A friend of mine is a restaurant reviewer in Portland, Ore. Occasionally, she shows me the wine list of one or another restaurant she's reviewing and asks my opinion about its wine selection.
The most recent such instance involved a brief list of just three (widely spaced) pages that had, oh, about 75 wines in total. As wine lists go, that's a short one.
I gave her the usual rundown: A) The wines were well-chosen; B) Pricing was standard, which is to say three times the wholesale cost; C) Even though many of the wines would be considered esoteric by non-wine-geek diners (which is most diners), the list failed to provide even a smidgen of information; and finally, D) Proportionately few local wines were offered.
"It's not the first time you've noted the paucity of Oregon wines on Portland restaurant lists," she said. I acknowledged this to be so, noting as I previously have that a good number of Oregon winegrowers are upset with Portland restaurateurs for their perceived lack of support.
This is hardly confined to Portland. I see (and hear) the same phenomenon in San Francisco as well. Both cities are not just surrounded by many hundreds of wineries, but are the urban epicenters of the two most powerful wine cultures in North America.
Yet restaurants in both San Francisco and Portland—especially the hippest and trendiest, as well as some of the very best restaurants in both cities—only rarely showcase local wines. To be sure, they're on the lists, but hardly front and center.
Instead, more often than not the wines of choice are esoteric items from Italy, Spain and France. Exceptions among restaurants in both cities assuredly exist. But what I've described is real.
So what's going on here? Do local restaurants have any obligation to champion local wines? Or is that just a pretext for local wineries to monopolize wine lists at the expense of greater choice (and sometimes lower prices) from worldwide competition?
As in the parable of the blind men describing the elephant, where you're placed—as a winery owner, a restaurant owner, a chef, a sommelier, a booster of local wines, a wine importer or distributor and not least, a wine-loving restaurant patron—will powerfully color your conclusion.
Restaurateurs, for their part, bristle at the idea that they have any obligations to anybody except their investors and their patrons. They can serve anything they damn well please, thank you very much.
Sommeliers see the "wine elephant" differently. Confining their lists to mostly local wines is seen as a disservice. After all, how many Oregon Pinot Noirs can you offer before it becomes both repetitious and boring, as well as expensive?
Most Oregon Pinot Noirs will start at $60 on a wine list and can easily top $100—at the usual markups, anyway. As for California, pretty much all Napa Cabernets are more expensive yet. Imported wines offer a vastly greater variety of flavors, grapes and prices and can be superb deals for both the restaurant and the diner.
Chefs—at least if they’re interested in wine, which some are and others, sadly, are not—want wines that complement their cuisine. Many restaurants today are either forthrightly Italian or at least Italianate. So what are you going to offer? Australian wines? I don't think so. In Greek restaurants, Greek wines reinforce the restaurant narrative. And when French restaurants ruled, you didn't see any other wines, did you?
Local winegrowers, for their part, look enviously at wine lists in restaurants in Burgundy or Bordeaux, among many other European wine regions. The great majority of the wines on those lists, and those of the restaurants in nearby cities, are proudly local. If you had a fatal disease in Burgundy that only a bottle of Bordeaux could cure, you'd soon be dead.
To winegrowers, local restaurants have an obligation to showcase their wines. After all, look at how chefs champion local ingredients, citing the name of the farm where, for heaven's sakes, the carrots are grown. Aren't wineries part of the locavore ethos? Aren't local vineyards a fundamental part of food localism?
One more element is part of the mix, abstract though it is: our larger American culture. Proud as we might be of our local cultures—and we are—we Americans welcome wider cultural horizons, never more so than today.
We are more than merely available to learning the tastes and values of other cultures; we actively seek them. A restaurant wine list composed largely or exclusively of local wines can seem more than just provincial. It can feel exclusionary. And that's not the American way. What are we missing from elsewhere? And why can't we have it?
All of which leaves us where we started: Should restaurant wine lists showcase and champion local wines? Do restaurants have any such obligation? Is it even desirable? I leave it to you to decide.