Raising a Glass to Sommeliers

Amrita Singh, president of SAI, flanked by vice-presidents, Salvatore Castano and Mattia Antonio Cianca

It was February 2024, the location was Monaco. The occasion was the Annual General Assembly and the celebrations of the 55th anniversary of the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) were in full swing. The three-day session saw multiple events take place, including a black-tie gala dinner abounding with exceptional food and wine. But of greatest importance to the organization was the admission of new applicant members into their fold.

Mattia, along with Salvatore, is vice-president, Sommeliers Association of India in charge of education and competitions

Amrita Singh DipWSET was at Monaco by invitation of the ASI, representing the brand-new entity, Sommeliers Association of India (SAI), to present its vision and mission statement to the ASI Executive Board and presidents of 65 member countries. When the announcement came, it was greeted with resounding applause. SAI had been voted unanimously to be inducted into the ASI’s College of Applicants and had been granted membership. It was a dream come true and the right time for India.

Bordeaux-based Amrita Singh and her business partner, Mattia Antonio Cianca DipWSET were no strangers to the Indian wine industry. They had been visiting India since 2022. Over these visits, they realized that India was awakening to the potential of drinking wine as a beverage of choice. Wine drinkers were increasing in number and the quality of wine made by Indian producers was improving greatly with a new focus on premiumization. The demand for imported wines was growing apace along with an increasing interest in diverse and high-quality alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages. Amrita and Mattia had watched this up close while interacting with members of the industry.

“We have been working with the sommelier community and mentoring aspiring students in India since 2022, conducting tastings and masterclasses in Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as providing work experience for them during Vinexpo in Mumbai and Delhi in 2022 and ProWine Mumbai 2023.”

They had noticed a hunger among young industry professionals to seek better prospects, quality education and career guidance. But in a country as large as India, divided into 28 states and 8 Union territories with varying degrees of access to wine, finding professional support was a struggle.

This observation coincided with what Amrita had noticed at top international wine industry events. “I attended the Best Sommelier of the World competition in Paris last year to support Mattia, who was representing Italy. We noticed that while there was representation from many Asian countries, India, with the largest and youngest population in the world and considered a benchmark in hospitality standards, was missing from the lineup.”

That set them thinking: Youngsters in the Indian wine industry, not to mention the growing band of aficionados and professionals needed access to international connections that would expose them to the best in the world. The opportunities would follow, be it in education, jobs or competitions.

Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa 2021, Salvatore Castano
is vice-president, Sommeliers Association of India

Amrita, Mattia and Salvatore connected with Nina Basset FIH, the founding trustee of the Gerard Basset Foundation, who had earlier served as secretary-general and has been an integral part of the ASI for many years. Nina introduced them to the ASI to understand the requirements for membership and they started work on creating an entity in India that ensured compliance on all fronts. This resulted in an invitation to attend the Annual General Assembly in Monaco.

The all-new Sommeliers Association of India will be launched as a non-profit organization. Besides Amrita who will be president, Mattia and Salvatore Castano (Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa 2021) will join as vice-presidents in charge of education and competitions. Vinod Abrol (ex- CFO Jabong, head of private investment at SAR family office) will come on board as vice-president, financial and legal.

“Our endeavour has not only been to create the Sommeliers Association of India but also to get it affiliated to ASI at the very outset,” explains Amrita. “All of us are busy professionals for whom SAI is a passion project rather than a commercial opportunity. And, all year long we have invested our time, effort and resources for the timely launch of SAI in July 2024. Reva K Singh, publisher and editor-in-chief of Sommelier India is our media partner.”

“When I founded India’s first wine magazine 20 years ago, I called it Sommelier India,” said Reva. “And now — here we are at the launch of the Sommelier Association of India! It’s been a long journey and I couldn’t be more thrilled or proud.”

It is the opportune moment for the launch of an internationally-affiliated body that will bring India into special focus and provide Indian professionals opportunities on the world stage, notes Amrita. As the palate of the Indian consumer became more refined, there was a growing need for skilled, knowledgeable professionals to guide and educate both consumers and industry stakeholders.

