Wine heads to the party

India’s SulaFest, organised by a major Indian winery, now attracts more than 10,000 people. Robert Joseph went along.


How do you introduce wine into the lives of young people in a country like India, where wine has no cultural roots? The customary answer is ‘education’. Somehow, future consumers must be encouraged to sign up for courses on regions, grape varieties, and food and wine matching..  

In 2008, Rajeev Samant, founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards in Nashik, had a better idea. He decided to mark the tenth anniversary of his wine business by hosting a concert in an amphitheatre set among the vineyards. Unlike countless wineries such as Robert Mondavi Winery and Leeuwin Estate, which tend to host the kind of performers and orchestras that fill smart London and New York concert halls, the shaven-headed, Stanford-educated Samant opted for the style of event he would personally have liked to attend, that might take place somewhere like Goa or Ibiza. “To be honest,” he says, “I just liked the idea of having a really great party with the music I liked and a lot of great people.”

SulaFest, he decided, would showcase top Indian DJs and young local musicians such as Shaa’ir and Func, an alternative electronic music duo who had only got together the previous year. There would be food and drink tents, a grape-stomping stall, cooking-with-wine demonstrations, and the presence of Kunal Vijaykar, one of India’s best-known TV chefs. But the main attraction would undeniably be the music.

Samant being Samant, he made it happen. But booking the acts was easier than getting the audience. The biggest challenge lay in the distances people had to travel. According to a map, Nashik is only 180 km from Mumbai, but as I discovered when I visited the winery as part of a group of India International Wine Challenge judges, those kilometres were not like the ones in Europe or the US. The drive took well over four hours along a less-than-fully asphalted two-lane road, which we shared with horses and carts, un-roadworthy trucks, and wandering dogs and cows. We were kindly invited to stay in Samant’s house, but it was clear that comfortable nearby hotels were less than plentiful.

And yet, 300 people came to the first festival.

Calendar fixture

Since that first SulaFest, things have changed. Today, the drive still takes twice as long as it would in the West, but the road is safer. Like many other Indian cities, Nashik now has a range of recently opened hotels from a Hotel Formule 1 to a five-star Taj Gateway, and SulaFest now runs for three days, boasts three stages, and attracts more than 10,000 attendees. The event has been listed by the Hindustan Times as one of ‘Nine cool Indian music festivals to attend’, and among the acts booked for 2017 were world-class bands like Bloc Party and Afro Celt Sound System from the UK. This year also saw the opening of a 15-room hotel with rooms designed by Samant’s Russian-born wife, Margarita.

Another change, unconnected with the festival, has been the creation of an import business called Sula Selections, which distributes imported brands including Trapiche, Hardys, Bouchard Aîné & Fils, Ruffino, Cointreau, Hendricks, and – to declare a personal interest – the French brand of which I am co-owner. My official reason for being at SulaFest was to pour our wine for VIPs, potential customers, and Indian wine-opinion-formers like Subhash Arora and Reva Singh of Sommelier India magazine. Unofficially, I wanted to enjoy some great music and get closer to India’s growing wine market.

Over the three days, I met property developers, film-makers, students and secretaries. Some had no taste for wine; others were just discovering it; while a few – a very few – were obviously passionately interested. One young woman earnestly grilled me over the difference in the flavour of a Languedoc Chardonnay-Viognier and a Bouchard Aîné white Burgundy. 

There were also tables at which Coke, beer and Chenin Blanc were all being casually quaffed with hamburgers.

Despite the occasional display of passion, I’m pretty certain that the festivalgoers who drank any wine at all were almost certainly in the minority, just as they are in most British pubs on any Saturday evening. Indeed, many more probably enjoyed fruit juice from RAW, the festival’s headline sponsor. Thanks to SulaFest, however, barriers to entry to wine have been removed. Wine isn’t presented as complicated stuff that needs a degree before it can be approached; it was on offer as a drink. And, with any luck, that’s the kind of thing that will help increase India’s wine consumption, which as some might find sobering, is still less than a tenth as much as China.

Appeared in



Latest Articles