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Aug 13, 2012 03:03 PM

Local ingredients and International wines

I have a random question that I've been thinking about and hoping CHers can answer. Recently I've been to a lot of restaurants in the Bay Area that focus on sourcing ingredients locally and leaving as little carbon footprint as possible (ie Oliveto). What I don't understand is that many of these restaurants carry a wide selection of European and other International wines vs. California wines. Does wine not count in the whole sourcing of local products? Just curious. Thanks.

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  1. I suppose it all depends upon WHY one is being a "locavore." In terms of food, Oliveto (and other SF Bay area establishments) have access to to a selection of locally gown/produced ingredients which -- quite often -- chefs elsewhere in the US can merely dream of.

    But wine is -- at least for me, although I suspect this is true for Oliveto and other restaurants -- another matter entirely. For example, have you tasted a California-made Nebbiolo? Sangiovese? Garganega? How do they compare to a Barbaresco? a Chianti Classico? or a Soave?

    Even when the wines are of comparable quality -- say between a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and a classified growth Bordeaux -- there remains a significant difference to the flavor profile. The same is true between a local Chardonnay and a white Burgundy, for instance, or a Pinot Noir and a red Burgundy, and so on and so on and so on . . .

    Using a locally grown haricot vert, for example, Oliveto will have a fresher tasting bean, and a better tasting dish, than one picked last week in France and flown over here. But wines taste VERY different from one place to another . . .

    1 Reply
    1. re: zin1953

      In addition, the style of many California wines isn't very food friendly. Most European wine is crafted to be drunk with food.

      I poked around the Oliveto website and didn't see the words "carbon footprint" anywhere. As zin1953 noted, there are many reasons to source food locally, many of which have nothing to do with carbon footprints.

    2. If a restaurant touts itself as locavore, than the wine (philosophically) should be local as well which isn't a big deal in California. That said, how many restaurants are truly locavore or tout themselves as such? I don't think that many. Most would say they like to source local ingredients but few would box themselves in like that as hardcore locavore.

      Of course as a diner and consumer, you can order local wines iwth locavore food. I went to Manresa and the wine guy in the group made a great suggestion of ordering local wines and simply told the sommelier that was the plan. Worked out very nicely and made sense in the spirit of things. Manresa says it sources many local ingredients and grows stuff in their garden but I've never heard them take on the locavore label.

      In other words, I don't think that many places really take on the locavore label and thus most avoid having to totally source local.

      2 Replies
      1. re: ML8000

        On the other hand . . .

        Personally, I find -- as I said above -- that French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Austrian wines taste nothing like California wines produced from the same grape. Further, I am in agreement with Ruth's statement above, in that I find many California wines are not very "food friendly" -- especially compared to their European counterparts. (Note: I find Australian wines much closer in flavor to California.)

        It's one thing if you announce that your restaurant is based upon the philosophy of "locavore-ism" (I don't know -- whatever the right word is). If that's the case, then I can see the argument that local wines are the only wines that will belong on the wine list. But think about it: if you're in Omaha, do you really want only local wines? California isn't all that different. San Diego? Do you really want wines only from San Diego and Temecula? (I wouldn't.)

        Now, as far as Manresa is concerned, the ONE place that I think the wines are more food-friendly is the Santa Cruz Mountains. AND it's one of my favorite -- no, it IS my favorite region in California! Still, I'm glad I have other choices . . .

        From Manresa's website:

        >>> The wine list at Manresa has over 600 selections and focuses on the Santa Cruz Mountains, Burgundy and Germany. <<<


        1. re: ML8000

          The one place I can think of that does good local food and tries to be local with their wines is Encuentro in Oakland.

        2. The California fad for ultra-ripe grapes, massive extraction, lots of new oak, and high alcohol results in wines that many of us find unpleasant to drink with food, or at all. I think most of those restaurants will carry more California wines as soon as they find more that taste as good as European wines.

          8 Replies
          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            While I think that may be true awhile ago, at this point there's hundreds of winemakers of all different styles all across California (and Oregon for that matter). Producers abound, and many now have small secondary bottlings.

