SI Person of the Year, Rajeev Samant – Looking back, Looking forward…in his own words

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rajeev-samant-founder-ceo-sula-vineyardsRajeev Samant can be credited with putting India on the wine map of the world. He has been indefatigable in his efforts to keep the flag flying for the Indian wine industry, transforming not just the fortunes of Sula Vineyards but the way India is viewed by the rest of the world, as a wine producing country. Celebrated for his conviction, perseverence and drive in a challenging industry, Rajeev Samant, a savvy marketer and a shrewd businessman, is Sommelier India’s Person of the Year 2016. In a freewheeling interview with Rajeev Samant,  Reva K Singh discovers how he came to enter the wine business and ended up as India’s biggest and most successful wine producer…

When you returned to India with the goal of charting your own course had you already decided you wanted to produce wine in India?
I had no idea that I was going to make wine in India. What I knew was that I wanted to have a country life because I had always been a city boy when I grew up. I had visited countries in Europe and I realized that the best way to live life was to have one foot in the city and one foot in the countryside. So, the first thing I tried was to start a farm. And that grew into Sula wine. When I visited the land with my father in 1991, it reminded me of Sonoma and Napa. That was my “aha” moment and I said to myself, “Why not make wine here in Nashik”!

Back then, what were your greatest challenges?
The first couple of years involved a lot of hard work, particularly before the state government’s exemption of excise duty on wine came into effect in 2002. Before that, we really didn’t know if we would survive. It was a relief when the policy changed. There have been many changes along the way. It used to be a huge challenge to persuade farmers to grow wine grapes, for example. Up to 2004 they would only sign for it acre by acre, but there has been a big switch since then.

How does it feel looking back 15 years down the road?
It feels great. It has been a wonderful experience getting people to drink and enjoy wine, particularly Indian wine. When we started producing wine, there was a small segment of wealthy and well-travelled Indians who were familiar with the best French wines. But now a new class of successful urban Indians, for whom wine drinking was not a tradition in the family, is keen to learn about wine.

What were the defining moments of that period?
A defining moment was when Sula made it to the wine list of the restaurants of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai in late 2000. I had left a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc with Mr Jamshed Lam who seemed sceptical, but said he would open it that evening when he had friends over for dinner. The next day when he told me Sula would be on the hotel’s wine list, it was a Eureka moment! Another milestone was getting on the wine list of Zaika, a Michelin-star restaurant in London in 2003. Our Dindori was featured in Wine Enthusiast magazine’s List of
100 wines in 2015. That was a big one for us. It got 92 points for two consecutive years. We are the first Asian winery to win an award for “Best Contribution to Wine & Spirits Tourism 2016” from Drinks Business. This is a big defining moment as it means huge, worldwide recognition.

The demise of Indage Vintners propelled you into the top spot as India’s largest wine producer. What lessons did you learn along the way?
Sula and Indage Vintners were always on a different path, a path of quality versus quantity. One of the things that I was horrified to hear early on, was when they said, “This year, we will double the quantity of wine we sell”. I remember meeting the managing director and saying, “But, why? Why are you doing this? You will cause problems for yourself and you will cause problems for us and all other winemakers as well.”
He just laughed and said, “No, the market is there, we can do it and so we will.” That has never been Sula’s way. We are happy to grow a little bit every year. But then every year the wine, too, has to be a little bit better than the previous vintage.

What keeps you ahead of the curve and where do you expect Sula Vineyards to be ten years from now in 2026?
We are ahead of the curve for sure because we were pioneers in producing quality and varietally true wines. The Sula brand is today by far the strongest wine brand in the country and that puts us in a very strong position. We plough back a large part of our profits into R & D, both in the vineyards and the winery. One of our greatest strengths is our far-sighted, longterm strategy when it comes to planting new vineyards and trying new varietals. I do believe we are a few steps ahead of our competition.
2026 is very far away! The way the market is growing here and the googlies that various state governments throw at us pretty much every month, we can barely see even two years ahead. But I do hope that by 2026, Sula will be one of the best known wine brands in the world.

How would you describe your company’s operations? How many people work for Sula Vineyards? How hands-on are you as the CEO?
Today, we have around a thousand people working at Sula. I am very hands-on although I am not necessarily in the office every day. I spend a large part of my summer based out of London, visiting vineyards in Europe. I see this as part of my role as a CEO. We are pioneers for wine in India and we often look outside the country for inspiration.

How do you view the Indian wine market compared with other emerging markets?
India is today one of the most exciting emerging wine markets although, let’s face it, we are far behind China in terms of consumption as well as production. China has had a culture of drinking rice wine and now the large middle class has taken to drinking wine made from grapes. But, leaving aside China, India has been racing ahead over the last ten years. This growth should continue in double digits for the next couple of decades as well, which will make us one of the biggest markets in Asia ten years from now. China continues to be 90 times the size of our wine market but in terms of quality, I would say that Sula is as good as any producer in China.

How do you rate the quality of Indian wines in relation to international wines?
Indian wines have improved massively in quality in a very short time. Obviously, it doesn’t make sense to compare ourselves with wines that sell for $112 or $224 a bottle. But when you compare our wines to wines from other countries that cost $10 or $20, I believe our wines compare very well. In fact, every year they compare even a little bit better, which is borne out by the impressive number of awards that Indian wines have won internationally over the past few years.

