Sporting Spirit : Uma Chigurupati and C.Krishna Prasad

C. Krishna Prasad, Chairman and Managing Director, Granules India Ltd, and his wife Uma Chigurupati, who is also a Director on the board of the Rs 1,200-crore pharmaceuticals manufacturing company in Hyderabad, do everything together. They run marathons around the globe, raise their son and twin daughters, and nurture their new baby, KRSMA Wines. Corporate Citizen finds what makes them – and their wines – sparkle

Manufacturing pharmaceuticals. Growing grapes and creating an exclusive range of wines. Running marathons around the world and making it to the Guinness Book of World record. C Krishna Prasad and Uma Chigurupati have been there, done that!

Krishna Prasad’s father, a doctor himself, wanted the boy to study medicine too. He didn’t – but what he does comes close: he runs a thriving pharmaceuticals company that manufactures the ingredients that go intomedicines of all types. “Right from my childhood, I always had a fascination for doing something different,” he grins. “So after finishing my B.Sc, I left home in Guntur, moved to Madras and started a business.” It flopped.But young Krishna was unfazed – and set up something else. Over the next eight years, he ran a number of businesses, some of which succeeded while others failed.

Eventually, he returned to his home state and founded Granules India Ltd in Hyderabad. Here, too, he stuck to his philosophy of ‘doing something different’. At a time when most other Indian pharma companies were manufacturing bulk drugs, he got into pharmaceutical formulation intermediates (PFIs). This did well – and having set it squarely on its path to the `1,200 crore-plus company that it is today, the restless rebel started looking for something else to do differently. What? Why not wine? He didn’t think of it, but the medicinal properties of wine too are legend.

That was not as random a thought as it seems. Growing up in Guntur, Krishna had seen the British and other European tobacco planters havinga drink every evening. That was usually Scotch whiskey, but a visit to the local Bishop yielded an offer of a glass of wine. The then 17-year-old tried it, and was hooked. He decided that he would make this elixir, and he would make it differently - and better!

The bachelor boy had a two-bedroom flat. He was using one bedroom, but the other one was unoccupied – so that would be his winery. It was easy enough to buy the apparatus of glass demi-johns – but how to get them bubbling to make wine? He got some yeast on a visit abroad for Granules India, and began fermenting grapes in acid bottles. He liked the wine he produced, and moved on to sparkling wine – but what would he put it in?

“I went to a five-star hotel, sat in the restaurant and ordered a bottle of champagne,” he recalls. “After I’d finished it, I asked the head waiter if I could take away the empty bottle.” That dignified man must surely have thought that his customer was crazy – but he didn’t demur. Krishna carried his trophy home. On his next business trip to the UK, he bought a cork sealer. In 1981, he bottled his first wine – and was on the road to a new business.

Around that time, Krishna’s father – who was a member of the Nagarjuna University Syndicate - met a young lady at the university convocation, when she was being awarded a gold medal, and he thought she would be the perfect bride for his son. So he approached Uma’s parents with the proposal. “It was all very traditional and of course, we met - and decided to get married,” she says.

It was after the wedding, when Uma Chigurupati moved into the flat, that she got her big shock when she saw the state of the spare bedroom. Her new husband, who she knew was chairman and managing director of Granules India, was operating a winery at home! But after that first shock, Uma decided that she would help in her husband’s hobby. For wine was still a hobby, not a business. She was a great help in the pharma company, too, and became a Director. Between them, they have led the company forward to achieve phenomenal success, with a presence in over 60 countries today.

