Master of Wine Sonal Holland believes that if laws are regularised, the Indian wine industry can grow faster and become an important wine tourism destination.
Established in 1953, The Institute of Masters of Wine in the United Kingdom is one of the most prestigious wine education organisations in the world. It confers the coveted title of Master of Wine (MW) to those who put in their sweat and blood to study wines. The students must undergo a rigorous procedure to acquire the celebrated MW title. In 2016, Mumbai-based Sonal Holland was honoured with this illustrious title, including her in the elite club of just 389 Masters of Wine across 30 countries.
From founding a wine academy in 2009 to launching a wine retail business this year named Vine2Wine at the Foodhall stores, Holland’s contribution to the wine industry in India has been remarkable. LuxeBook celebrates the leader who dared to go a different path in this spirits issue and speaks with her about the growth and the challenges of the wine industry in India and her retail business.
Holland, also a wine consultant for the restaurant group Gourmet Investments, forayed into the tricky alcohol retail business with Foodhall, a luxury chain of gourmet stores. They, together, conceptualised Vine2Wine, a retail experiential wine store inside Foodhall, which offers its customers an impressive selection of global and domestic wines. “After two years of consulting with Foodhall on their wine stores, the opportunity to take on the retail operations as a wine ‘licensed’ entrepreneur came about organically,” says Holland. Her first wine store inside Foodhall, Santacruz, Mumbai, has the largest aisle in Mumbai, which is dedicated to the finest wines and premium beers. The store stocks 200 labels of wines from around the world like Santa Cristina, Tuscan Tignanello, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chablis Premier Cru, Barossa Shiraz’ and vintage champagnes. “As over 70 per cent of wine consumption is through retail operations, I believe that the future of the wine industry in India lies in modern wine retail. Moreover, well-travelled wine buyers in the country are seeking sophisticated, structured retail experiences,” she adds.
And not just domestic brands even international brands are vying for a chunk of the profitable pie. “For the last two to three years, the wine industry in India has been growing consistently,” says Holland. There has been double-digit growth in the last decade. It’s growing at around 14 to 15 per cent annually. It should, however, be growing at 25 per cent per year. The current numbers are, however, better than the preceding years’,” says the wine expert.
The slow but gradual growth of the wine industry in a whisky-guzzling nation can be attributed to several reasons. “Consumers’ inhibitions have been long shed. Until a few years ago, there was less acceptance,” says Holland. Today, the improved quality of wine made in India, increased imports of international wines and more demand from well-travelled Indian consumers, willing to experiment with their drinks, have opened more doors for wine sellers. “The curiosity about wine and the enthusiasm to try different kinds of wines has certainly grown,” she says.
India’s alcohol industry is one of the highest taxed in the world (150 per cent on imported wines. After adding the state-level duties, the wine becomes four times more expensive than its price at its place of origin). The industry is shackled by the most complex rules and crippling high taxes, and is regulated by antiquated laws. In India, alcohol is a state-wise subject, so wine is regulated at the state level, making the distribution and marketing of wine challenging, especially for new businesses with limited resources. “Constraints of doing business would ease if wine could fall under Central regulations and is subject to GST. This would lead to a rationalisation of rules across states and promote growth,” she says.
Nashik in Maharashtra and other places in the country have the potential to attract domestic and foreign visitors, boosting revenue from tourism and become wine tourism hubs. “Wine tourism as an acknowledged industry also has the power to generate hundreds and thousands of rural jobs, uplifting farmers and profoundly impacting the country’s economy. But this can happen only if wine is acknowledged as an agricultural product and not a product of alcohol,” she says. As India’s only Master of Wine and a custodian of its culture in the country, Holland advocates the consumption and enjoyment of wine responsibly. As an ambassador for wine in the country, “I am constantly attempting to share my knowledge and mould perceptions about wine as a cultured, experiential beverage meant to be sipped and savoured, not guzzled,” she adds.
Holland’s illustrious journey in the wine industry began way back in 2009 when she founded the Sonal Holland Wine Academy, one of India’s popular institutions offering certified WSET wine and spirit courses to hospitality and trade professionals. She is also the Founder & Director of SoHo Wine Club, a popular place with oenophiles, established with an aim to demystify wines. In merely three years, the club has become the epicentre of all things wine – curating a fabulous collection of wines and providing experiences for those with discerning palates.
Holland also supports the local wine industry with her two initiatives, India Wine Insider and India Wine Awards. India Wine Insider in collaboration with London-based Wine Intelligence is a comprehensive survey on the urban Indian wine consumer. This research-backed knowledge paper provides insights on wine consumers in India – trends, wine choices, order preferences, future growth opportunities and more. While India Wine Awards, started in 2017, is one of the most credible wine competitions, and is led by India’s most qualified wine professionals, hospitality leaders and tastemakers.
