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How to Make a career in Wines

- By Anushka Pandkar

Like all children of her age, Anushka Pandkar had multiple dreams: to become a singer, pilot actor and later an engineer. But as she grew up, multiple vistas opened up, and she started discovering herself. In that pursuit, she stumbled upon the hospitality industry, where she weaved her career. There too, she turned out to be a sommelier.

Here is all about Anushka's career-defining journey.

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“A sommelier is a translator. We absorb all sorts of wine knowledge - through tasting, through reading, through meeting with winemakers and importers, through talking to one another and to chefs - and then we are expected to render any morsel of that information to a guest at a moment’s notice.”

- Robert Bohr, former Wine Director at CRU, a New York City restaurant, in an excerpt from the book ‘Secrets of the Sommeliers’ by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay.

As a school-going child, thoughts about what I wanted to be when I grow up changed every season. Out of those, my young mind had seriously considered careers such as being a professional actor, a singer, an Air Force pilot, and then a commercial pilot (when my height stopped growing!).

Looking back, I see that though all over the place, they all had an underlying notion - of being out there, bordering on unconventional, and something that nobody in my family had done before. And I had a strong desire to be the “best” in whatever I ended up doing. I lacked the boldness to actually do it, but the desire was always there.

In school, my academic performance was pretty good and I was eager to participate in almost every activity and had a competitive nature to excel at them. Of course, I hit the ground at times, but then came the next activity and I would go at it again. The same story would continue to junior college except for the academic grades, which drastically fell off the mark. I realised I wasn’t very keen and found it difficult to “fully” understand Mathematical and Chemistry equations or Physics theorems, even though the applications seemed fascinating. And I emphasise on the word “fully” because I would find myself uncomfortable if I even envisioned a career involving these amazing subjects because I could see myself not doing my ‘best’ in them. I also discovered that I was more outgoing than I thought, I liked being amongst people and had more curiosity for things outside the classroom. I was an admirer of nature and an animal lover from a very young age anyway, I liked travelling to places (thanks to my parents for introducing us to these elements early on).

My father had a Government job and would get transferred every three years to a new city in Maharashtra. So the gist of cultural difference was introduced to me even before I knew the term. Though I was born in Pune, we moved around a few cities in Maharashtra throughout my childhood. When my siblings and I were nearing the final stages of school, my parents decided to settle down in Pune, while my father can move if and when he gets transferred. And then he got transferred to the big city - Mumbai. I still remember our first holiday trips to visit dad in Mumbai, it was a city with a completely different rhythm and culture to what I had seen before. chaayam_poster



After schooling and junior college, and after my dad discouraged me from considering a career as a pilot, I thought of what else I would truly enjoy doing. And that’s when hospitality came up as an answer. I also admit that it seemed quite a glamorous field at the time, a myth that was later busted right on my first day on the job.

So after my Class XII, I still hadn’t told my parents what I wanted to do. My parents like every other parent tried to convince me about the fine prospects of Engineering. I couldn’t agree more but I knew I found no joy in Maths or Physics. I couldn’t confront them on this, so I obliged in joining an Engg entrance exam prep class. I used to fail miserably in the class. One day I broke down in front of a friend who was in class with me, he encouraged me to at least speak with my parents with what I had in mind. I went home, broke down again before my parents could understand what was going on. But I spoke, and I’m glad I did. My parents weren’t the happiest but they told me they would support my end decision only if I didn’t give up the things I was already doing. That meant continuing the Engg classes and going on to appear for the entrance exams. I did so and surprisingly ended up with a pretty good AIEEE score to land a decent college. My folks were happy but I still had the difficult task of reiterating to them that I will not get into Engg, and I that had set my heart on Hospitality.

A couple of weeks later, my father told me we are going to the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai. I was a bit surprised! Apparently, He had requested his friend working at the hotel to arrange a full inside-out tour of the Grand Hyatt so I could see for myself what I was getting into. I couldn’t believe it. I obviously enjoyed the tour, and my father’s friend tried to tell me how the long working hours, physical fatigue and mental stress are common amongst employees of a hotel. I was a little concerned about that stern warning but I couldn’t forget how I really enjoyed being in that atmosphere.

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We came back home, dad asks me “You still wanna do this?” and I said Yes I do! Then came the JEE entrance exam for hotel management. With my score, I got to pick the Institute of Hotel Management in Goa and I was off to Goa for 3 years.

At the IHM, I quickly developed an interest in Food and Beverage Service right from the first year. F&B Service is a subject that deals with all the aspects of running a restaurant, except for the cooking which is taught in Food Production. It had all the elements that interested me - Food, drink and interacting with people from different parts of the world.

