By Devika Koppikar
After Sudha Patil and Pandit Patil retired from their jobs, (endodontist and mechanical engineer respectively) they started a new career – as vineyard owners. Originally from Maharashtra in India, the Patils opened the Narmada Winery in 2009 and named it after Pandit’s mother.
“Pandit’s mother had to sacrifice so much and sold her jewelry for Pandit to come to this country. Without her, we wouldn’t have all we have today,” said Sudha, who came to the United States in 1968.
The winery’s signature wine is named “Mom,” a dry wine with notes of pineapple and passion fruit. “It’s dedicated to all moms, for selflessly sacrificing to provide for their children,” said Sudha, who is Narmada’s winemaker and still works two days a week as an endodontist (root canal specialist).
In addition to honoring moms, the winery’s theme slogan is “Experience India. Taste Virginia.” The winery, located in Amissville, Virginia, feature Indian food pairings with its wines.
“A lot of people don’t realize that Indian food pairs nicely with wines,” said Sudha. Sudha recommends samosas, chicken tikka masala or bhindi with the winery’s white, red and dessert wines. “There’s a generality that you have to have sweeter wines with Indian fare, but that’s not the case. Many of our visitors are quite daring and are combining a wine like the Cabernet Franc with butter chicken.”
Often, Asians Americans are surprised as well as inspired that a retired couple decided to open a winery, Sudha noted.
“People tell us we are living their dream,” said Sudha, “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it”
AF: What did you do before entering the winery business?
Sudha: I worked (and still work part-time) as an endodontist, which is a root canal specialist. Padit worked as a mechanical engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy. We came to this country in the 1960’s. I got my undergraduate and graduate training here in the United States. Pandit got his PhD at Carnegie Melon in Pittsburgh.
AF: How did you get interested in wines?
Sudha: We were young when we came here, so we essentially “grew up” here. We loved to travel all over the world and wherever we went, we would visit wineries. We loved to drink wines from all over the world.
As we neared retirement, we thought that planting and seeing something grow would be a great vocation. So we looked into buying a vineyard and purchased 51 acres here in Rappahannock County. We bought this land following our 30th anniversary.
AF: Were your families in this business in India?
Sudha: Our grandparents were farmers, growing wheat and other produce, but the wine business was new to us.
AF: How did you actualize your ideas into your business?
Sudha: After we bought the land, we would go there on weekends (we previously lived in McLean) to prepare it for planning. In 2003, we planted our first vines. By 2006, we sold our grapes. But, we had little return for our investment. So, in 2009, we decided to open our boutique winery.
AF: What was the South Asian American community’s response to your business?
Sudha: They were very supportive of us. Some people did ask if we were afraid of our Indian background clashing with rural Virginia. But I said, “Why should I be afraid? This is who I am. [Our heritage] is something for them [non-Asians] to learn.”
AF: What were some challenges to starting your business? What did you have to learn?
Sudha: Financing a winery is not easy. We invested about 80 percent of our own resources. But we were fortunate in also receiving matching grants from the Virginia Department of Agriculture. Since my husband had worked as “bureaucrat” with the federal government, he was good at filling out the paperwork for the grants.
In addition to the finance, we had to learn the business. We hired Tom Payette, a winemaking consultant, to teach us how to harvest grapes and make wines. I hold a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, so soon I realized that making wines was like being in a chemistry lab. In making wines, as in chemistry classes, you apply your knowledge on how chemicals react to each other, how to balance the acidity, pH and fermentation.
AF: What’s a typical day like for you?
Sudha: On the days I don’t go into Culpepper for my endodontist duties; I get up at 6 a.m. in the morning and read through my e-mails. Then, I go into the vineyards and check the leaves and grapes to determine whether they need spraying. In the afternoon, I meet with staff regarding our marketing strategies and business goals, which can go until 6 p.m. or so.
During harvesting time, which is the late summer, I still get up at 6 a.m. and work with the grapes: washing, sorting, and processing them in the machinery. This continues up to 2 p.m. or sometimes, until 2 a.m.
On weekends, when our wineries are open to the public, we often go and speak to visitors.
AF: So, since you still work in the dental field, how do you balance that with running your winery? How long do you plan on doing both?
Sudha: I’ve learned to balance both businesses and schedule myself tightly. We’re fortunate to have a lot of volunteers at our winery who come and help out.
Regarding retirement, my husband is already retired from the federal government. I plan to retire from endodontics within a year. Our daughter and son-in-law also help with the winery.
AF: Where do you hope to take your winery business?
Sudha: We want to make Narmada and Virginia wines more popular. We want to show the community that it’s not just in California where you can get fine, high-quality wines. We also hope to break our wines into the Indian restaurant business.
AF: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your business?
Sudha: We wish to thank the community for their support. We’re also proud to announce that Narmada recently received two gold medals at the San Francisco International Wine Competition 2013. This is the largest international wine competition in America.
Narmada offers tours of its winery along with a tasting room. For more information, visit http://www.narmadawinery.com/ or call 540-937-8215.