Rajeev Samant has grown Sula Vineyards into India’s leading high-end domestic wine producer
As the sun set over the fields of grapes on the last day of 2006, Rajeev Samant sat on the front steps of his winery and pondered what the coming year might bring. In the ten years since his first planting, Samant and his team had built Sula Vineyards into India’s leading high-end domestic wine producer. However, India’s wine boom was also drawing in competitors with deep pockets such as Seagram’s and UB Spirits, which were building high-volume wineries in India.
Samant was convinced that eventually, India’s strict import restrictions would relax, confronting Sula with another set of aggressive competitors bent on expansion. Not content to remain a niche producer, Samant wanted to scale up Sula’s volume as rapidly as feasible while maintaining its reputation for quality and its image as a “made in India” success story. That would require anticipating and overcoming the challenges that fast growth would create.
Rajeev Samant was born and brought up in Mumbai in an entrepreneurial family: his father started India’s first deep-sea diving company, even though he personally did not swim. Young Rajeev did well in school and went to the US to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Stanford University. He worked for two years in California as a finance manager for the software giant Oracle, then decided to quit and head back to India to do something completely different, but he had no idea what that was. He explains:
When I was at college, I hung out with people who didn’t have conventional notions of success. They weren’t heading toward I banking or consulting—they wanted to do something cool, different, talked about that would make a difference to the community. I decided to go home and make a difference in my own country. There is still so much in India that hasn’t been done, though you take it for granted in Europe or the US. We had some land in Nashik and I decided to try my hand at farming mangoes. Two years later, after having tried a bunch of crops with not a lot of success, I asked one day why no one was making wine, since grapes grew so well in Nashik. No one could give me an answer, so I did a little study and decided to go for it.
Samant’s family owned 30 acres in Nashik, 180 kilometers north of Mumbai. Only two wineries had been started in India, most recently in 1988. Through a Stanford friend, Samant met Kerry Damskey, an experienced wine maker from the Sonoma valley in northern California, who told Samant it should be possible to make a decent wine from Nashik grapes. Samant worked in a California winery for a few months, taking photos, making drawings, and planning before moving back to India to launch his venture.
With Damskey’s advice and assistance, Samant planted his first grapes in 1997. “After polling people, we decided we needed some varieties nobody had here,” he says. “We planted the first Sauvignon Blanc, the first Chenin Blanc, the first Zinfandel, and eventually the first Riesling in India.” However, he recalled, “People In Nashik thought I was crazy; they called me ‘The NRI’ in the papers. I would sit on a chair in a field watching grapes growing when everyone else was in media, banking, dotcoms and consulting.”
Samant decided to emphasize the “Indian-ness” of his label, since everything was grown and made by Indian staff using California technology and foreign vine cuttings. He chose “Sula” because it sounded Indian (it was his mother’s name) yet also hip, and would translate well across cultures. He decided to position Sula at the high end of the domestic market, where it would compete with mid-priced foreign brands. Samant explained:
We thought if we started pricing low, we couldn’t ascend the price ladder later. We looked at the strategies of Gallo and Mondavi in the US and decided to go the Mondavi way, positioning ourselves at the high end. We are more expensive than cheap imports but there are more expensive imports. We were much more expensive than any Indian wine had ever been.
When the firm began marketing its first bottling in 2000, a Sauvignon Blanc, sales started slowly. “In the first six months, we went door to door persuading people to buy an Indian wine that was more expensive than any other, and we sold just one truckload in Mumbai,” Samant recollects. “It was a real rollercoaster and I had a lot of sleepless nights, but we found a couple of people who were willing to take a risk and thought our wine tasted better than bootlegged French wine.” Once Sula got onto a few good wine lists, sales began to boom. Every wine list in India had French or Californian or Australian wines but not an Indian-made wine, and the patriotic angle helped the brand grow. “We planted to requirements, so we ran out of wine the first few years and couldn’t do anything about it, since it takes 2-3 years for the vines to mature,” Samant commented.
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