In 1984, they had their first child: a son, whom they named Harsha; five years later came twin daughters, Pragnya and Priyanka. While Harsha and Priyanka work at Granules India, Pragnya has fulfilled her grandfather’s vision for her father and become a doctor

They went on to participate in some of the toughest marathons on the planet - through the grasslands of Kenya with wild animals on both sides, in the searing heat of the Gobi desert and the Australian outback at Ayers Rock – and earned themselves an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2010 when they ran marathons across all 7 continents – including Antarctica through freezing winds and in the North Pole at -34 degrees Celsius

Between Granules India and the wine-making, the couple travelled – all over the world. Everywhere they went, they visited wineries, meeting oenologists and viticulturists, and bought different, newer wines. They also amassed an amazing collection of wines which they thought tasted good. But because they couldn’t bring all those excellent wines back to India, they built and stocked a huge cellar in the USA. With every sip, they began noticing the finer nuances more and more: the different colours, aromas and tastes took on new meaning, and they began understanding the delicate differences in wines from different regions. All this led to them developing their own unique palate, which helped them in their oenophilic venture. As this happened, their desire to make world-class wine themselves grew stronger.

At one point of time, they seriously considered buying a vineyard in the South of France and resettling there. A pharma customer in Italy had set up small vineyard, and Krishna offered to buy a 50-per-cent stake in it. “I was prepared to pay any cost!” he says. “But he said he couldn’t sell, because he himself was planning to retire and take up wine-making as a full-time occupation.” Back home, they visited India’s famed ‘wine capital’, Nashik in Maharashtra. “But we didn’t feel that it was the right place,” Krishna says. “We also didn’t find any of the other places we went to in India suitable, including Himachal Pradesh.”

Finally, he heard of a farmer in Hampi, Karnataka, who had failed in his attempt to grow wine grapes, and was ripping up his vines because he was in financial difficulties with his bank foreclosing on his loans. He travelled from Hyderabad to meet him. “I liked the soil,” he says. So did Uma, who is a qualified soil microbiologist and plant pathologist. Krishna made an offer for the farm on the spot, cleared the bank dues and took over the 12-hectare property. In 2007, husband and wife replanted the first four hectares of their new vinery.

In between running the pharma company, the wine-making and raising their three children, Krishna and Uma also found time to discover another shared passion - for running. It began with a 10-km race in 2003, to inspire their people in Granules India to live a healthy lifestyle. “The experience was exhilarating,” Uma says. “We started running half marathons, then full marathons.” And then, they went on to participate in some of the toughest marathons on the planet - through the grasslands of Kenya with wild animals on both sides, in the searing heat of the Gobi desert and the Australian outback at Ayers Rock – and earned themselves an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2010 when they ran marathons across all seven continents – including Antarctica through freezing winds and in the North Pole at minus 34 degrees Celsius. But of all their runs, the one that stands out vividly in their memories is one that brings their two diverse passions together: the Medoc Marathon, which passes over scenic vineyards of Bordeaux and through fabled chateaux that produce some of the best wine the world.

Back to the wine: Krishna and Uma launched their own wine in the market, merging their names to create the brand KRSMA. There are no recipes to make this wine, they explain - each vintage is different from the next, because the grapes make the difference. The Chigurupatis believe in letting the grapes narrate their story through the wine. Not surprisingly, the four varietals they have created, and plan to stick to, have all won awards. The Chardonnay of 2013, Cabernet Sauvignon of 2012 and Sauvignon Blanc of 2013 bagged the double gold, gold and silver medals respectively, at the China Wine and Spirit Awards 2013; the Sauvignon Blanc of 2012 got the bronze at the New Zealand International Wine Show 2012; and the Chardonnay was commended at the recent International Wine Challenge 2014.

The Chigurupatis believe in letting the grapes narrate their story through the wine. Not surprisingly, the 4 varietals they have created, all won awards

Krishna, true to his established belief in not treading any beaten path, used technology that was radically different from the traditional ones. Having physics for his B.Sc, he had no experience in chemistry. “That was an advantage!” he grins. “I didn’t have anything to unlearn.” The wine venture got into trouble, and he almost went bankrupt; but his technology gradually started proving itself and picking up pace.

