San Francisco Chronicle Food Editor Michael Bauer has an interesting post on his blog today about the trend in new restaurants toward offering small, compact food menus and small, compact closely-curated wine lists that change frequently. But, Bauer notices, while the food menu prides itself on locally-sourced ingredients, the wine lists almost invariably have a preponderance of wines from outside the local area, despite San Francisco being within a two hours’ drive of most of California’s top wine regions.
I agree with him that it is an odd disconnect, but I think he is too quick to dismiss cost as the driving factor in these decisions. I’ve worked with small-production California wine for a while now and the least expensive “wines of distinction” (meaning small-ish production, wine maker-driven bottlings that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have on a wine list) wholesale for about $9 a bottle. Once you get much below that price, the production scale rapidly increases, or you have private label one-off brands that use juice bought up on the bulk market. Using Los Angeles markup metrics, that $9 bottle translates roughly to a $9 glass or a $36 bottle at a restaurant or wine bar: a reasonable price, but far from a bargain. Those $9 wines are also few and far between; the entry-level price point for most small production domestic wines tend toward the $12-$15 per bottle wholesale range, translating to a more prohibitively premium glass price.
When you compare what can be had from California for $9-$15 per bottle wholesale with what can be had from many parts of Europe in that same range (and often less), there is no competition. The wines, simply put, are better. It’s not because European wines are inherently better than California wines, it’s just that for a variety of economic reasons, it’s much cheaper to make wine in these countries than it is here, the primary reason, in most cases, being the cost of land.
I also don’t like that Bauer insinuates that perhaps wine buyers buy these more obscure imports so that they can mark the wine up more. That’s only true inasmuch as most wine directors typically markup their less expensive by-the-glass wines more (regardless of provenance) because padding their margin with these high-volume wines allows them to take a cut in their margin on their more expensive offerings, in turn providing a greater array of more premium bottles for customers who want to splurge.
Also, there’s no inherent need, I would argue, for local wine in the same way that there is a need for local food. Wine is relatively stable, so there’s no reason that a wine shipped across an ocean using modern shipping technology will be any less fresh than one shipped 60 miles down the road. The same, obviously, cannot be said for meat or produce. Additionally, the carbon footprint for wine traveling by container ship is relatively nominal in the supply chain when compared to the trucking around that happens once it gets into the country. And, unlike the great old wine regions of Europe, California doesn’t have 2000+ years of culinary and enologic traditions that have been growing and evolving together symbiotically. What California has is its incredible ingredients, but its traditions and techniques are grounded in that same European tradition, evolving now in California and taking on its own influences from the culinary traditions of East Asia and Central America, both of which, it should be noted, have no wine tradition to speak of. When one considers that the California Cuisine tradition (the “capital C” one pioneered by the Alice Waters clique) is essentially built upon the culinary heritage of the Western Mediterranean utilizing local California ingredients, then the wines of these regions–Southern France, Italy, Northeastern Spain–are as good a match as any to the food.
Things are changing, however. The popularity of imported wine has introduced California wine drinkers to new grapes and blends which has in turn made California wine makers more open to making domestic wines from different grapes, many of which can be had for significantly less money than grapes like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon which have dominated California wine making for so long. These wines are therefore less expensive and, by that sheer increase in diversity, will compliment a wider variety of dishes. A general trend away from high-alcohol, heavily-oaked wine making (something that has always been out of step, for me, with nuanced California find dining) has also helped make California wines more acceptable with more types of foods and, consequently, California wine buyers are coming around to this as well.
In the end, I see Bauer’s point, but it is a false dichotomy. While there should be an increase in locally-sourced wines on fine dining wine lists in California (and wine makers are heeding this call and producing less expensive wines which are still unique), to view a lack of local wines on an otherwise locally-sourced menu as hypocrisy is short-sighted. Unless there is a radical shift in the cost of producing wine in California, imports will continue to be over-represented on every wine list that needs to both make money and still offer its customers interesting affordability.