Q. When and how did you decide to make a wine professional?

A. Up until 11 years ago, I used to be Director of National Sales for a multinational Fortune 500 company. After far too many years being a corporate workhorse, I felt the need to reinvent myself. I wanted to pursue something that would allow me to showcase my skills and bring out the best in me. It was about the time when India’s then-nascent wine industry began to make rumbles towards an interesting future.

Food and wine have always interested me and I was exposed to the western culture of wine through my early travels as well as my marriage to a British national. Many a holiday evening with his friends and family in the UK were enjoyed over some incredible wines. That’s when the idea was planted in my head – why doesn’t India have a thriving wine culture. Could it? I saw the opportunity that existed for the nascent Indian wine industry and made a strategic shift in my career to explore this opportunity further. Although the shift in my career was unorthodox for the time, I knew even then that I was on the anvil of a booming industry and I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of being in the front seat.

Q. What sort of responsibilities come with the title, Master of Wine?

A. It does come with immense responsibility. I am proud to represent India as the country’s first and only Master of Wine, the most prestigious title in the world of wines. To put it into context, there are only 380 Masters of Wine across 30 countries, out of a population of over 7 billion people on earth.

On global platforms, I use my presence to represent the case of the Indian wine industry and showcase the opportunities available in India to the international market. In the domestic market, my focus is on wine and consumer education through various initiatives. In a nutshell, I am more than a title, I like to think I am a cultural representative of the wine community-at-large, who advocates the consumption and enjoyment of wine, responsibly.

Q. You’ve been spearheading the India Wine Awards. What was the goal behind launching such a platform?

A. I believed the time for acknowledging excellence in wine, through a rigorous process, was ripe. When I launched the India Wine Awards, many industry professionals had asked me the rationale behind standalone wine awards, in a country where wine consumption is negligible in the face of, say whisky. But I was convinced otherwise. There is an urgent need for an independent, authoritative and transparent voice that rings louder and clearer in the clutter of various culinary awards, and that’s where we stepped in. The ultimate goal of the India Wine Awards is to help consumers navigate the labyrinth choices of wines available in the country and make an informed decision about which wines to enjoy.

In just two editions, the India Wine Awards has established itself as the country’s apex wine competition, built on the four pillars of integrity, authenticity, credibility, and relevance. It is our commitment to develop India’s wine industry, rewarding excellence. The recently concluded edition showcased the depth and versatility of Indian wines to the globe while offering a platform for international labels to reach out to the domestic market. This edition saw 184 medal winners being crowned from a staggering 353 nominations.

Q. How has the Indian wine industry changed in the last decade?

A. From a decade ago, I would say we have come a long, long way. It gives me immense happiness to see the depth in offerings of local wine labels, especially in the premium range. Several leading wine houses in India have made significant investments in their winemaking techniques, and have stellar offerings in the market. And the development of Nashik as a wine getaway thanks to the efforts of the winemakers has brought the region as a must-visit on the map for connoisseurs and enthusiasts of wine. Not only that, the Indian consumer is becoming more experimental when it comes to wines and the occasions to enjoy them. Whether pairing wine with unusual dishes or just drinking a glass as an aperitif at home, Indians are enjoying wine like never before.

Q. Was becoming a wine educator part of the plan for you, or did it just happen?

A. It took me seven grueling years to become a Master of Wine, in addition to my prior wine studies (Hotel Management Diploma from IHM Mumbai, MBA from Mumbai University). The road was challenging, it seriously tries your patience, demanding commitment and sacrifice at every stage, but in turn, it rewarded me with a tremendous sense of gratification, pride, credibility, and confidence.

For young aspiring wine professionals and enthusiasts, I wish to instill this very confident that I have gained through education. Since 2009, the Sonal Holland Wine Academy, a licensed collaborator with Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) headquartered in London, has been offering the most sought-after wine qualifications across India. With this, we hope to create a new generation of wine professionals. In fact, at the India Wine Awards 2018, we announced a special bursary award, sponsored by WSET, for two deserving students for a fully paid WSET Level 3 program, won by Karishma Chandy of Vbev and Ruben Rodrigues, Beverage Manager at the Leela Mumbai.

Q. What parameters do you consider when assessing a wine?

A. I will let you in on a secret. Quality today, is at an all-time high. With significant technological progress, which allows for rectification at every stage of wine-making, most producers joyfully claim that nowadays it is virtually impossible to make bad quality wine. Having said that, what makes me decide whether I want to purchase a particular wine depends on the context, the mood, the occasion, the price and a host of other tangible and intangible parameters.

You need to discover what wines and styles you prefer, and which ones you want to share immediately and which ones you want to enjoy in the later years. To assess a wine, it is worthwhile to get some basic education about the different wines of the world; the difference in styles between old world classics versus the premium new world styles.

