Wine Miles: Is Terroir at War Against Sustainability?
We’ve all heard about the locavorism movement. The further food has to travel to reach your home, the less sustainable it is in the grand scheme of things. It takes fossil fuels to move commodities from point A to point B, and the further point A is from point B, the less sustainable that supply system becomes. In the past couple years especially, Americans have become somewhat aware of the overall impact of contemporary food supply and have begun to purchase more and more ingredients from local producers. Restaurateurs have followed a similar approach, beginning to incorporate local ingredients into their menu in order to boost their eco-friendly appeal and attract sustainably conscious consumers. The drive for locally supplied produce has become a necessity (or a significant interest at least)—and this trend just stellar. I couldn’t be more happy that locavorism has developed traction in a world of rampant fuel consumption. But seriously, why hasn’t the just-as-consumer-conscious wine industry been able to jump on the bandwagon?
In some sense, drinking locally should have come far before eating locally. When you think about it, importing wine from France is just about as practical as importing drinking water from Fiji. Fact is, 750 milliliters of wine weighs 1.65 pounds, and when you factor in the weight of glass, foil, and packaging, we’re really looking at a solid four pounds a bottle. That’s almost 50 pounds a case, and at about 60 million cases being imported into the United States annually—that’s a lot of weight and a lot of wine miles. Which means a lot of fossil fuels.
But before we dissect the idiosyncrasies of wine transport and consumption, first, I think it is important to stipulate that the needs and desires of restaurant buyers, and consumers purchasing wine at retail, are in fact quite different. In the restaurant business, the individual delegated to purchase wine (whether that’s the sommelier, wine director, general manager, ect.), has several responsibilities to the restaurant and its patrons that do not fall on a consumer walking into a wine shop.
First off, wine purchased for a particular venue must be, at least in some respect, compatible with that venue’s food selection. Even if the wine is spectacular, if it does not marry with the food, the wine list is more of a burden than a utility. Second, the product must over-deliver at its price point. This is simple enough. Ideally, a ten-dollar bottle of wine must drink like a twenty-dollar bottle of wine, and a fifty-dollar bottle like a hundred-dollar bottle. And finally (and it’s this prerequisite that often consumes wine and beverage directors), the wine list as a whole must share at least some commonality in regards to the point of origin of the food preparation and overall orientation of the venue. Basically, an Italian restaurant is going to serve mostly Italian wines, as is a Spanish tapas restaurant, mostly Spanish wines. And this makes perfect sense. I like Chianti with my pasta—but unfortunately it is this standard that drives wine import.
As far as the average consumer purchasing wine at retail—well that’s a horse of a different color. We’re Americans damn it. We have the luxury of taking a glass of wine and drinking it on its own, for what it is, and nothing more. In Europe, food and wine are pretty much synonymous, attached at the hip, PB and J—and in our country, well, that’s not necessarily the case. This lends incredible flexibility to the range of wine accessible to the American consumer. We’re willing to drink anything form Australian Shiraz, to German Riesling, and White Burgundy. But that being said, domestic wine outsells imported wine 4 to 1 in the U.S, and 90% of domestic production occurs in a single state. California. This might sound like good news, sustainably speaking. We’re making our own wine and drinking our own wine—a good system. Think again. America is a vast expanse. New York City is roughly 2500 miles from Napa Valley (that’s almost three quarters the distance of Paris) and that means one thing: wine miles. And lots of them.
Now that we’ve problematized two very different creatures, so comes the question, but how to cure them? And the answer to this question is complex and probably way over my head, but I do know that the root of the solution lies in local wine production. And the drive for local production can come in only one way, as with most commercial interests, and that’s from the consumer. In the wine shop this treatment is easily applied. Instead of California Chardonnay, buy Connecticut Chardonnay. Instead of German Riesling, buy Finger Lakes Riesling.
But what about terroir? You ask. Isn’t Terroir the epitome of fine wine production?
To hell with terroir. At this rate of climate change, there will be no fine wine production. Let me vent.
Any Chablis producer will tell you that Viticulture Climate Zone 1 is different than it was 30 years ago. Harvest dates are becoming earlier, grapes riper, and alcohol levels higher. And just up the road in Champagne, climate change couldn’t be more full force. Why do you reckon there have been so many good Champagne vintages lately? Do you know what constitutes a good Champagne vintage? An exceptionally warm growing season. Maybe that explains why the 1990s were able to produce 7 vintages of Dom Perignon. That’s more vintages of Dom Perignon than any decade ever. And the 2000-decade is on track to rack up just as many, if not more. Maybe this sounds like good news, and it is, but only for Champagne and all of the vineyard land northward—and trust me, there aren’t many vineyards north of Champagne. Although, at this rate, that might be changing (and I’ll be the one writing about the nuance of Greenland terroir).
I guess what I’m getting at is that sometimes people forget that terroir is something that exists everywhere. Even the least hallowed vineyard plot in the-middle-of-nowhere Kentucky has terroir. And part of what Locavorism needs to be is to embrace local terroir. And to embrace with very little regard as to what is good land or what is bad land, but what is local land.
But even more than that we need to let go of the idea that great wine only comes from select landholdings in Europe and California. In the past decade its never been more apparent that good site selection, stylistic winemaking, and above all else, quality-minded vineyard management are what make great wine—and any region with these basic ingredients can make a damn good potion. So if our region, the tri-state area, wants to make great wine, well we have the resources to do that. So California, you drink your shit, and we’ll drink our shit.
To address restaurant consumption is of course much more difficult. A brilliant sommelier once shed light on this issue with a simple piece of advice on food pairing—“If it grows together, it goes together”. And I feel like this is one of those notions that is constantly being honored but often goes unsaid. Sublime pairings (and great ones too) occur when cuisine from a particular region is joined with wine produced by that very place. Some wine geeks have tried to explain this biologically but personally, I think that’s bullshit. More likely, I suspect—I’m sure in fact, that local producers have learned to adapt their winemaking to produce wines that pair especially well with the food they put on the table every night. This is just part of the reason Old World wines have such a reputation of being so food friendly. Unfortunately, this means that “What grows together, goes together” isn’t really that pertinent after all. Preparation is what matters most—and that applies to both food and wine.
So here’s the brutal paradox: we’re sourcing ingredients locally and preparing them internationally, so ultimately we end up pairing local produce with international wines. And I’d like to suggest that perhaps the resolution to this predicament lies with the wine producers. Instead of producing wines the American way, just for drinking, we need produce at least some wines specifically targeting our favorite international cuisines. Lets make rustic reds to drink with our eggplant parm. Lets make razor sharp, low alcohol whites (with some good residual, maybe) to cut through our spicy Bratwurst. Lets start making wine for food again.
Now, will the Connecticut Highlands ever be able to produce a spittin’ image of Traditional Rioja? Hell naw. But almost any AVA could viably produce a red wine with an affinity for Spanish cuisine. That’s what I’m talking about. And who’s to say that every once and a while you can’t have a Barolo with your Prosciutto di Parma? That’s fine. Champagne on New Years: that’s fine too. But what’s important is that wines like Connecticut Chardonnay becomes a staple rather than California Chardonnay, and Long Island Merlot takes the roll of right bank Bordeaux in the venue of everyday eating and drinking. Let’s keep terroir in perspective. That’s going to cut back on a lot of wine miles and save the Earth. And saving the earth is trendy. Ya dig?