Bachelorettes, locavores and quality wine in America

The other day, I was speaking with someone who relayed a conversation that he had with a vintner in Temecula, an area with over 1,000 acres vineyards about an hour and a half from LA and San Diego. The guy asked the vintner why he didn’t try to make better wines. The vintner replied that he had a busload of bachelorettes coming through this weekend and one the weekend after that, implying he was already selling all his wine to locals more interested in quantity rather than quality.

It’s a problem that a lot of American wine regions confront: Long Island’s vineyards, Napa and Sonoma, the Willamette Valley, to name a few, are among all within a bachelorette bus ride from metropolitan areas. As a result, many wineries have policies banning buses and limos; free wine tastings are the rare exception, rather than the norm, in an attempt to push tourism away from quantity.

How to break out of the chug-a-lug trap and focus on quality? It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg problem: if there’s little local quality, then there’s mot much to support with your purchases; if there’s little financial reward, then there’s not going to be much quality. Locavorism may break the cycle though as foodies in a given area pay a premium for quality local foods, wine included. The Times today mentions one sommelier, Thomas Pastuszak at NoMad in NYC, who has 17 Rieslings from the Finger Lakes on his list. Clearly he is voting for quality from the Finger Lakes region with his checkbook.

But for many wine enthusiasts, the wine regions in close proximity don’t offer the kind of quality that they could order from 17 different local(ish) wineries. As my research from a few years ago showed, while local wine is almost always the best option from a greenhouse gas perspective, the carbon footprint of wine is greatly reduced by a boat journey as opposed to truck, sometimes to a surprising degree, and lighter packaging also offsets sheer distance. Thus many wine enthusiasts I’ve spoken with about the issue over the years would rather support a grower with a similar mindset to theirs, be it organic or stylistic, rather than a strictly local one and hope for GHG efficiencies en route or perform offsets elsewhere in their lives.

I’m interested to hear from you: which do you think represents the greater opportunity for improving quality particularly in far-flung or emerging domestic wine regions, tourism or locavorism?

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14 Responses to “Bachelorettes, locavores and quality wine in America”

  1. Tyler,

    Great question, but I’m not sure either is the answer.

    There is little down that tourism is the enemy of innovation, unless you consider creating the next fizzy, fruit-flavored wine innovative, I’m not sure that locavorism moves quality forward either. Locavorism will support quality, but I know plenty of locavores who will drink local almost simply because it IS local (it need be at least average wine).

    A drive for quality above all else has to come from ownership, vineyard managers and winemakers I think. Curious to hear what others think though.

  2. Hi Lenn,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Yes, there probably are a few other factors, notably having to do with the vintner/winemaker as you point out. For one, the overall capitalization of the winery is a variable; with lots of access to capital, the management could afford to thumb their noses at the tour buses and take a path more toward critical success.

    Another variable might be how much of a wine geek the owner/winemaker is. If they like wine and taste broadly from other regions, particularly one that might be a touchstone for quality for their region, perhaps that gives them a reference point or quality to target.

    Interesting that you don’t find locavores to necessarily be discriminating.

  3. I generally consider myself a locavore, though a practical one. I live outside DC in northern Virginia’s wine country. I generally feel locavores will better increase the quality of our local wines rather than tourism. Not that our area is not tourist-friendly, but rather that there is a huge interest in local wine produced with grapes that actually grow well in the soil here.

    My personal take on it is this: I drink a few local wines, but only the ones I feel are worth the high price tag necessitated by a small scale operation. I could just as easily by a decent $15-20 bottle from my home state (Washington) or thereabouts, and will not pay $30 for a “meh” wine here. However, I like that there are a few wine makers that really take pride in finding decent grapes for our soil (errr… NOT pinot noir) and running with it.

    The reason I say not tourism is that this is DC. I could just as easily go to a party at a fantastic bar in the city with a good wine list and cocktail selection. And from what I’ve noticed, the further along in a limo tour of wine country groups get the less interested in quality they get. (I saw this at a mediocre-at-best winery with people oo-ing and ah-ing over a sweet table red that tasted like cough syrup.) Locavores in my experience are much more likely to be picky.

  4. A weighty question. I don’t, in general, buy local wines. If pressured to reduce my carbon footprint I’ll buy a hybrid (looking into the Toyota Camry.) It would be difficult to convince local winemakers that their wines could be better. Locals and tourists alike are buying them.

  5. […] Dr. Vino poses an interesting question: “Which do you think represents the greater opportunity for improving quality particularly in far-flung or emerging domestic wine regions, tourism or locavorism?” […]

  6. This is a demand-side question as correctly pointed out by Lenn. In this narrow context I would probably give the edge to locavores. The simple reason is that they are more likely to engage in an active conversation with their regional producers. Tourists are in for the whole experience, hence the Napa nickname: Disneyland for Adults. The quality of wine may not be the average tourist’s primary focus.

