In an exclusive interview, Ian Harris, CEO, WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) shares with Steena Joy his insights on the wine education industry in India and why WSET has chalked out a five-year business plan for the country
As a leading provider of wine education globally, what is your perspective of India as a wine market?
When we started to run WSET courses through providers in India, there was more interest in spirits than wine. But now there is a growing interest in learning about the wines of the world and I am delighted by the growth of students in India undertaking these courses.
India is now in our Top 20, so the growth has been very pleasantly surprising. One of the issues that is there not only in India but also in other countries that have a tough tax regime, is to bring in samples of wine since it’s an expensive commodity. However, there are many Indian brands producing quality wines that are suitable to teach Level 1. We have a growing number of applicants for the Level 2 and a few handful for Level 3. We are hoping to expand our network of programme providers in other cities of India.
India is a vibrant and rapidly growing market and we are excited to take wine education to newer levels in India. The growing number of young adults and its thriving middle class population with an access to the world are relatively open to experiment. Also, India’s love for food and its relationship with wine…can it get any better than this!! We have a five year business plan for India and are witnessing a 50 per cent year on year growth in Indian students who are enrolling for Level I and Level II Courses.
People are drinking lesser, but they are drinking better. People are upgrading their choices. Gin and Malt whisky as categories are growing, while Vodka and standard whisky are declining. Emerging markets like India and China are realising that wine is a healthy drink to consume, which is propelling consumption. Research shows that two glasses of wine consumed responsibly in a day adds to the longevity of your life. What’s exciting is also seeing the growth of craft distilleries and boutique wineries, driven by passionate individuals.
India has many Master Chefs but very few Masters of Wine. Your insights.
As mentioned earlier, we are also faced with certain challenges such as the lack of experienced teachers in India. The country is also traditionally a spirits-focused market, with a high consumption of whisky. There are other issues too facing the growth of wine as a segment, for instance, high taxation.
How important is the role of certification and qualifications in wine to a sommelier? What is the awareness about such certification and courses in wine among Indian sommeliers?
There are several reasons why wine education is so important. People need to realise that wine, like food, is perishable. You cannot leave it in a hot cover for months. After you remove the cork, it needs to be consumed; else it will deteriorate. Also, on the consumer side of things, the focus is to impress on people that if you are prepared to spend a little more, you can increase your enjoyment of wine. You don’t need to spend US$ 500 on a wine, but from a US$ 10 wine, you can upgrade to a US$ 20 wine and double the value of your enjoyment. In India, as you rise up the ladder, the qualification courses become very expensive. In India, WSET has a select set of course providers and we are yet to establish a Diploma Centre – the flagship qualification course by WSET. Since we don’t have a Diploma Centre in India, applicants have to travel to London or Hong Kong. For diploma aspirants, I would recommend undertaking the distance learning programme that WSET offers and also attending all the possible wine events. India Wine Awards is an example of a great opportunity of someone who wants to understand more without spending more.
When it comes to the industry, the margins in wine are quite low, so the hospitality industry often cuts their training budgets. But I emphasise that the latter needs to be part of the marketing budget, because if a sommelier is able to convince a customer to spend more, than everyone in the business chain wins. Education is a driver of the industry.
How many Indian wine institutes offer WSET courses?
In India, we have only six WSET Approved Programme Providers.
What new initiatives have been rolled out by WSET this year?
During the 50th year and during the start of the academic year in August, we have segregated our WSET qualifications by initiating WSET2 in Wines, Level 3 in Spirits and the Level 4 Diploma in Wines. It is due to the expanding field of spirits with keen interest in beverages like Baijou, Soju and Sake. The need to separate has been primarily because there has been so much evolution of these segments that we needed to focus on these as separate areas. WSET now runs two separate courses in Sake alone, which are quite popular.
In the 50th year, it runs nine streams: WSET level 1-4 in wines, WSET level 1-3 in Spirits and WSET Level 1-2 in Sake. It is interesting that for the Master of Wine examinations there are no spirits. Therefore those aiming to go for MW will not have to suffer spirits any more in WSET.
What is the future roadmap for WSET?
At WSET, we are consciously making changes to create courses as per industry needs and requirements. Recently we created separate course for wines, spirits and Sake. We review our qualification courses once every three years and we will change the syllabus if necessary to suit the global market in wines and spirits.