Abhas Saxena has been working as the sommelier for The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai since 2012. But his love for wines goes back much further. He has been a keen enthusiast of wine for the past eight years now. There are a few key things about wines that intrigue him the most. “Stop, Look, Smell, Taste. When we taste wines, we live life through our senses for a brief moment and make a pause in our otherwise busy life, ” he says. This simple idea, which changed his approach to wines has been driving him to learn more and taste more wines as they come. With the rare distinction of being a certified sommelier from The Court of Master Sommeliers, Abhas has an appreciation and understanding of the finer nuances of wine. During his tenure, the wine list of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel has been recognised with the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for four years in a row. A thorough professional, Abhas was recently named the best sommelier from all his peers in the Taj hotels. However, tasting wines for him is never a serious affair. Here, Reva K. Singh interviews Abhas Saxena about his love for wine and his job as a sommelier.
How did you develop an interest in wine? It all happened with a chance interaction with an acquaintance when I was in hotel school. Trying to figure out a career choice, I came across Dini Rao who at the time was one of the wine buyers for Christie’s auction house in New York. At the end of the conversation, all I had were three questions for her. “What do you do?”,“What do I need to do, to do the same?” and “Will you guide me?” After that, I started reading up on wines and there was no looking back.
Tell me about theTaj Mahal Palace hotel’s wine programme. The wine programme at The Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai is a tough one. We have restaurants like the Chambers and Wasabi with a serious wine culture; at the same time, we have Shamiana, which is as informal as it gets.But the challenge and common link in all the hotel restaurants is keeping wine simple, offering guests a varied choice, keeping it light on the pocket and showcasing the best from any given region.
How did your hotel’s wine list win the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for four years in a row? As a hotel, we have made a conscious effort to keep the standards of the wine list and choices offered to guests at par with global standards. We have pioneered in bringing new styles of wines into India. The Wine Spectator Award of Excellence and their requirements make a good benchmark for us to follow and showcase a wine list that covers the most popular wine styles from across the world. Keeping these criteria in mind encourages us to uphold a certain level of offering on our wine list. It is heartening to be recognised for our efforts and we keep at it year after year.
Which wines move the fastest on your list? The Taj Private Label wine selection definitely comprises the fastest moving wines on the list. The Palais series of wines from Italy has become a hot favourite for most of our guests. The Pinot Grigio and the Sangiovese blends are the best-selling wines.
Given the choice, which region would you like to see more of on your list? I definitely want to explore the lesser-known regions that Indian wine consumers are yet to taste and experience. Wines from Beni M’Tir in Morocco, the Aegean Islands of Greece, Mount Carmel in Israel, Dealu Mare in Romania, the list can be endless. But certainly, Vinho Verde from Portugal is definitely a style I would love to showcase.
Do you think it’s important to match food with wine? Do you have any favourite wine and food matches? I am a firm believer in mood and wine pairing rather than food and wine pairing. When a celebratory occasion calls for a champagne; be it with a steak or a butter chicken, the champagne will work wonders. Having said that, trying out a new wine and food pairing is always fun. I love the combination of a Vada Pav with a Gruner Veltliner and consider it technically correct.
What customer habit annoys you the most? Even though mobile apps have helped wine consumers understand wine a lot better, considering these apps as gospel is annoying. Not trying a wine because a certain app rates it 3.5 out of 5 is not giving the wine a fair chance to showcase its true potential.
What are your favourite wines? Barolos from Piedmont, Cabernet Shiraz from South Australia, Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough… the list is too long.
What do you like about being a sommelier? Constantly learning new things about the world of wines, experimenting with wine and food pairing, tastings (serious or casual), speaking to people about wines, sharing knowledge and experience. This might sound boring, but it is actually fun!
What is your most memorable wine related moment? My most memorable moment was definitely clearing the certified sommelier examination from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Mine was the last name to be announced and I was filled with nervousness – the only time in my life when I felt weak in my knees!
Any advice for a novice wine drinker? One simple thing – don’t form opinions based on what you hear or read. Taste. Taste a lot. Experiment. Experiment a lot. v
This interview first appeared in the last issue of Sommelier India 2016