On a recent Sunday night at République, wine director Maria Garcia is working the floor, dressed casually in a white sweater bedecked with dinosaur illustrations. Well versed in fine-dining choreography from her years at Spago, she glides easily between diners in the crowded front room, carrying two glasses and a bottle of Loire Valley cabernet franc to a table where a shared plate of agnolotti with pancetta and English peas has just arrived.
Like all good sommeliers, she offers a few tasting notes as she pours, but nothing too specific; she likes to let diners decide for themselves how the wine hits their palates. There's a mention of cab franc's "green notes" and how they play with the freshness of the spring peas. Then she plunges back into the bustle of the restaurant, leaving her patrons to marvel at what an unexpected and perfect pairing she's given them.
It's fitting that Garcia, a unique figure in the L.A. wine scene (and not just because she sometimes wears a dinosaur sweater to work), should be in charge of one of the city's unique wine programs. Most restaurants with deep wine inventories present their entire cellar in a doorstop of a list that can be overwhelming to all but the most dedicated cork dorks. But at République, Garcia curates her 1,800 selections into lean, approachable list of 60 or so options, which she updates daily. If diners want to order from the unprinted "reserve list," they can — but they have to trust Garcia and her somms to help them find the right bottle. "It might be a little confusing to some, but I think it's a little more interactive," she says.
Garcia inherited this "off-list" approach from her predecessor, Taylor Parsons, but since becoming wine director in January, she's put her own stamp on it. Her lists lean heavily on Italy, Burgundy and the Loire but cherry-pick small producers and unusual offerings from all over the world. "I try not be crazy judgmental when presented with wine," she says. Even when the wine in question is something seemingly familiar, such as a Napa Valley cabernet, "It might be something amazing. I think," she adds with a laugh, "that's kind of how I want people to think about me."
Since entering the wine world roughly a decade ago, Garcia, 34, has gotten used to defying expectations. The child of Mexican immigrants, she's petite, easygoing. As soon as she went to culinary school and landed her first wine job, at a high-end shop in the Beverly Hilton — a world away from Norwalk and Whittier, where she grew up — she realized, "I have to work harder to make sure that people take me seriously" in what is still a predominantly white and male-dominated profession.
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Her hard work paid off, especially during a four-year stint at Spago, where she worked her way up from "cellar rat" — handling inventory, storage protocols and other unglamorous, behind-the-scenes duties — to on-the-floor sommelier. She joined the team at République in 2014 and immediately connected with Parsons' philosophy of replacing showy wine lists with friendly dialogue.
"I'm gonna be like, 'What are you looking for? You like Burgundy? OK, cool." From there, the discussion can move to subregions, styles, price points, what pairs well with the dishes diners have ordered — or even steering guests toward a comparable but more affordable region or varietal, such as Beaujolais or barbera. "People are increasingly open to these conversations," Garcia says. "People are becoming a little more comfortable with their somms."
When your somm is as personable and down-to-earth as Garcia, that's not hard to do. "I don't think of myself as a female somm," she notes, "but I do think I bring a different experience to the table. It's kinda cool. I kinda like that."