Learning from Sula’s founder

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Learning from Sula’s founder


RAJEEV SAMANT, THE CEO AND FOUNDER OF Sula Vineyards, turned his company into the market leader of India’s wine sector in less than a decade. Today, Sula Vineyards owns a staggering 65 per cent of the market share in India. The story of Samant’s journey—from Stanford to Oracle to Sula Vineyards—is one that people in the entrepreneurial world would raise their glasses to. Samant was in Kathmandu recently to host a wine-tasting programme, Sula Jatra, at Mezze by Roadhouse. We got to listen to his story first hand. There’s much that entrepreneurs can learn from Samant’s journey.


Aptitude, passion, vision

If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you have to first truly want to become an entrepreneur. Samant, an exceptional student from a very young age, got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Economics from Stanford University. He then started working for Oracle, a company many can only dream of getting into; but one day, in 1992, he realised he wanted to become an entrepreneur. He did not know what his venture would be, so he backpacked around the world, to think things over. He even came to Nepal and did an Annapurna Base Camp trek. He finally returned to India in late 1993. In between, he read a lot of philosophy, and came to realise that he wanted to work away from city environs. It was around when he had this realisation that his father was trying sell some 20 acres of family land in Nashik, but his father could not find a buyer. The younger Samant thought he could do something with the land. With his father’s permission, he started growing roses, mangoes, and other fruits. “But all that was in vain because conventional agriculture was declining in India,” he says. He found out that there were grapes growing in Nashik, but they were all being consumed as fruit. That was when he had an epiphany: He could turn his land into a vineyard and get into the winemaking business.


Mentors matter

To avoid many of the common mistakes, and in turn, to avoid failure, would-be entrepreneurs need to learn from mentors. Mentors will transfer their experiences and knowledge to you, and also guide you along your journey. Samant believes that without his mentor, Kerry Damskey, he would not have succeeded. Samant, who knew nothing about the science of making wine, started to fully understand what he was in for after he got in touch with Damskey through his Stanford network. Damskey is a master winemaker from California, and he taught Samant everything he knew about the science of winemaking. But the most important lesson that Samant learned from his mentor was to learn to believe that he could overcome any challenge.


No pain, no gain

One needs to be willing to shed blood, sweat and tears for the sake of one’s venture. Samant succeeded because he worked hard from the start. He first worked in Damskey’s winery for three months: one summer, one harvest. Samant did everything—from cultivating the grapes, picking them and pumping them to topping up the final bottle in a batch. He came to understand that you cannot divorce the agricultural aspect from the wine-making one. When Samant returned to India, he put together a team of only five personnel, and they did everything themselves—from making wine to selling it and branding it. When he made his first batch of wine, he went door to door to sell it. It was a difficult task because back then, Indians hadn’t really taken to wine: Indians were consuming less than a teaspoon of wine per person per capital consumption (0.008 consumption per yearly capita). But he was able to somehow convince the Taj and Oberoi chains to include his wine in their cellars. Because of that doggedness of pursuit, he was able to sell 20,000 bottles in his first year. It was largely because of his efforts that by 2015 wine consumption per capita in India got to 0.015.


There will obviously be bad days

There are always going to be highs and lows in an entrepreneur’s journey, but everything depends on how you tackle the adversities. Sula Vineyards currently sells around 11 million bottles of wine per year. But the road to where they are now wasn’t always smooth. Samant and his team faced challenges that could have killed their business. But they tackled them strategically and they were able to transform the negatives into positives.

Samant hit a stumbling block right at the outset. Initially, the government was not willing to give him the license to make and sell wine. “The government didn’t distinguish wine from spirit,” he says. “For them, wine was the same thing as ‘sharaab’ or ‘daaru’.” In order to persuade the officials, he had to get creative with his pitch. “It’s God’s gift that we can grow good grapes in Nashik,” he told them. “There are only a few areas in the world where good grapes can be cultivated. We’ll make good wine. We’ll make good money and we’ll lift the incomes of everyone in the area.” The officials were sold, reduced the excise duty and made the licensing procedure very easy. 

The year 2008 was a difficult one for Samant’s company. The world economy was falling apart and India felt the repercussions as well. “Wine consumption fell by 20 per cent,” says Samant. Then came the terrorist attack in Mumbai. “Mumbai was 70 per cent of our market,” he says. “Taj and Oberoi were our biggest customers. Both of them were badly hit by that incident, and they had to shut down for two months. We were taking out loans and expanding, and suddenly we came to a standstill.” So his company figured out a way around the problem. “Our least expensive wine cost 500 rupees [INR], and we knew that not everyone could afford our wines. So instead of wasting our grape harvests, we launched a new brand at 200 rupees, which became a huge hit. That’s how we stabilised.”

Samant first worked in damskey’swinery for three months: one summer, one harvest. he did everything—from cultivating the grapes, picking them and pumping them to topping up the final bottle in a batch.


Sharing the vision

As a company grows, it becomes increasingly difficult for the owner to share the company’s vision and mission.mission with the growing number of employees. Samant does this with ease. “I send out CEO messages once a quarter in English, which are then translated into Hindi and Marathi,” he says. “The messages explain what is happening, what targets have been set for the next months, and also talk a bit about the culture of the company.” There is also a marketing newsletter sent out to his internal employees, and it goes to 30,000 other Sula members as well. “It talks about our new wines and our successes,” he says. “Apart from that, we reach out through our Whatsapp group for managers, and our Facebook group and website, which are properly updated to convey the message and vision of the company.”

Your business is your life

As an entrepreneur, you need to be working constantly, even when you are on a break. Samant never hesitates to talk up his products whenever the opportunity presents itself. When we met him for the interview, he offered us one of his wines and taught us how to smell and taste it. Such impromptu sales pitches tell you everything you need to know about how deeply Samant is invested in his venture. For any aspiring entrepreneur and businessman, to succeed and to keep growing, such passion is the key.

*First published in M&S VMAG  



  • Guest
    Sameer Wednesday, 29 June 2016

    How do you people bring out such inspirational stories? I mean how do you reach out to people like him and get into the depth of their journey. Looking for more stories Pratik Jee.

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