March 13: Unknown to most wine drinkers, Sula introduced red wine labelled as Satori in around 2002-3 by importing from Chile and bottling in Nashik and then started experimenting with grapes it grew and finally settling for Tempranillo-Zinfandel blend which at Rs. 650 a bottle in Gurgaon, stands in the middle of the low-ended and premium wines and is also an affordable, quaffable wine that still has a loyal fan following, writes Subhash Arora who is not averse to a couple of glasses at the Delhi Golf Club occasionally
The year was perhaps 2004. Delhi Wine Club (DWC) I founded in 2002, had taken firm roots and was on its way becoming the most premier wine club in India and already enhancing its image overseas. One afternoon I was having pre-Lunch snacks at the bar of the Delhi Golf Club (DGC) with my guest Rajeev Samant, Founder CEO of Sula Vineyards, who had sponsored a wine dinner at the Taj Palace Hotel for the members of the Delhi Wine Club (DWC) on 8 November 2003 and we met frequently to discuss the status of the fledgling Indian wine industry.
A member of the DGC who was also a member of DWC, and did not know Rajeev (few in Delhi did indeed), passed by our table and saw me. After exchanging pleasantries, he struck up an inane conversation, ‘So which Indian wine do you think is the best in white and red category?’ I told him instantly that Sula Sauvignon Blanc was the best white wine (I found the Chenin Blanc too sweet and Grover Blanc de Blanc totally insipid. Riviera was a table wine and Chantilly had lost the plot against Sula SB).
‘But which is the best red wine’? he persisted. I gave him a vague answer, ‘there are a few of them you could try’. When he insisted and Rajeev noticed my discomfort, I said, ‘Grover La Reserve is there, Riviera is popular and Chantilly Red also has its takers’. He asked me directly, ‘what about Sula Satori?’ I told him, yes he could try that as well (it was available at the Bar, besides reds from Grover).
After he left, Rajeev smiled and asked me why I could not tell him what I really wanted to do. Obviously, I had been uncomfortable and awkward. Sula had been making excellent Sauvignon Blanc and the Chenin was very popular amongst the novices. But they did not produce red wine from their own grapes. I had been on record many times, stating that Grover La Reserve at Rs. 440 was the best value red wine in India even though the plebeian Grover Cab Shiraz was available for around Rs. 300. I would have been lying if I recommended Sula Satori and hence the awkwardness.
Unknown to most wine drinkers, Satori was the first red wine label from Sula. Satori is a Japanese Buddhist term for awakening, "comprehension; understanding" and sudden enlightenment. Rajeev realised that masses were drinking more red wine which Sula did not produce. This awakening made Sula introduce red wine and aptly labelled it ‘Satori’.
But many don’t know that it was bulk wine imported from Santa Rita, Chile and bottled in Nashik. There were no clear laws on bulk wines then. Although many claim that the wine cost $0.59 per bulk liter but in fact, Chilean imports cost between $0.40 to $0.70 a liter internationally. Grover is also rumoured to have imported some La Reserve in bulk from France and Indage was a master in importing bulk wine from Australia- until the bulk wines started attracting import duties of 150%. With the contentious issue of excise duty waiver on wine produced from Maharashtra grapes only, the doors closed officially for bulk wine imports. (Source- past employees in the three wineries).
Due to these factors, I never took much interest in Satori, with a vast majority of our wine dinners being with imported wines, even otherwise more easily available in Delhi. Sula had known that bulk imports was a short term solution and had started growing grapes and experimenting with various grapes- notably Merlot and Malbec even as Dindori and Rasa entered the repertoire. I knew about that experiment, till they switched to Tempranillo.
During a Zoom conversation with Rajeev a couple of months ago it hit me that they had started using the grape exclusively for Satori. Charosa had produced an excellent Tempranillo in 2013. So recently, as I sat with a friend at the refurbished bar of the DGC at the same spot 17-18 years ago., we decided to order a glass of Satori as it was a cold evening and a sealed bottle was there to be opened (I prefer to order wine-by-the-glass from a sealed bottle.) And voila! It was quaffable -enough for us to order another glass! Yet another glass and the two of us would have consumed a whole bottle!!
Sula Satori was dark cherry red in colour, a relatively simple, fruit-forward and pleasant wine. The Tempranillo (80%) and Zinfandel (20%) blend had ripe cherry and plum flavours with spicy notes. But more importantly it was a clean and easy drinking, enjoyable wine that did not detract us from our conversation and went very well with the snacks that included paneer tikka, Tandoori fish and roasted peanuts, a specialty at the DGC.
It made me happy to learn later from Sula’s website that ‘it was being produced with utmost respect for the environment, following strict sustainable practices’.
Standing firmly between quaffs and premium wines
The Zinfandel has made it softer and more rounded, darker and fruitier. Priced at Rs. 650 a bottle in Gurgaon, it has Samara at Rs. 400 and Madera at Rs. 550 on the cheaper side whereas the staple Sula labels are around Rs. 750-850, going on to Dindori, The Source and the Super-premium Rasa at up to Rs. 2000 on the premium side.
It appears to be the only label with no other variant-one wonders about the need to have just a single label but apparently it is selling on its own steam and brand recognition. Earlier, it had crossed the sale of 50,000 cases but even now without any publicity, it clocks around 30,000 cases, I believe. There are still some restaurants who have listed it for years and their clients yearn for the earlier Merlot-Malbec blend.
Me? I am happy with a glass or two of this quaffable red, sitting in the same bar, 17-18 years after the interesting episode with Rajeev Samant and the ‘best Indian Red wine’. Much water has flown under the bridge since then, but it is heartening to see, Rajeev’s first (red wine) love enduring the shift in the market, moving towards premiumisation and staying alive.
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