Local Food, Local Wine? Converting Locavores to Locapours

Check out Jade Ostner’s excellent post on GoodEater Collaborative yesterday. Do you patronize the farmers’ markets, co-op’s and the like in your area? How about the wineries near you? What are YOUR favorite places to purchase local food and beverages?

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Author: Jade Ostner (2 Articles)

Jade Ostner is the event coordinator for the Maryland Wineries Association, a non-profit that supports local agriculture and promotes land preservation. After a year of intrepid eating in Thailand, she currently resides in Baltimore, where she is active in the food industry and policy communities, and where she proudly eats—and drinks—locally.

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It is no secret that “locavore” is trending.  Eating locally has spread in the United States from affluent consumers in cities to the middle class in suburbs; and even low income areas are becoming aware of—and partaking in—the benefits of locally raised produce and meats. Some, dubbed locovores, have taken it to the next level by only eating food stuffs grown or raised in, for example, a 100 mile radius of their home. Thus, restaurants boasting local fare have become even more popular, prompting chefs to form strong relationships with the farmers who grow their ingredients. If consumers are praising local food for its environmentalism, as well as the feel good connection it provides with local farmers, and if premier chefs are on board, then why is it that these “locals-only” restaurant wine lists are chock full of European, South African, and Californian wine? In other words, if we eat local, why don’t we drink local, too?local wine 300x173 %organic food

There are many answers to that question.  But first, a quick background on wine and viticulture in America. Winemaking in America was first influenced by two different styles in the late 1700s: the French and Spanish.

1700s: Thomas Jefferson spent most of 1787 drinking wine in Bordeaux, skipping the Continental Congress but returning to the East Coast with meticulous notes on the Piedmont, Tuscany, Cognac and Bordeaux regions. Jefferson brought French culture and influence back to the East Coast and to his own personal vineyard. Meanwhile, the Spanish Missions were traveling up the west coast planting vineyards to produce wine for their churches.

1800s: During the 1800s, there were two factors that fostered grape growing: the immigrant explosion and the Gold Rush. Immigrants arrived on the East Coast in massive proportions and flocked to the west at the first glimpse of gold. This resulted in a more diverse European influence in the west. The mid to late 1800s saw Germans planting Riesling in Oregon and Vinifera experiments aimed at creating quality and disease resistant grapes. Winemaking was taking on momentum.

1900s: Prohibition. Northwest wineries were, by and large, shut down. Vineyards in the east were almost wiped out.  Yet, California was still making wine. Why? Religion of course.  Christian Mass allowed for the legal production of wine, and the Missions in California were up for the divine task.  Different churches and denominations preferred different types of wine which, of course, are made from different varietals of grapes, effectively keeping vineyards alive. Besides those affiliated with the Christian religion, the only other way to legally imbibe was for medical purposes and required a doctor’s prescription; a doctors note in order to buy illegal substances in the state of California…does anyone else notice history repeating itself?

Even after taking into account all those holding a medical Merlot license and attending mass on Sundays, only 1% of the American public were drinking wine post Prohibition.  The American palate had changed. Americans preferred cocktails—invented because bathtub liquor didn’t taste so great—to wine. It wasn’t until after World War II that GI’s were truly exposed to local wine and culture in Europe and brought their desire to drink wine back to the States.

In 1933 (the end of Prohibition) there were only 34 wineries in Napa Valley, California. In 1965, over thirty years later, there were still only 34 wineries.  Today there are over 1,000 wineries in Napa Valley alone. Who was the first winery in 33 years to open their doors in Napa Valley? Robert Mondavi. Ten short years later came the 1976 Judgment of Paris. California, the North Coast specifically, suddenly became prime real estate for growing grapes. The world took American wine seriously, and the rest is history.

Back to the future—the farm to table trend, although doubted by some, doesn’t seem to be going away soon. Consumers believe that eating locally supports local farmers, local economy, and the environment. Yet, these diehard local eaters wash down their heirloom tomatoes picked a mile away and the turkey that was pecking two days ago with a Gewurztraminer from Germany.  It doesn’t make sense.  Why is it that locavores aren’t becoming locapours?

1.) Making the connection.  Somehow there is a disconnect between agriculture and wine. Grape growers are farmers.  In fact, I have spoken with lifelong local soybean, wheat, and corn farmers who have just recently taken on growing grapes, and they all admit that grapes are their most demanding crop; they literally touch every vine.  How’s that for a farmer’s connection with what they grow? Here in the mid-Atlantic, vineyards have been taking over old tobacco farms, cutting down land development and boosting the state economy.  If you frequent a local butcher, co-op, or farmers market, you should be buying wines from a regional winery.

2.) Money.  Wine, especially low production wine, is very expensive to make.  A bottle of local or regional wine may go for $20, while a very good Chilean wine sells for $11. Todd Kliman’s The Locavore Wine Hypocrisy does a good job reminding us that although local eateries are “feel-good”, they are, above all, a business.  From a business standpoint it makes more financial sense to buy a less expensive bottle of good foreign wine than a comparable local bottle.  Perhaps I’m missing something, but I was under the impression that local and sustainable eaters are willing to pay more for local, low-production crops.  “Bargain” is not, and never has been, the name of the locavore game.  With this being said, there is a good chance your favorite green eatery or wine shop can’t get a hold of regional wines, bringing us to…

3.) Accessibility.  Depending on state, shipping wine falls somewhere in between an encouraged practice and a felony. Some states are able to ship and receive wine freely.  Some can export but not import, and others can import but can’t ship out.  Shipping wine is a hot topic for some, yet many believe it is absolutely vital.  Small boutique wineries make 15-20% of percent of their income from direct shipping.  It becomes difficult for local wineries to target other states within their region if they cannot mail wine a state over.

4.) Reputation.  Here we go…what we’ve all been waiting for… “if it’s not from the Pacific Northwest, California, or New York, American wine isn’t good.”  Wine is a touchy subject.  Some of the most laid back people stiffen up as soon as the wine key comes out.  I think some of this attitude stems from the fact that wine itself is a little temperamental.  Let me say it again: Wine is agricultural.  Even Grand Cru wine is not guaranteed to be good every year.  There are certainly some “local” wines (not West Coast or NY) that are definitely not good, but there are plenty of Australian, New York, French, and Californian wines that aren’t great either!  One of my favorite lines I’ve heard is, “I’d try local wine if it didn’t taste like something I drank in High School.”  Funny thing is, jug wine comes from California!  Italy is (begrudgingly) ripping out indigenous vines and planting varietals that Americans are familiar with because they know you’ll buy an “Italian” Chardonnay.  New Zealand alone has had an 800% increase in exports in the past 10 years alone because they produce a Sauvignon Blanc like no one has ever tasted in the hundreds of years that Sauvignon Blanc has existed.Colorado Vineyard 300x172 %organic food

What I’m trying to say is, all bets are off.  Wine doesn’t have to be from France or Napa to be good.  Results from acclaimed international wine competitions in San Diego and San Francisco serve as an example that regional wines are showing incredibly; wine from North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Michigan, and Colorado are winning double golds and best in show, beating out the likes of all the major wines from well-known winemaking regions. Self proclaimed locavores should conduct their own Judgment of Paris, the results may be a pleasant surprise.

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