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

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Memories from the land of Riesling – Part 1

Famous vineyards overlooking the Mosel river

A journey to classic wine regions is nothing short of a pilgrimage for wine lovers, and when such a sojourn is complemented by a combination of exploring the hidden vinous treasures and local gastronomic delights, it certainly becomes a once-in-a-lifetime event. My recent visit to the Mosel and Nahe wine regions of Germany, as part of a small group of wine enthusiasts from India, was one such experience. A first-hand exposure to the wine-growing nuances of the country’s two most famous wine regions was both invaluable and exhilarating.

Germany has all the hallmarks of a quintessential wine country where rich tradition plays a major role in dictating its overall wine profile. Be it the wine-grower’s passion for the vineyards and their terroir, the age-old (but fast-evolving) wine-making practices which follow least-invasive techniques of production, highly refined wine laws or the intrinsic part wine plays in its culture and folklore; everything about the country is a wine aficionado’s delight.

We stayed in a chalet-styled hotel in the quaint and sleepy but stunningly pretty wine town of Trittenheim on the famous Mosel Weinstrasse (Mosel Wine Route), a perfect place to set up base for exploring wine regions of both Mittelmosel (middle Mosel) as well as the adjoining areas of Saar and Ruwer (the two tributaries of Mosel and highly recognised wine districts).

The famous Piesporter Goldtropchen vineyard overlooks the Mosel, just behind the familiar cathedral tower

The four-day trip took us to many famous vineyard sites synonymous with some of the most acclaimed wines of Germany; the likes of Piesporter Goldtropchen, Juffer Sonnenuhr, Trittenheimer Apotheke, Scharzhofberger, Ockfener Bockstein and Oberemmeler Hutte (I know, German names can be real tongue-twisters :)), to name a few. For someone who rates German Rieslings as the epitome of quality and sensual pleasure, it was nothing short of a tremendous sense of fulfillment for me to visit their birthplaces and understanding the unique growing conditions.

These wines are some of the most distinct styles in the world and time spent in these vineyards are without a doubt one of the most practical ways to appreciate their quality. The slate-rich soil, steep slopes overlooking the gently meandering river, the vineyards’ orientation (exposure to the sun), sunlight reception by the vines, overall vine management practices, grape ripening pattern depending on a vine’s location etc. – each has a role to play in their distinctive character.

Our visit to the vineyards was followed by the exploration of the region’s winemaking techniques and conducted tastings of every style of Riesling possible…more on the local winemakers and reviews of some chosen wines in the second part of this post.

Apart from winery and vineyard hopping, we also managed to keep ourselves occupied with many other activities, two of which I strongly recommend if you ever happen to visit the region. First, make sure that you go on the Mosel river cruise without fail…you’ll love it, believe me. For wine lovers, a trip here minus this cruise is like visiting Venice and not taking a Gondola ride. You will be spoilt for choice in terms of photo opportunities, for there are iconic vineyards dotted all the way on the canvas-like slopes overlooking the river, plus nature’s other un-spoilt splendours. And yes, do not forget to carry an assortment of local Rieslings…they will not only keep your vinous senses active but will also give you a sense of how being in paradise might feel!

The region’s rich wine offerings are complemented by exquisite cuisine made from fresh local produce. Be it the light-textured but somewhat sweet Mosel Trout and other fishes, juiciest of meats, tangy and smoky cured meats, flavourful berries or a range of cheese, this part of Germany surely measures up to any other top gastronomic destination of the world.

Gourmet cuisine made from local ingredients…gastronomic bliss!
Lunch amidst the Kesselstatt vineyards in Saar. Unbeatable experience!

To savour the local food and wine you can either head to the historic town of  Trier with its myriad of road-side cafes or one of the  fine dining restaurants (like the Russell’s) in Trittenhiem. But nothing can beat the experience of sampling the best of local food and wine surrounded by lush green vines, like the one that was organized for us by the Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt winery in the middle of their Scharzhoffberger vineyard.

Here are some more chosen images from my trip:

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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

Insights into India’s most comprehensive wine training program

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

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

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

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

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

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

WSET Level 3 Certification Debuts in India

ITC Hotels raise the antennae for wine

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

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

Political correctness – is the wine world setting a (negative) trend?

As part of an annual ritual, I was taking stock of the year gone by, in terms of the wine media’s role in highlighting issues which impact the larger wine community. While there was no dearth of regular ‘hot topics’ (the En Primeur campaign, effect of global warming on the wine industry, acquisitions and dumping of brands, et al.), it was probably the Asian (read Chinese) juggernaut which created the most storm. But amidst all these, one story particularly stood out in terms of underscoring the rampant political correctness which exists in various quarters of the wine world, mainly dwelled by self-proclaimed custodians of standard wine industry ‘rules’.

I am referring to the thought-provoking findings of Tim Hanni MW, published late last year, regarding the taste preferences of majority of common wine consumers. In a nutshell, the study busted the popular myth that people with liking for drier (and intense) style of wines have more evolved and refined palate than those who prefer a degree of sweetness in their liquid. To make matters even more unpalatable for the ‘PC brigade’, it also suggested that ‘distinct physiological differences in human sensory anatomy indicates that the people with the greatest taste sensitivity may well indeed be White Zinfandel drinkers and not the consumers of highly rated, intense red wines’. You can find all about the story here.

Is the wine world too stuffy with clichés and stereotypes? Are ideas and thoughts only ‘innovative’ and ‘groundbreaking’ if they tow the conventional beliefs? Is the wine intelligentsia too obsessed with set conventions? And most importantly, do these set beliefs negatively impact wine consumer’s choices and drinking behaviours?

Those (including me, of course) who feel that wine should be enjoyed on one’s own terms, will equivocally reply in the affirmative to the above, whereas they might simply be preposterous to many on the other side of the spectrum.

Although Hanni’s revelations were by no means representative of the larger wine world’s preferences, it did throw up some interesting facts which cannot be discounted or dismissed. But that is exactly what emerged out of some of the reactions which followed the publication of the study. One that stood out for me was a discussion on the Purple Pages forum. The gentleman who started the thread on this topic, termed him a ‘publicity-seeking loon’ and a ‘charlatan and mad’. Although the Queen of Wine rightly rebutted these statements subsequently, it did leave a bitter taste in the mouth and proved the point that extreme political correctness is indeed existent and has its roots in a system too rigid to encourage emancipation in wine enjoyment.

Talking of personal experiences; one of my earlier posts on Champagne generated sharp reactions on a professional networking forum, merely because it suggested that Champagne is an overrated wine (a belief I still firmly hold, albeit with exceptions). Too offbeat and scandalous a thought perhaps!!

Another incident which springs to mind was during a corporate dinner, where, as the sommelier, I recommended a full-bodied Grenache-dominated blend from southern Rhone with a spicy Indian seekh kebab. I was convinced that this was a great match as the intensity of this wine married well with the spices and neither the food nor the wine dominated each other. But the cliché that ‘Indian-food-goes-well-with-Gewurztraminer’ was so strong that the majority in the room were too apprehensive to give it a try. So they decided to stick to the Gewurz. A couple of months later I received an email from one of the attendees praising my recommendation, which she tried in an up-market restaurant while travelling as a tourist in India. The mail was CCd to most who attended that dinner…Deja vu!

The wine world has come a long way since the days when archaic rules, such as ‘white wine with white meat’, dictated wine drinking habits. Many schools of thought, endorsing various ways of enjoying wine, have since evolved, which are helping enthusiasts to make informed choices, and all this bodes very well for the wine industry. Let’s hope this trend continues and political correctness prevails.

Cheers,

Niladri