From Vine to Wine: The Evolution of Sula, Q&A with Kerry Damskey

Kerry Damskey, master winemaker, providing valuable vineyard and winery expertise at Sula Vineyards since 1999

Brinda Gill interviews Chief Winemaker Kerry Damskey who has been an integral part of the founding and success of Sula Vineyards since its inception

When was your first trip to India?
I first travelled to Nashik in 1994, at the invitation of Hambir Phadatare, whose dream it was to develop Nashik as a new winegrowing region, and his then partner, Sunil Patel. I travelled with Tom Prentice, my Napa Valley viticulture consultant, to research the possibility of growing premium wine grapes in a sub-tropical area with some elevation. Unfortunately, the partnership failed due to some issues. A few years later Rajeev Samant entered the picture.

What can you recall about your initial meetings with Rajeev?
Rajeev and I met in Glen Ellen, California, in Sonoma Valley in 1997. We talked about my travelling to India to develop the first premium wine grape vineyards in Nashik. Rajeev had been introduced to wine at Stanford and had the same dream as the two Indians who had retained my services. We had lunch, and I agreed to hire Rajeev to work in one of my wineries in Mendocino County, California for the 1997 harvest. I was the Chief Winemaker at the winery and a partner in the company. Rajeev wanted to get first-hand knowledge of how wine was made.

During the harvest Rajeev, my wife Daisy, and I would frequent Asian and Indian restaurants and order different wines to see which wines went best with the cuisines we were eating. We all agreed fruit-forward white wines and rosés were best suited. We were establishing what would become the protocol for the soon- to-berealized Indian wine consumer.

What were your thoughts on India, Nashik and the potential for winemaking here when you first arrived in India?
India in 1994 was way different from India in 2024. The road from Bombay to Nashik was two-laned and littered with fatalities caused by overloaded trucks. It took six and a half hours to reach Nashik. It was exhausting and chaotic, yet exhilarating at the same time. I couldn’t wait to leave, and then once I was home, I couldn’t wait to go back.

Growing grapes in India is very different from growing grapes in Europe, California, South Africa or Australia. These wine regions pick their grapes during their autumn season, and prune just once when the vines are dormant in winter. In India, we have a sub-tropical environment. To achieve a more Mediterranean type environment, the grapes are planted at an elevation of 700 metres. We prune twice a year; once in April after the harvest, and another time after the monsoons in September.

Kerry Damskey in the barrel room. Sula was the first Indian winery to make barrel-aged red wine in 2002

What was your role when you joined Sula? How did you develop its portfolio over the years?
Rajeev and I created Sula Vineyards in 1999. The first vintage in March was produced using grapes from Hambir Phadatare’s vineyards that I had planted with him two years earlier. I came back to India in November for the bottling. I remember tasting the first wines out of tank. The winery was very rustic at the time but the wines were varietally correct and really pretty. With a huge smile on my face, I declared them to be “Quite Good”!

Over the years, we added additional varietals to our mix. Zinfandel came from cuttings that Rajeev and I had produced in 1997 the day he went back to India after finishing his internship at my winery. Interestingly, all the Zinfandel produced in India has come from those cuttings!

With the success of Zinfandel, Rajeev thought we might have been wrong in our earlier assumption about what the Indian wine consumer would like. Might dry red wines be of interest; in fact, they were. We then planted Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and many other varieties.

As it turned out, when we looked at the sales numbers sixty to forty per cent Indians preferred red wines to white. We also brought in other varieties from different regions of the world. Riesling and Chardonnay thought to be successful only in cool climates succeeded here, with Sula using my winemaking guidance, to create a style that Indians would enjoy.

We brought in American oak barrels to age our Syrah, creating the first Indian-made barrel-aged red wine in 2002. We named it Dindori Shiraz after a new growing area we had discovered outside of Nashik, in the rolling plateau of Dindori, where the soils were granular and constant winds cooled the vineyards. The Rasa line was created to showcase our highest viticultural and winemaking achievements. And the Source line of wines was developed as luxury wines, honouring our beautiful on-site hotel and spa.