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“Therefore, with our own deep appreciation of India’s rich cultural diversity and rapidly evolving gastronomic scene, we believe that the formation of a national sommelier association will play a pivotal role in elevating the standards of the beverage industry,” she said.

“Qualifications and competitions are the keystones to getting the exposure and opportunities required to improve members’ skills and knowledge, and to network with the community,” Mattia added. “The main goal is to discover the best version of yourself.”

Salvatore believes the affiliation of Sommeliers Association of India with ASI will put every member sommelier at par with international sommeliers. “India has massive potential. Recognition as an ASI-affiliated sommelier will open up job opportunities around the world, as there is a shortage of good sommeliers worldwide.”

Saiko Tamura-Soga, ASI vice-president for Asia & Pacific pictured with Amrita Singh

SAI’s formal launch in July 2024 will signal that the wine community in India is prepped and ready to join the big league of international wine professionals and wine lovers. Following the launch, individuals — sommeliers, wine industry professionals, beverage students and aficionados — will get the opportunity to apply for membership to SAI.

SAI’s offerings would be three-fold: memberships that allow multiple benefits to those enrolling, including access to international competitions at the highest level, Best Sommelier of Asia & Pacific and Best Sommelier of the World — a contest held every three years — and competing with the best in the world. This is an opportunity to join famous names who have won the title of Best Sommelier of the World, like the late Gerard Basset, UK, Raimonds Tomsons, Latvia, Markus Del Monego, Germany, Marc Almert, Germany and Andreas Larsson, Sweden among many other renowned names.

What’s more, members will have access to international standards of training and education. Non-professional members and wine aficionados would get the benefit of access to a network of professionals who share the same passion for wine.

L-R: 2023 ASI Best Sommelier of World contest: Nina Jensen
from Denmark, Runner – Up; Raimonds Tomsons from Latvia,
Winner; and Reeze Choi from China, Second Runner-Up

“This is a way to cultivate curiosity that can turn into a passion,” says Mattia. “SAI is creating detailed plans to organize events, conferences, and trade shows, including collaborative initiatives such as exchange programmes between sommeliers from different countries, facilitated through the ASI.”

There will be a clear focus on cultural integration as well, that would embrace and celebrate the cultural diversity of India by incorporating regional wine traditions and cuisines into SAI’s educational programmes for different categories and different member profiles, including the exploration of local and global wine and food pairings.

The concept of wine pairing with Indian food will also get a fillip, adds Mattia. “Food and wine pairing in India is an evolving concept. There is much more to it than spicy Indian cuisine being paired best with wines with residual sugar. One of SAI’s major focus areas will be to develop the experience of diverse Indian foods with Indian and international wines.”

Mattia has forged some close connections while in India and has studied the needs of the community. He understands that SAI’s benefits should extend beyond its main focus, which is wine, to include other spirits and beverages that India is big on. “This is a platform where all wine and spirits education providers will co-exist. SAI will organize educational packages as well as conduct the official Best Sommelier of India competition for the Indian beverage industry, which will allow winning sommeliers to represent India in international competitions.”

Vinod Abrol, ex-CFO Jabong, head of private investment at SAR family office

The Indian wine industry will also receive special attention, says. Amrita. SAI plans to actively promote and support the growth of the Indian wine industry by organizing events, tastings, and promotions, and establishing partnerships with Indian wineries to showcase their products and encourage greater appreciation for the diversity of Indian wines.

The advantages of an Indian national-level association that is India-centric and yet has access to top international links, are immense. One benefit is the requirement for adherence to international norms of conduct. SAI will have its own constitution and code of ethics for its members, but will also adhere to the strict code of conduct laid out by ASI.

Vinod Abrol’s message is clear: “Sommeliers Association of India is developing its own code of ethics in alignment with the ASI. We want to advocate for responsible alcohol consumption and ethical practices within the alcohol and beverage industry in India as well as develop guidelines and best practices for sustainable and eco-friendly approaches to wine and other beverage service. ”

Eventually, as plans fall into place after the launch, SAI intends to create a diverse group of wine lovers and professionals across India, who, in the words of the late Gerard Basset, “would not just know wine, but can help others understand and appreciate it.”

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