I must admit that I’m in awe of Vir Sanghvi’s understanding and articulation of everything related to wine. It not only surpasses the collective wisdom and knowledge of all of India’s wine minds put together but also gives a fresh new meaning to reasoned wine critiquing (I can’t help if you feel it is more obsessive-compulsive rather than reasoned). This is amply proven in an article he recently wrote which eloquently blamed the focus on wines as the main reason for the absence of a thriving tea culture in our country’s hotels.
Let me ask – how many of us can boast of an ability to pitch wine against tea and not sound like a know-it-all, albeit ignorant, snob? Can we ordinary wine folks dare to compare the two, considering their completely different significance in a hotel’s beverage offerings, with hugely differing implications on revenue/profit as well as guest expectations? Will it ever strike our useless minds to draw parallel between the two just because ‘terroir‘ may be a common link? And above all, wouldn’t it be termed reckless if anybody else conveniently contradicts himself about the importance of wine in the Indian hospitality industry?
While most of us think that not enough is being done to promote wine in Indian hotels, this enlightening article shatters that myth. In reality, it seems the hoteliers “who make such a tamasha about their understanding of the wine culture” have been spending all their time, energy and valuable resources to rival the best wine programs in the world. So what if they serve “dodgy imported wines, which are often spoilt or oxidised by the time they get to the hotel?” Spare a thought for the naive and uninformed folks who spend thousands on these wines. And shame on the wine importers who bring dodgy wines in the country. Whatever happened to business ethics and morality?
Let’s be thankful to Vir Sanghvi for opening our eyes to the looming danger sommeliers and wine consultants pose in promoting tea in our hotels. Hope the industry pays heed and sets on a course correction, for a ‘western‘ beverage should not be allowed to take precedence to our national drink even if it means compromising on overall business and fine dining initiatives. Taking a cue from the article, here are a few things hotels should do to achieve this goal:
Scrap all wine training, create tea sommeliers instead (sorry WSET and Court of Master Sommeliers, you have no future in India)
Educational trips to wine regions are a waste…send employees to Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiris instead
Fine wine dinners are too niche, try offering tea paired meals instead. Don’t worry too much about compatibility with food and cuisine friendliness; they are just western-propagated fuss and have no significance in India
Wine masterclasses can be replaced by ‘Chai pe Charcha’ – invite Modi for maximum impact
And finally, stop referring to your restaurants as ‘food and wine’ destinations. You are expected to do at least this much not to let a western concept prevail over our national drink.
In conclusion, let’s hope Vir Sanghvi will lead this noble initiative to promote tea drinking in India by refusing to consume any wine in hotels even if it is offered ‘on-the-house’, which is often the case.
Re-plugging this popular post on LinkedIn for the benefit of the followers of this site.
The Indian wine ecosystem is evolving and with the rising profile of wine there is a lot of interest in business opportunities available in the sector. But what are the challenges? More importantly, how feasible is it to enter a business whose target market is less than 1% of the total population?
I have always considered the Indian wine market an enigma – on the one hand there is a seemingly eternal and ceaseless optimism about its future, on the other, on-the-ground realities and challenges seem to be too big to overcome in realising its true potential. But this has not deterred many optimists to venture into this tricky market, achieving mixed results at best.
As an active member of the Indian wine community, I am often asked about business opportunities and the pros and cons related to various types of wine businesses here. Although most queries reflect the above mentioned quandary of a wannabe entrepreneur and existing businesses elsewhere, it is also interesting to notice that many feel that the time is right to be a part of the Indian wine story. A lot of this optimism can be attributed to the buzz created by media stories, a lot of which unfortunately is often recycled and are far from ground realities. Therefore personally, I always take a cautious approach in this matter, not because I am not hopeful of its future but due to a realistic assessment of the present market conditions that are far from being conducive for existing wine businesses, let alone new ventures.
So what are the opportunities of entering the Indian wine market?
Let’s explore three areas which attract the imagination of most people nowadays when they think of the setting up a wine business in India. A vast majority of the queries that I receive relate to these sectors.
Import/distribution: This remains the most sought after option of entering the market but also has a disturbingly high failure rate as the short and medium term returns in this business are disproportionately low vis-a-vis the initial investment. Those aware of the market know that in the last few years, many importers have shut shop in India, some incurring heavy losses.
The survival, scalability and subsequent success of import and distribution of wines is only possible if substantial volumes are generated in the on-trade segment, which remains the main source of wine consumption in India. With hotels offering a meagre 20 to 25% on of CIF (Cost, Insurance & Freight), the margins often get diluted in huge costs a bottle of wine incurs upon arrival on Indian shores – customs duties, bonding & warehousing, taxes to state governments, brand registration charges, renewal of registrations, transportation etc. This leaves very little at the hand of the importer, a reason why achieving volumes is the key. Since this poses a big challenge, many have added spirits and beers to their portfolio which offer better margins and certainly volumes. A point in case is Brindco, India’s largest importer and distributor, whose success can largely be attributed to the top brands of spirits & beers it represents in India, including those from the multinational behemoths like Diageo & Brown-Forman.
Then comes the complex task of creating and mastering the art of smoothly operating a distribution network. You can either create your own or use an existing network to reach your customers. While the first requires huge cash injection and fulfilling endless legal obligations, the latter will see your cost skyrocketing and margins plummeting.
Finally, there is always the competition to deal with. A new entrant will not only have to put in everything to grab a share of a highly sought-after pie, he also has to find ways to remain relevant for the long term – no mean ask in a highly competitive but very limited marketplace.
Wine E-commerce: Although India is witnessing an online revolution with eCommerce start-ups leading the way, wine is unlikely to be a benefactor of this boom in the near future, mainly owing to strict (and archaic) government laws related to alcohol consumption. Apart from plethora of hurdles in selling alcoholic products online, the logistical nightmares of lawfully operating such businesses can be too many. Take home delivery for instance, which is an integral component of an entire eComm cycle – a lot of state governments do not allow alcoholic products to be delivered at home making it extremely difficult to justify the very existence of such businesses. Some online wine sellers have found a way of circumventing this problem by routing the orders through retailers who in turn deliver the wines to customers, illegally in most cases.
One should also be mindful of the risks of online wine businesses due to the socio-political sensitivity to alcohol. It may not come as a surprise if one day the government cracks the whip and decides to ban any form of liquor sale on the internet anywhere the country. Many state governments have done so in the past and there is no guarantee that such a step will not become a pan India phenomenon in the future.
