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Are locabibers underserved?

By |  June 2 2015

"There is no question that the locavore food movement has inspired a thorough consideration of all the products available in the restaurant. But the adoption of local wines has lagged behind that of food products and even spirits and beers. Whereas the beers and spirits are perceived as new and exciting products, the wines most often carry the baggage of past efforts among local wineries." — Doug Frost, MS, MW

The Farm on Adderley, a restaurant in my Brooklyn neighborhood, is a bit of an institution. For one thing, it’s out in Ditmas Park; when it opened, it marked the area as a new target for gentrification in the changing borough. It was also one of the early adopters of the farm-to-table concept, or at least one of the first to get recognition for it. Today its menu isn’t as heavily annotated as it once was-instead, well-trained servers can inform you about the source of each ingredient, approximately 80 percent of which comes from local farms- but the online menu, with its forest of hyperlinks, gives you some idea (realtimefarms.com/restaurant/the-farm-onadderley). The wine list, however, falls well short of the 80 percent mark, with just a single local blend on a modest list of 35 wines. As in many New York restaurants, locavores are better served than locabibers.

That’s par for the course in much of the USA. While America’s vibrant craft-beer and rapidly expanding microdistilling scenes enjoy strong local support, restaurants continue to overlook local wines. Ironically, of the three beverages, wine has the strongest claim to being a truly local agricultural product; some breweries are making a point of using local ingredients for portions of their output, but the resulting beers are rarely available in more than token quantities. The brewery or distillery is local, but their raw materials come from elsewhere, sometimes even from abroad. Some wineries do source their grapes from distant vineyards, but this is less common and, owing to wine labeling laws, more transparent.

Frost suggests local wine’s lack of traction is due to a lingering memory of lower-quality wines from the past, and in New York, mentioning local wines to baby boomers and Gen-Xers still occasionally evokes memories of Cold Duck, sweet Concord reds, and Manischewitz, the sweet kosher wine. At the same time, the flood (and subsequent bubbleand- bust) of poor-quality microbrews in the late 1990s doesn’t seem to be holding back people’s opinions of today’s ales, now rebranded as "craft beer." Popular wisdom suggests the so-called Millennials aren’t burdened by the stereotypes of wines past, accounting for the rebirth of wines like Lambrusco, Chablis, and perhaps even Riesling. If this is true, either local wines are the exception or the problem lies with the gatekeepers-the sommeliers and wine directors- rather than with consumers.

New York, home of Manischewitz, is in fact the leading state in terms of wine production outside the West Coast, but Michigan, Texas, Virginia, and several other states have growing wine industries, with many producers making wines that are able to compete in terms of quality with similarly priced wines from around the world.

A lot of these wines are local to somebody. Local, as defined by the US government in the 2008 Farm Act, means produced within a 400-mile (644km) radius of where the foodstuff is sold, or within the same state. In European terms, Bottom or Nyetimber, and that all French wines are local to all Frenchmen-France being comparable to Texas in size. Next time you’re in Burgundy, try telling a Beaune resident that you like the local St-Emilions.

So, America is pretty generous with what it considers local (even if locavorism advocates may have a more narrow definition); a retailer or wine director looking to fly the local flag has a wide reach and, in most parts of the country, should be able to find some things worth serving. For wine, though, consumers seem more convinced by the "state" definition than the distance rule. In New York City, if there is a local wine on the list, it’s from Long Island (North Fork is 85 miles [137km] from Manhattan) or the Finger Lakes (250 miles [402km] away), and not from Tomasello Vineyards (50 miles [80km] away, but in New Jersey).

Beyond the cellar door

Local wines actually sell reasonably well at retail. Wine tourism is a huge business in America, and it encompasses not only "You’re not from around here, are you?" tourists, but "What shall we do this weekend, dear?" visitors as well. Americans visit their neighborhood wineries. They buy wine when they visit, too-in many parts of the country 90 percent of a winery’s sales are made at the cellar door-and in turn, they buy those same wines when they see them in a wine shop. For retailers, wines come with free advertising when the winery is nearby, and they can generally offer the wines at about the same price, thanks to wholesale discounting.

"Things are difficult everywhere [outside of the West Coast] for local wineries in restaurants," says Frost, who lives in Kansas City. "Retail is a different matter. Most smart retailers carry a fair representation of local wines (though few of them attempt to educate themselves or their customers about them). Missouri and Texas are notably successful at promoting their local wines, with Missouri relying upon its tourist traffic to help drive Missouri wine sales that represent more than 8 percent of the state’s purchases. With a population of about 6 million, that is no small number." But that’s retail. In 2012, Danny Wood, a Kansas City blogger, called out ten prestigious local restaurants for not offering any local Missouri or Kansas wines (there are about 150 wineries in the area)-a situation that doesn’t seem to have changed much since then.

