The Rise of Sula Vineyards: From Stanford to India’s Top Winemaking Company

sula vineyards

Header Image of Sula Vineyards Source: Flickr/ShanuBoy

Wine production in India has occurred for centuries, with the original production dating back to the Bronze age. However, strict government regulations and wine grape parasites known as phylloxera dampened the production of spirits in the country.

In the 1980s, there was a resurgence in wine production with three companies at the forefront – Sula Vineyard, Grover Vineyards, and Champagne Indage. The growing production, combined with shifting laws, created a great demand for wine, resulting in the annual production of 24 million bottles of wine in India.

While the three main wine producers each impacted the Indian wine industry and wine tourism, this article focuses on Sula Wines and its history.

History of Winemaking in India

The origins of winemaking in India are a bit blurry, with many claiming it began about 4000 years ago. However, Indian myths offer insight into the consumption of wine, with dates that reach far beyond this timeframe. Whether you believe the myths or not, there is clear evidence that indicates the Mughal kings consumed Shiraz from Persia. Thus, providing a starting point for India’s winemaking history.

Before the Mughal kings drank Persian wine, Persians brought their wine grape vines to India. Other cultures also impacted the historical Indian wine industry, including the Portuguese. They crafted a specific type of wine, known as “Goan Port,” after colonizing the state of Goa in the 16th century. This fortified wine production method quickly spread to other Indian states.

In the late 1800s, the wine produced in India became quite popular, with visitors to the Great Calcutta International Exhibition providing positive feedback. Unfortunately, in 1890, phylloxera spread over Europe and India. This widespread louse attack negatively impacted every grapevine, leaving no viable plants behind.

Then, in the new Constitution drafted and signed in 1947, prohibition was introduced to the states of India. This prohibition drove the wine industry even further underground, leading to a break in wine production until the 1970s when Kanwal Grover began experimenting with viticulture leading to the creation of the company Grover Vineyards in 1988. Sula Vineyards quickly followed Grover Vineyards, with additional waves of wine producers popping up in 2001 and 2008. [1]

Growing Wineries in the Nashik Area

Two primary areas of India are used in wine production: Nashik, near Mumbai, and Nandi Hills, near Bangalore. However, Nashik (also known as Nasik) is India’s leading wine production area, often referred to as India’s Wine Capital. Besides about 1/2 of the wine producers and wineries lying in Nashik, it also features an ideal location for wine production.

The reasoning behind this boom in vineyards and wineries is explained with two words: Sula Vineyards. The creation of this legendary Indian brand was the start of Nashik lying at the forefront of India’s wine industry. Sula Wines was the first winery in Nashik in 1999, making the wine company just over 20 years old.

Of course, the favorable weather was a large determining factor in the rise in wine production in Nashik. This city sits at 700 meters above sea level, which offers a high-altitude environment known for producing high-acidity wines with an excellent balance of sugar. [2] Now, Nashik is home to an impressive 29 wineries.

Rising Demand in Indian Consumers

The sudden rise in demand from those in India came about for multiple reasons, including a travel policy change and the loosening of wine import restrictions. Previously, there was minimal leisure travel associated with those living in India. Due to domestic disputes and war, the laws prohibited private airlines from flying. However, in 1994, these laws and regulations were repealed, leading to increased travel for Indian citizens. This shift in travel regulations and a blooming economy led to an increase in international travel. [3] With more pocket change and the ability to explore various cultures’ cuisines and spirits, the demand for wine was renewed.

In 2002, the import wine laws changed, and restrictions were abolished concerning the import of wine. The change in import laws helped create a demand, helping many citizens shift from wine curious to wine enthusiasts. This led to a much larger variety available for purchase on shelves. Even with higher import taxes and prices, consumers were not deterred, and their interest in wine consumption increased drastically. [4]

Did you know? The tax on imported wines in India is 150%, leading to most residents consuming locally-made spirits. [5]

What Is Sula Vineyards?

sula vineyards logo

Figure 1 Image of Sula Vineyards Logo Source: Flickr/Arjun Shekar

As mentioned, Sula Vineyards is one of the top wine-producing companies in India. It holds the most awards of any of the India-produced wines. It’s famous for introducing many grape varietals into India, which wine consumers had not yet seen. For example, a few of the wines Sula Vineyards brought to the Indian public include Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling.

This company was created by Rajeev Samant, a Stanford graduate who decided to transition from studying Economics and Engineering Management to producing wine at his family’s plot of land in Nashik. After visiting his family’s orchard, he discovered Nashik provided the ideal climate for growing wine grapes. This revelation spurred the idea for Sula Vineyards, leading to Samant becoming a pioneer in the wine industry. [6]

How Sula Vineyards Was Born

It wasn’t until the visit to Samant’s family’s land in 1994 that he was inspired to create Sula vineyards. This inspiration led to a 3-month stint at a friend’s California winery (Kerry Damskey, now the Master Winemaker at Sula Vineyards), where Samant learned the ins and outs of winemaking.

A few short years later, in 1996, Samant founded Sula Vineyards. The inspiration for the name Sula originated with Samant’s mother. He shortened her name (Sulabha) to symbolize the heritage connection between Sula Vineyards and his family.