Retail: This, in my view is going to be the future of wine business in India. With rising awareness, coupled with highly restrictive prices in the on-trade segment, consumers will slowly drift towards buying wines from retail. It will also be in line with the trend in other wine economies where wine retail followed a natural progression to prominence and now contribute significantly to the local wine economy (Hong Kong & Singapore are good examples).
But there is a catch – since India is unique in terms of the challenges traditional alcohol businesses face, the key to success in any retail venture will also have to be unique. A typical brick and mortar and supermarket model has to be complemented by add-ons aimed at unwavering customer focus, mainly to educate and engage a loyal membership base. These may range from regular tasting & appreciation sessions, brand training, wine masterclasses, paired dinners etc.
The Indian wine story stands at the crossroads where it will either find a much anticipated relevance in the world of wine or will remain a laggard owing to the burden of strict laws and tax regimes. Any new entrant in the business will have to find a way through this ‘either/or’ dilemma to decide whether to set up shop in the country.
This is a reproduction of the LinkedIn article I wrote a while ago, for the benefit of followers of this blog.
Following my last post – 5 Key Ingredients That Make Great Restaurant Wine Lists, one of my LinkedIn contacts very rightly observed that in spite of having the best wine lists some F&B establishments fail to create the necessary buzz around their wine programs and struggle to stay relevant in highly competitive markets. So what else could be the reason for them to lag behind? Let’s explore…
Businesses exist not only to make money but more importantly to solve problems faced by its current and prospective customers. In fact they make money and thrive because they clearly identify the problems and solve them. In business jargon these problems are referred to as pains or pain points. Simply put they are the shortcomings which prevent organizations from achieving business excellence.
Although at a micro level among larger scheme of things, wine offerings and services related to them in the hospitality sector also address many of its guests’ needs and issues they face regularly. So it is critical that such pain points are identified as early as possible and solutions found with equal urgency.
During the course of my wine and hospitality career, I have come across a number of issues which afflict the hospitality industry’s wine and beverage operations. Some of these are generic, but most are specific with a direct bearing on guest satisfaction, their expectations and in turn the success (or otherwise) of the wine program.
Generic pain points:
1.) Lack of a strong wine culture:Although highly subjective and abstract, it still occupies the top of the list of wine pains of many organizations. A ‘wine culture’ is typically intangible in totality as it comprises of many related factors. Most of us in the industry know that there is no short cut to improve the wine culture of an organization, but the good part is that if you have devised a clear and definitive wine roadmap/vision, it will not be an uphill task either.See which of the following points mentioned below applies to your organization’s wine pain.
2.) Maintaining guest loyalty: Hotels and restaurants go to great lengths to retain customers, and in today’s fiercely competitive environment it is not surprising that guests have become more adventurous in their choices. Unless the wine offerings and service standards related to them are continuously upgraded and refined, scoring high on guest loyalty would be a challenge.
Those who have been successful in creating a niche for themselves in wines have done so by making it as one of the key features of their overall hospitality profile and important differentiator from the competition. Why not adopt a similar approach when it comes to your wine program?
Specific pain points:
1.) Inadequately trained and skilled wine team: It is a no brainer – behind every successful wine program there exists a team of highly skilled professionals. This is probably also the most common thread which links top food & wine destinations around the world. Conversely, lack of adequately trained manpower can spell doom for a wine program, irrespective of
how refined every other component of the wine initiative is. It is therefore of utmost importance that your frontline wine staff are empowered with all the knowledge and skills expected of a professional cadre.
2.) Lack of quality wine infrastructure:To ensure flawless and highest quality service delivery a robust wine infrastructure is must. Whether it is advanced storage and cellaring facilities, variety of glassware, service equipment, assorted accessories or a highly user-friendly POS system, a shortcoming in any of these components could pose a negative effect on the overall wine operations thereby jeopardizing the organization’s business objectives.
3.) Lack of innovation and imagination in wine offerings:Today’s wine drinkers are some of the most aware and informed consumers, which in turn have led them to be more expectant (rightly so) of the quality of wine offerings. This genuine need of your guests calls for out of the box ideas to drive your wine program. Luckily, wine offers so many options for innovation that one may never run out of ideas which will keep you ahead in the ‘race’.
4.) Lack of focus on technology: Wine is all about ‘personal touch’ but that does not take away the complementary role technology can play in enhancing both the guests’ wine experience as well as streamlining operations. Right from incorporating state of the art automatic wine dispensers and storage systems to having POS (Point of Sale) software integrated with latest CRM (Customer Relationship Management) options or highly efficient cellar/inventory management tools, technology can play a vital role in making your wine program that much more competitive.
5.) Poor inventory management: One of the most overlooked pains, poor inventory management is at the heart of many woes that affect F&B establishments. While most of it concerns back-of-the-house operations, on many occasions substandard stock management also affects guest dining experience. They lead to erratic availability, and in worse cases non-availability of wines, poor stock rotation, valuable cash-lock-in, oversupply or supply crunch and many other issues.
6.) No auditing, performance tracking or improvement mechanisms in place:Smart businesses, especially market leaders, have one thing in common – they all excel in identifying areas of continuous improvement in their products or services. The systems to locate problem areas may differ but the ultimate aim of achieving excellence through refinement remains an universal success mantra. The F&B service sector is no different. You simply cannot afford to maintain ‘status-quo’ in your service offerings. From creating best-in-class audit check lists to employing cutting edge training methods, every wine program should endeavor to continuously improve and upgrade their products and operating procedures.
Have you come across any other wine pain points in your organization or during your career? Let’s hear about them.
Following requests from my peers and industry colleagues, in this LinkedIn post I shared the important factors to keep in mind while compiling wine lists for restaurants. I hope the readers of this blog will also benefit from the points discussed in the article.
A wine list is not just a menu with aesthetically laid out items and prices. Apart from being the face of any wine program it is also a document which demonstrates an organization’s wine vision. What do you wish to achieve from your wine program? Is it just revenue which drives your wine selection or the intangibles are also equally important? Does your portfolio indicate a special focus on quality and professionalism? And above all, how do you differentiate the quality of your wine offerings from that of your peers and competitors?
