The 2021 Indian wine power list

The list may be small, but each of the five has proved their mettle during the pandemic — strengthening both their business and India’s wine market. Plus, recommendations for an end-of-pandemic wine

Last year during the lockdown, when wine stocks dried up in home bars across the country, Indians began to look to local producers to meet their needs. This not only gave the industry a boost, but as consumers began trading up, and drinking better quality, Indian premium wine moved front and centre.

A few wine stalwarts led this change, bringing new ideas and processes to the table. Whether it is in terms of upping quality levels of premium Indian wine, introducing a diverse international portfolio to the Indian market, championing the cause of sustainability (a hot button topic worldwide), making wine a fun and joyous topic, or just directing world focus on to India with ambitious plans and projects, there is much happening that is positive.

Those featured on The Hindu Weekend’s pandemic Power List are few, but already it is possible to see new shoots everywhere — the doughty Indian spirit of entrepreneurship is blooming quickly across the country. While next year’s list will hopefully be longer and more diverse, this year’s already brings new cheer and confidence as we move into 2022.

Ravi Viswanathan, 58

Chairman, Grover Zampa Vineyards

Put his money behind high tech at the winery and vineyards

He made news when he snapped up three barrels of top Burgundy at the iconic Hospice de Beaune charity auction in 2018. Now, he’s charting his own course — with sustainability at the forefront. A new state-of-the-art winery is being built in Karnataka not far from Grover Zampa Vineyards’ old flagship, containing everything from solar panels to gravity flow tanks. “It will be a completely green winery,” says Viswanathan. “Every element to support sustainability has been built into the design, and targets problems specific to India. For example, higher temperatures.”

Ravi Vishwanathan 

Under his charge, Grover Zampa Vineyards has introduced a slew of high tech. These include plans for weather systems and drones in the vineyard to detect vine disease early, soil monitoring sensors to improve water efficiency, and a canopy growth vegetative index to provide regular assessment of yields. In the winery, modern temperature-controlled amphorae, new French foudres and tanks are already being put to use. Research is also being done to increase the life cycles of vine from 20 to 30 years, thereby reducing costs and decreasing use of herbicides.

Viswanathan strongly believes that Indian wine drinkers, though still small in numbers, are more knowledgeable than their counterparts in developed countries (at this stage of their wine journey). “The consumer today is very different from 10 years ago — there’s a growing appetite to try new styles, various grape varieties as wines gain acceptability in social circles.” Two of the world’s largest trade fairs – Prowein and Vinexpo have now reached India in 2021, he points out.

He is also betting big on wine tourism. Besides the Nashik project, each of their four wineries will feature hospitality services, from chalets to wine boutiques, restaurants and lounges.

Rajeev Samant, 54

Founder-Chief Sustainability Officer, Sula Vineyards

Strengthened sustainability with reuse of waste water and rainwater harvesting

Samant sold his first bottle of wine in 2000 and has now crossed the one million mark. But he isn’t pausing for breath. This September, Sula embraced sustainability by signing on with the Miguel Torres-led IWCA (International Wineries for Climate Action), which has over 20 big-brand wineries on board, including Australia’s biodynamic star Cullen Wines and USA’s Jackson Family Wines. This, according to Samant, is another step to their commitment to fight climate change, and make Sula future-ready. “Ten years ago, we installed our first solar panel. Today we generate 65% of our energy requirements. If we aren’t sustainable, we lack the meaning to exist.”

Rajeev Samant 

There is change happening on all fronts. With increased focus on the premium end of their portfolio, brands Rasa and The Source have seen new packaging and improved sales — with the award-winning Source Rosé established as India’s top-selling rosé brand.

On the wine tourism front, Sula already sees a record-breaking 400,000 visitors to their hospitality centres, The Source and Beyond. When we speak, this has hit 100% occupancy, and Samant is thrilled. “The pandemic was a very difficult time for us and the bounce back is very welcome.” They opened five new rooms in the last month and now “need to take a breath”.

Sustainability remains Samant’s raison d’etre. Addressing India’s acute water shortage, Sula is reusing waste water to save up to 33% per case of wine produced, while large-scale rainwater harvesting supplies 85% of their fresh water needs. Among other measures is e-vehicles for winery-linked transportation, a major contributor to greenhouse gases. Sula also aims to touch 75% solar energy use by 2023.

Sonal Holland, 48

Master of Wine

Introduced online wine courses at affordable price points

For the live wire, the pandemic lockdowns were somewhat quieter but no less frenetic. “[Last year] our retail sales, helped by home deliveries, grew 30% despite the six-month lockdown,” she says. But the big news is her success with digital media. Her wine school, Sonal Holland Wine Academy, established in 2009, pivoted to switch tracks — to provide online education — and saw enrolments jump by 300%.

“My followers on social media doubled. During the lockdown, I invested in a new [social media] team and set about creating new content.” Her introductory Online Wine Pro course is at an affordable ₹2,200, something she is proud of. Holland’s personal social media presence across platforms boosted her success further. This brand awareness, along with panel discussions with experts, including her big-ticket Instagram Live sessions with actor Dominic West, producer Francis Ford Coppola, and super-chef Gaggan Anand, resulted in her being listed in news channel SheThePeople’s list of 40 over 40 women entrepreneurs.

