While Sula Vineyards is taking wines online and betting big on post-pandemic tourism, quality control issues with local partnerships are a hurdle, says brand ambassador Grégoire Verdin
“Many people think wine is for the elite, that it’s complicated, and it should be paired with specific food. I’m here to say, ‘Forget about all that’,” says Grégoire Verdin, the global brand ambassador and Associate Vice President – Tastings and Marketing, of Sula Vineyards. He believes that wine is a beverage and “you shouldn’t feel any kind of pressure”. With the Nashik-based winery since December 2018, Verdin brought his food and wine industry experience of over a decade to lead wine tastings and training — both for F&B professionals and consumers. “Consumer education is extremely important because wine is a vast subject. I have been in India for four years now and when I do consumer events, I see that people have a lot of questions,” he says.
Big on hospitality
Of course, this was in the pre-Covid era. The pandemic and ensuing lockdowns brought things to a juddering halt. “The pandemic has been tough on everyone; the F&B sector especially has been hit big-time. Our CEO Rajeev Samant and COO Chaitanya Rathi worked really hard to keep the employees and pay the bills,” says Verdin. While on-trade (restaurants and bars) sales plummeted, the lockdown saw an uptick in the number of people drinking wine at home. In fact, 90% of Sula’s sales came from off-trade (retail) in FY 21. The company also moved most of its marketing activities online, including tastings and training, and even conducted a couple of virtual wine dinners. At their resorts in Nashik, the food and wine menus have been digitised and you can order wine cases on your phone.
Sula Vineyards recently rebranded their Karnataka winery as Domaine Sula to differentiate it from the flagship winery in Nashik. “When it comes to growing grapes and making wine, the terroir matters — the sunlight, temperature, soil, rains, even wind. So by having Domaine Sula, we can grow different grapes or the same grape which will turn out slightly different from that in Nashik,” explains Verdin. Sula is also betting big on wine tourism, especially in current times when you can’t jet off to Bordeaux or Napa. While the Nashik winery has two stay options, The Source and Beyond, Domaine Sula currently offers only winery tours, tastings, and dining, though plans are afoot to develop hospitality.
Quality control at TASMAC
Apart from pandemic-related issues, distribution beyond Maharashtra remains a concern. “The big challenge is label registration. Policies don’t make it easy to register wines so we are doing it gradually,” says Verdin. In a first for any Indian winemaker, the company partnered with the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) in early 2020 to retail wines across the state. They currently offer seven wines, mostly from their iconic brands. “We have the Sauvignon Blanc, which has had good international recognition and the Brut Tropicale, a sparkling rosé that suits a lot of people. We have Dindori Reserve Shiraz and the versatile Riesling. You have different options, and you will definitely find something that fits your palate,” he adds. However, younger brands such as The Source are not available as yet, especially The Source Grenache Rosé that has been particularly well-received. “For The Source, we are presently focussing on one or two states and then we’ll look to expand. We just need some organisation and we also need to see how the market is reacting.”
The TASMAC partnership also led to an unforeseen side effect — the company started receiving complaints about quality inconsistencies in wines bought from TASMAC outlets. “We are fully aware of the issue and, of course, you learn through experience. Availability [through TASMAC] was to start in February 2020 so we had shipped our wines in January. But then the lockdown happened and our wines were stuck in their warehouses, which led to quality issues because of heat damaging the wine,” explains Verdin. The company has put course-correction measures in place — they will ship smaller quantities of wine more often, and they are working with TASMAC to improve warehouse storage facilities.
The future of wine
Winemaking in India is only two decades old, a relative baby when compared to other wine regions, both old world and new. In that short span of time, the industry has grown in leaps in bounds, even finding international recognition — some of Sula’s wines recently won medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards and are also highly rated by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. “Sula is currently available in 30+ countries though exports account for only 2% of our sales. What is important for us is to put India on the world wine map, because it has its own place, its own terroir, and its own style. I think the future for wine in India is beautiful and that’s something I’m confident about,” concludes Verdin.