Following are the five key points to keep in mind (among some general ones) while compiling a restaurant wine list aiming to be in the top league:
Focus on your niche & USP: Every wine program must find its niche to be able to stay relevant in a highly competitive market. It can be just one unique feature or combination of features, but something that sets your wine program separate from the rest is key to achieving the first step to credibility in a market flooded with run-of-the-mill offerings.
What does your wine selection excel in? What do you offer different from your competition
which creates a positive impression in your guests’ mind? And finally, what role does the wine list play in creating an exceptional dining experience?
Let’s look at a few common ones which top sommeliers use as their menu’s USP:
# Wine paired prix fixe or chef’s tasting menus # Great wine-by-the-glass program with a mix so meticulously crafted that it appears to be a fantastic mini list within the list (don’t forget, high by-the-glass sale always brings more revenue due to higher volumes they are able to generate) # Unique tasting samples with food teasers # Super niche wines to complement equally exclusive cuisine # Handpicked and specially sourced rare wines
The possibilities are many, one has to decide what works for them the best considering the business objectives, customer profile and the overall F&B concept of the restaurant.
Achieve that elusive balance: One of the hallmarks of best wine lists is the all-important balance of vital components which go into their making. Be it a synergy between regions/appellations, a proportionate distribution of grape varieties and blends, a fair representation of styles and types or even a good mix of price points.
Of course a lot depends on the restaurant’s profile and the cuisine served but on the whole a well-harmonized wine list adds immensely to the organization’s wine culture. It also heightens your guests’ comfort level while navigating through the list and in deciding about which wines to choose.
Move beyond clichés: Some wisdom about wine lists are well and truly past their use-by date, while a few are overused to the extent of being monotonous and predictable, and some fall under the veritable ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ adage. Sticking to them can prove to be a hurdle in creating great wine offerings.
Take for example the most widely held view about the size of inventory/portfolio – lot of menus, in the name of depth and variety, offer thousands of choices to guests. But is it really necessary to to carry so many labels to achieve your business goals (remember a large inventory not only locks in valuable cash but can also proves to be a logistics and maintenance nightmare)? Not if your wine team has perfected the art of deriving the most from a lean but well-balanced menu.
Ensure flawless & effective communication: Imagine a wine list which scores big on design, layout and product offerings but lacks in its ability to effectively communicate and connect to the reader because of sloppy mistakes – mostly owing to negligence but also due to ignorance. The most common irritants are the spelling errors (Voignier, Romani-Contee, Marlboro, Bordeux & Cabernet Suavignon are the most common ones I have encountered). This is followed by inaccurate categorization of wines, like a Pommard listed under Côte de Nuits, all sparklings under Champagne, a rich and oaky Napa Chardonnay under ‘Light white wines’ etc. And finally, vague and inaccurate descriptions of menu items and their characteristics. Consider the following description for Sauvignon Blanc’s flavor profile in a wine list I came across during a recent conversation on Twitter:
Leave alone laymen, even a wine aficionado is bound to go “What in the name of Bacchus is that?”after seeing this description! Although the intention seems to be right but the execution leaves a lot to be desired for.
Such communication faux-pas not only makes your list look unprofessional but also neutralizes your vision. No doubt your sommelier and wine team will be at the rescue but such mistakes are bound to create a damaging first impression.
Promote: Lastly, you have a great wine list which your guests keep raving about but are you promoting it enough to think beyond the word-of-mouth element? Let’s face it, a wine list is only as good as its standing in the market and the results it brings to the business, both tangible (revenue) and intangibles (goodwill, stature, luxury quotient etc.).
Thanks to the power of social media and many other digital platforms it has become easier to reach out to customers. Make maximum use of them to engage with food and wine lovers and let the world know about your wine program. One caution here – many organizations have become too dependent on social media to spread the ‘wine buzz’ but online promotion should be complemented with conventional PR and marketing efforts that have stood the test of time, like press releases, media engagement, wine dinners, tasting and sampling events etc.
Apart from creating wine lists for many restaurants, with different themes and concepts, I am also passionate about studying and analyzing wine lists. This interest has grown over the years and has helped me to understand and learn the nuances which contribute in the making of world-class lists.
If you have come across a great wine list or have suggestions and ideas about one, do share with the readers. It will be useful learning for everyone.
Those active on LinkedIN may know that the professional networking site has just launched an article/blog publishing platform for some of its millions of users. The idea is to allow the members to make the most of targeted reach to fellow professionals and industry watchers.
As an active user of LinkedIN, I wanted to take advantage of this new feature and share my thoughts about a very interesting subject which I’ve been contemplating writing about (actually for this site, as I’ve been doing since 2008). So, I did end up writing on LI’s publisher and as expected, the response has been good. I am reproducing it here for the benefit of readers of this site. (See original)
The wine industry and its functioning as we know today – dynamic and extremely progressive, is a far cry from a confined and traditional affair about two decades ago. While globalization has played a vital role, increased consumer awareness and a corresponding demand for more refined products and services, is at the crux of this dramatic transformation within a relatively short period of time. This demand, in turn, has given rise to various organisations and ideas which have helped shape up the contemporary trade and enhance its global appeal. In fact, wine’s rising popularity around the globe, especially in the last decade, wouldn’t have been possible without these innovative brands and smart individuals behind them. In a sense they represent the building blocks of the modern wine world.
Wine’s fascinating turnaround story is often measured by its commercial success worldwide, which is reflective in the stories we mostly come across in the media – like this recent one about most powerful wine brands. But in spite of economics being the ultimate yardstick of wine’s increasing footprint, the industry owes a great deal to the actual drivers of the contemporary business. The list below mentions the most notable of these brands, with an international presence and irrespective of their commercial prowess. 1.) Technology: Most of these are young companies which followed the start-up route during the wine boom of the late nineties and the first decade of this century. They have not only acted as vital connectors of information highways of the wine world but also simplified the way we gather information.
CellarTracker: Those who use/follow CT swear by it, and why wouldn’t they? A one of its kind cellar management tool, it is the largest and most credible platform for serious wine lovers with an enviable database of tasting notes, wine reviews and recommendations. Eric LeVine‘s gift to the wine world is an invaluable one and will remain so for a long time to come.
