The Wonderful World of Wines, an interview with an Indian Sommelier and ISC Runner-Up

Brinda Gill interviews Gaurav Dixit, restaurant manager and sommelier at The Leela Mumbai, and First Runner-Up at the 2018 Indian Sommelier Championship

How did you get introduced to wine?
My journey in the field of wines started at The Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, in 2011. I joined the hotel as a butler. I had no knowledge of wines and started from scratch. Whenever I heard or met someone talking about wine I was fascinated because the word brought with it an element of charm, wonderful stories and created a special moment. I slowly started reading wine labels, asking my seniors questions including some simple and stupid questions, and steadily built up my interest.

Was there any one incident that spurred you to learn about wines?
Yes, in fact an embarrassing moment. I remember when a guest at Varq, the fine dining restaurant at Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel serving modern gourmet Indian cuisine, asked me to serve him a glass of Pouilly Fuisse, I served him Pouilly Fumé, thinking it was the same wine! I never knew that both were completely different wines. It was a tough evening for me because I had an unhappy guest and my manager was very angry. I think that’s the day I decided to start learning seriously about wine. Later I started to enjoy it because when you begin to understand wine you have extra confidence to speak about it to a guest and have a conversation.

How did you decide to participate in the Indian Sommelier Championship?
I grew up in the industry seeing the previous champions of the ISC and the creator and founder of ISC Magandeep Singh and Gagan Sharma tasting and identifying wines from across the world, and explaining wine profiles in great detail. I was so impressed by their knowledge. In fact, they would give me wine to taste but at that point of time I knew very little except that wine was red, white or sparkling. However, they were very encouraging. The Indian Sommelier Championship is in itself a luxury because you get to taste the best of the wines; you get to know their history. Apart from wines, they also teach you about different spirits, cocktails, sake and what not! Every a wine enthusiast wishes to participate in the championship. In 2014, I decided to take part but due to lack of knowledge it took me three more years to prepare.

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How did you prepare for the ISC?
To prepare for the championship one has to learn the basics of wine and cultivate excellent service skills. Confidence is the key. One should serve wines and speak about wines with a smile on the face! To have confidence one needs to practise as much as possible. That’s where, as sommeliers, we have an extra advantage, because this is what we do in our everyday work.

I signed up for the championship in 2017 and then in 2018, at my second attempt, I had the benefit of prior experience having participated the previous year. This helped me a lot. We are expected to know Indian wines inside out because we are the ones who represent our country in the wider wine industry. I would like to mention two key teachers during this finale. They are Atul Tiwari, Assistant F&B Manager and Sommelier and Champion of the 7th ISC and Ravi Batra – Sommelier at Massive Restaurants.

What was it like to interact with the judges at the ISC?
Interacting with the judges was remarkable. I had to perform as though I was serving a group of four guests in my restaurant. The judges asked me questions and I answered them. However, there were some trick questions and also questions on Indian wine history. Some situation handling tasks where everyone gets nervous and the one who isn’t nervous gets the score.

Are you involved with any wine programs?
I am a part of corporate Central Purchase Contract tasting panel for the Leela Group wherein before we add any new label to our wine selection, we do tastings and have discussions on whether to include it in our wine portfolio. At The Leela Mumbai, we also believe in spreading our love for wine by conducting master classes at Le Cirque Signature to celebrate different international wine days.

What are your plans for the future? 
My plan is to keep learning, keep growing and tasting more and more wine. India is a great country and coming up in the global wine market very fast. However, people lack awareness about Indian wines. We have to be ambassadors for our country’s wines. I am one of them already. I know that the product is fantastic and everyone who tries Indian wines loves them.