Sonal Clare, wine director and general manager at The Wilderness, Birmingham, is a pioneer. At the forefront of diversity and inclusivity in sommelierie he tells Sommelier Edit about his journey.
“I was fortunate that my parents weren’t the classic Asian family. I wasn’t expected to be a doctor, an accountant or daddy’s shop owner I suppose they kind of knew I wasn’t going down that route.” Sonal Clare admits, “Having none of that pressure I was able to start a career and go to University to study something I loved; which was Hospitality.” Adding with a smile, “Feel free to edit that out if it’s on the “edge”…we didn’t have a shop anyway.”
Starting on a placement in Ireland, Clare got his first taste of working in a fine dining restaurant. His then manager encouraged him to join the restaurant’s wine programme, “I was like “Yeah, sure!”, having never even drunk wine,” he admits. It was there he got the wine bug and whilst at the Michelin-starred restaurant Purnell’s in Birmingham he honed his wine skills, eventually managing a 250+ bin list, using his spare time to study every week about 10-15 wines in detail, in order to learn more.
Clare says that he has been fortunate enough not to have encountered many hurdles in his career development. “My parents, who have Punjabi heritage, were not from a wine background. You could say I started quite late. I have had a few guests look slightly surprised when I come to the table, in the past, but its quickly smooths over when I give them suggestions and start to talk wine.”
“Growing up on a council estate in West London, me and my friends never thought about wine, but we loved music, hip hop and rap, for example. You’d see rappers throwing champagne about and we’d aspire to be like that!”
He continues, “I think that’s what makes me a bit different from the ‘traditional’ sommelier, I’ve not been classically trained, I view wine and my job as fun, as opposed to it being hard graft.”
“Personality is a key aspect for future generations of sommeliers,” says Clare, “They shouldn’t be intimated by the stigma attached to the traditional wine world and price tags. Experience comes over time, patience is important and there are so many positives to working in an environment where you can learn on the job.”
Clare is passionate, encouraging accessibility and challenging the stereotype that the wine world is difficult to penetrate. “Social media offers a platform to enable integration, sharing experiences and learning from the ‘cooler’ advocates of the wine world,” he believes, “Our peer’s personalities help with integration and show how exciting the wine industry is.”
Clare also feels that ethnic minorities, “should take more accountability. It is a two-way street after all,” he says, “integration into learning about wine will be slow, it’s a generational issue. It is lovely to see guests from ethnic backgrounds show their appreciation when I talk to them about my experiences and wine travels, whilst I guide them through the list. “
Now an active advocate for diversity in hospitality Clare takes personal pride in potentially having an impact on future generations, “wine is global and has a huge audience. By making the world of sommeliers and wine more inclusive our profession can grow, not just economically. The industry as a whole has a duty to illustrate what a great environment this is to work in and the opportunities available.”
“After all,” he concludes, “it’s has given me opportunity to pair my Mums’ cooking with some lovely wines; Krug Grande Cuvée and samosas, being one of them.”