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Sonal C Holland: Winner of the Outstanding Alumni Award

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It's graduation season here at WSET, and we're celebrating all the new members of our alumni as well as some prize winners.

At our recent graduation ceremony, Sonal C Holland MW was awarded with the Outstanding Alumni Award. As India's first Master of Wine, she is an award-winning broadcaster and educator, acclaimed writer, and highly sought-after wine commentator. Sonal is hugely passionate about drawing the global wine community's attention to the growing business opportunities in India.

Read on to learn more about her journey into wine, and her tips for current and future students of the Level 4 Diploma in Wines

Who or what inspired you to start learning about wine?

You may be surprised to know that wine wasn’t a part of my life till my 30s. I didn’t inherit the knowledge about wine or the wine business from my family. My father was an occasional whisky drinker and my mom was a teetotaller, so wine was never a part of my life while growing up.

Then at the age of 33, I gave up a lucrative job at a NASDAQ-listed Fortune 500 company as I felt the need to reinvent my career. As I contemplated on what to do next, an article about wine written by Jancis Robinson OBE inspired me to believe in a possible future in wine. India was a nascent market then, with no qualified wine professionals but as I learnt more about Jancis and her career trajectory, I envisioned an opportunity for success for a qualified wine professional in my country too. So I pivoted towards a future in wine and decided to build my career on a rock-solid foundation of knowledge.

All my research on wine education led me to the WSET courses and I enrolled at the WSET School London. It was while completing my wine certifications at WSET that I developed a keen interest in the subject and eventually realised that I had a flare for communicating about it.

How did you feel when you heard that you won the Outstanding Alumni Award?

It felt like my life had come full circle as I was receiving the prestigious award from the WSET that forged the path for my wine career, and that too from none other than Jancis Robinson who has inspired me every step of the way. Both WSET and Jancis Robinson MW have played a crucial part in shaping my wine career.

Receiving the WSET Outstanding Alumni Award has reminded me that success is a responsibility. It has encouraged me to keep marching ahead - believing in my dreams, contributing positively to the world of wines and ensuring that India has a place at wine tables around the world.

What do you think makes WSET’s flagship wine qualification so special?

Earning the WSET flagship wine qualification gave me the authority and knowledge that I needed to thrive in India’s challenging alcobev market that was dominated by spirits. I can confidently say that the knowledge I gained while studying for the Diploma also became a building block for my MW journey.

The Diploma provides students with expert-level knowledge that puts them on the fastest trajectory for growth in any field of choice in wine. From retail to winemaking or wine education and consultancy, the qualification has immense practical applications in every sphere.

A person holding a tasting glass with some red wine, writing a tasting note.

The Level 4 Diploma in Wines develops your wine tasting skills to an expert level.

How did you experience the leap from Level 3 to the Diploma?

One of the best decisions that I made after completing my Level 3 was to not take a break and apply for the Diploma. I would advise every student to do the same as the knowledge remains fresh and relevant and you are still focused on your studies which allows you to take your knowledge to the next level.

Having said that, the Level 4 Diploma is very in-depth and requires a serious level of commitment. Completing the Diploma was challenging for me as I was the first person from my country to be accepted for the qualification and I had to depend on frequent overseas travel for my studies and tasting practice because there was a lack of availability of tasting opportunities and mentorship in India. This meant that I had to spend a lot of time away from home and my one-year-old daughter.

What did you enjoy most about studying for the Diploma? Were there any topics that you enjoyed more than you expected?

Each topic covers an important aspect of the subject, as a result of which the Diploma can strike a balance between providing a well-rounded education that is highly insightful. I enjoyed studying the business of wine as it had practical applications. For me, knowledge application is very important, so I enjoyed learning how you can apply what you have learned to a business model.

Why do you think wine education is so important?

Wine education has the power to transform the industry and be a catalyst of change in stagnant, developing or challenging markets. We have seen how wine education has remodelled the entire market in India, turning it from a nascent one into a highly lucrative one. Over the past 15 years, we have used the power of knowledge to create a cadre of qualified wine professionals at the Sonal Holland Wine Academy, who are capable of steering this booming industry.

Indian consumers are curious and excited to learn more about wine as it assumes a status of success, sophistication and elite living. In order to meet the growing consumer demand for knowledge, we have successfully created India’s largest social media platform, where I share wine knowledge in a simplistic way, thereby making it less intimidating and more approachable. In the past 4 years, we have released close to 900 videos, not only in English but also in Hindi and Marathi- which are India’s most widely spoken regional languages. We are proud to have garnered over half a million followers across different social media platforms and we hope to create a vast population of well-informed consumers who can further drive the wine market in India.

What did you enjoy most about studying at WSET School London?

The WSET School of London was where I fell in love with wine. If I had to draw an analogy, it wouldn’t be wrong to call WSET the Harvard of wine education. This is the place where you go if you want to attain benchmark wine education in a well-structured way. It builds up knowledge in the same way schools do, starting from the foundation level and gradually putting the students on track to advanced-level studies. It gave me the confidence to use my knowledge to score wines at some of the leading international wine competitions, host wine events for senior corporate leaders and teach wine etiquette to my half-a-million-strong following on social media.

The school has an inclusive atmosphere as it welcomes students from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. We were encouraged to ask questions and participate in classroom discussions which created a great learning atmosphere. Being the flagship institute, the WSET School London attracts some of the best educators in the world. Also, the samples that the school puts together for tasting are terrific and always a cut above the rest. This is probably the single biggest reason why I chose WSET School London over any other institute for my education.

A wine tasting set up at WSET School London, Sonal's course provider.

A wine tasting set up at WSET School London, Sonal's course provider for the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines.

Any top tips for the current diploma students?

I’d like to offer my top three pieces of advice:

Firstly, your journey to success starts after you complete the diploma. I am being given the outstanding alumni award, for creating a positive impact in the world of wine, so your focus should be on how you can create an impact. Knowledge is not important except for the impact it has on other people’s lives. Discover the unique skill that you have and use it alongside your knowledge to add value to the industry and make a positive contribution on a local, regional or global scale.

Secondly, act upon your ideas because no one gets remembered for what they didn’t do. An idea, I believe, never belongs to the person who thought it first, but belongs to the one who acts upon it first. If you are unsure of what to do, don’t be afraid to try many different things. Some of your ideas may fail, but with others, you will succeed. Eventually, your ideas will also help you find your calling.

And lastly, invest in yourself as it pays the highest rate of return. Invest in upgrading your knowledge, enhancing your skills, enriching your experiences and magnifying your presentation. You are your most valuable asset so don’t be cheap on your way to greatness. Always turn out well-prepared and well-presented to put the best version of yourself out there for others to see.

You can read more about Sonal C Holland in an earlier interview with her.