            Assuming one is a restaurant with a modest under 100 bottle list. There are absolutely 25-50 producers in all of California (and if you are in NorCal may as well include Oregon as well) that make food friendly wines. Sommeliers at Manresa, Benu, French Laundry, Atelier Crenn etc. can find them.

            I think the argument that the restaurant isn't trying to be environmentally conscious just wanted to support local food producers is an understandable one.

            And the argument that customers aren't ready for local wine only lists even if they are ready for local food only menus is also an understandable one.

            But I think the position that they would serve only local wines if they could only find a producer that made food friendly wines is silly. You can find them. They certainly exist. They may not be the majority, they may not have as good QPR, but again in a state with thousands of wine producers - the don't need to be the majority.

            1. re: goldangl95

              Another problem you fail to mention is one of visibility. Customers (by and large) are seeking out familiar names on wine lists. In other words, while they may be willing to spend $____ on an unfamiliar bottle at retail, they are less willing to do so on a wine list. Thus, while they may see, for example, a wine from Lavender Ridge, Bonterra, or even Coturri, they are probably far more comfortable with buying a wine from a label they are more familiar with -- be it Jordan, Grgich, Hall, or Mondavi . . . .

              1. re: zin1953

                Preconceptions may also be a problem. People think they know what a California cabernet tastes like. Therefore, they may assume that they won't like any California cab on the list (or think it won't go with their food), even one they've never heard of.

                European wines are much harder to pigeonhole. Plus, it's often not obvious from the name of a European wine what it is or what its characteristics are, which prompts people to ask the waiter/sommelier and have an actual conversation about the wine.

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  Ruth Lafer and Zin1953 - I completely agree with you that name recognition and generalizations can be a huge barrier in featuring local wines and that many restaurants don't feel up to the challenge.

                  I think that problem falls into the category that consumers aren't ready for local only wine/spirits lists even if they've become ready for local only food.

                  Getting people into local, organic, heirloom foods used to be an uphill battle as well - it's now more on trend and people are more accepting of green tomatoes, substituting seeweed for lettuce, and going without berries in the winter. But it took awhile.

                  It would be nice if a place opened up that was like say, St. Vincent's in San Francisco. Featuring tons of variety many little known producers and varietals etc. but with more of a local focus.

                  1. re: goldangl95

                    Again, it all depends upon the WHY . . . why is a restaurant buying local? Is it for ecological / carbon footprint reasons? Or is it a matter of taste?

                    California is in a unique position, and the San Francisco Bay Area all the more so. It's the rest of the country that wants our produce.

                    Now, if we accept "local" as within 100 miles, from the San Francisco Bay Area, all of Napa, Sonoma, Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz Counties, along with their respective AVAs, are accessible, along with a small part of Mendocino. The Sierra Foothills and Monterey County, the Anderson Valley and the rest are out-of-bounds. But one can certainly get some excellent wines from within 100 miles of downtown San Francisco.

                    But what about LA? The wine regions of Santa Barbara are more than 100 miles away. So you're left with Cucamonga, Temecula, Fallbrook, and the wineries in and around Escondido. Speaking personally? (Yawn.)

                    Let alone, as I mentioned earlier, the Midwest . . .

                    But the one thing we are forgetting, it seems to me, is that wine is not the same as fresh, local produce. California wineries can obtain grapes from anywhere -- so if a Sonoma winery makes a Santa Rita Hills AVA Pinot Noir, is it local? The Sonoma winery is within 100 miles of the San Francisco restaurant, but the grapes (aka "fresh local produce") that made the wine were not. This doesn't even include the California winery that makes wine from grapes grown in Oregon . . . or Washington!

                    Wine is, in this analogy, more like a processed food than "fresh local produce." Does the flour used to make the in-house pizza have to be made from within the 100-mile radius? Is it OK to use flour made from wheat grown in North Dakota for that great pizza from the locavore restaurant around the corner? What about the olive oil? And no one grows peppercorns or vanilla beans within 100 miles of San Francisco.

                    How "strict" does one have to be to be a locavore?

