You have seen her on stage, elegantly dressed in a sari at a KRSMA launch or sitting in on a vertical tasting of her wines. She’s on the cover of magazines, featured in articles, pictured running in the snow in Antarctica or in the heat of the Atacama Desert – even attending black-tie dinners. But all this does not tell you the whole story of Uma Chigurupati, co-founder of KRSMA Estates, India’s award-winning boutique wine producer. Indeed, wine producer is just one of her many roles, and one that she is most proud of.
It is 44°C in Hyderabad on Day 1, as I meet Uma at Hyderabad’s Swarna Bharat Trust, a corporate initiative to help young people develop employment-friendly skills. If decision-making in KRSMA occurs with hands on, corporate exactitude, it is because this is a major part of Uma’s life: her day-to-day role at Granules India, the successful pharmaceutical company started by her husband, Krishna Prasad Chigurupati 30 years ago, and her work in the field of social responsibility stems from it.
Watching her interactions as she handles her corporate responsibilities and as she immerses herself in work at the winery helps in understanding how KRSMA Estates is charting its own course within the Indian wine industry.
A typical day for Uma starts with a 5 am run followed by yoga and a healthy breakfast. Then it is off to the office for her, and that is where we head next. The gleaming steel and concrete Granules factory we visit is run with computer precision to international standards. An expanse of green, which was Uma’s idea, surrounds the sweeping compound with a 9-hole golf course not far off for occasional corporate tournaments.
Granules India has three state-of-the-art pharma facilities in Hyderabad, one of which is the world’s largest paracetamol manufacturer. There are three similar facilities in Vizag, one in China and the newest in Virginia, USA. Krishna shuttles between them, jetting every month to visit the US facility, while Uma looks after human resources and CSR at Granules India, with a work force of 3,500 employees. What makes the Chigurupatis remarkable is their teamwork, in their business as well as the winery. They are both quality-obsessed and focused, with little patience for short-cuts or razzmatazz. “We prefer to be low key,” Uma tells me. “Less is more, for us.”
Uma has also chaired the Hyderabad 10K Run Foundation and organized the Hyderabad Heritage Marathon. She’s one step away from becoming an associate first master in Ikebana at the highest level and receiving an award in Kobe, Japan. In the car back into town, Uma’s phone rings constantly with friends, business associates and her daughter, Pragnya, 29, who is studying oncoplastic breast surgery, calling from the UK. Uma answers each call patiently.
The Chigurupatis are no accidental winemakers. KRSMA didn’t happen on a whim. It’s a love affair. A decade later, it still remains a deep-rooted passion rather than a business. Both of them, husband and wife, work in tandem. While Uma leads the decision-making in the vineyard, it’s not without consulting Krishna. Every decision is discussed threadbare before action is taken. But Krishna acknowledges, “Without her, nothing would happen.”
I soon see that this is true. If Uma leads the winemaking business, it is not only because of Krishna’s numerous business preoccupations. She is very well qualified with a master’s degree in soil microbiology and plant pathology, followed up later with a winemaking course at the University of California Davis along with Krishna. Not surprisingly, she has a deeply connected relationship with her vines. (In her garden at home, I noticed a stricken Filicium fern wrapped in a shade net, receiving treatment with maternal care.)
It is Day 2, and we are en route to the winery. It’s a long trip by plane and car, but the landscape around Hampi is beautiful. The beautiful rocks, emblematic of the UNESCO world heritage site, are part of the schist-enriched soil which gives KRSMA wines their trademark elegance and precision. The previous evening in Hyderabad, Krishna had described the new KRSMA Syrah. Planted four years ago from Australian clones, and sturdy enough to survive the unforgiving climate of Hampi, the 2016 vintage is due for release soon.
“Our Syrah developing fascinating characteristics of its own, something between an Australian and a Rhône Syrah with bright fruit, medium body with typical peppery notes.” However, only 800 bottles of the 2016 have been made, with decisions pending on pricing and release. “But yes, this is the next big thing from KRSMA,” he said.
The premium range is only made with grapes selected from the KRSMA Estates own vineyards. This partly explains why KRSMA wines are not easy to find in retail. Quantities are small with annual production only around 3,000 cases a year. Moreover, the Chigurupatis have withheld releasing vintages in the past because of concerns based on their own exacting standards. This has resulted in something of a cult following around India, with intermittent voids in the market as stocks run out.
