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