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

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Introducing the latest Champagne Scholarship winner from India

Sommelier Kathiravan
Sommelier Kathiravan Govindaraj

A brief post to announce and introduce the winner of the Champagne Scholarship, India, for this year.

As is well known within the industry, the WSET, along with Bureau du Champagne started offering this prestigious scholarship last year (Ravi Joshi won it in 2012) to an Indian candidate who has performed exceedingly well in the WSET Level 3 exam and who displays a strong commitment to the subject. Apart from the score in Level 3, the selection process for this award involves completing a written questionnaire to the selectors’ satisfaction followed by interviews. This selection process started in the last quarter of 2012 and the final result was recently declared.

It is with profound sense of pride and pleasure I introduce this year’s winner, Kathiravan Govindaraj, Sommelier extraordinaire of Sheraton Park Hotel, Chennai. Kathiravan was a part of the 18 ITC Hotels resources who underwent the comprehensive 45-day Level 3 wine training program conducted by yours truly at ITC Maurya in August/September 2011 (the first part of the comprehensive training initiatives in the organization). He was always the star performer during the training and internal assessments as well as in the WSET Level 3 exam, which he passed with a distinction (the only candidate to have achieved this in the group). Also, following the training he used his wine learning to very good effect in the hotel where he is the leading Sommelier, winning many guest accolades in addition to improving the wine sales. In fact, he is one of the most wine-focused F&B professionals within the ITC Hotels chain now.

The scholarhip will give him the opportunity to travel to the Champagne region for a comprehensive study tour.

I feel particularly proud to have trained and mentored Kathiravan throughout my time with ITC Hotels and this scholarship is almost like a parting gift for me. Now I hope that he uses this rare opportunity to propel his wine career in India. We need more dedicated wine professionals like him in the country.

Well done Kathir…see you on top!

Cheers,

Niladri

Restaurant Wine Lists – Component of a wine program you cannot afford to ignore

The following article was originally featured in the delWine & Indian Wine Academy website where it appears under the title ‘Making Restaurant Wine Lists‘.

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Wine ListIn spite of India’s late entry into the world of wine as a serious consumer, the country has come a long way in its quest to become a highly sought after market for the beautiful beverage. In the absence of a robust retail and online sector, wine business in India is almost entirely driven by the hospitality industry. And given the high margins derived from their sales in luxury hotels and an ever-increasing demand and awareness, wine has well and truly replaced other (stronger) alcoholic beverages as the leading contributor to F&B revenues in top hotels and their restaurants, as well as standalone properties.

Hotel chains which represent some of the most iconic and signature food brands but were not necessarily typical ‘wine & food destinations’ until sometime ago, are also on a course-correction phase and now investing prudently on improving their wine offerings.

The realization within the country’s F&B community about the importance of wine and its contribution to the bottom line and stature has resulted in added focus on every aspect related to wines, especially wine lists and their content and design. No wonder these have evolved from simple bill of fares to classic menus packed with many unique features and valuable information. All these are a part of a clear business strategy to capitalize on wine’s acceptance and superior placement vis-a-vis other beverages.

Undoubtedly, wine lists are the face of any wine program and often reflect the organisation’s commitment to the ‘wine cause’, a reason why a lot of attention should be dedicated in their creation.

So what makes a great wine list and how can it be optimized to achieve larger business goals? Whilst there may be multiple perceptions about what constitutes a high quality wine list, five main factors need to be addressed while designing one:

  • Balance: Achieving harmony across all parameters is the single-most critical requirement in creating world-class wine lists. A right balance of regions / appellations, grapes / blends, styles & types, price points and number of labels (as per your inventory and storage specifications) will go a long way in boosting your image as a wine-friendly gastronomic destination in addition to adding handsomely to your revenues.

Therefore, a selection of ‘terroir-driven’, earthy Pinot Noirs from Burgundy are highly desirable but so are the fruit-forward and upfront Pinots from Central Otago. A heavily oaked and lees-matured Chardonnay with its buttery texture will perfectly accompany some of your richer main course items but the lighter and fruitier Albarino might just be the wine for those who do not appreciate oak in their whites. Similarly, Champagnes are must-haves in every list but why not expand your selection by including other interesting Traditional Method sparkling wines? The possibilities of achieving the right balance in a wine list are many…you just have to put your wine expertise to the best use.

In some F&B destinations of our country, this balance is overlooked to project an enviable ‘luxury quotient’, by loading high-end, super-premium and cult wines in their lists. This unsustainable approach not only restricts the spread of wine’s popularity but also likely to result in a failure of the organisation’s wine program in the long run.

