A Career in wine? Don’t keep it bottled up!
Sonal Clare. Wine is his playground and he intends to have fun with it
Sonal Clare, 37, is head sommelier at the The Wilderness, Birmingham, and GQ’s sommelier of the year 2018. Sonal is a seriously cool guy, who doesn’t take wine or himself too seriously, and because of that, he does have one of the best jobs in the world.
At the heart of it Sonal is a West Londoner, but he has spent over 20 years in Birmingham, following his career path. It was his mother’s cooking that opened his eyes to the culinary world; her Indian dishes were so scrumptious, that it drove him to choose a career in the food industry.
At GCSE, he admits he wasn’t the brightest spark at school but excelled in food tech and achieved a grade 9 (which old school students like Sonal would have known as an A*).
Sonal went on to attend UCB (University College of Birmingham) to study Hospitality and Food management for four years, in the hope of becoming a chef, while learning the ins and outs of the whole industry. Sonal went on to achieve a 1st class honours, but he didn’t stop there. His mind was like a sponge, soaking in as much information as he could and wanting to learn more. While at UCB, he completed a level 2 WSET (Wine & Spirit Educational Trust) qualification- something most sommeliers gain during their careers.
Ironically, as a younger man, the taste of wine wasn’t immediately to his liking. “I remember trying four different red wines and I was like ‘they all taste the same, they all have this muddy, earthy, horrible flavour’. I guess when you were younger you do prefer sweeter things, I was a Malibu and pineapple or Southern Comfort and lemonade kind of guy at university.”
Sonal’s advice to those just entering the world of wine, would be ‘read’ and ‘taste’. Read magazines, articles, books and get to know the industry. Then get to know your palette, get to know the stories behind the bottles and taste as many different styles as you can. Whether that’d be, at a weekend, getting to know a bottle and stretch your budget and spend £15 on a decent wine, then the week after, grab a cheaper bottle from Aldi or Tescos and be serenaded by that.
“Learn as much as you can, but don’t stress yourself out too much because in wine you never stop learning. Even the guests teach you lessons. It’s like Takeshi’s castle, one door opens and then another one opens.”
Also, during his time at UCB, the course included a placement year which really jump started his career. After growing up in Ealing, then studying in Birmingham, Sonal wanted to escape the city, and bought a plane ticket to Ireland to work at 4 star Nuremore Hotel and Country Club. There, he started as front of house because there were no chef vacancies at the time. This worked out well. Due to his sociable nature, Sonal really enjoyed being on the restaurant floor, chatting away with guests and colleagues alike.
Sonal recalls, “It was the classic French fine dining. Fancy dining for me at that age would have been Pizza Hut, I never got the vibe of what fine dining was all about, then that year I was learning as much as possible, chatting with the team, working many hours. Then, one day, my manager asked ‘if I was interested in wine?’”
Sonal Clare trained as a Sommelier which then became his life’s work; cracking open bottles of wine, talking endlessly about the glasses he’d poured and getting to know his guests. He travelled back to UCB to graduate but then couldn’t wait to get back to the restaurant, where he returned as assistant manager at 24 years old. Subsequently, Sonal moved to another establishment and earned the role of restaurant manager, something he had been dreaming of achieving.
After 2 years, he wanted to relocate back to Birmingham and he just couldn’t forget the meal he had a Michelin starred ‘Purnell’s’ back in his university days. “I was like, wow, this is sensational, probably today still one of the best meals I’ve ever had,” Sonal assures.
Sonal went back to square one and started from the bottom, to get to know every aspect of the restaurant because he knew, that was the only way he could work to the best of his ability. Over ten years, Sonal slowly worked his way up in the hierarchy, to general manager.
“I think it helped me growing up in a council house in London. You got to know a mix of cultures and people around you, which makes it easier to personalise it when guests come into the restaurant. Whether they were young or elderly or whatever culture or background, you can personalise your service.” Being a sommelier or front of house, requires a bit of psychology, as to succeed in the industry and get to know anyone who enters your establishment, you need to be able to put yourself in anybody’s shoes; see through of all walks of life, to understand what experience they are wanting from you. “
Everyone thinks, in hospitality, you just cook and clean and serve, but you have to learn so much more. Like: people management, discipline, immaculate hygiene, financial management, customer service skills, there’s so many things that cover hospitality- you actually learn like six different trades.”
“I gave some advice to one of my new friends who just started in hospitality and it’d be to keep your head down put in the groundwork and don’t get too carried away with yourself or take yourself too seriously. Don’t try and carry the whole world on your shoulders and just go there to learn. And that there’s no harm in starting from the bottom again, I was 26 or 27 when I started at Purnell’s and I went down to the bottom to start because that’s the only way you’re going to learn.”
