Stars of the Indian wine world

Stars of the Indian wine world

Bhisham Mansukhani profiles six people instrumental in growing India's wine business. Producers, importers, tasters, commentators and ground breakers as interesting as they are influential

Some people embrace a fledgling industry not simply because they have the passion for it or for cold economic reasons but because they truly believe they can change the game and then take it to the next level. CNNGo profiles half a dozen of such beacons in India's wine business -- producers, importers, tasters, commentators and ground breakers -- who make the wheels of India's wine business go round. 

Kiran and Yatin Patil, directors, Vintage Wines

Premium Indian wine was considered an oxymoron before Kiran and Yatin Patil decided to actually make one, driven by the simple belief that quality justifies price. They were right on the money. After a first crush of grapes just five years ago, Reveilo has a presence on nearly all major five-star hotel wine lists, is a darling of the expat community that yearns for good Indian wine and dominates the premium segment of wine. It's even more interesting since neither Kiran nor Yatin Patil have a background in the wine business (both are MBAs) apart from the fact that Yatin’s family owned a table grape estate. Yatin's father, Suresh saw the opportunity in 2001 when the state released its Grape Processing Policy 2001, encouraging grape farmers to switch from table grapes to wine. From then on, a sizable chunk of the family’s 100 acres in the Niphad district of Nashik was dedicated to cultivating wine grapes.

But it wasn’t about jumping on to the bandwagon, Yatin says. More about raising the bar. And that they did, stunning wine tasters with the quality of their reserve wines. "From the onset, we invested in French oak barrels, air-conditioned warehousing and trucks. The grape quality is important, how it's picked and transported, fermented and then aged and bottled," says Kiran. The couple didn’t shy away from taking risks either. Chardonnay for instance had never been fermented and matured in barrels in India before. The Patils went for it, encouraged by their Italian wine maker Andrea Valentinuzzi and India had its first barrel-aged white wine. 

Not content with a bulging bucket of firsts that also includes extended bottle ageing before release to the market and the use of synthetic cork, they introduced their first vintage of Italian grape varieties Nero D’Avola, Sangiovese and Grillo. In a wine market where the typical consumer is happy simply telling white from red, it’s an audacious move, but not out of the ordinary for a couple that sells the country’s most expensive wine at over Rs 1,300  bottle. "The approach is rooted in the conviction that Indians believe premium wine can be made locally and will buy it," Kiran says.

Sanjay Menon, director, Sonarys

International wine guru Steven Spurrier vouches for Menon as Indian’s most informed ‘wine man’ and he’s only one of two professionally certified Bordeaux wine trainers in India. And that's just the beginning. Sanjay Menon can delve on many reasons why he’s vital to the Indian wine industry. He’d much rather focus on importing the finest international wine home to the Indian consumers, get them excited, educated, curious and uncorking more wine. The money is incidental. This is about genuine passion and it spills out during any conversation with Sanjay that involves wine. Be it the first growths from Bordeaux or Barolos from Piedmont, Champagne or lesser known Austrian wines, his enthusiasm for wine equals his knowledge of it. Menon has been a champion of wine in India, not directly for Indian wine per se, but for its culture, and domestic wine producers have profited from his efforts. 

Menon’s love affair with the good stuff began almost 20 years ago. Back then his company Sansula, now Sonarys, represented the domestic interests of international alcohol companies like Allied Domecq and Diageo. Post market liberalization, they parted ways and Menon turned his attention to a nascent wine market that he'd been quietly observing. He pursued it further, realizing his own latent passion for the subject and the produce. He found himself hobnobbing with some of France's most important wine personalities and producers like the Louis Roederer Champagne house that produces Kristal, and Bordeaux superstars Chateau Margaux and Chateau Latour. 

