His professor always said to him, you need more than a lifetime to learn about wine, but Mark Ron Patana is prepared to try.
Mark Patana, 26, entered his very first competition as a sommelier and to his surprise, won his very first competition. He says with modesty and a giggle, “it was beginners luck.” Though, he was not only was crowned the Young Sommelier of the Year, he completely blew the judges away and brought home the Gerard Basset Trophy for the best score in the blind tasting and food and wine matching sections too.
Mark has worked as a sommelier at Core by Clare Smyth for a year and a half and through the competition his mentor and head sommelier, Gareth Ferreira, led him all the way. He was of course slightly anxious to enter, as this would be his first time competing in a professional wine contest.
“I think people are scared of the unknown and I was a bit apprehensive. My assistant head sommelier competed last year, so I knew the standard was really high,”
“I told myself- let’s do it for the experience and not for the award. So I can learn something and meet new people. That’s one of the most important things our industry can give, creating human connection which is really incredible.” Marks priority wasn’t on winning, but taking part, trying his best and enjoying it.
Although, during the pandemic, Mark admitted he was feeling a little bit lost and deflated. The constant closures and frantic changes in covid restrictions took its toll on Mark, and during the lockdowns, Mark would just sit at home and study for his Court of Master Sommelier qualification, patiently waiting Core to reopen.
“…This [the competition] was a boost in motivation for me; a wake-up call. Something to set my mind on, even though I had no expectation to win, I still wanted to do well and represent Core.”
Mark was born in Milan, and isn’t just savvy about wine, he speaks four languages including: Tagalong (a Philippine language native to where his parents are from), Italian (his mother tongue), English and French. At first, he studied accounting but professes that, it is hard to know what you want to do at such a young age, and that it is such a huge decision to make as a teen.
“I wanted something more dynamic and competitive. Something that could push me to be better every day and I found that in hospitality. I actually started as a chef but it wasn’t for me either, but I knew I still loved the industry”, he says.
So he made a slight turn in his career path which lead him to complete a six month sort-of crash course called ‘Sala, Bar e Sommellerie’ and studied every aspect of hospitality at ALMA is based in Colorno, which is one of Italy’s most prestigious culinary schools. He was an
introverted character as a youngster, and whenever he was part of the front of house service, during his work experience, he couldn’t help but shake while walking to a table. But he said, it was the friends he made at these establishments that brought him out of his shell, and helped him carry on.
When it came to choosing his internship as part of his course, his sights were set on the UK. Mark joined the famous French restaurant Le Gavroche, for four months as front of house. He’d returned back to Milan to finish his course and soon after, the city of London charmed him back. In 2019, Mark returned to Le Gavroche, but still was not sure if this was the right role for him.
“I then realised I wanted to pursue wine, but I’ve always been a bit intimidated by wine because I thought it was just a whole new universe and you really needed to know everything” Mark admits and reminisces back to the moment he knew wine was going to be a big part of his life.
“I think the key moment for me is, I still remember, I was with my cousin and we were in Milan in front of the Navigli canal. I remember my cousin trying to explain the wine to me, and I didn’t really understand anything and that frustrated me. That was the moment I knew I wanted to know more. I had the urgency to know more.” For Mark what resonated was, the pleasure of sharing a moment with somebody you care about, and sat in the middle of that moment- was a bottle of wine.
It was new years eve 2019 and after a month of a nail-biting wait for a reply from Gareth Ferreria about a sommelier job opening at Core, Mark received an email to say he had been successful and was offered a trial shift. He sweetly confesses, he still has the email saved now.
This was Mark’s first position as a sommelier and he was part of the team when Core was awarded its incredible third star; making Michelin history. The ceremony was streamed online because of the lockdown in January 2021, and Mark watched through his phone screen back home in Italy. He says, the second they called out ‘Core by Clare Smyth’, he thought back to what they’d been though that year, facing many challenges and vicissitudes and that everything he’d done and worked for, had led to this wonderful moment.
“We were really moved by it because of the year we had… I was so proud to receive it alongside such incredible people.”
At Core, the best dish with a paired wine for Mark has got to be the Scottish langoustine, with peas, English wasabi and an almond mousse infused with rose geranium. It is paired with a 2019 Riesling Trocken by Weingut Georg Mosbacher and that because of the precise and small amount of residual sugar, this naturally matches with the sweetness of the langoustine, yet at the same time perfectly balances the mild heat from the wasabi.
“The almond mousse and the foam gives it that whole mouthful feel. It has a floral and really elegant taste to it. Really delicate and balanced flavours.”
A sommelier’s job is highly complex, as Mark explains, you have to know every aspect of the restaurant: being part of the service, understanding the dishes, the prep and what truly goes on in the kitchen. As a sommelier, you’re an encyclopedia of knowledge, and you never stop learning, something that Mark adores about the job.
“It’s not just about wine, it’s really about service and understanding all the parts of the restaurant, it’s important to be able read guests in order to choose the perfect wine for them and for the food and give the best experience.”
It is known on the grape vine, that as a sommelier, you’re able to try some of the best wines in the world. For Mark, the 1989 Krug Champagne he tried really hit the spot.
“It was the first time I tasted such an evolved and maturely developed sparkling wine. It was totally different, especially how it starts in the mouth, and the taste on my palette- I will never forget it. And it’s special because you don’t get to try wines like this every day, because of the prestige and especially the price, so I feel fortunate as a sommelier to be able to try things like this.”
His advice to those aspiring to become sommeliers is that, rule number one- you have to be passionate about it. It takes a lot of commitment, sacrifice and hard work to become a sommelier but the reward is worth it. He also suggests to find a mentor, as most people in the industry are willing to help, because they want you to succeed and want you to develop.
“If you need help from others, don’t be shy, they can be very supportive because they’ve been there and there’s nothing more genuine than that. They will help you strive to become better every day.”
Furthermore, there is the debate whether exams, qualifications and competitions really matter. As some top sommeliers have sailed through their careers without a grade or accolade to show for. But for Mark, he says he takes exams and enters into competitions, not for the validation or the labels, but for the guidance and the structure, and feels they help him achieve his best.
Mark will go on to retake his exams in January for his ‘Court of Master Sommelier’ qualification, reminding us that even the best sommeliers sometimes fail along the way. Then in November, he will compete in Chaine’s international final competition and represent the UK, which will be held in Lyon, France. Here at Choose Hospitality, we’ll certainly be cheering him on all the way.