Kerry Damskey earned his degree in fermentation sciences at UC Davis in 1976. Since then, he’s become a globe-hopping consultant winemaker, helping develop vineyards and wineries in uncommon regions on four continents, including Costa Rica, Bulgaria, Israel and China. When he’s home at Geyserville, he and his wife, Daisy, make wines from mountain vineyards under the brand Palmeri, after a species of oak native to California.
He’s best known, however, as the vintner largely responsible for introducing wine-grape growing and winemaking to India, though he shies from accepting credit, saying his partner in Indian viticulture and enology, Rajeev Samant, is the person largely responsible. “Rajeev did it all,” Damskey says.
The two became acquainted in 1994, not long after Samant, a computer engineer out of Stanford University, quit Silicon Valley to return to his native India, specifically to his family’s 30-acre farm at Nashik, a city of 1.5 million people in the state of Maharashtra, a little more than 100 miles northeast of Mumbai.
There, he grew roses, mangoes and table grapes, but not wine grapes. Table grapes developed so well, however, he began to wonder how wine grapes would do. That’s when he contacted Damskey. “There were no wine grapes in India before,” Damskey says.
After 20 years, their collaboration is paying off handsomely. India still is a beer and whiskey country when it comes to alcoholic beverages, with annual per capita wine consumption amounting to no more than one small glass, according to International Wine & Spirit Research in London.
Nonetheless, Samant and Damskey have made a place for themselves and their wines. Their brand, Sula, taken from the name of Samant’s mother, Sulabha, accounts for 80 percent of the sales of wines made in India. They’re growing grapes on 2,000 acres, and making 600,000 cases of wine a year. Their sales are rising 20 percent a year, and wine sales overall in India are clipping along at an annual growth rate of 13 percent. The winery estate now includes a posh 32-room resort called Beyond.
“At first, we had no idea of the Indian taste for wine,” Damskey says during a break at this spring’s Riverside International Wine Competition, where he was a judge. “Indians have only just discovered wine the past 15 years.”
The typical wine consumer in India, he says, is between 25 and 35 years old, well-educated, well-traveled, fashion-conscious and generally vegetarian. “Indians are pretty doggone hip. They’re fun, smart and pretty.”
The cultivation of wine grapes in India isn’t without unusual challenges. Nashik, not far from the country’s western edge, is on the same approximate latitude as Hawaii, far outside the belts generally preferred for growing traditional wine grapes.
“It’s tropical winemaking,” Damskey says. Among other things, that means the vines never go dormant, they just keep producing. He could harvest grapes twice a year, but the second harvest would be during the region’s typically heavy monsoon season, when rains likely would ruin the crop. “It’s more humid there than it is in California, but not as humid as it is along the East Coast (of the United States).”
By pruning vines virtually year round and taking other steps, he’s trained both vines and vineyard workers to get one substantial crop a year, which usually is harvested between January and March, at the end of the Indian winter. “We had to teach viticulture and enology to everyone; they knew nothing.”
Their vineyard has the advantage of being fairly high, 2,000 feet up a basalt plateau. “It looks sort of like Arizona. It’s fairly Mediterranean at that altitude,” Damskey says.
Early on, they planted the green sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc grapes, which have done well. Lately, viognier and riesling have been showing promise. He’s had less success with cabernet sauvignon, but tempranillo, zinfandel, grenache, malbec and syrah look to be adapting to the setting and the climate.
He’s had to temper his winemaking style to accommodate Indian tastes. The big, sturdy, amply oaked wines he’s been accustomed to making in Sonoma County and Napa Valley don’t fly well in India. Instead, Indians favor dry and soft wines with fresh and forward fruit flavors, and with less alcohol and less oak than is standard for California. “Heavily oaked wines don’t go well with Indian foods and they don’t go well in that heat,” Damskey says.
While the varieties of grapes he is growing in India would be familiar to California wine enthusiasts, the wines they yield often express themselves somewhat differently than what drinkers expect here. His chenin blanc, for one, is made in a reserved and elegant style that emulates interpretations more from France’s Loire Valley than the light and frisky model of California.
While Sula’s white wines are stylistically similar to identical varietals from elsewhere about the globe, the red wines, especially syrah, often convey a distinct smokiness that sets them apart from the syrah of other regions. “It’s not like any character that I’ve tasted. I like it, but it’s different. It’s a smoky licorice character. When combined with oak and fresh bright fruit, it adds its own interesting and likeable terroir,” Damskey says.
Sula’s premium line of wines sells for equivalent of between $8 and $12. The winery’s most expensive wine is a syrah marketed under the proprietary name “Rasa,” which sells for the equivalent of $22.
Damskey says 95 percent of Sula’s wines are sold in India. Most of the 5 percent that is exported goes to Japan, Germany, Scandinavia and the eastern United States. (A random survey of Indian restaurants and grocery stores in the Sacramento area turned up Sula only at the Folsom restaurant India House.)
Damskey was drawn to India for the challenge and the opportunity. The country had no wine culture to speak of, but it has more than a billion people. “They didn’t drink wine at all, but if just 10 percent of them buy wine that will be a huge niche,” he says. “Sula will never be a worldwide brand, but it is a household name in India if you are in wine circles.”
The pair’s success has prompted emulation. The country now has about 80 wineries, with 45 of them at Nashik. Damskey welcomes the competition, and actually wishes it were more intense, which would help the market expand faster and farther, he believes. As it is, most of the new producers are small and local. “We need five more Sulas,” he says.