Introducing three young additions to the ‘WSET Level 3 Club’ in India

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 Arora
Hardik Arora

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 Boddul
Vivek Boddul

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
Sagar Nath

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.

Cheers,

Niladri

Why the Robert Parker brand is irrelevant in India

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?

Robert Parker Jr. is probably the most celebrated wine critic of all times. Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Robert Parker Jr. is probably the most celebrated wine critic of all times. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

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:

Example 1.

delWine1

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:

Based on consumer demands, it is common to find multiple ratings for wines on top wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com
Based on consumer demands, it is common to find multiple ratings for wines on top wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com

Example 2.

delWine2

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.

Cheers,

Niladri

ITC Hotels wine training – Season 2

In this brief post, I continue from where I left in a similar story in 2011. As a sequel to a key initiative put in place last year, which was widely covered in the Indian wine media, a large number of key F&B resources from across the ITC Hotels chain went through a structured and customized wine training this year too. Armed with their newfound knowledge and skills, this Sommelier cadre is driving a resurgent wine program throughout the chain.

Since joining ITC Hotels last year, it has been my consistent endeavour to lay special impetus on effective wine training, for it is the most vital ingredient in making a wine program successful. Based on this conviction, a long-term plan has been devised to invest in top-notch wine training programs throughout the group in Luxury Collection hotels. Although the returns on this investment have already started to trickle in, it is expected that in the near and distant future this endeavour will go a long way in creating a benchmark wine culture in the Indian hospitality industry.

This year, a total of 150 F&B service staff at all levels went through a systematic and level-by-level selection and training, culminating in the ‘ITC Hotels Level 3 in Wines’. 25 young professionals were awarded this certification and are now proudly leading various wine initiatives in their respective hotels and F&B outlets. They join the core group of 18 Sommeliers certified in 2011.

Every level of the ITC Hotels wine training has been carefully designed to match-up to world standards as well as to cater to the needs of the Indian hospitality scenario, especially those which dictate the business dynamics of ITC Hotels. Whilst the Level 1 was aimed at building the foundation and Level 2 as the stepping stone to acquire advanced professional skills, the Level 3 has been the most potent in achieving high skill levels and in turn larger business goals. This expansive and all-encompassing wine training not only aims to impart theoretical knowledge about a wide range of topics related to the world of wine but also, and most importantly, create the very best F&B sales workforce in India.

Lastly, it gives me great satisfaction and sense of achievement in claiming that so far in the country, this wine training exercise has been the most detailed and comprehensive within a single hotel chain (both in terms of numbers trained and level and content of training). This claim is based on the information I have gathered from my contacts in other hotel chains, speaking to industry experts and information available in the media.

Here is a slideshow from this year’s trainings:

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Common myths about the Indian wine industry

Acknowledgement: The following article originally appeared on the delWine website and I am reproducing the content as it appears on the site.

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MythAlthough there are several myths about wine in India that have been addressed from time to time, there are many common myths about its nascent wine industry that could give a wrong perspective to those wishing to enter the Indian wine market, writes Niladri Dhar who is associated with the industry as an educator and manager in the hospitality business.

The noted French philosopher Roland Gerard Barthes once said “Myth is neither a lie nor a confession, it is an inflexion”. It is extraneous what the myth actually is, what really matters is the way it is used to influence thoughts and ideas.

During my association with the wine industry, I have come across many common myths involving the beverage but the most prevalent ones related to the Indian context are worth looking at in detail to appreciate how they affect wine’s placement in our society.

Indian wines are mediocre: It is like saying all French wines are great. Whilst we should be modest to admit that most of our domestic wines have a long way to go in terms of their quality (and consistency, which in my view is by far a bigger issue), it is unfair to assume that there are no exceptions.

The likes of Fratelli-especially their Sette label, the earlier avatar of Grover’s La Reserva and newbies like York, Reveilo and Zampa are some examples which defy this myth, hands down. They have demonstrated that India is capable of producing good quality wines displaying regional characters and comparable to their peers from other parts of the world.

India’s wine market is booming: It will be naive to deny that India’s wine consumption is on a steady rise but at the same time it is also misleading to suggest that the country’s wine economy is experiencing an unprecedented boom (irrespective of different market dynamics, comparison to Hong Kong, China and even Brazil’s wine success is inevitable in this context).

This myth represents a classic example of riding the ‘India growth story’ bandwagon, the domestic wine news-starved media’s attempt to sensationalise an issue which does not have a credible source. The media is awash with all sorts of, mostly regurgitated, growth figures and we often come across them in wine stories. But are these scientifically derived? Who came up with such numbers and what is their basis? Can anyone take the onus of confirming them? Are these data derived from the HORECA sector only and if yes, how credible are the numbers, as it is a well-known fact that hotels as well as vendors are not known to share all their data with the outside world? These are some uncomfortable but relevant questions which need to be answered if one has to make sense of the growth stories.

