The country’s only Master of Wine on putting India on the wine map

On the morning of the jury deliberation session of the recently-concluded India Wine Awards, Sonal Holland confesses that she has not slept a wink. Yet, there she was, bright eyed and impeccably dressed at 8.30 am for the jury briefing.

Quality, when judging, is of paramount consideration, she announces. “Never, ever let a deserving wine go without considering it for a medal it truly deserves.” Her words resound as we sniff, swirl, scrutinise and blind taste dozens of wines through the day. There are debates and intense discussions before scores are entered and sent for tabulation into the holding room where a bank of computers, Excel sheets and hundreds of brown-bagged bottles sit, awaiting their turn at the blind tasting.

Sip on this

The onus is on Holland to deliver a world class competition, and she is aware of it. As a Master of Wine — one of only 380 in the world, and the only one in India thus far — she is expected to be the expert of all wine experts. With that power comes her own responsibilities. “I swore this year would be bigger, better, shinier than the last year,” she says. No small task, since the India Wine Awards were inaugurated just last year. “This time, the venue is bigger, so’s the jury; there’s a section being judged by four Masters of Wine; there are more nominations for the food and wine pairing category,” she says. To this end, the jury tasting is followed in a week by a gala evening, titled Winners’ Night. “Because I want every stakeholder in the industry to feel like a winner.”

Apurva Gawande, the Cordon Bleu-trained head of operations for the India Wine Awards, acknowledges that this year’s edition has grown exponentially. “We had a detailed game plan, with clear allocation of duties from start to finish. At the end, we felt like we had run a marathon and won,” she says. For Winners’ Night, four hundred invitations were sent out, the guest list double the previous year’s. With all of the work involved, Holland confesses that she was “both feet and all 10 fingers busy.”

Wine wisdom

Despite the breathless pace of her life, Holland has pencilled in time for a catch-up chat before the finale. She has also found time to post on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, racing to grab the attention and eyeballs of thousands of consumers on social media. Yet, she is pragmatic, acknowledging that beyond the glitter and glamour, bridges are still being built within the wine industry. “Until five years ago, wine was an afterthought for most,” she says. “And there was a lack of trust in Indian wines. It wasn’t on anyone’s radar — not the media, not Bollywood, not social drinkers.”

But things are changing, and even if India’s notorious red tape and rigorous taxation continue to pose challenges, the steadily growing numbers are encouraging (see below). Indian wine’s overall improvement has also helped build confidence, believes Holland. “There has been a concerted effort to improve quality. Now, there’s a lot more enthusiasm from wine drinkers; they want more choices, both in Indian and imported wines.”

Awards like this also go a long way in boosting the image of Indian wine. “Blind tastings can throw up surprising results. We were often not able to spot the difference between Indian and imported wines while judging. And when a wine gets an award from a wine critic, it’s validation for the consumer. That wine instantly becomes more approachable, less daunting.”

The road ahead

She still has a distance to cover before she can pat herself on the back, she says, as she pauses to offer some advice and predictions: “As an industry, we need to push boundaries in viticulture, discover new terroirs. I believe one day our mid-range brands (₹600 to ₹800) will merge with the luxury (₹1,500 plus) in terms of quality. Mid-range is where the majority of the market share will land when the market explodes.” If Holland has her way, that time will not be too far off.

Later, as the high-octane Winners’ Night unfolds at the ballroom of The Leela Mumbai, I watch the wine industry come together to celebrate — a rare occasion with most Indian wine producers and importers under one roof, applauding their competitors, tasting each others’ wines, indulging in industry chit chat. Master of ceremonies Anish Trivedi’s baritone announces the names of the winners of each segment. Holland, dressed in black and gold with diamonds in her ears, watches the ‘stakeholders’ soak up the accolades. The Sula Vineyards team led by winemaker Karan Vasani gleefully holds aloft its trophies; Grover Vineyards’ Kapil Grover makes a rare appearance onstage to support his team’s triumphs; Good Drops’ Ashwin Rodrigues dances his way to the stage to collect his award.

There is no denying that this is the perfect feelgood moment for the wine industry.


India Wine Insider 2018

The latest edition of Holland’s own wine consumer survey, India Wine Insider, offers new findings that she believes will excite and encourage all stakeholders. “It’s game changing,” she says of the research done in collaboration with the wine insight and branding firm Wine Intelligence, based on in-depth surveys of 1,000 wine drinkers in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune. Here are some discoveries:

  • The female wine drinker in India (43%) is on par with males (57%) in terms of wine consumption, spending habits and attitude towards wine drinking
  • The image of sophistication, paired with taste and lower levels of alcohol compared with other beverages, motivates Indian millennials (18-35 years) to choose wine over other beverages

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 10:43:16 AM |

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