The Locavore Wine Hypocrisy
The phrase "well-sourced" was once an insider term among journalists, bestowed upon articles that distinguished themselves by their depth of reporting. These days it amounts to the highest compliment that can be paid to a chef or restaurant, testament to the importance that procuring local and regional ingredients has become in an age when the artisan is accorded the status of artist. In the presence of a "well-sourced" dish, foodies are given to closing their eyes in worshipful reverence and otherwise grizzled food critics are prone to withhold critical judgment.
Locavore restaurants—places where the chef namechecks a dozen farmers and slips in earnest pamphlets with the check to educate diners on sustainability—have become market forces, largely on the promise of reconnecting urban diners to the land and their bodies and providing a missing sense of community and authenticity. To nibble on fresh-milk cheeses sourced from nearby farms or to dig into terrines fashioned from pigs and rabbits raised mere miles away is to be made to feel that local food is not just a bourgeois satisfaction but somehow, rather, a moral imperative.
The idealism of their mission statements notwithstanding, what locavore restaurants are telling us is that quality matters much less than cachet when it comes to assembling a wine list.
But if these are heady days for the local cheesemaker, butcher, and farmer, they're head-scratching days for the local vintner, who has been largely shut out of the feel-good foodie fad. If the wine lists at the country's most prominent locavore restaurants tell us anything, it's that "what grows together, goes together"—the mantra of the movement—is meant to refer to what's on the plate, not what's in the glass. Local and regional wines are seldom to be found.
Consider the eco-trendy Blue Hill in Manhattan, whose high-minded website urges prospective diners to "know thy farmer." The bulk of the restaurant's ingredients come from within a 250-mile radius, a testament to chef/owner Dan Barber's fierce commitment to locality. But page through the expansive wine list, and you'll find a far different story, one in which global supplants local: Rioja from Spain, German Riesling, Chardonnay from France, and sparkling wines from Italy, Spain, and France.
Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia, is so devoted to the local movement that chef/owner Cathal Armstrong calls farmer David Lankford his "biggest inspiration" and likens him to "Santa Claus." Some 150 area purveyors have a relationship with the restaurant. You might expect that a menu long on the bounties of the Shenandoah Valley would feature prominently the wines of Virginia, too. Yet only two locally produced bottles make the cut.
North Pond in Chicago, singled out by Epicurious.com as one of the Top 10 "farm-to-table" restaurants in America, prides itself on serving only domestic craft beers, but aside from a couple of ice wines from Michigan set aside for after-dinner sipping, its lengthy wine list is a fairly predictable document, studded as it is with familiar European and California varietals.
Why is it that the lust for local stops short when it comes to local and regional wines?
Most sommeliers contend that these wines lack name-recognition, making them a harder sell at the table. (Assuming they even get to the table—distribution is more complicated for these small, regional wineries, being less plugged-in to the network of national suppliers, with fewer resources than larger outfits.) The value, sommeliers say, is simply not there—particularly when you compare them to similarly priced bottles from the West Coast.
Not that accessibility and value have ever been much of a concern for the local movement, which has a way of making the provenance of something as seemingly simple as an egg appear to be a matter of lasting consequence. Here's chef/owner Scott Mahar, of Poppy Hill Tuscan Cafe, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which also made the Epicurious Top 10: "Why should I buy my eggs from Lincoln, Nebraska, when I can buy great-quality eggs from someone just up the road from my restaurant? It may cost a bit more, but we know where the eggs came from, what the farmers were feeding their chickens, and we support our local economy to boot."
Take the case of Randall Lineback veal, an heirloom breed much-prized by some East Coast chefs. It's not as if it's particularly well-known by most diners. Neither can it be said to be a good value—if it shows up on a menu, you can expect to pay $36 and up for a preparation of it.
I brought up the example of Randall Lineback veal in conversation recently with a DC-area sommelier, at which point he dropped his voice conspiratorially, as if to cut to the chase: "The quality in most of these wines you're talking about is just not that great."
Leaving aside the fact that most wines, period, are just not that great, and that the job of a sommelier, particularly at a locavore restaurant, is to bring his wine list into alignment with the chef's menu, the quality argument is quickly becoming passe.
Missouri, which was producing the nation's best wines in the 19th century—its 100-plus vineyards outside St. Louis constituting a Napa Valley long before Napa got going—is again making good wines, many of them from hybrids. The Stone Hill Vineyards, singled out by Paul Lukacs in his Great Wines of America as one of the country's Top 40 wineries, makes a fine and supple Norton, a red wine that ages like a Bordeaux and offers an excellent alternative to diners looking for something big and meaty—if only they could find it on a wine list.
The Norton is made from a grape hybridized by a doctor in Richmond in the early 1820s, and its relatively recent re-emergence in its native Virginia parallels the state's surging growth as a wine region. Chrysalis Vineyards makes an excellent Norton, not to mention one of the best examples in the country of Viognier, a lush and fruity white wine that stands in dramatic contrast to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and pairs wonderfully well with seafood. Beyond Norton and Viognier, the state's wineries are turning out wines with names that most Americans have never heard of—Cabernet Franc, Meritage, Petit Verdot—but which continue to impress with their character and expressiveness.
Missouri and Virginia are leaders in local and regional wine, but I've also had excellent and interesting varietals from Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, Illinois, and Idaho—to name just a handful of states that continue to be shunned by locavore restaurants.
Four years ago, when I'd just begun researching my book on the crazy, complicated saga of the Norton, I was mystified by the idea of chefs who foraged for local mushrooms and edible flowers and then loaded up their wine lists with bottles from Europe and California. If the idea is to celebrate the bounty of locality and draw a deeper connection between diners and their community, then what could be more self-negating?
Locavore restaurants are not just about connection and community, though, and in our admiration for their mission we tend to lose sight of the fact that they're still restaurants—still businesses. For all the ways they have invigorated the experience of fine dining, making it more intimate and personal and rooted, in some ways they're not so very different from their more formal, non-purist antecedents. The fact remains that wine is the most profitable part of a restaurant meal, with markups ranging from 300 to 500 percent at many establishments, and it's a lot easier to justify those high prices when you can tout the virtues of a wine that people have heard of, or (in many cases) stand in awe of.
The idealism of their mission statements notwithstanding, what locavore restaurants are telling us is that quality matters much less than cachet when it comes to assembling a wine list—the perception that a given product is the best, most exquisite example in its class. Randall Lineback veal and Bordeaux don't grow together, but so long as local-loving restaurateurs and chefs are still beholden to the old ways of doing business, they most definitely go together.
Todd Kliman is the food and wine editor and restaurant critic of The Washingtonian. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Men’s Health, National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post Magazine, and the Best Food Writing anthologies. He blogs weekly on food and popular culture for NPR.org.