Delhi’s top wine destinations – part one

A version of the following article was featured in Time Out Delhi’s special wine edition ‘The Grape Escape’, under the title Veni, Vidi, Vino. I am posting the original and unedited version here for the benefit of the readers of this blog.

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Wine Offerings
Wine & food partnership is the new mantra of modern gastronomy

Gone are the days when dining out in cosmopolitan India was mostly about the cuisine served in a restaurant. With fast evolution of the country’s F&B scene, that status quo has long been done away with, for good. Today diners seek much more than an aesthetically presented or even a sensuously delicious dish. And among all the added pleasures that make up great gourmet experiences, wine has emerged on the top of the savvy customer’s wish list.

Delhi has long been home to some of the country’s most iconic restaurant brands serving choicest of cuisines. While wine has been a part of the city’s restaurant scene for quite some time, the quality and variety of wine offerings have come of age in true sense in the last five years or so. Wine lists now not only boast of choicest international brands of the most desirable vintages, but are also thoughtfully designed to complement the cuisine, concept and theme of the restaurants. All these have been the result of the hospitality industry’s unflinching vision of cultivating a thriving wine culture in the country.

This steady evolution of world-class wine destinations has come as a boon for the city’s gourmands and its wine lovers in particular. But at the same time the proliferation of these ‘wine hubs’ has also resulted in a pleasant dilemma among wine consumers about the most suitable places to satiate their vinous senses along with their taste buds.

Whether you are looking for a sophisticated fine-dining experience featuring an exhaustive collection of wines from virtually every region of the wine world or wish to be pampered with a customised menu paired with wines, Delhi has many places which should be bookmarked in your dining itinerary. Let’s explore each of them individually.

In the first part of this article, let’s have a look at three restaurants which offer the best wine selections in the standalone category. The second part deals with restaurants in five star hotels:

Diva
M8, M Block Market, GK2, New Delhi

diva
Diva’s wine selection is impressive, not just for the variety but also for its pocket-friendliness

A shining star of Delhi’s standalone restaurant scene, Diva has long been one of the torchbearers of the city’s reputation as the gourmet hub of India. With one of the country’s most talented chefs at the helm, it has redefined the concept of dining out by inspiring foodies (and winos!) to think beyond five star hotels and upmarket, overly hyped restaurants.

Many Delhiites may not be aware of the fact that apart from being a ‘Chef Extraordinaire’, Ritu Dalmia is also a keen wine aficionado and possesses vast knowledge about the subject. This reflects in the wine list of the restaurant which stands out as much for its variety and attention to detail as the careful selection of labels to accompany the authentic Italian cuisine.

The wine list here is unpretentious albeit so well thought out that you will hardly find a dish on the food menu which cannot be paired with multiple wines. The highlight has to be the wines-by-the glass selection which features more than 30 different labels sold at extremely affordable prices. Additionally, and quite logically, the list smartly captures Italy’s wine portfolio by ensuring representation from almost all the country’s wine regions. There are also several other international wines, making it a well-rounded list.

The wine list:
Main Features: Extremely affordable pricing. Food-friendly international wines specially chosen to accompany Diva’s signature cuisine.

Strength: Wine selection from almost all the wine regions of Italy.

Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 30 odd labels offering excellent variety and depth. Very competitively priced.

What to look out for (specials): Weekend wine pairing with specially crafted dishes.

Food & wine recommendations: One of the must-try dish is ‘John Dory fillet dusted with Polenta, pan grilled, served with Celeriac puree and crispy Prawns’. Pair this with a bone-dry, fresh, floral and minerally Michele Chiarlo Gavi.

Another recommended dish is ‘Phyllo pastry bundles filled with Artichokes and Taleggio cheese, baked golden and served with a creamy Spinach sauce’. A light but pleasantly fruity Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino will partner the dish perfectly.

Price range: Moderate and extremely pocket-friendly. Meal for two, on an average, costs about Rs. 2000, plus taxes. A couple of glasses of wine consumed with the meal per head would cost another 1500.

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Indian Accent

77, The Manor, New Friends Colony, New Delhi

Indian Accent
The culinary magic of Indian Accent is well complemented by a well thought out wine list

If there is one Indian standalone restaurant worthy to be among the top Michelin star restaurants of the world, it undoubtedly has to be the Indian Accent. In this highly competitive business, such distinction can only be earned if there is a genuine passion to create a unique product of highest quality. And if passion indeed is the key ingredient in deciding a restaurant’s popularity and success; this place oozes plenty of it. No wonder, in a short period of time it has created a niche for itself in Delhi’s fine dining market.

