Meet Sonal Holland, India’s first and only Master of Wine

Ushering the wine culture in India, its first Master of Wine, has personally, single-handedly shaped this nascent industry with her vision. Megha Agrawal talks to Sonal Holland about her love for wines and putting India on the world wine map

Pioneering the wine industry in India is Master of Wine, Chairperson of India Wine Awards, Founder of a Wine Academy, Consultant, Leading Wine Retailer, Wine Journalist, and Broadcaster, One of the Most Powerful Women in Indian Luxury for five consecutive years, Sonal Holland is name eponymous with the glamorous and curated complement to food- Wine.

Intelligence, Hard Work, and Fate

Sonal recalls that, in school, despite being a mischief she still managed to score top grades. She finished her diploma in Hotel Management from Dadar Catering College while simultaneously pursuing a BA in Arts, and after graduation started working for the food and beverage division of Taj. She then pursued an MBA in marketing and took up a sales and marketing position with the Oberoi chain of hotels for two years. This was where she met her future husband, Andrew Holland, an expatriate from the UK, on assignment in Mumbai. When they started dating she took a hiatus to travel with him to different Asian destinations which exposed Sonal to the international culture of hospitality and wine.

Unknowing that one day she would pursue a career in wine, she joined Kelly Services, a NASDAQ and fortune 500 company focused on recruitments and staffing. Working in the fast-paced multinational corporate environment she was invited to to set up operations in India as part of the core team. This jump-started her career in management, and by 32 Sonal had set her sights to being the CEO of a multinational company with a swanky corner office as her ultimate ambition. But after six and a half years, she realized she was seeking far more than just a plum designation and financial perks; instead she wanted an opportunity to better utilize her talents and skills set.

Ideas come to everyone. The difference is the execution. Some people seize the opportunity and come upon something great, something exciting while others miss their chance

A Lifelong Affair with Wine

During this time, her husband showed her an article by Jancis Robinson, a prolific wine critic and journalist of the UK which piqued Sonal’s interest. India had no Master of Wine or qualified wine tasting professionals and was an unexplored and underdeveloped industry. In comparison, wine culture is a very serious business in the west. With the support and guidance of her husband, Sonal seized the opportunity to be at the forefront of the wine revolution in India. In a visionary move, she quit her job overnight and decided to educate herself about viticulture and wines. Her ultimate aim was to become the first Master of Wine in India, a qualification imparted by the Institute of Masters of Wine in the UK, regarded as one of the highest standards of professional knowledge in the wine industry worldwide. To achieve that, she finished her diploma from WSET – Wine and Spirit Education Trust and continued to level up.

Her excitement about the future of the Wine industry in India is palpable. She says “It’s all about how hard you work and how quickly you are willing to act upon your ideas. Ideas come to everyone. The difference is the execution. Some people seize the opportunity and come upon something great, something exciting while others miss their chance.”

Setting the Stage to Start a Legacy

When Sonal set foot in the wine scene of India, she realized that the primary need was for good wine education. Stepping into the gap, she launched the Sonal Holland Wine Academy in 2009, collaborating with WSET to provide world class wine education courses for people in hospitality, food and beverages, tasters, professionals, budding enthusiasts, and wine retailers.

From 2013 to 2016 Sonal headed the ITC group of Hotel’s corporate beverage program. On receiving her Master of Wine title in 2016, she started a consultancy for international wine brands to establish business and brand presence in India. Then in 2019, she established Vine2Wine retail boutiques in Mumbai and Bangaluru. With a curated selection of International and domestic brands, it is a new and innovative liquor retail experience with sophisticated vibes to provide a wine tasting experience and not merely a storefront to order some liquor.

Sonal is the force behind India Wine Awards – A wine tasting competition to rank the best wines amongst more than five hundred national and overseas entries. Since its conception in 2017, the competition has scaled up and has tied up with Prowine – the largest wine and alcoholic beverage trade show in the world for the next five years. This year’s winners were unveiled at the Prowine show in Mumbai on 17th October.

Sonal is the force behind India Wine Awards - A wine tasting competition to rank the best wines amongst more than five hundred national and overseas entries

Taking the Work out of Work

Looking back, Sonal feels that her spectacular journey has translated really well into her work and helped her face every challenge with enthusiasm and positive energy. She sticks by the old adage – “When you find something to be passionate about, you will never work a day in your life.”

Her plans for the future include expanding the reach of Sonal Holland Academy. The Food and Beverage and hospitality industry in India is booming, and there is a great demand for quality wine experts everywhere. She envisions a symbiosis where her academy provides the best wine education available for minimal charges to people all across the world. There has been an increase in students signing up for the online courses from the UAE, Maldives, Sri lanka, Mauritius etc. As an educator, Sonal pours her vast Master of Wine knowledge, her international sensibilities, and priceless experience into designing these courses that apart from being affordable, are extremely industry applicable and global.

Excited about India’s prospects as a developing wine market, her efforts to help brands launch themselves in India has garnered a lot of interest. To achieve scalability, Sonal and her team have created India Wine Insider – a 100-page knowledge dense white paper, providing in depth information about navigating the Indian market, understanding the laws and import regulations in order to establish their presence in India.

Sonal is also appointed Ambassador for South Australian wines in India and collaborates with international bodies like the California Wine Institute to bring awareness to international brands. Involved with curating wine experiences for corporate events in India, she also gets invited all over the world to introduce the Indian wine culture, its growth and opportunities. Her remarkable achievements have won her numerous accolades and felicitations. Full of humility she says, “I didn’t set out to do this thing with the aim of earning fame and recognition. I took one step on a pathway and then another step and soon it became my roadmap. Getting recognized for my efforts makes me feel extremely grateful.”

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