There’s a joke in the wine world: How do you make a small fortune? You take a large fortune and buy a winery.
But newly minted vintner Gajendra Singh Sareen, who released his first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon from his Napa Valley estate this year, has no intention of being the punchline.
“It has to make money because there are people involved in the business — winemaker, farmer, managers, salespeople all have to be rewarded with the spoils,” says the gregarious Singapore citizen, and the first to own a wine property in this lauded Californian wine region. “At high tide, all ships go up.”
Set atop a rocky knoll in Napa’s up-and-coming Coombsville sub-appellation, Rewa Vineyards (named for Sareen’s wife) is a beautiful spot. Half its 42 acres are planted with undulating vines; the rest is devoted to a house, swimming pool, and landscaped grounds peppered with gnarled 350-year-old oak trees. When he bought the property in 2012, Sareen — also CEO and founder of Singapore-headquartered tyre company Omni United — didn’t envisage it as a bucolic, executive-airport-accessible escape among the vines, but a place to make high-end, estate-grown wines for collectors of Napa Cabernet.
And he’s assembled a talented team to do just that. Celebrated viticulturist Mike Wolf, named Napa Valley Grower of the Year in 2015, is farming the vineyards. After experimenting with 2013 and 2014 fruit and discarding both productions because they weren’t up to snuff, Sareen hired rock-star winemaker Celia Welch — she makes Scarecrow for JJ Cohn, a bottling that regularly receives 100 points from esteemed critic Robert Parker — to craft Rewa’s 2015 vintage.
The result is a beautifully balanced wine, with robust acidity and structured tannins — hallmarks of age-worthiness — with aromas of fresh, red fruit, touches of vanilla and forest floor and juicy, purple berry flavours.
“I met a winemaker in Burgundy [who] told me that wine is just the expression of the soil. My thinking is that we should not manufacture wine but just go with it — every year the wine should logically taste different,” explains Sareen, a passionate wine collector whose preferences tend towards the elegant pinot noirs of Burgundy’s most lauded AOCs.
Of his collection of 8,000-or-so bottles scattered over his US, European and Bukit Timah properties and bonded warehousing, 200 are Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of the most sought-after Burgundian producers. (A single bottle of 2015 vintage costs around US$3,590; a 1978 Romanée-Conti Grand Cru will set you back US$27,000 at auction.) Sareen won’t reveal the most he’s ever spent on a bottle, simply stating he believes everybody should drink the best wine he can afford. He’s similarly coy about naming a favourite vintage, professing he has many if not all.
“But I tried the Richebourg 2005 a few days back and it was delicious,” he says.
Settled in comfy chairs by Rewa’s pool, me swaddled in a fluffy jacket against the cooling early evening, him dressed stylishly in khakis and sweater, we uncork a 2012 Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru from Burgundy’s Domaine Dujac. We talk about potential innovations in high-end wine, namely the potential in chip-facilitated tracking technologies. Sareen’s eyes light up as he considers the possibility of putting chips into wine labels so buyers can see exactly where their premium purchase has been in the decades since it was bottled.
“Provenance is very important. There’s nothing more disappointing than opening a 1966 Chateau Mouton Rothschild and the damn thing turns out to be vinegar,” he explains.
But Sareen is more reserved when talking about what he enjoys doing in his off-hours, concerned it’ll sound “show-offish”. He chooses his clothing and shoes for sturdiness and easy styling. He spent yesterday playing a round of golf at the Napa Valley Country Club (he’s a member there) and enjoying a meal at contemporary Japanese eatery Morimoto in downtown Napa. His other favourite haunts include La Toque for steaks, Angele for relaxed French dining, and The French Laundry for elevated Gallic fare, although he’s just as happy to sit outside at Ciccio in Yountville, famous for its strip of celebrated restaurants, with a slice of pizza.
“Sometimes you want to get 20 guys over here. Sometimes you just want to sit down, light a fire and grab a bottle of wine and chill,” he says, shrugging.
That said, it has to be a good bottle of wine, or a bottle of Grey Goose, which Sareen calls his “go-to” drink — something he says he’s as comfortable drinking as a US$15,000-Romanée-Conti.
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Such is Sareen’s affinity for Grey Goose, he often takes onto commercial flights because he prefers it to most of the wines being poured, especially at altitude. (He asks me not to name which eminent airline he flies. Its chairman is a neighbour.)
When he imported 48 bottles for his birthday party in Marrakech last year, his guests made a serious dent in the vodka pretty quickly, leaving 18 magnums of Cristal — Sareen’s favourite Champagne — in storage.
Like any self-respecting Champagne fan, I suggest I go and get it, only half-kidding, but I’m rebuffed. “I don’t want to be involved in this! Last thing I need is to get you out of a Moroccan jail,” Sareen jokes.
While business continues to take him all over the world — his tyre design, manufacture and distributor firm Omni United, which owns Radar, Patriot and American Tourer tyres, has operations on every continent — Sareen is spending extended trips developing operations in the US, one reason he chose to buy a vineyard in California and not in France.
The company’s impressive growth, from a first-year turnover of US$7 million in 2003 to an estimated US$350 million to US$400 million for 2018, has garnered attention. In 2016 and 2017, Omni United was acknowledged with a Singapore Enterprise 50 award, which recognises privately held companies that contribute to economic development in Singapore and abroad. Sareen’s individual accolades include the Distinguished Business Leader Award and DBS Insignia Spirit of Vision Prestige Award, and in 2012 he was named among Fortune magazine’s “Asia’s Hottest People in Business”.
And while the wine business might seem a far cry from tyres, it’s not Sareen’s most dramatic career shift. Prior to moving to Singapore from India in 1994, he was a captain in the Indian infantry, where he was decorated with a Sena Medal for gallantry before leaving the structured career path of the army after a family tragedy. (His Sikh upbringing informed the bottle labels of Rewa — Napa-based artist Michael McDermott drew on Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s sword to create ornately detailed black-and-silver motif for Rewa to depict grapevines, fruit and foliage.)
Since then, he’s gone with the flow. After deciding to turn his attention back to his professional life, he flipped a coin to choose whether to move to Dubai or Singapore. His move to buy property in Napa was similarly impulsive. Three weeks after mentioning he’d be interested in acquiring wine country property at a party, he was preparing the paperwork.
“Most of the things I’ve done in my life, I’ve done the right things for the wrong reasons!” he jokes. It seems to be a formula that works.
Rewa’s inaugural release of 220 cases is all but gone, sold to its mailing list, and compiled largely by private introductions and a limited selection of restaurants and distributors. You can find Rewa at Thomas Keller’s Napa flagship restaurant The French Laundry, which has earned three Michelin stars for 12 consecutive years, for US$650, plus tax and service. (Welch’s 2015 Scarecrow bottling is US$1,200.) The NapaGrill in Switzerland, run by a former collector, which offers top-shelf Napa cabs alongside grilled meats, is another outlet.
There’s a little room on the allocation list for more members for the release of Rewa’s first Sauvignon Blanc in October and the 2016 Cabernet next February, estimated to top out at 250 cases. Membership is waitlist-only.
Maybe he’ll buy another winery; maybe not. “Nothing in my life has been planned. You roll the dice, move with it, and keep going.”