Chef Manish Mehrotra and his team’s brilliance aside, Indian Accent also deserves a special mention for its outstanding wine list which can rival the best in the city. A quick look through the list is all it takes to realise the minute attention to detail that has been employed in selecting the labels. It is also apparent that this selection, in addition to the designing of the list, is entirely influenced by the cuisine and a style of modern cooking where international ingredients are innovatively married with Indian spices. A ‘Fois Gras stuffed Galawat’ or ‘Achari New Zealand Lamb Shank’ married with wines may sound too adventurous for the uninitiated but you will be surprised at the sensory delight of such combinations.

On the one hand, you will find a healthy number of fresh, crisp and aromatic white wines to accompany the light-on-the-palate dishes, on the other there are also a good collection of red wines across a wide spectrum of body, mouthfeel and weight on the palate to pair with the comparatively heavier items. Overall, the balance, variety and compatibility to the cuisine make it one of the best wine offerings in the capital.

The Wine list:
Main Features: Variety, balance and affordable wines.

Strength: Food inspired wines – in other words, each and every wine very carefully handpicked to accompany the nouvelle Indian cuisine
Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 32 labels selected with careful attention to the food menu, which is almost 50 % of the total wine offerings. One of the best wine-by-the-glass selections in town.

What to look out for (specials): Chef tasting menu paired with wine – fantastic way to sample the chef’s magic.

Food & wine recommendations: Among the classic food & wine pairings suggested in their Chef tasting menu, I really liked the idea of marrying the ‘Meetha achaar chilean spare ribs, sun dried mango, toasted kalonji seeds’ with a glass of Peter Lehmann Shiraz from Barossa Valley in Australia.

Another equally chef-recommended combination is ‘Tempered ricotta vada, pao bhaji, kafir lime butter pao (Chowpatty in a bowl)’ with a glass of Miguel Torres, Santa Digna, Sauvignon Blanc from Chile.

Price range: Moderate and affordable. Meal for two, on an average, costs about Rs. 4000, plus taxes. A couple of glasses of wine consumed with the meal per head would cost another 1500.

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Set’z
3rd Floor, DLF Emporio Mall, Nelson Mandela Marg, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi

setz
Set’z’s vast choice of food is matched by its wide selection of international wines

In spite of Delhi’s reputation as a major gastronomic destination of India, the burden of serving soul-stirring food and world-class beverages in an upmarket and chic environment always rested with the five star hotels. That was until Set’z (earlier avatar Zest) appeared in the city’s hospitality horizon, especially in the multi-cuisine segment. Since then it has acquired a reputation of being a game changer of sorts, inspiring a wave of independent F&B outlets trying to emulate its success as one of the most happening dining addresses in town.

Apart from the vast array of cuisines, the concept and theme of Set’z is perfectly suited for wine consumption and quite expectedly, the restaurant management has made it a prime focus in its overall service offerings. The customised and well-appointed wine cellar and tasting room at the entrance is one of the very few of its kind in Delhi and adds to the ‘wine ambience’ of the restaurant. The wine list is extensive (about 180 labels) and contemporarily designed with country-wise and varietal categorisation, making it easily navigable for most. It offers an excellent regional and style variation and one would be hard-pressed not to find a wine that cannot partner its vast selection of Indian and international food. Although, considering the size of the food menu, one would expect to find more wine-by-the-glass offers. Currently, the list only features 14.

The wine list:
Main Feature: Contemporarily designed menu with a wide selection to partner with the large selection of dishes.

Strength: Wines from classical wine regions.

Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 14 across types and styles, that are replaced with new labels every three months.

What to look out for (specials): Weekend brunches accompanied with Champagnes and sparkling wines. Alfresco dining at the terrace. Wine sampling at the customised cellar cum tasting room.

Food & wine recommendations: For fish lovers, the ‘Persley Crusted Sea Bass’ is not to be missed. The carefully cooked fillet retains the all-important moisture and juices while the light herb crust adds to the texture and flavour. A racy Burgundy like the Domain Hamelin Chablis will complement the dish perfectly.

Another good combination to indulge on is the ‘Braised lamb shank’ with moderately priced but elegant Bordeaux Blend, Chateau Malmaison.

Price range: Expensive. A meal for two with wines on an average costs about Rs. 12000 to 14000 plus taxes. This price will vary according to the type of wine ordered.

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Part two of this review article, which focusses on restaurants in five star hotels, can be accessed here.

Cheers,

Niladri

Why the Robert Parker brand is irrelevant in India

This post is in response to an article which appeared in the delWine website a few days ago. While it eruditely laid down the hype and commercial implications of wine ratings, the selective role of Robert Parker as a wine critic emerged as one of the highlights of the piece. This gives us an opportunity to find out what India thinks about the emperor of wine and what does his ratings mean to the Indian wine business?

