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Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Locavore, Wine, Dilemmas

“Though I love a lot of California winemakers and try to support them wherever possible,” Mr. Deegan said, “I find myself drinking European wines most of the time and pairing European wines more successfully with the food.”

Mr. Deegan is the wine director at Nopa in San Francisco. Their website specifies: “We serve simple food created with seasonal ingredients sourced from local purveyors.” This is how Eric Asimov of the New York Times raised the question: Does locavorism apply to wine? Should a restaurant that touts local product have a Europe-heavy wine list? It seems that there is a contradiction or at least a disconnection when supporters of the eat-local movement have wine lists packed with wines from foreign lands. One problem may be that self-defining locavores, who are still in the process of repackaging the agricultural banality of 10,000 years, do not really have a set boundary or sense of scope yet. It is a complex issue, running seasonal menus as honestly as possible while living in a culture with rapid product shipping and distribution. A lot of very yummy things are available year round, even if they are seasonal. Few of us are ready for life without coffee, chocolate, or tea in support of exclusive locavorism. 100 miles is often postulated as the “acceptable” radius for local products, though I have seen Hawaii deemed acceptable in Portland when a local cafe threatened took tomatoes of their hamburger in winter. Can the kitchen use canned San Marzano tomatoes or anchovies? No coconut milk or fish sauce? Are there maybe some things outside of the local-only scope, like tomatoes and anchovies or fish sauce? If so, why? Snake River Kurobuta pork and Kobe beef, tasty all-natural meat raised in one place and butchered in another far away from California, often appears on locavore menus – and it gets very complicated very quickly. Factor in a carbon footprint and agricultural practices and the picture gets even larger. The locavore movement is full of promise, food will undoubtedly be better for it in general, and the wine industry needs to take note of what consumers and restaurants are moving toward.

The inchoate critique revealed by Asimov through many Bay Area wine directors is that California wine is not food friendly. No shit, really? Chardonnay that smells like a maple-syrup headache, Cab that tastes like a chocolate and vanilla Sunday with a splash of kirsch, and Zin with two percent residual sugar. The criticisms are ten years old now. The “California style” is on its way out, driven by Parker points and exposed as a pure review whore, the pricey lipstick wines are facing a backlash in a slow economy and a new generation of wine drinkers who have never touched Wine Spectator. We know this, and pricing has largely adjusted accordingly.
It is encouraging that many California wineries are trying to create wines that are high-acid and low-oak food wines. The food-friendly future is out there, and the pendulum is swinging in our favor. It is seductive and hard not to argue that wine lists should reflect a restaurant’s beliefs. If a restaurant advertises local, certainly it should provide local wines if it can.

But, the restaurant wine list issue has several overlapping factors that rub against the locavore’s dilemma though, and often they are sales considerations. Here are a few:

1. Italian restaurants (for example) do not want to run wines that are not from Italy because it will destroy the restaurant’s legitimacy. This has been repeated several timesand is an unfortunate mantra in may establishments. This is not a locavore issue, this is the spinelessness of a poor restaurant waiting to be caught for its poor food and wine practices. Having worked for two and trying to sell to many, this is no great secret. Euro-ethnic restaurants can be quite stubborn in this silly facade, even while all of their product is sourced domestically anyway. Shame.

2. Imports are still doing well and can often offer accessible wines at great price points, South American and Southern French in particular that are pleasant. Simple economics and quotidian palates at work. Wine directors need these wines in more casual restaurants.

3. Distributors run the show. What they recommend is the new glass pour. Remember that most regular restaurants do not even have a “wine steward,” just an overworked general manager who has better things to do than really worry about whether that Gruner really works better than the Roussanne with the scallops. When your rep says it is great at the right price, bingo.

4. California wine is just too expensive. This is related to #2, and at this point in our economy, not so relevant anymore. Price cuts are across the board, and many well established boutique brands are now running second labels, sometimes of the same juice! We are deeply in a buyer's market.

5. When you live in wine central, other places look pretty exotic, and your consumers want that wow factor. Foreign wines can pack that punch with a little hands-on upsell. This is largely the case in Portland restaurants, where the Pinot price backlash is in full swing (and Oregon whites never really took off). When a restaurant called Grüner opens in Pinot land, you have to wonder.

