(This past Saturday, at the Wine Symposium of the Finger Lakes in Geneva, New York, I presented this speech at a lunch featuring local chefs and wines. It’s a consideration of Finger Lakes riesling as the local wine of New York City. —JG)
I buy Finger Lakes riesling at the local wine shop near my home in the Berkshires, a branch of the store, in fact, where I got first got into the wine business, run by Jimmy Nejaime.
But I am no riesling expert, and so I can’t really deliver a speech comparing Finger Lakes wines with Mosel riesling and Wachau riesling. And I’m not sure how relevant that is, in any case. I buy it because it is my local wine.
And I have been mystified by how oblivious many folks in the NYC trade remain to this incredible terroir in their backyard.
So I have wondered for some time, what drives people to appreciate local wine; what gets people to drink local?
There’s a lot of talk in San Francisco about how plugged in restaurants may be to the local food producers, and how their wine buyers pay little attention to local wines. Many of the restaurants that are most supportive of local farmers have very few California wines on their lists.
In New York, people are happy to eat local produce, and happy to drink wines from Jura, or Mt. Etna, or Santorini, or some other distant land that has become the latest sommelier hot spot.
What is the cultural disconnect?
I’ve spent the last several months talking with people and reconsidering some of the assumptions I’ve held about local wine.
First off, I had always thought that Loire wines were considered the local wines of Paris. It’s probably because I got into this business in the 1980s, but things have changed since then.
When I asked Christophe Macra, an MW with a wine bar and store called Apogé, in La Defense, he told me that there is no concept of local wine in Paris; people drink what they like.
“The perception of local in France is that it has to be quite close to your place. Even in Saumur, wines from Sancerre are not local.
“The fact that Sancerre is well represented in Paris is a commercial dynamic. Sancerre producers have targeted the Paris market for a long time and lots of producers sell exclusively to Paris — it’s hard to find Sancerre in other parts of France.
“Sancerre represents 80 percent of my sales from the Loire Valley at the store, but Loire overall represents just five percent of sales.”
In his neighborhood, Macra finds that Champagne is the most important region, representing 40 percent of his sales, with Bordeaux and Burgundy next. It depends mostly on where you are located in Paris, he says.
Which is another way of saying it depends largely on the clientele. In a global wine market, drinking local is a choice rather than a convenience.
David Lillie, who runs Chambers Street Wines in Tribeca and recently partnered in Racines, the New York branch of the famous Paris wine bar, provided some historical perspective when I asked him about local wine in Paris.
“What was local depended on what was easiest to get to.
“There was red wine in the north before the days of high yields and falling quality. Everything was en foule with amazing high densities; it was before people started using horses in the vineyards, needing orderly, wider rows.
“There was a period after World War II in the 1950s when Loire reds became very popular in Paris. Sancerre was always a bistro wine. That lasted through the fifties and sixties. Certainly into the late 1970s, Loire wines were everywhere. For Sancerre, it was probably due to proximity. In the 1980s and ’90s, it started dying off when it became possible to bring every French wine into Paris.
“There is now much less of an idea that Loire is the local wine in Paris.
“At Racines, Pierre Jancou [the founder] wanted only natural wines, and to a large extent that meant Loire and Roussillon. David Lanher [the current owner] is less dogmatic, basing the selections more on farming.
“If you go to the wine fairs in the Loire Valley, it’s a mob scene of Parisian sommeliers and restaurant people. There’s an intense connection between the organic-bio world of the Loire and the Paris restaurant community.
“La Dive Bouteille was started by Catherine and Pierre Breton about 20 years ago. They invited mostly Loire Valley people and those people invited somebody else. [Joe] Dressner and I were probably the only Americans there the first years. Now it’s grown into an enormous show.”
David told me that if he thinks about New York state wines, he feels a connection to the people in the Finger Lakes who are trying to work well, given the vagaries of climate and the difficulty of farming organically.
Though I live in the Berkshires, I spend a lot of time working in NYC. And that is my perspective as well.
I wonder what creates that emotional connection, and what barriers there are to that connection.
Vienna, as the capital of Austria, may be the only major capital city with a significant number of vineyards within its city limits. But even the Viennese wine producers were challenged when it came to selling their wine to other Viennese.
Dorli Muhr, who makes blaufrankisch with her ex, Dirk Niepoort, in Carnuntum, also runs Wine & Partners, a marketing agency for wine in Vienna. We has a discussion about the perception of local wines in Vienna and she told me that Wiener Gemischter Satz, the local field blends sold in Heurigen did not have a particularly strong commercial reputation until recently.
