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Are you ready for Nashik? Indian wine makes its way to the world stage.

In 1988, Amod Chopra, a Berkeley, Calif., importer of groceries and beer from India, decided to try bringing in wine from the subcontinent, a sparkler under the Omar Khayyam label. It took him 12 years to unload that one container on the broad-minded, wine-loving Bay Area. Now he's betting on a different horse, Sula Vineyards, India's first entry into international-grade winemaking--and his client list now includes some of the snazziest white-tablecloth restaurants in Northern California.

Sula is the brainchild of an Indian-born, Stanford-educated Silicon Valley escapee, Rajeev Samant. He's hardly unique in moving from high tech to fine wine; the twist is doing it in South Asia, not Sonoma. Sula is reshaping Indian wine law and nurturing a fledgling wine culture; it's another globalization story, with a great cast of characters.

In college, Samant says, "We'd drink anything but wine. It wasn't until I graduated and worked for Oracle that I got interested. It was mainly because of a girlfriend at the time, a California gal. She introduced me to wine." After developing a keen interest in drinking the stuff, he "up and quit one day and decided I wanted to do something back there"--with no intention of going into the wine business.

Salmant's father is a prominent businessman in Mumbai (Bombay), but Rajeev wanted something in the countryside. He took over 30 family-owned acres in Nashik, an agricultural area 120 miles northeast of Mumbai in Maharashtra state, and started growing mangoes. He added table grapes, a Nashik specialty, and exported them to the U.K. Soon he realized, "This is going to be boring, I'm not into table fruit. I'm a very social guy." In 1995, he started planting vineyards instead.

Which raised several daunting issues, starting with whether it was possible to grow quality winegrapes in India. The small domestic wine industry relied primarily on table varieties. When Samant retained Kerry Damskey, an experienced North Coast winemaker and consultant with Terroirs in Geyserville, Sonoma County, Damskey had his doubts about tropical grapegrowing. On a high, 1,700-foot plateau, Nashik has what Damskey calls "a very Mediterranean climate, with almost no humidity and cool nights"--but only for six months of the year. Sula grows its grapes from late September (after the monsoons have ended) through March (before the really hot weather hits). Temperatures in December and January are in the high 70s, with nights in the 40s; it gets warmer as harvest approaches. In a rain shadow, Nashik receives only a quarter of the rain Mumbai gets, and none of it falls during the grapegrowing months. Since the climate lacks a true dormant season, Damskey forces a "quiet time" on the vines with two rounds of pruning: once in May after harvest, and again in late September, after monsoon.

The formula may be unorthodox, but it works. Sula produces a bright, fruity Chenin blanc with a touch of residual sugar, a natural match for the spice and heat of Indian cooking. The Sauvignon blanc is impressive, with zippy acidity and unabashed jalapeno and citrus flavors--a cool-climate palate. Working with a consultant from Chateau St. Jean, Sula developed a Brut sparkler, mostly built around native grape varieties. Rounding out the lineup of cuisine-friendly wines, Sula is releasing a blush Zinfandel, which should reach the United States by year-end.

Emphasizing whites initially also saved the time and cost of extended barrel aging, getting product to market quickly. Several big reds are now in the pipeline; Samant and Damskey are optimistic about the Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz (the vines came from Australia) and Zinfandel. The Zinfandel cuttings trace back to an old-vine block in Napa, and Sula is now propagating vines for sale to other Indian wineries. Pinot noir and Chardonnay plantings haven't worked out as well; Damskey thinks that the Chardonnay in particular may have trouble handling monsoon season.

Figuring out how to grow grapes in the tropics was probably easier than navigating Indian wine law. "The laws in India were stacked against putting up any kind of winery, brewery, distillery," Samant says. "It was all classed the same, and it was almost impossible to get a new license. It took me almost two years."

The widespread anti-alcohol sentiment--India has several dry states--stems not from Hinduism, he says, which has nothing much to say on the subject, but from the Gandhian philosophy of simplicity and "abstinence from everything. Our drinking population is very small, compared to other populations worldwide. We have a very large proportion of teetotalers, which goes with the whole vegetarian ethic, but we also have a large number of alcoholics in that drinking population."

Samant eventually found a cohort of younger state bureaucrats, some of them with a taste for wine, who decided that something interesting was going on in their backyard. He sat down with senior officials from the agriculture, industry and tourism ministries and formulated a new wine policy for the state--friendly to wine-ries and wine bars, and including a drop in excise taxes from about $2 a bottle to fifty cents. "It made a night-and-day difference," Samant says. Two years later, with wine sales soaring, the cash-strapped state was gaining just as much revenue.

After the legalities, there was still a market to create. Samant notes there is no indigenous, grassroots wine culture in India. Wine consumption "is definitely the domain of affluent, sophisticated, Western-oriented people who travel, have been to Europe or the UK or the States, and picked it up there. Right now it's a minuscule market, less than 1% of the population." But in a country with a billion people, that tiny segment still means a target market of 10 million. And here's where globalization kicks in: "We're adding a million of those people every year," he notes cheerily, "so there's not a problem as far as market growth is concerned."

Sula's focus is the development of that exploding domestic market. Export is a sideline, mostly useful for gaining a stamp of approval: if they drink this in California, it must be the real deal. Domestic sales also bring a better return to the winery. Samant has run splashy promotions in a number of cities in India, tied in with fashion shows, movies and high-tech sponsors, making himself into something of a celebrity.

At least in the Bay Area, the export market has been promising, too. Vik Distributors, where Amod Chopra is a vice president, had no experience with wine, other than the dubious experiment with the Omar Khayyam bubbly. But as the distributor of Taj Mahal beer and other staples, he has access to every Indian restaurant in the region, and Sula quickly made its way onto all those menus. Zeroing in on influential sommeliers, plus some lucky breaks, has landed the wine on by-the-glass lists at such prestigious dining spots as Rubicon in San Francisco, Arcadia in San Jose and the Highlands Inn in Carmel.

Back in Nashik, new wineries are springing up, though not all with the quality focus Sula has. "Some of the smaller guys," Samant says, "are just putting up a tank in their barn, crushing what they're growing already, and calling it a winery." He predicts that when India's stiff duties on foreign wine are reduced--not far off--these producers could get "wiped out."

Sula is up to 40,000 cases a year, with construction underway to expand capacity. Samant says they're selling wine as fast as they can make it. "We're looking at a magic market. We don't know what India's going to do, but it's going to be big."

(Tim Patterson writes for a cuvee of publications about adult beverages (and makes his own) in Berkeley, Calif., where the wine country meets what's left of the '60s. He may be contacted through edit@winesandvines.com.)
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Author:Patterson, Tim
Publication:Wines & Vines
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Words:1291
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