And finally:
6. Wine in fact is not actually a locavore commodity at all, but a thing of a different sort.

When local clicks with local everyone is happy. It is great when that hazelnut-crusted line-caught salmon pairs perfectly with the Ken Wright. But, it is not a requirement, and if the Saint Amour works better at half the cost? The wine list is a statement of intent and belief, a business proposition, and calling card. The old adage is that if it grows together, it goes together, and this will save most food pairings, but a wine list also often shows diversity and depth. But, if being local is the primary criterion, what pairs famously with Eastern Washington wines, where food culture is a little less developed? It is easy to take the food culture for granted when living in the Bay Area, but it is not a given that it is always so. As a counterexample, what about Sonoma County, where nearly everything grows and almost every wine varietal can do well? Does that mean that everything works? All this in a little thirty-mile area, from goat cheese and prickly pears to Pinot Blanc and Carignan. The local argument can get out of hand in San Francisco where you have at least 500 wineries within the 100 mile radius. Asimov and Jon Bonné both interviewed sommeliers that incredibly still could not find enough food-friendly wines to fill their lists within that area. There must be more to consider than price and availability.

Wine, for such a delicate product, has surprising transportability. In the simplest overview, Bordeaux was built by the English, Champagne by the Czars, Marsala, Port and Sherry to by being sent abroad. Syrah went from the North Rhone to bulk up thin and weedy Bordeaux wines. Primitivo from Puglia went North too. Caesar could always get his. Like canned tomatoes or Spam, wine could go nearly wherever it was needed. Sometimes, it was even better for the transportation time. Wine is peculiar in being transportable and somewhat shelf stable with its acid, tannin, and bit of sulfur, while also incredibly sensitive and delicate. It arguably shows organic life more strongly than those canned tomatoes, and it has always traveled.

It is true that you would not go to Bordeaux to order Alabriño, or go to Napa to drink Sangiovese (sorry Antinori), but that is not because of locavorist dogma. That is regional tasting – tourism in a sense. Like cheeses, wines are regional specialties, localized products with an historical background, only partially related to the locavorism argument. One of the joys available through wine is being able to bring a taste or sense of somewhere else to you in a bottle, often in a way that complements the cultural context of the food being eaten.

Is it reasonable to eat fresh pasta with Alba truffles in San Francisco and expect it to perfectly pair local wine – probably not. What about cassoulet or bouillabaisse made with local products? Which tradition should you honor when you have an historical pairing precedent and local ethos? For the sake of argument, should locally sourced Thai preparations served in the city of Napa serve Cab and Merlot only? Could the preparation method dictate the wine more than the products used? Absolutely in some cases. Warm weather reds are not natural Southeast Asian hookups, no matter how much locally grown produce you throw into the pot. Many of the dishes prepared in locavore restaurants are based on regional dishes from half the globe away. Certainly there is a strong case for regional pairings even when the culinary lens is from far away, but at the same time the duck legs really go provenly well with Cahors, and that is where the traditional pairing onus lies. Maybe the duck was raised in Sonoma, but the dish and its soul is from France. What to pair as a responsible wine steward? What defines the dish and what defines the wine choices? The primarily responsibility must be to create the strongest pairings possible, right? It is also good to remember that the kitchen does not necessarily need to be rigid and unyielding in its food. If a lower-acid local wine is the preferred pairing, alter the acid in the dish, consider the butter content, maybe a shift in seasoning and herbs used. In fine dining restaurants such things should be a dialectical dance.

The wine director for Chez Panisse in Berkeley was one of the interviewees in Bonné’s article, and not surprisingly European wines make up the bulk of their list. The menu is full of French preparations, even if the product is “locally” sourced. Is this heresy or culinary necessity? Is Chez Panisse actually holding up the tradition by offering predominately European wines that arguably are better food friends? The locavore’s wine dilemma is actually pretty complicated on the wine side, and most likely must be a balancing act between the local hand sells, the traditional European pairings, and a few food-destroying trophies to make everyone happy and for the wine director to keep their job. As Tyler Colman pointed out, the carbon footprint to get Bordeaux to New York is less than it is for Napa to cross the country. Add that in for the greenies and the choices and responsibilities get even more complicated…

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