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In Conversation With Rajeev Samant

Ranjani Saigal

A former finance manager at Oracle, Stanford graduate Rajeev Samant quit his job and returned to India with the crazy idea of growing grapes and making wine in India. He established Sula Wines in Nasik, India.
Since its inception, Sula has rapidly established itself as India’s leading premium wine brand, helping spark a wine revolution that has seen consumption grow at 25% annually and several new wineries come up in the Nasik area. In November 2002, Wine Spectator – the world's No.1 wine magazine – did a five-page feature on Sula, a proud first for an Indian winery.
A second winery with three times the capacity of the first was completed in late 2004 to keep up with demand, and a third 1-million litre winery is set to be operational in 2006. Sula has expanded from the original 30 acre family estate to having about 400 acres under plantation, both in Nashik as well as in nearby Dindori, the latest up-and-coming wine region. Varietals planted include Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Zinfandel and Merlot along with the original Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. In addition to having a wide national distribution network within India, Sula also exports its wines internationally, as well as importing and distributing wines from leading producers worldwide.

In 2005, Sula proudly launched its first reserve wine, the Dindori Reserve Shiraz, as well as India’s first dessert wine, the Late Harvest Chenin Blanc. The winery is open to the public for educational tours, and the beautiful Tasting Room invites visitors to enjoy their favorite Sula wines amidst spectacular views of the vineyards and surrounding lakes and hills.
Firmly committed to remaining at the forefront of Indian wines, Sula continues to experiment with new varietals, engage in sustainable agriculture, support the local rural economy, and, of course, make wines of outstanding quality and superb value.

Rajeev Samant spoke to Lokvani about the company

What motivated you to quit your well paying job at Oracle and return to India and start a winery in India?

After graduating from Stanford I worked for seven years at Oracle. I really enjoyed my job but yet somehow I always had a desire to go to India and do something for the country.   

My father owned a twenty-five acre land in Nasik which is traditionally famous for its fruit crop.  I decided to cultivate Alphonso mangoes and table grapes on this piece of land.  My California background spurred me to investigate the possibility of growing wine grapes. Climate studies showed that the land was perfect for wine grapes as well. Since I had no knowledge about wines or winery I decided to get expert advice from Keri Damsky who is a leading wine maker in California. The idea perked his interest and he visited India. He was convinced that the place was right and we were able to grow the grapes. With some funding we established Sula Wines and the company became successful beyond our wildest dream.

Wine is not part of the Indian tradition. Why did you feel that your wine business would succeed in India?

I came back to India when finance minister Manmohan Singh had initiated the first set of reforms.  I could see that cosmopolitanism was growing and India was changing rapidly. More and more Indians were traveling the world and I could see lot of infusion of western lifestyles in India. I felt that the time was just right for a wine business.

I also was the right entrepreneur for this business. My roots were in Bombay which was a big market. It is home to many affluent people. I had ties to Nasik, the perfect place to grow grapes. I also had lived in California, home to Sonoma and Napa Valley that boast some of the finest wineries in the world.  So I had the connections to experts in the field

What were the major challenges in establishing this business?

Our biggest hurdle was getting a license.  For twelve years prior to my getting my license wineries, distilleries and breweries were quasi banned in Maharashtra. The ministers who were mostly from rural areas did not understand wines and hence getting a license was almost impossible.  Once we got over that hurdle we made steady progress. Now that they see what Sula has done for the rural economy, they are delighted

When you established Sula, were you eyeing the world market or the Indian market? What marketing strategies did you adopt?

Our goal was to produce a world class product which we wanted to begin marketing in India. We worked hard on creating a marketing package that would clearly declare the product’s Indian origin while also being very “hip”.

We held a lot of wine tasting events and also did pioneering work in helping people understand the concept of choosing wines for different types of food. We provided a lot of training to the staff of many of the fine restaurants.
Medical evidence points to the fact that wines have a beneficial effect on health. Ayurved also talks about the value of Drakshararista for health.  Indians, especially the affluent Indian men have the highest rate of heart disease in the world. We were able to convince many to move away from the hard liquor and move towards wine.

How would you describe your wine making technique?

Our advisor is from California and hence the technique is certainly new world style. Labor in India is not that expensive and we do try to use as much non-technology based production as possible. People in other countries charge a premium for such production. We hand sort grapes.  We also use labor intensive techniques because we want to provide jobs to the rural poor.

Our farming techniques are very environment friendly. We work with the national research center for grapes to work on agricultural methods to produce excellent produce using environment friendly and sustainable farming techniques.

You went back to India with the hope of doing something for the country. What do you think is your major contribution?

I am very proud of the fact that I have been able to directly improve the rural economy and provide jobs to many people in Nasik.  Sula wines can compete with the finest in the world and as an Indian I am proud that we produce such a world class product. My entrepreneurial story has inspired many others to come back to India and pursue their dreams, some of which like mine have been unusual.

What does the future for Sula look like?

At this time we are working hard to keep up with the growing market. Our current demand is for about two million bottles. We introduce a new wine each year. We continue work on improving our products and range of offerings.

Where can people buy Sula wines in the Boston area?

The Wine Emporium, 607 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02118
(617) 262-0379 and Merchants Wine 6 Water Street, Boston, MA 02109
(617) 523 – 7425 are a couple of retailers who carry this wine.

Thanks for your time

Thank you

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