Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Locapour Militia Rides: Will They Raid Your Restaurant?

Farm to table. Farm to fork. Seed to table. Ocean to table. Locavores. 

These terms are all the rage and restaurants across the country are touting how they rely on local ingredients. These restaurants support local farms, grow their own herbs, fruits, and vegetables, make their own salt, and more. Seasonality is also important to them. I am supportive of these restaurants, and the chefs and owners deserve kudos for their passion and dedication to the locavore cause. Unfortunately, there is a disconnect at many of these restaurants which disturbs me and others.

Where is the passion for vineyard to table? Where is the support for locapours?

At the recent Drink Local Wine conference in Maryland, while riding on a bus to visit a few wineries, several of us discussed the issue of how many restaurants embrace the locavore cause yet fail to address the locapour cause. Though these restaurants will showcase locally sourced ingredients for their food, they rarely, if ever, showcase local wines. Frankly, this seems like a form of hypocrisy, advocating for the benefits of local sourcing yet failing to follow through with that advocacy for local wines. I mentioned that we needed a Locapour Milita, a passionate group of local wine lovers to confront restaurants about such hypocrisy.

It seems so simple. Vineyards are farms and wine is an agricultural product. In regard to local sourcing, there is no reason it should be treated differently than any other agricultural product. If you are passionate about local sourcing, then you should also be passionate about local wines. Then why does it happen so rarely?

Our bus discussion was continued to a degree during one of the panel discussions at the conference. The panel, entitled Drinking Local, was described as: Does locavore mean locapour? Do Marylanders appreciate their home-grown wine, and if not, how to get the message out. The panelists included Chef Jerry Pellegrino of the Waterfront Kitchen, Jade Ostner, the Director of Events of the Maryland Wineries Association and Al Spoler, co-host of Cellar Notes/Radio Kitchen on WYPR Radio. Unfortunately, the discussion ran only 45 minutes, barely scratching the surface of this topic.

Spoler's comments were directed primarily at the situation within Maryland, though similar concerns exist in many other places around the country. Sopler stated that a wine culture does not currently exist in Maryland. There is an entire generation of people who have a negative image of Maryland wines and he believes that it will take generations to improve that perception. Though many people have met farmers, have patronized local farms and understand the traditions of farming, far fewer people have visited vineyards or wineries. Most people have very limited knowledge of the Maryland wine industry. Misperception and ignorance have hurt Maryland wineries.

This is a similar situation in many other states, where the wine industries are relatively new. Though wine might have a lengthy history in such states, the modern wine industry in such regions is often much newer and still in its relative infancy. As such, many local citizens are ignorant about the status of the wineries in their home state, and their opinions are often negative, based on very limited information and experience. Before people will embrace local wine, they need to understand that locally produced wine can be quality wine, that it can be delicious and worthy of their attention.

Maryland wineries should receive a positive boost from the passing of a new law. As of June 1, wineries will be permitted to sell their products at farmers' markets. This should elevate the visibility of Maryland wines, and give more people the opportunity to taste the wines and learn of their quality. In 2010, Massachusetts passed a similar law and a report was issued in 2012 concerning the effect of this law on local wineries in 2011. Eighteen wineries participated in this program and they saw, in total, a 66% increase in overall sales. In addition, 82% of the wineries reported increased visitors at their winery and 94% reported increased recognition for their wine. More states should consider passing such a law.

Ostner mentioned how the Maryland Wineries Association has supported numerous local wines events, including the annual Maryland Wine Week in June. However, it was interesting that she indicated most people seem to attend these events more for the event itself rather than the local wine. This supports Spoler's comments, indicating that many people still do not have a positive perception of local wines. Hopefully, in time, people will learn more and start attending these events more for the wine.

Some of us were especially interested to hear Chef Pellegrino's comments on this issue. The evening before, we dined at Chef Pellegrino's Waterfront Kitchen, enjoying a four course dinner paired with Maryland wines. At the bottom of our menu was a section mentioning the sources of many of the ingredients used in our dinner. The restaurant is a "seed-to-plate" place, meaning they "purchase ingredients as locally and seasonally as possible."

However, when reviewing the restaurant's website, you will find a two page wine list and none of those wines are from Maryland. You will find wines from all over the world, and many excellent choices, but where is the love for local wines? If the restaurant is so passionate about sourcing local ingredients, then why isn't there a similar passion for showcasing local wines? We looked forward to hearing Chef Pellegrino's thoughts on this issue during the panel discussion.

During the panel, Chef Pellegrino indicated that their small wine program is essentially arranged by producer, about 28 in all, and that they carry approximately 200 wines on their list. Though they are not mentioned on the website, he indicated they carry about 10 Maryland wines. It seems that he too suffers from misconceptions about the Maryland wine industry. He admitted that he hadn't been able to keep up with the Maryland wine industry and that he was lagging behind in knowledge. It was obvious he didn't understand all of the quality wines that were being produced in his own state.

I have encountered such ignorance before in other restaurants and wine shops. The owners often do not study and research their local wines, to discover which wines were worthy of inclusion in their establishments. Far too often they assume the wines are not good enough, but that perception is based on extremely limited knowledge. Yet these same individuals will invest great time and effort in researching local foods and ingredients. Why don't they invest that same passion in researching local wines too? If they are so committed to sourcing as local as possible, then there is absolutely no excuse why they shouldn't extend their efforts to local wine too.

Chef Pellegrino also noted that he generally purchases wines from local wineries at a higher price than the wholesale prices he pays for most other wines. Thus, the local wines are placed on his list at a higher price than other comparable wines. Is that really necessary? High wine mark-ups at restaurants are a pet peeve of mine, and I have said before that restaurants should have low mark-ups on more unique wines in an effort to persuade consumers to take a chance on them. To get more consumers to purchase Maryland wines, a restaurant should not significantly mark up those wines but rather should make them appear to be more of a bargain. With only ten Maryland wines on his list, Chef Pellegrino wouldn't have a significant hit to his bottom line if he lowered the mark up on those wines. In fact, he might make more money through more purchases of those wines.

I was more dismayed when Chef Pellegrino mentioned that he thought you should keep the Maryland name off wines on the list, placing them by the type of the grape instead. He asserted that "ignorance is bliss," that customers would be more likely to order Maryland wines if they did not know their actual origin. That seems contrary to the philosophy of his restaurant, a celebration of local sourcing, where he seems otherwise proud to mention the farms he patronizes. He wouldn't hide the name of a local farm which was the source of his meat or produce, so he shouldn't hide the fact that a wine is locally procured. If the wines are good enough to be on your list, then be honest about their source.

I don't expect a locavore restaurant to only carry local wines but I feel they should carry a representative selection of the quality local wines that are available. Their locavore philosophy should extend to being locapour as well. Adding local wines to their restaurant list would show a true passion for being local in all regards. The local wine industry could use the support as well, creating more advocates who can educate consumers about the advantages of local wine.

Join the Locapour Militia, and encourage your local restaurants to carry local wines.

1 comment:

ColoradoWinePress said...

Richard, it was nice to meet you in Baltimore. I agree that most restaurants are behind the times when it comes to the local wine movement. I also was taken aback when Chef said he wanted to keep MD wines' origin off the list. Yes, the wine should be able to stand on its own for what's in the bottle, but it's a fact that MD is what's in the bottle. Sadly, it is the wineries responsibility for giving restaurants a reason to carry their wine. Local wineries are competing against wine from around the world and they need to work harder to make their way onto wine lists and retail shelves. As much as we would like to see retailers and restaurateurs have more skin in the game and seek out local wines, that's not the way the game is played right now.