It was in the second year that we were introduced to Alcoholic Beverages and cocktails as part of the curriculum. I was fascinated with this world right from the get-go. We learnt about grapes grown in European countries with obscure names such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, and wine being made in even more obscurely named villages such as Bordeaux, Rheinhessen and Hessische Bergstrasse. I understood that grape juice goes through a simple process of fermentation to be made into wine, but I was always curious to know why the grapes had to be distinguished from one another, why wine from one country tastes different from wine made in the other, why a product made from something as simple as grapes and grains (for spirits) could at times be more expensive than diamond jewellery! My fondness for Nature got me falling in love with scenic photos of vineyards and learning about the history & geography of wine countries was like a virtual tour of them. I kept reading about these things as much as I could. My curiosity was being satiated, yet, at the same time, it kept growing as I dove deeper into the world of beverages.

In 2012, after passing out of IHM, my first job was with the iconic Taj Mahal Palace in Colaba, Mumbai. It was a great experience to get inducted into such a great brand and historic hotel, but the department I was allocated in did not involve a lot of wine and fine dining service which I was keen to learn about. I took the difficult decision of quitting the organisation after four months and went back home to Pune. I didn’t want to be unemployed while I figured out what to do next so I joined the Westin hotel in Pune where I was happy to work in a fine dining restaurant, where I could be more involved in restaurant operations and the beverage program. I also started asking friends and college seniors if they can provide information on some good bartending classes that I can join.

I was under the impression that if I want to do something in beverages, there was no other way than bartending and had no idea about specialised wine courses at the time. Though I learnt about the French term “Sommelier” in IHM, I never imagined that such a profession was ever possible outside of the old world charm of Europe. A senior and good friend from college (who I am now married to!) suggested me take up a wine certification course in Mumbai instead of bartending. I was excited and immediately enrolled myself into the course.

I started reading up on new material suggested by him to better prepare for my upcoming W.S.E.T (Wine & Spirit Education Trust of UK ) Level 2 Certification course (Hospitality students can skip the Level 1 since the syllabus is similar to what is taught to us in hotel schools). The course introduced me to a professional method of tasting wines/spirits and building a solid foundation of the basics. The course provider and our teacher Gagan Sharma, did a great job in easing beginners like myself into the subject. After successfully passing the WSET Level 2 in 2013, I applied for a position of Marketing Executive at All Things Nice, a Wine & Spirit consultancy in Mumbai, which specialised in curating events such as Wine tastings, Wine dinners, brand collaborations and promotions, etc. I was overjoyed to have gotten the job and that was my foot in the door of the ‘Beverage industry’.

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Here I got to connect with all sorts of people right from a ground sales rep of a company, all the way to the Marketing Manager, got to understand the logistics, excise laws laid by the state, etc. My major role was business development, along with organising the various events for the company.

In 2014, my Level 2 WSET course provider and teacher Gagan Sharma informed me that they were scheduling the company’s 1st ever WSET Level 3 Advanced course in Mumbai. This one was supposed to be a step up from Level 2, so I registered myself and started my preparations again. I studied for approximately 1-1.5 months before the course started. Our teacher for Level 3 was Mr Peter Czismadia, who was a Hungarian living in London and working at the prestigious Institute of Master of Wine. We tasted over 60 different wines and a few spirits over the course of 3 days. On the fourth day was the exam which did not seem easy at all compared to Level 2. Out of the 10 who appeared for the exam, 4 of us (including me) passed the Level 3. Another milestone, now I had to use this new found knowledge and put it to use on the job. My WSET course provider was a Delhi based company by the name Wi-Not Beverage Solutions which was started by 3 renowned gentlemen in the industry - Magandeep Singh, Gurjit Singh Barry and Gagan Sharma. The courses I attended were a part of their portfolio, but I later learnt they were also consultants to hotels, restaurants and beverage companies all over the country.

They offered me a job in Mumbai, where I was to work as Sommelier on floor of a restaurant the company was consulting. It was a great opportunity at a very important time and the perfect one where I could use my knowledge of wine and my interest for restaurant operations. Apart from the restaurant, I was also involved in events, tastings and future WSET courses of the company which gave me tremendous experience in how to organise and execute wine trainings. I could taste more wines and build on my tasting skills. I had the opportunity to teach a few classes as well, and I simply loved it. To this day, whenever I schedule a Wine Training session, I prepare for it just like my first one and thoroughly enjoy the process of taking the participants through a journey of wine in a simplified, easy to understand way. My 30-month stint at Wi-Not was an absolutely essential stepping stone in my career, it taught me more about wine of course but I picked up so many other soft skills such as communication, dressing etiquettes, how to conduct effective training, respect for your work as well as for others’, knowing your own value, the importance of humility and so much more.