Wine-Searcher.com: If there is one organization which has brought transparency and accountability to the online wine trade, it undoubtedly has to be Wine- Searcher.com. Since its inception in 1999 in London (later moved to New Zealand), the company has gone through a dramatic transformation – both as a wine search engine, which remains its USP, and in its latest avatar as a wine news and information site. I had the good fortune of being a part of Wine-Searcher’s wine team and witness its raw ability to empower the wine consumer. Its strength lies in the amount of data it has accumulated over the years, and more importantly the ingenious way the data is integrated to fuel its search engine software.
Social & professional networking sites: With the advent of web 2.0 and the corresponding rise of social media, it seems there is no limit to how much wine information is now available online, most of which is dynamic and real time. Today’s vibrant wine ecosystem is unimaginable without Facebook Likes & shares, Twitter’s witty one liners, LinkedIn’s professional inputs or Instagram’s creative photo sharing.
Apps, apps & more apps (more the merrier!): With the increase of tech-savvy wine consumers, social media engagement and usage of mobile devices, it is but natural that so many mobile apps have flooded the market of late. They offer a host of features, ranging from label scanning for tasting notes and ratings, to those which let you sift through restaurant wine lists remotely, plus many many more.
2.) R&D, education & training: This sector of the industry is probably the most vital considering the scope and opportunities of spreading knowledge and information, particularly in young and upcoming wine cultures. A case in point is this short video about China’s rise as a major wine market (note that education is the most common keyword here).
WSET: The Wine & Spirits Education Trust is at the forefront of wine education in the world. Whether it is basic wine knowledge or specialist qualifications, WSET’s contribution in spreading awareness about wine remains unparalleled.
Court of Master Sommeliers: The hospitality industry provides a major source of wine consumption and enjoyment around the world and therefore it is of utmost importance that a trained manpower is available to fulfill this requirement. CMS offers major industry-recognized sommelier certifications, including the holy grail that is Master Sommelier.
Other wine education providers:While there are many institutes around the world offering wide ranging courses; from wine production to marketing, there are some which have carved a niche for themselves. The likes of Roseworthy (University of Adelaide) and UC Davis stand out for their quality of wine production courses, whereas BEM Bordeaux has emerged as a chosen destination for business related studies.
AWRI:A pioneer in R&D field, the Australian Wine Research Institute’s repertoire of ground-breaking research, especially in wine production, has helped producers around the world to overcome many challenges in the vineyard and winery, resulting in creation of more refined products. Whether it is advanced vineyard management, improving vine health, clonal research, sustainability innovations, simplifying wine microbiology, demystifying wine ageing, important studies on wine closures or valuable research on market behavior and consumer preferences, this organization’s list of research work has made it indispensable to the wine industry.
Then there are organizations like Wine Intelligence and IWSR (International Wine & Spirit Research) who excel in keeping track of market sentiments through specialized studies which include a range of market insights, trends and consumer behaviors, among others.
3.) The marketplace:With rapidly changing business dynamics and fierce competition among brands to capture new markets, there has been a revolution of sorts in how wine is sold today. While brick and mortar outlets still exist, their monopoly has steadily declined and replaced by numerous other ways consumers are able to source wine today.
Liv-Ex: Although not a place where you can directly buy wine, it makes to this list solely on the basis of the unique proposition it brings to the fine wine market. It is like the wine world’s stock market, where wines are traded online and over phone and valued against Liv-Ex’s large data of historical and current wine prices. Those with a stake in the fine wine market or wish to have their fingers on the pulse of the market, consider it as an invaluable resource.
Online wine stores: Wine e-commerce is big business today and with technology playing a big role in the promotion of the beverage, it is hardly surprising that they have mushroomed all over the world and catering to a big chunk of the market.
Futures market: Buying/selling wines as futures is not a new phenomenon but in today’s wine economy it has gained added significance owing to a renewed focus on premium wines and a healthy perception of them being good source of alternative investment. No wonder, the futures/en primeur market is seen as a barometer of a country’s fine wine potential.
Auction market:Those who followed the wine boom of the last five years which unfolded in the east, especially in Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China, realize the importance of the auction market in generating a wave of interest and passion about the beverage. One may argue that this form of trading is super niche and hence has limited reach but the buzz which accompanies fine wine auctions is enough to make this form of trading a significant player in today’s wine economy.
4.) Critics, writers and domain experts: The contemporary wine world owes a lot to these individuals for spreading their wisdom and knowledge about wines and who positively influence our thoughts/opinions about the beverage. Whether it is an acclaimed writer, a prolific blogger or a mass-followed taster and critic, they have deep understanding about the subject and the dynamics of our industry. Thanks to their efforts, coupled with opening of new channels of communication, wine’s appreciation is on a steady rise worldwide. (The list of such personalities is too long to be included here).
5.) Sommeliers: The new breed of sommeliers are not just traditional wine servers – they are the new-age ambassadors of wine wielding enormous clout in the trade, a reason the hospitality industry lays a lot of emphasis in hiring top sommeliers to run their wine programs.
6.) The wine media: Last but not the least, how can our vinous thirst be quenched without the regular supply of news, views and analysis about virtually everything happening around the wine world? In spite of alternative sources of information (read social media) making inroads in the wine ecosystem, a vibrant mainstream wine media is still, and will remain, the primary source information.
Among many hotly debated issues in the wine world today, including some contentious ones, alcohol level in wines is one which attracts a lot of scrutiny from opinion makers as well as consumers. A lot of pundits have expressed their dismay over increasing alcohol potency in modern-day wines and educated us on the likely fallout of this trend. As alcohol abuse increases, this issue is likely to be a burning topic in the wine world for a long time to come.
But do we need to press the panic button as yet? And more importantly, don’t we need to adopt a more balanced approach when discussing the complex subject? The wine media is awash with one-sided stories about what is thought to be a ‘negative trend’ in our industry, but this post is an attempt to look at the larger perspective affecting alcohol content in wines.
To start with, why is this debate important for the wine industry and why does it arouse passions? In my view, there are three reasons:
Serious health concerns related to alcohol abuse.
One of wine’s uniqueness lies in its compatibility with food but wines with high alcohol are hard to pair with many dishes, especially those with hot spices. The opposite is also true – a very light wine may not be compatible to many cuisines owing to their richness.
Balance, which is probably the single most vital factor in deciding a wine’s quality, is often compromised when alcohol level is disproportionately high.
All the points above are self-explanatory and intimate to the subject. They are the prime reasons why most influencers of our industry raise concerns about this trend, and rightly so. But apart from genuine concerns, we also often come across vibes that ‘sound right’ and which a lot of wine consumers ‘like to hear’. In other words, is there an element of political correctness whenever this topic is discussed? Let’s find out.
