From sacrifice to opportunity, Sonal Holland talks about her journey to becoming India’s first Master of Wine and why wine in her home country is so exciting
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.
Why did you decide to attain your Master of Wine and what were the greatest challenges for you in achieving it?
I knew Jancis Robinson was a Master of Wine, which made me start researching it. I realised that it’s the ultimate title to hold in the world of wine and I wanted to build a career that was based on solid credentials and qualifications. There was also no Master of Wine in India and becoming the country’s first was a challenge I wanted to take on.
I quickly realised that I was being naïve. You can’t go straight for the Master of Wine; I first had to gain some WSET qualifications and do the two-year diploma. I then applied for the Master of Wine and became the first Indian to be accepted, which was thrilling. However, the next five years were the most arduous of my life. They kept me away from home for extended periods and it was a significant investment of money, effort and time away from family.
My daughter was just one year old when I enrolled and there were times when I questioned why I was doing it as I travelled a lot to visit vineyards, meet winemakers and go to trade shows and tastings. I used to think my daughter would grow up and not recognise me, and I felt terrible about that and wondered whether I should take a year or two off. But my husband kept reminding me why I had decided to do it and that of course she would know me and one day be proud of me. I don’t think I could have done it had I not had so much support. Any Master of Wine will tell you that without the right support it’s just not possible to stay on the programme, and I was very fortunate to have that.
What characteristics / qualities do you think you need to have to become a Master of Wine? Do you have any advice for others who might be looking to achieve the MW?
You need to have grit. That’s what makes you persevere despite setbacks. I knew exactly what I wanted to do after I became a Master of Wine. I had already envisioned my life as an MW in India, the business initiatives I was going to launch, and how I wanted to take my career forward—and becoming an MW was a prerequisite.
For those thinking about doing it, I say go for it. Don’t overanalyse. Had I done so, I wouldn’t be where I am today. People often overthink whether it’s the right time in their lives, but you will never have five years free to do the MW; the opportune time is when you take it.
What are the most overlooked wines/regions/grapes in your opinion and why?
I think every country has its famous regions as well as its share of overlooked regions. Take California—everyone knows Napa and Sonoma, but what about Paso Robles, which is home to some of the oldest vines in the country and fifth generation winemakers, or coastal Santa Cruz where you find fresher, elegant styles of wine unlike the bold, rich, high-alcohol styles often associated with California?
In Australia, we know Barossa, McLaren Vale and Coonawarra, but what about Langhorne Creek where you find wine houses that go back 150 to 200 years and terrific shiraz and grenache. France, too, has its overlooked wine regions. The greats of Burgundy and Bordeaux get all the attention, but I find the diversity of the Loire Valley and its wines to be amazing.
I come from one of the most unknown and undiscovered wine regions in the world: India. I think we have the potential to make great chenin blanc—a massively underrated grape in itself, and sangiovese, of which we are already doing some terrific examples.
The world of wine is diverse and fascinating. We should keep discovering new styles, new varieties and new regions and in that spirit every region deserves a chance, at least once. If you want to be knowledgeable or discover the world of wine in its entirety, you must explore beyond what you think you enjoy because you never know what you might find.
What are the some of the most over-rated wines/grapes/wine regions in your opinion and why?
I think Bordeaux and Burgundy get an unfair amount of attention in the wine world. I’m not saying the wines aren’t great—of course they are, and they deserve every accolade—but to me the prices are rarely justified.
Do you have any favourite food and wine pairings, particularly with Asian food?
I recently had dinner at an Indian restaurant in London where we had the Torbreck Runrig, a South Australian shiraz-viognier blend, with some black dahl. It was an unusual pairing, but it worked wonderfully. The wine is fragrant and elegant with lovely, smooth tannins. It was a 2017, so had gone through some ageing, but the fruit of the wine really uplifted the understated buttery flavours of the lentils, and it was a terrific combination.
I enjoy exploring pairing wine with Indian food as it can be really interesting. I recently had an Austrian grüner veltliner with sev-puri, a local street-food, and it worked very well. I hate that many people think Indian food doesn’t pair well with wine. But, having said that, I think a lot of Indians don’t think too much about the pairing aspect. We love to enjoy food and wine together, but are not always acutely analysing what’s working. And that’s what I say to producers: don’t think too hard about whether your wines pair well with Indian food. If they are tasting well and are delicious, Indians will enjoy them with food regardless of how technically perfect the pairing is.
