Mark Mendoza, 35, is the wine director for the Los Angeles-based Food Art Group, whose flagship restaurant, Sona, won Wine Spectator's Grand Award in 2006. The group also recently opened the brasserie Comme Ça. Mendoza (whose passion for wine is shared by Sona's chef, David Meyers, who was also a WineSpectator.com guest blogger) has been at Sona for three years, and previously held sommelier positions at Martini House in Napa, Seeger's in Atlanta and Redwood Park in San Francisco.
Wine Spectator: What first got you interested in wine?
Mark Mendoza: I grew up in Livermore, Calif., and I liked the appeal of the lifestyle that wine had to offer. Also, my good friend was the manager at a country club and he would often bring sample bottles over and we would drink them.
WS: And then how did you become a sommelier?
MM: At first I wanted to make wine, but then I found out chemistry was involved. I was waiting tables when I realized that the sommelier had the best job in the house. After that I went to work in San Francisco and met a great community of sommeliers and it just kind of fell together after that.
WS: Who were some of the sommeliers you met in the early days of your career, and how did they influence you?
MM: I inherited my first sommelier job at Vertigo from Sarah Floyd who went on to become a master sommelier. I was a server at Vertigo and Sarah was leaving to go work at Postrio, so they offered me the job. After that I was at Farallon for two and a half years. I also worked for a short time at Rubicon with Larry Stone. He would have regular tastings on Saturday for the staff, and I remember the first time I ever had Haut-Brion Blanc. It really lit the fire.
WS: What is the hardest dish on the dinner menu at Sona to pair with wine, and what do you pair with it?
MM: The grilled opah with shrimp, baby tomatoes and lemongrass-saffron sauce. Opah is a medium-flaky fish from Hawaii, not oily, but rich. I pair it with the Antinori Umbria Cervaro della Sala 2005, which is mostly Chardonnay along with 20 percent Grechetto. I like the bright acidity the Grechetto gives, and the use of oak works well with the richness of the dish.
WS: What is your go-to wine-and-food pairing?
MM: Austrian Riesling with cold sashimi type dishes. Austrian Rieslings have a slightly peppery quality to them, particularly the Rieslings from the Wachau. They work great with things like sesame-crusted tuna.
WS: How do you emphasize value on the wine list at Sona?
MM: I have over 50 wines by the glass [on the list at Sona], all of which are priced very well. It is like a mini list within the wine list. I also make sure that there is a balance of prices in the major sections of wine list.
WS: What are your favorite wine regions?
MM: Burgundy, Austria, Germany, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.
WS: Burgundy, Austria and Germany are common favorites of sommeliers, but I don't often hear Sonoma Coast Pinots. What are your favorites?
MM: I love Pinot, and when I think of California Pinot, I think of Sonoma Coast. Littorai, Kosta Browne, Patz & Hall, Roar, Pisoni—those are all great wines.
WS: Do the diners at Sona share your enthusiasm for California Pinot Noir?
MM: I probably sell more California Pinot than anything else, and that's with 150 of them on the list versus 300 Burgundies. It's been like that for three years. It's the hardest thing to keep up on, both in terms of all the new producers and keeping it in stock.
WS: There's a growing trend among sommeliers to dabble in winemaking themselves, and you've joined that trend. Tell me about your wine.
MM: My partner Joshua Klapper and I are making about 80 barrels, the brand is called La Fenêtre. We try to make wines with a low oak impact. We have Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir all from Santa Barbara County. We are working with consulting winemakers for all the wines—Josh has worked the harvest with Qupé and Au Bon Climat for the past two years and has gotten some really great fruit. The 2006 vintage will be our third year. We have always loved the Burgundian varietals and we think that Santa Barbara County is a great place for Pinot and Chardonnay. The Syrah is more in a Crozes-Hermitage vein and the Cabernet is done in 1-year-old barrels. … [Looking back], I guess I didn't need to learn chemistry after all.
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