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Growing green grapes and bottling sustainable wine in India

Anna da Costa

10th August, 2010

Viticulture is growing at a rate of knots in India, and the country's largest winery is leading by environmental example

Nestling just 200km from the bustling metropolis of Mumbai lies Nasik, an area of natural beauty, rich spiritual heritage and home to one of India's newest and burgeoning industries: wine.

As you look towards the sweeping horizon, across undulating hills and sloping valleys, it is an increasingly familiar sight to see straight rows of leafy grape vines stretching far into the distance.

Sula, founded in 1999, now produces 20 different wine varieties from the region, including red, white, rosé and, most recently, port. Not only is it the largest winery in Nasik, but also, as of last year, the largest winery in India, distributing wine across the country and to a rapidly expanding international clientele.

Although only accounting for a small percentage of agriculture in India, the wine industry here is growing at a rate of 25-30 per cent a year (globally, grape-growing accounts for around 4.9 per cent of arable and permanent croplands).

Organic, biodynamic and 'sustainably produced' wines have been popping up with increasing frequency around the world. As a nascent Indian industry, can these principles be adopted early on?

Rajeev Samant, founder and CEO of Sula, believes so. 'Sustainability for its own sake is very desirable, and it has to be a part of the way we work as companies today,' he says. 'Even if it costs us a bit more it is totally worthwhile, in my opinion, if it results in our using fewer natural resources.'

Greening the process

Since its inception, Sula has been working to integrate a wide array of measures at its own 240-acre vineyard and winery to minimise the environmental impact of its farming, processing and distribution practices.

These include the use of solar water-heating to meet the winery's hot water requirements, insulation of its wine-chilling tanks and energy-efficient lighting to minimise energy use, as well as greywater recycling and water metering, with targets to cut down on water use across all operations. Sula has an expanding bottle-recycling program too, and a growing suite of water-harvesting and catchment structures across the vineyard, which combined have a storage capacity of more than 30 million litres.

Similar efforts are being made to minimise use of pesticides.

'When we began working here, I was shocked by the way pesticides were being used by farmers in the region, and by the aggressive marketing of these products by chemical companies,' says Samant.

Having significantly reduced, and in some cases removed, the need for artificial pesticides, the team uses natural alternatives, such as copper, sulphur and biological pest control, alongside a careful pest-monitoring system, where individuals are assigned 15-acre blocks, which they monitor plant by plant for two hours daily.

'Where there is a need for pesticide we keep it to a minimum, making spot applications only on individual plants,' says Dr Neeraj Agarwal, vice president of vineyard operations, and resident viticulturalist.

Simple, sustainable systems

The wine industry may not be the most polluting industry in the world, but in Rajeev Samant's view, every business should be thinking about how to minimise its footprint.

'We want to ensure that we are creating as many feedback loops between our energy, waste and water systems as possible,' he says, as we walk through the vineyard past a large vermicomposter. All of the vineyard's vegetable and wine-processing waste, along with the food waste from the restaurant kitchens, goes into a large vermicompost pit, producing 70-80 tonnes of compost a year, which is mixed with cow dung from local farms before going back on to the vineyard.

Samant is not alone in thinking this way. Harshal Shah, consultant sommelier and author of Penguin Books' upcoming Definitive Guide to Indian Wine, believes sustainability is becoming a must for all wine producers to think about.

'I think it is very important for wine producers to think more seriously about the future and the legacy they will leave. At the simplest level, being sustainable has many cost benefits and is also a wonderfully effective marketing point. At a more serious level, it involves a lot more responsibility for one's environment and can ensure the longevity of the wine business through careful use of limited resources and innovative decision-making involving operating methods and techniques.'

Grow green; save money

Ethical motivations aside, Samant and his team are also clear about the economic benefits of implementing these measures.

'The fact of the matter is that many of these efforts are no-brainers in terms of economics. Solar water heating, for example, gives you a payback on investment within two to three years,' says Samant.

Rohan Shah, general manager of winery operations, says that thanks to the energy-saving measures implemented at the processing stage, the winery's energy requirements remained the same in 2010 as in 2009, in spite of a 40 per cent increase in total production capacity this year. Sula's bottle-recycling programme saves 3.2million rupees per year (£43,860), including collection and delivery costs, and meets 25 per cent of its bottling needs. 'It's not small money,' says Samant, 'and it also provides employment for 30 women from the local village as bottle washers every day.'

'It beats me why all wineries are not doing this yet,' says Rohan Shah. 'In some cases there is an initial investment, which I think puts many people off, but for the most part you make this back within a couple of years.'

Dealing with the weather

Rajeev Samant not only believes that this is important for the future of how business is done, but also that many of these measures also make a lot of sense for winemakers in India: 'We have an erratic power supply in India, leading to a frequent need to turn to diesel gen-sets to keep the wines cool, which is not only very costly especially for commercial enterprises, but very bad for the environment.'

Rainwater storage tankSimilarly, storing rainwater pays back quickly, as you minimise the need to buy expensive and poor-quality water from tankers at times of drought. 'This is particularly relevant as we are seeing increasingly variable monsoon rainfall in the region,' Samant adds.

Yet he does not argue that Sula is completely sustainable yet. Furthermore he believes that to go 100 per cent organic does not make sense in terms of productivity or incremental environmental benefits.

With harsher weather conditions than other winegrowing regions, including a long dry summer and annual monsoon that brings sustained periods of humidity, crops are rendered significantly more susceptible to certain pests in India. One of the chief culprits in this category is downy mildew.

'It is rampant in the monsoon thanks to the warm, humid conditions. If it attacks it can devastate the vineyards literally overnight, completely finishing off the crop,' says Samant. To date, Sula has been unable to fend off downy mildew using completely organic methods, such as copper application, but this and other measures have significantly reduced the need for artificial control. 'In my opinion, it is better to be as sustainable as possible, and to source raw materials locally.'

Honey, goats and vines

Samant also believes in a process of continual iteration, experimentation and innovation in terms of what can work best. One of his latest ideas is to place beehives throughout the vineyard to encourage pollination, support local biodiversity and produce honey. Another, he tells me, is to use small local goats to mow the alleys between the vines, weeding the vineyards and fertilising the vines with their droppings at the same time.

Sula is now looking beyond its own vineyard and winery to support the uptake of these sustainability measures by the surrounding 200 growers, from whom it sources 80 per cent of its grapes - another 1,000 acres of land.

'We are working to get our own house in order, but moving forward we would like to support others in the region to do the same, starting with our own growers,' says SamantViews of the vineyard.

Spreading the word

Although a number of growers in the region have implemented some measures to reduce their environmental impact, such as reduced pesticide spraying, nothing to date has been done in terms of a concerted effort, which is what Samant wants to see happen next. 'All of our growers should have a code of practice, and beyond this we need to start looking at collaboration across the industry through the Nashik Wine Association, or even the National Wine Board.'

Harshal Shah agrees that such collaboration is necessary, but he also believes there is still a long way to go. '"Collaboration" is the key word here. It would be wonderful if Indian winegrowers could band together to share ideas and work towards a common, sustainable future.' He believes too that working with experienced practitioners from overseas might make it possible to come up with organic or biodynamic solutions that could be tailored to the unique Indian weather conditions.

'Unfortunately,' he says, 'most are still too bent on pursuing their own monetary goals over and above any others. I think it will be hard to make this a large-scale success until that changes, and we have national-level regulation of the industry.

'Having said this, I have been very impressed by Sula's efforts, particularly because it doesn't make a song-and-dance about it,' he adds.

Anna da Costa is a freelance journalist

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