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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sula Fest

A former finance manager at Oracle, Stanford graduate Rajeev Samant quit his job and returned to India with the crazy idea of becoming a farmer in India. He ended up establishing Sula Wines in Nasik, Maharashtra.

Since its inception, Sula has rapidly established itself as India’s leading premium wine brand, helping spark a wine revolution that has seen consumption grow at 25% annually and several new wineries come up in the Nasik area who due to lack of marketing savvy end up selling a majority of their produce to Sula. In November 2002, Wine Spectator – the world's No.1 wine magazine – did a five-page feature on Sula, a proud first for an Indian winery.

A second winery with three times the capacity of the first was completed in late 2004 to keep up with demand, and a third 1-million litre winery is set to be operational in 2006. Sula has expanded from the original 30 acre family estate to having about 400 acres under plantation, both in Nashik as well as in nearby Dindori, the latest up-and-coming wine region. Varietals planted include Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Zinfandel and Merlot along with the original Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. In addition to having a wide national distribution network within India, Sula also exports its wines internationally, as well as importing and distributing wines from leading producers worldwide.

In 2005, Sula proudly launched its first reserve wine, the Dindori Reserve Shiraz, as well as India’s first dessert wine, the Late Harvest Chenin Blanc. The winery is open to the public for educational tours, and the beautiful Tasting Room invites visitors to enjoy their favorite Sula wines amidst spectacular views of the vineyards and surrounding lakes and hills.

Firmly committed to remaining at the forefront of Indian wines, Sula continues to experiment with new varietals, engage in After graduating from Stanford I worked for seven years at Oracle. I really enjoyed my job but yet somehow I always had a desire to go to India and do something for the country.

A Bit on the man behind sula

Rajeev's father owned a twenty-five acre plot of land in Nasik which is traditionally famous for its fruit crop. He decided to cultivate Alphonso mangoes and table grapes on this piece of land. His California background spurred him to investigate the possibility of growing wine grapes. Climate studies showed that the land was perfect for wine grapes as well. Since he had no knowledge about wines or winery he decided to get expert advice from Keri Damsky who is a leading wine maker in California. The idea perked his interest and he visited India. He was convinced that the place was right and that they would be able to grow the grapes. With some funding they established Sula Wines and the company became successful beyond their wildest dreams.

His move to India coincided with finance minister Manmohan Singh's first set of reforms. Cosmopolitanism was growing and India was changing rapidly. More and more Indians were traveling the world and there began an infusion of western lifestyles in India. The time was just right for a wine business.

He also was the right entrepreneur for this business. His roots were in Bombay which was a big market. It is home to many affluent people. He had ties to Nasik, the perfect place to grow grapes. He had also lived in California, home to Sonoma and Napa Valley that boast some of the finest wineries in the world. So connections to experts in the field of wine making were in place.

The biggest hurdle was getting a license. For the last twelve years distilleries and breweries were quasi banned in Maharashtra. The ministers who were mostly from rural areas did not understand wines and hence getting a license was almost impossible. Once they got over that hurdle there was steady progress. Now that they see what Sula has done for the rural economy, they are delighted.

The goal was to produce a world class product which they wanted to market in India. He worked hard on creating a marketing package that would clearly declare the product’s Indian origin while also being very “hip”.

They held a lot of wine tasting events and also did pioneering work in helping people understand the concept of choosing wines for different types of food. They provided a lot of training to the staff of many of the fine restaurants.

Medical evidence points to the fact that wines have a beneficial effect on health. Ayurved also talks about the value of Drakshararista for health. Indians, especially the affluent Indian men have the highest rate of heart disease in the world. They were able to convince many to move away from the hard liquor and move towards wine.

The technique is certainly new world style. Labour in India is not that expensive and they try to use as much non-technology based production as possible. People in other countries charge a premium for such production. Sula hand sorts grapes and also use labor intensive techniques because they want to provide jobs to the rural poor.

Their farming techniques are very environment friendly. They work with the national research center for grapes to work on agricultural methods to produce excellent produce using environment friendly and sustainable farming techniques.

He is very proud of the fact that he has been able to directly improve the rural economy and provide jobs to many people in Nasik. Sula wines can compete with the finest in the world and as an Indian he is proud that we produce such a world class product. His entrepreneurial story has inspired many others to come back to India and pursue their dreams, some of which like his have been unusual.

Sula Fest 2012 - bigger and better than ever

It was a brand new version of the Sulafest this year. Bigger, better and packed with things to do, Sulafest 2012 on February 4 and 5, was a rocking combo of music, wine and food. The two-day event was flagged off by Harley Owners Group, the motorcycle fanatics who rode down all the way from Mumbai to the Sula Vineyards at Nashik on their Harley Davidson bikes. And then the party began!

Set in Sula's Greek-style amphitheatre in collaboration with Festival partner blueFrog, DJ Sasha opened the act, followed by an excellent line-up of bands that included Blackstratblues featuring Nikhil D'Souza, Reggae Rajahs with Steppa Style, Etienne Mbappe, Su La Take and Papon & the East India Company. All this, just on Day One.

The next day saw Mescalito on the deejay console which was followed by Soulmate and Ankur and the Ghalat Family while Sahelj Bakshi and the Dualist Inquiry brought the sessions to an end. However, it was Nitin Sawhney's first ever live performance in India that stole the show and was the highlight of Sulafest.

It wouldn't have been a Sulafest if the wine and spirits didn't flow in the midst of the grape stomping and entertainment. Visitors were spoilt for choice ranging from Rémy Martin, Balvenie and Hendrick's Gin to Cointreau, Mount Gay Rum and Asahi, not forgetting Sula wine. The food stalls also offered plenty of choice with Indian and international cuisines to go with the drink. The Sulafest Bazaar with many recognizable brands was a further attraction.

Sulafest, from all accounts, was an unqualified success with great entertainment, food and wine. The fun and frolic of the Festival, which was very well attended, was shot by Director Nikhil Advani who plans to produce a Woodstock-style documentary. If you missed it, maybe you'll get a chance to experience some of the excitement.

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