Meet Raj Patel, the Gujarat-born American Indian, whose brand of wine was served at the State dinner hosted at the White House for our Prime Minister.
(July 23, 2023) Recently, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the US, President Joe Biden hosted a State dinner for him. A bottle of wine from Patel Winery was served along with the food. It is not very often that one hears of an Indian entrepreneur in the US who is in the business of producing wines. Competing with other vineyards, some of them being family-owned businesses going back hundreds of years, and selling a bouquet of high-end red and white wines takes some doing. Yet, Raj Patel, a first-generation wine producer, has successfully converted his early passion for wine into a business.
Passion for Wines
Raj recalls how his journey into wine-making began. “My passion for wine began 20 years ago while working as a lab intern for Robert Mondavi Winery. I learned how to make superior-quality wines and I have been a passionate student ever since.”
Raj initially worked in the finance industry. And when an opportunity to get into the wine business opened up, he grabbed it, though it came with challenges. He says, “Starting a wine business was at the back of my mind since 1989 when I first worked at Robert Mondavi. A winery requires years of planning and saving. It also requires patience, a tremendous amount of work, and determination because you might have to wait for a couple of years before you start turning in a profit. Building a brand is difficult in any industry, but in the wine business, it’s even more so because of lots of competition, and many wineries have been around for a few hundred years. I finally started the business plan in 2006 and in 2007 we made our first vintage.”
The wines that Patel Winery started out with were Cabernet Sauvignon (CS) wine and added red wine in 2008; In 2013 they added Malbec, Coombsville, and Rutherford CS. Raj’s goal though is to produce Bordeaux-style red wine and finally, own a winery of his own in the future.
Napa Valley Nuances
What is the business model then and how does Raj actually produce the wines? He explains, “We are currently using a custom crush facility to produce our wine. We use only handpicked, hand-sorted grapes from premiere Napa Valley vineyards. Winemakers believe that wine is made in the vineyard—in other words, it takes great grapes to create great wine. Our mission statement is ‘to produce the finest Bordeaux-style red wine from Napa Valley.’ My intent is to create unique wines with a strong personality that reflect the uniqueness of each vineyard and sub-applications of Napa Valley.” His personal favourites though are wines from Napa Valley, Bordeaux, France, Piedmont, Italy, and Champagne, in France.
Pairing Indian food with Wine
Global liquor giants are now tweaking their alcohol brands to suit Indian cuisine, some even blending them differently or creating exotic cocktails with Indian spices and other ingredients, and offering them at curated meals with dishes specifically paired to suit the drink. Do Raj’s wines follow this trend? He says, “We make wine for those who love wine and all kinds of food, and we let our clients decide what they enjoy a bottle of our wine with. In the US, many are moving away from spirits and beer to wine. Drinking wine is fashionable in the Indian community all over the world. Here, over 50 percent of my customers are of Indian origin. In today’s global market, it’s too difficult to set a broad agenda to match food and wine, that is an old concept. The new school of thought is more open to the type of foods and wine pairing. The wine critics might have a different viewpoint, but from a winery owner’s point of view, we need to trust consumers and let them figure it out.”
Hence, Raj prefers to stick to the traditional while reiterating that Indians, even those in the US, are now drinking wine and not just beer and whisky, and pairing it effortlessly with Indian food. He believes that his wines are best paired with Indian curries and dishes that are bland to medium-spicy. “Because we have people from so many diverse cultures who drink our wines, it’s hard to stay one dish works better than another. Having said that, I would not pair very hot and spicy foods with our red wines, medium-spicy works best. Our white wine can be paired with much spicier foods.”
What then is the business model followed for the production of wine since he doesn’t grow the grapes himself? “Due to the nature of grape production, considerable produce can be obtained on a limited amount of land. Depending on the variety produced, for many new farmers, especially in areas where land is quite expensive, leasing land is often the best option. We lease the bulk of their land for crop production, allowing them the flexibility to adjust to our growth target.”
Process of Winemaking
The techniques followed also stick to the traditional. “We utilise neo-classic winemaking techniques; we are not a style that is driven by or follows the latest fad in winemaking. Our goal is to capture the uniqueness of the growing site for each vineyard and give each wine its personality. This approach to winemaking is pure and unadulterated; therefore, the wines will typically be very dark in colour, complex and aromatic; most of the characteristics that determine a wine’s style. We also age our wine in 100 percent new French oak barrels and one year in a bottle before release.”
Raj’s company has a limited production – 1000 cases a year. He says, “Low yields are common and each vine is cared for individually by the vineyard owners. Because of the intense demand for great vineyard fruit in Napa Valley, we are only able to produce a limited amount of wine each year. There are 12 (750ml) bottles in one case, (that is 9 liters per case, this is universal in the wine world). Our goal is to grow the winery to about 2,500 to 3,000 cases in the next 10 years. We are limited by a small supply of fine quality grapes, and what mother nature gives each year, hence our production is limited.”
The wines are certainly from the premium range. Starting at USD 60 and going up to USD 170, Patel wines are aimed at HNIs and connoisseurs who don’t mind spending as much for a bottle. About 60-70 percent of each vintage is sold directly to consumers from the website. “We ship to 40+ states in the USA and six other countries. The remainder is sold to wholesalers who then sell to fine shops and fine dining restaurants all over the USA,” says the Global Indian.
When asked about his Cabernet Sauvignon that had been served at the White House, he said, “We are honoured to have our wine featured at Prime Minister Modi’s White House State Dinner. Julien Fayard, our winemaker, does an amazing job! At the end of the day, even though I am Indian, I grew up in the US, and when the White House serves wine, it’s representing America and the best that we can offer.”