A few days ago, Robert Joseph, a credible voice of the wine world, tweeted the following:
The story in question raised some interesting points which indicated that consumers prefer wines with high alcohol. To be fair in the context of this article it is important to mention here that the study was conducted involving a very limited sample size of participants from a tiny geographical area, using just one type of wine. So, its accuracy can be questioned, but since we are not here in judgement of the veracity of the research, I will limit myself to discussing some relevant facts in support of the ‘balanced approach’ I mentioned earlier.
This is not the first time such studies have come up in the public domain. In fact a lot has been written about the well-established fact that alcohol level in wines is steadily on the rise. What could be the reason? Well, many theories have come forth, like global warming, effect of wine critics who tend to prefer such wines, evolved vineyard management, etc. Whatever the reason(s), let’s be clear that like every other economic principle, this phenomenon is also driven my market demand. Why would a certain trend find solid traction in world trade if it was not popular? Surely not because people want to get drunk fast!
Wine’s unique identity has never been due to low alcohol, although in the contemporary trade there exists a category of such wines, aimed at the health and calorie conscious. But when was the last time we heard of a brand which created ripples by marketing its low-alcohol content? I haven’t come across one and the only reason I could link this to is the important role played by alcohol in influencing a wine’s charatcter. Apart from being a major factor in deciding the body of wine, it also plays an important role in the wine’s overall texture, weight and a degree of sweetness on the palate.
Moreover, a valid concern about low alcohol in wines is also related to the actual production methods. The two prevalent ways of achieving low alcohol in wines are either by harvesting the grapes early, or at optimum ripeness but the alcohol content later lowered artificially in the winery. In both the cases the quality of wine can be adversely affected:
Early harvesting ==> In warm climates where phenolic ripeness lags behind sugar ripeness, early harvesting adversely affects both the processes. In simple terms, along with less sugar and more acid, the other vital components like tannins, anthocyanins and flavouring compounds also remain unripe in such grapes. Absence of these vital building blocks is best avoided in finished wines, otherwise it often results in what is termed by experts as ‘badly made wine’ with prevalence of green and unripe characters. In short, to achieve low-alcohol naturally in moderately warm to warm climates, the trade-off can be highly undesirable for the sensory and taste profile of the wine.
Artificial reduction of alcohol ==> In this case, full ripeness is achieved in the vineyard to ensure optimum physiological ripeness, along with sugar ripeness, and then the alcohol is reduced by employing various techniques. These range from as drastic a measure as ‘watering down’ in which the grape must is diluted with water to bring the sugar level down (and hence low alcohol), to more advanced techniques like reverse osmosis and fast spinning. While the pros and cons of these methods are yet to be scientifically established, on the ground studies have established that the quality of wine suffers immensely as these involve exposing the wine and its sensitive components to severe battering (literally).
Another way, which in my view is the best possible alternative, to keep alcohol levels in check in wines is through highly advanced vineyard management where the aim is to control the grape ripening process and reduce their ‘hang time’, but still achieve the right amount of sugar, acids, tannin, colour, aroma and other organic compounds. Till the time the larger wine world does not master and practice this art, it is of little use to discuss it in the context of this article.
It is perfectly okay for wines to be dismissed as ‘unbalanced’ due to high alcohol which is overpowering and disproportionate to other components, in addition to being nonconforming to its style. But otherwise, whenever a wine’s quality is simply measured on its alcohol content, there lies a risk of erroneous judgement about the wine’s quality.
In the end what matters is WHAT YOU LIKE
We all have our unique taste preferences and should always remain loyal to our taste buds irrespective of what critics or the wine media tell us. One should not be defensive about his/her liking of high alcohol wines nor be boastful about their refined palates which only prefer wines below 12.5%. Those who fall in the first category – why not limit your consumption rather than suppressing your sensory pleasures? As Robert Joseph summed it up at the end of our Twitter interaction:
Here’s what I believe – if you are really after low-alcohol wines, go for the ones which are marketed as such or opt for those which have traditionally been known to be ‘light’. A word of caution here – if you like your wine bone dry, I’m afraid you will restrict yourself to wines from limited geographical areas as well as styles, mostly produced in cool-climate regions. Here’s a list of table wines you can try which have low alcoholic strength:
Whites: Sweeter style German Rieslings, Pinot Grigio from cool-climate Italian regions like Trentino, Loire Chenins & Sauvignon Blancs, Albarino from Spain, Vinho Verde from Portugal, light & fizzy Muscats (like Moscato d’Asti) and cool-climate New World Rieslings
Reds: Beaujolais & most Gamays, Cabernet Franc from Loire, light Italian reds like Lambrusco and Brachetto
Rosés: ‘Blush’ variants produced in California, Mateus, Loire Rosés plus many more produced around the world to be enjoyed chilled and young.
For those, who are not overly and unjustifiably pedantic about alcohol levels, here is a list of table wines you can enjoy, albeit in moderation 🙂 :
Whites: Rich & voluptuous styles of Chardonnay (almost the entire New World produces such styles), some South African Chenins
Reds: Amarone, some Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Grenache and Grenache based blends, Californian Zinfandel, South Australian Shiraz, some Right-Bank Bordeaux (big, Merlot-based wines), rich Californian Cabernet & blends (Meritage) etc.
Rosés: Southern Rhone Grenache based wines like Tavel, plus many more produced in countries like Spain, Argentina and South Africa.
When I was recently informed about the latest WSET Level 3 results in India, for which the exams were held in Mumbai earlier this year, it was naturally a moment of happiness and fulfillment. After all nothing is more satisfying for a trainer and mentor than to realize that his efforts have helped ambitious young professionals cross significant career milestones. This rewarding feeling is further accentuated when these individuals achieve their wine learning goals with flying colours and with a clear objective of standing out in the fast-evolving hospitality industry.
As per expectations and anticipation, three of my ex-trainees, Hardik Arora, Sagar Nath and Vivek Boddul, were not only successful in negotiating the challenge but also managed to pass the exam with high grades. While Hardik achieved ‘Distinction’, Sagar and Vivek were awarded ‘Merits’.
