Finding the word "local" on a menu is practically cliché; there may be a day when vegetables grown in a restaurant's own garden won't be enough anymore. We might wind up at "micro-local" soon: "We grew the greens for your salad in a pot at your table."
Given that focus on food, it seems strange that restaurants might not feel the need to serve local wines, too. Matt Kramer of the Wine Spectator wrote a recent column asking, "Do wine directors and sommeliers have any obligation to champion nearby wineries?" Since he focused on Northern California and Oregon, I thought it might be illuminating to examine the issue in Southern California.
Particularly, I wondered, do Los Angeles restaurants think of Santa Barbara wines as local? (I realize I'm ignoring Malibu because the output there is so small and Temecula because it has quality perceptions to fight.) So this week we'll see what some winemakers have to say about the issue, and next week we'll get input from Los Angeles establishments regarded for their wine programs. Will the producers and sellers be on the same page?
As it turns out, there's not even consensus among winemakers. Since 1975, Fred Brander makes many of California's best sauvignon blancs at the Brander Vineyard. Despite his acclaim, he says, "I think of my wines as part of the local food scene, which does not extend beyond Santa Barbara County, and would not include L.A. L.A. is too far removed geographically. I do not believe Los Angeles restaurants are compelled to carry Santa Barbara wines as the wine market in L.A. is global and the clientele is interested in a diverse wine list. Major retail shops may have a better selection of Santa Barbara wines because their clientele will shop for them."
Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines and AVA Santa Barbara sees that distance as half full, not half empty: "One hundred miles is certainly not very far. Many visitors to our tasting rooms here are just up for the day, or even the afternoon. Plus, we are the closest significant wine region to the LA Metro area."
Kunin is even optimistic that many Los Angeles restaurants feel the same way, pointing out how some bring their staff to wine country for tours and tastings.
Nonetheless, he still sees some problems with "a few trendy spots in Los Angeles that are neither regional nor ethnic, but insist on excluding domestic wines from their lists. I don't understand this policy and philosophy at all. Yes, there are a lot of domestic wines that are more fruit-forward and higher in alcohol than some of their imported counterparts, which may make them awkward with food, but there are an equal number that are not overdone and pair very well with food. To ignore these artisanal American products while bragging about the same qualities of the food products on the menu is very hypocritical and short-sighted."
Larry Schaffer, winemaker and owner of Tercero Wines, has an even dimmer view of the situation, and that's striking given he's as good a talker as he is a winemaker. "I truly and honestly do not think that Los Angeles restaurants -- or even most Santa Barbara restaurants -- think [of Santa Barbara wines] at all. I cannot necessarily blame them. I do not believe our region has done a good enough job positioning ourselves to be in their consciousness in this manner, especially compared with regions to the north of us. There are exceptions in both L.A. and Santa Barbara, of course, but they are truly exceptions and not the norm. If one is going to talk local and locavore, why should this just apply to food? The same really should apply to wine -- ask a restaurateur who sources local fruit and vegetables why, and then ask why the same standards are not there with wine."
However, Kunin sees both sides of this issue: "I worked in the restaurant business before making wine (both in L.A. and Santa Barbara), so I am sympathetic to that industry's idiosyncratic nature and the personalities involved. I have -- happily and easily -- sold Santa Barbara wines to places at the top of the pecking order like Spago or Melisse that feature wine lists with over 1000 selections, as well as to mom and pop spots that had 25 or 50 selections. In fact, it's the places with 50 wines on the list that can really move bottles and turn into great customers. It is definitely good for the ego to be on the list at Spago, but it can take a long time for them to order that second case."
The three winemakers particularly failed to see eye-to-eye about Kramer's strongest claim. "I totally agree with Kramer on restaurants appearing exclusionary when the wine list is largely local," Brander says. "There seems to be some of that in Santa Barbara restaurants, but fortunately the best Santa Barbara restaurants have gone away from that and have currently well-rounded wine lists. As the food scene in Santa Barbara becomes more sophisticated, so have the wine choices."
Shaffer is much more comfortable with some insularity. "I think one needs to be careful about the concept of 'exclusivity' when it comes to wine lists," he says. "The concept of 'provincial' should exist -- go to the finer restaurants in Paso [Robles] and try to find many Santa Barbara County offerings other than pinot and chardonnay. You won't find any, and I don't fault them for doing so. They have either figured out what their customers are looking for or are passionate about the 'provincial' concept, but they do offer others."
Kunin takes a measured stance, saying, "I like a lot of what Matt has to say, but must respectfully (and strongly) disagree with his statement. Part of experiencing a place is experiencing its culture, food, wine, etc. If I am in the Rhone, I expect to find Rhone wines on the list, and probably not Italian wine or Spanish wine. I think that this is part of the excitement of traveling, and a large part of why I do it. I don't eat McDonald's or lasagna or coq au vin when I'm in Hong Kong for the same reason. I do, however, enjoy coq au vin in Burgundy the same way that I enjoy dim sum in Hong Kong. I don't find this provincial or exclusionary, just real. And educational."