Easing of tax and duties alone will take care of India’s wine woes: No doubt the atrocious tax and duty regimes have been the biggest impediment in the success of wine in India. But to think that once, if ever, these are liberalised the wine industry will see the dawn of a stupendous growth period, is overly ambitious. Let’s face it, the wine culture we blatantly brag about is still limited to the creamy layer of the society generally within the confines of five star hotels and to some extent, wine clubs in big cities and as long as wine does not have a wider reach, we cannot expect to be in the league of top wine performers.

Then there are obvious challenges in the form of limited number of credible wine training and education providers, absence of a robust retail sector and a general tendency to club wine with other alcoholic beverages and the associated stigmas attached to it. All of these have to be addressed to improve our standing in the world wine scene.

Big and premium is always better in restaurant wine lists: There is a general tendency in India to shower accolades on wine lists which contain hundreds of labels packed with high-end brands. The more Cru classé Bordeauxs, Grand & Premier Cru Burgundies, Cult Californians and Super Tuscans you have on a list, the more likely it is to be considered ‘Fabulous’ and ‘World-class’.

But in fact, an ideal wine list should be all about achieving the right balance of regions/appellations, grapes/blends, price points and compatibility with the restaurant’s menu, which in turn will allow the guests to make informed decisions without getting overwhelmed by the volume and prices. In short, a truly world-class wine menu should be a right mix of variety, balance, eloquence in its descriptions and matching the restaurant’s theme.

High mark-up in 5 star hotels is responsible for wine’s limited reach: Whilst this argument cannot be trashed altogether, it is unjustified to put the blame squarely on top hotels. 5 star F&B destinations normally cater to the wealthy lot of the society and most businesses are smart to price their products as per the spending capacity of their guests. Why should they lose out on revenues when those buying the wines are willing to pay the price? Also, it is misplaced to comprehend that those who cannot afford to dine in 5 star restaurants will start flocking these places once the wine prices are lowered. Apart from wine, the prices of every product and services in 5 star hotels are not affordable for the common man.

Wine does not go well with Indian food: This seems like a never-ending cliché. A time when new and unconventional practices are taking shape and food & wine pairing is bucking all the traditional trends, this age-old misconception needs to be looked at through a different prism.

Contrary to common belief, most Indian spices can be married with wine’s flavour components. The trick is to break down the dishes to the last spice so that the flavour characteristics become apparent. This knowledge is often enough to pair wines correctly although knowing the cooking process will also help in deciding the choice of wine – a smoky Kebab straight from the Tandoor will need a wine with some degree of matching smokiness to balance the overall profile. Lastly, the texture and body of the food should match the same in the wine.

The role of a Sommelier in India: This is by itself one of the biggest myths of our industry. ‘Sommelier’ in India is often an inappropriately overused and misconstrued designation alluded to anyone dealing with the beverage – be it a person simply pouring wine in a restaurant, so called a ‘Wine Taster’, anyone with any wine qualification irrespective of its relevance to a Sommelier’s profile or at times even a wine marketer.

In simple terms, a genuine Sommelier is a wine specialist who is capable of offering expert advice on a broad range of wine related topics. He should ideally also have a matching qualification to back-up his practical skills.

The great Indian obsession with the ‘Sommelier’

SommelierI often wonder why we Indians, especially in the media, hospitality and wine industry, are so obsessed with the word Sommelier. Whether it is a wine related analysis in a national newspaper, an article in a lifestyle magazine or myriad of profiles on social media and professional network websites, it seems to be omnipresent. Not that there is anything wrong with this obsession but the way it is frequently used is the contentious part.

With a few genuine exceptions, it is an inappropriately overused term which often overlooks the specialist nature of a Sommelier’s role in the contemporary wine and hospitality business. Why is this so?  Is it because it comes across as a ‘posh’ (as one of my friends recently suggested), in-vogue and highly saleable jargon or simply because its blatant and rampant use as a tool for self-branding has struck a positive note with the masses and media in large? In my view it is a mix of all these plus an easy way of influencing a young and nascent wine culture. The fact that it is a French word makes it more chic, probably!

Mind you, when used correctly and thoughtfully, the usage of the word Sommelier should only be reserved for wine professionals with requisite credentials and/or training. It shouldn’t be an honorary title but a professional designation. Also, one has to earn a Sommelier’s position, not just claim to be one. I have come across many instances where the concept of a Sommelier is awfully misrepresented – whether it is to describe anyone who conducts wine sampling sessions to even untrained F&B professionals in five-star hotels who pour wine on the table. Whilst they may not be able to perform any other tasks expected of a professional Sommelier, a capable Sommelier on the other hand will be able to carry out both the tasks effortlessly, in addition to all other specialized roles he/she is trained to do.

