CT Cares Ep 7: Covid-19 Impact On India’s Wine Industry With Sula CEO

by Kamiya Jani
CT Cares Ep 7: Covid-19 Impact On India’s Wine Industry With Sula CEO

Liquor shops and bars were closed for months together due to the nationwide coronavirus lockdown. And when they were open in certain parts of the country, serpentine queues of people stood outside for hours together to grab a bottle of their favourite liquor. To know more about the impact of the lockdown on the liquor business, and its future trends, our Chief Editor Kamiya Jani caught up with the Founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards, Rajeev Samant. 

Picture Credits: en.wikipedia.org

1. There seems to be a Booze Boom. The beer and wine sales in the USA have actually gone up and as good as last year. Tell us how has the business been for Sula? 

People in the US have been sitting at home during the lockdown. They have been enjoying a glass of wine, and I wish I could say that was the same here. Unfortunately, our Government in their wisdom decided to lockdown AlcoBev sales as well, and that’s something we were not so happy about but we had to take it and so it has been a struggle.

For the first 60 days, we did not manage to sell a single bottle of wine and we kept our winery shut. The good news is, some markets have opened up again, like Bengaluru.  Not in terms of restaurants, but for retail of course. Sales are bouncing back really strongly and it looks like by June we are going to sell as much wine as we did in last year in June. So there are good days ahead  but for 60 days we were not able to sell a single bottle of wine from our winery which really hurt.   

2. Home delivery of liquor has started as well. Also, reports indicate that there has been a shift in terms of consumption patterns. What are your thoughts? 

Home delivery is something that the industry has been looking for for a long time. In certain markets, it is allowed but in most markets, it’s sort of a quasi-legal situation and ambiguous or it’s down right disallowed. And I’m really happy to say that, one of the good things that might come out of this is that the government has realized what is wrong with home delivery. I mean, especially in Maharashtra, which is our largest market.

With excise permit and technology it is so easy to verify who’s ordering the wine and who’s receiving it. So if you’ve got all of that in place what’s wrong with allowing home delivery. That’s a very hopeful sign and it’s gone off without a glitch in Mumbai. 

Now, there are a bunch of people out there who even today would love to see some of these rules shot down. Frankly speaking, in 99% of the cases, it’s been very positive and it’s interesting that you mentioned about women being much more comfortable to buy a bottle of wine if they don’t have to go to that horrible liquor shop. Um, unfortunately, the way that liquor is treated in India,  it’s almost worse than hard drugs.

Also Read: Virtual Wine Tasting Is The Latest Lockdown Trend

3.  Unfortunately, restaurants and bars have been shut down for a while now. I’m sure that would have had a big impact on your business, even though you know alcohol has made its way to living rooms, specifically, wine. How do you see the future of drinking, as a culture, really evolving in India?  

With restaurants shutting down, it has really hurt bad. People are going to have a little bit maybe more to drink at home, but I don’t think it’s going to make up for the amount of wine that was consumed in restaurants bars. A lot of people have restrictions in drinking at home. So even in wealthy families who come from certain communities were not really okay to have alcohol at home. They normally will go out of the house to go to a restaurant have a drink there and that’s totally acceptable. So this is something that’s probably going to challenge that.

Going over to a  friends house or having people over to your place and everybody having a glass of whatever they fancy and then watching your favourite IPL team play, that’s become a part of India. So IPL played a very big role in at home drinking scene. And that’s something which today does has some benefits for us, because people do feel more comfortable sitting watching their Netflix or the Amazon or their Hotstar and having a glass of wine. It’s something that we’re seeing more and more and it’s something that’s going to become more common.

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4. You did mention that you couldn’t sell a bottle of wine in 60 days? How are you coping up with that? 

For 60 days we couldn’t ship a single bottle from our winery. In fact, we’ve still got our winery closed. Until we’re really sure that it’s safe for our workers to return, we’re going to stay shut for a little bit longer. The last thing we want to do is reopen have a case of covid. God forbid and then have to again shut our operations. We don’t want to do that. So we’re going to take our time in terms of what happened at the shops.

