Dev Ranjan [Photo: Grace Boyle]
Dev Ranjan is the 27-year-old wine whiz and certified sommelier behind the beverage programs at Boulder's esteemed Black Cat Farm Table Bistro and new kid on the block, Bramble & Hare. Ranjan, who's been buying wine and building wine programs for restaurants since he was 21, has crafted some of Boulder's more compelling wine lists. Hailing from Lexington, KY., Ranjan moved to Boulder in 2009 and started his Colorado career at Mateo, where he uprooted a year ago to sign on with chef/proprietor Eric Skokan at Black Cat. In a recent chat with Eater, Ranjan shared his penchant for "weird" and interesting wines and his quest to build out Black Cat and Bramble & Hare's varying wine lists.
With Black Cat's 120-acre farm and subsequent daily menu change, how is your approach to wine pairing different from other restaurants? We do two very different things with the wine here, and the first part is the wine list itself. In terms of structure, it’s [the wine list] not specifically focused on adapting to the changing cuisine, but more about showcasing really great wine. Our wine list is huge for a restaurant of our size and for how many people we get in here [400 bottle selection]. Our wine list is for people who are really, really into wine. Customers can come in to Black Cat and say, “Oh my god, there are so many really interesting things here.” We can do a lot of things with vintage depth. I think a lot of people don’t focus on vintage because consumers typically wouldn't pay attention, so they don't bother. But for example, dealing with old world wine, vintage is so important. It’s just too easy for restaurants to buy nothing but current release. And that’s where we stand out. The other half is our tasting menus — that's a huge part of what we do here. If everyone came in this restaurant and no one ordered off the wine list, and only ordered off the tasting menu, I would be so happy. It’s what we do best.
With Black Cat’s local and farm-fresh mentality, what percentage of your wines are biodynamic? How important is it to you? It’s totally important because of the mission here. But in terms of percentage, it’s not high. We like to show a depth of regions, producers and the best wines. There are some places where the best producer is a biodynamic producer. You look at Bordeaux or Champagne and the amount of biodynamic producers is miniscule. In the same way I want to have Colorado wine, because we're a local restaurant and I want to exhibit the local wine culture, but I also want to have the best wine. I’m not only going to have biodynamic wine or only Colorado wine if that means people are buying worse wine for the price.
On your wine list, you break down wines by region. What regions, varietals or grapes do you find are the most sought after? It changes seasonally, but right now it's Oregon Pinot Noir. I can’t keep it in stock. People love Oregon Pinot Noir. It is really good wine, but I almost like it when we run out of it because customers can order something else. Something that’s great about Black Cat is that we have so much freedom to tell people what to buy. As a sommelier who's on the floor everyday, I love being able to do that. For example, if someone tells me that they want an Oregon Pinot Noir, I’ll say, “Great, let’s talk about Lagrein from the region of Alto Adige.” I tell them all about it, I open the bottle for them and they usually love it. It’s a situation where they’re telling me what they were looking for, which tells me what they like. And then we end up with something we know they’re going to like but also it is exciting. We do a lot of that here.
Tell us about the wine flight and the premium wine flight you serve. It’s quite the tailored experience. Thank you. I taste the wine with the kitchen and they have a basic schematic for a dish where they say for example, this dish will have pork in it and then we build dishes off the wine. The (regular) wine flight, which we’ve always done here, has generally been pointedly focused on the obscure. The thing that brings the wine flight together is how I try to focus on price points and regions where that region over-performs. For example, when you’re buying wine from Champagne, if you want a really great Champagne, then the price you should be paying is between $100 and $150. And you’re going to get a wine that is so good for that price because $120 grower Champagne is better than $120 wine anywhere else. I try to pull out wines from the region that adds that price point we’re able to pour and the wines are seasonal and still interesting. With the premium wine flight, we open bottles that, depending on the average pricing, can fluctuate a lot. I can put wines on the premium wine flight that are $200 a bottle, because we can. There are wines at that price on our premium wine flight that are truly some of the greatest wines in the world and those are wines that people very rarely get to try.
What is the most unique backstory behind a wine that you carry here? Let’s talk about the 1998 Verdicchio (happens to be biodynamic) that is grown on the Marche region of Central Italy on the Eastern Coast. It doesn’t grow anywhere else. Something that I really respect and love is when wine makers live in a region, they make wine in that region and they only grow the grapes that normally grow in that region. That is Natalino Crognaletti and his winery, Fattoria San Lorenzo. The people that have heard of Verdicchio generally think it's not a great grape. The quality of Verdicchio is high in acid and straightforward lemony. Corgnaletti makes this Verdicchio wine only in the very best vintages, which is normally one out of every four years. And when he makes it, he makes just eight barrels. He picks his best Verdicchio grapes, crushes them, then ages them on fermenting yeast for 10 years. So it’s crazy, right? And it’s not only an attempt to make something really great and obviously very time consuming that most people wouldn’t even consider worthwhile — it’s also making wine in a way that no one else makes wine. It’s one of those situations where this is the best Verdicchio wine that has ever been made. Just think about that. When do you get to have things like that? The very best thing that anyone else has ever had, and you get to have it.
How does the wine list at Bramble & Hare vary from the list at Black Cat? It [Bramble & Hare's list] was super fun to put together. When I sit down and have just one page to fill with wine [Black Cat's wine list has 81 pages], I want something different. I want there to be six things on that page where I would sit down and say, “Oh wow, I can’t believe they have this on a one page wine list. That’s so cool.” That’s what we go for there. I want it to be exciting. People often think it’s easier to put together a small list, but it’s also so easy to make a boring, small list. So often it’s a cop out, and this one is not that. It’s full of really exciting things that require a lot of staff education. We spent a lot of time before that restaurant opened where we tasted every single wine on the wine list, telling them about it, who would like it, why someone would like it, and I came up with something I think is really cool.
How often does the wine list change at Bramble & Hare and Black Cat? At Bramble & Hare the list is supposed to be consistent, but will likely change seasonally. Black Cat’s list changes all the time just because I taste a lot of wine and I’m always bringing in new wine.
What's next for you as Beverage Director at Black Cat and Bramble & Hare? What do you hope to build and be known for here? I'd like our list to become even more vintage focused. I think that right now there are two styles of restaurant wine lists that exist in the world: large prestige lists with strong verticals of big name wines that are out of the price range of almost all diners, or all other wine lists that only feature current vintages and don't make an effort to cellar. I'd love to maintain the current size of our program, both at Black Cat and at Bramble & Hare, but have a wide selection of things like 1978 Barolo, 1989 and 1990 Bordeaux, 1976 German Riesling, and 1991 California Cabernet — all at prices that allow at least some normal restaurant diners to enjoy them. It's a lofty goal.