Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Sulafest Has Shown the Way for Others to Follow and Harvest the Gains

This article first appeared on Indian Wine Academy's website (www.indianwineacademy.com) on Feb. 11. Reprinted with permission. Click on http://www.indianwineacademy.com/item_4_589.aspx to see it in the original format.

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

Susheela Raman was one of the major world
music stars who performed at Sulafest 2014.
India's premier gourmet music event is a model
for others to follow to give the wine culture
a big thrust forward.
THERE was a time when sponsoring wine dinners was the only option available to wine producers and importers to make inroads into a society wedded to brown spirits. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of people like the late Ghulam Naqshband and our own Subhash Arora, whose Delhi Wine Club events have become launch pads for wines and restaurants that believe in the wine culture, and some five-star hotels as well as passionate restaurateurs such as AD Singh, Rahul Akerkar, Ritu Dalmia, Abhijit Saha and Tarsillo Natalone, wine dinners became an essential part of the social calendar of our big cities.
As they evolve, wine dinners have started attracting the same crowd and most of the regulars are on the wrong side of the age curve -- it's a market with not more than 10 to 20 years of longevity left. Organising a wine dinner is like preaching to the converted. If the wine market has to grow, the country's vast young population -- 70 per cent of India is below the age of 35 -- must be introduced to the heady joys of the wonderful world of wine. But this important market segment seems to regard formal wine occasions to be too stuffy, too 'grey', to merit any place in its crowded life. How does the industry win this vodka-and-white-rum-toting generation over to its side of the circle of pleasure?
Seven years ago, Rajeev Samant of Sula Vineyards, who's always one step ahead of the competition, hit upon a brilliant idea. It was called Sulafest -- a weekend in February dedicated to the pleasures of wine, food and music; "a gourmet wine festival". There couldn't be a headier mix, and soon, all roads were leading to Nashik, the headquarters of the country's top wine producer. And the pilgrims on this road less travelled were precisely from the generation that considered wine to be oh-so yesterday.
The idea wasn't entirely an original Samant brainwave. The inspiration came from the grape-stomping dramas that Chateau Indage would organise every year, with Mumbai's who's who in attendance, till the company went bust. But what Samant has done is give it a spin -- and every year, Sulafest has been growing, not only in the number and quality of music acts it hosts, but also in the turnout and fashion statements that the visitor flaunt. It is India's Woodstock with shades of Ascot.
I bumped into Samant at the VIP Lounge and, after admiring his orange shorts and exchanging notes on the political temperature in Delhi, asked him about the turnout at Sulafest 2014. "I have stopped counting," he said with a broad grin. I could see the sense of triumph in his looks. He deserved his moment in the sun.
For the past two years, Sulafest has tied up with the country's leading purveyor of world music, blueFROG, which is why homegrown artistes such as Susheela Raman, Vasuda Sharma and Avial performed to capacity audiences along with the British psychedelic music group Shpongle, the toast of this year's fest; the ska/reggae band from Croydon, The Dualers; rumba-meets-raga group Gypsy All Stars; dub music and big beat band Dub Pistols; and the Italian from London, Gaudi, who's one of the busiest solo performers in the electronica world. And then there were pleasant surprises such as singer-songwriter-guitarist Gowri, who held her own and kept her audience asking for more, despite the deafening boom-boom-boom emanating from the 'Electro Zone'.
The 'Electro Zone' was rocked by some of the trendiest names in EDM -- the Brazilian export DJ Anna; the multi-cultural exponent of psychedelic trance, Ma Faiza; the Russian DJs who have a cult following in Goa, Mescaluto (Victoria) and Sashanti (Alexander Sukhochev); and the desi boy Ankytrixx (Ankit Kocher). It was an eclectic mix of music, which was being canned by VH1 for future broadcasts, and with Vero Moda, the trendy international women's fashion brand, being the lead sponsor, floral colours and youthful style were in evidence everywhere. The food was just the kind that the young love -- from momos to shawarma, from rajma-chawal to egg/kebab rolls, washed down with Mount Gay mojitos, or Asahi beer, or the sparkling fruit drinks from Pune-based Good Juicery, the baby of former Cape Town resident Michelle Bauer and her food technologist friend Julia Madlener.
There was food and drink everywhere, but no one got drunk or misbehaved, and the hundreds of young women could do exactly what they wanted to do, without any man paying more-than-usual attention to even the shortest skirt. It was clean, unalloyed fun, and people minded their own business. I wonder how many people signed up for camping at the vineyards organised by LetsCampOut.com, which was surely a first for an Indian "gourmet music" event.
Seeing the scores of young people who had signed up for the winery tour and tastings, asking questions, sipping wines and excitedly shooting selfies, Ajoy Shaw, Chief Winemaker and Vice President, Sula Vineyards, said, "This is the market we must reach out to if we have to grow." We were at Sula's Tasting Room, drinking Rasa 2007, a delicately balanced Shiraz with still some years of life left.
Shaw, a Bengali who is proud to call himself a Maharashtrian (his parents brought him to the state when he was five months old), said at least 600 people, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, show up every weekend at Sula for guided tours, wine tastings and gorging on the food served at two vineyard restaurants (Soma and Little Italy). They go back with bottles of wine and a sense of excitement about the wine culture. They become the ambassadors of wine.
We need more clones of Sulafest -- in Akluj, in Baramati, in Charosa, in Hampi, in the Nandi Hills -- if we wish to create new gourmet tourist destinations and get more people hooked on to the joys of wine. What is the point of producing increasingly better wines if the market moves at what used to be once called the "Hindu rate of growth"?