I think it’s an essential good and the government made a mistake in shutting down all the alcohol stores. Anyways, what’s going to happen when you open up? Obviously, you will have a mob of people just wanting to get a drink which is a basic human need in this day and age. You know, it helps calm your nerves, helps you relax and to enjoy life a little bit more up. So I would say the next time something like this happens, do not shut the liquor stores.  

5. You did mention that the factory has been shut. How are the things at Sula Vineyard now?

Let’s separate the process of making wine from bottling wine and dispatching the wine. The process of making wine happens all year round. It’s a wonderful process that starts with the harvest of the grapes which happens from January to March and thank god we were able to get done. Thanks to all our local authorities that are allowing all our grapes to come in. Then you have the fermentation period. The entire winery is full of these beautiful aromas of grapes, juice fermenting into wine. Then you reach where we are today, which is the blending period so once all the wines are done fermenting. You taste all the different tanks and barrels and you come up with the blend for the year. 

I must say that one thing that’s happened this year because I am normally I head out London, is me being involved in the blending which hasn’t happened for the last 8 years. But this year, Harvest 2020, Rajiv Samant has lead the vintage winemaking and I am very happy with the results and I am very happy to bring myself back in touch with the nitty-gritty of what it is how I started out here. So the winemaking is going on. What’s being shut is the production the bottling and the dispatch which is also called the reaction production.  That should start up again in about a couple of weeks’ time.

As far as the workforce is concerned, Sula is one of the biggest employers of SCST workforce in the state, possibly one of the biggest in terms of the proportion of people. So it’s been fantastic for the local community. So people just have gone back to their villages. But we do continue to have some permanent staff here.

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6. Once the operations restart, what are the measures that you intend to take, to make sure that the bottle reaches the customer, absolutely safe?

We are going to make sure that everything the state government and the centre have put in place, we will be following that. Moreover, every single spot at the winery will have sanitizers. There will be very strict controls on who can go into the winery. There will be thermometers and other equipments in place to make sure that everyone is  COVID free.

However, there is a month long window from when the wine reaches the shop once it is dispatched from here. While we can take all the necessary measures, we can’t really say what will happen once it passes through various channels to reach the final destination. 

7. How do you think wine tourism is going to change in India?

We do hope that we’ll be back in business soon. We think that to start with there will be social distancing measures, there will have to be certain distance between tables. We are really lucky here. We’ve got a lot of space. 

You’re actually not supposed to be able to sit outdoors. So we’re going to say hey look, I think in this time, let us sit outdoors. These are a couple of changes that we are going to suggest to the authorities.I think for the next couple of months it’s going to be very challenging. People are going to be a little bit worried. But I really do hope that things bounce back after that. Those who are more vulnerable, take care, face masks etc.

8.  You also have a resort there, which is Beyond By Sula. Is that going to be open anytime soon?

We have two resorts: Beyond & The Source. The Source is a heritage building because it’s our original winery that became too small for our needs and we demolished it and converted it into a beautiful heritage hotel. We just added 20 rooms which opened in February and we had to shut in March. We hope to be welcoming people back again.

9.  Another thing Sula is known for is its SulaFest. Do you think it will return? 

SulaFest has become one of the greatest weekend festivals in the country. And we are so proud of what we have been organising it for the last 14 years. I’m sad to say that this year, this next year February 2021, we for the first time since we started out 15 years ago, will be taking a break from the SulaFest. 

Picture Credits: Youtube/Sula Vineyards

So we just want to take a break for one year and will be back. We will be back with much dhoom-dhaam in February 2022. I really want to apologize to all of our SulaFest fans out there for what’s going to happen, but we do feel it’s the best thing to do. 

10. Any recommendations for those who want to enjoy a glass of wine at home?

My wine of 2019 is The Source Sauvignon Blanc Reserve. So go out there look for it, you will not be disappointed. The next time we talk, I’ll tell you about 2020. So I have got a bottle of my favourite red wine, that’s the Rasa Cabernet Sauvignon, Sula’s most luxurious wine. If you’re a red wine lover, if you’re a Cabernet Sauvignon lover, that’s the wine you should be trying.