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Posted: Sunday, 31 May 2020 23:30

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Blog: My Journey with Sula and Samant

May 31: I learnt about Rajeev Samant, Founder Director of Sula Vineyards in 2001 but got to meet him only in 2003 at a DWC Tasting, followed by innumerable meetings and events at various places, watching his vision and the Rise and Rise of Sula Vineyards closely as he took the company from 4000 cases in the first year to one million cases a couple of years back, reminisces Subhash Arora who feels that with various PE investors his hands seem to be slightly tied now, despite the millions he made personally

At a recent Zoom Conference with the well-known English wine expert Robert Joseph, who met me and him over 15 years ago and now partners a winery in the South of France and exports to India too through Sula, Rajeev admitted that when he started making wine, he had no idea he would make it so big one day. He had counted on making perhaps 10,000 cases. In his wildest dreams he would have not fantasized making a million cases in less than 20 years!

Not counting the dozens of small producers of fortified wine, incorrectly classified as ‘Goan Port’, the market was earlier controlled by Indage Vintners and Grover Vineyards which had introduced blends the in mid- 1990’s. Bosca ruled the roost in the wine shops as did Riviera table wine when he started making wine in 1999 with varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. 

Introduction to Sula

I had heard about the new producer Sula Vineyards in 2001. I used to drink Grover Red and La Reserve, Marquis de Pompadour and Riviera from Champagne Indage and occasionally Bosca from the Indian stable. But I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on Italian wines I managed to get through a friend in the embassy and occasionally French, German and Chilean wines from bootleggers. On my trip back from Vinitaly in 2002, I had stopped over in Mumbai when I had an opportunity to taste Sula Sauvignon Blanc at a popular pub, The Ghetto.  

I tried to connect with him then. Many had heard about Rajeev Samant but nobody seemed to have his contact details. Slightly disappointed, I came back to Delhi and got busy in organising wine dinners for the newly formed Delhi Wine Club (DWC) and ancillary wine activities.

Rajeev the Brand Ambassador

I managed to contact him finally and after introducing him as the Founder President of DWC, requested him for a Wine Tasting for the members. Rajeev has been truly the Brand Ambassador of Sula. Not only did he agree to host the event in November 2003 at the Taj Palace Hotel, he flew down personally to make a presentation about his wines that included Sula Brut, Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc, an imported insipid Chardonnay and a Merlot (which was then imported in bulk from Chile reportedly at $0.39 a liter). Sula Brut was labelled as Champagne as was Pompadour; I remember telling him it was illegal and he changed it to Sparkling wines/ Brut the following year.

He had a small break earlier in 2002 when he attended a wine shown by Vinexpo in Japan and took a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Blanc which he tasted with Angelo Gaja, the iconic Italian producer known as the ‘Prince of Piedmont’. He has a distribution company and liked it so much that he asked for a sample shipment for tasting by his panel of 13 who taste wines together in Barbaresco before placing an order, which he did successfully. As Angelo shared with me later,' We found Sula Sauvignon Blanc delicious. It is not Sancerre; it is not New Zealand. It just has a pleasing personality of its own and is just Nashik!’

Rajeev continued to be his own Brand Ambassador. While the Chowgules and Kapil Grover were not seen around promoting their wines, he was seen in Mumbai, Delhi or Nashik one day and Toronto the next, and the third day at London and back. As he often said, ‘we keep our marketing expenses at bare minimum with each of our staff members acting as a brand ambassador’, hinting at the lavish expenditure by the rival Indage. This served him in good stead while fast expanding the company.

Maiden Visit to Sula Vineyards

I took up Rajeev’s offer to visit the winery a couple of years after that DWC Tasting. Renting a car, it took us almost 5 hours to reach Nashik from Mumbai Airport and as we reached the Nashik Industrial Area, it was extremely difficult to locate the new, small winery. We troubled Rajeev in Mumbai, who guided us through various small streets (there was no GPS then) patiently and after about 10 phone cons we finally reached the winery. He had kindly offered his family farmhouse to us for the stay with the long-time cook making delicious dishes we enjoyed with Sula wines. There was no Tasting Room but we tasted the whole range at the winery. I remember seeing oak staves but no wooden barrels. Wines always taste the best in the winery and right company. We had good meetings with the senior management at the winery and enjoyed the wines though I remember Chenin Blanc being too sweet (perhaps 20 gms/liter res. sugar).