What were the main challenges you faced?
Everything was a challenge. When I started here, not one of my winemaking team had ever tasted wine. I had to teach them what was good wine, and what was not good wine. Eventually, winemakers and assistant winemakers started travelling the globe and interning at harvest time at wineries, like Rajeev had done in 1997.

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Packaging, too, was a big problem. Everything had to be imported at a huge expense. We had to pay 150% duty on anything brought in from outside India, until we found local producers to build and make to our specifications. What’s more, the fact that wine is an alcoholic beverage made it very difficult to sell in India. Laws had to be amended so that wine could cross state borders to be sold.

Rajeev Samant, CEO of Sula Vineyards pictured with Kerry Damskey, long-time friend and mentor

It must have brought you much joy to see Sula evolve and become India’s most successful winery as well as the world’s most visited winery. How do you feel?
Super proud! For many years, I could easily distinguish Sula wines from wines made in more recognized wine-growing regions. Now it’s not so easy to distinguish between the two. It’s taken 25 years to get to this level, but we’ve achieved that goal now.

Apart from my expertise in the vineyard and winery, Sula’s success is largely due to Rajeev Samant’s expert leadership and vision. He heads Sula like a Silicon Valley company, the one he was schooled at after completing a master’s degree at Stanford University. It’s a very well-run company, integrating men and women as employees at a near 50-50 ratio each.

It was also Rajeev’s vision for Sula to dominate, yet support, new-entry producers into the Indian wine world. All Sula wines are well made and good. At the top end, they are very, very good; displaying an Indian pedigree, yet totally comfortable next to a combative wine from Chile, South Africa, Australia, or California.

As a destination, Sula is super fun. Very Californian, but in Nashik. Rajeev in the early days would spend hours creating tasting room playlists of Western music. The playlist changed by mood and the time of day. I kept my eye on the ball by travelling to India three times a year for 25 years to work on winemaking, blending and vineyard protocol development with our vineyard consultants. It paid off.

How did your role evolve over the years?
My role at Sula evolved from Boss to Teacher to Mentor, as the team matured. We made a winemaker change in 2018 which was a difficult decision for me. Ajoy Shaw, our founding winemaker, is a close friend, who lived with me in California for multiple harvests. Ajoy is now a leading winemaking consultant to other Indian wineries.

With an accounting background, Karan Vasani joined the team as an intern, and then went on to work harvests in New Zealand and Australia. He got his Enology degree from a University in New Zealand.

Karan would always vie for a seat next to me when I was leading a tasting or holding court. It was clear to me that Karan was super passionate about wine. We moved him up the ranks fast. Karan became Chief Winemaker in June 2018. He’s led the team well. In December 2023, Karan was promoted to COO of Sula and Gorakh Gaikwad was promoted to Chief Winemaker.

What are your thoughts on the Indian wine industry today?
I think the most important challenge for the Indian wine industry is increasing wine consumption in India. I would focus on that. With the most populous country in the world, there’s lots of room for inviting more wine consumers to the table. It needs to be done in the way Robert Mondavi did in California in the 70’s and 80’s. Marketing the idea that wine is a natural beverage to be enjoyed with friends, as a part of the meal. It’s a part of cuisine and the food scene. There is interest in Indian wine abroad, but I don’t think that’s the market. India is the market. There is huge opportunity here.

I predict that Indian wines from other producers (producers perhaps not yet realised) will bring Indian wine production to the forefront. For instance, in the top ten of the list of “The World’s Most Wanted Zinfandels” on Wine-Searcher, nine out of ten are from California, and one is the Zinfandel of Sula Vineyards!

You are the only winemaker from abroad who has been a part of the Indian wine industry for 25 years! Will you continue to be a part of it now?
While I retired from my role as Master Winemaker in December 2023, Daisy and I are shareholders in Sula’s future successes. I’ll miss it, but 25 years has been a good gig! I have an entire family at Sula, and we love each other. Sula and India are part of my DNA.