When you uncork a bottle, the first step after pouring it into your glass is to evaluate it visually to see the wine’s colour range, to understand its density and saturation. I recommend you take in a side view and tilt the glass before you get ready to sniff the wine. A few short, sharp sniffs and a whole world of fragrance stimulates your olfactory senses. Try and identify the smells—is it woody or herbaceous, or something decidedly off, indicating the wine is spoiled. Finally, take a sip and aerate and circulate the wine around your mouth. What do you taste? Something fruity or minerally? Put your taste buds to work, a perfectly balanced wine will be harmonious without a single flavor profile dominating. In this case, complexity, completion, and harmony make for great wine-fellows.

It is important to remember that the true pleasure of wine is in the joy of experiencing it. It is because you have put the time and effort to find it and care for it.

Q. Tell us about your initiative, India Wine Insider.

A. The ground-breaking India Wine Insider is the nation’s first-ever and most comprehensive survey on the urban Indian wine consumer, which we launched last year. India Wine insider is a pioneering effort that anticipates the global industry needs to understand the Indian wine consumer better. This year, in collaboration with London-based Wine Intelligence, the global consumer research leader for wine businesses, we launched the second edition of the India Wine Insider, that’s grown in scope. The paper focuses on insights from urban Indian wine drinkers, who are defined as drinking domestic or imported wine at least once every six months. The report measures their attitudes, behaviour, and relationship with wine. The findings are very exciting and open doors for wine marketers, importers, distributors, producers, and other stakeholders.

Some of the key findings are: first, the female wine drinker in India is on par with male drinkers, in terms of how frequently they consume wine, propensity to spend on a wine and attitudes towards wine drinking. Whilst a greater proportion of wine drinkers in India are men (57%), 43% of wine drinkers in India are women. Second, the beverage is most closely linked to intimate and relaxing occasions amongst wine drinkers in India, with the three most dominant perceptions of wine being that drinkers find wine ideal for romantic occasions, it helps them relax and it is perceived to be a “healthier” choice as compared to other alcoholic beverages. The third finding was that with low awareness of varietals and regions/countries of origin, well-known brands are seen as a reassuring signal of quality and strongly influence consumer behaviour. Fourth, the report turns the spotlight on to the millennial wine drinkers in India, who are between 18 and 35 years of age. This population is keen to try new and different styles of wines on a regular basis as the beverage assumes a definitive place in their overall drinking repertoire. Moreover, the image of class and sophistication, paired with the physical attributes of taste and its comparatively lesser intoxicating levels of alcohol, when compared with other beverages, motivates Indian millennials to choose wine.

Q. Wine, despite being the fastest-growing beverage category, has limited sales in India. How can that be addressed?

A. One of the findings of the India Wine Insider is that whilst a key barrier to drinking and purchasing wine is price, wine drinkers in India report that the difficulty in finding the wine of their choice at the local retailer, as well as the perceived lack of knowledge of the shop or restaurant staff acts as a deterrent. Combined with barriers to entry, high taxation and lack of infrastructure, the market for wine is severely impacted.

In a country of over one billion people, with nearly half a billion above the legal drinking age, less than five million people consume wine, placing India among the lowest per capita consumption in the world. The opportunity available to us is mind-boggling.

Wine education, more on-ground activities with wine, and a continual dialogue with policymakers with a view to easing barriers to entry and production, increased investments in infrastructure and distribution will also help give a boost to the industry. Not to mention, we need to make wine fun and approachable; help demystify it. Mastery, not snobbery, is the way to go.

Q. How do you expect India’s wine industry to grow in the future?

A. I am hugely optimistic. The Indian wine industry delivered 14% compound annual growth from 2010 to last year making it the fastest growing alcoholic drink in India. Add to this potent mix of rising disposable incomes, rapid urbanisationand changing lifestyles, and we expect growth to accelerate rapidly.  But let us not forget that alcohol consumption in India is dominated by whisky, rum, and beer. However, the growth of homegrown wine labels and the availability of quality imported wines is spurring a consumer interest in vino, leading to a shift in consumption.

Q. Tell us about your future endeavours.

A. I am involved in a host of other initiatives too. As mentioned, through The Sonal Holland Wine Academy we focus on wine education and offer a 360-degree suite of services to wine and spirit focused professionals, institutions, and connoisseurs of wine. On the consumer side, my endeavouris to develop a culture of enjoying wine through the SoHo Wine Club, a subscription-based platform for oenophiles. Even though we recently concluded the India Wine Awards and launched the India Wine insider, we need to plan for the next editions, which will be bigger and even more inclusive. Given the explosion in the F&B landscape in India, I am looking forward in anticipation to 2019, which will give a reason to the wine industry to cheer about.

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