Women winemakers, like elsewhere in the world, are uncommon in France. An Indian woman making French wine, even more so. But that is exactly what Namratha Prashanth has been doing for the last four-odd years. Prashanth makes Solicantus, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec, in Blaye, Bordeaux, and also sells the Solicantus Blanc from Entre-Deux-Mers. The white wine is a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle.
Prashanth launched the wines in France in March 2020. Now, after weathering the pandemic, the bottles, about 20,000 in all, can be found in several European cities and are headed towards the United States, Europe, and India, where they will be available towards the end of this month. The story, to be told first, though, maybe over a bottle of Solicantus itself, is of its founder.
Prashanth, 43, grew up in Bangalore without the remotest connection to wine. Her first tentative exposure to it happened while studying hospitality after high school. In 2004, she married into a Lingayat family. “It was not a happy marriage,” says Prashanth. Her ambitions and attempts to be financially independent were routinely strangled by her husband. She says she furtively attended French classes at the Alliance Française in Bangalore to seek respite and to keep herself occupied.
“In a sense, through the language, I became completely immersed in French culture. Wine, in France especially, is not just a beverage, it’s more of a culture,” says Prashanth, who spoke to this magazine last month over a video call from her home in Bordeaux where she stays with her 11-year-old daughter Shloka. The fascination with France grew when she landed a job as a backend specialist in the French language with an IT company in Bangalore, which sent her to Paris for a month’s training.
“I was very insistent about this job and persuaded my husband to let me take it up. In France, I finally tasted freedom,” says Prashanth. She also realised that “life is short, and I really needed to have my own identity.” Prashanth couldn’t stay at her job for long due to pressure at home; in the middle of 2015, when her husband sabotaged yet another employment opportunity that came her way, she took her daughter and her dog Casper and left home.
In 2016, at the insistence of her sister and brother-in-law, Prashanth signed up for a Wine & Spirits Education Trust Level 2 course in Singapore and then, with her family’s help, moved to Bordeaux to study wine marketing and management at the business school INSEEC.
While studying at INSEEC, Prashanth interned for five months as the ambassador of Château Siran in the region of Margaux, where she conducted guided tours and tastings for tourists. “I was there pretty much the whole growing season, amid 88 hectares of vines, woods, and an eighteenth-century castle,” says Prashanth, who arrived at the train station on a cold morning in May. “I stayed in a small cottage and the windows of my bath opened out to the Margaux vineyards. It was magical. The other staff left at six o’clock. I was afraid, but soon got used to the silence and darkness.”
This is where, Prasanth says, she healed and found a way forward for herself — and that involved setting up a wine investment business with the help of her brother-in-law. In 2018, as she worked her way through the formalities of setting up her company, Wine Equation, she met Corinne Chevrier of Chateau Bel-Air La Royere at a wine expo.
Chevrier, a fourth-generation winemaker, is known for making excellent Merlot-Malbec blends. “At the time I was working on a private label for a London-based investor, so I knew the ins and outs of creating a brand and designing a label. I met Corinne at the Vinexpo. She invited me to taste her wines and visit her vineyard. We just hit it off. I asked her if I could learn the ropes of wine making at her vineyard and she said why not,” says Prashanth, who would often visit Chevrier’s vineyards in Blaye. One fine day, she asked Chevrier if she could make her own wine at the vineyard and things took off from there. Chevrier and Prashanth collaborated to create Solicantus. “I went to Bruges, seeking inspiration for the label design and saw this Salvador Dali painting at an exhibition there. That kind of provided the foundation for the design,” says Prashanth. The name derives from Latin for soil (soli) and melody (cantus).
The Solicantus red has been favourably reviewed by several websites dedicated to wine. Decanter magazine describes it as “easy to drink and a good example of a Blaye red in an excellent vintage across the Right Bank”, while the Wine Enthusiast terms it “ripe, textured with density from the mainly Merlot blend.” The wine is a 90/5/5 blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec and has been aged for 18 months in French oak. “The structure of the wine comes from the Cabernet Sauvignon, the power from the Malbec, and the elegance from the Merlot,” says Prashanth.
A woman from India setting up a wine business in France and then making her own wines — how tough was it, I ask her. “Well, initially, I was not taken seriously. Everybody thought “she’s a woman with a daughter back home, she will go back”, says Prashanth. “But, in the end, I’d like to think of it as an unlikely achievement.”