What is noteworthy is that all of them achieved this feat by spending their own hard-earned money (normally, these courses and exams are employer-sponsored). Mind you, these certifications do not come cheap – the Level 3 course costs almost 80,000 bucks (Rs. 75,000 + Taxes). So, all credit to these young professionals for being self-motivated and self-driven to make a mark for themselves.
Sagar was among the 18 handpicked F&B professionals who were a part of India’s most comprehensive wine training program in 2011 (ITC Hotels Ultimate Sommelier Programme followed by WSET Level 3 course). He left ITC Hotels within a few months following this training to pursue better career opportunities and hence could not take a shot at the exams that year. Hardik and Vivek, on the other hand, were a part of the 25 ITC Hotels resources who underwent a similar training in 2012, although in this edition (unlike 2011), the WSET exam was not a part of the entire training package. But that did not stop them from pursuing their dream of acquiring this certification on their own, and quite deservedly they got their reward this year.
I am sure this result will inspire other motivated individuals from across the country to make this valuable investment in their career in 2014, and beyond.
Here is a brief introduction of the three additions to the WSET Level 3 club in India this year:
Hardik is a graduate from Institute of Hotel Management, Chandigarh and currently a member of the ITC Maratha F&B team. After finishing the three week-long training in New Delhi in mid 2012, he has been appointed as the sommelier-in-charge of the hotel’s Pan Asian restaurant. He is an ambitious individual who wants to carve a niche for himself in the Indian beverage industry.
“It is a dream come true” he says about the result. “The fact that I managed to get a distinction in both theory and tasting, makes this extra special for me. Now I wish to use this knowledge and skill to reach new career heights in the hospitality or wine industry. I strongly hope that the Level 3 qualification would be a turning point in my career.”
“Attending the Level 3 training and Ultimate Sommelier Programme has so far been the best professional experience of my life and I am confident that it will help me become a better wine professional. I look forward to your continued advice and guidance for developing my career as a beverage professional.” the ambitious professional further adds.
Vivek Satyanarayan Boddul started his career with Oberoi Airport Services as a bartender. He moved to ITC Maratha after a 14 month stint with Oberoi. He has just been selected as a food & beverage management trainee with ITC Hotels.
“Selling premium wines is a prelude to an interesting turn my career took. The real passion of sommeliership ignited my mind when I was lucky to be a part of ITC Hotels advanced wine sommelier training which was mentored by Mr. Niladri Dhar. Subsequently Tulleeho organised the WSET level 3 program in Mumbai, which resulted in successfully completing the certification with merit rank.” he says enthusiastically.
He goes on to add “Looking forward to pursue my career in beverages preferably wines abiding to hotel industry. Simultaneously focussing on further qualification in wines and spirit to fine tune the existing knowledge by elevating the self to higher levels.”
Sagar Nath is an alumnus of the Institute of Hotel Management, Lucknow and currently resides in Mumbai. Since leaving ITC Hotels in late 2011, he has worked for two different wine importers. He was a Key Accounts Manager with Brindco when the results were announced.
This entrepreneurial wine lover says “WSET Level 3 is a dream which I always wanted to achieve. I am convinced that this will add a lot of value to my future career growth. Hopefully, I will also be able to make the most of my training and learning as a tool to spread awareness of the beverage. I want to be one of the ambassadors of wine in India.”
During his time in Mumbai, Sagar has spent a considerable time interacting with hotels about their wine needs. He, like many of us in the industry, feels that quality wine training differentiates a good wine program from those which lack a winning edge. “We need many more trained and skilled professionals in the industry. My own experience of the training and now this qualification, proves how much difference quality training can make in understanding and appreciating wine.” he concludes.
Congratulations and best wishes to all three of them, and here’s hoping to see many more young professionals gaining such wine qualifications in the future.
Wine has largely been a Western indulgence until the turn of this century, when, the rise of China and India, in addition to other Eastern economies, signaled a new happy hunting ground for the beautiful beverage. What are the factors that dictate wine’s stellar rise in popularity in this part of the world? Most importantly, is this emergence of a new ‘New World’ and sign of things to come in the world wine scene?
In its long recorded history, the wine world has witnessed many defining eras which shaped up its cultural contours and market dynamics. The last two centuries have been particularly important in wine’s overall evolution. While the 19th century was marked by the advent of a much imitated classification system, spread of Vinifera vines outside Europe and the Phylloxera epidemic, the 20th century was shaped up by the great depression, emergence of the New World, rise and influence of the wine critic/writer and globalization of the beverage.
In recent times, and majority of the 21st century, three significant factors have influenced the wine market – the rise of the East as a major wine destination, preponderance of technology and social media in wine promotion and the global financial meltdown of 2008/09. While the latter was thankfully short-lived, and social media’s influence today spreads across every sphere of human lives, wine’s popularity in non-traditional wine drinking countries, especially in Asia, is somewhat intriguing and arouses curiosity.
Unlike their counterparts in Europe where wine has been an intrinsic part of the culture since time immemorial, the East’s (and especially its two behemoths, China and India) affection for the beverage is rather new-found and recent. With a few exceptions, quality wine-drinking in Asia does not even go back a decade. But one look at the popularity and growth trends, in addition to immense stature wine now enjoys in this part of the world, suggest that the East has definitely arrived on the wine scene.
So what explains this rise in popularity in such a short period of time, in what was once considered an ignorant market for wine?
To begin with, it is well-established and well-documented that Economic growth is in the core of China and India’s thirst for wine. But are there other associated and independent factors which have contributed to this new-found admiration for the beverage? Let’s explore:
# Demography>>> Rapid economic advancement and wealth generation in China and India has created a demography with high disposable incomes, mostly spent on the pleasures of life. This mostly comprises of an aspirational middle class and an outward-looking young generation – well-informed, well-traveled and cosmopolitan, who are as comfortable being global citizens as Indians or Chinese. Wine drinking may not come naturally to them but this section of the society certainly fosters the desire to learn and adapt to new ways of life, a reason more and more young people are changing their drinking habits and switching to wine from other beverages.
# New paradigms of wine and food pairing – old clichés are dead>>> One of the most significant developments of this era has been the debunking of many stereotypical food & pairing specifications, which has helped in promoting wines in countries where the local cuisines were earlier thought unfit for marrying with wine. Whether it is the lighter style of Pan-Asian food and its more complex variants involving redolent herbs and condiments, or the exotic aromas of Indian spices, wine’s compatibility with Asian cuisines are being defined anew and with renewed gusto.
