Mistress of Wine, Uma Chigurupati wears many hats with equal poise & grace

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Shoba Narayan paints an engaging word-portrait of Uma Chigurupati, a woman who wears many hats with equal poise and grace

Clad in a chic white shirt and matching pants, Uma Chigurupati stands beside her husband, Krishna at KRSMA vineyard in Hampi. A group of wine experts has flown in from different parts of India and the world. Uma, as she prefers to be known, is explaining the winemaking process to them. She speaks with ease and confidence about the selection and barrel-aging of the grapes and how she likes “fruit forward” wines. Uma and Krishna are gracious hosts and lead their guests through the property in the middle of the rolling hills. The pièce de résistance is a vertical tasting of all their vintages. The fruit-forward 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon is a favourite of Uma’s, while Krishna likes the more restrained and oak-driven 2012. “Sure, we have wine consultants,” says Uma. “But at the end of the day, we make wines that we like.”

Uma Chigurupati and Krishna Chigurupati of KRSMA Estates

Uma Chigurupati and Krishna Chigurupati of KRSMA Estates

By now, the tale of their storied Indian wines is well known. Krishna Prasad Chigurupati was a young newly married lad when he decided to do two things: start a pharma company and begin to make wines. “In 1982, I walked into our apartment and found that Krishna had converted one bedroom into a winery,” says Uma, laughing. “So I began my marriage as a cellar hand.” Using wine kits procured from Boots in London, Krishna instructed his bride to keep track of the pH levels of the various wines that he was making, and inoculate them when needed. With a degree in soil microbiology, Uma was broadly familiar with yeasts and chemistry. Thus began her foray into the world of wines.

It was only after his pharma company, Granules India, grew to run on auto-pilot that Krishna began thinking about his next challenge, which turned out to be marathons. The couple is recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records for running a marathon in every continent: seven marathons in seven months, including Antarctica topped off with the North Pole marathon which catapulted them into the Grand Slam Marathon club – an elite gathering with just 110 members at last count.

Along the way, they drank lots of wine. Uma likes Napa valley wines: Hillside Select and Camus are favourites. Krishna likes old world wines. Their collection includes iconic brands (Vega Sicilia and DRC to name just two) and storied vintages. On a trip to Hampi, they fell in love with a 35-acre estate, which they bought in 2008. Their first vintage was 2010, which was never released because they were not satisfied with it. This perfectionist approach has served them well and won them numerous awards. To name a few: double gold for their Chardonnay 2013 (China Wine and Spirit (CWS) Awards, gold for Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Cabernet International Competition and CWS), and Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (San Francisco International Wine Competition) respectively.

Wine Searcher currently lists 94 wine producers based in India. Of these, only a dozen are worth reckoning with, and only a few are consistently attempting to raise their game. KRSMA is one of those. The scope of their ambition is as vast as a vineyard sky and can be summarized in a single line: they want to put Hampi Hills on the global wine map. Their horizon is long: they are marathon runners after all, and are not in it for the short sprint to glory. Their vineyard in Hampi Hills has several things going for it. Like the schist-based soils of Alsace and parts of Tuscany, the soils of this district (Bellary) are a combination of granite, gneiss and schistose rocks. The sandy loam soil is permeable and mildly alkaline in nature. The undulating hills allow for ample sunlight and patchy rainfall. All of these factors lend themselves to tough vines, which, as the saying goes, make the best wines.

Their first vintage was 2010, which was never released because they were not satisfied with it. This perfectionist approach has served them well and won them numerous awards

“For me, the greatest pleasure is walking through the vineyard,” says Uma. “I love my vines. In April and May, during the harsh season, I cannot bear to see my vines suffering in the heat and I beg Mother Nature to please take care of my babies.”

Uma’s visits to the vineyard begin early. She wakes up at 3 am to drive from Hyderabad to the vineyard. There she begins tasting different barrels on an empty stomach, checking which plot is doing well, whether the tight-grained or loose-grained barrel is yielding better results, whether the medium toast works for their grapes and occasionally panicking over whether the wine has oxidized. “By the end of the day, I am numb,” she says.