I had occasions to visit the winery and vineyards in later years and observed continual changes and modernisation. As Monit Dhavale, Sr. Vice President - Hospitality once told me recently, ‘Rajeev lets me make any improvement but says that every six months he must see some noticeable improvement.’  Rajeev also keeps Karan Vasani, the Chief Winemaker on his toes for quality upgrade.

From Zero to Hero

The real opportunity arose in 2008-09 when Indage, the leading pioneer which claimed to control 70% of the total market including fortified wine, (they used to boast about the figures by a London-based market research company) had financial troubles due to over-ambitious plans that went awry during the global meltdown and eventually went bust. Grover was not ambitious and unfortunately suffered insurmountable quality problems in 2007-8, almost shutting down the business due to heavy losses.

Sula was nimble enough to rise to the occasion and capture most of their lost share and catapulted to the top position which it has since maintained, leaving the two closest competitors miles behind. Rajeev did not like the heading of my Article which essentially talked about Sula being Zero in 1999 (focusing on year zero sales) to a Hero in 2008-2009 when he clocked 190-195,000 cases. (The following year was around 250,000; showing the growth he had been achieving). He filled the vacuum created in the market while reinforcing distribution channels.

Meanwhile, he had increased the total acreage from 300 acres in 2004 to 1200 acres by 2006.

Going from Strength to strength, Rajeev went on to acquire the defunct Pimpane at throwaway prices in 2006-7. Not only, did he use the equipment after modification, he refurbished the bubblies stored for 17 years, according to sources. Today, it is an active winery, working to full capacity.

Pioneer of Screw-caps

Rajeev has so many firsts to his credit in his wine journey. One of the most significant ones was introduction of screw caps. He went to New Zealand for a conference on Closures somewhere during this period. He came back so impressed that he gradually shifted to using Screw-caps, in stages. There were initial hiccups but the whole industry followed and today over 90% of the bottles have screw caps, keeping wine fresh longer.

Imported wines and Sula Selection

Rajeev was so unsure of the future of Indian wines at one point at the earlier stage that he entered the imported wine business as a hedge against the government not supporting the Indian wine industry and it folding up. He conceded in a seminar at a wine show around 2004-2005 that Sula had established the import business with the import of a few thousand cases primarily as a hedge but could ramp up quickly if the market so needed. The imported wine industry was ‘booming’ then.

A firm believer that there are not enough profits in this segment, Sula sustained and continued increasing import sales but never as a substantial part of its portfolio. Today, Sula is one of the Top Ten importers though he has no inclination to be the leading importer. Fortunately, his marketing strategy (he continued to be the informal Brand Ambassador though he had hired Cecilia Oldne as one in 2007) was very successful and Sula kept on making unprecedented growth at a CAGR of almost 20%. In the process, he kept on accumulating more land by long-term leasing and renting winery space.

Sula Fest as a Source of Pride and Income   

The pro-active Rajeev might not have gauged the extent the business would grow, but he kept on building infrastructure which included an amphitheater. I remember he told me then that his idea was to help people hopefully organise some concerts where 300-400 people might come from Mumbai (it seemed like an unlikely idea then). Other facilities like the Tasting Room in 2005 with increasing availability of food and restaurants kept on cropping up. He has been a strong believer in wine tourism and kept on pumping money when others were too financially constrained or did not appreciate the importance of it.

Fond of good music, Rajeev introduced Sulafest in 2008 on a low key when a few hundred people visited, mainly from Mumbai. From that humble beginning, Sula Fest is now a mega international event of the year, clocking around 12,000-15,000 people in 2019 as a part of the 400,000 that visited Sula for wine tourism last year. It is an important date (first Saturday-Sunday of February, on my suggestion in later years) on the calendar for those who love music, wine, good food and good life.

Rajeev believes in partnering to leapfrog to the top, be it production, marketing or any area of business. He started working with hospitality companies to pitch tents in the early days for winery visitors, to sub-contracting caterers to run the restaurants, find Main Sponsor for Sulafest and work with music organisers to provide the best possible bands from the world to attract music lovers.

He also tied up with Pradeep Pachpatil, who worked with him for many years and built a scenic property which is now part of Somanda Vineyards, leased it and promoted it as ‘Beyond by Sula’ which did a roaring business. When Pachpatil took it back, Samant was almost ready with the Sula Source Resort in 2017, built by dismantling the old winery, and is now back on track, offering full hospitality to out-of-town visitors. It is a matter of privilege that twice he hosted members of the Delhi Wine Club where my journey started with him- and beautiful memories still linger in the minds of those who visited.

