Meet Rajeev Samant and Cecilia Oldne of Sula Vineyards

By on November 17, 2014

You don’t have to be a wine aficionado to know about Sula Vineyards. In fact, the brand introduced the art of enjoying wines to novices and non-drinkers, educated them with the nuances of wine tasting and appreciation, made wines accessible and affordable, created wine tourism through its beautiful vineyards, pioneered Sula Fest, a music festival at a winery and with that changed the country’s wine culture. The highbrow connoisseurs followed close at heels.

Today, Sula is slowly and steadily making a headway into global markets, and placing India on the world wine map. Earlier this month,  Rajeev Samant, the founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards, and  Cecilia Oldne, their Global Brand Ambassador, Head – International Business, were in town for Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair. We chatted with them about their journey so far, and what lies ahead, especially in global waters.

Rajeev Samant 20141117_173140-2

Rajeev Samant, the founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards

What led to the conception of Sula Wines?

Rajeev Samant (RS) “I started drinking and acquiring basic knowledge of wine when I was living and working in Northern California. I would go up to Napa Valley from time to time. Frankly speaking, after I came back to India I did not know that much about wines; I was more of a spirits drinker. It just so happened that I ended up in Nasik which was the grape country and that triggered memories of vineyards that I had visited and enjoyed in California. That’s what got me thinking about producing wine.

When I got back to India. I came across my family’s 20-acre plot in Nasik during a family wedding. In 1994, the area was virtually deserted with no houses, electricity or phone lines and just grasslands all around. Organic mangoes were my initial idea and some of the trees I’ve planted still stand. But then I realised the region was ripe for growing grapes. I collected the necessary soil and climate data, and headed to the University of California, Davis to consult with the professors. They were sceptical but intrigued and suggested the type of varieties I could plant.

It was around this time that I met Kerry Damskey, who was advising a number of smaller high-end wineries. I worked in a winery in California for about 2 months to learn and do actual physical labour associated with wine making. I was working in the cellar during the crush and that’s the way I got my basic knowledge about wine. At the same time I took a lot of photographs, technical drawings, spoke to a lot of technical people involved to understand how things flow in the winery and what the equipment and technology was and how it worked. Damskey came onboard as a partner in 1997 and soon we laid out the framework to build Nashik Vintners Pvt. Ltd. (parent company of Sula).

I wanted to live a life outside the city. I wanted to enjoy both the country life and the city life. We had a small amount of land in Nasik, then soon things came together and I decided to make wine.

It has been a phenomenal journey. New wineries are discovered very rarely. So looking back on being a pioneer of a new wine region and then creating great quality wines from that region which is today becoming more and more acclaimed world over, it’s definitely been a great journey.”

Sula Vineyards Nasik
Sula Vineyards Nasik

How did the idea for Sula Fest come by?

RS: “Recalling the exhilaration I felt hearing bands like the Grateful Dead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers out in the open as a student at Stanford University in California, those experiences blew me away and I wanted to re-create that. So I built an amphitheater for precisely this reason.

Sulafest is India’s first music festival at a winery and today one of the largest in the country. It takes place at Sula’s Greek style amphitheater set in the middle of Sula’s own estate vineyards and is ranked among India’s top 3 music festivals.

Our 8th edition of Sulafest is taking place on February 7th – 8th, 2015 —it will be even bigger and better with some terrific international acts.”

Sula Amphitheatre
Sula Amphitheatre

How is the wine scenario in India today? Have the consumers and wineries matured over time?

RS: “Fifteen years ago there was really no wine market. Today the big difference is that pretty much any new restaurant opening in Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore or any one of the main cities needs a wine list. For most parties and events for the middle class and above in the cities there has to be a couple of decent wines served. People are knowledgeable about what they are drinking these days. They always ask which wine is being served. Wine is increasingly the first beverage to be had. Earlier people went straight to the whiskey.

Consumers today are more aware of varietals and the attributes of the wine. Indian wineries and Indian wines are lot better and more widely available than 10 years ago. Over the last 5 years, Indian wines have been winning awards on the world stage. Sula has won a number of awards too. Ten years ago there were very limited selections and most wines would cost around  Rs 400 to Rs 500. Today prices range from Rs 250 to Rs 1500, with quality to match.”

Sula Vineyard Resort
Sula Vineyard Resort

How does Sula wines fare over international wines?

