In an interview to Jane Anson, Bordeaux correspondent for UK’s Decanter magazine, whom he met at Vinexpo in June, Rajeev Samant truthfully said, “India is all about contradictions, and you learn to work with them. This is a country with 32 states, 1.2 billion people, 22 languages, 100 dialects. It’s the furthest you can get from a homogenous society, and to date wine represents less than 1% of all alcohol consumed, representing maybe 0.016 litres per head. But it’s the biggest whisky consumer in the world, and you cannot overlook the potential. Things have started rolling, and they are going to keep rolling.”
Although SI readers will be familiar with Rajeev’s wine journey as Sommelier India‘s Person of the Year in 2016, the interview makes interesting reading….
Rajeev Samant is extremely confident considering he makes his livelihood producing wine in a country where the government recently took away much of the ability of his customers to easily buy his products, and then compounded the issue by banning large numbers of shops, bars and restaurants from selling them at all.
The first blow came in November 2016, when the government of India announced the withdrawal of all 500 rupee (around £6) and 1,000 rupee banknotes as a fight against forgeries. The second came a month later when the Supreme Court announced the ban, from April 2017, of all alcohol sales in shops – then extended to bars and restaurants – within 500 metres of a national and state highway.
‘But India is all about contradictions, and you learn to work with them. This is a country with 32 states, 1.2 billion people, 22 languages, 100 dialects. It’s the furthest you can get from a homogenous society, and to date wine represents less than 1% of all alcohol consumed, representing maybe 0.016 litres per head. But it’s the biggest whiskey consumer in the world, and you cannot overlook the potential. Things have started rolling, and they are going to keep rolling’.
If there’s a more impressive man in the wine trade that Rajeev Samant, I look forward to meeting them. A conversation with him is a crash course in Indian economic history, as you would expect, but also in entrepreneurship and self-belief.
His confidence proves well placed just in the few weeks since we met, as the Supreme Court this week modified the highway law by allowing regional governments to downgrade roads from being national highways when passing through cities. An amendment that should protect a significant slice of the US$10 billion loss threatened in annual revenue to the hospitality industry nationwide.
‘For the wine trade the most important outlets are within city limits, not on the highways,’ he commented by email after the judge’s decision. ‘The original ruling affected a lot of five-star hotels within Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and other metro limits, including a number of Oberoi, Taj, ITC, Hyatt and Marriott properties. This was a big blow to our business. So we are obviously very happy with the clarification and we now expect business to soon bounce back to normal’.
Heading back to India in 1994, he looked at a large plot of land in Nashik, an ancient city in his home state of Maharashtra, that his father had bought intending to subdivide and build houses, but was unable to secure the permissions to do so. ‘Coming from California, I decided what India needed was organic food. I started learning about local agriculture and discovered that Nashik was one of the world’s biggest producers of table grapes. It gave me my lightbulb moment’.
Almost 20 years after the first harvest of 40,000 bottles of primarily Sauvignon Blanc in 1999, Sula is producing close to one million cases of wine per year across over a dozen grape varieties. The business has been growing at between 15 and 20% per year over the past six years, with 93% of production sold in India itself. What started off as a classic investment journey – half the US$1 million raised from family and friends, and half from the bank – has become the largest wine producer in India, a leading wines and spirits importer responsible for brands such as Remy Cointeau and Hardys and a major wine tourism destination year-round, with the highlight coming with SulaFest world music festival every February.
‘We receive 250,000 visitors per year here,’ says Samant, ‘many of whom will have never drunk wine before. In fact we’re pretty sure our tasting room sees the single biggest number of people worldwide taking their first sip of wine – most of whom chose the slightly-sweet Chenin Blanc, now our most popular white’.
And then there was the small question of India’s famously perilous land distribution system and how it interplays with the even more perilous caste system. Impossible to cover all of this here, but essentially an individual in Maharashtra can’t own more than 20ha of land, so Sula works with 300 growers who have an average of 5ha each. That has taken them today to 1,500ha of vines growing at around 250ha per year to keep up with demand.
‘One of the more pleasing ironies is that when the government carried out its land redistribution programmes in the 1960s and 1970s,’ says Samant, ‘the rich got the fertile land and the poor the rest – and it is often this poor soil that is better for wine growing’.
SULA helped micro-finance numerous smallholders who typically had been farming around an acre of land on a subsistence basis to buy more and then offered them ten year contracts to concentrate on wine grapes. The first people they employed to help in the winery were Adivasi villagers, among the most dispossessed in the caste system. Before the winery opened only one person in the local village was working ‘as a petrol pump attendant’, while today 100 villagers work for Sula.
‘It has become a virtuous ecosystem,’ said Samant, ‘and added a dimension that I didn’t necessarily envisage back in 1993’. He has received some help along the way. Maharashtra now has a policy where locally bottled wines attract zero excise duty compared to a 200% tax on those from overseas or the rest of the country – and with 60 million people living there, this is a significant boost. Today there are around 20 wineries in the state, with Sula by far the largest.
There is just one area where it seems Samant couldn’t overcome the challenges. Sula is a sustainable vineyard, using no chemical fertilisers and sulphur to treat mildew, but it is not organic. ‘Grapes are not native to India, and with the monsoons it has proved just too complicated to farm entirely organically’. Don’t bet against him making it happen at some point though.