Why Doesn't Eating Local Translate to Drinking Local?

The locavore movement has never been stronger, nor Finger Lakes wines ever better, so why don't New York restaurants offer more New York wines?
Jun 15, 2011

The locavore movement has had a huge impact on restaurant kitchens throughout the U.S. No matter what their cuisine, chefs chant the mantra of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. In addition, today’s young food-conscious generation is only happy to oblige by patronizing farmers' markets, getting involved in changing the menus at public schools for the better and more. There’s an organic veggie garden on the White House front lawn now. Bravo.

But the “local” wave often runs dry when it comes to wine—in restaurant cellars, on retail shelves, on the dinner table. I’ve interviewed many sommeliers about how they view their wine lists, for example. Most will talk about wines that they feel are authentic, have soul or represent a tradition or place they’re in love with. Yet they almost never mention locality. The romance of France or Italy always seems to easily trump that of an upstate New York farm.

The result? Top restaurants that focus on American cuisine and local, fresh ingredients seem to offer ample lists of international wines, ignoring their local producers. In California, it’s probably a matter of style. Sommeliers will argue that the ripe, rich wine style prevalent in Napa Valley, for example, is too overbearing to match with food—too much fruit, too much wood, too much alcohol. OK, I can see that (though there is a growing cadre of producers aiming for elegance and finesse in California these days).

In New York by contrast, home state wines don’t share the same level of cachet as their cross-country and international rivals. And admittedly, on a whole they’re not up to the same qualitative level either. Consequently, even the most fervently locavore menus here are generally partnered with a wine list that offers only a token New York wine or two. There are scads of all-French or all-Italian lists in the city; I don’t know a single restaurant with an all-New York wine selection.

One wine retailer, Vintage New York, tried its hand at backing the New York wine scene with an all-New York selection, but it closed its doors a few years ago after consumers failed to support the endeavor. Vintage may have come and gone before its time. While the qualitative argument might have been a valid excuse in years past to avoid the wines, things have changed, and it’s time for folks—sommeliers, retailers and consumers—to take notice.

I’ve been reviewing Finger Lakes wines for Wine Spectator since 2000, with an increasing focus over the past couple of years. At the start, there were few Finger Lakes wines that I would have ordered in a restaurant or purchased in a shop. But today, things have changed, dramatically. Passionate owners and winemakers have more experience in their vineyards and more tools in their wineries. They’re looking at terroir, parceling out their vineyards and moving around the various shores of the Seneca, Keuka, Cayuga and Skaneateles lakes in search of the prime spots for Riesling and other vinifera grapes, as opposed to the scattershot of hybrid and native grapes that are the historical base of the Finger Lakes wine industry.

Fred Merwarth at Hermann J. Wiemer, Dave Whiting at Red Newt Cellars, Morten Hallgren at Ravines Wine Cellars and Johannes Rheinhardt at Anthony Road Wine Company are among those leading the qualitative charge. And as a group, they also represent a combination of outside expertise and homegrown know-how that is giving the Finger Lakes a fresh perspective on wine.

It’s time for sommeliers and retailers to show some support for the efforts of these growers, but they can't and won't do that until consumers are actively looking for and willing to buy them. The list of quality wineries in the Finger Lakes is a lot longer than it was 10 years ago: Atwater Estate, Billsboro, Bloomer Creek, Damiani, Fox Run, Heart & Hands, Heron Hill, Keuka Lake Vineyards, Lamoreaux Landing, Red Tail Ridge, Rooster Hill, Shaw, Sheldrake Point, Standing Stone, Tierce …. And with the region producing cool-climate wines that emphasize acidity and freshness as opposed to weight or power, they should slot right in with those clamoring for restraint in their wine (a group that often allies with the locavore movement).

Exploring the Finger Lakes is easy, too. It’s a 4.5-hour drive from New York City and it offers up some of the state’s most beautiful countryside. The wines routinely retail for $20 or less and when you buy at the winery tasting room, you’re directly supporting the growers themselves. In addition to the Finger Lakes, there’s also the east end of Long Island and the bucolic Hudson Valley, where wine and agriculture continue to develop side-by-side.

If the proponents of the locavore movement here in New York are honest with their food-based mantra, they should be beating their drum just as loudly for local wines.

What will it take for the Finger Lakes to get a seat at the table in New York?

You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

New York City United States New York

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