By Magandeep Singh
I recall when Alanis Morisette released the song, Ironic. She spoke of a black fly in your Chardonnay and I didn’t know what was Chardonnay nor what colour it was. Upon being told it was a white wine, I wondered how that would be ironic. Irony, for me, would have been if there was a black fly in my glass of black wine. Clearly I didn’t get irony. Or Chardonnay. Or any wine at all, for that matter. The year was, I suspect, 1997.
Three years later I graduated from a hotel school having topped their beverage program nationally and fast forward a few more years, I was in France, sitting at sommellerie school for my first blind tasting class.
But it had been a long journey even till that point. I scored high in my board exams which, in India, automatically means that you are destined to be an engineer followed by the MBA rat-race and then to become a consultant with a big multinational and hope they send you somewhere on an expat package. Alas, money meant little to me and I instead chose hospitality, the industry that, till then, was considered the place for NDA-rejects and back-benchers to end up at. Who in their right mind did well in their 12th standard exams and then opted to be a cook or, worse still, a waiter!?
Well, I did and the next three years were diametrically different to my science days in school just before. I learnt a lot about the finer aspects of life, about how to see things not just in measures of logic and science but as forms of art. By the time I graduated, I was once again, confused about what career path to take next. Going to the US to pursue higher studies in hospitality seemed like a safe bet. But clearly, by now it had been established, that safe bets wasn’t my thing. Instead, I decided to pursue a long-unticked box off on my bucket list: to speak French like a native. And so, instead of going to the US, I went to work and study in a country where I didn’t know the language and possessing a culture which was completely unknown to me, a people that fought vehemently over what wine to drink besides their meals and employed more than 365 different words just to describe all the cheese they make!
I learnt French faster than most people normally would (the trick is to throw away your English-French dictionary and just learn the language instead of focusing on translating every word) which helped me at work and in my studies. But to truly capture the essence of being French, I realised, I would have to capture the essence of their relationship with food and wine. This is what led me to my next place to stay and study, L’Université du Vin, a small wine school housed in a 16th century Chateau in the region of the Rhone valley. This is where I learnt to be a sommelier, tasting wines and spirits and brews, day in and out, making extensive notes, compiling lists of French words to describe wine, visiting wineries and wine regions, working in wine shops and vineyards, all these stints kept accumulating, increasing my awareness of the subject without even my realising it. By the time I came back to India, I was tasting wines fairly well even though at the beginning I had been simply lousy at it. Here’s an example. It was the first week at my wine university and I had just burned my palate the day before trying to hold down a hot potato — now that’s a good pun and also ironic — so my tactile receptors were rather numb. Add to this that I was still sniffling from a cold and it was no surprise that I flunked my first blind tasting miserably. For those wondering, no a blind tasting isn’t an exercise for those with some form of a physical impediment; instead you just taste wines without being told first what they are. One is supposed to taste and guess what they could be from their appearance, aromas, and taste.
By the time I finished school there, I was among the top few tasters in my batch. I could announce the wine region, style and gauge closely its origin, vintage and even the residual sugar, if any. I could comment on the age-worthiness of a wine and also how to pair it with food of all kinds. And I could do all this in English and French!
Same guy who didn’t know his Chardonnays from his black currant juice, a chap who never had his first drink till he was well past his teens, and one who had grown up in families where one half was strictly teetotallers while the other half only understood whisky-soda; clearly I had come a long way. And it was at this point I decided to come back; to try and inspire more Indians to accomplish what I had managed. There would never be a dearth of sommeliers in Europe, even lesser a need for someone with a staunch opinion on wines. But back here in India I faced an entirely new problem. So unknown was even the term sommelier that people kept wondering that if I was saying that I am a Somalian then why didn’t I sound foreign!?
Today, more than a decade has gone by and people talk about their last vineyard vacay or who’s their favourite sommelier and at which precise wine bar with almost a practised yet nonchalant ease. I almost feel that somewhere, no matter how little, I managed to play a teensy-teensy part in precipitating this change. For a civilisation with a history of food going back centuries, it would only be natural that tasting and appreciating fine beverages comes as an innate quality. I am glad that India, and its peoples, are gradually showing the world how it is possible to stay rooted and yet embrace the world when you fly!
About The Author
A certified sommelier, Magandeep Singh found his calling in wines while working in France. In India he spends his time as a consultant with hotels and restaurants, conducts wine appreciation sessions and writes columns on wine.