Yes siree, Bob! - Priyanka Dhar is the first Indian woman to have acquired a Masters in Viticulture and Enology from UC-Davis! She is the first Indian to have got the Masters from this prestigious university, she says. Period!
It was in June 2009 that I heard from Priyanka that she had been invited to join UC-Davis for their Master’s Programme. ‘It gives me great pleasure to tell you that I have been admitted for a Master's program in Viticulture and Enology at the University of California-Davis, starting this Fall '09. I want to thank you for your help during my application process and for your advice. I enjoy reading DelWine and I hope that I shall be capable of contributing to the magazine one day,’ is what she wrote to me. She had been in touch with me for a year or so earlier for advice. I had advised her to study in Adelaide, Angers or UC Davis; the Davis Campus of the University of California is internationally acclaimed as a top-class campus for specialization and many of the top wine producers and winemakers are its alumni.
She has been in touch with me through emails off and on since and when she wrote to me that she would be in Delhi for a couple of days last week, I was glad to agree to meet her and share her journey through UC-Davis - and beyond.
UC Davis - a life changing experience
Davis was a life changing experience for Priyanka. ‘What stands out here is the environment, intermingling of cultures and a program that inflames the intellect and captures the strength of individuals. The program has not only given me a solid academic background, but it has also given me the opportunity to interact with people from all over the world and learn from their creativity, innovation and experience. The faculty and student body of this department is one of the most distinguished in the field and they have aided me in every step of my graduate career,’ she says with starry eyes.
An under-graduate degree in the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) with food and technology was the first step for Priyanka’s tryst with UC-Davis. During her first year in Mumbai, she had the opportunity to visit Sula vineyards. ‘The fascination with this science was immediate and the image of the winery and beautiful vineyards was instantly ingrained in my mind, fermenting my future aspirations. I fell in love with the panorama of the vineyards and the romance of making wine,’ she says.
It was her uncle and mentor, Virender Razdan of ITC, who pushed her and convinced her parents to allow her to chase her dreams. She had been lucky to get into the Masters program at Adelaide University. But unfortunately, due to timings for the visa and her final exams in 4th year, it didn’t happen. She applied for a couple of programs in France and got through as well. But it was UC-Davis which had been a dream school for many of her seniors and it was a pleasant surprise when she was accepted by the university.
Post UCD internships
The knowledge gained during her master’s program at UC-Davis proved invaluable during her internship with Louis M. Martini in St. Helena, Napa. ‘As a result of this internship, I felt confident both in my theoretical and practical knowledge of winemaking. Though the work primarily involved laboratory work, the winemaker at the winery soon realized my desire for the art of winemaking and gave me the freedom to pursue every aspect I wanted.’
‘I took full advantage of her generosity, spending time in the cellar, at the sorting table, in tanks, presses, bottling line among other chores that need to be completed during the busy harvest period. I also honed my laboratory skills with basic wet chemistry methods for wine analysis and more complex and advanced enzymatic analyses as well as an in-depth understanding of quality control and monitoring for issues such as sanitation,’ she adds.
Bon Beaune and Cheers to Cognac
After her time in Davis was over, Priyanka travelled to Burgundy with the help of a travel scholarship and worked a harvest with Hospices de Beaune. ‘Going to France was a dream come true and my biggest challenge both professionally and personally. My limited language skills were a hurdle so I had to devote myself both to proving my skills in a male dominated winery while learning to interact in an altogether new language,’ she tells me.
‘Experiencing the Hospices auction was absolutely fantastic. The whole town comes alive with the preparation and the festivities. Wine is more than a beverage, it is an essential aspect of their culture and to observe this first hand delighted me to no extent,’ she says with glee in her eyes.
From Burgundy, she made her way over to Cognac where she studied the Cognac making process over another internship. ‘The product and the region proved to be a completely different experience but the cold winter days, spent working on small 5 litre alembic (pot still) distilling and studying product differences will remain some of my fondest memories in France. On weekends, I would escape to explore Bordeaux and the wine treasures that the region holds,’ she says.
The other hemisphere
Next, she hopped to the other hemisphere and worked another harvest internship in the Marlborough region of New Zealand with Saint Clair Family Estate. This winery was very different and it was a great chance to learn about quality winemaking with larger volumes.
To the present day
Priyanka has barely reached the legal drinking age of 25 years in Delhi and wine has already become a part of her life. ‘It has given me a reason to wake up and learn; there’s always so much to learn. I’ve had the opportunity to meet such wonderful people and see the most beautiful places in my pursuit of this field. It has taught me to appreciate the better things in life, and face challenges for every vintage is a challenge, no two things are ever the same.' She believes that even the worst vintages, if treated with care, produce the best wines and it all comes down to how much effort you are willing to put in.
‘What excites me the most is how much there is left to discover, to learn, to experience,’ she says. Currently interning with a cooperage firm in Bordeaux, she has been doing a market study for them in India. She has visited Bangalore and plans to visit several wineries in the Nashik belt before returning to France next month.
She may not be sure what the future holds for her but she is presently enjoying the learning process tremendously and is optimistic about the future. Despite a discouraging global scenario until a couple of decades ago, women have proven themselves and are well accepted as winemakers and cellar masters. Who knows, she may become a winemaker for one or more of the Indian wineries one day as a consultant or may become a wine maker (Karishma Grover, daughter of Kapil Grover of Grover Vineyards is also an alumnus with a Bachelor’s degree). In either case, we wish the first Master of Vine and Wine from UC Davis all the best and say, Cheerz!
You will read a lot about her in future. But please remember you read it for the first time in delWine. And if any of our young readers get inspired by her journey so far, let us know - editor