By Ruma Singh
Barely had the silverware been washed and dried after the state dinner hosted by US President Joe Biden for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House in June than the internet began buzzing. #Patelwine—the red wine served at the White House on the occasion—started trending. Created by Napa-based entrepreneur Raj Patel, the wine was a $75 (around Rs. 6,150) Cabernet-dominated, small-batch blend that was served with a specially curated vegetarian-focused meal. Other wines offered to the guests included a Chardonnay from Virginia and a traditional method sparkling rosé from California.
Social media was quick to pounce on the fact that a wine by an Indian-origin producer—from Gujarat, no less—was on the menu. But for seasoned Napa wine collectors, Patel’s name was not a random pick; his winery had been on collectors’ lists for a few years. In fact, I had heard about Patel eight years ago. So, during my recent trip to Napa, I thought I should meet Raj Patel, the man whose wine had captured the attention of Indians around the world.
Patel obliged by meeting us at the tasting room-cum-warehouse belonging to his winemaker, Julien Fayard, in downtown Napa. Fayard, a French native whose impressive résumé includes Bordeaux’s Château Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, is known for adding French finesse to his wines. While we sipped and swirled the wines Patel uncorked for us, he told Lounge his story and his plans.
Act 1: the Mondavi influence
Patel admits he had little passion for wine in his early career. “My father drank whisky and beer back home in India. We had no exposure to wine at all," says Patel, who moved to the US with his family at the age of six, in 1972. “The wines I first drank were a white Zinfandel and a blended Pinot Noir."
But Patel, a biochemical engineer, studied at the University of California, Davis, a school famous for oenological studies, and was surrounded by wine professionals and oenology students. So, it seemed natural that while looking for a summer job while at university, he landed one at a wine producer. The wine producer in question was none other than Robert Mondavi, then one of Napa’s most influential winemakers.
At the Mondavi winery in the summer of 1989, Patel began analysing wine samples as a lab technician. On Saturdays, Mondavi’s son, Tim, would taste barrel samples and Patel got the opportunity to taste with him. “I had no clue about wine but Tim told me, ‘Raj, you have a good palate….’ It did briefly cross my mind at that time that I should buy my own winery and I said as much to Bob (Robert Mondavi) but I was thinking of it more as a potential business opportunity rather than a passion," he says frankly.
Patel’s career veered towards the finance stream. Several years later, he happened to be present when Michael, Mondavi’s elder son, made a presentation at a private bank. At the black-tie dinner that followed, Patel met Robert Mondavi again. “Bob was larger than life, at the pinnacle of his fame, but he remembered me," recalls Patel. “He said, ‘I remember you—you are the first Indian to work in Napa. So, did you start that winery you were thinking of then?’"
And thereby hangs a tale.
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Act 2: the ‘second job’
It was in the mid-2000s that Patel took to the wine trail again, using a custom crush facility and producing his first vintage in 2007—just 100 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon. On release, influential wine critic Robert Parker rated it an impressive 95 points out of 100. And so started Patel’s “second job" in wine—his day job remained in the finance field, as wealth adviser to high net worth individuals.
It is said wine has a way of drawing you in, and Patel was no different. Over 16 years, Patel’s production has grown from 100 to 1,200 (12-bottle) cases annually, sold exclusively through the “club membership" allocation system Napa is known for. Essentially, you sign up for membership with wineries if it is open, and are then treated as a preferred client. Patel, in fact, sells 70% of each vintage directly to consumers via his website. He ships to over 40 states in the US and exports to six countries on specific allocation.
He owns no vineyards but, along with Fayard, has exclusive rights to individual parcels within specific vineyards. In Napa, where restrictions on land use are mandated and commercial developments frowned upon, many wineries follow the practice of leasing or connecting with specific vineyards for their fruit.
Act 3: the road to the White House
So, did his Indian antecedents pave his way to the White House? Perhaps, though Patel reveals it was a serendipitous meeting with a man with whom he shared a chance Uber ride some years ago that eventually resulted in his connection to the powers-that-be at the White House.
One morning several months ago, his phone rang at 6am; the caller ID said it was the White House. A prank, he thought. It was not. The White House finally reached him, and, within a short time, he was being asked to send samples of his wine to the admin team. “It was to be a state dinner for the Indian Prime Minister, with 400 guests attending, but I was not allowed to talk about it until the official PR release was out," he recalls. But the Indian media got wind of it; soon, his phone was ringing non-stop. “It had become public knowledge in India even before the official announcement!"
About eight cases of his PATEL Red Blend 2019 ($75) were consumed at the dinner. A Merlot-dominant red blend that sees 22 months in new French oak, the wine is juicy, balanced and approachable. The vintage was awarded 93 points by critic Antonio Galloni.
But wine industry pros will tell you how unpredictable the business can be. By 2010, Patel was making nearly 800 cases of wine. 2011 was a rain-hit year, followed by a bumper crop in 2012, where he harvested 40% more fruit. “I needed to buy more barrels very quickly," he says. In 2018, 2019, 2021, production hit 2,000 cases. “This year (2023) is a lot more like 2010, good fruit from a long growing season."
However, he recognises the fallout of climate change. It has been noticeably hotter, and, if this trend continues, ripening would accelerate, with negative impacts. “My 2007 harvest started on 1 October but these days harvest might start any time from September to November. Climate change is really affecting the wine world. We should remember that, however well we make our wine, Nature has the final say," he adds.
In Napa, I tasted some exemplary Cabernet Francs—the grape seems to be Napa’s next big thing. Patel confirms that a vintage of 100% Cabernet Franc from the Coombsville AVA (or American Viticultural Area, designated wine grape-growing regions), produced in 2014 and 2015 and sold out immediately, is also on the cards. Another client favourite is the PATEL Napa Valley Malbec from Atlas Peak, produced when the quality of the fruit is “up to standards". It was produced through 2013-16, with a hiatus from 2017-20 due to wildfires.
Patel’s barrel-fermented Napa Sauvignon Blanc is whole cluster pressed and aged on lees in French oak, giving the wine a textural complexity, which makes it excellent value at $60. Peach, pineapple and a hint of guava lend a tropical feel, the fruit comes from vineyards in Napa’s premium Rutherford AVA. “I use the same clone that is used by Chateau d’Yquem for their Ygrec dry white wine and vinify it the same way," says Patel.
The White House wine, the Napa red blend, is a combination of Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon, approachable with smooth tannins, and considered a steal by Napa standards at $75. He now has three Cabernets in his portfolio, the top of the line one—his Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the cool climate Coombsville AVA—being $170 a bottle. “We don’t just source the fruit, it comes from a specific block and a specific clone—the Bordeaux 337 clone, which gives the wine its powerful structure." Fermented in steel and aged in new French oak for 19 months with minimal racking, it wears its 15.2% ABV lightly and displays considerable depth of flavour and structure.
He is adamant, though, that he wants to limit production. “If you go beyond making 5,000 cases, you may as well make 25,000 cases—and that puts you into the value wine range. Maintaining quality then becomes a challenge."
On the day we met, Patel was excited: he was on the cusp of a major career change—moving out of his “day job" to start a private equity fund with a group of investors that would focus on buying vineyards—this would give him first pick of the best sites or parcels. For Raj Patel, the time is right.
Ruma Singh is a Bengaluru-based wine and travel writer.
- FIRST PUBLISHED17.09.2023 | 06:00 AM IST