It will take time but winemaker Rajeev Samant hopes his Sula Vineyards can help establish an Indian wine culture
By night, Rajeev Samant parties at Mumbai clubs with supermodels and Bollywood friends like director Rohan Sippy. By day, he's the restless chief executive officer of India's largest winemaker, Sula Vineyards.
We're having lunch in Tulsi, a new Indian restaurant in Manhattan, a quiet backdrop for someone who says a Grateful Dead concert was one of the defining moments of his life.
The 44-year-old Samant, a windsurfer and yoga practitioner, is wearing a cufflinked white shirt and jeans. Designer sunglasses perch on his smooth shaved head. Bollywood, he says, reflects — and influences — India's changing view of wine.
"Until 5 years ago, if a woman drank in the movies she was either a fallen woman or a vamp," Samant says with a smile as we sip his aromatic Sauvignon Blanc, one of four Sula wines available in the U.S. "Now a glass of red in a film is a cool accessory. It's socially acceptable and sophisticated."
Thanks to his friends, Sula Vineyards' bright yellow sun label makes appearances in Sippy's latest, cocaine crime thriller "Dum Maaro Dum" (2011), and Nikhil Advani's romantic "Salaam e Ishq: A Tribute to Love" (2007).
Despite the country's traditions of teetotalers, whisky- drinking, and byzantine anti-wine regulations and taxes, India's wine industry is booming.
The question on my mind is: Are Samant's wines any good?
The fruity 2010 Sula Chenin Blanc ($11) tastes simple, sweet and bland on its own, but works well with tangy scallops with red pepper sauce and other spicy Tulsi goodies. I much prefer the zingy 2010 Sauvignon Blanc ($13). A smoky, soft 2010 Shiraz ($13) is better with tandoor-grilled lamb chops than oaky flagship 2008 Dindori Reserve Shiraz ($22).
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The main Sula style is fruit-driven, with bright acidity and little oak that seem to accompany Indian food best. I was surprised, but definitely not stunned by the level of quality.
An urbanite who grew up in Mumbai, Samant studied at Stanford University and worked in finance at Silicon Valley's Oracle Corp. (ORCL) before chucking corporate life to return home in 1993. During a wedding in Nashik, 120 miles north of Mumbai, he was captivated by a 20-acre (8-hectare) parcel of land owned by his father.
Samant tried farming organic mangoes there, then teakwood, tomatoes, roses. The aha! moment came when a friend from the U.S. West Coast asked if Samant was growing wine grapes.
By 1999, he'd enlisted California winemaker Kerry Damskey, who'd consulted in Nashik, and planted vines, including zinfandel cuttings from Sonoma that Samant carried to India in a duffel bag.
"The customs officer only cared about what they cost me. Nothing, I told him, and he waved me through," says Samant, chuckling.
Persian traders may have brought winemaking to India as early as 2,500 years ago, but India's complex state laws and anti-alcohol bias, enshrined in the 1947 constitution thanks to Gandhi, have restrained development of the industry. Today, production is centered in the states of Karnataka and Maharashtra, where the Nashik Valley boasts 35 wineries.
Viticulture in the tropics requires a few tricks. "Summer is monsoon season, so we fool the vines into sleeping through it by pruning before rain starts," explains Damskey. "We prune again when it stops. Then the grapes develop normally. We pick from January to March."
Key to success are the 2,000-foot altitude and average summer peak temperatures of only 34 degrees Celsius (94 Fahrenheit).
Sula quickly expanded and now produces 450,000 cases from 1,500 acres of vines. Samant drew drinkers by opening India's first tasting room, then two restaurants. His annual music festival, SulaFest, draws 3,000 fans with rock groups like Petri Dish Project. The latest? A nearby 20-room eco-resort on a road dotted with water buffaloes.
"At least one member of every family in the nearby village now works for us," Samant says.
Establishing a wine culture in India sounds like an uphill task. For one thing, most retail stores and warehouses aren't air-conditioned. Yet, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India predicts the nation will drink 14.7 million liters next year, more than triple 2008's 4.6 million liters.
"We have a way to go," says Samant. "China has 50 times India's consumption."
The economic downturn in 2008 took a toll. Many producers, even large ones, miscalculated, presuming they could sell big volumes without paying attention to quality, Subhash Arora, president of the Indian Wine Academy, said in an e-mail.
As rivals contracted, Samant grew to become the biggest and most consistent producer. Now others are following, aiming for higher quality. Reva Singh, publisher and editor of wine magazine "Sommelier India," highlighted in an e-mail several ambitious boutique vintners, including Indo-Italian venture Fratelli and Vintage Wines' Reveilo, which is experimenting with nero d'Avola and sangiovese grapes.
Nashik's Good Earth Winery, whose first vintage reached the U.S. last November, is another. Among the three imported, my favorite was the racy mineral-and-fruit 2008 Aarohi Sauvignon Blanc ($15).
As Samant and I sip green tea, he tells me that French Champagne house Moet & Chandon has been buying Nashik grapes for a premium fizz to be launched in 2012.
"Within the next decade India will be a 4 million-case market," he says. Bollywood will help.