The Indian wine market is one of the worlds most exciting

The Indian wine market is one of the worlds most exciting
The Indian wine market is one of the worlds most exciting

As the Founder & CEO of Sula Vineyards, Rajeev Samant is one of the pioneers of Indian wine and responsible for transforming the Nashik region in Maharashtra into the country's wine capital. In this interview, the London-based professional, who divides his time between the UK and India, celebrates Sula's latest milestone of clocking 12-million bottles a year in sales.

How would you describe the growth story of Sula Wines

Sula has just clocked 1 million cases of sales in the last 12 months, making us the first Indian company to sell 1 million cases (or 12 million bottles) of wine in a calendar year. This is a huge achievement that includes the total dispatches from our winery - domestic sales as well as international. And, it just shows the way the Indian wine market is growing - it marks a 15 per cent increase in volume terms over the previous year and 20 per cent increase in value terms. The Indian wine market is today one of the world's most exciting, in terms of talent and potential growth. Sula is the clear market leader, with more than 60 per cent market share and the consumer's number one choice. It's a great place to be after a lot of hard work over the years. Next year, will mark 20 years of Sula and some big celebrations are coming up. We have come a long way. Our first year, we sold 50,000 bottles and last year it was 12 million; it's been a great journey.

What are some of the trends you would highlight in terms of the Indian wine market

The perception of Indian wines has absolutely changed over the last decade and that is down to quality. Our wines have been getting better and better and the awareness of wine in India has risen dramatically. We did have the problem of quality not being that great and consumption being low. But today, both those factors have undergone a transformation. Today, our wines are seen on well-known supermarket shelves, competing with other wines from Chile, Australia etc. That is a great stamp of excellence. In India, there has been a total move in wine consumption, at three times the share from when we started. These are still small numbers but the growth trend is much faster than any other market. So, there is more and more awareness which is leading to more consumption of wine, growing at 20 per cent CAGR. The consumption trends in India are very much male and female, though wine is definitely the product that has the highest share of female drinkers. Anecdotally, I would say the proportion of red wine drinkers is higher among men.

What are some of your plans for the international markets

Our top three markets are the UK,
and US and we sell to about 22 countries. Within three or four years, we should be available in 30 countries. Also, looking at wider sales, outgoing Duty Free at airports has been a great growth story - from no sales to major airports in India, like Mumbai and Delhi, now witnessing impressive Indian wine sales. In the UK and in cities like New York, the higher-end Indian restaurants have Sula on their wine lists. Today, you can find a selection of Indian wines on the list which was not possible five years ago. So that is another great trend, as Indian restaurants offer more subtle and delicately spiced flavours, the possibility of pairing with Indian wine has also grown. Sula was the first Indian wine to find a spot on the shelves of Marks & Spencer in the UK. It is still a struggle though, as international retailers expect products at extremely low prices which means a compromise on margins. We are in a delicate situation in India, where we operate on a smaller scale. But, of course, the most exciting story for us is the Indian market, which has grown leaps and bounds, and has created such a strong brand recognition for Sula.

How tough has the journey been to establish Nashik as India's wine hotspot

From a regulatory and bureaucratic point of view, a lot of work was needed. But from a consumer point of view, it was just waiting to happen and people were ready to jump in. It's been a tremendous success and from day one, we knew we did do the right thing and never looked back. Last year, Sula was one of the most visited wineries in the world, with 350,000 visitors from around India and the world. That makes it a huge tourist destination and 95 per cent of the traffic comes from domestic tourists. Nashik is also one of India's fastest-growing cities and we have a lot of locals for whom wine has become a part of their every-day lifestyle. As one example of the impact on the region, the local village of Savargaon, which is barely 500 metres away from our winery, lives have changed beyond belief for the better. When we first arrived, there was not a single person in the entire village who had a formal job. Today, at least one person from each family is involved with Sula. The prosperity that has come to the village is a source of great joy. And, that is just one of hundreds of villages. On the farming side, we are buying grapes from across 2,000 acres, which has led to prosperity for the farmers who are then able to employ more people, creating a real virtuous cycle of change. Today, Nashik has the highest agriculture income of any district of India and that is a phenomenal result.

What are some of your future plans for the brand

We are very excited about our new Karnataka winery, which is less than a two-hour drive from Bangalore. We would love to replicate the success that we have had in Nashik in terms of creating another beautiful tourist destination over the next year or two. We are also introducing new wines every year and this year we will be launching, for the first time, our Chardonnay, which is the king of white wine and we haven't had one so far. A lot of R&D goes on behind the scenes to find the right blends and really the sky is the limit. And, compared to when we started, things are much better but there are still issues with bureaucracy and a little bit of ambivalence around alcoholic beverages. However, the governments of Maharashtra and Karnataka have in general been very supportive and we are looking forward to expanding to more and more states. There are also clear health benefits in moving people away from spirits to wines.

How does being a Global Indian impact your professional decision-making

I feel the best way to live is to have a dual life, with one foot firmly in India and the other in a place like London. For me,
is by far one of the world's greatest cities. Ironically, the Brexit vote has also made it much more affordable. The cost of housing has plunged and such factors have made London even more attractive. One of problems we are grappling with in India is environmental degradation and high levels of pollution and London offered a good option, including the option of going for a run every morning in Hyde Park. Professionally, it offers a good base to further the international aspect of our business. We also have a strong import business and bring in number of prestigious brands like Remy Martin Cognac into India. And, as we all know, there are great spirits being crafted in the UK and Europe. So, that is what makes me divide my time between London, Mumbai and Nashik.
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