RS: “I believe India will be the fastest growing wine market for the next two decades. While wine consumption is reducing in most European markets, India’s wine industry is yet to fully mature. Our country’s total sale of wine has been 15 million bottles, which is lower compared to other spirits and beer. I don’t see any reason why India cannot reach 100 million in the coming decade, which is nearly 10 times the market size now.”

How well can you pair Sula wines with Indian food? What are your favourite pairings?

RS: “Our wines tend to be quite aromatic and fruity and so they go very well with Indian food. Although our cuisine is incredibly varied from North to South and East to West, we have a wine or two to pair with them all. The Dindori Reserve Shiraz is terrific with slow-cooked lamb, Kashmiri style, While the Chenin Blanc is great with sweeter Gujarati food.”

Soliel by La Plage restaurant
Soliel by La Plage restaurant

 Can you name your favourites, both from Sula’s rooster as well as international wines?

RS: “The Rasa Shiraz is one of my favourites, as are our Riesling and our Sauvignon Blanc. Of course I enjoy them all. The 2013 vintage is the best we have had so far, with a number of wines winning accolades at international competitions. The 2014 harvest, however, was exceptional and the wines, now in tanks and barrels, promise to be just as good if not even better. Full credit to the viticulture and winemaking team. The quality of the wines is a testimony to their passion, commitment and hard work.”

What is your vision for Sula in terms of the global exposure?

RS: “Firmly committed to remaining at the forefront of Indian wines, Sula continues to experiment with new varietals, engage in sustainable agriculture, support the local rural economy, and, of course, make wines of outstanding quality and superb value. Sula is aiming to become one of the world’s most sustainable wine producers.

Indian wines are getting more and more attention worldwide and Sula Vineyards is at the forefront of this increased attention.

Our most recent international launch was in the UK with Marks & Spencer. We are the first Indian wine to be selected by this giant retailer and we are very proud of this recognition especially as M&S has the highest level of standards. Our national carrier Air India also proudly serves Sula on board.”

Can you tell us something about your trip to Hong Kong?

RS: “I love Hong Kong ! This time I stayed on the Kowloon side and enjoyed taking the Star Ferry to the Convention Centre every morning, I even ate some great Chinese food and enjoyed Central’s night life.”

Cecilia Oldne, Global Brand Ambassador, Head - International Business, Sula Vineyards

Cecilia Oldne, their Global Brand Ambassador, Head – International Business, Sula Vineyards

What response has Sula wines garnered in the global wine arena? Which markets are they popular in?

Cecilia Oldne: “Sula is exported to over 25 countries internationally. The UK is the biggest market outside of India where we have prestigious clients such as Marks and Spencer, Hallgarten & Druitt and Direct Wines. This market is followed by Germany and then Japan. The last three years has been a very exciting time for us in the global wine arena. We are being contacted by buyers, media and sommeliers from across the globe. It is a sign that India with Sula at the forefront is now firmly establishing itself as a country to reckon with on the world wine map. We have also won several awards including Silvers in the Decanter Wine World Awards along with laurels at the prestigious Syrah du Monde.”

 What according to you are the key features of Sula wines while marketing it in international markets?

CO: “Sula was initially seen as something niche and different but is now valued as a good wine from a new wine region. We are today known as the No 1 wine producer in India. Anyone who would have visited India and has interest in wines would have come across Sula. We have 65% market share, are available in each and every 5-star hotel and are a leader in wine tourism in India as well. We are expecting 200,000 visitors at our vineyards this year. We are also known as a pioneer that are at the forefront of the Indian wine revolution. We do some really exciting stuff at Sula. Our annual music fest – SulaFest attracts over 10,000 people from all over the world. We are also working towards becoming one of the world’s most sustainable wineries.”

How well has the Hong Kong and China market taken to Sula?

CO: “I was thrilled with the interest level in our wines and the response received at the recent wine fair in HK. We have our wines available in Mainland China since this year and are now looking forward to entering the Hong Hong market also. I have taken part in shows with Sula in HK before but this time I must admit I felt that the consumers had matured, were more open minded and that the interest in our wines had increased. This, as a result, gives me confidence when I say that the time has come for Sula to shine in Hong Kong as well.”

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Heta Shah

A Mumbai, rather ‘Bombay’ girl at heart, Heta (our new Senior Editor) moved to Hong Kong seven years ago and has been exploring and loving the city ever since. After working full-time for the last seven years, she’s waltzed into the world of freelance, and written for titles such as South China Morning Post, Asia Spa, National Geographic Traveler (India), Gafencu Men, among others. Her work covers everything from lifestyle, travel, food, health, grooming, design and related topics.

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