Checking Lists: A Critical Look at Restaurant Wine by Alan Goldfarb (Comal)

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Alan Goldfarb was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star, where it is said that assignment must be akin to covering Catholicism in Vatican City. He was also the senior editor for AppellationAmerica.com. His work has appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter. He’s the contributor of the chapter “Chewing on Chile” in the Travelers’ Tales book Adventures in Wine. He was also the technical editor for California Wine for Dummies.

He’s a restaurant wine consultant and advises wineries on public relations projects. (For his “Checking Lists” column, he will not promote his clients.) You can listen to his latest appearance on iWine Radio. Have a question or a comment? You can email Alan. He’d love to hear from you.

Wine with Mexican? ¡Si, vino!

If you head to the back of ~COMAL~—the cantina area—you might believe for a moment you’ve infiltrated the inner sanctum of the set of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or at least stumbled upon a send-up in a Will Ferrell-Adam McKay production. The cavernous atmosphere has the illusion of a smoke-filled hall, what with its gauze-like blue-steel lighting. The joint screams margaritas and cerveza and then screams some more.

This is where wine director Corin Weihemuller has chosen to ply beverages to a mostly young, Cal-prof crowd, who can’t seem to get enough of chef Matt Gandin’s real and imagined modern Mexican food—and the margaritas and beer and tequila and mezcal too. But if one drills down to the depths of the drinks list, and if one is audacious, Weihemuller fairly challenges you to try wines with the cuisine.

That’s what I did one night, just before the end of the year. I gave the young wine director my food choices—guac and chips; white shrimp ceviche; crab with avocado, endive, and mandarins; and quesadillas filled with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, epazote, habanero, Anaheims, and lamb—and let him suggest some wines.

Now, those dishes are a mouthful—literally—that are lined with some sear and a load ‘o flavor. What wine(s) can stand up to that litany of lengua lunacy?

First Weihemuller sent over a glass from the tap of 2012 Donkey & Goat’s Sluice Box white from El Dorado County ($8 glass/$32 bottle). D&G is one of the hottest Cali producers right now and this wine was orange in color, full-bodied, and smelled of white flowers and substantial tannins that morphed into pear flavors when mingled with the guacamole.

Next arrived the ‘12 Abrente albariño from Napa Valley ($9/$36), made by the iconoclastic Michael Havens, and an ‘11 Monterey County chardonnay from Le P’tit Payson ($10.50/$42) that we had with the ceviche and crab. The first wine had some great fruit, finishing with citrus that became more pronounced with the lime-accented shrimp. The mandarins made the albariño sour (sweet and acid don’t mix well), but was a wonderful foil for the chard, which was dry and medium-bodied. Interestingly, the tart ceviche pulled out some honey qualities in the neutral-oaked wine, not unlike a good Chablis.

Finally, the quesadillas. Here, Weihemuller chose two reds: the Forlorn Hope ‘12 Suspiro del Moro from Alta Mesa (Lodi). The alvarelhão is made by one of the most interesting and likable blokes in the Cali wine biz, Matthew Rorick, who is many a wine geek’s darling. While it has pleasing citrus aromas and flavors, this wine finishes way too acidic for my taste and was a bust with the quesadillas.

But a ‘12 Evangelho Vineyard Heritage from Bedrock (no appellation listed) hit the right timbre with that dish, especially with the meat. The wine (40 percent carignane, 38 percent mourvedre, and the rest a field blend of zin, mission, palomino, and alicante) is from Costa Contra County. I loved it because of its rusticity—it was rough around the edges, with good balance and flavor, but with a bit too much oak. It was masterful with the quesadillas.

When Weihemuller presented us with his selections, he explained that these “heartier” selections are Comal’s “winter” wines. They had to be, to be daringly paired with Gandin’s food. Also, the somm has to make a statement to those that prefer spirits and beers. In the end, Comal’s wines comprise only 10 percent of beverage sales. I’m glad to be a part of the 10 percenters.


TO LOOK FOR: 2012 Donkey & Goat Sluice Box white (from the tap), El Dorado, $8 glass/$32 bottle

This Rhône-like blend—marsanne (50 percent), grenache blanc (17 percent), vermentino (22 percent), and picpoul (11 percent)—was vinted as an orange wine, in that the skins were fermented with the juice, as though it were a red wine. The result is a white that’s orangey in color and is full bodied with chalky tannins that can stand up to a lot of spicy foods, both the hot and savory variety. “Orange” whites have not caught on here, which is more the pity, because red wine lovers would greatly appreciate them.

Please feel free to email Alan with your comments and your experiences with restaurant wine. He’d love to hear from you.