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TalkTime: The Mistress of Wine

By Poornima Apte Email By Poornima Apte
January 2016
TalkTime: The Mistress of Wine


Indian-American Alpana Singh might not be a household name, but in the wine industry she is a phenomenon. Passing the master sommelier craft exam at 26, she was the youngest ever to clear one of the world’s most challenging competitions. Now a master sommelier and Chicago restaurateur, Singh proves that the path to success need not be a traditional one.

Your parents owned an ethnic store when you were a kid. How has that influenced your path?
My parents are from the Fiji Islands and immigrated to Monterey in the seventies. I was brought up in a traditional Hindu home and then when I was around eleven, my parents opened an Indian grocery store. Because I was required to work at the store, I couldn't do fun things like hang out with friends or participate in school activities. I've always had a tremendous amount of responsibility heaped on me at a very early age. That is great for work, but I have a very difficult time relaxing. We romanticize work ethic, oftentimes it comes at a personal cost.

So how did you get from there to the wine industry? Was that a natural progression of some sort?
I worked in a Monterey restaurant and wine shop and always enjoyed history and science and geography so learning about wines was a natural fit. That's when I decided I could either go to college and get myself into a lot of debt or pursue the master sommelier exam. I have seen financial insecurity up close as a child and decided to take a different path that did not involve traditional education. I threw myself into the exam because I didn't have a safety net. At age twenty-three, I moved 2,000 miles away from my family, to Chicago to work at a fine dining restaurant, Everest. It's been fifteen years since I made that decision and I've never regretted it.

And now you have two popular restaurants in Chicago…
I passed the master sommelier exam but still I felt like something was missing, and then I started doing a PBS television show, Check, Please! covering fine dining in Chicago, but still emotionally I was floundering. So I threw caution to the wind and started my own business, The Boarding House. That was three years ago and now I have Seven Lions as well.

That's awesome to see you go for what you wanted. It seems like it was as much about the journey as the destination…
It’s a sensibility of Hinduism to say that every action has a reaction. There's a purpose to our being here. In our culture it’s very common for us to live based on somebody else's prescription for us. There really is no shame in following your path.

You were the youngest woman to pass the master sommelier exam. It was a huge deal. Can you explain how big a deal that really is?
There are about 230 people around the world that have ever been able to pass the exam in its 40-year history. The exam has a 3 percent pass rate; it's known as the most difficult in the world to pass. One of the parts is that you have six wines in front of you and 25 minutes to figure out the grape variety, the country of origin, sometimes specifically to the town, and the year that the wine was made.

You use pop culture references to explain wines. Can you give an example?
Take a Cabernet; that's a classic, a stalwart. I would call it the Amitabh Bachchan of wines. It’s suave and debonair. A Cab is like Amitabh Bachchan in a turtleneck. Pinot Noir is more fragrant and has feminine guiles, so insert a femme fatale from Bollywood movies here.

Have you visited India's wine regions?
No, I have had Sula Wines from Nashik [about 112 miles from Mumbai] but that's about it.

What did you think?
It was fine, but I'm not ready to say that it's really ready to dethrone some other standard fare. I applaud effort. Anybody who has the gumption to do that, you have to support it, you really do.

What would you say is a wine that goes well with Indian food?
I would recommend a fruity Prosecco because it's sweet and has bubbles. In Indian food, the spices linger in the oil and so you need something to refresh your palate and get rid of all the oil. Unfortunately Cabernet, the Amitabh Bachchan of wines, doesn’t work with Indian food.

What do your parents think now about your success and path over the years?
They love it. You know the first people that watched me, my parents and my aunts, I would say that they were genuinely surprised. Myself included. I could never have pictured any of this and feel like I've only just begun.

Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor. Learn more at WordCumulus.WordPress.com.

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