Training wine people

You can't teach an old dog new tricks" is a truism: no matter how hard I've tried to train the bar staff at the venerable Bangalore Club, they still insist on serving red wine at room temperature - never mind that the "room temperature" recommended in the books should be that of Europe, which even in summer is a bracing 16-18 degrees Centigrade.

In a similar, fashion there are several myths that endure in the minds of most people associated with wine: for example, the notion that the older a wine the better it gets. As anyone who has nurtured that wine bottle for the last decade in a cupboard knows, on opening it, chances are that it would have turned into vinegar. The truth is that only a few wines are capable of ageing gracefully - and even then they need to be stored at the right environment (low temperature, but also low humidity, little light, and no vibrations) to reach and maintain that plateau of quality.

There's also the problem with taste: the palate of novice wine drinkers is relatively undeveloped, so a dry white wine (no matter how good) comes across as sour: this is something I particularly come across when training the staff at hotels, youngsters who rarely (if ever) drink wine, and who cannot comprehend why anyone would drink something so khatta. Explaining the nuances of crispness and aroma to someone weaned on sugary soft drinks is almost always a losing battle: if they drink wine at all, they think that an "off-dry" Chenin Blanc is great, they just don't appreciate a Sauvignon Blanc - and hence can never sell a dry white wine effectively.

Then there's the question of complexity in red wines: "Yes sir, I can smell some fruit, but where are the berries and chocolate and spice you are talking about?" Okay, okay - the nose and the palate need to be trained, and while some of the aromas may exist only in the minds of the marketing people (most low-end wines are just "easy drinking") there's no denying that really good wines have a range of aromas, while truly great wines are a sublime experience, with a wealth of aromas and taste that transcends reality.

So how does one tackle the issue of entrenched ideas about wine? The only solution, in my mind, is to get the people concerned to taste wine more often - taste, not just drink. Hotels and restaurants need to institute training programmes and first "train the trainers". The leader in this is surely the ITC group of hotels, which has had a corporate-level focus on improving the knowledge and understanding among its food & beverages personnel for many years, and has put a senior professional (earlier Niladri Dhar, now Sonal Holland) in charge of its wine programme - including getting each person a WSET Level III certification.

A wine training programme should be considered as an investment, not an expense, one that will return the investor manifold in improved customer experiences and revenue. If clubs also started following this dictum then we would see less warm red wine being dished out to bewhiskered guests.

Wines I've been drinking: The Chateau de Saint Cosme winery in the southern Rhone region of France (Gigondas) is over 500 years old, and has been owned and run by the Barrol family since 1570. While most of its wines remain out of reach (the 2010 Gigondas at 95 points and $41 was #2 on Wine Spectator's Top 100 List of 2012), its Cotes-du-Rhone 2013 (89 points by Robert Parker/ Rs 2,360 in Bengaluru) is just wonderful: aromas of berries and chocolate and a dry, medium-bodied taste with soft tannins and a very good finish.

As they say, 'Viva la France!' />

Alok Chandra is a Bengaluru-based wine consultant


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