Sumita Sarma interviews Namratha Prashanth

Sumita Sarma, wine writer and consultant and founder of Sumilier, celebrates achievements of women on International Women’s Day (8th March), through an informal interview with entrepreneur Namratha Prashanth.

SUMI : You have had an amazing journey across continents and careers, covering India to France. Give us a quick recap of your journey that led to the journey of Solicantus, your wine brand.

NAMRATHA:  ‘Soli’ refers to the product of soil. ‘Cantus’ means melody. Solicantus is the product of my persistence and grit. It is more than just a wine brand. This word has a deep meaning and is a reflection of my life story. A life from which I have found purpose and will to survive.

I was in my early 20s when I got married. Although I had a hospitality background, I was forced to give up my career and be a stay-at-home wife. As naïve as I was, I realised that by agreeing to do so, meant that I also surrendered my right to be a life partner of equal standing. Ten years on and after a number of ‘escape from home projects’ including learning French and German, I was thrilled to be offered a role in an IT company that monitors servers for the French Bank, Societe Generale. I was sent for a month’s training in Paris. This experience was invigorating, it was a small taster into the heights I could achieve with my dreams. I came back to India, with hopes to fulfil my professional aspirations. But within a year of working, my career dreams were thwarted. The resulting emotional and physical abuse led me to resign from my job. 2016 was the lowest point in my life but also the point where the desire for self-preservation left me with no choice but to walk away from my marriage.

From here on, I never looked back. I moved to France to pursue MBA in Wine Marketing in 2017. The battle of survival became real now. The last six years has been a tough, lonely road which also turned out to be filled with eye-opening opportunities. My life catapulted into a roller coaster of a ride that got me to realise my strengths and my potential. An amazing stint in Chateau Siran in Margaux that armoured me with professional skills, through to a nasty road accident, which I miraculously survived, were some of my highs and lows. These experiences added a new dimension to my personality. A sense of purpose dawned; something that made me realise that “it is now or never.” The plunge into entrepreneurship, as nerve racking as it was, has been my biggest achievement. I started my own company “Wine Equation” in France. Using my wine qualifications and business expertise, I have worked with artisanal producers across Bordeaux to start my own negociant brand “Solicantus”. The road to financial freedom and intellectual expression has been paved with hard rocks but I am who I am, because of these experiences.

SUMI: What is different in the wine industry in France 6 years ago and now.

NAMRATHA: The pandemic mightily impacted Wine business in France. Online sales, B to C became a mantra and took over restaurant sales due to closure of on-trade. The resulting changes have made working from home more relatable. Organising virtual business meetings have helped me to reach out to suppliers and merchants, without spending on air travels. This has benefitted niche businesses like mine where every cent of money spent impacts on my livelihood.

Photo Credits: Dennis Tappe Media

In terms of markets, the focus has shifted. When I did MBA from INSEEC in Bordeaux in 2018, I was the only Indian in the Wine & Spirits Program. Now India is the new market for the French wine industry considering sales to other countries have come down. Although import duties and customs make it very expensive, India is witnessing a growth of 20% year on year in consumption. China has reduced 40% of its imports. US and UK have also seen a decrease in consumption. There are also lot more choices of beverages in the market, so wine as a drink is definitely feeling the heat.

In terms of consumption too, low and zero alcohol wines are becoming common in the French wine business. Younger generation is drinking smarter and better quality wines.

In the vineyards all over France, there is now a big push towards cover crops to avoid soil erosion and keeping carbon back in the soil.

Further on, in the styles of wine, consumers are reaching out for less oaked styles. The Robert Parker effect is wearing off. These have been some of the major shifts in wine growing, production, sales and consumption over the last 6 years since I moved to France.

SUMI: What learnings have you incorporated from your personal challenges into your professional dreams?

NAMRATHA: I had to first apply for my business visa before I could apply for my daughter’s residence visa. When I moved to France in 2017, I had to leave her behind in India. The pandemic unfortunately put a hold to my plans. Reuniting with my daughter looked like it would never happen. After a lot of wait, I was finally able to get her a visa into France in 2020. This experience taught me that patience is a real virtue when faced with challenges. While things may seem impossible at first, one should not give up. The universe has its own way of making things work. We do the best we can and wait for results. The same applies even to business.

SUMI: How did Covid impact your business plans? Who were your role models during this time.

NAMRATHA: As much as Covid was devastating to humanity, I believe that it gave me time to reflect on my life and figure a way out forward. As I got ready with executing my business plans to distribute my wines in February 2020, I realised I had to put my plans on hold. It was heart breaking to realise that it will be a long time before the world would get back to business as usual…would it even be business as usual? I could not sell my wines. I was incurring costs and I had no revenues. I did have a brand but I could not show it to the world. As my business was nascent, I did not have past records to request for business aid from the Government either.

Neverthless, I was determined to make this business work. I started talking about my brand in social media and started reaching out to the wine trade. Journalists such as Tom Millen and Jane Anson took note and wrote about my wines. People who kept me inspired in this tough time are my sister, her partner Satya Kumar, Richard Bampfield MW, and my teacher Daniel Menacho.

SUMI: You have expanded your brand into Pomerol recently. Can you tell us about it?

NAMRATHA: I am very excited about the Pomerol range. It’s a limited edition, vintage 2019 - 300 bottles only – 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc. Elegant, balanced and aromatic with wonderful intensity and remarkable freshness. The fruit, tannins and acidity have come together very well. It will be available soon online on and with my select partners.

Photo Credits: Dennis Tappe Media

SUMI: If a niche wine brand needs to be successful, how would you define “success”

NAMRATHA: A brand is successful if you add a soul in the form of an authentic story, a purpose, an experience, and base it on love for people. Success means adding a soul that gives satisfaction of creating a ‘meaningful brand’.

SUMI: Who was Namratha ten years ago and who is she now?

NAMRATHA: Namratha, ten years ago was one battling abuse and insecurity. One who had lost confidence because she was told that she was not good enough. Today I am the same person but who has risen from adversity. One who restarted life on a clean slate. It was not easy but with the consistent support and love of my near and dear ones, I am a much stronger and happier person. Many have reached out to me seeking help and some have thanked me for giving them strength.