                    The local wine thing seems silly to me, but I'm just old and stuck in my ways. I go to certain restaurants because the food is good -- better (or different) than I can make at home. Quite often, a part of the reason the food is so good is that some or all of the produce is local. (Then again, part of the reason the food we make at home is so good is that we source our produce from some of the same farmers that top-quality local restaurants do.) But, FOR ME (and I can only speak for myself), it is of more importance that the food taste good than that it is local. If it's both, so much the better! But if I have to choose between a great restaurant and an average one that promotes itself as being a "locavore" establishment, I'm opting for greatness every time!

                    When it comes to wine, I want the same thing: I want my wine to taste great, and compliment my meal. If my taste runs towards a Vinho Tinto from the Douro, or a crisp Txakoli from the Basque region of Spain -- so be it, as long as it compliments the meal. Again, for *me* it is my personal palate preference that wins out every time! There are times when I'll have, for example, a California Syrah from Edmunds St. John from El Dorado County, or open a bottle of Santa Cruz Mountains AVA Equinox sparkling wine . . . but there are also times when I want a Syrah from the Northern Rhône or a true Champagne . . . .

                    Just my own 2¢. YMMV.


                2. re: zin1953

                  I generally do not expect to see any wine names (producers) that I am familiar with on wine lists. I tend to expect that any names I do recognize will be priced beyond my reach.

                  (Excluding the 10 bottle list at the local Italian etc.)

                  1. re: FrankJBN

                    Is this because all you purchase is 2BC, and only the name you recognize is Château Lafite? Or because the only wines you drink are so obscure that no restaurant has ever heard of them?

                    Personally I've ***never*** seen a wine list in the US (or even abroad) where I don't recognize at least one wine on it . . .

                3. re: goldangl95

                  The overripe fruit / high alcohol / heavy oak thing is a relatively modern fad, such wines were almost unknown before the 80s. The pendulum seems to be swinging back but it's still really difficult to find exceptions at competitive prices-–and Bay Area restaurant customers are very value-conscious and quite adventurous in trying and consuming new wines if the price is right. It wasn't many years ago that Gruner and Falanghima were inheard of on local lists.

              2. Gaumenkitzel, where I had lunch today, calls itself a green business, with local, organic ingredients and yet it only serves German wine and beer. In fact, the waitress told me "German wine is better." I don't know about that, but it was delicious. Maybe it suited the food better, too. I'm not really wine-savvy enough to know for sure. Seems reasonable, though.

                3 Replies
                1. re: Glencora

                  *sigh* the green business part does get to me - I must admit. I mean lots of semi-endangered fish, truffles and caviar, or ingredients that are not in season, or spices from some far way place etc. can all taste better than say making do with what's in a sixty mile radius in the depth of winter.

                  But the whole point if you're saying you are a green and sustainable to try and be green and sustainable. In my opinion, importing heavy glass bottles internationally really doesn't speak to that practice.

                  1. re: goldangl95

                    The carbon footprint of a ship carrying freight is less than that of a delivery truck driving across the state.

                    1. re: plaidbowtie

                      This is sad but true. Farmers driving a small truck or van to the farmers market has a high carbon footprint because it loses the efficiencies of scale. Actually, the largest part of the carbon foot print is the drive from the point of purchase to the point of consumption. If you're driving more than a little farther to the farmers market than to the store you would otherwise buy from you're not saving at all on your carbon footprint (especially since you're probably going to the conventional market anyway for other things). There are lots of reasons to support local farmers, but lowing your carbon footprint isn't one of them.

                2. From the restaurant owner's perspective, there is also an issue of value (profit), in that many good quality, food-friendly imported wines can be obtained relatively inexpensively and can be marked up 3+ times and are still perceived to be at an appropriate price, whereas the best local wines may start at a much higher wholesale cost. Yes, there is no carbon footprint logic in that equation.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: foodeye

                    Tap wines seem to be an exception to that rule. The economics favor local producers, and they seem to be making fresher, more European-styled wines for the keg trade. I had a great Wind Gap Trousseau Gris at Comal.