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

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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.

Adventure in Discovering Range’s Wine

At Range, which is celebrating its eighth year on Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission District, wine buyer and sommelier Jon Sillcocks doesn’t have the luxury of tasting every prospective wine on his list with the chef’s food. But Sillcocks has an advantage—the chef at Range is his sister, Rachel Sillcocks. The 33-year-old Jon has known “Rach’s” food forever, and his wine is all that is necessary to complete the “symbiotic” relationship.

Thus, the 100-selection list focuses on bottlings that have a lot of acidity—that key component in wine that most coalesces its relationship to food—because the backdrop of Rachel Sillcocks’s food is acid-laden, festooned as it is with mustards, cherry tomatoes, stone fruits, and pickled vegetables.

So brother Jon goes to energetic lengths to establish a list that’s entirely Northern Hemisphere-based, which means no wines from fruit-forward climes such as Australia or South America. Instead, what Sillcocks has opted for are mostly wines from Europe, with about 20 percent California entries that are not as fruit-concentrated as many of their counterparts.

Therefore, we find an eccentric verdelho from Forlorn Hope or a grenache from the iconoclastic Tom Beckmen. Sillcocks seems to thrive on esoteric offerings, such as a nearly unheard of carricante from Sicily, kerner from the Alto Adige, or an obscure sciacarello-nielluccio red blend from Corsica.

Under another’s egocentric direction, these would seem show-offy and like dalliances, but in Sillcocks’s hands, it seems as though there’s a genuine attempt to bring his guests at Range a real experience that’s steeped in the thrill of the hunt; i.e., there are rewards to be gained by giving yourself over to his discoveries.

I gain insight into the young sommelier, who calls me during his Independence Week holiday, when he tells me that he has his staff taste wines at least three times a month (mostly the wines are undisclosed), where honest reaction is vociferously encouraged and out of which is compiled a database of descriptions for servers to reference. Admittedly the list is a “hand sell.” Meaning, there are bottles that may be unfamiliar to many of Range’s customers, which leaves the explanations, education, and enthusiasm to the staff. Since Sillcocks is not on the floor most days, the servers are his surrogates; they seem to know their stuff, and more important, appear to have genuine interest in the wines.

For instance, I put our server through her paces, inquiring about a 2006 Michaud pinot noir from the little-known and tiny Monterey County area of Chalone, but with which I’m familiar. Though on the job only nine months, she described the wine—which was served at the right temperature (a rarity around these unair-conditioned parts)—nearly perfectly.

The acidity of the Michaud paired well with a braised duck leg with mint gremolata, and a roasted chicken with savoy cabbage also had an excellent affinity to the wine, despite the over-the-top saltiness of both fowl dishes.

A sparkling rosé from the Languedoc from Dom. Colline was steely and minerally and had surprising breadiness for a Limoux. It opened the meal well, juxtaposed with a clam, corn, and diced bacon and potato stew. An ‘06 Hungarian Tokaj from Patricius wasn’t too sweet (it was only a 3 puttonyos) but had that telltale acid underlayment that matched nicely with a tart nectarine and loganberry shortcake and a just-as-puckery buttermilk panna cotta with strawberries. Whatever sweetness was present in the desserts was cleansed on the palate by the acid of the Tokaj.

Jon Sillcocks has something special going here with his well-thought-out wine list, although it does take second banana at the cocktail-centric Range. Me? I would try as I might to let Range’s guests in on the adventure. Sillcocks? “The wine list was always a supporting character at Range, and still is,” he tells me, “and that’s okay. You always wish every table would have a bottle on it…. But I know in my heart, people who come back over and over again appreciate it.”


WHAT TO LOOK FOR: 2006 Michaud, Michaud Vineyard, Pinot Noir, Chalone — $45
The pinot, from the Burgundian-style producer Michael Michaud, is grown in near-obscurity in a parched, rattlesnake-infested vineyard high above Monterey County. Michaud, the winemaker, is determined to turn out European-like wines from California. With nearly seven years under its belt, it’s tasting perfectly, having shed its harsh tannins and rounding into a beauty with minerally, earthy, and dark-fruit aromas, with dusky, dusty soil qualities with a depth of fruit that can only come from a well-made, aged wine. This is what California pinot noir can achieve.

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