There have been some heated exchanges recently between sommeliers in San Francisco and winemakers from the surrounding regions. Although nearly every chef in San Francisco embraces the concept of buying local products, wine buyers have shown little such interest, creating wine lists that are largely based on imported wines from both classic and emerging regions from the far corners of the globe while ignoring the innovations of myriad winemakers in California. A recent blog post from New York Times wine and spirits writer Eric Asimov ignited debate, with San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonne following on his heals with an article of his own.
As a longtime sommelier and lover of wine from around the world who now manages a small winery in Napa Valley, I was approached repeatedly about weighing in – but thought it best to let the dust settle. Recent rains have settled that.
My first true wine trip took place nearly 15 years ago when I boarded a plane to Malpensa in November and made my way to the town of Alba. Anyone who has spent time in Alba in November knows that the streets are perfumed with the beguiling musk of white truffles. The streets are full of revelers and seekers, those who make the yearly pilgrimage to this famed northwestern region of Italy to secure and consume one of the worlds most beguiling products.
Aside from white truffles, the other defining product is wine. From the famed nebbiolo based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, to the more approachable dolcetto and barbera (and cortese), the bars and restaurants of Alba, and Nieve and every other town in the region, are full of locals and visitors alike enjoying the fruits of the nearby land. Order a plate of tajarin with butter and white truffle along with a pristine bottle of 1978 Barbaresco (ok, there are probably very few left in the cellars) and you are in heaven.
For many who travel to the worlds great wine growing regions, one of primary reasons for the trip is to taste the wines of the area. When I am traveling around the Willamette Valley, I am not likely to order a bottle of Angelus. If there is Coche-Dury on the menu at a reasonable price, I may HAVE to buy it, otherwise I, and most everyone else traveling in the region, is going to order pinot gris, chardonnay or pinot noir grown in the surrounding vineyards. Wine lists are full of the new as well as the established, the iconic and the eccentric. This is as true in Champagne as it is Bordeaux, in Rioja as it is in Mendoza.
Lovers of wine in all of these regions (simply living in a famed wine region doesn’t immediately qualify you as a true lover of wine) seek out compelling examples from around the world and well chosen restaurant lists highlight the local while looking outside the immediate evirons for compelling expressions of far flung varieties. THERE IS GREAT WINE MADE IN NEARLY EVERY WINE GROWING REGION IN THE WORLD. As a lover of fine wine you would be doing yourself and your customers a disservice NOT finding the best examples. Coercing the Burgundians to pull the cork on a bottle of Bordeaux is no small feat, and yet if you are truly compelled by the potential for myriad expressions of grapes, you seek them out, ask around. At Cyrus, in the heart of the Sonoma wine country, I was DEDICATED to finding the best examples of wines from throughout the region while paying homage to the greats from around the world. The local wine lovers asked after Burgundy and Piedmont, the visitors after Ceritas and Copain.
So why the allegations that the Bay Area, long home to one of the worlds most progressive and locally sourced food scenes, takes a dim view of its winemaking neighbors to the north and south?
The reasons raised are predictable, if more complex than understandable by a cursory glance.
Buyers are accused of romanticizing the foreign, of coercing their customers into trying wines that fit their preferences and not those of their guests, of simply being too busy or lazy to fully understand the wines and winemakers that work diligently in their own backyards. There is an aura of eccentricity for the sake of eccentricity, with Gruner Veltliner posing as the poster child for a whole era of copycat consumption where suddenly every restaurant in the larger Bay Area was pouring it by the glass (I include myself in this criticism, at Gary Danko I had 2 full pages of Gruner Veltliner…).
Winemakers, also predictably, are accused of making wines that taste the same whether pinot noir or cabernet, of slanting production methods towards the palate of reviewer, or worse, of planting grapes in places that should have remained apple orchards or grazing land. Most damning is the accusation that the local wines simply don’t go with food – all of the ripe rich fruit and wood morphing into some indistinguishable reduction of sweetness and cooking spice.
There is truth to all of these accusations; however, to delve so superficially into the debate is ludicrous. Are there overripe wines that declare themselves the primary point of the meal? Yes. Are buyers wary of preparing lists that are identical to the restaurant down the street? Absolutely. But if we in the Bay Area are devoted to the idea of localization, then buyers need to work harder finding the unheralded gems and innovative winemakers and winemakers need to continue to evolve their approach beyond one that is purely score based and more soul based.
Wines like Lioco are embracing old school methods of non intervention (including un-oaked chardonnays) and seeking out compelling sites that produce wines of balance and individuality. Parr selections is picking fruit early to preserve freshness and balance and demonstrating that wines from California and Oregon can have a sense of place. There is Peay and Corison, Dyer and Melville, Hirsch and Von Strasser – there is Meteor making distinctive site specific wines with structure, balance and elegance that rival (and often transcend) any of the worlds greatest wines!
Asimov and Bonne are right to question and buyers are not wrong to question, but to make grandious statements about an entire industry and declare yourself a supporter of “local” agriculture is hypocritical at best and naive and lazy at worst.