But neither of them is doing this for the money. “That will always come,” Krishna says. “Both of us just love good wine!” Uma, who first developed an interest in viticulture and then in tasting, has over the years developed a discerning palate. There is a market for good wines in India, Krishna says; he believes firmly that with more and more Indians understanding the difference between what is generally available and what they could be savouring, there is a ‘need’ for premium wines here.

According to a Technopak report, the overall Indian wine market can be estimated at 9.75 lakh cases or Rs 175 crore at wholesale price. Though low penetration has resulted in low per capita consumption, the market is steadily growing at a CAGR of 20-25%. India’s wine consumption has increased drastically and it constitutes 45% of sales of alcohol in India. Domestic and imported markets account for 70% and 30% respectively. While imported wines have traditionally managed to attract customers, a slew of Indian winemakers and national brands are catching up. Karnataka grows over 330,000 tonnes of grapes and has over 17 wineries which produce 3.5 million litres of wine annually. The state comes second in the list of wine producers.

Uma, who is a late ‘convert’ to the pleasures of wine, has now become more attached to the farm than her husband who started it all. “I go as often as I can, and spend 15 days in Hampi every season. But Uma is there for 45 days – she drives six hours every weekend to go there and taste the grapes on every row of vines to make sure they taste just right,” he says.

Neither time nor effort has been spared in creating the vinery: regulated deficit irrigation has been used to make up for the lack of rainfall and an organic-specific fertigation (fertiliser + irrigation) regime. In the firm belief that “the best fertiliser for the vineyard is the owners’ footsteps”, every step has their personal touch, from deciding the time of pruning the vines to harvesting the grapes – on New Year’s Day, finishing by 9 a.m so that the temperature does not rise too much as the sun goes up, and putting the wine into fine-grain French oak barrels for ageing. The bottles are imported from France, natural cork from the USA. The logo for the label was created by a specialist design house in Australia, with art that captures the rich heritage of the Vijayanagar Empire to reflect its Indianness. ”Mera joota hai Japani..”

The tiny vineyard is nestled amongst the rocky terrain in Hampi, 70 km from the World Heritage Site. “We took one look at it and fell in love,” Uma says. “There was something in the place that reflected our own personalities – passionate and pioneering. We had found the perfect place to realise our new vision.” Another pharma customer, who has a winery in Australia, came to his assistance, bringing with him the Chairman of the Australian Wine Research Institute, and arranged for a viticulture expert from that country to visit the farm. He checked it out, and said it was ‘great’.

The terroir of Hampi Hills is unique. Its rolling hills have iron-rich schist type soils, the weather is dry with minimal rainfall, and the nights are cool, especially during ripening. Add to it the rich history of the Vijayanagar Empire, and you have a region that provides endless opportunities. However, the terroir contributes only half the magic. It’s the personal touch that counts for more. The Chigurupatis use expertise from around the world, but the yeast is personally selected after trials on test ferments. All their wines are single varietals, made from only the best grapes from each harvest. As a result, only a limited number of bottles are produced, ensuring what comes out of the winery is always the best.

Krishna Prasad and Uma have invested close to Rs 7 crore in KRSMA over the years, most of it in establishing a world-class vineyard with an 80,000 litre high-end boutique winery. They have also been careful about other aspects of production including importing equipment and machinery. “We want to place Hampi Hills on the world map and gain recognition for India as a producer of high quality wines,” says Uma.

In February 2014, KRSMA Estates formally announced its entry into the Indian wine market, with the launch of its first range of its super-premium boutique wines - the Chardonnay 2013, Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Sangiovese 2012 and Sauvignon Blanc 2012, priced at between Rs 750 and Rs 1,500 per bottle. This was the first time KRMA was available on shelves, despite having crushed five harvests already. To maintain exclusivity, only 2,000 cases of the world-class wine was produced and made available in the Bangalore market initially, partnering with premium outlets to retail its first range before it was offered at restaurants and hotels across the city. Why Bangalore? Besides the fact that it is geographically convenient, it is the third biggest home of wine drinkers, after Delhi and Mumbai.