KRSMA is available in Bangalore and was recently launched in Hyderabad, the Chigurupati’s home town. In 2014, their wines were also launched successfully in New York, a decision driven in part because this is where Krishna started his journey in pharmaceuticals, accompanied by a belief that success in New York’s tough environment can spell success anywhere. KRSMA wines were first met with incredulity (“Indian wine?!”) followed by enthusiasm. At Aldo Sohm’s Wine Bar, co-owned by Le Bernadin customers ask for “the wine from Hampi Hills,” marvelling at the purity of fruit coming from young vines grown in unchartered terroir in the New World. “A young sommelier once described it to me as ‘spring in a bottle’,” smiles Uma.
The Chigurupatis’ love for wine grew over time with visits to wine regions and interaction with the fascinating people they met from the wine world in every country. As their interest grew, they began looking at setting up a vineyard in India, concentrating on the south with its porous soil and rolling hills, which they felt was ideal for viticulture. Long trips scouting the territory for suitable land led them in 2008 to the hills near Tavaragere on the road to Hampi, which was already under cultivation with wine grapes.
It didn’t take long for Uma to fall in love with the land. “I stood on a raised edge overlooking the undulating landscape around, and I turned to Krishna and said, ‘Let’s do it’!” This vantage point is where she hopes to build her tasting room someday. Once the land was bought, noted Australian viticulturalist Peter Hayes was called in to consult. The vines were re-planted and the KRSMA story was born.
The first years were not easy. Situated 375 km from Hyderabad, the construction of the winery was no simple task. More land was bought around it to expand the original holding and the soil was prepared for planting – a two-year exercise. Today, although the holdings cover 150 acres, the yield is restricted to the original 35 acres, due to environmental challenges and water shortage – water is brought across long distances in tankers. “More than the scorching heat, the growing alkalinity in the soil due to the lack of water is a concern,” Uma remarks. Meanwhile, the Chigurupatis are on the lookout for more water-friendly land in the vicinity.
2010, the year of their first harvest, played out like a Hollywood- style saga. It was the year they were competing in the arduous World Marathon Challenge, completing seven marathons in seven months, departing for the Antarctica with harvest looming alarmingly close. Uma recalls days of gruelling training interspersed with 13-hour day trips to the vineyards each week. Preparing for Antarctica was “like going to war”, she says.
The training, the gear, the minimal rations, the remoteness, stay etched in her memory. “In a way, it was almost an irresponsible decision – we had big factories, thousands of employees and three children dependent on us. And there was KRSMA to take care off. I learned time management very quickly!” she says. In Punta
Arenas, just before the run, Uma got a panicky call from her winemaker, Ronald Solomon. A heavy, unseasonal deluge had resulted in water geysers gushing from the borewells. “What should I do?” he cried. There wasn’t much to do but pray for things to work out.
And work out they did. Eight years on there are no more deluges, and KRSMA has been racking up innumerable awards and trophies. Uma believes that the secret of their success lies in their vineyards and the quality of their fruit. “If you have good fruit, it takes a lot to spoil the wine.”
We reach the winery. The sun is setting and you forget the heat watching the sun dip over the vines, bathing them in a golden light. It is time to head for a barrel tasting with vineyard manager, D Jogi Naidu, a KRSMA veteran of nine years, and assistant winemaker, Aniruddha Rajagopalan. We start with the latest vintage of the KRSMA Sauvignon Blanc, which has a hint of oak for the first time. Uma is precise and detailed in her feedback and instructions. “Krishna and I give the winemaking guidelines,” she says.
Visiting South African winemaker, Adrian Foot is due in a few weeks for the bottling and the wines must be ready. The wines are made in what she calls “the KRSMA style”. This KRSMA style shines through each of the blind tastings we taste from the barrel. Fruit-driven, many wines are lush and elegant, while the younger vintages have a hint of brashness but are brimming with the promised goodness to come. Uma’s experiments with barrel fermenting their Cabernet Sauvignon are showing remarkable results. We do a special sampling from Uma’s tiny organic parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon; here the fruit shines even brighter. She is also excited about plans for a push towards biodynamic practices.