The Sommelier

An evening spent with Hacienda del Sol's Dan McCoog proves to be quite a learning experience

Early on a Tuesday evening, Terraza del Sol, the bar/terrace at Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, is starting to fill up. The crowd is anticipating the weekly free wine-tasting that is part of the hospitality of this historic resort. But the wine-company representative is late, held up in traffic.

Without a lot of fanfare, a jovial man with a mustache comes to the rescue. He opens the wines--starting with a summery white--and talks to the crowd not just about the flavors they'll find in the well-chilled wine, but the history of the grape and how the grape's origins are so old that nobody is quite sure where it was first cultivated.

People listen with rapt attention. This isn't a fussy rap, full of wine words that can intimidate even the savvier drinker. Instead, the wine is presented in such a way that makes you want to try it, just to see if you can taste the past.

The man behind the pour is Dan McCoog, sommelier and director of wine at Hacienda del Sol. His main venue is The Grill, the resort's upscale dining room, but tonight, he's working the wine-tasting in the bar. Unlike most weeks, there is no "theme" to the tasting.

"We were talking about wanting to try some different wines, so we picked out a nice selection tonight. Not with any one particular theme in mind, but just some fun wines that we thought would go well," McCoog says, with one of his trademark smiles. These wines certainly fit the bill, starting with a friendly Argentine white, gliding through a tasty Australian, then a cozy red and ending with big red from Napa Valley.

By now, the rep has arrived, and McCoog slips quietly into the background.

Christoffe Huser, McCoog's assistant, pops in from the dining room with a question. McCoog gives him a minute and then, with a smile, sends the younger sommelier to the formal dining room.

Minutes later, another wine rep takes McCoog aside. The two have a quick meeting, and with a handshake and another one of those charming smiles, McCoog takes the samples the rep left behind to sample later.

"I probably taste between 5,000 and 10,000 wines a year with the judgings, what I do here and the trained tastings," he says, "so I get to find the little wines that are really good little wines. The average person doesn't have that opportunity." Some of that tasting is as a judge at various wine competitions. McCoog is a regular judge at the annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the Mendocino Wine Competition and the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. He's also participated in wine events on the East Coast.

McCoog has been in this post for almost five years now, and he's a key reason why The Grill has received national recognition and numerous awards. He was certainly instrumental in creating the resort's hefty wine list. As heavy as a textbook--albeit a whole lot more interesting--the list doesn't lack for much. Updated regularly, with input from Christoffe and some of the managers, it features two pages of wines by the glass alone. There's something for every occasion, every budget and certainly everything on the menu. Bottle prices go from the mid-$20 range to a Romanée-Conti at a mind-boggling $6.000. While there might not be a run on that bottle, pricey wines are often part of many meals.

"I've sold a lot of the La Tache, the ones at $750, $800. Those I sell quite frequently. But the Romanée-Conti, that's some pretty rarified territory there."

A couple asks McCoog a question about the featured wines, which are available at a discount for the evening. Several servers kid around with him about how the evening is progressing. Another bottle needs opening; McCoog obliges, moving seamlessly among the varied demands, obviously enjoying his job.

McCoog earned his stripes, starting out as a busboy in an Italian restaurant in his native Pennsylvania, but it was wine that captured his heart and head early on.

"I went into fine-dining being a captain, tableside cooking. I always had a curiosity about wine, and pretty soon, it eclipsed everything else. I did a couple of stints as a restaurant manager and maitre d'," he says. "A lot of times in the early days, we didn't have a sommelier; the maitre d' was the sommelier, but as tableside cooking went by the wayside, I started concentrating on the wine aspect."

One of the restaurants where McCoog worked was Tucson's famous Tack Room. At a time when the restaurant industry in Tucson consisted mostly of steak joints and family-run Mexican places, the Tack Room was Arizona's only four-star dining venue. But times were changing, and McCoog moved on to Northern California, where he and his wife lived on a 2 1/2-acre zinfandel vineyard. During that time, he worked as a cellar master and dining-room manager while making his own wine. Then the folks at Hacienda Del Sol tempted him away from his Sonoma County idyll, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The wine-tasting is winding down. It's now time for an informal meeting with the wine reps who have stopped by. There's more pouring of wine, some friendly banter, another consultation and a trip back into the depths of the cellar.

The restaurant and the wine-tastings aren't the only things that keep McCoog busy. He and Christoffe also run The Gift Shop, where they help customers stock their home cellars. And then there are the once-a-month staff trainings. "We'll focus on one segment of the list, reinforce (it) and go over the training. We'll have the staff taste. The tasting part, they don't get bored with; that gets their attention."

In one corner of the bar, one of Hacienda del Sol's owners, Rick Fink, is chatting with a couple of wine reps. All agree that working with Dan McCoog is both pleasurable and a learning experience. Fink describes McCoog's talents as "passion, palate and love, in that order."

Mike Galkin, wine representative from Valley of the Sun, concurs. "He's always looking for quality. Dan is straightforward. He tells you what he's looking for. That makes it easy to bring him what he wants. He wants to make sure customers are getting quality."

Meanwhile, McCoog opens a bottle of champagne for the pair to taste. It is compared to other champagnes, both good and bad.

While McCoog laments the corporate mentality that has come with wine's growing popularity, he appreciates the depth of knowledge that has been a part of the movement, "As far as technology, and what we're learning about different areas and the great grapes that grow in California, Washington and Oregon ... that's been wonderful!"

He also predicts with a certain amount of knowledge where to look for the next great wines. "I plan to go to Portugal this fall. They're making regular red wines, dry red wines, rather than ports, that are really good and inexpensive."

Soon, the night is over. The crowds are gone. The lights are dimmed. The cellar is locked up.

McCoog and some staff members now have time to enjoy a nice bottle of wine. A little education is rolled in, too. Dan McCoog has a way of making it all work.