Less than 500 people have passed the Master of Wine exams since 1953, and there are currently just 420 Masters of Wine in the world. That’s fewer people with MW after their name than have been to space. This is partly because the exams to achieve the coveted qualification from the UK-based Institute of Masters of Wine—comprised of extensive theory learning, blind tastings and a 10,000-word research paper—are notoriously rigorous, taking a minimum of three years to complete with pass rates of around just 10%. In our series, Meet The Master, we talk to MWs about their journey to mastery, those formidable exams and what in the wine world is wowing them right now, from fun pairings to under-rated regions to the rapid developments taking place within wine in Asia.
Over the last decade, wine has consistently been the fastest growing alcoholic beverage in India. But back in 2007, when Sonal Holland decided to give up her job in sales for a career in wine, the market for wine was still nascent. Holland, however, recognised its potential and a decade later, not only had she achieved her Master of Wine but had been appointed head of wine for ITC Hotels and had set up the Sonal Holland Wine Academy where she began conducting WSET courses, understanding that in order for the wine industry in India to flourish, knowledge needed to grow.
A command of all aspects of wine followed, as Holland went on to found the India Wine Awards, which ranks the wines—both domestic and international—available in India as well as restaurants with the best wine programmes; wine consultancy SoHo Wine Consultants to advise companies looking to gain a foothold in the country’s wine market; SoHo Wine Club, offering experiences and events where oenophiles in India can enjoy wine; and a chain of retail stores called Vine2Wine.
“India is a blank canvas; everything has to be built,” says Holland. “It’s great because it allows to you to paint any picture and to be a pioneer as whatever you start you will be among the first, but on the flipside it means you have to create a market because you are ahead of the curve. So, on one hand it’s great to be called a pioneer, but on the other you are working triply hard to build demand. But it’s always fun and exciting.”
Since Holland joined the industry, she has been instrumental in forwarding the wine culture in India. We spoke to Holland to find out more.
What made you want to pursue a career in wine?
I spent the early part of my career in the corporate world. At the age of 28, my goal was to be a CEO with a corner office. At the time, I was working in a Fortune 500 multi-national company, and I wanted to be the country CEO by the time I turned 33. But over the next five years, I decided to reinvent myself. I looked at a number of industries, and finally decided to venture into the field of wine, which was very nascent at the time in India. I didn’t come from a wine background or a winemaking family and wine was incredibly new to India—knowledge and awareness was very low, so it was a very unconventional path to have chosen. But I saw growing opportunities for qualified wine professionals.
I was influenced by Jancis Robinson and her career path. She had been at the forefront of the wine revolution in the UK as it went from zero to hero, which made me want to be among the pioneering professionals in wine in India as it went through a similar metamorphosis and wine became more mainstream. I had no formal training and virtually no knowledge of wine, but I decided to take a leap of faith and pursue wine as a career and I invested the next few years learning about it.