L-o-n-d-o-n London

When he shifted residence to London due to family reasons a few years ago, it set tongues wagging, with many people speculating that he was selling out his shares and would live mostly in the UK. With nobody to corroborate, I contacted him in London finally and as always, asked him the truth. He laughed and assured me he had in fact, set up an office at home and was working from home using Skype (Corona has taught us NOW that working from home is quite feasible). He had installed an expat COO but was in direct contact with the business with 4-hour communication daily with the company seniors and visited Mumbai and Nashik in winter.

Kadu Sula Heritage Vineyards

One notices a few spots at Sula earmarked as Heritage spots (including the Source Heritage Winery in 2017). Presumably the family farmhouse where I stayed on two occasions would also become a heritage site. But the Sun that has been smiling on Sula (and all wine bottles) for 20 years was benevolent again when the Karnataka based Heritage Winery fell in his lap in February, 2017 as he bought the winery on Mysore Road at very low price (as he had done earlier with Remy Martin when buying back Janus joint venture making brandy).

If anyone had any doubt about his passion or interest waning, it was removed when he took his team including the young, dynamic Chief Winemaker Karan Vasani to Bangalore and put them on the job of completely rebuilding the winery. It goes to his credit that the project was ready last year and what a State-of-the-Art winery it turned out to be! Much different than when I had visited a couple of years earlier.

Gorakh Gaikwad, Associate Vice President and Senior Winemaker of Sula Vineyard, is managing the winery I visited last on 7 March 2020, a couple of weeks before the Lockdown. It has great potential for the Karnataka market and around.

Heritage: Sula spells KADU in Karnataka

For strategic reasons, he changed the name to KADU winery to promote the new Brand that was launched the same year on November 6, 2017. The winery has started receiving wine tourists and aims to be the number one in this area in wine tourism.  

Private Equity investors

The progress Sula has made needed massive investments and Rajeev has maintained its house well in order to attract PE investors, at appreciating value at every tranche and making his investors and himself wealthy, while maintaining majority in the company. It is to his credit that investors like Reliance Capital and Visvires owned by Ravi Viswanathan, the current Chairman of Grover Zampa Vineyards buying 30% stake in 2014 (and eventually exiting after making decent profits) against bids by formidable players like Moet Hennessy and Analjit Singh, the billionaire owner of Max group earlier, have been a part of this journey.

He has been very astute in ensuring that he received the highest possible premium on shares parted with, that also made his personal wealth skyrocket. He has never been keen to go public like Indage Vintners and has kept his foot down against any such move. But it does appear that his free-dealing style has been cramped a bit with outside investors pumping in almost half the capital, though he strongly denies it. There have been unprecedented changes in the structure in the recent years which industry observers attribute to the influence of the investors.

Sula has been celebrating milestone years, especially the 10th year in 2010 and 15th year in 2015 when Sula Brut Tropicale was launched in Mumbai.

He has since overseen the launch of several new labels that were showcased at Sula Fest in 2019. This year is ripe for celebrations and one really hopes it would not be just a Zoom affair and the investors would not be dampeners.

No matter what the challenges are in store, one can say with certainty that Samant will continue to zoom in keeping Sula on top. As most analysts believe, it is impossible to dislodge Sula from the throne, unless he messes up royally like Indage did. Rajeev Samant will continue to zoom in on the challenges and opportunities that come his way and keep the Sula Sun smiling on the winery he founded with his first harvest in 1999 and the first vintage released in the beginning of the millennium in 2000. I will hopefully continue my journey with Sula and Samant till I am active in the wine world. It was gratifying to hear him conclude the Zoom conference by saying my favourite- JAI HO!!

P.S.- For his exceptional service rendered to the wine industry, Rajeev Samant was inducted into delWine Excellence Awards Hall of Fame organised by Indian Wine Academy in April 2019.

For a couple of several Articles available on our site, visit

SulaFest ready to Rock n Roll for Tenth Year

From Archives: Ten Years of delWine and Sula Vineyards

Subhash Arora

The Article is written based on my memory and  experiences and my views are personal. The years could be off by a year or so here and there-editor

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