How often do you drink wine—for work and for pleasure? Is it challenging to stay healthy working in an industry like wine and do you have any tips for those who do?
Some weeks give me more opportunities to taste wines than others. For example, when we are ranking wines for the India Wine Awards, there is a lot of tasting. I’m also fortunate to be sent a lot of samples for comment or to be considered for import or listing in our retail stores. And I thrive on the opportunity to taste so widely and so often. However, when I taste I always spit. I made that a discipline in life. I could be at home when no one is looking or at a formal tasting or it could be an incredible wine that I’m tempted to drink, but I always spit when sampling. When it comes to drinking, I choose carefully and rarely drink more than twice a week and always in moderation.
How has wine in India—its status and perception—changed during your career?
Five years ago, if I walked into someone’s home or went to a wedding, I wouldn’t be confident that wine would be on the menu. Today, it is a mainstream drink offered both at home and in restaurants and found at weddings and corporate parties. Women in India are also taking to wine in a big way as they see it as an elegant, healthier and more socially acceptable alternative to spirits. Young millennials are embracing wine, too. They may have less knowledge about wine but are undaunted by the subject and willing to learn. Even Bollywood now openly shows its female leads drinking wine, which you never would have seen several years ago.
What do you think of wines produced in India itself – are there any wines / grapes / producers / regions that you would like to highlight that you believe should be on people’s radar?
The main wine region in India is Nashik, from where 80% of India’s wine is produced. There’s also a cluster of very good wineries in Bengaluru. The best-known Indian wineries are Sula Vineyards, Grover Vineyards and Fratelli Wines and they have all gone to great lengths to make their wines available both within India—75% of the wine consumed in the country is Indian wine—and overseas to put India on the global wine map.
Sula Vineyards not only has robust worldwide distribution of its wines, but has built an incredible tourism facility offering wine-tasting tours, rooms to accommodate wine tourists, and curated wine lunches and dinners, while Grover Vineyards has scooped awards for its wines at virtually every international competition and proudly claims to be the most awarded Indian winery.
Fratelli Wines has forged collaborations with international wine professionals and companies. It worked with late wine expert Steven Spurrier on its MS wines, and its J’noon wines are made in partnership with Jean-Charles Boisset, who owns the Boisset Collection, which operates 28 wineries around the world. It’s a big deal for an international wine critic or brand to collaborate on a wine in India and is an endorsement of the current and future potential of Indian wine.
One other winery I would highlight is Krsma Estates, which is located in Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has a small production volume but makes my favourite cabernet sauvignon—a really good example that is very Bordeaux-inspired, and a noteworthy sangiovese.
Has Covid-19 and the global pandemic affected your work in wine and if so, how?
The immediate impact was evident because when the first wave struck, India went into a complete lockdown and all work came to a jarring halt. All our businesses—education, consulting, retail—came to a standstill. Education then started picking up, as people found they had more free time and decided to invest in further learning, and we were quick to go digital with the Sonal Holland Wine Academy. Once shops were allowed to open, our retail boomed because there was increased at-home consumption with hotels, restaurants and bars closed. In recent months, India has gained a lot of prominence as a market in Asia to do business in and our consultancy has been approached by wine bodies and companies from around the world that have shown interest in entering the wine market in India. This is the good thing about being diversified as a wine professional—while we have been unable to host the India Wine Awards and our events business has collapsed, our consultancy, retail and online education took off.
If you had to choose your last bottle of wine, and price/availability were not a factor, what would it be and why?
I could say something outrageously expensive from Burgundy but whatever my last bottle, it would have to be something massively delicious and I would want to enjoy it with my family.
What do you love most about working in wine?
I love the fact that no two days are alike, and that wine continues to extract the best out of me and keeps pushing me to try and develop different skillsets. Whether it’s educating, consulting, communicating or creating great content, wine pushes me to become a more well-rounded professional. It’s also very exciting to be an entrepreneur in a market like India where there are so many opportunities to launch game-changing initiatives that contribute to the positive growth of wine and its culture in the country.
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