What do you think of the trend towards biodynamic wine?
Biodynamic wine is very interesting for us. Many of their practices in fact are quite traditional in eastern and Indian agricultural terms. In biodynamic winemaking a lot depends on the phases of the moon which, in any case, is something that our agriculture has been based on since millennia. So, in some ways we are biodynamic. Being environment-friendly is personally very important for me. It is important for the country and the whole world.

Sula is often described as a marketing success. Would you agree with that?
Yes, I’d agree. But, we must remember that success has to flow first and foremost from a high quality product, which we always had. Marketing is something that builds on that. We have never lost sight of the proposition that at every price point a Sula wine will taste superior to what the competition offers. But yes, we do place a lot of emphasis on marketing though it tends to be more below the line, “guerilla marketing” and not above the line, high spending stuff.

What is your marketing strategy?
For us, below the line options like PR, social media and consumer tastings form the cornerstone of our marketing strategy. We don’t spend too much money on ATL options like TVC’s, print ads, etc. Social media is extremely important for us. In fact, we are one of the most active wine brands on Facebook and other social media platforms.

How do you account for Sula’s success as a national brand, maybe even a global brand?
We were the first to produce a wine of international quality from India. No one can take that away from us as long as we continue to improve in quality every year. I think India was ready for that, though the early years were difficult. Now, Indians are very proud to drink good wine made in their country and so I would say that the success of Sula as a brand has only just begun and the brand will get even stronger in the coming years.

Will wine ever become a mass consumer product available to more than the affluent classes in India?
Wine is well on its way to becoming much more affordable to a much wider range of consumers than it was in the past. It’s still a niche. Wine is less than one per cent of alcoholic beverage consumption today. But, I can easily see this reaching at least five per cent in the not so distant future. This would translate into a huge market and not confined to the very affluent.

Will reducing tariffs on imported wines fast-forward our wine drinking culture? Or do you perceive it as a threat to local producers?
I think the answer here is more nuanced. There is a case to be made for reducing tariffs on more expensive wines as the tariffs render them totally unaffordable. But, on cheaper wines we must recognize that governments like in the EU, give a lot of subsidies for wine production whereas India does not. We, therefore, definitely see the need for continued high tariffs on cheap imported wines.

Everyone talks about the importance of wine tourism today. Does it translate into wine sales or is it
mostly PR hoopla?
Wine tourism is today an integral part of selling and marketing wine. At Sula Vineyards, we get more than 200,000 visitors a year, which makes us one of the most visited wineries in the world. Its impact on our brand image is massive. Today, if you try to build a wine brand without having a wine tourism plan, you are out of luck.

Would you agree that social drinking has increased in India and wine has become accepted across the board?
Yes I would agree on both fronts. Social drinking lends itself to wine drinking, especially for women who can get hit pretty badly by hard liquor. Maybe 5% of the whisky consumed in this country is by women. In the case of wine, that percentage is probably higher than 30%, especially for Sula. Wine is by far the number one choice for women drinkers and it’s catching on among men too, especially those in the big cities. The size of the wine drinking population continues to grow.

Do you have a good palate for tasting wine? Are you involved in deciding the blend of Sula wines or do you rely on your winemakers?
Yes, I have a pretty evolved palate, although I would say I am not necessarily the best at picking out flavour notes like strawberry, peach, etc. What I can immediately grasp is whether one blend is superior to another and how it will be accepted by our consumers. I am quite involved in deciding the blend, although not as much as I used to be in the past. We have a terrific winemaking team whose tasting skills have evolved a lot over the past few years under the guidance of our wine master, Kerry Damskey. I feel quite confident to leave a lot of the decisions to them.

Which wines do you drink at home, not including your own?
I spend quite a bit of time abroad and at that time I taste and drink a lot of different wines. My first preference is always for the wine produced in the region where I am travelling. But in London, which is my summer home, I probably try a different wine from a different region every other day, such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Spain, New Zealand and many others.

I sometimes think the Indian wine market hasn’t fulfilled its potential. Has it stagnated?
The wine market has been growing quite strongly at over 15% CAGR in the last five years. I see no reason why we shouldn’t have double digit growth for the next couple of decades given the still small base. I don’t see any stagnation in fact the number of F & B outlets across the country with a decent wine list continues to grow in spectacular fashion. I would say that every single day a new outlet opens somewhere in the country where they serve wines. This is revolutionary. Just 15 years ago you had maybe only 15 or 20 outlets in each city with a decent wine list. Today that number has multiplied many times over and continues to grow. I see our wine culture evolving and the level of awareness and wine knowledge growing day by day. For sure, more wine bars and retail outlets would help, but there is already a big thirst for wine knowledge.

Finally, what is the biggest hurdle for the exponential growth of the Indian wine market? Are there
any solutions?
By far the biggest hurdle is arbitrary government regulations and taxations. Every week some state government or the other puts a new labour regulation, packaging regulation or extra taxation on wine. Unfortunately, very few states have reached the much needed realization that it is far better for consumers to drink milder, lower alcohol beverages instead of the dominant hard liquor. But given that alcohol continues to be a state subject. I see a very little chance that things will improve on this front any time soon. We just have to live with it.

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