March 12: Bangalore Soma Vineyards in Sonnenahalli, about 35 kms from the Bangalore international airport, has finally signed up an Agreement with Taj Hotels for vineyard hospitality, with the TAJ Amã brand that promotes boutique heritage properties, this being the first tie-up with a vineyard offering the wine tourism experience under its umbrella, writes Subhash Arora who feels once fully operational, it will become perhaps the best wine tourism destination, at least in South India
Owner of Bangalore Soma Vineyards, Darby Raju whose picturesque property I had first visited in 2011 followed by a couple of more visits, urging him to offer a full wine experience as the winery was being constructed and vineyards already planted at a dream location, tells me, ‘you will be glad to know that I have finally signed up with the Taj group to offer complete wine experience through their Taj Amã Stays and Trails brand.’
‘The upgradation of the property has just started and we will be ready for a soft Launch in 3 to 4 months! You had been urging me from your very first visit to our property to organise a full wine tourism facility at the property for wine lovers. This has been on my mind since long but I wanted a good brand that would see the full potential of our picturesque property and its strategic location but keeping it small and exclusive. Unfortunately, every hotel I talked to, wanted a minimum of 60 rooms at the property and preferably 100 rooms. I wanted to keep it a boutique property and didn't want a big crowd -certainly, not a bus load of wine tourists! I was in pursuit of quietness and serene atmosphere. Now the needs have changed Post- Covid too’.
Also read: Wine Travels: Bangalore Soma Vineyards- Pursuit of Silence
The Agreement was signed on 9 February, 2021 virtually since the MD of Taj was in Germany then. But the physical Agreement is with him now. Apparently, he had offers of collaboration from several wine producers including Sula, Fratelli and Grover but not for the hospitality segment. ‘Although they tempted me with the opportunity of investing the money I would receive on divesting my interest in the winery, in creating my own hospitality site, but I do not have expertise in that area and had to regret. I have been looking for professionals who can manage and invest in the hospitality business,’ he says.
Darby bought the estate in 1980 and converted into vineyards in 2001. It was Michel Rolland, the consultant winemaker assisting Grover since inception, who inspired him to set up the vineyards. He was impressed with the terroir and the location enough to predict that one day it would become a golden wine tourism destination. The vineyards have several fruit trees including 550 coconut palm, custard apple, mahogany, teak and mango trees make it a unique vineyard. An acoustic engineer from Indian Institute of Science Bangalore specialising in noise control, Darby has been ploughing his earnings into his wine passion ever since he started this project.
The project has been initially growing grapes and supplying to Grover intermittently since 2003. ‘I have been specialising mainly in Shiraz (75%) though I have had some Sauvignon Blanc also (25%). The winery has an underground cellar designed to become possibly a La Reserve Lounge if the JV plans had materialised with Grover but things changed as they faced covid and other financial crisis. He started to supply to other producers as well. He claims to have supplied to Sula, KRSMA one lot to Big Banyan and even bulk wine via Nisarga to Alpine in 2012.
Bangalore Soma Winery is a part of the 120- acre complex situated in Sonnenahalli by Gundamgere Lake- 60 kms from MG Road and about 2- hour drive from the Bangalore airport. Balakrishna (Bala) who was the winemaker with Grover and then retired from Four Seasons, is the consultant winemaker to the boutique winery that produces only around 30,000 bottles. ‘Under the non-compete clause with Grover we could not sell wines with our own label in public but now that it has extinguished, we plan to bottle the wines in our tanks under the Bangalore Soma label. We already have the Restaurant License and also wine license as a Tavern and can sell wines from any producer/importer so long as it is available at the Karnataka State Beverages Corporation (KSBC)-the State monopoly.’ This makes it an exclusive destination where one can have a tasting of any types of wines- Indian, imported or even comparing different varietals or blends-all under one roof.
Taj Amã would also make food arrangements at site-keeping in mind the Taj international standards. Raju says even now the food is catered by the Taj Yeshwantpur, Bangalore.
The existing family cottage is being converted into a 4-room set. This first cluster will be christened as Makali Manor- because of the Makali Hills surrounding the property on one side with Gundamgere Lake facing the back of the property. This will be followed by other 4-room clusters and 12-24 rooms should be ready within a year; 36 rooms are expected to be available in 3 years.
Meanwhile Bangalore Soma continues to organise diverse events around wine for experiential evenings- the last one being a musical evening with the famous Manganiyars of Rajasthan. However, visits are strictly by appointment and walk-ins are not permitted.
Also read: Curious Case of Soma vs. Somanda Wineries
Taj Amã Stays and Trails manages severalexperiential and heritage properties in Coorg (managing properties owned by Tata Coffee Ltd), Mumbai, Lonavla, Goa, Trivandrum, Chikmagalur, Kodaikanal and Alappuzha (Alleppey). Bangalore Soma aims to add another precious stone to its heritage necklace-with a superb wine destination as an attraction for the affluent wine connoisseurs and novices alike. And the Prophecy of Michel Rolland might come true!
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