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Are SF Sommeliers Sustainable?

In a bizarre coincidence Jon Bonné of the Chronicle and Eric Asimov of the New York Times wrote and published eerily similar articles on the same day. (Bonné's is here; Asimov's here).

The gist of both articles is that chef and diners here in the Bay Area promote a food culture that's local and sustainable, while the sommeliers seem strangely immune to the cause, often ignoring the local wines while loading up on European selections. Is it hypocracy? Is it reverse-snobbism?

Both writers come to many of the same conclusions for how to explain this strange and un-environmental phenomenon. Chris Deegan, wine director of Nopa, and one of my favorite SF wine people is a major figure in both pieces. His honest and well-stated quote in the Times piece is money: “We recognize that it’s a tricky thing, and it’s a little hypocritical, but we also recognize there’s a certain style and authenticity that you can’t get anywhere else . . . Though I love a lot of California winemakers and try to support them wherever possible I find myself drinking European wines most of the time and pairing European wines more successfully with the food.” And the fact is, Deegan has more California wines on his list than a lot of places do.

It's not hypocrisy. I'd agree that there are good reasons for the Euro-centric wine lists. Here are three of them.

  • Yes, Eurocentric wine lists seem hypocritical when seen through the lens of food. But wine is a different animal. Unlike eggplant, wine is a luxury product that's been shipped around for thousands of years. Freshness is not an issue.
  • If there was really good, cheap, interesting, food-friendly "country" wine in California, we'd be drinking it at a lot more restaurants. The fact is, making food-friendly wines has not been a priority for most producers in CA for years. This majority of wines would rather go after scores and please customers with un-food friendly characteristics such as jammy fruits, lots of oak, and high alcohol. Even the cheaper California "country" wines tend to imitate this grandiose style, but use oak chips instead of new barrels.
  • Cost. Lots of European wines offer more quality for less money. Why? Well, EU subsidies help. Also, lots of Euro producers didn't have to take out loans to buy their land and plant vineyards. Many wineries there are family affairs where the land was paid off centuries ago. Less new oak and egregiously heavy bottles lowers costs too. Bringing the cost down of CA wines will make them more appealing to somms.

Now, I think it's time for a nice, sunny afternoon glass of Languedoc Rosé.