Restaurants right in the heart of wine country often support their neighbors. At One Block West, in Winchester, Virginia, one third of the list is devoted to local wines, and the Stone Cat Café in the Finger Lakes offers local wines exclusively-over 60 wines that don’t even stray as far as the Hudson Valley or Long Island. It is neighboring areas, often urban, where interest wanes. Finding a Finger Lakes wine on a list in Manhattan is still a challenge, especially above 23rd Street, the informal border between Uptown and Downtown dining (read: older diners and younger diners).

Those wine-country restaurants don’t face distribution issues; a winemaker can simply drop off a few cases on his way home. Put a little distance into the equation, and it becomes a factor. Many wineries don’t want to work with a distributor; a middleman either cuts into profits, ups prices for consumers at the far end, or both. For their part, many distributors seem reluctant to add local wines to their portfolios, or to support them when they do. Supplying the market ends up meaning a winery employee driving around in a van. John Martini, owner of Anthony Road Winery in the Finger Lakes, has been making the five-hour drive to New York City every Friday for years, delivering wine to customers and then selling his wines directly at the Union Square Greenmarket. (Today his wines are also distributed by a company called Upstate Wine Company, a young company handling exclusively New York State wineries in the New York City market.)

Representing oneself as a vendor to restaurants is challenging in most states, where the three-tier system favors distributors. Busy wine directors like to limit how many suppliers they work with; taking on what is in effect a vendor with only one winery in his or her portfolio is inefficient in terms of paperwork, placing orders, and meetings. Second, there are the economies of scale that big importers and distributors enjoy; coupled with exchange rates and often lower production costs (labor etc) in other wine-producing countries, these can make wines from abroad cheaper than comparable local wines in many cases-a fact that exasperates buyers and consumers alike. Finally, big distributors have not been shy about using their muscle to make life difficult for wineries not working within the three-tier system, asking for restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles that small, family-run operations don’t have the time or staff to handle, or the lobbying budget to fight. The court battles over direct shipping are the most obvious manifestation of this, albeit one that affects the off-premise market more than restaurants.

A seat at the table

Some big lists in big cities do give local wines, if not their due, at least a place at the table. One such in Kansas City is The American, which has nine Kansas or Missouri wines on its list of several hundred labels. Rouge Tomate in New York (well north of 23rd Street) has about three dozen local wines on a similarly sized list, but several blocks away, Per Se’s much bigger list sports no local wines whatsoever. In Austin, Texas, the restaurant Trio sports six Texan wines on its 250-bottle list; Dallas’s Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek’s much larger list, only three, all from Becker Vineyards. Strangely, both restaurants are recognized on the Texas Wine & Trail Magazine website for supporting local wines.

It is relatively easy for big lists to accommodate some local wines-and what’s a few labels on a list of hundreds? That makes those that don’t all the harder to understand. Smaller lists, then, are simply abbreviated versions of the big cellars: a little Italy, a little France, a good chunk of California, and some miscellaneous-which leaves local wines in a catchall section alongside some (usually budget-minded) Chilean and South African selections. On a list of 30 or 50 wines, at best a couple will be local, if they haven’t been squeezed out entirely.

This goes to the heart of American consumer character: the desire for choice. Consider coffee. Italian coffee culture allows for a few variations: espresso, macchiato, cappuccino, caffé latte. A US coffee place, be it Starbucks or a standalone operation, offers at least four sorts of milk (whole, skim, 2%, soy…), an abundance of variations on macchiatos, lattes, and cappuccinos, and flavorings. Within the industry, the quest in the past few years has been to make single-serving filter coffee quickly and efficiently, so consumer outlets can add dozens of different bean sources and roasts to their coffee menus.

A relatively modest wine list is still expected to offer big variety, or at least that impression. American wine drinkers expect lots of options, even if they don’t avail themselves of them. For all the talk, local wines don’t get priority and haven’t attained the must-have status enjoyed by Chardonnay, Kiwi Sauvignon, Sancerre, and the like. Some restaurant concepts can get away with focused "theme" lists-the all-Italian list at the pasta place, all-Spanish with tapas-but in many cases even they have at least a handful of must-have California Chardonnays and Cabernets tucked into the list somewhere.