  • Information: No menu (food or beverage, doesn’t matter) is worth its salt without the bare minimum information it provides to the customers. For wine, even a bare minimum is not enough as every wine is unique in its profile and carries its idiosyncrasy in the bottle, which needs to be decoded for everyone’s convenience. Great wine lists will also distinguish themselves by offering relevant recommendations with the cuisine served.

Also, it is critical to ensure that all your information is accurate, factually correct and relevant to the wines. Pay particular attention to the spellings…one of the most common issues in many wine lists that I have encountered in India.

  • Compatibility to the cuisine: Keeping the balance factor in mind, wine lists must ensure that the majority styles and types of wines in the lists are friendly to the cuisine served. If this factor is not given its due importance, expect a large number of your wines to languish in the stores for a long time, locking in vital cash. For example, it is not advisable to include a lot of heavy textured, oak-influenced and rich wines in a wine list of Oriental cuisine restaurant, serving predominantly light and delicate dishes.
  • Overall business objective: What is your pricing policy? Are you overstretching your inventory limits and value to accommodate large number of labels? Do you have optimum storage conditions and cellaring capacity? What is your capacity of holding slow moving items? Is there a robust wine training regime in place which will ensure that the wine offerings are effectively implemented by the frontline staff? What is the realistic percentage of wine sales do you want to achieve against the overall F&B revenue? Does your wine list reflect the spending capacity of your customers? Does it meet their expectations? These are some of the questions one needs to bear in mind while designing the wine list. So, ensure that you have a checklist of your business goals (related to wine sales) handy while creating the list.
  • Uniqueness: Last but not the least, set yourself apart by designing a wine list which offers something different to your customers, something that they will remember and talk about. It could be exclusive labels, a never-seen-before design, layout and presentation, a Wow-inducing wine-by-the-glass program, interesting but valid wine pairing recommendations or even simple features like seasonal promotions etc.

Whilst everyone wants to have their share of the wine pie, only those who are willing to invest wisely in their wine program are likely to walk away with the largest slices. A thoughtful investment in your wine list could be one of the two main strategic decisions which is likely to keep you ahead in the race (the other being quality wine training and creation of a dedicated Sommelier cadre).

More about the significance of quality wine education and training coming up later…

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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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

Insights into India’s most comprehensive wine training program

As mentioned in my last post, I was taking a break from writing on this site as I am totally immersed into the ITC Hotels wine program. But I am compelled to come back due to friendly suggestions that I should occasionally share my experience with the outside world. So here I am with my first update on what I’ve been up to so far. My first assignment was to put in place a unique training program for a chosen group of 18 front line F&B resources from across the ITC Hotels chain. This was a first of its kind initiative in India, not only due to the detail and comprehensiveness of the program but also because it was aimed at achieving the dual objectives of imparting world-class sommelier skills and meet the WSET Level 3 specifications.

Here are some snaps from the fun-filled training sessions. Click on the pics for larger images.

The training was conducted at ITC Maurya and went on for 45 days. The trainees were taken through all the major wine regions of the world in relation to their location, wine-growing conditions, specialities in terms of styles and types of wine production, viticulture & wine-making, local wine laws, labelling regimes,  commercial implications of particular labels and styles on the world-wine trade, sommelier skills, food & wine pairing skills and wine appreciation sessions, among many other topics.

One of the highlights of the training was a systematic tasting of more than 150 wines over this period of time. These included as basic wines as mass-produced Jacob’s Creek to Prestige  Cuvée Champagnes  and Cru Classé Bordeauxs and almost every possible variants in between…lucky us!

At the end of the intense 45 day training the candidates went through a five-day orientation on Level 3 Advanced course by a WSET accredited tutor Charles Crawfurd, MW, followed by the exam. Tulleeho, the only Approved Programme Provider (APP) for this level in India arranged for the orientation as well as the final examination. The team at Tulleeho have been very helpful throughout the training program.

Due to its uniqueness and trendsetting nature in the Indian hospitality scene, the training also received a well-deserved attention in the country’s wine media. Sommelier India, Indian Wine Academy and Wineindia.in are few notable ones who covered this initiative. Check out the following links for the articles:

WSET Level 3 Certification Debuts in India

ITC Hotels raise the antennae for wine

India’s most comprehensive wine training program conducted at the ITC Maurya

Will be back with my next update on the creation of a new wine list for the chain. Until then…happy wining!