Sonal Holland 

Her successes further spun off into a spate of post-pandemic enquiries from international trade and investment bodies, and today Holland has worked with the California Wine Institute as well as turned brand ambassador for South Australia wines: her masterclass at Prowine India was oversubscribed 300% and saw people crowd the aisles to hear her speak.

New on the anvil are her wine import company, her decision to represent top brands like Napa Valley’s Buena Vista Winery as brand ambassador, and launching her own line of wine endorsements, ‘Sonal Holland Master Select’.

Vishal and Ashu Kadakia, 47 and 46

Wine Park

Followed their “gut feeling” to create a 160-strong wine portfolio

He started out as “a gatecrasher” in an industry studded with big names. So, his approach to picking wines to represent in his portfolio was novel. “I just look at the quality and the story behind the wine I pick. No big names, only family-owned boutique producers.” Vishal, one of India’s top wine importers today, took on Tuscan stars Brancaia, Querciabella, and Bibi Graetz when their stars were still on the ascendant.

Vishal and Ashu Kadakia 

His own wine story traces back to his time in the US when he did a WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) Level 2 course and fell in love with the complexity of wine. When he moved back to India in 2005 with his wife Ashu, they considered opening a wine bar — but gave it up because “we didn’t have a clue how to go about things”. Much later (while working in his family business), while on a visit to Spain, a winemaker they visited asked if they would be interested in importing his wines to India. “We brought back a bottle and did a tasting for a star hotel who immediately ordered 60 bottles!” That’s how Wine Park, a leading importer of wines with a 160-strong portfolio, began its story.

Vishal earns his name as the ‘Wine Storyteller’ by ditching tasting notes and, rather, choosing to focus on his producers’ tales of growth and discovery while presenting a wine. “It’s not based on science,” he says, “It’s about my own enjoyment plus a gut feeling.” For instance, he focused on Loimer Gruner Veltliner’s eye-catching green label and promoted it on that basis — sales quadrupled overnight — rather than the Austrian star producer’s award-winning biodynamic practices; with Chianti’s Querciabella, the story was flipped to focus on the razzmatazz of the producer’s biodynamics practices: cow horns and Preparation 500.

Noteworthy, too, is Wine Park’s business savvy during the pandemic. While businesses were collapsing, they doubled sales. All thanks to Ashu and Google Docs. “I emailed the document [which organised their client database] with 10 people. In an hour it went viral and we received 400 orders,” she says. Today, their retail client base tops 20,000 and Ashu attends to clients personally and advises them on wine preferences.

Uma Chigurupati, 61

Founder, KRSMA Estates

Sustainable viticulture and a focussed portfolio with premium-only wines

Two years ago, Uma was worrying about the lack of rainfall at their vineyards near Hampi. Today, she is despairing at quite the opposite. “Our crop is fantastic this year, but with rain during veraison [ripening of grapes]… the risk of damage to the fruit and increase in pests is high.”

The size of harvest is important as KRSMA boasts premium-only wines in their focussed portfolio, made from grapes grown only in their vineyards. So, production is small (50,000 bottles), their market smaller, out of choice (Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Goa), and they dominate the premium wine landscape in India.

End-of-pandemic wine recommendations

  • Ravi Vishwanathan: La Romanee by Liger Belair or La Grande Rue by Domaine Lamarche. They are the true expressions of Pinot Noir.
  • Sonal Holland: The Ponting Rianna Rosé, a delightfully refreshing pink wine from the cool, coastal Fleurie Peninsula region of South Australia. It is produced by legendary cricketer Ricky Ponting and is named after his wife, Rianna.
  • Vishal and Ashu Kadakia: Ashu’s pick is Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2003. I would, however, drink 2005, a super vintage in Burgundy.
  • Uma Chigurupati: La Sirena 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon by Heidi Barrett is a bold and well-balanced wine with fine tannins that are well integrated with oak.

While Uma leads with decision-making — from vineyard to the finished product — her husband and co-founder, Krishna, steps in to offer advice when required. “I tend to play safe, he is the bolder decision-maker,” she explains. Her wish list includes growing the production of their ‘second’ wine, the approachable, fruity brand K2 that caters “to those getting introduced to wine drinking”.

Uma is firm about following the rules of sustainable viticulture. “It is vital to stay away from indiscriminate use of fungicides and herbicides. When a consumer opens a bottle of wine, they shouldn’t taste chemicals.” Also soon on the cards is their Covid-delayed project — constructing a state-of-the-art tasting room overlooking their vineyards, as well as a couple of rooms for visitors to the winery. “People visit us while they’re at Hampi [a 1.5-hour drive away] so we do not need larger hospitality facilities.”

Uma Chigurupati 

While Uma regrets ignoring demands to export to countries like the US, UK and Japan, as well as withdrawing from New York, where they were once listed at top restaurants and bars — “we couldn’t continue owing to growing domestic demand” — she hopes to now increase their plantings, which will help their ability to supply to additional markets. But, at the end, what is vital for her is quality. “We are not about numbers. KRSMA is not a business for us, but a passion project.”

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