Should locavore restaurants by definition run locally focused wine lists? It makes sense, but the question has not been easily answered. It seems a contradiction to promote local products while the wine list is packed with foreign bottles, but this is exactly what serious restaurants like Chez Panisse, Camino, and the Slanted Door in the Bay Area are doing.
Locavorism usually sets a 100-mile radius as the acceptable boundary. In San Francisco this would include several hundred wineries. Obviously this radius in Bismark, North Dakota may not be as forgiving, but one would think that West Coast wine buyers would be able fill their lists with local bottles easily enough, but that is not always the case. The old criticism that California wines are too expensive and generally not food friendly is still very much alive and relevant to the restaurant industry today. It is unpleasant to hear this, especially when it feels like consumers still want fruit and oak (wine competitions certainly do). But, the locavore movement is full of promise in the long run for wineries. Food will undoubtedly be better for it in general, and the wine industry needs to take note of what consumers, restaurants, and palates in general are moving toward.
The simplest (though not always easiest) rule to follow for a restaurant is that if it grows together, it goes together. Hazelnut-crusted line caught salmon with a Ken Wright Pinot? Sure. But what if the St. Amour works better for a particular palate, and at a much friendlier price? What if the carbon footprint is of consideration to that particular establishment? France is far away, but Ken is not a low-input kind of guy. Sustainability clearly is a consideration for locavore restaurants. On the other hand, in a place like Sonoma County where everything grows, prickly pears to goat cheese to beets, Pinot Blanc to Mourvèdre, local is almost a banality and is just a quality/cost and ethical consideration.
The wine list, like a restaurant’s menu, is an incredibly important document. It is a solemn contract with the customer – a statement of intent and historical as well as ethical beliefs. It defines the space, the culinary tradition and the nature of the relationship to the customer. It also reflects generational trends, which is to say age plays a role on both sides. As the older generation recedes so has much of the dogmatic cabernet/chardonnay crowd, and with it service standards and expectations. Younger wine drinkers tend to like new things and have a more hands-on approach to wine pairing. Restaurants tune into this, as do the wine buyers who are by and large younger as well. Stodgy service is out and global sampling is in with clear varietal typicity as a reference point.
Some products are so culturally ingrained that availability sometimes trumps local. Few of us are willing to give up coffee, chocolate or tea simply because they are not locally produced. Public squabbles have taken place over winter tomatoes being removed from locavore burgers. Local is great, but do we really want to forgo classic pairings or paradigm regional wines? Are there maybe some things outside of the local-only scope, like canned and preserved foods or cheese? Maybe wine does not fit neatly into the movement at all.
On premise sales are more challenging then ever for wineries to establish and hold onto, and the eat-local movement has been quite fickle. The old criticism of overblown California wines being food-unfriendly has been heard and the pendulum is swinging back. Serious lists often want low alcohol and less fruit/oak density – check. The tighter buying dollar makes this easier to work toward as less new oak and hang time equals lower cost to the winery. But, though unique varietals are being explored avidly (showcased by T.A.P.A.S. and recently by the Wine Institute among others) the restaurant market still feels resistant, sometimes hypocritically bemoaning lack of customer familiarity or relying on the inherent caché (or sometimes confusion) of European wine, particularly in the value-driven price range.
Several wholesale barriers exist alongside the locavore’s wine dilemma for wineries. One glaring example is the Italian restaurant that loudly proclaims local product but runs only Italian imports, sometimes of questionable quality. In this case wine is used to validate the authenticity of the restaurant, often covering dubious culinary practices. This is less of a locavore dilemma than a branding issue. Imports are still doing very well, in particular the high quality and price point of Portuguese and Spanish wines, and simple economics are hard to fight. We should also remember that most restaurants in the mid-price range do not have a dedicated wine employee at all: usually just an overworked General Manager or aspiring bartender who does the purchasing. Convenience is paramount for them, like ordering everything from one book and spending less time hand selling your local wine. For the wine producer, price speaks loudly here, as do frequent checkbacks and sample bottles.
