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Food service at the Gramercy Tavern Bar.

Promise Lands

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From New York’s Finger Lakes to Michigan’s Traverse City, lesser-known wine regions around the U.S. are gaining prominence.

By Kristine Hansen December 2014 Wine

Just as locally sourced foods entice diners, so do wines crafted from grapes with regional roots. While Napa Valley and Sonoma County are widely recognized as premier wine regions—and, in recent years, Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Washington’s Columbia Valley have gained prominence as well—restaurants are increasingly sourcing from regions that are less familiar to the masses.

At the forefront are wine directors, sommeliers, and restaurant owners who have the power to promote offerings from up-and-coming regions that are experiencing a renaissance.

“The quality of New York wines has increased dramatically in the last 10 years, which makes our jobs easier,” says Juliette Pope, beverage director at New York City’s Gramercy Tavern. “Five to 10 years ago, New Yorkers would look down on New York wines. Many would scoff. People are now keenly interested in eating and drinking local.”

Gramercy Tavern features a sampling of New York wines on the menu, usually a sparkling selection plus a red and white wine, mostly from the Finger Lakes region and offered by the glass. Pricing them low can attract skeptical customers.

“I wouldn’t put a $20-by-the-glass New York Cab on the list,” Pope says. “The wines get a fairer shot if they’re moderately priced.” Pope credits strong relationships with regional wineries for the selection she offers at Gramercy Tavern.

Another restaurant championing New York wines is Boca Bistro in Saratoga Springs, New York, where the menu features Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine. “We’re fortunate that the local wineries are very outgoing,” says Eric Ploof, general manager. “They want to do business in restaurants. New York is known for its Rieslings but producers are doing a great job with Cabernet Franc, too.”

In November, Boca Bistro hosted a wine dinner that paired wines from four New York wineries with an autumn-themed dish. “In this dinner, we didn’t even do Riesling,” says Ploof, referring to the state’s most famous grape, despite the abundance of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Gris. Saratoga Winery’s Cabernet Franc and Glenora Wine Cellars’ Brut are among his favorites, as is Thirsty Owl Wine Company’s Pinot Gris, “a great value-driven wine that’s very tasty,” he says.

“We like to find those gems that aren’t on shelves at wine stores and are affordable. In New York, someone doesn’t want to pay $75 if they’re not sure [it will be good], unlike a Napa wine,” Ploof says.

Ultimately, Ploof would like to see his clientele plan a trip to the Finger Lakes region, which is about a three-hour drive, to further experience wineries they’ve fallen in love with at Boca Bistro.

“Every weekend we have people in here who were just out touring,” says Ed Matthews, chef/owner of One Block West in Winchester, Virginia. Since the restaurant’s 2002 opening, Virginia wines have accounted for about a third of the wine list, but not just any local wine makes the cut. “We focus on producers that are high-quality,” Chef Matthews says. “Wines that fight with the food just don’t make it on our wine list.”

Another stipulation is that wineries must grow their own grapes. “We know and trust the people who supply vegetables, and wine is no different,” Chef Matthews adds.

Kicking off relationships with local wineries and distributors took time. “You have to touch eight, 10, or 12 distributors to carry enough Virginia wines. It’s just like local food. It takes a lot of work. There isn’t a single distributor we can call who only carries Virginia wines. The best thing is face-to-face (contact),” he says. “There’s nothing like walking the vineyards.”

One of his favorite producers is Linden Vineyards in Linden, Virginia, owned by winemaker Jim Law, whom Chef Matthews describes as “the acknowledged master of wine on the East Coast.”

Chef Matthews’ personal tasting notes are prominently featured on the wine list, which clearly identifies wines from Virginia, and each member of the staff is trained in all of the wines as well.

From a winery’s perspective, relationships such as this provide a profitable partnership. Black Star Farms, in Suttons Bay near Traverse City, Michigan, distributes to restaurants throughout Michigan, New York, and Indiana, and to Chicago. The winery encourages tasting-room staff to recommend its visitors dine at restaurants carrying its wine, a mutually beneficial strategy since 50 percent of its wines are sold at restaurants. Winemaker and general manager Lee Lutes, who spent a decade working in Manhattan restaurants, seeks out eateries with “local roots and charitable acts.”

“The wines in each of these places need a champion,” Lutes says. “If you don’t have that, it just sits on a shelf.”

Aggressive pricing on local wines often converts naysayers into customers. “Why not sell two or three local wines at $5 a glass, and only make a 200 percent markup, but move more of it?” says Lutes. “If a restaurant has a good director in its wine program and a good relationship with the winery, it doesn’t take a ton of effort to get creative.”

At The Publican in Chicago, wine and beer coordinator Rebekah Graham adores Michigan wines, particularly Chateau Grand Traverse’s Lot 49 Riesling and Ship of Fools (a blend of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir). “The Rieslings are exceptionally good and the Pinot Noirs are as well,” she says. Wyncroft Winery in Buchanan, Michigan, is another of her favorites. Each of the Michigan wines is called out in a special box on the wine list.

Still, there is more work to do to elevate domestic wines from regions other than Napa or Sonoma. “Even in an area like Traverse City where there are good wineries and restaurants, the representation of local wines is modest and can be downright negligent. It [would be] blasphemous to go to Burgundy or Tuscany and find anything but the local wine region on the list,” Lutes says.

He finds independently owned restaurants will more easily say yes to his wines than a corporate chain, and relationships are key.

To further relationships, Black Star Farms invites employees of restaurants carrying its wine to stay as its guest at the Farms’ bed-and-breakfast. “If we can get people to stay with us for a night or two, it invariably [leaves] an impression of what the wines are like,” Lutes says.