Buying Local Wines: Does the Idea Travel Well?
ONE of the pleasures of working in wine retailing is pointing customers toward new and exciting wines, and especially to bottles that mean something to you. The sense of discovery and the sharing of a pleasant experience help to bolster a notion of community that can be fragile in a mobile society.
But Jeffrey Wooddy, the general manager of Rochambeau Wines in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., a Westchester County suburb, feels a little frustrated that his customers are not always receptive to his advice.
“People can’t wait to rush off to the farmers’ market for local produce,” he said. “But when they come in here and ask what I have, and I say, ‘A beautiful white wine from Long Island,’ they say, ‘What else do you have?’ ”
Food authorities have argued convincingly that the public benefits politically, environmentally, ethically and culinarily from eating local ingredients and supporting local agriculture. But where does that leave wine, a peculiar example that is surely both a food and an agricultural product but does not fit neatly into any category?
First of all, wine is not a fresh ingredient. With the rare exception, it is not fragile. Tender greens and delicate berries will deteriorate if transported or treated to improve their shelf life. But wine is more like cheese. Both are born as ephemeral ingredients: milk and grapes. Then, through human ingenuity, they are transformed into something more stable as well as more interesting, complex and transportable. As an old epicurean once put it, “Both cheese and wine represent man’s effort to transmute the perishable into the durable.”
Throughout history most wine was consumed locally. But even in ancient times wine was a commodity, transported great distances to trade for other goods. The United States did not forgo good wine in the days before its own wine industry developed.
Wine may be portable, but its production is not. Though wine is now made in all 50 states, the quality and characteristics of a wine depend on where it is produced. So while you will have access to a fine Colorado wine if you live in Denver, if you want Chianti it must come from Chianti. The same goes for any other great wine that reflects its origins.
If local wines are not necessarily superior ingredients, other reasons remain to favor them. Certainly, the planet would benefit environmentally if fewer hydrocarbons were burned shipping wine.
But why single wine out? The carbon footprint of shipping wine can certainly be improved (by eliminating heavy status bottles, for one), but environmental fears are not a sufficient moral imperative to stop buying a diversity of wines. It’s an impossible notion for most people anyway. If New York City were to drink nothing but Long Island wine, it might consume the region’s annual production in a week.
Perhaps a better reason for drinking local wines is to help foster a sense of community. When Max Dannis and Linda Gatter opened their restaurant Local 111 almost six years ago in Philmont, N.Y., a former manufacturing town in the Hudson Valley about 40 miles south of Albany, they envisioned a smartly designed gathering place for the town’s eclectic mix of longtime residents and city transplants. They would feature local ingredients and support the local farms. The only ingredient they omitted was local wine.
“We had customers who wanted local wines, so a couple of years ago we made an effort to add them,” Mr. Dannis said. A dozen New York wines are now highlighted on the concise list of 35 bottles, which also includes wines from France, Italy, Spain, California, Australia and Chile.
Mr. Dannis noted that the Hudson-Chatham Winery was a mere five miles away in Ghent. “In terms of our mission, to not have a good restaurant where people can go and drink their wines is a crime,” he said.
While he feels a duty to offer good local wines, he doesn’t believe that his diners are obliged to drink only those wines. “Wine is about offering people a choice,” he said. “We don’t offer people a choice on where the steak comes from, but we do with wine.”
Local wines may strengthen community ties, but David Page, who with his wife, Barbara Shinn, owns Shinn Estate Vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island, goes further. He believes pairing local wines with local foods is crucial to the development of a local culture.
“Over time the wine of a region and the food of a region creates the cuisine of a region,” said Mr. Page, who previously was a chef in Northern California and New York City. “That can take decades, sometimes centuries, to build.”
“I watched it develop in California in the 1970s and ’80s,” he said. “I’m seeing it happen all over again, albeit in a much smaller way.”
Paradoxically, in the first decade of the new century, as California chefs became finer and more nuanced, many California wines evolved in a different direction, getting bigger, riper, plusher and fruitier. In reaction, many of the Bay Area restaurants most dedicated to local ingredients offered wine lists dominated by European bottles. Perhaps as a result, a significant backlash is under way, in which many California producers are now emphasizing more restrained, balanced wines.
“It’s not a straight line to perfection,” Mr. Page said. “There are going to be zigs and zags along the road. But people are learning and the cuisine in this country has come a long way really fast.”
The impulse to buy local can sometimes seem more important than any other consideration. But if an aim is to bring about community, culture and cuisine, then local wine producers cannot be supported indiscriminately. To a certain degree wines from elsewhere have an advantage in that good importers and distributors act as quality filters, selecting what they regard as the best wines while avoiding the dross.
With local wines, the public must depend on merchants and sommeliers, like Thomas Pastuszak, wine director at the NoMad Hotel in Manhattan, whose list includes 17 rieslings from the Finger Lakes of New York, a region he supports passionately.
“I am a locavore, but I don’t believe in supporting local just for the sake of being local,” he said. “The quality has to be there. If it is, then I want to support it, and quality will drive the growth in the region.”
That, in the end, is the best rationale of all for buying local wines.
Not because they come from up the road or across the state, but because the producers are farming well, making wine sensitively and offering wines that are good and distinctive. This, ultimately, is wine’s greatest contribution to community and cuisine.