Success, sip by sip

RESHMA KRISHNAN | Updated on January 17, 2013

Rajeev Samant, CEO, Sula Wines

To Rajeev Samant goes the credit for transforming a grassland into a flourishing wine business.

Those hills on the horizon are the Dindori hills,” points out A. Joy Shaw, Chief Winemaker and Associate Vice-President, even as he reminisces his journey at Sula Wines. I sip on their award-winning Rasa Shiraz 2007, lounging on the terrace of the Sula Vineyards office in Nashik, overlooking unending rows of merlot vines.

Ahead of a meeting with the CEO, Rajeev Samant, I had gone around the production facility and the vineyard. The fermentation room resembled a steel acropolis with a dozen cylinders, at least 10 ft high, soaring towards the ceiling; a cellar that houses a thousand cheers. The antique pressing machine at the entrance, the sepia-toned cellar packed with thousands of dusty bottles and the two restaurants packed with visitors impart a sense of history that belies the modernity of the facility, less than two decades old.

“He has singlehandedly created this industry from nothing. I have learnt most of what I know through the years and on the job, and he puts full trust in you,” says Shaw, describing the company’s founder.

In fact, Samant, the man who has set the gold standard for winemaking in India, did not even like the beverage before he embarked on this journey.

“On a scale of 1-10, I was a one,” says the CEO when we meet at his Lower Parel office in Mumbai. “I had had perhaps five glasses of white zinfandel in my life. I did not even know about red or white grapes.”

Nor did he come from a business family.“My dad is a first-generation entrepreneur who comes from a humble family in Nashik. He went to a municipal school and is self-made. He worked for Mahindra on the shop floor right out of university and finally realised it wasn’t for him to be an employee.”

His father went on to start a diving company, Samson Maritime, not knowing the first thing about diving or shipping.

Well, the apple never falls too far from the tree. Armed with a scholarship to Stanford University, a young Samant set out to fulfil his dream of a future in computer science.

“But I saw only geeks doing electrical engineering and said this was not for me. I enjoyed the outdoors, and so I toned it down to Economics and Industrial Engineering.”

He soon found himself in front of a computer screen at Oracle and smiles at the irony of it.

“I was getting bored of my job at Oracle. I could not see myself sitting in front of a computer screen for the rest of my life. I had come from a privileged educational background having studied at Cathedral & John Connon School (Mumbai) and Stanford, and wanted to do something meaningful. I could not stand the fact that you could only get two weeks of vacation a year,” he laughs.

Sowing a business

But it was the early 1990s, and India was not yet the emerging market powerhouse it is today. “No one knew or cared about India then,” he recalls, describing his struggle with visa and work-permit issues.

An ensuing heartbreak left him at a crossroad and he decided to make a trip back to India. Around this time his family was trying to sell some ancestral land in the heart of the grape-growing region of Nashik, and it dawned on him that the grassland was actually a goldmine in the making. As you enter Nashik, it is impossible to miss the grapes, purple and luscious, hanging from their vines and ready to be harvested. As Nashik’s grapes are exported all over the world, he realised they had to be of high quality. With his California experience, he quickly tied together the potential in grape growing and wine bottling. The timing was perfect too: liberalisation finally taking hold and urban India exploring new avenues to spend disposable income.

“So many of my school friends were trying to start businesses in the food and entertainment segment,” he recalls. A close school friend, A.D. Singh, was envisioning a fine dining restaurant — Olive Bar & Kitchen — that would become a pioneering brand in India. “He said people are looking for new wines, there is a whole new economic stratum that is starting to appreciate wine and there was little of it available.”

Then came the financing. “I used to be a day trader back in the day,” he says proudly, “and I raised over a $100,000 by betting on Amazon.”

Harvesting a high

With that, his father’s help and anyone who would lend him a rupee, he was soon planting his first crop in 1995-96. He began with Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc grapes, and then waited for three years for his first harvest in January 1999.

“I remember my first day, picking Sauvignon Blanc. We realised twenty minutes into picking that there was no way we could pick that many grapes with the small number of people we had, so we all went into the fields,” he laughs. “I had my hat and my pruning shears.” He shakes his head and smiles, murmuring, “Good days.”

Once harvested, it had to be sorted, fermented, pressed and put in barrels or steel tanks to mature. This would take two to three years. “So I said why not make Sparkling wine with some of it”, as that needs less time fermenting and can be bottled sooner. He bought second-hand equipment from the US, refurbished it, produced 100,000 bottles of Sparkling wine in his second year after harvest — an achievement for a vineyard.

But the real frustration was yet to come. One year from harvesting and they still didn’t have a licence to sell. “Producing the wine, I found, was easy. Dealing with bureaucrats was the hard part.” The licence application process began in 1998 and took two-and-a-half years to complete, “They did not understand what I was trying to create. But then I found a couple of bureaucrats who understood, and I finally got it.”

Wining and winning

He sold his first Sparkling wine in 2001.

Today he owns 60 per cent of the Indian wine market and has five major wine awards including the Syrah Du Monde for Sula Raza Shiraz. Rasa Shiraz 2007 won the silver at Syrah Du Monde 2010. But he makes light of it.

“That was not my proudest moment. My proudest day was when we opened our first bottle of Sula Sauvignon Blanc in 2000. Kerry (Kerry Damskey, his wine consultant) and I were sitting in my jhula at my Nashik house. It was a moment of truth, a testament to years of hard work and wow! it was a knockout. The minute we tasted we knew we had done something amazing... I now knew this would work.” And it did.

Today, he employs at least one member of every family in the villages surrounding his vineyards. “...locals had very few job prospects before we arrived on the scene. The villages were economically deprived and the best job around for a young man was pumping gas. Today every house has a motorbike, a fridge. That makes me happy,” he says.

His team calls him a taskmaster, always wanting perfection. “I think I get it from my parents, they worked hard and instilled discipline in me. I think my ability to concentrate comes from playing the piano. I began as a child… to play the piano you need to read sheet music that is written in an alien language… it requires tremendous concentration.”

He concedes the emergence of worthy opponents — small boutique vineyards that are crowding shelves in supermarkets. Rather than agonising over competition, he welcomes it, believing that any worthy competitor would only lead to a larger and more mature market. He would prefer to have a bigger chunk of an ever-growing pie. “But it’s hard. An agriculture graduate becomes a winemaker when he hasn’t even tasted wine before. Some of the wine producers do not even drink the wine because it is taboo!”

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Published on January 17, 2013
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