On one hand, the proponents of ‘aromatic wines only for Asian food’ theory are having a re-look at their food & wine pairing approach, on the other, the hospitality industry is acting as the catalyst for this reform. One has to flip through the wine lists of luxury hotels and engage with professional sommeliers to realize the revolutionary changes that have taken place in the overall mindset of drinking a vast array of wine styles with local food.
Nowadays, it is commonplace to find wine lists which embrace and promote Zinfandels and Tempranillos with equal ease and confidence as the much favored Rieslings and Gewürztraminers.
# Accessibility to information and knowledge>>> Gone are the days when wine literature was confined to paperbacks and high-end, glossy magazines. Today there is hardly any information about wine which cannot be accessed online. Although a global phenomenon, Asians, especially in countries like India and China, have made knowledge gathering through internet a way of their lives. And quite understandably, this has resulted in a new-age way of wine learning, which in turn is aiding the spread of a healthy wine culture.
The demand for wine knowledge has also resulted in the birth of a thriving wine media, both online and print, which are acting as information hubs for the knowledge seeking folks.
# Quality training and education>>> During the last decade, the level of formal wine education and training for trade and general wine appreciation programs for the consumer have improved considerably. Education providers like the WSET have proliferated throughout the two countries, uplifting the overall awareness of wine. Additionally, there are many private organizations which offer regular wine sampling and food pairing courses to the urban wannabe enthusiasts. All these have contributed in the learning and promotion of wine.
# Rapid urbanization>>> According to findings by McKinsey Global Institute in 2010, both China and India are experiencing unprecedented urbanization, resulting in noticeable churns in almost every sphere of life in these geographies. Wine, being a part of urban lifestyle, is probably one of the few highly desirable consumer products which has directly benefited from this social transformation.
# Rise of the Sommelier>>> The hospitality sector which propels the wine juggernaut in the two countries has taken a leaf out of their American and European counterparts in projecting the sommelier as a worthy wine ambassador. Today it is commonplace to find certified and professionally trained sommeliers in branded restaurants all over the region.
Armed with technical expertise and passion for the subject, these sommeliers (and other wine professionals) have become the de-facto wine evangelists capable of influencing wine drinking habits in their respective geographies. Many of them regularly appear in the media also to share the virtues of wine drinking and their overall enjoyment.
# Wine Events>>> China, led by Hong Kong and Shanghai, has undoubtedly become an important wine events destination of the world. Whether it is Vinexpo, numerous trade events, high profile fine-wine dinners hosted by who’s who of the wine industry or events organized by various wine-producing countries’ trade bodies, each has contributed to the wine buzz in the country.
India, in comparison, is yet to become a hot international events destination, although in the last couple of years the country has witnessed many high profile wine dinners, niche consumer events and wine festivals. Reputed names like the Hospices de Beaune, top Bordeaux chateaux and many acclaimed producers from across the world have included India as part of their annual Asian itinerary. These have prepared the groundwork for many such future events, in addition to generating heightened interest among the wine loving community in the country.
# Wine as a health drink>>> Health benefits of wine is an in-vogue topic in the mainstream as well as wine media in the two countries. With cardiac diseases on the rise in this part of the world and severe medical stigma attached to spirit consumption, wine, with its heart-friendly qualities has found a large dedicated fan following.
Wine’s soaring popularity in India and China and its impact on their drinking culture and trade has firmly placed the two countries on the world wine map. Experts believe, and rightly so, that in spite of many ‘teething problems’ like fraudulent practices and fakery in China and highly discriminatory and restrictive taxation regime on imported wines in India, the two countries have demonstrated all the potential to become worthy torch bearers of the East’s wine renaissance. There is every indication that this new-found affection will culminate in a life-long relationship.
This post is in response to an article which appeared in the delWine website a few days ago. While it eruditely laid down the hype and commercial implications of wine ratings, the selective role of Robert Parker as a wine critic emerged as one of the highlights of the piece. This gives us an opportunity to find out what India thinks about the emperor of wine and what does his ratings mean to the Indian wine business?
It is inevitable that whenever wine ratings are discussed, Robert Parker, by default, becomes the focal point, and it is no different in the mentioned article also. No one in the knowledge of the world wine industry can deny the influence of his ratings on the trade. I have personally written and spoken about this at different forums, particularly his expertise and fascination with a few chosen wine regions and their wines (Bordeaux and California happen to be on the top).
To understand Robert Parker’s eminence as a wine critic, one has to study the man’s rise following the pronouncements of 1982 Bordeaux vintage. He was probably the only expert who stuck his neck out in conviction about the quality of this vintage when most others wrote-off the year as average. The fact that it turned out to be one of the best vintages of the century in subsequent tastings, was a vindication of his unquestionable tasting abilities. Incidentally, most who disagreed with him in the beginning had to fall in line with his ratings. This was not only the start of the making of ‘Robert Parker brand’ but also a sign of things to come for the future – the emergence of the ultimate wine critic in true sense, a cult-like figure who possesses a unique ability to affect wine price indices with a single whiff, sip and stroke of his pen.
Like most critics, in addition to a large army of dedicated followers, he has his fair share of detractors too, who feel that ‘Parkerization’ of the wine world has done more harm than good to wine’s cause. While many call him biased and manipulative, there are also those who feel that he is the best thing that could have happened to the modern wine world.
But in spite of Parker’s standing as one of the tallest authorities of wine ratings in rest of the wine world, his influence in affecting drinking habits and the trade in India is almost non-existent. The Parker effect, if any, happens indirectly and outside the country’s boundaries where prices are decided as per his ratings. Inside India, so far there has been no indication of any significant impact of his ratings and reviews.
Why Parker and his ratings are not important in the current Indian wine scene:
1.) We are not a fine wine consuming nation, which happens to be Parker’s strongest domain. The consumption of wines rated 90+ and more by him is limited to a miniscule part of the wine drinking community in this country (price and availability being the two main reasons). Although there is no data to suggest how small this segment might be, it can be safely assumed that it is in the sub-zero percentage, when compared to the overall price brackets.
The same is true when it comes to collectible and investment grade wines.