The journey from then until now has contained an unparallel portfolio of imported wines, countless wine tastings for hotel staff and consumers. He was also first to establish a wine school accredited by the UK-based Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), an initiative he envisioned as the next important step for a discerning professional and consumer. The only spoiler in his wine life so far has been the politicization of the business. "Certain domestic wine makers who don't make it well, to put it mildly, have lobbied the government to tax imported wine out of the scope of Indians. What they don't realize is that the demand for their wine will only grow and not diminish if there's good quality and choice of imported wine in the market. But they don't get it and now they have more wine in their tanks than they know how to sell," he says. But this reality alone won’t bog him down. Menon continues to contribute enormously in getting Indians interested in international wine and the wine making world interested in India. 

Kavita Faiella, regional cellarmaster, Aman Resorts South-East Asia

A bubbly Australian sommelier with an Indian first name, Kavita Faiella was studying to be a paediatrician before a holiday in Italy and a subsequent romance with the Italian way of life -- good food and wine and appreciation of it -- put her career choices in perspective. She stayed on in Italy for eight months working in a wine bar in a town closed to Bologna and on returning from Italy, began working in acclaimed restaurants alongside some of the country’s most influential chefs. In the course of one such a stint, she was offered a scholarship for a certified sommelier course. Opportunity invariably followed, first in the form of a head sommelier at the Hilton Maldives property where she garnered a lot of experience as a Sommelier and a trainer. When the time came to move on, she seized upon the role of regional cellarmaster for Aman Resorts in South-East Asia. The job took her across Aman’s several Asian properties, bringing her eventually to New Delhi where she has been these past 18 months. 

Here, as in Aman’s other Asian properties, she has rolled out wine programs. And the dining elite of the capital rely immensely on Kavita to choose their wines for them. The experience, she says, has been illuminating. "There’s a different sort of thrill working in a wine market that is still only developing," says Faiella. "One feels a part of its evolution. For me, it’s been fascinating to see how Indians approach wine. They like red wines with lots of flavor and are still coming to grips with the idea of pairing Indian food with wine. They prefer robust American reds to the delicate French ones. For me, interacting with them is a learning experience in itself,” she avers. Rather interestingly, Kavita believes that wine really needs to enter the Indian home if it is to truly become part of their culture, much like it did in Italy. It’s a telling fact, she says, that Hong Kong and China account for 67 percent of Asia’s wine consumption, and India just one percent. Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done and Kavita’s been doing a lot of it.

Rajeev Samant, founder and CEO, Sula Vineyards

What began as a potentially risky enterprise in a market that was practically an Indage Vitners monopoly in the late 1990s snowballed into a reality that Rajeev Samant had not just dreamed up but worked bloody hard to get to. Samant studied economics and engineering management at Stanford, worked for a while at Oracle, eventually returning home to Nashik where his family lives. Coming home wasn’t simply about returning to his roots but exploring them, and in Samant’s case it was quite literal. He dabbled with mangoes on the family’s 20 acres and then with table grapes. That’s when the germ of the idea first emerged. Nashik, four hours outside Mumbai, saw its first winery and Sula's first vintage was bottled in 2000 (the brand name Sula traces itself back to Rajeev’s mother Sulabha). 

The twin new world approach of making approachable wines and stamping them with simpler wine labels was well received by a market that was still shy of wines, which it considered a European drink. Ten years on, Samant’s company is now one of the country’s most recognizable wine brands, with a vast range covering the premium and the entry level. The company has planted over 1,200 acres of vineyard, part owned, part contracted. Among his many firsts, Samant introduced screw caps to the Indian market. This reporter remembers him wondering in 2004, why it hadn’t already been done since 90 percent of Indian households didn’t possess a corkscrew. He also beat his competition to the idea of soft serves -- 100 ml bottles of wine -- which allowed consumers to sample different wines rather than buying one big bottle. 

But his most significant contribution apart from the wine itself is opening Nashik up as a wine destination. His winery was the first to have a tasting room in the region. It grows popular by the day with locals and out-of-towners and lots of young people driving in for a tour of the winery, a taste and dinner. Rajeev also created SulaFest, the country’s only annual wine and music festival held at an amphitheater near the winery. There’s no telling what other vinous ideas he plans to materialize. For Rajeev, after making a leap from 50,000 bottles in 2000 to three million in 2010, the market is only just warming up.