Working as a sommelier, the opportunities are endless, whether you want to work in an English gastro pub, or the swankiest hotel in Monaco, or travel the world on yachts or cruise ships. Sonal’s perks are pretty luxurious themselves. As he works closely with the world-famous Champagne brand ‘Krug’, he has been fortunate enough to travel around their vineyards in Europe, all-expenses paid and drink some of the most expensive Champagne that exists.
“It popped up on my Facebook memories that 10 years ago, I was in Krug and we were at a two-star Michelin restaurant, and they said ‘yeah you’re going to be the first to try Krug 2000 vintage’. I was like wow this is amazing”
“I was drinking a £5000 pound bottle of champagne. But it’s not just about status and money, it’s about meeting them and hearing their stories. But I’d be picked up in a fancy car and hear ‘Mr Clare, your car is waiting for you’. You get to live that life for a moment and you feel like you’re on top of the world.”
To Sonal, wine is special because it’s about sharing a moment.
We also discussed how a sommelier isn’t what it was 20 years ago, where people used to perceive sommeliers being controversially ‘posh’ and rigid. But, with the modern sommelier, you can be whoever you want to be, and find the establishment that lets you showcase your personality. And at the Wilderness, Sonal has the freedom to let out his inner wild.
“People can associate fine dining with being posh and swanky, there are those restaurants out there if you want that and that’s fine. But it’s good to be open minded. Decide what kind of sommelier you want to be. It’s for you to find out, who you are and where you want to be,”
Sonal says. Sonal explains the idea his boss Alex, at the Wilderness, had for their wine menu; to turn it into an editorial magazine, where each page is dedicated to a wine with creative, professional photographs of the team. He also explains other features at the Wilderness; it has an open plan kitchen, a young thriving team and a rock and roll Spotify playlist in the background.
Furthermore, to make hospitality more attractive and really respect their workers, the senior team are introducing incentives and perks to drive and motivate their team further, such as gifted meals out and wine tastings. To show their appreciation for the dedication and commitment their team brings.
The highlight of Sonal’s life, had to be winning the prestigious GQ award for ‘Best Sommelier of 2018’. Though he was nominated just 2 years prior to that as front of house, Sonal casually thought that year he wasn’t going to win, but he would take advantage of the free bar that included a limitless stash of Veuve Clicquot magnum bottles. He was handed the award by Claudia Winkleman and was applauded by incredible people of the industry, such as: Paul Ainsworth, Clare Smyth, Mark Birchall and Tom Kerridge.
“I brought my colleague and we just partied – I mean it was a free day out. Then, the next minute the award came up and I had won – I was amazed, absolutely chuffed, I just couldn’t believe it. And to be awarded it outside of London was an amazing achievement. The trophy still gets a polish every now and then.”
When the evening concluded, Sonal and his colleague were stumbling around Euston train station, with a GQ trophy in one hand and a bottle of Champagne in the other. After years of hard graft and late nights, to Sonal, this is the sort of thing that made it all worthwhile.
“A lot of people have moved out of hospitality, but hopefully they’ll realise how good it is and come back to us. Because it isn’t as rewarding in an office, there is a limit to how much you can learn in a nine to five job. It can be very repetitive and boring. In hospitality every day is different.”
Here’s a taste of what you get with Sonal’s service: through choosing his ultimate, Wilderness, three dishes, with paired wine. “
We are quite lucky because the menu changes a lot, my favourite dish is a pea dish with, freshly shelled peas, pea panna cotta, elderflower and mint sorbet style. I serve a Basque wine, Txakoli from the Hiruzta Bodega wine shop (2020) which is a light effervescent fizz style, bone-dry and about 11.5%. People love it, it’s very earthy, vegetal, and a savoury wine.
A main course would be the Wagyu beef with peppercorn sauce, paired with a juicy, full bodied Napa cellars Zinfandel from California (2017). It’s the BBQ, smokiness and pepper that pairs this so well. Lastly, we’ve a really nice dish within Ibérica ham and XO, with dehydrated scallop and prawn under pork broth. Paired with a Rolly Gassmann (2019), who is an old school wine producer, Riesling with honey notes and citrus.”
For Sonal, he has already conquered his dream, which was to become a restaurant manager of a Michelin starred restaurant. But looking into the future, he admits a place of his own would be the dream. Something really different- with an unexpected twist. His creative brain was in overload, and he shared with me his two incredible ideas.
The first to create a restaurant that the menu is made and tailored for the wine and not the traditional ‘the wine to be tailored to the food’. Or a restaurant that serves dirty but delicious takeaway dishes, and pair that with exclusive wine.
“I like ‘ordinary’ food too, like burgers and chicken wings. So, what if I were to pair really nice glass of wine with it? Why not? Chicken and Champagne, or a really nice dirty burger with a good glass of Bordeaux or Burgundy.”
I put Sonal on the spot, intrigued, I asked him what would he would pair with a naughty kebab with chili sauce? He replied with “a nice Shiraz or Syrah, something quite fruity. Medium bodied and a little bit of tannin in there.” I think he’s onto something there. You heard it here first.