Indian vintner paves the way for sustainable growth through vineyard tourism and eyes China’s growing thirst
Wine production may not be the most obvious choice of enterprise for anyone in a country where two-thirds of the population does not drink for religious or cultural reasons.
However, Rajeev Samant, by chasing his dream to set up a vineyard in rural India, seems to have ushered in a social and lifestyle change in the subcontinent.
The founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards, an award-winning wine producer, is not only a pioneer of sorts in the Indian wine industry. Samant is also a pioneer in India’s wine tourism sector, opening the first tasting room at his vineyard in 2005, followed by restaurants and now a 30-room vineyard resort.
Sula has already notched up an impressive track record. The company aims to end the year having produced 11 million bottles, which is more than 200 times growth from the first year’s production of 50,000 bottles in 2001.
According to International Wine and Spirits Research, a data analytics firm, Sula has already established itself as India’s leading premium wine brand, with close to 70 percent market share. Its wines are exported globally and feature on the menus of some of the world’s finest restaurants.
“In whatever I do, a thought that always drives me is this: In some way it has to benefit society. I chose wine because I believed it has the potential to contribute significantly to the community and the economy, yet few were aware of it,” Samant said.
However, he turned to wine production by chance.
After graduating in India and completing a master’s in industrial engineering from Stanford University in the United States, he worked briefly at Oracle in Silicon Valley, California.
By 1993, Samant had had enough of the corporate scene and quit his job.
Following a yearlong backpacking trip around the world, he returned to India to lead a rural life. It was in 1996 that he had an epiphany when he accompanied his father to his birthplace of Nashik, a city near Mumbai in western India. The aim of the visit was to sell a piece of land his father owned.
“I saw these acres and acres of wild grassland in the middle of nowhere which looked beautiful … and I decided that instead of selling it off, I would do something here,” he said.
Samant started out by farming mangoes in the 27-hectare plot. Next he planted some roses and teakwood. Soon he found that while the city’s arid climate was ideal for growing grapes, the area had no vineyards. No one was making wine either.
“And that was my ‘aha!’ moment,” he recalled.
Soon Samant realized that wine making was his calling in life. In 1999, he established Sula Vineyards with help from noted Californian winemaker Kerry Damskey.
Initially, the modest goal was just to make “good and inexpensive” wine that Indians could easily afford. But soon Samant realized that Sula was in the middle of an economically and socially backward area.
His first employees, for instance, were almost exclusively from the neighboring villages, which consisted of tribal communities. They had been displaced by a dam construction project nearby and led a hand-to-mouth existence with no means of earning a regular livelihood.
“I had to do something for them,” Samant said.
Fast forward nearly two decades: With the help of Samant and Sula, every house in the nearby communities now has electricity and a proper sewage and sanitation system.
“They are also a prosperous and happy people with access to education from schools that Sula set up,” he said.
The winery and vineyard have also been contributing to the Indian economy. Samant insists that for a country like India, wine could be a natural resource like oil or minerals.
“Grapes cannot be grown all over the world; only a few countries have the ideal climate for growing the fruit, and luckily the Indian climate is ideal too. Who says that natural resources have to come from under the ground?”
Although 60 percent of the Indian economy is agriculture based, farming methods have advanced little in the past five decades. “The system is still so antiquated that a large section of Indian farmers are still very poor,” he said.
However, grape farming is now more modern and more profitable than the production of other crops. “For instance, growing grapes in India yields about $3,700 per acre compared to the $220 per acre that rice yields typically,” Samant added.
“Similarly, the returns from other major crops (like wheat, sugarcane, oilseeds and cotton) are equally low. So in terms of rural income, the wine industry provides a huge boost.”
Although Indian wine still has a long way to go before it can gain acceptance globally, local perception of the product is more important, he said.
“India is the tiniest wine market in the world but growing the fastest, consuming about 85 percent of its homegrown wine. So I am happy to say that more and more Indians are drinking more and more wine, helping the industry to continuously improve quality, year after year,” Samant said.
“Growth in wine consumption in India has been 15 to 20 percent a year for the last 10 years, second only to China, which is of course a much bigger market.
“We ensure that we maintain our quality consistently and that prices are affordable.”
Samant is also focused on sustainable growth, which is why he is opening doors for the country’s wine tourism market. Over 200,000 visitors attended this year’s Sula Fest — a music, wine and food festival.
“Sula is one of the most visited wineries in the world,” he said.
“Without sustainable growth, there is no meaning for growth. Without tourism, Sula would not have attracted the visibility and recorded the growth it has been showcasing until now.”
Nevertheless, much of this is the result of Samant’s hard work in the early years.
The Indian wine business was practically non-existent before Sula entered the sector, so getting the authorities to permit wine production in the region was the biggest challenge, he said.
“It took me 30 months to get (permission). I had to convince the state government that allowing me to make wine would result in a huge farm-based industry in the region — one that will not only uplift the communities around it, but also yield more revenue for the state.”
The next challenge, he said, was to convince Indian wine drinkers that he can “really make good wine”.
“I used to knock on the doors of every hotel, restaurant and club in the state with my wines to prove that my wine was cheaper and better than the wines they were importing.”
There were heartaches too. “The hard times often made me wonder if I was doing the right thing, and in my initial trips to California to learn more about wine making, I used to stand in Silicon Valley and have these fleeting doubts.
“But as I surmounted the challenges eventually, I was convinced that my decision to return was right.”
Evidently, wine making in India has undergone a complete transformation in the nearly two decades since Samant established his vineyard. It is now evolving into a modern industry, where cutting-edge technology is ubiquitous both for making wine and growing grapes.
Wine consumption too has undergone a major change. Aside from the masses in larger cities, even residents of smaller cities have started drinking wine, he noted.
Samant is now eyeing the next obvious target: China.
While attending the Asian Wine and Spirits conference and competition in Beijing in October, Samant was impressed by the wine industry in China, which is already the biggest consumer of red wine in the world.
“I foresee China to be the top wine-drinking country in the world. So, I hope to start selling Sula wines in China soon,” he said.
“While I am much focused on India, you can’t ignore China.”
Founder and CEO,
MA in industrial engineering, Stanford University, US
BA in economics,
Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai, India
1998-present: Founder and CEO, Sula Vineyards
2005: Opened the first tasting room at Sula
2016: Person of the year, Sommelier India: The Wine Magazine
2016: delWine Excellence Awards for Indian wine producer of the year, and wine tourism winery of the year
2016: Drinks Business Awards for best contribution to wine and spirits tourism
What is your signature style?
I am a very relaxed person and do not believe in flashing (my achievements), though I have a lot of colors in my life.
How do you relax?
I relax by indulging in physical activity. I either play tennis or do yoga for an hour, about five days a week. I also love trekking and I am a certified diver too.
What is your philosophy in life?
I started out as a privileged person, with the opportunity and support of good education from an affluent family. It is important to lift up the people around me. Whatever I do, it has to result in something good for the community, and the planet too.