Holland, a level-4 Diploma in Wines holder from the London-based Wine & Spirits Education Trust, a Diploma holder in Hotel Management from the Institute of Hotel Management in Mumbai and a Masters Degree holder in Business Administration, tries to draw global attention to India’s young beverage industry. Her professional experience as the former Corporate Head of Wine and Beverages at the home-grown luxury hospitality conglomerate ITC Hotels comes in handy every now and then. As the Corporate Head, her focus was to manage the hospitality group’s wine cellar offerings; curate wine events for the patrons; and mentor cadres of WSET-qualified wine professionals.
“As a Master of Wine, I make it a point to go on wine tours across
the world. I am welcomed with open arms and I am also spoilt and pampered,” says Holland. “I have tried wines from 150-year-old wineries of Chateau Le Fief, France as well as a 1969 Chateau Le Fief.” She adds that the Burgundy region of France makes the world’s most expensive wines and that tasting wines at wineries of any region is always an enriching experience.
The India Wine Awards 2019
The third edition of the India Wine Awards (IWA) was conducted last month among much fanfare, with luminaries from the wine and hospitality industry as attendees. Founded by India’s lone Master of Wine Sonal Holland, who is also the Founder & Director of SoHo Wine Club and Sonal Holland Wine Academy; the awards are one of a kind in the country. The IWA are India’s first awards to recognise that at comparable price-points, well-made and premium Indian wines are on par with international ones.
“We want these awards to be world-class. So I used all my international judging experience and knowledge about wines, to understand how best can we build an award function in India that matches the international standards,” says Sonal Holland MW. She thinks that the Indian wine industry is maturing and that the domestic wines are evolving for the better – in taste and quality.
Conducted at The Leela, Mumbai, the event saw 116 winning wines being awarded out of 376 wine nominations. 17 restaurants from across the country were awarded too, for their exquisite wine lists.
The wines were scrutinised and judged for over two days by a panel of 17 experts chaired by Holland. These panellists comprised of wine professionals, hospitality leaders and tastemakers. As per the protocol, the panellists were blindfolded while tasting the wines. So they didn’t have any knowledge of the producers of the wines, the region it came from and the quality of it.
Few of the experts on board to judge, included Taljinder Singh, Senior Vice President SeleQtions & South Mumbai Hotels, General Manager, The Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai & Taj Mahal Tower, Mumbai; Zubin Songadwala, General Manager, ITC Hotels; Namrata Zakaria, Writer & Columnist, Mumbai Mirror; Dietmar Kielnhofer, General Manager, JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar; Ruma Singh, Senior Wine Writer; Subhash Arora, Founder & Editor- delWine, wine writer and wine Judge; and Lalit Rane, sommelier, The St. Regis Mumbai.
“We feel proud that in three years since our launch in 2017, we have established the India Wine Awards as the biggest and the most authoritative wine competition in the country that holds authenticity, credibility, relevance and integrity as its four cornerstones,” says Sonal Holland MW.
The winning wines included ‘17 Diamond Best in Class Trophies’ for the outstanding wines that had top score in the competition results. This year, the popular ‘Best Wine Pairings with Cuisines Popular in India’ category had eight Trophy Winners emerge from 56 wines, paired with six dishes including sushi, Kung Pao Chicken, pizza, Haleem, Thai Green Curry, and Fabelle chocolates from ITC group.
Apart from the trophies, what also grabbed attention at the award ceremony, were the IWA medal stickers that. These stickers categorised as silver, gold and diamond were given to the winners, who could affix them on the wine bottles while retailing their award-winning wines. These stickers will keep the consumers informed about the awards a particular wine has received.
Amongst the many guests who joined the awards evening were
Ian Harris, Global CEO of Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET);
Stefania Costanza, Consul General of Italy in Mumbai; Ravi Vishwanathan, Chairman, Grover Zampa Vineyards; Uday Verma, Executive Director, Lucaris Crystal; Anish Trivedi, whisky evangelist; and Aishwarya Nair, Hotelier, The Leela Group.
A few of the winners of the India Wine Awards 2019
Outstanding World-Class Wine List
• Wasabi by Morimoto, Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai
• The Table, Mumbai
• Polo Club, The Oberoi Bengaluru
• Le Cirque, The Leela Palace New Delhi
• Elan, The Lodhi, New Delhi
• Indian Accent, New Delhi
Best Wine Destination Award
• Romano’s, JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar
• Le Cirque Signature, The Leela Mumbai
• Caprese, Shangri-La Hotel Bengaluru
• Pluck, Pullman New Delhi Aerocity
• Cecconi’s, Mumbai
• Toscano, Bengaluru
• The Wine Company, Gurugram
• Grover Art Collection Viognier 2019, India
• Grover Art Collection Cabernet Shiraz 2019, India
5 of the 43 Gold Medal Winners
• Fratelli MS White 2018, India
• Fratelli SETTE 2015, India
• Vijay Amritraj Reserve Collection Red 2017, India
• Grover Zampa Art Collection Merlot 2019, India
• Grover Zampa Soirée Brut 2018, India
Best upcoming wine destinations
• Qualia, Mumbai
• Townhall , Mumbai
• Bo Tai , New Delhi
• Good Earth Basso NV, India
• Copitas, Four Seasons Hotel Bengaluru at Embassy ONE