Michael Bauer Watch: Local Food, Imported Wine--Why?

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In his blog today, Bauer ponders a reader's question as to why, at a restaurant that focused on "very local, farm friendly, organic and sustainable" food, "the wines were predominantly French and Italian." Let's take his responses point by point.

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First, Bauer opines that "wines from Chile, Spain or Australia may offer more value per dollar than the California counterparts." True enough, but the wines at the restaurant in question are, as at many of our market-driven, otherwise locavore places, French and Italian.

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Next, he suggests that, since "many of these wines are unfamiliar to the average consumer," restaurants can, for example, mark up a Michele Chiarlo Arneis higher than they could a bottle of California Chardonnay. Sounds good in theory, but I don't believe I've ever seen a wine list where local and imported wines had different markups. Most restaurants around here sell bottles for three times the wholesale price, which is double the undiscounted retail list price. (As far as I'm concerned, anything higher is a ripoff.)

Finally, he says that "sommeliers may feel that French or Italian wines are more in line with the spirit of the menu, or that the California wines are too young." This gets closer to the truth, but it's not quite right.

The main reason so many locavore restaurants have Eurocentric wine lists is that New World winemakers tend to make food-hostile wines. Bauer himself touched on this issue a couple of years ago in a blog post titled, Just Say No to Cabernet: "With the huge tannins from oak and high level of alcohol, just about every ingredient you pair with it turns sour or bitter. Fat is its friend, but just about everything else creates a hostile environment."

Dude, as you surely know, there are many French and Italian wines made predominantly from Cabernet (presumably you were talking about C. Sauvignon, but the same is true of C. Franc) that are delicious with food, so obviously the grape's not to blame. There are several factors that contribute to not just California cabs, but most New World wines, being food-unfriendly:
  • Planting the same handful of trendy grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Sauvigon Blanc) regardless of terroir or climate results in wines that are not the best expression of these varieties. It also eliminates a major source of diversity in France and Italy, where they grow hundreds of varieties.
  • The fad for overripe fruit leads to overly alcoholic, excessively fruit-forward, flabby, low-acid wines. After tasting through one local winery's current releases, I complained to the winemaker that all of his dry wines were so high in alcohol as to be undrinkable. He said he'd prefer to make lighter, more balanced wines, but was unable to get anything but overripe fruit.
  • The fad for using huge amounts of new oak leads to overpoweringly oaky, unbalanced wines. This is as true for whites as it is for reds.
  • Encouraged by the wine industry and writers such as Robert Parker, consumers have developed a taste for these unbalanced, food-hostile wines.
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Gary Galleron
There are, of course, exceptions to all of these. Galleron Aves Vineyard Zinfandel, Ahlgren Bates' Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Miura Hirsch Vineyards Pinot Noir, A Donkey and Goat Brosseau Vineyard Chardonnay, and Dashe 2007 Zinfandel "L'Enfant Terrible" are as food-friendly as wine gets, and in a blind tasting might pass for European, or at least stump an expert. Sommeliers at local / organic / sustainable restaurants often do seek out such local wines, but it takes a lot more time and effort to find these exceptions than it does to choose from the bounty of comparable wines from Europe.


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