Rajeev Samant is in pain. The 40-year-old CEO of Sula Wines walks extra carefully into the chic Tasting Room at his Nashik vineyard. He has spent the Saturday windsurfing on Gangapur Lake, which nestles in the arms of one of India’s bigger post-independence earthen dams. “The last time I tried this, I was 20,” he grimaces.
“Tomorrow, we do turns,” adds Samant, who is working on the permissions to introduce this high-energy sport here.
The Tasting Room, with its open terrace, overlooks 35 acres of grape varieties—there is Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Zinfandel and Moscato. But the chunk of Sula’s 1,200 acres (nearly 900 acres under contract farming, 300 of their own) lies beyond the hills in the distance.
This balmy Saturday evening, the winery is abuzz with locals. A mix of middle-aged Maharashtrian men and youngsters watch the sunset and order pints of the Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (Sula’s sweet dessert wine with aromas of lemon, pear, honey and tropical fruit is a hot seller, and drunk not necessarily as an aperitif) or Sula Brut, their creamy sparkling wine. There is even a cheese platter with green olives, if you don’t believe in mixing wine and kurkure.
Who goes wine tasting in Nashik, you say? Like most mid-sized towns in India, this place, 180km north-east of Mumbai, is booming. There are two Taj group hotels and Mahindra & Mahindra, which produces the Scorpio here, now assembles the Renault Logan too. The city is already a hub for auto-component makers. Then, there are the regulars from companies such as ABB, Bausch-MICO, ThyssenKrupp Steel. As Samant says: “It’s the hottest hangout in Nashik. You don’t have anything like this in Mumbai too.”
Thumb rule: Profits will follow innovation.
Samant’s business ideas don’t necessarily focus on financial returns. “The idea is to do something that’s cool and different and trust that the returns will come,” he says. The strategy seems to work. The company currently has a 25% share (by value) of the Indian wine market. According to Samant, he now sells 100 cases of wine a month from the Nashik winery. In fact, he is currently doubling the number of tables, building a conference room companies can rent and, by the first quarter of 2008, there will even be an amphitheatre that can seat 1,000 people. “I’m looking forward to having Sufi dance performances, alternative theatre, stuff you don’t find easily elsewhere,” he says.
The Cathedral & John Connon School graduate from South Mumbai has always been your quintessential trendy FHM reader. So, it is no surprise that his company went green long before the concept became cool. “It’s not just enough to make good wine, you need to make good wine with minimal environmental impact,” he says. Sula has the works—drip irrigation, organic fertilizers, vermiculture, a huge bottle recycling programme, solar power, heat exchangers, et cetera. “We map our power consumption per bottle of wine produced, and it’s down 20% from last year,” he says.
Before Sula launched its first wine in 2000, Nashik was known mainly for its Ramayana connection (Ravana abducted Sita here, the famous Laxman Rekha is located at Panchvati) and the other pilgrimage spots that dot the banks of the Godavari river. Back then, farmers only grew table grapes. Now, the state has 40 vineyards (30 or so are in Nashik). That only leaves half a dozen vineyards across the rest of the country. Even the highway eatery en route from Mumbai will sell you a pint of Satori Merlot (Sula imports this from Chile and blends/bottles it here), served at the perfect temperature.
Samant says the weirdest home-grown vineyard he has encountered was one that advertised that if you went there with a wine bottle of any brand, they would stick a tube into the bottle, fill it up and cork it for you. That “vineyard” has since been shut down.
Samant’s story has already made it to the entrepreneur hall of fame. It is the tale of the Stanford graduate who was a finance manager at Oracle in San Francisco until he quit, came home in the late 1990s, and got into the wine business with a little help from his parents (family land and his mother Sulabha’s name). “None of my employees—probably 175 out of 180—had tasted wine before joining,” he says. Then, it took two years to get a “daaru” licence. Now, the state government seems almost convinced that the wine industry has “tremendous potential to enrich rural areas”. You no longer need a restaurant licence to run a wine bar, wine is sold in supermarkets and the government is likely to announce a dramatic reduction in the daily licence fee for events/weddings where only wine is served. One of Samant’s favourite stories is the nearby village of Savargaon: “At least one member of each family works for us. There was only one motorbike in the village then, now there are more than a hundred.”
“Is the music too loud?” Samant asks, perhaps because I am travelling with four senior citizens. But they have just finished a tasting and don’t seem too perturbed. At Rs100 to 150 per head, the swirling, sniffing and spitting experience is a steal. The vineyard is really an oasis of cool in the midst of an otherwise grimy city—but who knows for how long?
Samant points to the undulating green in front. Peninsula, part of the Ashok Piramal group, has recently bought 90 acres to build a mini township. “I heard that Mahindra Gesco tried to buy that hill on the left but it didn’t work out. They’re all coming here because of Sula,” he says. His pragmatic take: “There goes the serene neighbourhood, but we will get a huge number of customers next door.”
In August, Future Capital Holdings’ private equity arm Indivision bought 20% in Sula for Rs47 crore. So, Sula will soon be able to take advantage of the group’s Food Bazaar chain of stores. The company will use the money to upgrade its winery and set up a new bulk winery to produce its lower priced wines at Pimpalgaon, a grape-growing hub. The investment comes at a time when big companies such as United Breweries (UB) and Diageo have entered the Indian wine business.
“UB has their strategy, we have our own strategy,” says Samant. “We will continue to maintain our 25% market share. It’s not that easy to get started in wine.” So, while Sula wines will continue to be the company’s “bread, butter and jam”, Samant now prefers the moniker “alcobev company”. Sula already imports and distributes Takara Sake from Japan, wines from across the world such as Hardys from Australia and Two Oceans from South Africa. By the time you read this, the company will be a day or two away from launching Japan’s Asahi beer in India.
Samant’s just back from Helsinki where Sula has started exporting wine to Finland through Alko (the national alcoholic beverage retailing monopoly). “It’s a huge deal, it’s the only Indian wine that’s been selected and it will be on all the cruise lines in that area,” says Samant, who picked up a beautiful Finnish vase for his mother because “their product design is beautiful”. Quite cool.
Name: Rajeev Samant
Born: 21 January 1967 (Mumbai)
Education: Engineering graduate from Stanford University
Work Profile: Worked at Oracle as finance manager for two years before returning to India and starting Sula Wines. In 1997, he planted the Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc varieties in Nashik. The first Sula wines were launched in 2000.
After Hours: The gym regular is a fitness freak who does yoga, plays tennis or swims every day.
Beyond Wine: He is finicky about his food too. His cook in Nashik, Sitaram, is always learning new recipes.