During his travels, Samant had grown fond of the idea of sustainable winemaking. This led to the creation of one of the most sustainable wine production companies worldwide. For example, Sula Wines are created primarily using solar energy, which accounts for 60% of the energy requirements of the crops. [7]

The Rise of Sula Wines

The initial goal of Samant was simply to take the abundant grapes which grew all over Nashik and turn them into wine that was tasty and easy to drink. This led to initial sales of around 40,000 bottles. However, upon partnering with Kerry Damskey, the idea behind Sula Wines shifted into something much grander.

Kerry Damskey showed Samant that the terrior of Nashik, India, could produce even more high-quality spirits than originally anticipated. This shift in mindset and information helped take Sula Vineyards from tens of thousands to millions of wine bottle sales.

Through the years, Sula Wines have accumulated various awards. This success has brought about other Indian wine firsts. For example, Sula Vineyards was the first Indian wine company to have a feature in the well-respected Wine Spectator magazine. [8]

Sula Wine Offerings

This wine company features exquisite options, from fruity wine to options that offer delightful mocha and spices flavor notes. Each premium wine is aged in an oak barrel to help curate a complex flavor easily tied to Sula Vineyards. As part of their sustainability practices, the wines are combined in large steel tanks to help in energy conservation. This combination of oak barrels and stainless steel tanks helps blend modern and ancient winemaking practices seamlessly.

Some of the Sula Vineyards wine offerings include the following:

  • Rasa Cabernet Sauvignon
    • Features notes of black fruits, olives, vanilla, and an overall elegant flavor
    • Pairs well with dishes like arrabbiata pasta and rogan josh
  • Kadu Cabernet Shiraz
    • Packed with oaky notes alongside red berries, tobacco, chocolate, and subtle pepper
    • Works well with rajma masala, mutton rogan josh, and tikka masala
  • Grenache Rosé
    • A luxurious, summery wine with white peach, tropical fruits, and citrus
    • Pairs well with samosa chaat and falafel

Sula Vineyards visitors can experience the winery’s offerings via a few different methods, including a wine-tasting session, winery tours, or an overnight stay. Each option provides different information on the wines, Nashik, and Sula’s history.

Concluding Thoughts on Sula Vineyards

Without Sula Vineyards, it’s challenging to say whether certain wines would now be produced in India. Perhaps the wines introduced to India by Sula Wines would have eventually come to the country. Or, perhaps Indian residents would never get the chance to consume Kadu Chenin Blanc or source cabernet sauvignon without Nashik Sula’s tasting cellar.

Regardless, its innovation and sustainable farming methods are undeniable in their impact on viticulture in India. Thus, Sula Vineyards has cemented its place as one of the top wine production companies in the country.

Learn about wine history, interesting wine tidbits (including Wine Gods and Wine Industries in South Africa), and more that you can add to your wine repertoire via the This Day In Wine History Blog.

On This Day

November 16, 2017- On this day, the first Indian Wine Day was set in motion. This event was initially launched with the collaboration of a group of six Lalit Hotels spread throughout India and London. Indian Wine Day was initiated to get the country to discuss and enjoy wines. Many people now celebrate this holiday by indulging in a glass of Indian wine. [9]

Also read: THE CAYMUS VINEYARDS: Two-Time Award-Winning Wine

Want to read more? Try these books!

Sula Vineyards, The Rise of Sula Vineyards: From Stanford to India’s Top Winemaking CompanySula Vineyards, The Rise of Sula Vineyards: From Stanford to India’s Top Winemaking Company

References

[1] Arora, Adil. “FoodForThought: Tracing the History of Modern Indian Wine.” Www.indianwineacademy.com, www.indianwineacademy.com/item_1_669.aspx. 

[2] Winemusingswithbetty. “Exploring the Wines of Nashik, the Wine Capital of India.” Betty’s Wine Musings, 19 May 2021, bettyswinemusings.com/exploring-the-wines-of-nashik-the-wine-capital-of-india/. 

[3] Pande, Pranjal. “A Brief History of Commercial Aviation in India.” Simple Flying, 9 June 2020, simpleflying.com/indian-aviation-history/.

[4] “The Rise of Indian Wines–Http://Www.cnwinenews.com.” Www2.Cnwinenews.com, 1 Mar. 2009, www2.cnwinenews.com/html/200903/1/20090301140330.htm.

[5] DeSimone, Mike, and Jeff Jenssen. “Exploring the History of Wine in India.” Wine Enthusiast, 25 Apr. 2017, www.winemag.com/2017/04/25/exploring-the-history-of-wine-in-india/.

[6] “Sula Vineyards | Dreyfus, Ashby & Co.” Dreyfus, Ashby, & Co., 27 Apr. 2015, www.dreyfusashby.com/sula-vineyards/.

[7] “Our Vineyards – Sula Vineyards.” Sulavineyards.com, sulavineyards.com/our-vineyards.php.

[8] Veselinovic, Milena. “Meet the Man Who Wants the World to Drink Indian Wine.” CNN, 17 Feb. 2015, www.cnn.com/2015/02/16/world/sula-vineyards-rajeev-samant/index.html.

[9] Admin. “6th Edition of Indian Wine Day Being Celebrated on 16 November.” Indian Wine Academy, 16 Nov. 2022, www.indianwineacademy.com/articles/item_2_920/.

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