At first glance, Virginia's Narmada Winery resembles many other wineries in the Old Dominion. The verdant hills of Rappahannock County offer scenic views to guests who sample Narmada's 18 types of red, white and rosé wines.
But upon closer inspection, visitors will notice that the winery's decor reflects owner Sudha Patil's Indian heritage. A statue of Ganesh, the Hindu god of wisdom, and Lakshmi, who represents good fortune, guard each side of the fireplace. Photographs taken in India adorn the walls, while several custom-designed mirrors in the tasting room mimic the shape of the henna tattoo designs, or mehndi, that typically adorn an Indian bride.
Of the 300 or so wineries in the state, Narmada is the only one owned by a South Asian and just one of two owned by an Asian American, according to the Virginia Wine Board.
Patil opened the winery, located in Amissville, in 2009 with her late husband, Pandit Patil, who died three years ago. The winery represents the culmination of their passion for growing grapes, their love of family and their South Asian heritage.
"My heritage is important to me. It was important for me to show that part,” Patil says.
Winery roots go deep
An endodontist and engineer, respectively, Sudha and Pandit Patil traveled to wine regions in France, Spain and Argentina and thought they could turn their passion into a post-retirement occupation. The couple, who lived in Northern Virginia, didn't want to stray too far from the Washington, D.C., area. While neither had any winemaking experience, both count farmers in their families, and Sudha's bachelor's degree in chemistry came in handy when it was time to adjust the pH and acidity of the wines.
"It's a cool thing — all the science that goes behind it to make it more personalized to the taste of customers,” Patil says.
In 2004, the couple planted their first vineyard after purchasing a 51-acre parcel of land and the equipment they needed to produce 800 cases of wine annually — a number that quadrupled in some years. Getting there involved long hours, as Patil continued to work part time at her practice in nearby Culpepper up until two years ago. “It was very challenging. I used to work sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning and go back to my job by 8 a.m.,” she says.
But the work paid off. Narmada's wines have won more than 600 awards, including 90 gold medals. The winery is known throughout the state for its hospitality and international decor, says Rita McClenny, CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corp. “She brings great passion and influence in terms of design and food,” McClenny says of Patil.
Honoring Indian heritage and family ties
Patil credits the supportive Virginia wine community as well as a distinctive Indian influence for the winery's success. On weekends, guests can pair their wines with samosas, chana masala (chickpea curry), spinach and butter chicken.
"A lot of people don't know you can pair Indian food with wine,” Patil says. “People are surprised to try Indian food with wine. Nobody is offering that."
Viognier, petit verdot, cabernet franc and chardonel (a seyval blanc and chardonnay hybrid) are among their top varietals. The wines and the winery's name honor the family's Indian heritage. “Narmada” is the name of both a river in India and Sudha Patil's mother-in-law, who sacrificed for the family's education. “My mother-in-law actually sold some of her gold jewelry in order to buy the plane fare” so her son could study in the U.S., Patil says. “They didn't have much money, but she made sure everybody was educated."
Indian influences seep into the wine in other ways, too. Made with vidal blanc and chardonel grapes, Narmada's 2018 Legacy vintage honors family and heritage with its lush notes of mango, a popular fruit in India.
"My husband used to ask me all the time, ‘Can you make something with mango?’ “ says Patil. “I never had a chance to make the wine with mango, but after he passed away, I said, ‘I've got to make something with mango for him.’ And that's why we call it Legacy.”
The winery also invites guests to celebrate Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, and the spring festival Holi. This year, Narmada hosted a socially distant Holi celebration by offering flower petals at each table so customers could throw them on their companions.
Pre-pandemic, for the Diwali celebration, the winery put on a fireworks display and played Bollywood tunes while guests danced. One year, Patil's professionally trained daughter-in-law offered dance lessons.
Patil says she is now ready to sell the winery, though she could remain as a winemaker. She hopes the next owner will continue to honor the winery's South Asian heritage in an industry that has historically lacked much diversity.
Many first-generation immigrants, Black Americans and other minorities often lack the inheritance or the generational knowledge that would make it easier to enter the wine business, says Phil Long, owner of California's Longevity Wines and president of the Association of African American Vintners. The association sponsors scholarships and mentors winemakers of color.
"Thanks to people like the Patils who follow their hearts and overcome obstacles in their way, we are beginning to make progress in creating a more diverse wine industry,” Long says. “People from every culture need to understand that wine can be a career path for them. This only happens if they see people who look like them having success in the wine world."
Julekha Dash is a contributing writer who covers food, travel, art and business. A former business writer for the Baltimore Business Journal and Computerworld, her work has also appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Wine Enthusiast and Architectural Digest.