Sunday, September 7, 2008

Some food for thought from NY head

I tuned in midway through a Food Channel show the other night that featured the ebullient Rachael Ray touring Provence. Besides the fetching sundress that Ray wore and the scrumptious dishes that she had at each and every stop, the other aspect of the tour that left an impression was how many of those restaurants served up wines form the region.

OK, you’d expect to see that there. Conversely, it’s almost a surprise to find local wines served at restaurants anywhere in this region, and to some extent in New York State. The head of the
New York Wine & Grape Foundation termed the progress made in placing local wines in that state’s restaurants as slow but steady.

“You know, a lot of the frustration that our industry and especially consumers who love New York wines have,” Jim Trezise said, “is . . . they go to a restaurant, let’s say, either in the Finger Lakes, where I live, or on the border likeRochester, Syracuse, what have you, and they look at the wine list and there might be one or two New York wines or there might not be any at all. Why is this? What’s going on here? And traditionally a few things have been going on.

“Number one, and most important is that it is the distribution system, it’s the wholesalers who service the restaurants who basically determine what the restaurants serve. It’s not the restaurants themselves, it’s the distributors.”

Does it have to be that way? No, Trezise said. But it is, for a lot of reasons. “Most of the restaurant owners have their hands full with employees and broken plumbing and taxes and all this kind of stuff,” he said. “So when it comes to wines there are not that many restaurants frankly that pay real attention . . . so they take the easy way out and they rely on their wholesalers to tell them what’s good, how they should structure their wine list and so forth. Now the wholesalers represent the big guys from California and Europe and other places as well and not the little guys from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York. So the distribution system is the number one impediment. Secondly, as I said, most restaurateurs really don’t pay attention to wine.”

Trezise admitted that doesn’t make sense “because it’s their best profit center, and it would be even better if they priced their wines more reasonably. You know, over the many years we’ve had a lot of complaints and concerns, so we’ve done a couple of things. We have a little leave-behind what we call restaurant card that is a fold-up card. So when you fold it up it says,’ The meal was fine, but where’s the New York wine?’ And then inside it has a short courteous message that says, ‘We enjoyed our meal but it could have been much better with a better selection of New York wines, and then it has a place to sign it and date it. And then there’s information on how to get more information about New York wines, which is us, at the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, and so forth. So we’re trying to leave the message that consumers want this and we are a resource to help the restaurants figure out, well, which New York wines would fit into their menu, that kind of thing. So that’s a little thing. I can’t tell you [that it] has had a major impact. Has it had any impact at all? Yeah, I’ve gotten some calls from restaurants.”

What they have seen more quantifiable evidence of progress, he said, is a program called New York Wines & Dines, which ties in participating New York City restaurants. Each one features at least three New York wines up front, and as customers come in they are invited to sample them. “They’ll say I want a dry white wine, and the restaurant will say, ‘I’ve got this wonderful Chardonnay from Long Island or this dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes, what have you. And they match that with foods that are grown or caught in New York, like Long Island seafoods. It’s a coordinated program that takes a lot of effort and a lot of money to do it,” Trezise said, “but we’ve also found that it does work. Last year we had about 75 very good restaurants in New York City that participated enthusiastically in the program and really promoted New York for that month, and we got a lot of exposure for New York wines and some permanent placements and that kind of thing.

“But it’s uphill sledding, there’s no doubt about it, because the system is stacked against us. You know, a good trend now is the whole Locavore trend . . . and the concept of it is to eat food and drink wine that are produced within a hundred miles from where you live, and the wine part of it, like in New York City, there’s kind of a takeoff on it called Locapour. We definitely have seen a positive effect from that whole movement going on.”

Still, the current situation remains well behind what's happened on the West Coast, where Trezise noted both the volume of wine produced and the culture that exists creates far more ties between local wineries and restaurants.

“When you go into a restaurant in Portland [you find] Oregon wines,” he said. “When you go into a restaurant in Seattle, it’s Washington wines. I was just at a conference a month ago in Seattle and stayed at the Hyatt, and their restaurant -- which is a really good restaurant/bar -- featured nothing but Washington wines. That’s all. There was no California, no France, no anything else. It was all Washington I went up to the bartender . . . and asked him how this came about. ‘Did you have pressure, did the trade association do something special?’ And he said, ‘No, it just made sense. We have really great local wines and we’re in Washington so why not promote our local wines to the people who are coming through.’ And I said, ‘Bless your heart, I wish we had you in New York.’

“But New York is different, especially the closer you get to New York City and right in the heart of it. It’s truly an international city and people are used to having a lot of choices. So it’s a much, much tougher market to break into for us than in Seattle for Washington or Portland for Oregon wines.”