Blame it on wine

Blame wine's popularity for a lack of wine-drinking culture in India
Making wine responsible for a lack of tea-drinking culture in India

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.

Cheers! (@Niladri_Dhar)

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LinkedIn Post 1: The Drivers of Modern Wine Industry

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)

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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.

Cheers,

Niladri

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

The curious case of India & China’s love for wine

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?

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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 pairingold 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.

Decoding Indian cuisine by individual spices helps in food pairing decisions. GSM blends and Zinfandels are good matches with dishes rich in sweet Indian spices
Decoding Indian cuisine by individual spices helps in food pairing decisions. GSM blends and Zinfandels are good matches with dishes rich in sweet Indian spices

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.

Training and wine appreciation workshops are playing a vital role in creating a healthy wine culture
Training and wine appreciation workshops are playing a vital role in creating a healthy wine culture

# 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.

Wine events like the annual Vinexpo have significantly contributed to wine’s popularity in China
Wine events like the annual Vinexpo have significantly contributed to wine’s popularity in China

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.

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.

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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.

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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

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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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