Wine is very much a central part of the locavore movement and food culture in general, and needs to be treated carefully. However it should probably not be treated as a fresh food product at all, and need not be held blindly to the same standards. It should be treated like regional cheese. Here is why:
Wine, for such a delicate and demanding product, can have surprising stability. In the simplest overview wine history is the history of its shipping movements. Bordeaux was built by the English, Champagne by the Czars, Marsala, Port and Sherry 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, packaging evolved and wine could go nearly wherever it was needed. Occasionally, it was even better for the transportation time. Wine is somewhat shelf stable with its acid, tannin, and bit of sulfur, while also incredibly sensitive and delicate. It has always traveled.
Wine is a fermented product. Like chocolate, cheese, yogurt, beer and some charcuterie, fermentation is a flavor enhancing preservation technique that increases longevity. It allows regional specialties, localized products with a history and context, to be marketed abroad. There are benchmark regional products that can be emulated but not equaled, like jamón ibérico de bellota or a Priorat bottle. Local can be better, sometimes not, price is often a deciding factor, and occasionally you just want the best. Sometimes the terroir of a place simply cannot be beat when quality is the ultimate consideration. One of the joys available through wine is the sense of somewhere else in a bottle, often in a way that complements the cultural context of the food being eaten.
The dedicated locavore restaurant must ask themselves if it is reasonable within their paradigm to serve something like fresh local pasta with Alba truffles in San Francisco. And, is it then expected to pair to their patrons’ standards with local wine. What about cassoulet or bouillabaisse made with local products? Which tradition should be honored when you have an historical pairing precedent and local ethos? What about serving wine with an ethnic preparation that does not have a wine culture historically? Should the preparation method dictate the wine more than the products used? Absolutely in some cases. 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 non-locavore wine pairings even when the product is local. Sonoma duck legs may be at their best with Cahors by everyone’s standards, and no local Malbec will be close. To simply say that local goes with local, or local goes with French is shallow and disingenuous. The small winery’s task is to show the quality, value and clarity of their product as part of the food dance.
Some wine directors can also be surprisingly oblivious to what a well-trained kitchen can do to aid and tweak wine pairing. A quality kitchen can quickly adjust food to suit a particular vintage or style of wine, adding or subtracting acid, sweetness, salt or fat as needed to work a particular bottle, but this is rarely exploited in all but the finest restaurants, but it is not hard to do. A simple word from a server is all it takes. Warm-weather zin = less acid, not too much salt. Tannic petite sirah = high salt, relatively alkaline accompaniments with a touch of sweetness and good amount of body. Food need not be a lifeless item or the grand dictator, it is a part of the whole and somehow many locavore chefs have gotten away with lazy food preparations that are not taking part in the dance. Responsibility exists in every part of the restaurant.
For the small winery pursuing locavore accounts it is important to make the account personal; relying on your distributors’ reps will not suffice. The local restaurant probably wants local contact. The winery may not make that easy as we small operations have to do it all ourselves. The process may seem a little laborious compared to the convenience of large distributors with a delivery van in your neighborhood at all hours, but a face to face to explaining viticultural practices can be very important. Be ready to pop corks and explain why the bottles work with their program, which is completely different than reading technical sheets or mumbling about raspberry and spice. If possible, pour product side by side with a current glass pour that is comparable. The wine speaks for itself, but the producer shoehorns it into a program. Know their menu, know their chef, and if they have one, their sommelier or wine buyer, period. Offer to personally brief the staff and always leave a staff tasting bottle once a purchase comes through. The staff is the key to selling product effectively , so do everything possible to get past the gatekeeper and to them personally.
Ultimately locavore restaurants will define their own unique boundaries, and the vintner should not give up hope if it is not necessarily a perfect fit. These restaurants attempt to make food more personal and transparent, and the wine producer should take the same approach in working sales as well - we are probably working toward the same consumer after all. Few restaurants have their wine buying set in stone, and a little extra effort and a personal touch can make all the difference.