Getting it together in California

Ah, California. All this talk of Texas, Michigan, and Missouri ignores the Nebuchadnezzar in the room, the source of 90 percent of America’s wines. Does California drink local? The short answer is yes: Wine drinkers on the West Coast are certainly well served by, and supportive of, their local wineries. Nonetheless, in 2009 the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine columnist Jon Bonné asked if the Bay Area’s wine lists "ignored" California. His answer was nuanced, but it does seem like sommeliers there often favor European wines. It’s not the consumers; it’s the gatekeepers.

And once again, it’s on-premise where the tables sometimes seem tilted. Californians know the prices they pay for local wines at the supermarket, and when they see the same wine at restaurant markups, it makes life difficult for the sommelier. This is especially true at lower price points- let’s say under $100 on a restaurant list. Bonné points out that affordable California wines tend to be mass-market brands, with substantial retail presence; wineries with more modest production numbers tend to aim for higher price points in the first place. Wine-savvy guests with deeper pockets have accustomed themselves to restaurant prices, but for by-theglass offerings and other affordable options, imported wines offer wine directors more chance to hide their markups.

That’s the business side of it. On the culinary side, San Francisco’s sommeliers seem dubious of the "grows together, goes together" argument and question how well California’s wines match their cuisine. "California cuisine" is a broad category, but at its core it’s about fresh local ingredients and incorporating other cultural elements, often from other parts of the Pacific Rim. It’s hard to argue that many of Napa’s winemakers have spent the past few decades honing their Cabernet into a companion for these foods. For Cabernet or Chardonnay, the apparent focus has been on wines that stand by themselves-perhaps because that’s how critics taste them; perhaps because that’s how American consumers have enjoyed them. (I could be wrong. Perhaps winemakers believe their fellow Californians live on an exclusive diet of steak and lobster, the two foods those wines actually seem consistently suited for, respectively.)

Critics who fault New World wines for a perceived lack of terroir expression sometimes argue it takes generations of understanding to create terroir-driven wines; the symbiotic relationship that the wines of Europe share with their local cuisine most likely evolved over a similar time frame. Whether it will emerge at all in California is questionable, since there isn’t any call for it. With globalization, a Napa Cab producer doesn’t need to sell all his or her wine locally so has no financial motivation to match the local cuisine; there are steakhouses across the country-and around the world- that have a place for their wines.

On the other hand, there are signs that maybe the Golden State’s wines and cuisine are growing closer together, starting perhaps with the rise of Pinot Noir a decade or so ago. While not always models of restraint, producers like Littorai, Navarro, and Cobb could be said to be making wines well suited to local cuisine. The increasing numbers of Chardonnay producers rolling back the oak and hang-time could also fit the description. In both cases, it’s hard to assert a cultural causality; do these trends really represent a shift in how we drink wine? Cabernet and the other "big red" varieties seem exempt from these changes in any major way, after all. In the past few years, though, producers like Matthiasson, Massican, and Dirty & Rowdy, wineries that actively search out unexpected varieties or different vineyards, are aiming for acidity and balance that do seem made more for the table, or even for "California cuisine" in particular.

Tokenistic fruit-bombs

East Coast to West, the wine directors at restaurants that embrace the locavore trend but aren’t driving it, with just the fingerprints of locavorism on the menu-a farm mentioned here and a fisherman there-might be excused for not giving local wines more play, but I don’t think they should be. Tokenism is even worse than simply ignoring these wines; it remains a dismissal of the value of local products, acknowledging public interest in the "trend" but denying it any real importance, and is an implicit statement about the wines’ quality, too. Putting a single local wine on the list at such a restaurant looks like the wine director is just humoring the local wine industry and guests who might ask for such a wine. Locavore restaurants, where sourcing local products is at the core of their concept, part of their reason for being (or at least their reason for being visited), have more to answer for.

Most are not large restaurants, and few have deep cellars; 100 wines would be a big list for the usual locavore destination spot. And in fact, most aren’t any different from their similarly sized, non-locavore competitors in the number of local wines they serve. They differentiate their wine programs from non-locavore restaurants in other ways, the priority and concept changing from "local" to "natural"; most of their lists favor small European producers, often from more esoteric regions, often organic or biodynamic. (Organics may be the loophole that excuses these restaurants, since few American regional wineries have gone that route.

Very few lists, however, hew so closely to organic wine to fully embrace this defense.) The Farm on Adderley, for example, may have only one local wine, but if you wanted a red from the Canary Islands or a Serbian Riesling, they’ve got you covered. They have a separate section for their four "contact whites" (white wines that see skin contact to some degree or another), but the lone Finger Lakes wine, the Bloomer Creek Edezwicker, gets no special acknowledgment.