How has it been, balancing two businesses – of which one overlaps with a passion – and a second passion, running, with bringing up three children? Have the parents made their children follow in their own footsteps? “Right from their childhood, I was very particular about the children playing games. Even during their exams, I used to insist that they take a break and play for some time,” says Krishna. “Not only for physical health, but for mental alertness too, I consider that fitness is very important. They definitely give a lot of importance to being fit, and have done a few 10-km runs and half marathons too.”

Adds Uma: “I can’t say that running is a passion for them right now. Pragnya never misses the 10-km runs in Chennai as far as her schedule as a post-graduate surgery student permits. Priyanka was forced to slow down due to injuries. But I never insisted - our lifestyle must have influenced them to run with us.”

Both the parents believe in giving a lot of freedom to their three children in their thoughts and ideas, studies and careers. “Priyanka wanted to study fashion marketing after doing her undergrad in business studies. Later, she worked in that line for some time and then she herself came and joined in the marketing department of our pharma company. It is totally her decision. Even for Pragnya, pursuing surgery is her own decision, even though I suggested that after MBBS, she should go for higher studies in clinical studies,” Krishna says. “We are more of friends to our children than parents.”

Uma differs slightly: “I think that with the girls, we have a friendly relationship; but with Harsha it is always more like parent-child. I can’t say how it happened. He complains that we are a bit strict with him compared to the girls.”

The fact that the girls are identical twins has caused a lot of hilarious mix-ups among family, friends and others, though Uma thinks that there is no problem with their friends. “A few years back, my mother- in-law (their paternal grandma) told her husband, why do you get confused between them – look, Pragnyas face is shaped like this, her nose is like this, and so on. In fact, Priyanka was the one sitting next to her and Pragnya was not around!”

They also amassed an amazing collection of wines. But because they couldn’t bring all those excellent wines back to India, they built and stocked a huge cellar in the USA

But even though they are identical, Uma feels they are totally different individuals, growing like any other siblings growing together. “I must say that they think alike at certain times, but that is coincidence. Especially now, they are totally different in their thought processes, because of the different exposure and environment they have chosen and the careers they are in. Pragnya has been in the Medical school in Chennai for the past eight-and-a-half years, whereas Priyanka was in the USA for six-and-a-half years, including two years in New York studying fashion marketing.”

Yes, Krishna Prasad admits: managing a pharma company, a vineyard and winery and marathons are quite diverse and time-consuming, and also require a lot of travelling. “Granules keeps me busy with travelling. For my marathons and practising for them, I have to forgo an extra hour of sleep: instead of getting up at 5 a.m, I get up at four and practise when I am preparing for marathons.” But the plus point is that he is much more disciplined with his lifestyle after getting into this regime. Vineyards and wine making, even though they are time consuming, he considers more of a holiday than work, and getting involved in winemaking and studying more about wine and wine making are a relaxation and stress buster.

Adds Uma: “Family and marathons, and organising runs in Hyderabad make time management difficult. I felt the difficulty especially during the seven-continent runs we have done. Doing extreme marathons in one month on one continent, I felt exhausted. But during this time I learnt the importance of time management and prioritising things, and became more organised. I am totally fine now.”

“We are both quite adventurous and nature lovers right from childhood. In our respective families, we are both rebellious. We share quite a lot of things in common,” Uma says. “Being nature lovers, believing in having healthy lifestyles - which lead to marathons - passionate about wine making- because of all these activities we spend a lot of time together and we share a friendship that has grown stronger over the years, Krishna adds. When Krishna Prasad decided to leave home to do his own thing in life, he started a marathon race that he’s still running. And Uma is by his side in this, too. “If I take up anything, I give it 100 per cent,” she says. Neither of them is tiring, but continuing to find something new and exciting at every step.

By Sekhar Seshan