Wine pioneer eyes China’s grow­ing thirst

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - By IN­DRA­JIT BASU For China Daily

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 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.

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?”

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,” 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.

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. ‘aha!’

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Ra­jeev Sa­mant says In­dian wine still has a long way to go be­fore it can gain ac­cep­tance glob­ally.

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