Explanations most likely lie in why consumers value locavore dining in the first place. If it’s just the freshness implied in sourcing foods locally, then wine is exempt; there’s the feeling, at least, that wines, safely contained within glass, travel well when fresh produce does not, so sourcing wine locally loses its urgency (also true for beer and spirits, however). The carbon-footprint issue raises its head when we talk about importing wines, or even transporting them from West Coast to East. In addition, most locavore restaurants tout the value of their work not in simple culinary terms but in social terms as well, emphasizing their relationship with their suppliers and the need to support the local community. The core of the locavore narrative, the root of its appeal, is not really freshness, the environment, or health-all virtues that have in fact been debated to some degree or another. Instead, the masquerade-excuse me, the narrative-is that eating local is a return to the old ways, dining the way our ancestors did. There’s no anxiety that the carrots they once enjoyed in France or Austria are that different from those grown in a farm 50 miles (80km) away-though when we read about modern plant breeding, it becomes apparent that there probably should be-but they weren’t drinking American wine with it, wine that still seems new or young. Local wines are losing out on these lists not to California but to Europe. Even without the disruption caused by Prohibition, it’s hard for Americans to think of our wine culture as deeply rooted, as part of our now-indigenous cultural inheritance-as anything but a transplant. The winery may be local, but it’s still foreign. A small, familyowned winery in France or Italy (or, apparently, Serbia) seems to provides a connection to the past in a way that local (also family-owned) wineries don’t, even when the latter are producing wines of similar quality or even style. It’s part of the lifestyle marketing of locavorism: a romantic yearning not for the grand château but for the rustic farmhouse.

There’s nothing new in idolizing Old World wine; many of Napa’s florid estates are recreations of those French "grand châteaux" and Italian villas, after all. Even beyond the locavore destinations, this unspoken attitude leaves the archetypical American wine list looking less like that of a wine-producing country and more like a list from Copenhagen or London. (I write that with apologies to English wineries, which seem to face the same issues in London as Virginian and New York wineries do in their urban centers.)

Setting romantic dreams aside Should it be different? Do we give up on Tuscany to make more room for Nortons and Frontenacs in Missouri’s restaurants? Okay, how about Austrian wines? No Grüner Veltliner, but dozens more Michigan Rieslings and Gewurztraminers?

That sounds unreasonable, but it’s what other wineproducing countries often live with. Some 70 percent of the wine consumed in the USA is American, but that’s actually not such a high proportion as it might seem. In other New World wine-producing countries, imports are much less significant, especially in countries like Chile and South Africa, where the economy and exchange rate make imported wines prohibitively expensive. In Old World wine-producing countries, the wine lists can be parochial, especially in the wine-growing areas themselves. In Italy, a list focuses on the wines of the province, with some Tuscans (the whole country takes pride in Chianti) and perhaps some Barolos thrown in. France? A typical wine list in Alsace, regardless of its size, features Alsace wines all but exclusively; there may be a couple of Bordeaux or Rhône Valley reds in there, but only because Alsace produces very little red wine of its own. No one is pretending those Bordeaux are "local," and when a list gets expansive there, it does so by adding depth-older vintages, more producers, more vineyards-rather than looking to other areas or abroad. I don’t hear the French complaining, or clamoring for more Barossa Shiraz and Russian River Valley Chardonnay. On the other hand, many New York sommeliers will tell you that their best customers for local wines are French tourists, not New Yorkers. (The French aren’t parochial; they’re locavores who don’t have to make a big deal about it.)

No one is suggesting America’s restaurants need to go to such lengths. But if we are going to agree that supporting local agriculture has any value at all, then we ought finally to set romantic dreams about the old country aside and give local wines first crack at the styles they can create at a high level. Pascaline Lepeltier, wine director at Rouge Tomate in New York, offers a summation of the ideal, open-minded American sommelier’s attitude on how local wines should fit into a program: "I think it is a question of balance and perspectives. The idea of the list is to have interesting and great wines wherever they are from. Of course, the benchmark regions are here, because they are producing benchmark wines for me, and the other regions are represented if they offer wines that are unique, delicious, and still fairly priced. I have more and more New York wines on the list since I opened-not because I have to have them, but because I realize the work done and the increase in quality; and side by side with more famous regions they more than hold the party. But I would not put on a wine I judge not to be of quality."

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