2.) Overwhelming majority of Indian wine consumers do not know the break-up and significance of the 100-point rating scale. Therefore all the talk about a wine’s placement in the market just based on Robert Parker’s scores does not make any difference. At the most, it is nothing more than a numbers game which only the wine importers like to highlight as strong selling propositions to the top hotels
3.) One of the major areas of Parker’s influence is a category which belongs to the futures trade (En Primeur). Since this segment hardly features in the Indian trade, his ratings of these wines are of little or no consequence to the market in the country
4.) In contrary to suggestions made in the article, even the hospitality industry does not consider it necessary to factor-in Parker or Wine Spectator ratings when selecting wines for their portfolio. Appellation, vintage and brand recognition play much more significant roles in wine selections. Therefore, the reason a 2000 Chateau Petrus ends up in a luxury hotel’s wine list is because the name has a tremendous brand value, belongs to a famous Bordeaux Right Bank appellation (Pomerol) and is from a great vintage. The fact that Parker scored this a perfect 100 is most likely to be a mere coincidence. Now, please don’t suggest that 2000 turned out to be a great vintage because of Parker’s ratings!
Why is this so? Simply because the role of critics in our drinking habits is negligible, to say the least. Ask any sommelier in the country and they will confirm that wines are never sold or selected based on critics’ ratings.
Now coming back to the article in question, and why I was tempted to express my views on the subject. Here are two examples from the article:
I feel, this is just over the top! There was a time when this statement would have been true to a large extent but to suggest that he ‘single-handedly controls the wine rating system’ is unreasonable in today’s context. Thanks to many other equally capable (if not more) critics and credible wine review sites, it is no longer a one man show. Nowadays, many serious wine consumers and fine wine investors refer to multiple reviews and ratings before choosing their wines.
Leading wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com have realized this fact and it is becoming more and more common to find multiple ratings for a particular wine:
The statement above is only partially true. No doubt that such scores are likely to add to the wine’s commercial value, but there are many wines scored 90 and below by Parker which are considered great value for money (better quality to price ratio). Additionally, there are also those which receive better scores later, following a period of bottle-aging. Generally, Parker mentions about the likely evolution of certain lower scoring wines into better products, in his tasting notes.
The rise and influence of the wine critic in conventional wine cultures is best exemplified by Robert Parker. An institution in himself, he has re-written the rules of the game which, many believe, will be the cornerstone of wine critiquing business for a long time to come. But as new wine cultures are born and new market dynamics emerge, Parker’s legacy may not have the same relevance. India is one such market where the man with ‘The Million Dollar Nose’ is yet to make a mark. Only time will tell if the Parker brand is able to mesmerise the Indian wine lover in times to come as it has for decades in other parts of the world.
Vir Sanghvi’s latest article about the challenging exercise of rating restaurants deals with many valid issues, but also raises some extremely relevant questions about the way such ratings are conducted and awards are decided.
Among other issues highlighted in the write-up related to likely aberrations in these ratings, one particular sentence calls for special introspection – “Our own awards, the HT Crystals are also far from perfect. The main awards are voted for by the readers of HT City so you can’t quibble with the people’s choices but honestly, public opinion can be strange!” Here, it is clear that the Hindustan Times sponsored main awards (like many others) are basically ‘People’s Choice Awards’ where the winners are decided by the number of votes they attract from the public.
Next, let’s consider who constitute the ‘public opinion’ in this case. Ideally it should be those who have either visited the restaurant or read and thoroughly grasped the reviews about its offerings and service. Anyone who does not fulfill these criteria is not fit to make an informed decision about rating a restaurant. And certainly not those who couldn’t care less about a restaurant’s placement in the market, like my aunt, for whom Orient Express and Wasabi are nothing more than a famous train and a Sushi accompaniment respectively!
Needless to mention that to rate a product or service objectively, one has to be aware of them to start with, otherwise there will always be concerns about the usefulness of such awards as a guide to great dining options. Most importantly, the award organisers need to plug any loophole to ensure right people expressing their views. At the moment, this shortcoming may be getting overlooked.
Consider a probable scenario (which, by the way, is not a figment of any imagination) – as soon as the restaurants are shortlisted for a category, a scramble starts to gather as many votes as possible for a particular restaurant brand. Emails start floating inside the organisation asking employees, their friends and relatives to vote. Wherever unlimited SMS voting is permitted, it is encouraged to avail the facility to ensure that their chosen restaurant gets the maximum number of votes. Traditional workplaces where social media sites are not accessible, special provisions are made to enable employees to go to sites like Facebook to cast their votes. This practice does not seem too different from reality TV shows where the results are based on frenzied SMS voting, but isn’t it ironical to relegate the measurement of a restaurant’s stature to mere numbers?
While allowing employees to vote for their own restaurant is itself questionable, when others who have no way of determining the quality of a restaurant become a part of this ‘public opinion’, the entire exercise is bound to attract scrutiny. Can ratings based on the participating organisation’s own votes (staff + their family members & friends) be helpful to offer credible dining options to customers?
Such a model of rating restaurants is also likely to unfairly favour a large organisation which has aggressively generated internal votes. This is more likely to be relevant in close contests where the top F&B destination may be decided by a margin of few votes. Having said that, it will be a mistake to assume that all awards or category of awards are likely to be affected by this model of rating. Restaurants like Wasabi, Taipan, Dum Pukht, Indigo and La Piazza among others, have consistently proven their worth to make it to the top of the award charts and mass popularity, and quite deservedly so, irrespective of any minor anomalies in the rating system.
It should also be borne in mind that this by no means is an India only phenomenon. Even the most coveted of all restaurant awards, the Michelin star, has had to face charges of inconsistent rating system apart from other allegations of undue favouritism and bias.
In a nutshell, and in the light of the above challenges, no wonder user review sites like Tripadvisor and Zomato have become so popular for they have brought a level of transparency the hospitality industry so badly needs. As the Indian dining culture evolves and customers have more say in fixing accountability of the hospitality trade, the day is not far when actual customer feedback will be the deciding factor in a restaurant’s success or otherwise.
Lastly, as a wine professional I cannot help but compare the above model with highly recognised wine ratings and awards from around the world, although the dynamics are quite different for each; wine ratings are more objective and scientific while restaurant ratings are subjective and based on unique perceptions. Here I only mean those awards where the wines are tasted blind and judged on a variety of factors and in like-to-like categories.
In spite of the effectiveness of these ratings the wine industry world over is also adapting itself to accommodate user reviews. Websites like CellarTracker are playing a pioneering role in this field and have given a voice to wine consumers world over, which no one can ignore.