Indian women in wine – blazing a trail in California – Part 2

Neeta Mittal introduced wine and spice pairings at LXV Wines

NEETA MITTAL, Co-Founder LXV Wine, Paso Robles
Achieving the status of one of the Top Ten tasting rooms in America by the USA Today newspaper is no small feat. The LXV Wine Tasting Lounge is a sensory landscape of wine and spices, located in a humble shopping strip in Paso Robles’ quaint and charming downtown area. The LXV Ranch, on the other hand, home to the Mittals’ newly planted Armaa.N Vineyard, is on Paso’s prestigious appellation of Willow Creek District. The 13.5-acre property is planted to eight acres and includes Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah.

Holding an engineering degree, Mumbaiker Neeta Pillai was always drawn to the Indian arts and it’s the richness of Indian culture that has been instrumental in creating the LXV image. Of her heritage, Neeta says, “It’s actually been an advantage.” She has woven an Indian-ness into the world of food and wine and LXV is now known for its wine and spice pairings.

Neeta and Kunal Mittal, who celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary this year, met as students at the University of California Berkeley. Their stomping ground was nearby Napa Valley. “Our romance started in wine country,” said Neeta, as we chat seated on the deck of her ranch overlooking the well-manicured vineyards.

The Mittals were based in Los Angeles (she was a screenwriter/producer and he was an IT executive at Sony Studios) when they decided to commit to producing wine and discovered the region of Paso Robles. Their LXV Wine brand was launched with the inaugural vintage of 2010 Rising Tempo, a well-received Rhône-style blend, its fruit sourced from Paso vineyards.

“In two years we decided this is not us,” said Neeta. Her palate favoured Sangiovese and Kunal leaned toward Bordeaux. The LXV portfolio has since evolved to reflect their tastes, Bordeaux-style wines crafted by noted Paso winemaker Jeff Strekas. Fruit for the wines is sourced from Paso and Santa Barbara County vineyards and produced at a Paso winery.
LXV Wine’s annual case production is 2,000 cases. Its portfolio includes Bordeaux style blends and Sangiovese.

Free spirited Janu Goelz pictured at work in the winery

JANU GOELZ, Founder/winemaker, Alara Cellars, Morgan Hill, Santa Clara Valley
Janu knew she was on the right path when her very first vintage of 2017 Grenache Blanc won “Best of Show” at the Central Coast Competition in 2018. Not only was this the first time she had worked with this variety, but it was also the very first time she had entered a wine competition. “I must have been doing something right,” said Janu.

Born and raised in Morgan Hill, Janu (Janaki Arasu) graduated from the University of San Francisco in International Business. But her career path took her from acting and fashion to television. Janu knew winemaking was her calling when she met her future husband Jason Goelz, founder/winemaker of Jason-Stephens winery in Gilroy, in 2012 at a party. Janu caught the wine bug and soon immersed herself in what she jokingly calls “the University of Jason”.

Janu launched her Alara Cellars in Gilroy, a two-hour drive south of San Francisco. The inaugural 2016 vintage was released with 12 different wines, its fruit sourced from the appellations of San Benito and Arroyo Seco in nearby Monterey County. Production is done at a winery in Paso Robles and a tasting room is located in downtown Morgan Hill. (All these locations are no more than an hour or two driving distance from each other.) Alara wines reflect Janu’s free spirit. “I’m not a scientific winemaker; I’m more palate-driven,” said Janu
of her well-defined palate that owes much to her heritage of Singaporean/Indian food.
Annual production is 2,000 cases of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Barbera, Sangiovese, Negrette and Cabernet Pfeffer.

Raghni Naidu, an immigrant woman in the changing California wine industry

RAGHNI NAIDU, Owner/founder, Naidu Vineyards & Wines, Sebastopol, Sonoma County
Raghni’s approach to showcasing her brand goes beyond just a typical visit to a wine tasting room. She has curated an immersive experience of the Sonoma lifestyle with a stay at Naidu’s private and secluded guesthouse where the wines can be savoured along with a tour of the vineyards, local farms and lavender fields. “Enjoy the wine country at your own pace, create a memory of it,” Raghni recommends.

The day I visited Raghni, the guesthouse was occupied so we tasted the wines under an oak tree in her four-acre Pinot Noir vineyard. “Pinot is what got me into drinking wine,” she said of her choice for this appellation.

Naidu Vineyards released its wines in 2020 with its inaugural 2018 vintage of estate Pinot Noir, and a Viognier and a Zinfandel/Carignane blend (the last two from sourced fruit). Wines are crafted by winemaker Matt Duffy and produced in the nearby town of Santa Rosa.

Raghni née, Khanna grew up in Amritsar where fine dining was part of her life. Her wine introduction, however, came via her travels. While studying sales and marketing in Melbourne, Australia, she met her future husband Kaushik Naidu and the two moved to San Francisco.

“That’s what got me where I am today,” said Raghni, adding that their weekends were spent exploring the Napa and Sonoma wine country. In 2018, the Naidus acquired the nine-acre ranch which had been planted to a Pinot Noir vineyard in 2000.

“I’ve lived in different countries and my experiences have shaped who I am today,” Raghni reflected. Her heritage and family values, she explained, enables the hard work and perseverance that she brings to her business every day. The backbone of the California wine industry was and are immigrants, Raghni points out. “Although when you think of a winemaker, an immigrant woman may not be what one expects, but I’m trying to change that whenever I can.”
Naidu Vineyard’s annual case production is 250 cases. Its portfolio is focused on Pinot Noir, with other varietals and blends changing with each vintage.

While listening to their stories, passion and commitment, it is evident that these women have tapped into their inner Shakti, marrying the best of American entrepreneurship with their Indian heritage and blazing a trail in California’s wine industry.