In 2016, I got selected to go on a two-week trip to the US on an exchange program organised by the US Dept of Agriculture. It was my first wine trip abroad, and it could not have been better. We were 10 professionals chosen from all over the country after a selection process and interview, to visit a number of wineries, craft beer breweries and spirit distilleries in USA to understand their products as well as marketing. The intention was for us to come back and promote US beverage products in our respective fields in India based on our broadened understanding. This trip helped me immensely to bridge the theoretical knowledge I had, to the practical and on-field happenings in a winery or distillery.

2016 was also the year I moved from Wi-Not - to work for a wine importer company named Wine Park in Mumbai. Wine Park is run by Vishal Kadakia, a passionate wine enthusiast and the company is known for importing quality wines from boutique, mostly family-owned wineries from around the world. While in the restaurant I would deal with importers as “vendors”, here I got to switch sides and learn what goes on in the trade when it comes to supply. Infact I got to experience both sides at the same time! My role was that of a Sommelier and I would work on-floor at 5-star hotels who were clients of Wine Park. I would represent Wine Park but offer all my help and expertise to the hotel to make their Beverage Program or Customer Wine Experience better. I got to travel to various cities such as Hyderabad, Bangalore, Pune and work with so many different hotels, conducting Training classes and Wine Tastings for their staff. It taught me how Excise regulations, tax structure and logistics completely differ from one state to another. I got an insight into the working culture of different hotel brands like the Leela, Marriott and Taj. My training skills got better as I was forced to incorporate new methods to make the subject relatable and easy to understand based on the audience I was facing. I would often interact with HODs and General Managers of hotels, in which I unknowingly picked up nuances of some Leadership skills. The best part about the job though was getting to taste a lot of wines through the number of Trade tastings and Wine dinners that the company actively scheduled throughout the year. The company’s founder was extremely passionate about wine and I absorbed as much knowledge and stories about wine as I could from him.

Currently, I am working with ITC Hotels in Mumbai as a Sommelier since June 2019. ITC has been driving wine education initiatives for its hotel front line staff for many years now but the responsibilities for wine programs were usually handed over to the Restaurant or Beverage Managers. In early 2019, ITC Hotels took a pioneering decision to have a dedicated position of a ‘Sommelier’ across all its flagship properties. I say pioneering because not many hotel companies in India at the moment have a dedicated Sommelier’s position as part of the hierarchy. It is often clubbed as an additional responsibility with other designation in F&B. I was more than happy to take up the opportunity. It has been great for my learning curve to work with an excellent brand like ITC. Here, I am able to discover and learn about how such a large scale organisation works and manages all the aspects of hotel operations while paying meticulous attention to compliance, profitability as well as responsibility towards social and environmental concerns.

On a personal front, I have been trying to enhance my knowledge further. In 2018, I appeared for another wine exam, the Introductory Certificate - primary level of a course conducted by the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) that is based in the UK. Despite having done a Level 3 wine exam 4 years ago, my parents couldn’t understand why I was doing a Level 1 of some other wine exam again! But the WSET and CMS are two different entities and their style of teaching and testing sets them apart. While WSET is absolutely incredible for building a foundation of the basic and suitable for all, the CMS is more focused on setting meticulous wine service standards in the F&B Service business and is recommended for Sommeliers/ Servers or Managers working on a restaurant floor.

An ideal candidate for the CMS would be someone who is passionate about Service, enjoys the electric energy of a busy restaurant, loves interacting with guests while being exceptionally knowledgeable about wine and aims at mastery in the field. The CMS theory syllabus may be called a little more detailed, and the test also involves a Practical exam to demonstrate your skills in Restaurant service. In 2019, I was able to complete the second step in CMS program - the Certified Sommelier examination. The ultimate step in the CMS Diploma program is the Masters Exam - touted as one of the hardest exams in the world - the passing of which bestows upon you the prestigious title of a ‘Master Sommelier’ or MS. As of today, I am preparing for the ‘Advanced Sommelier’ exam, the 3rd and penultimate step before the Masters exam, and still very brutal in its difficulty level! Even though it feels like trying to roll a boulder uphill right now, I can only hope to remain as persistent as Day 1 and eventually get over to the other side in a few years.

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