Sonal Holland is one special woman among a billion of us, meet the only Master of Wine from India

She is the first and only Indian woman Master of Wine. The first Indian to enrol into the Institute of Master of Wine. And the first Indian to be conferred an advanced certificate by the exclusive Japan Saké and Shochu Makers Association. With many firsts in her career, Sonal Holland is an inspiration for all those women who dream of a similar career in this field.

   
Sonal Holland-SoHo Wine Club and Sonal Holland Wine Academy

Sonal Holland gave up her career as Director of National Sales at Kelly Services, a fortune 500 company, to do something that was unheard of in India. In late 2007, Sonal stepped into the world of wine, quitting a decade long corporate career to pursue her passion for wine. She moved to the UK in 2008 to study wine, with no prior experience in the field.

Back then, the annual wine consumption in India was less than 1.5 million cases approximately which has now steadily grown to about 5 million cases per year. The numbers have doubled only over the last 10-12 years, with a double-digit growth per annum and the maximum growth in these numbers can be attributed to the last 5 years. Wine has outplayed spirits and beers in this regard, making it the fastest-growing commodity in Alco-Bev in India.

During this course, she earned a Level 4 Diploma in Wines from the London based Wine & Spirits Education Trust. In 2011, Sonal was the first Indian to enter the Institute of Masters of Wine. With her hard work over the years, she became the first and only Indian in 2016 to have been conferred the coveted title of Master of Wine, by the prestigious Institute of Masters of Wine, a title accorded to less than 400 professionals across 30 countries since the institute’s inception in 1953: making her the quintessential voice of wine in India. 

With many achievements under her belt, Sonal is a pioneer in the Indian wine industry and has established herself as a master of wine, an entrepreneur, a certified wine educator, mentor and a content creator. She is the founder of the SoHo Wine Club and the Sonal Holland Wine Academy. One of her latest accolades is an advanced certification in Saké and Shochu, conferred on her by the exclusive Japan Saké and Shochu Makers Association in February 2020. Meet Sonal Holland, as SME Futures catches up with her and she talks about the various facets of her dream career.

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Edited Excerpts:

You are a pioneer in the wine industry of India. What made you choose this path, leaving behind your corporate lifestyle?

At the age of 28, my ultimate career goal was to have a corner office. At that time, I worked in a NASDAQ-listed Fortune 500 multinational company as their Director of Sales with the aspiration of becoming the Country CEO by 33.

Over the next five years, I changed my mind. I reconsidered my position on staying employed and focused on a new aspiration; that of reinventing myself in a new avatar, as a wine-entrepreneur, invested in the business of wine.

The decision to become an entrepreneur in wine was unconventional, even more so as a woman in India, because the whisky-dominant industry has traditionally been male dominated. That’s when I began to see the opportunities that existed for a qualified wine professional in the nascent wine industry and decided to make a strategic shift to explore a career in wines.

I was ambitious, hardworking and a rank outsider, but I had the grit and determination to persevere and pursue my passion for wine. The hard work paid off, and in 2016, I became the most decorated wine professional in India, bestowed with the world’s most prestigious wine title, Master of Wine (MW) with a present count of only 409 MW’s across 30 countries.

I’m the first and only Indian to have done so, but I am sure I won’t be the last.

What was the most difficult time during this journey of transformation, what challenges did you face, how did you cope?

Becoming a Master of Wine in a country like India came with its own unique set of challenges. Not only was I working in a traditionally male-dominated industry, but I was also grappling with an audience where women rarely drank or did so in secret. I was therefore up against an audience that didn’t entirely understand what I was trying to promote and why.

Especially in our country, men usually gravitate towards whiskey and beer, or other hard liquor. Wine and women are an easy connect, however it came with its own set of challenges in India.

I’ve worked hard, over the years, to encourage women to see wine as what it is – a classy, healthier, and more socially-civilized drink. Which therefore allows them to drop social taboos and cultural inhibitions related to alcohol, and view wine as a socially acceptable drink within their society.

There will always be someone who tries to pull you down or undermine your abilities. But as a woman who has now created her own domain expertise, I choose to ignore them and walk my path. As a woman entrepreneur in the AlcoBev industry, I had to build my reputation, my business and manage my family. I have the opportunity now to share my knowledge, my passion and my understanding of this industry with others. I remain committed to making important and meaningful contributions to the wine industry, representing the country as its wine ambassador on the world stage, always ensuring that India has a strong voice at wine tables around the world. There is simply no time for negativity in my life.

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How do people react when they hear that you’re the first Master of Wine in India? Can you recall some interesting interactions?

Whilst the Master of Wine is widely regarded as the highest level of professional excellence among the global wine trade and as the most respected title in the wine world, I still find myself promoting awareness of what it really means among general consumers and enthusiasts. 

My most rewarding compliment yet came from my daughter, Rianna, who was 7 years old at the time when I was declared the world’s first Master of Wine from India. Upon hearing the news, she excitedly said, “Mummy, are you really the first and only Master of Wine in India? Because that makes you one in a billion!”

What is your favourite part of your job? At the end of the day, what do you feel is the most rewarding aspect of it?

Creating my own niche and being answerable to myself as an entrepreneur reaps multiple rewards for me on a daily basis.