I have also recently come across another media speak used for describing Sommeliers, and once again it is not representative of a Sommelier’s complete profile.  I am referring to the term ‘Wine Taster’. Whilst tasting a wine to deduce information about it is just a part of  a Sommelier’s overall repertoire, it is amateurish (and misleading, to some extent) to use the term to portray professional Sommeliers.

So, who is a Sommelier?

Court of Master Sommeliers

First of all, a formal training is a must which can be acquired from professional Sommelier organisations like the  Court of Master Sommeliers. This is a vital differentiator which separates the wheat from the chaff. Engage in a serious wine talk with the wine guy during your next dinner out and you will know what I mean. A genuine Sommelier will be authoritative, confident and most importantly will be highly knowledgeable (but modest) about the world of wine and beverages.

Those who do not have a formal qualification can also be in the league of professional Sommeliers provided they have undergone an extensive training and mentorship program under a duly certified and experienced Sommelier,  and are directly responsible  for influencing the wine program of their hotel/restaurant.

Apart from the mandatory training and qualification, a professional Sommelier should also be able to skillfully perform the following:

  • Offer expert wine advice and service to customers in a fine-dining environment
  • Pair wine and food thoughtfully and ensuring perfect harmony between the two
  • Conduct effective wine sampling and training sessions
  • Create effective wine lists
  • Conduct profitable wine promotions
  • Be at ease with inventory management, wine storage requirements and cellaring techniques
  • Be efficient in costing, forecasting and ordering and other beverage control specifications
  • Be abreast with the latest trends in the wine industry, especially vintage conditions in different parts of the wine world
  • Be adequately informed about other beverages and cigars (if it is a part of the establishment’s offerings)

I am often referred to as a Sommelier and as much as I like to be called one, I have to be honest in admitting that there are occasions when I feel more comfortable to be known simply as a wine professional. This at least ensures that I do not fall into the category of media created and self-proclaimed Sommeliers.

Cheers,

Niladri

‘Indian Wine Guru’? No Thanks

Recently, I came across a comment on an Indian wine website that “India is desperately in need of a wine guru…who can generate a mass demographic of wine followers”. Being a subject close to my heart, it instantly agitated my wine senses, forcing my grey cells to go in a hyper mode trying to empathise with this, rather lofty, imagination. The last time someone managed to ‘generate a mass demographic of followers’ in India was probably M. K. Gandhi!

On a more serious note, I am sure the statement is not meant to be as forceful to place this imaginary figure on a revered altar but it does give us an opportunity to discuss why India will be better-off sans a wine guru and still be a thriving wine-loving society.

To start with, let me clarify that this discussion is confined to the meaning of ‘guru’ as portrayed in the larger world nowadays as someone of authority and mass-following and not the literal Indian meaning; that of  a teacher.

Wine appreciation is a widely subjective as well as an individualistic matter. The mental perceptions and their physical counterparts (taste buds) respond in different ways in different people when it comes to wine enjoyment and hence vary immensely from person to person, one of the reasons which explains the existence of so many varieties in styles and types of wines. Now, being a ‘manipulator’ of all our actions, the human mind ultimately decides our preferences which in turn is instigated by many factors. One such influence can be an individual with a larger than life image and a clout so immense that it becomes ‘in-vogue’ and almost an obligation to try and relate to his/her ways to appreciate wines. No one embodies this cult-like status in the wine world more than the American wine critic Robert Parker Jr.

Parker is a wine guru in every sense of the word. Someone who wields the power to make or decimate a brand with a stroke of his pen. Someone whose 100 point rating system has almost become a benchmark for quality in the USA (and many other parts of the world). Someone who has singlehandedly created a national wine identity in the form of an ‘American Palate for rich and powerful wines in response to the more, so-called elegant ‘British/European Palate‘. And most important of all, someone who manages to sway huge public opinion conforming with  his thoughts. Not to mention the mind-boggling impact of his ratings and reviews on wine prices worldwide. On the other hand, to his detractors, Parker is a media-created hype who has mastered the art of feeding on the paranoia, cynicism, indecision, confusion and lack of knowledge of the wine consuming public. This lobby believes that his influence has more been a negative one.

Whatever the fact of the matter is, it is not hard to imagine the effect such a personality can have on a particular demographic of a society. It becomes more relevant from an Indian context as we are still a nascent wine culture and any such influence can only hijack a wine lover’s ability to think independently and follow personal instincts rather than becoming hostage of somebody else’s opinions and preferences.

The Indian wine community will be much better served by qualified wine ambassadors who will share their knowledge and passion for the subject without harbouring the desire to ultimately become ‘the Indian wine guru’. It is also in the interest of the country’s wine sector to promote a collective learning and development through credible means to ensure a consistent and healthy growth of the industry, instead of relying on one person to act as their torch-bearer.

Cheers,

Niladri