While India remains the world's largest whisky-drinking nation, consuming approximately 1.5 billion litres a year, over the past decade and a half wine culture has been making steady inroads into the drinking habits of Indians. Earlier this month, Mumbai-based Sonal Holland struck a blow for India's oenophile credentials by becoming the first Indian to be recognised as a Master of Wine by the prestigious London-based Institute of Masters of Wine.
This is no easy feat: only 353 people have been declared wine masters by the 60-year-old institute. "Approximately 100 candidates apply every year, less than four pass," Holland told HuffPost India. "It is easily one of the most difficult exams to pass in the world, and the institute holds an unsurpassable reputation."
Acquiring the title entails passing a rigorous series of theoretical and practical exams -- which included blind tasting 36 wines over three days -- and submitting a research paper. Holland's submission covered urban Indian wine consumers. The exams cover every possible aspect of wine culture, both as a craft and as a business. MWs (Masters of Wines) comprise the world's best wine community and are invited worldwide to lend their voices as experts in the field.
Holland received a call on 5 September confirming her new title. "It was Ganesh Chaturthi, and I was in the middle of my puja," she recalls. "It was like a call from heaven. The executive director Penny Richards called me herself at 5:30 in the morning (her time) to tell me, and I was ecstatic."
Unsurprisingly, Holland's journey started over a glass of wine over a decade ago. Holland and her husband share a glass of wine every evening, and they came across an article by a leading wine critic that they liked very much. "I remember thinking and debating that we didn't have anyone like this in India and decided then that I would convert my passion into a career."
Holland gave up a senior position at a Fortune-500 company and spent the next two months travelling before signing up with the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) in London. "I was feeling quite jaded in a mundane corporate job. It was a good job, but I wanted to give in to my entrepreneurial spirit. This was the perfect place to start," she says.
Initially Holland considered getting into easier ventures, such as a head hunting company, but finally settled for becoming a wine ambassador because she believed that that was her true calling. "Looking back, it was a strategic move also because [at that time] there was no one else who could be, what you can call, a wine voice," she says. "Just a handful of self-proclaimed experts without any credentials in a country that seemed to be slowly opening itself to the culture of wine drinking as an intellectual sport."
Over the last ten years, Holland has opened a series of ventures for wine enthusiasts in India. After providing consultancy services to several hotels and restaurants, something that she continues to do, Holland opened a wine academy in 2009. The academy's certification courses are affiliated with her erstwhile institute, WSET. Eager to share her knowledge, she followed it up with a series of videos under the name WineTV, that feature wine reviews, wine education and wine-based experiences globally.
Holland remains keen to introduce more people to the pleasures of wine drinking. Recently, she launched a membership-based wine club called SoHo that offers curated experiences and selections of wines for different occasions. "For now, this only takes place in Mumbai, but the aim is to go pan-India," she says. "We have access to over 200 imported wines in India... but go to a liquor store, and you will see the same staid, old bottles that have been around for ages. For wine lovers to indulge their passion, they need to know where to go and what to ask for."
Holland is aware that the wine industry is still only a tiny segment of the Indian liquor industry. But she is encouraged by its growth rate. "After a lot of research, it's evident that wine is becoming one of the fastest growing alcoholic segments, at 14.5 percent per year, as compared to whisky that has a growth rate of less than 5 percent annually," she says.
Fond as she is of drinking beer (which is another stiff competitor in the market today), Holland remains unperturbed by its potential as a rival to wine drinking. "The two types of alcohols have very different consumers," she says. "Wine is viewed as a healthier option to drink than other alcohols. It has nutrients in it, unlike other alcohols, and is a rich source of potassium. It is also excellent for people with high blood pressure."
Wine, according to Holland, is also viewed as a less potent poison in India. "By this reason alone, it then makes for the perfect social drink. A glass of wine in your hand will say elegant, not hungover or wasted the next day. It is a sophisticated drink, unlike beer which is a cooler beverage but won't lend classiness to any occasion," she elaborates.
This also explains why Indian women are taking to wine in a big way, according to Holland. "Research has shown that women feel drinking wine at societal events is perfectly acceptable, and they are more comfortable with it as compared to other spirits. Certainly not beer," she says. "If you look at tier-2 cities, this is a very encouraging trend. As almost a half of the population, women are driving the wine revolution in our country."
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