Q&A with Atul Tiwari – Former Indian Sommelier champion

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Atul Tiwari, award-winning sommelier and restaurant manager at Megu, The Leela Palace, New Delhi

Atul Tiwari, a graduate from IHM  Dehradun, has over eight years of experience in the hospitality industry. He started his career as a Food and Beverage assistant at The Oberoi Mumbai in 2009 and Beverage assistant at The Oberoi Mumbai in 2009 and subsequently joined the pre-opening team at The Leela Palace New Delhi in 2010. Since then he has worked as a food and beverage professional in various capacities at the Leela and is currently restaurant manager at the modern Japanese restaurant Megu. His passion for wine is what keeps Tiwari on his toes with the latest trends in the F&B field and has taken him to vineyards around the world for firsthand authentic experiences. With several professional awards under his belt, including topping the 7th Indian Sommelier Championship in 2014, Tiwari is a member of the Sommelier India Tasting Panel. He speaks to Reva K Singh about the hotel’s wine programme, his interest in wine and why he loves his job.

What is the underlying philosophy of your hotel’s wine programme? The underlying philosophy of the wine programme at The Leela Palace New Delhi is to make the Palace the ultimate destination with the most satisfying wine experience appropriate to the cuisine chosen and one that appeals to our discerning wine connoisseurs. Today we have an excellent range of over 350 labels selected from all over the world which illustrates our serious commitment to curating an invigorating wine experience for our guests.

How is your wine list arranged and what is the most important element of a good wine list? The wine list at the Leela Palace is cataloged according to the country of origin and its most interesting regions. Important to consider when planning a wine list are criteria such as the most suitable grape varietals and wine styles keeping in mind the cuisine served at the restaurant as well as the price of the wines.

Which wines do you serve by the glass? We serve 19 wines by the glass in an appealing selection of international and domestic white, red, sparkling and rosé wines. We keep revisiting this assortment to ensure our offering remains as interesting and exciting as it can be while raising the benchmark for the industry and keeping
our guests truly satisfied. Over a period of time, Indian wines have carved a niche for themselves and created a steep demand among both Indian and global travellers. Our endeavour is to offer the best of both worlds to our guests, and so we have an excellent collection of both indigenous and imported wines at the Leela Palace.

How important is food and wine matching? Very important. When a glass of wine meets a certain dish in perfect harmony, magic is created. Both elevate each other in partnership.

What would you tell your guests if they asked you which wine to order? First and foremost, it is important to understand your guest’s palate. Wine suggestions are then largely based on the cuisine and the specific dishes that are ordered. For example, in Jamavar, our fine dining Indian restaurant, I would suggest an off-dry Gewurztraminer if a spicy lamb curry is ordered. At MEGU, black cod with Riesling is a match made in heaven.
At Le Cirque, I would recommend a Chianti with Spaghetti Primavera which is another very successful and popular pairing.

Given the chance, what region would you like to have more of on your wine list? Priorat in Spain. This is a region that produces wines that are intensely fruit flavoured and highly distinctive. Although low in yield, the distinction of the wines is due to their flavours which the region’s slate and Llicorella soil imparts, adding a new dimension to them. These wines are still highly under-rated and that’s why I would like to introduce them to my patrons.

What specific traits or skills should a sommelier possess to succeed on the shop floor? For a sommelier to succeed requires an exhaustive study of the different wine regions, an understanding of the physiological process of wine tasting, the ability to critically assess wines, and the complex world of pairing wine and food. A sommelier needs to have a wine vocabulary along with a natural flair for story-telling to make his or her interaction with patrons more interesting and engaging. In addition, a sommelier also needs to be well-versed in aspects related to wine service, procurement of wines and inventory management. Equally important is mentoring a team and curating a wine list that is profitable for the establishment and also appealing to guests. Finally, a sommelier should understand that a great wine experience does not necessarily require an expensive bottle of wine.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your profession? Well, as a sommelier I get to taste some of the
rarest and most expensive wines in the world. I get to interact with the finest chefs and make stimulating connections with winemakers while working on degustation menus. I get to travel to the most beautiful wine regions of the world, share my passion with guests (including many celebrities) while regaling them with fascinating wine stories. I oversee a wine programme and constantly work on an ever-evolving wine list that should be in perfect harmony with the menu. The rewards are many, but the most rewarding aspect of
my profession is to see a truly satisfied guest at the end of a meal where my suggestions have succeeded in immensely enhancing the entire dining experience.

What is the most annoying customer habit? What is the oddest request you have received from a customer? After working for almost a decade in the hospitality industry nothing very much annoys me any longer. However, I do get some strange requests from guests. For example, I find it odd when people return from a trip abroad, and ask for the same wine that they’d had at a particular restaurant on their travels.

What were your first encounter with wine and the wine industry? Childhood memories. I remember drinking wine and mixing it with soda from my uncle’s bar. That was my earliest encounter with wine. At my first job in Mumbai, I was fortunate to be part of a wine training programme. It was a formative experience in my life and I have never looked back.

Any particular mentors at that time? I hold Rohan Ogale and Manohar from The Oberoi Mumbai, along with Gagan Sharma in high esteem. They have helped me shape myself as a successful sommelier.

Do you have a memorable wine moment? Yes, I do. The particular incident that I am about to narrate is close to my heart and one that I will never forget. Last year, I went on a month-long backpacking trip across Europe to explore the wine regions. On a visit to the Louis Jadot winery in Burgundy, they graciously gave me a bottle of expensive Louis Jadot Echezeaux Grand Cru when I was leaving. As I was travelling by Euro rail I decided to taste the wine while enjoying the beautiful view. (I often finish all the wines I’ve collected at various wineries to make sure my baggage is within the limits of an airline’s allowance.) An old lady came and sat next to me on the train and looked at me in amazement when she saw me drinking the wine. After a sweet hello she asked me where I was from. When I told her I was from Delhi in India, she said, “That’s why you are rich and you can afford to drink this wine inside a train compartment.”

Feeling good that our capital had such a distinctive, rich image abroad, I mentioned I was a sommelier and the bottle was a gift. She told me the same wine had been chosen by her husband, who had passed away three years ago, to celebrate their special 50th wedding anniversary nine years earlier. I offered her a glass which she accepted on my insistence. With the first sip her eyes welled up and for the rest of the journey, she was overwhelmed with memories of her husband. I gave the remaining bottle to her as a souvenir of our meeting and in return got the warmest of hugs and hearty blessings. Since I believe wine is all about sharing, this was my special moment of wine and my wine memory of a lifetime.

This article was first published in the print edition of Sommelier India wine magazine November-December 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

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