In the initial years, I did work with various leading F&B and hospitality companies, but my career took wings once I branched out on my own. In little over a decade, I built from the ground-up, a unique beverage company with diversified entrepreneurial ventures in wine and beverage education, consultancy, consumer research, awards and retailing, and reinvented myself as an award-winning broadcaster, a wine writer, commentator and a sought-after international speaker.

The journey, I’ll admit, has been challenging, but exhilarating. I encourage all women to take a risk and plunge into the world of entrepreneurship. Finding your own feet and being true to your inner aspirations is more rewarding than any job title.

Does Indian society still suffer from the stigma that women should not drink, and look down upon those who do so? What do you think about this mentality? Does it connote a larger social issue while also raising questions about the intent of gender equality?

 Embracing alcohol in all its forms and drinking openly for women is a relatively recent phenomenon. A survey in 2019 found that more women are now drinking – and they are also drinking more, experimenting with different types of alcohol, more than ever before. In fact, the survey quoted the Indian government’s Center for Alcohol Studies as saying that, after traditionally being non-drinkers for decades, the women’s alcohol market is in fact expected to grow by 25 per cent over the next 5 years. I’ve also found that wine seems to be a more ‘acceptable’ beverage for women to opt for, versus hard alcohol – therefore, we see women drinking more wine than ever before in India.

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What was your experience during the pandemic, and how do you feel it has transformed the wine industry?

The Indian hospitality industry, of which I am a part, has had a shockingly tough year in 2020. We have before us a long road to recovery, and many hospitality and F&B brands have had to learn how to pivot almost overnight, to ensure that their businesses don’t tank. What the pandemic also brought about last year was a series of changes in the business, many of which will last long into 2021. Some of these are:

A thirst for knowledge: The pandemic was marked by a steep increase in online learning – webinars, Zoom meets, Instagram Lives and more helped people worldwide utilize their time well, with countless resources becoming available via which people were able to learn new skills. The wine and beverage industry also saw a lot of knowledge being shared by global experts; I predict that both consumers and professionals in the trade will continue to consume education about beverages and wine, well into 2021

A surge in online sales: Another big trend that will continue this year is the purchase of alcohol online. Ever since the Government has allowed online sales of alcohol, consumers have gravitated towards this highly convenient – and pandemic-proof – way of purchasing their favourite beverages. Given that the excise department has seen such a significant dip in revenue this year, I see no reason why the Government won’t continue to encourage online liquor sales well into the New Year, and for even longer.

A greater digital focus for alcobev companies: Marketing, especially in the digital space, has been steadily growing in importance and significance over the last few years. Now more than ever, companies in the alcobev space need to embrace the power of digital marketing and not rely solely on in-store visibility. With online liquor sales, the launch of apps through which consumers can buy their alcohol and WhatsApp home deliveries, the need for digital visibility has never been higher. Companies should rethink their marketing strategies in 2021, with a focus on their web sites, social media handles, and other online retail platforms.

What is your focus this year and the future roadmap for your brands?

This has been a difficult year for the industry, with several setbacks for beverage professionals working at hotels and restaurants. We demonstrated support towards their onward progress by launching the country’s most affordable educational program – 60 Minute Wine Pro, a fully online wine course aimed at hospitality professionals, students and enthusiasts keen to build their knowledge and skills in this domain, within the comfort of their space and time. 

Since the pandemic, I have been attempting to take cultural moments and celebrations around wine and translate these into the digital world, thus making them more meaningful and connective. I continue to be committed to making a difference through thought-provoking content for the creative, confident Indian millennial by a robust social media presence and to establishing a strong web presence for our retail Vine2Wine venture, through which it has been our singular aim to make wine affordable, accessible and enjoyable.

The future seems incredibly exciting, with so many things in the pipeline, including our expansion in the online education space and the launch of a few more retail stores across key consumption cities of the country. 

As India’s first and only Master of Wine, I remain committed to making important and meaningful contributions to the wine industry, representing the country as its wine ambassador on the world stage and always ensuring that India has a strong voice at wine tables around the world.

What do you think of women’s participation in this sector – why are the numbers still so low?

F&B has traditionally always been a male-dominated sector, given the punishing hours, inherent sexism, and the fact that working in kitchens or hotels was not considered ‘decent’ for women until quite recently. It is therefore always a joy to witness an increasing number of women occupying leadership positions today in the F&B space.

Even as Masters of Wine, there are now 143 women MW’s; a healthy 34 per cent of the entire group worldwide. The recent appointment of women at the helm of the Indian arms of Moet Henessey and Pernod Ricard is further proof that women can have a seat at the table, however they just had to work substantially harder for it than their male counterparts had to.

What would you like to tell women who want to join this industry?

 My message to all the women in India’s F&B industry is that they need not curb their ambitions and should tap into their infinite potential to satiate their ambitions. Also, their career choices need not be reined in to conform to gender stereotypical roles as more women are being embraced into professions such as bartending, sommelier and mixology; roles that are known to be usually male dominated.

A study conducted in the USA among 208 blind tasters suggested that women are more attuned to discern differences in various styles of wines, making them more accurate tasters than men. Another study conducted in New Jersey suggested how women during their reproductive phase or during pregnancy could identify smells with greater accuracy than men of a similar age. All these studies dispel the notion that gender, age or one’s socio-marital status could be a barrier to success in the world of wine.