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Avtar Singh Sandhu : First Indian Winegrower Of USA

It makes sense that a friendly person like Avtar Singh Sandhu would fit right in the wine community at Sonoma Valley where the people are known to be unpretentious and the passion for wine genuine.  Rishi Vohra met up with Sandhu and learned of his unprecedented wine journey over three decades and how one of his favourite sayings "farming is in my blood" effectively translates into the superior wine grapes produced by Sandhu Vineyards.

Avtar Singh Sandhu's first tryst with wine happened in 1962 in Berkeley, California where he had arrived for higher studies to pursue a Masters degree in Structural Engineering at the prestigious UC Berkeley.  Little did this freshly graduated civil engineer from Punjab University know that the first sip would change his life forever and start him off on an enjoyable journey which continues till the present day. 

Upon graduation, this Honors student was flooded with several job offers but accepted Bechtel's assignment to open a new division in India called Engineering India Ltd.  In 1967, the company posted him back to California where, upon the invitation of the Ambassador of U.S. in India, he joined a company called Frontier Element Analysis for which he designed seven nuclear containment centers in India.  His job assignments kept him jet-setting between both countries but his wine education remained ongoing and turned into a passion to the point that in 1978 he invested most of his savings in a vineyard in Sonoma Valley. 

Purchasing this vineyard was a feat of sorts as the Sonoma County Grapegrowers Association was a closely knit community and the property was being eyed for years by many winemakers in the area, including John Pedroncelli of the well-established neighbouring Pedroncelli Winery.  Like all other winemakers in the region, Pedroncelli was curious as to how an outsider managed to procure the sought after vineyard and even asked Sandhu good-naturedly if he had any experience in viticulture.  Sandhu remembers his reply to date; "No, but I know agriculture!"  At this point, Sandhu was well-versed in wines but still unacquainted with winegrowing.  Being a Jat Sikh to whom farming came naturally, Sandhu says, "For generations, our family simply planted something and made it grow.  It was common sense." 

Sandhu immediately set his growing practices in place, learning as he went along.  On being asked  whether he met with resistance owing to competition from other winegrowers in the area, Sandhu replies, "Everyone was very helpful.  Everyone in the community felt that more people doing business would enable the business in the valley to flourish."  However, he admits that being a sole Indian amongst a predominantly American community gave him an added responsibility.  "Being an Indian, I needed to be more appropriate.  That brings out the respect for the country.  I stood out because of my ability to communicate in perfect English, better than most Americans."  This led other winegrowers to take notice of him as he always left a positive first impression on everyone in the community he crossed paths with.

Over the years, Sandhu employed environmentally friendly growing practices and proceeded to produce and sell grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc) to winemakers (including Ferrari-Carano, one of Sonoma's well known premier wineries). But it was only in 1983 that he brought out his own wine label, Chateau Mushal, named after his village in Punjab.  The wine was well received locally and ensured added revenues for Sandhu Vineyards. 

In 1984, Bechtel again assigned Sandhu to India, where he promoted his wine alongside his work responsibilities.  But in the 1980's, wine was a new concept in India where the drinking habits were more geared towards gin, beer, and whiskey – those left behind by the British.  Keeping this in mind, Sandhu positioned wine as a step towards a healthy lifestyle and a unique experience.  Says Sandhu, "Every wine has a history behind it, and it's not just about drinking and supplementing one's food.  Every sip takes one through a journey of taste."

Over the years, wine gained recognition in India and an increase in the acceptance of California wines led Sandhu to export his label to India in 2005.  Due to his extensive efforts and effective marketing, Chateau Mushal is now sold at Hotel Imperial in Delhi, Taj Hotels, wine shops in Delhi and even Punjab, where the brand has gained recognition to the point that people ask for it. 

In California, Sandhu remained active in the wine community and championed many causes.  Noticeably among them was the everyday crisis of wine grapes being feasted on by wild turkey. In order to obliterate this menace, Sandhu applied for a permit from The Fish and Gaming Association, the approval of which would enable these wild birds to be shot at, purely as a corrective measure and not to be killed.  His application was denied as turkeys were not on the Association's list of pests.

Undeterred, Sandhu proceeded to the State Capital, Sacramento, and took up the issue with various committees.  The biggest opposition came from the National Wild Turkey Federation, an influential hunter group, which refused to believe that turkeys ate grapes. Eventually, many meetings later, the bill was passed in 2006 and Sandhu became widely recognized and gained further respect in the wine community. 

In the present day, the evergreen and elegant Avtar Singh Sandhu may be retired from his job, but not from life.  He still juggles his various businesses between two countries which apart from his vineyard includes Ark Hospital at Gurgaon, consulting for engineering design, the management of his various properties, and above all, his foremost passion - wine.  On asked as to where he is based, he immediately replies in his usual good humor, "In an airplane!"

Rishi Vohra is a filmmaker and writer who occasionally contributes articles to the Times of India and The Hindu, besides delWine. He has written his first novel and is awaiting its publication. He is working on his MBA degree in Sustainable Business at San Francisco State University. Vohra lives in Berkeley and often visits Napa and Sonoma Valley wineries. Rishi may be contacted at rishi7777@gmail.com

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