Unconventional career path turns out to be right road for new Food & Beverage director of The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe
By Kelley Carlson
Sommelier Mark Valin has just crossed over into his newest role at The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe.
The 29-year-old Encinitas resident was recently named Food & Beverage director of the private community. His new position entails responsibilities such as coordinating all Food & Beverage outlets on the property, working with the executive chef to create new menu concepts and wine pairings, partnering with the Catering & Events manager to increase revenues and diversity amenities, and overseeing Food & Beverage revenues of more than $2 million.
The San Diego native, who graduated from Temecula High School in 2002, chose an unconventional path to his career — one that was serendipitous. After striking out on his own at age 18 and starting school at Palomar College to study history, Valin answered an ad in a newspaper for a busboy position at The Bridges. In September 2002, he was hired, and began performing duties such as preparing the dining room for lunch and dinner service, coordinating with the wait staff to ensure top-level service, and accommodating requests from community members.
It wasn’t long before Valin began to really take notice of his surroundings.
“There are so many successful people here,” he said. “Being around them rubs off on you.”
Valin also started to come to the realization that he would likely need a Ph.D. to successfully establish a career in the history field.
So he dropped out of Palomar and began to focus his concentration on learning more about The Bridges environment and getting established.
After a couple of years, Valin’s efforts began to pay off, as he was promoted to bartender in the Men’s Lounge. His job included operating and stocking the full bar; cleaning and maintaining the appearance of the lounge; and the training of new staff members.
A year later, Valin moved into the fine dining room and became wait captain, hosting VIP tables and executing tasting menus and pairings. He also began to develop relationships with the community’s members.
During this time, Valin also received in-house training in wine list development, inventory management, wine buying and general wine knowledge, and it was only a matter of months before he was promoted to Food & Beverage manager/sommelier — a feat he notably accomplished without a formal education.
It was a bit intimidating at first “being in front of some pretty savvy wine connoisseurs, because if you slip, they’ll call you out,” Valin said. “But it made me that much better. I had to do it, or the opportunity would slip through my fingers.
“It was sink or swim,” he added.
As sommelier, Valin acquired quite a few responsibilities. One was creating a wine list of more than 300 labels from around the world for The Bridges, and managing a 3,000-bottle inventory that was valued at $100,000. Among his other job requirements: selecting wine pairings for prix fixe menus in the Tasting Room; hosting wine dinners; organizing weekly wine tastings and trips to Napa and Sonoma; teaching a monthly wine class; executing front-of-the-house service in the Grill and Fine Dining Room; and overseeing staff during large-scale events such as promotional golf tournaments, concerts, holiday parties and weddings.
For the first couple of years, Valin — a self-described “book nerd”— said he was “literally and religiously” reading wine books several times a day. And he also began taking courses, earning certifications and diplomas through the International Sommelier Guild and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.
As The Bridges’ new Food & Beverage director, Valin continues to foster relationships that have been established with members over the years, so he knows their interests.
“It’s creating a place that is exclusive and caters specifically to the wants and needs of a group of special people,” Valin said.
To achieve this, Valin still executes some of his Food & Beverage manager/sommelier duties, including stocking personal cellars; collaborating with the catering manager to come up with new concepts for events and customizing them as needed; and organizing prix fixe dinners in sites such as the organic garden.
Valin said he aims to keep things fresh, but to also have fun with it. He and Chef Chris Buffin travel up and down the coast to gather ideas for their program, and find ways to implement them that “make sense.”
“We have a blank canvas, and our imagination keeps people coming in for more and more,” he said.
And to further enhance the food and wine experience for The Bridges members, Valin hires staff members who are ambitious, flexible, hard-working and willing to develop their skills, and trains them to ensure that they know the culture.
“I instill the same philosophy that I had going through (the system),” Valin said.
“Mark has evolved and grown tremendously since he began with us in 2002, and we’re thrilled to see him take this next step to Food & Beverage director,” said Sean McCune, general manager of The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe. “This longevity has given him a deep connection with our members and a true understanding of their individual perspectives and expectations.”
When he’s not at work, Valin enjoys mountain biking and the outdoors — “I get the excess energy out of my system” — and reading.
And he has this advice to offer: “Sometimes life blows you in a new direction — be cognizant to recognize the opportunity,” Valin said.
For more information on The Bridges, visit