There are certain subjects in life which are ruled by pure passion. Like the subject of food. Like the subject of wine and spirits. Because if there is anything that can extract you from the abyss of ignorance, its passion.
Nothing is more satisfying than to talk to people who are ruled by their hearts. From one track to another, they follow the less taken path in response to the heart’s call. One such person I am truly inspired by is, Colonel Ravi K Joshi. I remember the first time I talked to the Colonel, it was a brief phone conversation and I was telling him about HappyTipsy.
With all the encouragement he showered on me, I remember asking one question to him at least three to four times, “But how did you transition into studying wine and spirits from your military background?” Well, he answered as earnestly as he could about the journey that led him to become a wine and spirits expert.
The true answer to my question was perhaps that, things that are close to your heart are never too far to be pursued. Here is the journey of Colonel Ravi K Joshi in entirety.
The beginning of the beginning
Ravi K Joshi is an Army officer passed out from the Indian Military Academy in 1987. He was commissioned in the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers whose role, apart from soldiering, is to provide technical support to weapons and equipment held with the Indian Army. Hence, he is a Mechanical Engineer and a specialist in Information Technology as well.
He served the Army for a good 23 years before taking his heart’s call to pursue Beverages – his field of passion. Hence, he took premature retirement to take a full plunge into this field.
Destiny also favored him as after his retirement, he immediately won the coveted Champagne Scholarship against all odds and he is also the first one till date from India and to his knowledge in Asia also, to have won this scholarship as someone from a non-beverage and non-hospitality industry.
Speaking about his success, here is what he says,
I credit Rajiv Singhal, the Ambassador of Champagne in India to have recognized my passion and awarding the scholarship to me despite stiff competition from other illustrious people in the trade.
Between all these developments, there was a distraction in the form of a plum job offer from an American IT company and for a moment, it did tempt him he says with a twinkle.
However, all such probable future temptations were put to rest by his much better half Smita, whose take was, “If you had to join another job then why leave one of the best jobs in the first place?”
The story of wine
Colonel Ravi proceeded on his scholarship trip, visiting renowned Champagne houses like Billecart-Salmon, Cattier, Taittinger, Michel Gonet and Bollinger to learn about the intricacies of producing the world’s best celebratory drink. The trip provided a further spark to his passion as he decided to continue his expedition, venturing deeper into French wine territory – to Bordeaux, Languedoc Roussillon, Provence, Rhône Valley, and Beaujolais.
He stayed with various winemakers, worked with them in the field as well as in winery, learning all aspects of winemaking first-hand. That he had learned the French language for a good six months prior to his departure, helped him immensely as many of the French people he worked-with spoke no English!
Back in India after the French experience, he was still unsure of how to continue further in the beverages field. Seeking a job was not an option and in any case, a befitting job was difficult to get, given his “core-competence” and experience still lies elsewhere.
Thus, he resolved his dilemma and confusion as he tells,
I gave outlet to my passion by starting a blog called Guns2Gewurztraminer symbolizing my transition from the profession of arms to that of wine. I also started writing for Spiritz Magazine (the most read Alcobev magazine of India) whose editor Shalini Kumar had been my co-traveller during the Champagne trip and we had hit it off rather well.
Slowly, his recognition in the trade started growing as he got more and more opportunities to meet national and international wine personalities.
He recounts, “I forayed into wine appreciation events by conducting my maiden wine tasting for students of my French language training institute called ‘Le Frehindi’.”
Through Shalini Kumar, also came the opportunity to conduct a wine dinner for hotel Le Meridien New Delhi – which marked his entry into hospitality outlets. A series of wine events in different formats followed, and the time was just right to launch his own consultancy called “Colonel Joe” that offers services related to the wine and spirits trade.
All his efforts caught the attention of the trade and he received more and more opportunities to travel to wine countries like Italy, Austria and Spain.
Consultancy assignments from clients like Deloitte, USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and various importers and hotels followed. He also started writing and contributing to national and international publications like Sommelier India Biz@India and The Hindu Business Line.
Here is a sneak peek of one of Colonel Joe’s Wine Tasting sessions:
The earliest inspiration to study spirits and wine
He now realizes that he always had that insatiable urge to learn about alcoholic beverages. This inquisitiveness saw him trying various liquors, liqueurs and wines, buying and reading books about them more significantly in the pre-internet era.
He says, “I created my own cocktails, requested my overseas travelling friends to ferry bottles of spirits and liqueurs not commonly available in India. My focus was more towards liqueurs like Campari, Chartreuse, Benedictine, Fernet Branca, Midori and so many others so that I could experiment with different flavor profiles.”
The Armed Forces & spirits and wine
“My first posting as a young Army officer was in a snowbound area where temperatures ran downwards of minus -20°C. In those areas, we had an official ‘Rum and Cigarette Allowance’ to ameliorate the harsh weather conditions. I always kept a 10 liters jerrican of rum from Sikkim Liquors in my bunker which I shared at times with my men during my interactions with them after the evening retreat,” Colonel Ravi says fondly.
Thereafter, he tried various spirits and liqueurs available in those parts like a Musk Brandy, Coffee Liqueur, Paan Liqueur etc.
In the course of his Army career, he had similar opportunities all over India to sample locally available brews and distillates. Significant among these are Kesar Kasturi (Rajasthan), Golconda wine (Hyderabad), Chhang (Arunachal Pradesh) and a locally made Vermouth (Meghalaya).
Then there was always the CSD facility where you could find a colossal range of alcoholic beverages (some of which he has never encountered again) apart from the commonly available brands.
