, but, in my opinion, Nashik didn’t exist before Sula,” he says. “Today, Sula has the biggest non-religious tourist site in Maharashtra. We had 230,000 visitors last year.”
The company has also transformed the surrounding villages, providing a livelihood to locals. “In Sawargaon village, at least one person from every family works for us in some way. We have among the highest proportion of tribals in our workforce. I just hope this can be sustained,” says Samant.
Samant is upbeat about the future. “Consumption has been growing at about 20% every year for the past couple of years, and we have still only seen the tip of the iceberg. Wine is still less than 1% of the total alcohol consumption in India, and I see no reason why the industry shouldn’t grow at about 10-15% every year in the next decade. There is a lot of potential for brands to grow. It is a great time to be in the business.”
So where does he sees Sula in, say, a decade from now? “I don’t know. If someone had predicted 10 years ago that I would reach here, I would have laughed at them,” Samant says. “Now I don’t know where the limit is.”