Last week we looked at the titular question from the viewpoint of three fine wineries in Santa Barbara County (Brander Vineyards, Kunin Wines, Tercero Wines). There was a mixed response to the issue raised by Matt Kramer of the Wine Spectator, who 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.
This week we turn to three L.A. restaurants -- AKASHA, Faith & Flower, and Valentino -- all not only esteemed for their cuisine, but adored for their wine lists. How do they feel about the "local" wine issue? It should be noted that the first two establishments have held wine dinners with Larry Schaffer's Tercero, so that might be a hint.
"While I don't feel any need or obligation to carry Santa Barbara wines at Faith & Flower, I want to carry Santa Barbara County wines," wine director Jared Hooper says. "It's easily one of the more heavily represented regions on my list due to the versatility and quality of their wines. I get up to wine country in Santa Barbara as often as I can, and am very impressed with the wines coming from that region. If I don't show any special favors towards Santa Barbara wines, it's because they don't need my help; they are world class and deserving to be on any list that would have them."
Lisa Beaumont, bar manager and wine buyer at AKASHA Restaurant Bar Café, goes even further, saying, "I absolutely feel obligated to carry local wines. That is what our restaurant is all about. With all these amazing vineyards in our backyard, I'd be a fool not to showcase them." She also suggests that while Australia and New Zealand make fine wines, "I just try to limit the carbon footprint. The fascinating thing about Santa Ynez is the varietals that are coming out of that area, like Sangiovese, Arneis, Roussanne, Gruner Veltliner, etc."
Picking up on the varietal theme, Piero Selvaggio, the owner of Valentino, says, "There are plenty of pinot noir and chardonnay from Sonoma, Oregon, and anywhere. Looking for the right varietals is a choice based on demand (which is good for Santa Barbara wines), good matching with other local products, and personal taste. Local for us means all of California."
As the restaurateur with the longest track record -- Valentino has been open for 43 years, and had to overcome losing 34,000 bottles of wine during the 1994 Northridge Earthquake -- Selvaggio also has great respect for those first on the Santa Barbara wine scene. "Jim Clendenen [of Au Bon Climat] was the true pioneer of anything wine-related in the Central Coast," he says. "It is so hard to be the first, to prove that you produced great wines, and sell a brand that had merits."
Of course, all three restaurants consider quality first, and how the wines match their cuisine second. "I think what works for our restaurant is making sure the wine works with the food," Beaumontsays. "I would never exclusively have local wine because I think you're missing the boat. Our patrons come from all over the world. They want to taste the local wine. They're curious. And for the most part, they are satisfied. I know when I travel, I taste the local wine. Some good, some not so good. I feel spoiled having such great wine in my backyard. And I feel honored to call a lot of them friends."
Of course, contemporary dining is about the complete experience, and wine is often a critical component. "We do a winemaker dinner series here at Faith & Flower once a month," Hooper relates. "We bring in winemakers not just from Santa Barbara, but from all over the world. I think the current restaurant trends tend to lean towards extremes and absolutes. I'm not interested in trends; I'm interested in quality. Santa Barbara County wines have proven themselves to be amongst the best wines of the world, and I consider us lucky to be so close."