Rajesh Rasal, oenologist and freelance wine maker

Indians might be drinking more wine and some might have a hankering for learning how to taste wine, get good at it, cram up on the wine snob’s dictionary and maybe make an occupation of it. Few however are prepared to immerse themselves in the study of how to actually make the stuff and then toil in the vineyard, patiently nurturing the wines, only to start again from square one irrespective of whether the previous vintage was a success or failure. At least one second generation Indian winemaker has. Rajesh Rasal has worked for more than 14 Indian wineries in as many years and makes wine for at least two simultaneously -- the only Indian wine maker currently to do so -- and if you met him you wouldn’t be able to tell that he knows more about wine than many of the supercilious wine experts who terrorise beginners with jargon. 

After a degree in microbiology Rasal spent four years researching wine. The topic he chose was preparation of wine on a lab scale, and eventually he went for the real thing. For Rajesh, life is best spent in the vineyard, winery and the region that surrounds it. "Wine is a living thing and that is all too easily ignored. How it turns out to be is controlled by factors like soil, climate, equipment and importantly, the very people who harvest the grapes and make the wine. This is the story of wine," he says with disarming modesty. His career so far has been anything but. Rasal gained a lot from his experience working with Californian wine maker John Locke at Indage Vintners and is one of the few wine makers to have produced wine brandy in India. In 2003, he set out as a freelancer making wines for producers spanning Nashik and Sangli and even neighboring Karnataka. This has given him an intimate understanding of the soils and climates across west and south west India. 

Rasal is currently focused on making wines for the uber premium brand Good Earth, as well as Riona, which is poised to bottle its first vintage in Baramati, yet another region he can add to his footprint. Having experimented with grape varieties that have so far never been grown India such as the Verdicchio, Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Tempranillo, Rasal believes that Indian soil and climate can be invested with a lot more faith. He believes that the Tempranillo could well be the next big Indian wine success, given its potential for late ripening and rich flavors. He is also keen to look north to more favorable climes where cooler climate grapes like Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir could thrive. "Uttaranchal might well be the new Maharashtra. There's only one way to find out," he says. Following this sanguine oenologist north might not be a bad idea. Coaxing wine snobbery out of him might however be futile. 

Magandeep Singh, sommelier

It should sound strange, almost embarrassing, to suggest that India has just one home-grown, French-certified sommelier. And yet that is the case. Recognizing him might just encourage more to follow suit. Magandeep Singh has spent a lot of time on wine. Not drinking it -- that is but one mere aspect of the job profile -- but reading, understanding, pairing it with different cuisines and teaching others about it. Singh has written a book about wine appreciation, contributed columns and features to newspapers and magazines and fronted an international food and lifestyle show for Indian broadcaster NDTV. A masters in hospitality management from the Institut Vatel, Nîmes, a post-graduate diploma in wine tasting intertwined with extensive experience working in Parisian restaurants, French vineyards and wine cellars readied him to eventually bring it all back home.

In a span of nine years since he returned, Singh has trained several hotel and stand alone restaurant employees, educated wine consumers, judged international competitions and most recently launched a training facility for budding wine professionals and enthusiasts. He also heads a team of sommeliers who consult hotels and restaurants. 

But what makes Magandeep's position so unique and his place at the table so crucial is that the younger lot, a segment that tends to get intimidated by the traditions and ceremony that surround wine, relate to him. They relate to Magandeep Singh as someone who has proven successful not just in the vanilla role of a Sommelier but extended himself to different avenues of the wine business, shining the light on opportunities for a competent, accredited wine professional in India that so far never existed. What endears him most to those who know him or have learnt from him, is how much the passion shows through. He doesn’t see himself as any sort of role model but he is proof of the rewards a career in the wine business in India can have for those who are willing to go the distance. Singh is a resource of knowledge, perspective and belief for those who maintain that the wine industry in India is here for good. Moreover, having adapted wine appreciation in an Indian context, he has played a crucial role in an industry that is still only coming of age.