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

It is inevitable that whenever wine ratings are discussed, Robert Parker, by default, becomes the focal point, and it is no different in the mentioned article also. No one in the knowledge of the world wine industry can deny the influence of his ratings on the trade. I have personally written and spoken about this at different forums, particularly his expertise and fascination with a few chosen wine regions and their wines (Bordeaux and California happen to be on the top).

To understand Robert Parker’s eminence as a wine critic, one has to study the man’s rise following the pronouncements of 1982 Bordeaux vintage. He was probably the only expert who stuck his neck out in conviction about the quality of  this vintage when most others wrote-off the year as average. The fact that it turned out to be one of the best vintages of  the century in subsequent tastings, was a vindication of his unquestionable tasting abilities. Incidentally, most who disagreed with him in the beginning had to fall in line with his ratings. This was not only the start of the making of ‘Robert Parker brand’ but also a sign of things to come for the future – the emergence of the ultimate wine critic in true sense, a cult-like figure who possesses a unique ability to affect wine price indices with a single whiff, sip and stroke of his pen.

Like most critics, in addition to a large army of dedicated followers, he has his fair share of detractors too, who feel that ‘Parkerization’ of the wine world has done more harm than good to wine’s cause. While many call him biased and manipulative, there are also those who feel that he is the best thing that could have happened to the modern wine world.

But in spite of Parker’s standing as one of the tallest authorities of wine ratings in rest of the wine world, his influence in affecting drinking habits and the trade in India is almost non-existent. The Parker effect, if any, happens indirectly and outside the country’s boundaries where prices are decided as per his ratings. Inside India, so far there has been no indication of any significant impact of his ratings and reviews.

Why Parker and his ratings are not important in the current Indian wine scene:

1.)  We are not a fine wine consuming nation, which happens to be Parker’s strongest domain. The consumption of wines rated 90+ and more by him is limited to a miniscule part of the wine drinking community in this country (price and availability being the two main reasons). Although there is no data to suggest how small this segment might be, it can be safely assumed that it is in the sub-zero percentage, when compared to the overall price brackets.

The same is true when it comes to collectible and investment grade wines.

2.)  Overwhelming majority of Indian wine consumers do not know the break-up and significance of the 100-point rating scale. Therefore  all the talk about a wine’s placement in the market just based on Robert Parker’s scores does not make any difference. At the most, it is nothing more than a numbers game which only the wine importers like to highlight as strong selling  propositions to the top hotels

3.)  One of the major areas of Parker’s influence is a category which belongs to the futures trade (En Primeur). Since this segment hardly features in the Indian trade, his ratings of these wines are of little or no consequence to the market in the country

4.)  In contrary to suggestions made in the article, even the hospitality industry does not consider it necessary to factor-in Parker or Wine Spectator ratings when selecting wines for their portfolio. Appellation, vintage and brand recognition play much more significant roles in wine selections. Therefore, the reason a 2000 Chateau Petrus ends up in a luxury hotel’s wine list is because the name has a tremendous brand value, belongs to a famous Bordeaux Right Bank appellation (Pomerol) and is from a great vintage. The fact that Parker scored this a perfect 100 is most likely to be a mere coincidence. Now, please don’t suggest that 2000 turned out to be a great vintage because of Parker’s ratings!

Why is this so? Simply because the role of critics in our drinking habits is negligible, to say the least. Ask any sommelier in the country and they will confirm that wines are never sold or selected based on critics’ ratings.

Now coming back to the article in question, and why I was tempted to express my views on the subject. Here are two examples from the article:

Example 1.

delWine1

I feel, this is just over the top! There was a time when this statement would have been true to a large extent but to suggest that he ‘single-handedly controls the wine rating system’ is unreasonable in today’s context. Thanks to many other equally capable (if not more) critics and credible wine review sites, it is no longer a one man show. Nowadays, many serious wine consumers and fine wine investors refer to multiple reviews and ratings before choosing their wines.

Leading wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com have realized this fact and it is becoming more and more common to find multiple ratings for a particular wine:

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

Example 2.

delWine2

The statement above is only partially true. No doubt that such scores are likely to add to the wine’s commercial value, but there are many wines scored 90 and below by Parker which are considered great value for money (better quality to price ratio). Additionally, there are also those which receive better scores later, following a period of bottle-aging. Generally, Parker mentions about the likely evolution of certain lower scoring wines into better products, in his tasting notes.

The rise and influence of the wine critic in conventional wine cultures is best exemplified by Robert Parker. An institution in himself, he has re-written the rules of the game which, many believe, will be the cornerstone of wine critiquing business for a long time to come. But as new wine cultures are born and new market dynamics emerge, Parker’s legacy may not have the same relevance. India is one such market where the man with ‘The Million Dollar Nose’ is yet to make a mark. Only time will tell if the Parker brand is able to mesmerise the Indian wine lover in times to come as it has for decades in other parts of the world.

Cheers,

Niladri

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

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