Gemischter Satz had devolved into a kitchen-sink blend of everything that was not easy to sell as a varietal wine. Fritz Wieninger wanted to sell his Gemischter Satz outside of his Heuriger and to export it, so he founded a group called WienWein, six producers who set out to upgrade the image of Vienna’s wines. They created rules governing Wiener Gemischter Satz and have promoted the wines abroad.
Now, Muhr says, people in the fifties may consider wines from Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal as the local wines of Vienna, while a younger generation, people in their thirties, look to Vienna wines as local.
But, she says, it’s more a question of taste than of emotions.
So proximity no longer plays such a powerful role in connecting local producers to local drinkers: With a world of choices, especially in New York City, people will drink what they like.
On the other hand, proximity can have resonance for the right audience, like the denizens of natural wine bars in Paris, or young people in Vienna who see their local wine getting kudos internationally. I believe, in fact, there is an emotional element in the choice to drink local.
When I think about New York State, one of my strongest memories is from fiction; in fact, the memory itself may be fictional. I read Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale back in the 1980s; it’s the book of his that made the strongest impression on me. He describes a fictional town at the headwaters of the Hudson, Lake of the Coheeries, where a lot of the novel takes place when it is not in NYC. With the Hudson River frozen from its headwaters to the sea, a woman skates down the length of the river to arrive in Manhattan, or, at least, that’s how I remember it. (I couldn’t find that passage going back to the book.)
It got me thinking about the Hudson and the Erie Canal, about the canals of France and the Seine, about the Danube flowing from the Wachau to Vienna. And that’s when I started doing research into the connection between the Loire and Paris.
According to NY Department of Environmental Conservation maps, the Finger Lakes watershed flows into Lake Ontario. Drainage of the southwestern sectors follows a different direction and flow into the Susquehanna.
If the main flow of the Finger Lakes region is to the north and west, the Erie Canal is the waterway that would connect the wines to the Hudson and to NYC, in the same way that the Canal du Loing created a connection from the Loire to the Seine.
Even though there has been a long, commercial link provided by the Erie Canal and the Hudson River, upstate and downstate remain at odds.
Back in 2007, Nick Paumgarten wrote a profile for The New Yorker on Eliot Spitzer after his first few months in office.
“New York State’s notorious resistance to efficient governance owes a lot to geography. The state is vast, by Eastern standards, and its cities are far-flung. Seen one way, it is a rural state, with a right-angled corridor of denser settlement and industry, which more or less follows the course of the Hudson River and the Erie Canal, from Manhattan to Lake Erie. Imagine a backward, rotated L, or a mirror image of a long-division tableau. In recent decades, Buffalo, at one end, has suffered a steep decline, while New York City, at the other, has flourished, as though good fortune had flowed down along the L, draining Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica along the way.”
Sort of a bleak perspective. But it got me thinking: What if riesling flowed down the L?
What if a group of top-quality producers, looking to the success of the Loire in Paris, agreed to farm as close to organically as possible, and to make their wines with as few additions as possible, not to make “orange wine” but to create a category of wine from the Finger Lakes that could capture the imagination of the buyer who is concerned about buying local.
What if the group reimagined the distribution system for the wine, starting with a barge on the Erie Canal, stopping along the Hudson to pick up cheeses from Nettle Meadow, which would come down from close to that mythical Lake of the Coheeries near the headwaters of the river.
Stopping to pick up apples in Columbia County and to invite the major food domos of NYC who weekend in the area onto the barge for a party.
Stopping, perhaps at the Hudson Valley Wine & Food Festival in Rhinebeck.
Landing eventually at Riverside Park along the Hudson for a Riesling on the River festival.
Then docking to send the wine off for delivery to stores and restaurants in a fifties-era delivery truck with a Finger Lakes Riesling logo on the side.
It’s a little bit like rewriting history, barging riesling down the Hudson, holding a local food and wine festival on a midsummer’s night in Riverside Park.
Now that Finger Lakes riesling is gaining attention nationally, and beginning to sell internationally, it may be time for Manhattan and Brooklyn to adopt the wine as their own.
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photo of Erie Canal from eriecanal.org: Marco Paul’s Voyages & Travels, Erie Canal / by Jacob Abbott. (Harper & Brothers)
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