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