Firehouse wine director celebrates 50 years of service
By Jessica Laskey
If you have a question about wine, ask Mario Ortiz.
During his 50 years at The Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento, Ortiz has held nearly every position. He’s now wine director, general manager and sommelier.
Ortiz helped the restaurant build one of Northern California’s legendary wine cellars with more than 14,000 bottles and 1,800 individual labels, including a collection of rare wines housed in The Vault.
But Ortiz, a native of Mexico and longtime Land Park resident, didn’t plan to go into wine. It all started because of his love of painting.
“Wineries have pretty nice buildings,” says Ortiz, who enjoys painting landscapes. “I would go to the wineries and ask permission to paint them. They said sure and that if I wanted to taste wine afterward to come inside. I said yes at first as a favor to them, but it led to being friends with some pretty cool people.”
The late Robert Mondavi stands out as one of Ortiz’s first and biggest influences. Though Ortiz didn’t drink wine when he first met the winemaker, he was fascinated by literature Mondavi gave him about the winemaking process.
By then, Ortiz already worked at The Firehouse—he started as a part-time event employee at age 16. After meeting Mondavi, Ortiz made it his mission to sit down with as many winemakers and sommeliers as he could and pass what he learned onto his customers.
“People always tell me that they learn a lot about wine from me indirectly,” Ortiz says. “I like to talk to people about wine, not instruct them or correct them. Even if a master sommelier teaches me something, I still have my own palate. It doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Ortiz’s palate and gentle teaching style have won him hundreds of devoted clients over five decades. He remembers when he first decided to offer Silver Oak, a high-ticket Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, by the glass.
Ortiz recalls how former Sacramento Bee food critic and close friend Mike Dunne told him he was crazy, that there was no way he could sell a wine that expensive in Sacramento. But Ortiz’s decision paid off.
“People hadn’t experienced it before because it’s so expensive by the bottle,” Ortiz says. “But once they tasted it, it converted a lot of them and we ended up selling cases of it.”
Ortiz is in the business of selling wine. But more than that, he’s in the business of helping diners have a memorable time. Whether advising on a wine from the comprehensive wine list or sharing stories, Ortiz enjoys coming to work each day.
The work pays off. The Firehouse has won numerous national wine awards, including Wine Spectator’s coveted “Best of Award of Excellence” for 19 consecutive years and the California Restaurant Association’s “Best California Wine List.”
“It’s the people that have kept me here for so long,” says Ortiz, who met his wife of 32 years, Sue, at an event at The Firehouse. “Whether it’s for a wedding, a business event, a special dinner or just a night out to socialize, I’ll be here to take care of you.”
For more information, visit firehouseoldsac.com.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.