Aug 23: Shamrao G. Chougule, who ruled the modern Indian wine industry for over 20 years died in Mumbai this morning at the age of 86; the founder of Champagne India Ltd. And Indage Vintners, leaves behind his son Ranjit who cremated the body today in Mumbai and Vikrant who lives in London and could not be present due to Covid-19 restrictions, writes Subhash Arora who believes he was a pioneer and a true Visionary who put the Indian wine industry on the world wine map in 1986 with Omar Khayyam Brut and introduced over 60 labels exported to around 70 countries
Hailing from the family of a farmer in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, Shamji, as he was popularly known, saw his business reach a high in 2004-2007 with the shares of his public limited company crossing Rs. 300 at one time, with Anil Ambani being also one of the significant investors. He claimed control over 70% of the Indian wine market with 3 wineries including one near Kullu and had bought two wineries in Australia and a couple of bottling plants in the UK, before the business turned sour in 2009 due to many reasons.
After several failed attempts to become an engineer, a pilot and a commission agent, he went back to his village in Narayangaon (where the Indage winery was later built) and managed a contract with the public works department. He set up a factory where he started exporting prefabricated structures and got his first contract from Doha for 18 aircraft hangers.
On a business trip to Paris, he fell in love with the city and French wines-especially champagnes and decided to produce sparkling wine in Maharashtra where he started a winery in 1984, naming it Champagne India-Ltd, changing it to C.I. Ltd. when the French raised an objection and finally to Chateau Indage Ltd. He started exporting his bubbly in 1986 under the labels Omar Khayyam, under consultancy from Piper Heidsieck. It was after he was allowed to sell 25% to the Indian market, he started Marquis de Pompadour (MDP) and made it a household name.
The complete plant with a capacity of 750,000 bottles, then costing Rs. 7 Crore (Rs. 70 million) was imported as also the special yeast from France for the second fermentation. Even base wine was allowed to be imported as it was an EOU (Export oriented unit). With the first crush in January 1984, under the supervision of a French wine master, the bubbly was first exported in 1986 and became a hit despite many naysayers.
This made Shamrao Chougule a true pioneer and father of the modern Indian wine industry. ‘He was a towering pioneer of the Indian wine industry, says Rajeev Samant, Founder CEO of Sula Vineyards, expressing his grief over Chougule’s death.
By all accounts, he was a very generous and kind hearted man to his staff. Hans Raj Ahuja, who joined Indage in 1994 as GM Finance and left as Senior Vice President for the whole operation in 2003, says, ‘if he had trust in someone he would go the whole hog to support them. He had the vision, resources and conviction to take the company to a global level. Till he was in the driver’s seat in 2005, he had taken it to new heights.’
Abhay Kewadkar, who joined Indage as his first job after college, says ‘I was really groomed by Shamji to take over as the future winemaker. I had direct access to him. I was sent to France for training with Piper Heidsieck and he took personal interest in my training.’ He is particularly touched that one day he gave him the Gypsy he used to travel from Mumbai to Narayangaon to visit the winery, so Abhay could go back to town, 16 kms from the winery. He didn’t know how to drive, so he also provided him with the driver. ‘When I decided to leave Chougule in 1991 to join the new winery setup of Grover Vineyards in Bangalore, he flew down from the UK where he used to live as an NRI, for 2 days to try and convince me to change my mind.’
Pradeep Pachpatil, owner of Soma Vineyards, also joined Indage as Assistant Winemaker from 1990-95. ‘He was really a very creative mind; always actively thinking of expansion and technology improvement. Whenever he visited from Mumbai, he would stop and spend a lot of time in the tank hall and talk about expansion and new equipment and technology. He had some vineyard land in the hills where water was a problem. He devised a novel system by which to get the water up.’
He was the Founder of All India Wine Producers Association (AIWPA). He was also appointed as the first Chairman of the Indian Grape Processing Board by the Ministry of Food Processing Industries in 2009.
I met Shamji in 2003-4 when I went to visit Nashik wineries. Fortunately, he was at the winery at that time but was about to leave for Mumbai. Offering to still spend 10 minutes, he took us around and spent almost 3 hours and answered many questions though inexplicably, he would not allow me to take any pictures. After the visit, he took us to the Ivy Bar, outside the winery where we tasted several wines. He had to leave but requested us to stay back and taste as many wines as we liked with whatever food. After we had finished the tasting, we asked for the bill but were told it had been settled. He had never met us before and to the best of my knowledge had never heard about me either.
Things had taken a downturn after 2007-8 when the recession hit us all and due to what is generally considered mismanagement or adventurism at best, the company got into dire financial straits and had a lot of negative news. As a routine, I used to publish various news items with a fair amount of negativity as the company was slowly but surely sinking.
I met him last, at the maiden National Wine Conference organised by IGPB in May, 2010 at Hotel Ashoka, where I was also a Speaker. Expecting him to cold shoulder me because of uncharitable comments about Indage Vintners overextending itself in the Australian and UK markets, he came to me and said,’ you are doing a good job in reporting. You have to do what you feel is right. Keep it up.’ I thought that was quite charitable, coming from him.
Robert Mondavi of Maharashtra
To a man who some people in the industry had in fact started calling the Robert Mondavi of Maharashtra of India because of his passion for wine and encouraging farmers in Maharashtra to switch to wine grapes, it must have been quite a come down to shift to Pune from Mumbai during the last few years. Back to Mumbai for the last 6 months, he had been getting treatment for bone cancer both at Breach Candy and Hinduja Hospital which sent him home last night, where he breathed his last in the morning.
With Shamrao G. Chougule gone, we have lost a true pioneer and a leader who could not see his dream of conquering the world but nevertheless won the hearts of people he met. As Kewadkar tells me, the company owed money to banks, equipment suppliers and even farmers. When he realised the company was in no condition to pay back the farmers, he told them he would sell his personal land and pay back what the company owed them for grapes; and fulfilled his promise.
RIP, Sham Chougule. Have a glass of your favourite champagne in the other world. JAI HO!
For some of the earlier related Articles, visit:
Blog: From our Archives- Indian Wine Industry in 1990's
Indage Struggling for Survival
Blog: Indage Vintners is NOT Bankrupt
Editorial : Carry on Indage
Troubled Indage Champagne Losing Fizz
No Champagne for Indage Now
Chateau Indage acquires Australian winery