Sula Vineyard. For someone who drinks only wine, I was most excited about a weekend in India’s wine country. It meant a chance to finally visit the Sula vineyard; that produced the wine that I drank most often – Sula. It meant a chance to taste the gamut of their selections and finally find something I love. It meant a chance to stroll through the lovely vineyards, and listen to a sommelier/tour guide tell us about all the growing conditions required as he holds up different grapes and tells us all their secrets. To top it, after having had to cancel our plans for Sulafest three years in a row, I was thrilled to finally be going there.
Getting there didn’t seem difficult. We remembered seeing a huge road sign pointing towards Sula while entering the city the previous day, so we backtracked to that sign, only to find the road closed thanks to all the roadwork that’s taken over the city. Google maps helped us out here, as we found an alternative route, and then decided to bypass the long winded National Highway and take a short cut through what only seemed like smaller lanes but turned out to be steep dirt roads that were nearly impossible to navigate for our sedan. After passing a couple of signs for the York winery, and Sula, we finally reached the gate to what I expected would be wine heaven.
The short driveway is flanked by a few miles of vines on either side, until we reached the parking lot adjacent to the building. What greeted us was a lazy reception, which we passed and climbed up the stairs to a bar cum souvenir store and a couple of closed doors behind which are the tasting room and the toilets. On enquiring we were told the tours start downstairs, so we trudged back down, only to be told the tickets have to be bought upstairs. So we trudged back up.
The Sula Vineyard tour costs depend on the number of wines you’d like to sample. Rs. 150 per head for 4 wines and Rs. 250 per head for 6. The tour runs every hour between 11:30 am and 5:30 pm. The 30 minute wait for our tour to start was passed staring at the kind of people who visited here. Young men from neighbouring towns hoping to get drunk for Rs. 150, families, with teetotaler in-laws and toddlers in tow, businessmen passing through, and a few serious wine drinkers.Full marks to the tour guide for mugging up the spiel correctly, but zero for not being equipped to answer any questions correctly. A brief history on the entrepreneur behind Sula, a dismissive wave of the hand towards the vineyards, to a quick walk through the incredibly small brewing room where he made the brewing process sound like child’s play, walked us past a barrel room ensuring we understood that each of those barrels cost Rs. 50,000 to source, and then took us past a window that gave us a glimpse of the bottling area, until we found ourselves in the dingy, hot and stuffy tasting room.
The Tasting Room
In the tasting room, a young “sommelier” walked around asking to see our passes, and placed one empty wine glass before each passholder. The rest of the crowd (teetotaler wives, parents and children) just hung around occupying precious space. A plate of Britannia Nutrichoice crackers was placed before us. And then the wine tasting began. We started with two whites and then two reds. Those who had paid for 4 wines were asked to leave, and then he proceeded to bring out the premium white wine for those who had paid for 6 wines. As he was about to pour the white into our red-wine stained glasses, we asked him if he would change our glasses. On changing the glasses, he proceeded to tell us about the super-premium white and red, which is apparently available in very limited stock. He mumbled his way through most of our questions, and after tasting the wines I wished there was a spittoon around. The wines were harsh, vile, and unpalatable. We were then invited to buy any of these wines at lower than MRP rates, signalling the end of the wine tour.
Restaurants at the Sula Vineyards comprise Soma – the Indian restaurant and Little Italy – a vegetarian chain serving Italian cuisine. Choosing to keep our distance from vegetarian joints, we entered Soma. While what seemed like a garden area of Soma was closed for a private event, the area we sat in, seemed like a canteen/ cafeteria trying hard to be a bistro. The faux wooden flooring, the filthy french windows overlooking the vineyard, the wooden tables and uncomfortable wrought iron chairs, all accompanied by lots and lots of flies. To top it, the service was downright terrible. Two waiters tending to a total crowd of twenty seemed a bit unfair. We didn’t even bother ordering wine, since the atmosphere was anything but conducive to sipping from a stemmed glass. But the food, oh the food. We ordered a local dish called Chicken Khandeshi, and ate that with Naan bread and some rice and daal. It was beautifully rich, spicy, and fingerlicking good. Another lovely surprise was the bill. Meal for two without drinks cost Rs. 600/-
Sulafest is probably single-handedly responsible for raising our expectations of this place, leaving us feeling rather disappointed and let down. Sulafest, is an annual weekend celebration of wine, food and music is an overly hyped event that forces city folk from Mumbai and Pune to travel 3 hours to listen to local bands they normally avoid in their own cities, and to drink wine which is among the domestic menu options they order in any local bar or restaurant. Not to mention the crowded roads and venue. This atrocity happens in February each year, which also happens to coincide with the harvest season. This will cost you approximately Rs. 2000-3000, not counting your accommodation and transport.
When to go
The best time to go is December – March, and we vouch for it, May was unbearably hot. Looking at the poor grapevines baking under the scorching sun, made me feel worse.
We left feeling utterly disillusioned towards Indian wines on the whole, swearing to stick only to imported wines henceforth. Thankfully we discovered the Wine Society of India, a club, to which membership can be secured by committing to purchase 2 crates of 6 bottles of hand picked and imported red and white wines through the course of a year. (They assure you the crates will cost between Rs. 5000- Rs. 10,000, and will never be over MRP) Invites to wine tastings and other events is an added bonus. We’re presently enjoying our first of the crate – a beautiful Shiraz from South Africa.