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Wine and dine, with Sula Vineyard's Rajeev Samant

A cushy corporate job in the United States held little fascination for Rajeev Samant, who quit it in the early ’90s. In 1999, he established Sula Vineyards in Nashik — a move that steadily transformed the once sleepy city of Maharashtra to India’s ‘wine capital’. The successful entrepreneur and bachelor, who believes in looking ahead, tells Deepali Dhingra that maybe it’s now time for him to finally tie the knot and settle down

Rajeev Samant, Founder and CEO, Sula Vineyards

The cover of American rock band Nirvana’s most popular album, Nevermind, shows a baby swimming underwater, trying to grab a dollar bill stuck on a fishhook that is out of his reach. While the image symbolises mankind’s quest for wealth since an early age, Rajeev Samant, the founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards, Nashik could never identify with it. “I’ve often felt most people are like that, but I’m not,” says the entrepreneur who likes to lead his life on his own terms. No wonder Samant quit his job at Oracle Corp at Silicon Valley not because he didn’t find it exciting, but because he couldn’t fathom the fact that he could avail only 14 leaves in a year. “I’ve always been aware that there is only one life to live. You can’t be in pursuit of that set path, which takes you to a certain amount of wealth,” says Samant.

Rajeev Samant admits he kept the best view for himself at his office in Sula Vineyards, Nashik. PIC/pradeep dhivar
Rajeev Samant admits he kept the best view for himself at his office in Sula Vineyards, Nashik. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

The nip in the air makes us shiver on a lazy afternoon, and we pull our jacket closer, gazing upon the sprawling green carpet of the vineyards from his first floor office at Nashik. Samant first grew mangoes and table grapes on the 30-acre plot that he inherited from his parents. Now, he grows many varieties of wine grapes on it and the 1,800-acre land that is spread across other parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka. As Samant’s eyes rove over the magnificent view, we ask him about his childhood and are not surprised when he tells us that he was a very good student. “I won a lot of academic awards. I was the school chess captain, music captain and I would play the piano. I was an all-rounder,” he says. The only thing his father asked him was to become an engineer. “Those days, the bright students would either opt for engineering or medicine, and I could not see myself pursuing the latter. One had to study too much,” he laughs.

California tales
He received a full scholarship to Stanford University, where he studied Engineering Management, followed by two years of his corporate job in Silicon Valley. His seven-year stay in California largely shaped his thinking. “I lived there from the age of 18 to 25, very impressionable period. I have always chosen my own path. I decided to go to Stanford in 1985, which was a radical decision, as not many people in India knew about the place. California, I learnt, is very much about following your passion. It is a place of immense physical beauty, and if you’re a true Californian, you enjoy and embrace that physical beauty and try to protect it. So, that strong environmental streak and love for the outdoors was deeply embedded in me over there,” Samant reveals.

Upon his return to India in 1993, his decision to get a taste of the rural life by farming on his inherited land in Nashik was inspired by his philosophical bent of mind. “Those days, I read a lot of philosophy, books by Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy, and their central theme was that a life lived only in the city is not a life well-lived,” he says. After farming for three years, he realised that Nashik’s climate was perfect for growing wine grapes. Following a few years of research and a three-month stint in winemaker Kerry Damskey’s winery in California, Samant was ready with Sula Vineyards in 1999. The initial few years, he admits, were certainly not easy. “But I have the will to succeed and I think I inherited it from my parents. My father knew nothing about boats and ships, yet, he built a shipping company from scratch. When you see somebody going through these daily struggles and overcoming them, you imbibe the never-say-die spirit,” the businessman remarks.

Road to success
In 1999, Sula sold approximately 50,000 wine bottles. Last year, the figure was close to seven million. Over the years, it has introduced varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Zinfandel and Riesling, and techniques such as refrigerated winemaking, which brought fruit-friendly wines to India. The first tasting room at the winery opened in 2005. Restaurants and a 32-room vineyard resort were added later. Come February, Sula will celebrate its eighth SulaFest, and is expected to draw over 12,000 people.

The road to success sure had its share of bumps, but the wine connoisseur prefers to look ahead. “I don’t have time to look back. I think a little about the present, but most of my thinking is about tomorrow, next week, five years from now and so on. I don’t reminisce. My friends tell me we can’t reminisce with you because the minute something happens, you forget and you move on. That’s the way I am,” he smiles.

Running a sustainable enterprise is one of Samant’s prime concerns. At Sula Vineyards, there is a one crore-litre rainwater-harvesting pond, skylights that allow natural sunlight inside the winery, solar panel roofs which generate 20 per cent of the electricity consumption at Sula, among other projects, which support a  ustainable enterprise. “I feel if you run a non-sustainable enterprise, you have no business doing business. Every day, we come up with projects to reduce our power use. We would love to lead by example and have others follow us,” he says.

Though Samant loves to look ahead, he doesn’t make any grand plans for the future. “We make small progress every year on 25 different fronts. So every six months, everything looks different here,” he says. He adds that plans are afoot to open a winery in Karnataka and construct a 25-luxury tent resort at Nashik in the near future. “We want this region to be eco-friendly, resorts and tourism to develop here, the local community to benefit and the wine to be better every year,” he exclaims.

However, on the personal front, he had put his plans of getting married on the backburner until now. The bachelor hints at the possibility of settling down soon. “I think now that things are so good and stable, that’s something I should concentrate on,” he smiles. But he admits it’s not an easy task. “It’s easier said than done though. I’m a difficult person to handle,” he quips.

Just chill
The Mumbai-based entrepreneur has a choc-a-block schedule. Every month, he comes to Nashik for at least a week. But he ensures that after a long hard day, he switches off from work in the evening. “I relax after 6.30 pm,” he says. And when he takes a vacation, it’s all about doing what he loves — reading books, listening to music and diving. “I take three months off every year. I try and take at least one diving trip every year. What I really like is to live aboard on a luxury yacht and go diving in the middle of the ocean,” says the certified diver. The Economist magazine and his iPod — loaded with close to 7,500 songs — are his travel companions. “I’m very partial to the ’60s and ’70s classic rock, so you will find a lot of Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles tracks on my iPod. The tasting room at the winery plays a music list curated by me,” he reveals.

A fitness enthusiast, Samant works out for an hour every day. “I run, lift weights or do yoga,” he says. Predictably, he loves wine but he admits that he enjoys gin and tonic too. “Sometimes I have single malt, so I have a pretty varied taste that way,” he adds. The souvenir shop at Sula Vineyards has a number of T-shirts with funny, quirky quotes on wine — which one’s his favourite, we ask. “There’s one by Omar Khayyam that goes ‘Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness’. Frankly, that’s the way I see it. Life can get too complicated at times. As long as you have something nice to eat, some nice  company and a glass of wine, all’s well in the world,” he smiles.

Inside Track
Born:
January 21
Education: Bachelors in Economics, Masters in Engineering Management,Stanford University
Mantra: There’s no time to get bored

My Favourites
TV shows: I’m a big fan of Homeland and House of Cards
Destination: Goa
Sport: Tennis, diving and hiking
Book: The Snowleopard by Peter Mathiessen, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Magazine: The Economist

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