Uma figures out which barrels make the premium cut and which need to be set aside for K2, the secondary wine. Each of their wines is single varietal and the big news is that they are experimenting with a sparkling wine and a Syrah, which they hope to bring out in 2019.

To understand Uma Chigurupati, you have to drink with her. This is possible at KRSMA winery in Hampi Hills or in Bangalore where they have conducted vertical tastings. “Winemaking is about passion and  persistence and Uma has that,” says her husband Krishna. “That is both, her strength and weakness. She is cautious. She doesn’t jump into things, but once she gets involved, she is single-minded in her approach towards what she undertakes. She is not a multi-tasker.”

The couple shares a marriage that Krishna calls “blessed.” They seem to have struck a perfect balance between independence and interconnection

The couple shares a marriage that Krishna calls “blessed.” They seem to have struck a perfect balance between independence and interconnection. Over breakfast at the Shangrila Hotel in Bangalore, Krishna spoke expansively about his wife and partner. “My friends envy my marriage because she supports me in everything that I do,” he said. “It begins with support and then it becomes her passion also and then she starts enjoying it as much as I do. In fact, I have ruined all her earlier passions!” he adds ruefully.

Uma’s other passions include music, textiles and ikebana. A trained Carnatic music singer and veena player, she wants to get back into music. She loves flowers and visits Japan to attend Ikebana conferences. And she confesses to a weakness for saris. While she is clad mostly in French chiffons, she also has a vast collection of Kanjivaram and Benaras silk saris.

“I unwind by cooking, meeting friends or watching old black and white movies,” says Uma. While she allows for enough time to unwind, her focus on work is never affected. She has become involved in the CSR work of their pharmaceutical company, Granules India, primarily in the area of skill development of underprivileged youth. She ensures the parallel running of, both, the vineyard and these activities.

A 2013 Technopak report states that the Indian wine market is estimated to be worth `175 crore or US$ 32 million. This is a piddling amount compared to other parts of the world, but the good news is that this market is growing at 20 to 25% each year. Labels such as KRSMA contribute mightily to educating the Indian palate. This then is the balance that perfectionist winemakers like Krishna and Uma have to achieve. While their own palates may be sophisticated, they are making wines for the young, immature Indian palate. Or are they? 

“Winemaking starts in the vineyard,” Uma says. “If you produce great fruit through the right kind of pruning, through making good choices about when to harvest and what to leave out, that is half the battle. We make wines that we ourselves like to drink.” The better Indian brands don’t compromise. They aim to make wines that please their palates and hope to carry their customers along.

When you have two wine experts within a marriage, things can get a little heated. Uma laughs as she recounts the debates she has with her husband on their winemaking process. For example, they frequently disagree about how long the wine should stay in the oak barrels, given that each of them enjoys a different kind of wine. Krishna pushes his point of view, but in the end, it is Uma’s call. Early on, Krishna’s hands-off approach sprang from the purpose of educating his wife. 

“Krishna would say, ‘I may be losing one vintage, but let her learn by herself,’ and that was essential for me to figure things out,” says Uma.

The better Indian brands don’t compromise. They aim to make wines that please their palates and hope to carry their customers along

These days however, the couple knows each other’s wine palate and preference intimately. They walk the line between extracting more tannins and preserving the fruity character; between body and structure. And they resolve their differences over a glass of wine. On weekends, at their sprawling Hyderabad home, Krishna and Uma might have a few friends over and uncork either one of their own wines or a favourite global label. They have a light and early dinner, enjoy the wine and retire early.

“We are runners,” laughs Uma. “Late night socialising is not for us. Because we have to get up early.”

So far, none of their three children is in the business. They have twin daughters, age 29. Pragnya is a Breast Oncologist completing her course soon in Mumbai and going to UK to specialize in Breast Oncoplasty. Priyanka heads the US generics business and is based in Virginia. Their son, Harsha, 34, is married and lives in NY. He is an entrepreneur and runs a business in the US. A warm and involved mother, Uma balances her family, her passions, her winery, and her husband’s business with aplomb.

Her greatest learning: “Be patient,” she says. “You have to be patient at every stage in winemaking. You cannot force things.”

With that, this winemaker, mother, Ikebana artist, Carnatic music singer, sari connoisseur, orporate wife, marathon runner is ready take on her next challenge.

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