ILLUSTRATION BY LUCY ENGELMAN
In a region where the farm-to-fork ethos runs strong, you’d think the grape-to-glass concept would be just as big. But it’s not.
It seems like a slam dunk that locally owned Sacramento restaurants (and, really, most Northern California restaurants) would stockpile wines from the outstanding and, in some cases, world-class wine regions nearby. And there surely are many area restaurant owners who do carry healthy selections of what would be considered grape-to-glass wines. But most don’t. Most have a handful, at best.
Why? The reasons are complicated and range from problems with status to genuine business hurdles. This is a long-running issue that would take a wine business master class to completely explain. But there really are two primary factors in the grape-to-glass conundrum: status and supply.
1. Self doubt – As much as we love our local wineries, many wine drinkers assume the vintages produced there are good … but not great. That’s partly because they’re simply not the big names most people know and rely on. There’s an almost-unconscious belief, particularly in a region such as Sacramento that has a long history of self-doubt, that if a wine isn’t from Napa or Sonoma or somewhere in France, it isn’t truly special. Restaurant owners build their wine lists in reaction to that.
2. Foreign appeal – Being from somewhere far away is another wine status symbol. People love hidden gems from a wine spot with ancient traditions or an emerging region with visionary winemakers. This fascination seems particularly strong in the Bay Area, where Napa can seem as ho-hum as Amador County, or as Lodi seems to some in Sacramento.
3. The dark side – The first two status problems, at least, involve pleasing customers. There’s also the small-but-loud subset of sommeliers and wine directors who build wine lists with unknown, far-off wines to make a statement – to each other. It’s about being the coolest somm in the somm community, not the best restaurant. This is more a Bay Area thing. Mercifully, this region is mostly free of too-cool somms running restaurants.
1. Bigger is safer – If you run a restaurant of any size, one of your huge concerns is the supply chain, and it’s much easier, more reliable, and often cheaper to deal with big distributors who bring in big wineries — that aren’t local. This isn’t nefarious on anyone’s part. Everyone’s trying to stay in business. Sometimes the best business move is the easy, safe route.
2. Lack of local knowledge – Many wineries surrounding Sacramento aren’t large enough or don’t have staff members experienced enough to be as persistent, patient, or skillful as is needed to sell to local restaurants, or to be able to guarantee supply (see Supply No. 1).
But the thing is, the Sierra Foothills, Clarksburg, Lodi, and Yolo County are filled with those visionary winemakers making terrific wine. This region has a number of small distributors and brokers offering up a host of interesting local wines. And many of the best restaurateurs in the region do offer many of them to their customers.
Will that be enough, even in the farm-to-fork capital, to overcome all those forces in the wine/restaurant industry? It’s a good question. For now, the best we can do is keep asking for local wine every chance that we get.