With COVID-19 showing no signs of easing down, it does bring forth the question of how the music festival scene in India is going to be affected. Not many have come forward with their plan, but SulaFest do not intend to keep their fans waiting for answers. We got the opportunity to interview Chaitanya Rathi, the Chief Operating Officer at Sula Vineyards and he had a lot to share with us about the coming few months.

It’s nearly festival season, and SulaFest is a big part of the Indian festival scene. Do you think the pandemic situation will ease by then?

Firstly, it is impossible to give a prediction on how the COVID-19 situation will pan out. The pandemic started in March and we thought it would take 1-2 months for everything to go back to normal. But it’s August and we are the 3rd largest country in terms of the number of cases. We are also the fastest growing country with regard to active cases. Looking back, it was a good decision to have the lockdown in the beginning. If it weren’t for the lockdown, the situation would have been out of control keeping in mind the sheer population and density of India. These were the very reasons we decided to put a hold on the next edition of SulaFest.

Why did you take the decision to cancel the festival instead of waiting the situation out?

Considering it’s only August, some might say this is a premature decision. But we don’t want to give our fans false hopes and play with their safety by pushing them to take a decision they aren’t comfortable taking. Additionally, for us, the foreign artists are the biggest attraction. However, at this point, there is no clarity on whether countries will open their borders or if India will allow artists to come in. Last September we had already signed 50percent of our artists, especially the foreign artists who needed visas and wanted to come down to India and spend time. Given all the logistical challenges and planning that was required, we took a decision that it is in the best interest of the artists, our guests, and our own employees that we take a break and come back stronger next year. For festivals that focus on Indian artists alone, they can wait it out and take a decision later. But we had to decide quickly so that we are not in a situation where we did all the work and had to stop in between.

So, safety comes first, right?

It’s not only about the safety of the festival attendees but also our own employees. As the festival takes place in the vineyards itself, we have to think about our employees. There are hundreds who help us with the preparation and we manage a lot with our own employees. So, keeping their safety in mind, and of our festival attendees, we have taken this decision.

What are plans for Sula in place of the SulaFest? What can the Sula audience look forward to?

Our vineyards are going to be open soon. In fact, our resorts are already operating at 30% occupancy as per government directives. Just before pandemic, we opened up 20 more rooms. So, guests have been coming in, especially those who enjoy the drive from Mumbai. In due course of time, our tasting rooms and restaurants will also open up. We’ll make sure all safety procedures for guests and staff is taken care of. Just as every year, we will have a lot of activities that our guests can look forward to like grape stomping, wine tasting, etc. Of course this will all take place in smaller groups. We will also collaborate with wine tasters and influencers to increase engagement. We’re just taking a backseat when it comes to hosting events.

Anything special is store for Sula’s 20th year?

We are planning a small and intimate party for stakeholders to celebrate our 20th year since inception. These are people who have supported us through our journey. It will not be something that is open to the public. However, our well-wishers can pop open a bottle of Sula in their home and join us in our celebration.

Will the festival scene be the same after the virus in terms of scale and capacity? How long before things can go back to being normal?

This year is going to be washout, whether people like it or not. Overall, for the  hospitality industry, this year is a washout. Next year, the bounce back will be equally swift. Socialising is an inherent part of human existence and events form a part of socialising. Just as people who are used to travelling often are hungry for their next trip, festival lovers cannot wait for the next gig. The minute they feel safe and secure, they will want to go out and attend events. The pandemic is just a temporary roadblock. It will take a couple of years to form the ‘new’ normal, but the comeback will be equally strong.

Artists have been playing sets or releasing sets online for the audience. Ever wondered if SulaFest can go digital?

Honestly if you ask me, it is not something we are keen on. The entire charm of SulaFest is being in the vineyards with wine all around you. For us, it’s not just about the music but the whole experience – grape stomping, vineyard tour, wine education classes; it’s the whole package. For individual artists it makes sense to have a digital show, but for Sula this is more than a music festival. It is a reason for people to come together and form connections. Diluting that experience is far worse than delaying it. We were also thinking of restricting the festival to 500 attendees and getting a couple of Indian artists to come on board for just a day. But that did not make sense. So, we’re giving it a breather this edition.  

Now moving on to a lighter topic; which are your top 3 favourite Sula Wines?

Well, we recently launched a new classy label called The Source Grenache Rose. So that is definitely one of my favourites. I also love Sauvignon Blanc. Personally, I’m not much of a red wine drinker, but the Rasa Zinfandel, which is made from Californian grape, goes really well with Indian food. The Brut Tropicale is my go-to sparkling wine when I am celebrating. They’re all fantastic, but since you asked me to name three, I added in a fourth.

SulaFest fans are going to miss the festival. Anything exciting you would like to share with them?

The Festival is taking a break but not the product or the company. We are open and working hard to improve our wine. Those who are really missing the festival, just open a bottle of Sula and playback videos from the past year. As soon as it is safe to put together the Fest, we will be back bigger and better!