Sula Vineyards celebrated its 15th birthday by throwing a landmark party at Asilo, on the 38th floor of the St. Regis hotel in Mumbai last Sunday.
How time flies: it seems like only yesterday when founder Rajeev Samant walked into the first party of the Bangalore Wine Club in January 2000 with an armful of his first wines. Sula was the third winery to launch in India in 1999, after Indage (1986, now gone belly-up) and Grover (1991); with a production of nearly one million cases last fiscal it is now the undisputed leader of the three million case-strong Indian wine market.
Along the way Sula has become the most-recognised (and most widely-available) Indian wine brand, both at home and overseas, with the distinctive sun-face logo (itself a triumph for domestic design) reinforcing the "Indianness" and identity of the wines. Sula is also the only Indian wine company making some money, which is one of the reasons why it has been attracting private equity investments from the likes of Singapore-based Ravi Vishvanathan.
The question frequently asked is "what has Sula done that has made it a success" in comparison with others in the wine industry? I think it has been a combination of several factors: one, Sula entered the market with distinctively better and better-branded wines that appealed to a younger segment of wine consumers - its early soirees with The Indus Entrepreneurs in Bombay (as it was called then) are still remembered.
Then, Sula built a strong sales network and has had long-term partnerships with its distributors - many of whom were relatively new in the field. This has enabled wider availability. Also, Sula has been judicious in market spends, ensuring that its expansion has been adequately funded - thereby avoiding the debt trap that ensnared Indage and liquidity pitfalls of Grover. Next, the quality of its wines has remained consistent despite the emergence of other good wineries.
Lastly, Sula was in the right place at the right time, and was able to fill the void caused by Indage's collapse in 2008-09 and Grover's own travails at the same time, with an array of products ranging from Port 1000 (Rs 126 in Bengaluru) to the Rasa Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Rs 1,500) - it has built a stepladder of brands at every price and quality point, with new offerings launched every now and then to remain engaged with its consumers.
The latest is the Sula Brut "Tropical" sparkling wine, launched at the party last Sunday - a limited edition "Blanc de Noir" produced from the Pinot Noir grape (notoriously difficult to grow in India), priced most competitively (Rs 1,050 in Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Delhi, and Rs 1,000 in Goa). Sula has excelled in the very Indian packaging design as well as in the wine itself, which is aromatic and crisp.
What will the future bring for Sula? It will continue to grow, but its dominance is bound to be challenged by newer players (Fratelli is one such contender), while the introduction of lower customs duties on imported wines (currently 150 per cent) are a matter of time. This will bring more global competition to India. On the other hand, if its overseas forays are successful, Sula stands to benefit from its unique position as the biggest quality wine producer in India.
We'll raise a toast to that!
Alok Chandra is a Bengaluru-based wine consultant