Local Wine Isn't Reserved for California Anymore
A restaurant doesn’t need to reside in California to offer regional wines anymore. Discovering local vinos from surprising terroirs can be an explorative and profitable experience for dedicated operators.
The minute Tyler Sailsbery—chef/owner of The Black Sheep in Whitewater, Wisconsin—decided to pour local wines, business partnerships started to happen.
Suddenly he was hosting chef dinners six times a year at Staller Estate Winery, one of the wineries whose bottles appear on his list. The winery is in a rural part of Delavan and run by a young couple. In some ways, the partnership was very organic. Black Sheep is a farm-to-table restaurant, and Staller makes wine from estate-grown grapes. “We started off with that [farm-to-table concept] in mind, from day one,” says Sailsbery.
Wisconsin isn’t the only state where the wine industry is making inroads on restaurant wine lists. Virginia, Texas, Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, New York, and Michigan are among the states where the wines are rising into acclaim.
Sussing through local wines, however, takes considerable amounts of research. Unless in California, distributors might not be as familiar with regional options as they are with those from far-flung wine regions. In preparing to open Black Sheep in 2012, Sailsbery took to the road in the name of research, visiting local wineries and their tasting rooms. After finding wines he felt were a good match with his cuisine, he inquired about carrying them at the restaurant. Prairie Fumé, a white wine crafted from Seyval Blanc grapes at the Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, and popular throughout the state, was added almost immediately. A couple of bottles from Vetro Winery in Jefferson, Wisconsin, are always on the menu. And from Staller, Sailsbery curated a selection of four wines by the glass, plus two bottles. There are imports on the menu, too, but only if they are the best expression of a grape, such as a Malbec from Argentina.
Selling wine by the glass is key to listing local wines, as most diners aren’t familiar with the winery—or the grapes. “It’s harder for us to sell a local wine in that customers are trained to say, ‘I want a Merlot or Chardonnay,’ but Wisconsin doesn’t grow those,” says Sailsbery, who feels Wisconsin wines are sweeter than their domestic counterparts, a factor he takes into consideration when balancing the food.
But Sailsbery wanted to dig deeper into his commitment to regional wines by introducing diners to the winemakers and being able to say, “This is where the wine comes from,” and ‘This is why they make their wine.” In the restaurant, he also shares fliers about the local wineries he supports, for guests who want to learn more. “We’re not necessarily pushing [the wine],” he explains, “but more likely to ask: ‘Did you know this is the top-growing grape in Wisconsin?’” He’s also active in using social media to promote the wines on The Black Sheep’s Twitter and Facebook pages.
Another region that is becoming more celebrated for its wine is the North Fork of Long Island, New York. For instance, Adam Petronzio, the wine director at Oceana in the Midtown section of Manhattan, entered into an exclusive partnership with Brooklyn, New York’s Red Hook Winery. A Sauvignon Blanc was made just for Oceana, to pair with its General Tsao’s Lobster, a popular entrée served with spicy sweet and sour sauce, cashews, scallions, and forbidden rice.
Macari Vineyards on the North Fork supplies Sauvignon Blanc fruit to the winery for this particular wine, with Robert Foley and Abe Schoener serving as winemakers—both have made wine in Napa, California. “They’re one of the classic vineyards out there. They’ve been out there for a long time. And they’re known for their Sauvignon Blanc,” says Petronzio, who first got into wine while working for Red Hook Winery, a journey that’s now come full circle. It was after blind tasting various wines at the winery that Petronzio fell in love with the Sauvignon Blanc. “I was stumped because it was very elegant, very refined. It was much more of an elegant expression of Sauvignon Blanc,” he says.
The Sauvignon Blanc is now served on tap from a keg. “From traveling around, I’ve learned that where wine works best on tap is when it’s local wine from the region,” says Petronzio, alluding to the environmental advantages and sustainable benefits. When local wines are served on tap, the kegs themselves are reusable (in close proximity they can be refilled at the winery), paper is not printed for labeling (there is no label), and the cost to ship heavy glass is a non-issue as there are no wine bottles.
New York’s Finger Lakes is also proving to be an excellent wine region, says Petronzio, who sources Damioni’s 2012 “Davis Vineyard” Riesling along with Element Winery’s 2012 Cabernet Franc, which he says “has more of a Northern Rhone style. You’re getting more minerality and complexity in [these] wines,” he adds.
There is an East End South Shore selection on the list, too: Wölffer Estate Vineyard’s 2011 “Grapes of Roth,” which he describes as “a Merlot that’s absolutely beautiful and a very small production.”
To interest diners in these local wines, he’s found that offering a free pour is essential. “That allows the visitor and the local resident to actually see what New York has to offer,” Petronzio notes. “The easiest way to get over that barrier is to have them try it.”
At The Cork & Craft Restaurant in San Diego, California, the definition of local wine is constantly being updated. When Matt DeLoach co-founded the restaurant in 2014, he’d already been making wine as “a bit of a hobby gone crazy,” and he wanted to fold that into his business plan. Since 2012, he had been making wine and even had a tasting room—called Abnormal Wine Company—in San Diego. From time to time, he hosted pop-up dinners in the tasting room.
Creating a restaurant seemed like the next best step. “We had an opportunity to take over the two spaces next door so we jumped on that,” DeLoach says. Grapes are sourced from around the world, and the wine is fermented and aged on site. Four reds and three whites were made this past summer, with plans to expand to 10 wines by year’s end.
In addition to selling his own wine, DeLoach is a believer in carrying local wines. Hill Top Winery in Valley Center, California, and Scratch Wines are on the restaurant’s wine list. Like Sailsbery at The Black Sheep, he plans to partner with Scratch Wines’ winemaker, Sabrine Rodems, on a dinner next month. And he’s designing a map of nearby Ramona, a community in San Diego County rich with wineries, in an attempt to educate diners about this wine region. “Just up the hill there’s a lot going on,” he says, “but most people don’t know that.”