A few years ago, perhaps it was commonplace for people to ask Rajeev Samant if this ‘whole wine thing’ was a fad. Not anymore. Now, anyone who hasn’t been inducted into the wine jamboree has frankly, not been giving a damn to what is happening around them.
As beer becomes the new wine, we corner Samant, the man almost singularly responsible for wine becoming a legitimate beverage of choice in India, at least in its acceleration in the last seven to eight years. His is not a case of NRI with Stanford degree, bored of software consulting job, coming to India, realising that there is acres of family property he can do something with, and then creating a fortune out of it.
“Anyone can do that,” he says in his trademark modest voice, trapped in a languid demeanour. “It is very easy for anyone to put up a small winery… it’s easy to get in, the entry barriers are low, all it costs is Rs 3-4 crore. It’s not surprising that there is a whole jamboree in the bandwagon. But the more complicated part is — how to sell it?”
“Of course, the Maharashtra government policy of exempting wine from excise did a lot for wine marketing in India… this encouraged wine makers to enter into deals with restaurants and bar owners — things that the whisky and beer manufacturers had been doing for years,” he says.
But from the Satoris and the Zinfandels at the Rs 300-400 price points to the recent Heidsieck, Sula’s Riesling at Rs 8000 a bottle, surely is a long journey? Not to mention Samara at Rs 180 for the low budget wine drinker. Is Sula then doing a Hindustan Lever in wines?
“I think it is inevitable,” he says. “When we started, we had to choose the 300-400-rupee segment and stick to it. But now, wine has become more mass. People want to have a glass a day and not necessarily pay Rs 500 for a bottle. On the other hand, those with more premium tastes may want to upgrade their choice of wine. There is room for all kinds…”
Confidence or snobbery?
Of the somewhat prevailing wine snobbery, he is a bit forgiving. “Does it really exist?” he wonders. “I think more people are getting confident about their choices, and that can be misconstrued as snobbery..”
Sure. But what about those who yak more than they can sniff? Is he tempted to call people’s bluff? “Well, I do it sometimes, but I make sure I do it gently… like recently there was this young lady who hadn’t quite got her basics right and I had to tell her, and she was playing hardball. It’s only when she realised that I was the owner of Sula that she took me seriously.”
Are wine tasting workshops for real? Do you really learn something at the end of all that sniffing and swirling? How much of it is pretence? He says, “There isn’t too much right or wrong really about wine. Wine tasting workshops are all about making people confident about their choices — anything that teaches them the basics cannot be a bad thing.”
What’s the whole deal about men loving red and women loving white? He states, “Traditionally yes, the men had red and the women had white, but all that has changed now. Now it’s more about what time of the day it is, what food you are eating, what are the choices available. It’s easy to screw up the pairing, by drinking a strong flavourful wine with a mild food.”
Is Sideways for real? Is there a Pinot Noir type of guy, a Merlot type, a Cabernet Sauvignon type? “I don’t really think so, but yes, wines do have different temperaments and sometimes those temperaments can be matched to people. Like a Shiraz is more masculine, while a Pinot is more feminine, but then again you have so many women drinking Shiraz and men drinking Pinot. So there is no generalisation really.”
Ask him what he considers Sula’s turning point and he says, “I think we tuned up a generation of Indians into wine.When we started, around 2000, wine was not hip. Now, it is. I think we have turned a corner..”