Interview with San Francisco Rising Star Tara Patrick of Mourad

by Sean Kenniff
June 2016

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start?
Tara Patrick:
I started in wine 10 years ago, when I was 21. I was managing a neighborhood bistro and wine retailer in Charleston. I took over the retail side, and after a couple of months, my boss said he could see this is where my passion is, and we spent a lot of time together tasting wine after we shut down the restaurant. A lot of consuming, and a lot of thinking, combining the sensory experience with culture and history and science, and I found that to be the most gratifying education. I did that for five years, then went to South America. I was in Peru, but I traveled all over. I traveled a lot before I came to San Francisco.

When I first got to San francisco, I was a server at a Greek restaurant, and Jackie Horton was a great mentor to me there. She knew my intention was to be in wine. I went on to Michael Mina’s flagship as a server, was promoted to somm, and two years later went to Quince as assistant wine director, then took over the full program.

SK: What is your five year plan?
As we grow, I want the wine and beverage program to evolve at the same rate. I love working the floor but, I'm also 31, children and night work is not always feasible. Multiple outlets allows greater flexibility in your schedule and more chances for taking care of personal life and finding a balance. We keep wine and spirits fairly distinct, but I would like to see them streamlined together as we develop the brand. We already combined the two into a leather bound book. We need one beverage program instead of two; we need to feed off of each other to be successful. 

SK: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
I've been here since December 2010 and I cannot imagine a better community for beverage professionals. It is such a supportive community. I've watched myself and my peer grow up together. I love watching our trajectory; a rising tide raises all boats. 

Tips for the Sommelier from Tara Patrick:

Always be expanding your horizons. 
The world of wine is vast, and given the increasingly globalized market, more and more wines from the far reaches of the globe are getting representation in the States. Places like Isreal, Croatia, North Africa, even China are producing wines that are becoming increasingly available in this country and, love them or hate them, you're doing a disservice to yourself to not at least see what they have to offer. No growth ever came from sticking to your comfort zones. 

Don't let your preferences set the tone for the guest experience. 
The job of the sommelier is to provide a service: to help elevate and bring greater enjoyment to a meal that they have chosen to have in your restaurant. That means offering them something they will enjoy, not something you think they should enjoy. Listen closely to what they have to say (or sometimes what they are not saying) and offer suggestions accordingly. While we are of course there to offer guidance, it's not the place of the sommelier to push their own agenda onto someone else's evening. 

Embrace enthusiasm. 
There is a growing number of people I see coming into the restaurant industry now who have a passion for wine and a desire to work in the field in varying capacities. It is so important to recognize these individuals and provide opportunities for education, tasting, learning, and any other experiences that can help foster their continued growth. At some point we have all been in that position and it's our responsibility to nurture those who wish to follow a similar path given whatever resources we have to do so.

Look at wine through a wide lens. 
What I love so much about the study, pursuit, and of course drinking (!) of wine is that is encapsulates so many layers of intertwined ideas and practices. It's the perfect confluence of history, culture, geography, agriculture, science....and so much more. It's such an interdisciplinary, multifaceted endeavor and its fascinating to reflect on how all these different elements came together to create what you experience in the glass.

Take every opportunity to travel. 
So much of understanding wine is the tangible, experiential component of place. You can read books and study flash cards and blind taste until you are blue in the face, but there's a certain depth of understanding that comes from actually experiencing the place itself, breathing the air, meeting the people, and eating the food, that allows all those facts and figures to assimilate into something coherent and enduring. I believe wine is about the totality of the experience, from its history to its production to its enjoyment. And travel is such an integral part of bringing all those things together. 

Eat out a lot.
Going out to eat for me is often times as much about enjoyment as it is R&D. Not only is it crucial to be constantly exposing your palate to different flavors, styles of cuisine, types of beverages, and service styles, but it's also always interesting and inspiring to see what other people in the industry are doing and how they are pushing themselves. Immerse yourself in dining and hospitality culture. Often you'll come away thinking of new ways you can be better. 

Be humble and grateful. 
I'm constantly taking a moment to reflect on how truly lucky I am to work in this field and to be surrounded by so many talented, intelligent people representing all tiers of the restaurant, wine, and hospitality industries. There's always so much to learn from the people around you, both industry peers and the guests we take care of, and I can't imagine another job I'd be so gratified and stimulated to be doing that in. Additionally, its important to remember that we are incredibly fortunate to be in a line of work that, at the end of the day, is intended to make people happy and to bring greater joy to their day. That in and of itself is often the biggest reward.