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Sebastopol vintner launches boutique winery despite pandemic troubles

When Raghni Naidu was about to launch her boutique winery in Sebastopol last year, she didn’t let something like the pandemic stop her. After all, this was her dream.

“Emotionally, it was probably one of the most difficult things I have done,” said the 38-year-old vintner from India. “There were physical and tangible challenges, but then there were just so many things beyond my control. It pushed me to really embrace and accept the situation and make the most of it.”

Despite the obstacles of 2020, Naidu Wines met with success with all of its bottlings, most especially with a flagship pinot noir. The 25 cases of it that were produced sold out in 6 weeks.

Naidu chose to plant roots in the United States because, she said, most other countries have “unspoken social barriers” that can block you from pursuing your dreams.

“Here, it’s clear cut,” she said. “You have a passion. You work hard at it and you have the freedom to be who you want to be.”

The vineyard that beckoned

In 2018 Naidu couldn’t resist buying a 9-acre property in Sebastopol that had a 4-acre vineyard and a guesthouse.

“I fell in love as soon as we drove up the meandering driveway flanked by vineyards,” she said. “The craftsman-style home was built in 1994 and needed updating, but I could tell it was built with a lot of love and thought. And pinot noir had always been my personal favorite wine varietal. The entire property reminded me of the lovely Benivengudo estate I had recently stayed at in Les Baux-de-Provence. I felt a very strong pull to make this beautiful piece of land a part of my life.”

Naidu hired Matt Duffy to be her winemaker; he makes the wine at Vinify, a Santa Rosa custom crush facility. Today Naidu Wines produces pinot noir, rosé, viognier and a zinfandel.

“We want to be small batch, very boutique, hand-crafted,” Naidu said. “It goes with my story. I want to make it very personal.”

Naidu said the guesthouse, available for between $1,200 to $2,000 a night, was a popular place for people to pod together during the pandemic. Remodeled in 2018, the house now has a chef’s kitchen, a swimming pool and spa.

“I want people to have an immersive Wine Country experience in a secluded setting,” she said. “I call our property the Provence of the Pacific.”

“Having spent more time in the Sebastopol and Sonoma area, I really do liken it very much to the provincial (European) lifestyle also. The Sonoma life is a true farm-to-table lifestyle,” she said. Yet, she added, “Our farming practices tend to rely more easily on technology than in Europe.”

A pinot-lover, Naidu considers winemaker Merry Edwards, known not just for her wines but also for breaking through gender barriers in the industry, as a role model.

“I haven’t met Merry, but I was at her winery a few times,” Naidu said. (Edwards, now retired, sold her winery to Maison Louis Roederer in 2019.) “Merry’s story, which dates back to the 1970s, is inspiring and it gave me confidence. I could see there was a woman who has done this. I may not have the exact same journey but it buoyed me to go for it.”

Quest for adventure

Naidu and her husband, Kaushick Naidu, met in Australia and likely never would have met in India where, she said, people tend to stay within their regions where they share a language and culture. Kaushick hails from Chennai and he doesn’t speak her native languages of Hindi and Punjabi but instead Tamil and Telugu.

“I moved to Melbourne, Australia at 18 in a quest for independence and adventure,” Naidu said. “My husband had studied in America and showed me what it meant to have an American dream.”

Kaushick, 40, earned a degree in computer engineering at Iowa State University and today works at a software company in San Francisco.

While embracing what America has to offer, the couple continues to keep ties to India alive, with it well represented in their kitchen’s three drawers of spices. One of Naidu’s favorite books is “Namesake” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri because it delves into the cultural and emotional tangle between generations in the Indian immigrant experience.

The vintner and her husband are raising their 4-year-old son Saveer and 9-year-old daughter Sameera at a pivotal time, with the growing impact of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements ever-present.

“I hear from a lot of people they want diversity, and I want to see more diversity and inclusiveness in the wine industry,” Naidu said. She’s perceived as being an outlier in Wine Country, she said, but she’s determined to shake up that faulty perception.

“There’s a certain type of person that’s expected to own a wine brand or a vineyard, and immigrant women aren’t the first ones to come to mind,” she said. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve been questioned. But part of the onus is on me to educate people. I’m part of this picture. I do belong here.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Les Baux-de-Provence and one misspelling of Provence.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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