He recounts, in big cities like Delhi, I also had a privileged access to Customs auctioned Wines and Spirits available through the CSD. Can you believe that I have bought a Barbaresco, a Barbera d’Alba, Alsatian Rieslings and Robert Mondavi wines at prices between ₹ 300 and ₹ 500? Well some privileges are just incomparable.
The encounter with WSET
During Colonel Ravi’s Delhi posting in the Ministry of Defence, he got an intimation of a WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust, London) Level 1 course happening in the city. Since it was a two-day affair over a weekend, he was enthused to attend it as a structured way to enhance his knowledge.
After his Delhi tenure, he was posted to a remote part of Northeastern India. During that time, he came to know that a WSET Level 2 too, was happening in Delhi. He availed leave from his job to attend this course and traveled to Delhi especially to attend it.
And this turned out to be the game-changing event of his life.
This time he did even better, passing the course with distinction – and as luck would have it – ended up winning the Champagne Scholarship on its strength.
But his grasp on the wine and spirits industry came steadily. As he says,
There was no dramatic shift except that I started knowing wines better in terms of their provenance and taste. The inflection point occurred when to my dismay I got a call from WSET London that I was being considered for the Champagne Scholarship, going on actually to win it. That was the time when I got convinced that this is where I belong. It has been a totally changed life thereafter since I started doing something totally unrelated to my past professional life and work no longer remained work.
Indian wines in the international market
India has been showing a lot of promise lately in its ever-improving quality of wines. Some of the Indian wines have started featuring in international stores and famed restaurants like the Three Michelin starred L’Arpège Paris. One of the major winemakers of India has even acquired an estate in Burgundy as part of its expansion plans.
But according to the Colonel, such accolades for Indian wines are largely attributable to individual efforts by winemakers to improve quality. Today, he states, the major impediment in India’s international wine credibility is the country’s lack of wine standards.
Without standards (like the Appellation regulations of France and AVA framework of the US), the Quality Assurance aspect of Indian wines will continue to be circumspect not only in the eyes of the international community but also in the domestic market, says the maker of Colonel Joe.
The scope of more indigenous wines coming in the market
Colonel Ravi Joshi is convinced that the scope is good considering that the Indian market has been witnessing a slow but steady growth in wine. Apart from the big 3 (Sula, Grover and Fratelli), some smaller wineries have been showing lots of promise. A couple of them like KRSMA fit well under the “boutique” genre for their consistent quality and exclusivity he says.
But the main challenge for newer wineries, according to him, is their sustainability in the longer run. After a given point in time, you have to scale up and many of them have that kind of appetite. For every winery that is in existence today, there are many that have shut down due to unviability after a certain period of time.
A sore point is also the highly unfriendly taxation regime related to the alcohol business in the country that precludes smaller players from going national.
But there is also a lot of consolidation happening in the industry, he says. The most recent example is the acquisition of Charosa and Four Seasons wineries by the number 2 player in the country Grover Zampa Vineyards. Such a consolidation means that the respective wines continue being produced on the strength of more established players.
The wine-enthusiasm in India
Wine enthusiasm is certainly on a positive side in India. With Indians traveling overseas more often whether, on work or leisure, their exposure to wine is much more with each passing year. Also, wine is an important aspect of fine dining and knowing about it is considered a soft skill rather than just plain enjoyment. Better availability of wines and the proliferation of fine dining spaces in the country has also fuelled the enthusiasm towards wine.
On the question of local wines that are yet to go mainstream or get popularised in mainstream India, Colonel Ravi has this to say.
“Company budgets and taxation are the main concern here. There are several good wines that could go national with their localized success but that would entail significant investment from them in terms of separate label registration for each Indian state (in India excise is a state subject) and investing in a distribution network whether own or outsourced.”
He further elaborates that a national presence would also entail upping the production volumes, higher marketing costs and investing into a distribution network. Not every company has the appetite to do so and as a result, only the big three (Sula, Grover and Fratelli) have a truly national wine presence in India apart from the multinationals like Pernod Ricard of course.
For amateurs on wine studies
This section is really important for wine lovers and enthusiasts. So, instead of reporting on what the wine expert has said, lets put under his exact words. Here is what he says.
First and foremost, establish the purpose of undertaking wine studies. If it is just about pursuing a passion, then I would recommend the WSET Level 1 and later Level 2 courses. These courses are widely available across major world cities including India and are just right to put one into the wine groove. One can also go for Level 3 if one is so inclined.
But studying wine is not as plain as attending courses. Real knowledge acquisition comes only with time, so all these courses have to be assiduously followed up by tasting lots and lots of wine at every possible opportunity.
Subscribing to wine tasting sessions, wine dinners and networking with people in the wine/hospitality for getting in the know of such opportunities should be the next logical steps. Slowly you will find your knowledge blossom to make you an acknowledged wine connoisseur.
For those who would like to take up wine as a career, it is a different ballgame as the career path and avenues available should be clear to the aspirant right from the word go. The financial effect is also important as higher courses on wine don’t come cheap.
Wine professionals have various career options like being a Sommelier in hospitality, tourism and the wine business domain, being a winemaker, a wine business consultant and so on. It is a very vast field and the roles will depend on the career tracks chosen.
For people who are not equipped financially, here is how the Colonel says you can try for access to wine knowledge.
“Scholarships are available at various levels but they come into picture only after an initial investment in terms of own resources. If one is just starting out with wine studies, aiming for a scholarship will be too pre-emptive, as most of the scholarships are awarded at higher course levels. But there’s nothing wrong in aspiring for a scholarship if it is a part of one’s long term vision.”
He also says, for people already in the trade, many employers do fund their employees’ wine training as part of their overall professional growth. If one goes on to win a scholarship on the strength of such a course, all the better.