  7. 1. Less fuel is expended to ship wine to North Carolina from Europe than from the West Coast of the United States. That’s the magic of container shipping. I think that makes the environmental point about local wines moot.

    2. Production of Vitis vinifera wines (as opposed to Vitis rotundifolia, aka muscadine) in the Southeastern U.S. is small, and very little of it is in commercial distribution. Most producers are too small to be hosting people who come to booze. Sos quality vs. quantity his rarely an issue.

    3. I have a vivid memory of David Allen Coe’s road crew cleaning us out of muscadine wines on the day he came to play at The Orange Peel. Those fellas were definitely into quantity!

  8. Great question. With this topic on mind – how do tourists know what new wines to try?

  9. I think the concept of a winery/vineyard/vintner placated by tourist business to the point where they don’t care about wine quality in this case is flawed and grossly simplified.

    You ask “Does locavorism drive up the quality of wine” when many could argue that the quality of local wines has increased the spread of locavorism.

    From my perspective (full disclosure, I work at a winery in NYS) stagnation as a result of instant gratification is (hopefully) more the exception than the rule. NYS as a whole is trying to break into the mainstream domestic market and one might argue that Long Island, (despite its proximity to hordes of chug-happy bachelorettes) has made some of the greatest strides in that direction, especially with regards to placement in NYC restaurants, where along with FLX Rieslings at places like NoMad, it holds the lion’s share of spots on wine lists that include selections from NY.

    No amount of placation will get you on into an A-list restaurant with a local wine, unless perhaps you have 90+ scores from Parker & co.

    Is it true that the local wineries on NYC wine lists represent merely a handful of the entire industry? Of course it is- but not every winery on the East Coast has the luxury of adequate funding and adept talent, the ones that do are doing everything they can to raise the bar for quality every year, though some may be still adjusting to the learning curve of making balanced wines in a cool climate region that do not emulate the West Coast or Europe.

    There will always be a few bad apples, or in this case rotten clusters, but I think on the whole, institutions such as the NYWGF, the LIWC and most recently the sustainability initiative LISW are indicative that a significant number of growers and producers in the NYS area are dedicated enough to making the highest quality product that they are willing to organize themselves and go above and beyond the status quo, regardless of what the next bus or limo is bringing in.

  10. Do you buy local oranges or coffee beans? Wine is only good from a few areas in the world. I don’t see “local” catching on in the wine world. In Minnesota local and wine don’t go together.

  11. Our blog focuses on the local, and we’re proud to support wines from Upstate New York whenever we can. There is a spectrum of wine consumer: one the one end, people who relish every single sip, on the other, people seeking serious buzz. We wish everybody would learn to love wine in the way we do, but it’s just not the case. We have the same spectrum in the food world, as well. I take issue with the definition of “quality” here. If I’m standing at Dr. Frank’s in the Finger Lakes, appreciating his latest Riesling, and my neighbors are sloshed and don’t get it? Well, that’s their loss. My point is: we need to step away from having to follow strict rules about what is “quality” and leave that up to the consumer. If I love the wine, it’s quality. If you don’t love the same wine, it’s not quality to you.

    That said, if a vinter is admitting to sacrificing quality because his customers don’t care . . . that’s on him. I doubt there are many vintners who say, “I give up! I can do a mediocre wine this year because it will still sell.” It’s an art, and the winemakers I’ve met take serious pride in their wine — and are only disappointed when their tasters don’t appreciate the work that’s gone into it.

    p.s. This gets me thinking: even in California where locals run to the BIG name producers, there are many artisanal producers of high quality struggling to bring people in. Isn’t this more about marketing and distribution, less quality? Again, most people just don’t have the palate.

  12. I’m not sure if this an issue specific to the states – I’ve found in the rural areas of France and Germany that the smaller producers serve mainly local consumers. I think it’s safe to say that in Europe, consumers have less of an impact on the styles of wines produced – would you agree?

  13. I own an operate Long Island’s premium level wine tour and corporate event company. Over the past few years with the economic downturn, it seems that visitation to the LIWC has dramatically increased. This has dramatically driven the price of tasting fees up and caused premium level producers to limit or exclude limo tours (bridal groups) from their wineries. Makers of lower priced (sweet) wines have welcomed the business.

    My company is the only tour company that uses wine writers and or sommelier’s to host our tours and provide educational programs before arriving at the wine country. We charge more than other transportation-only companies, and only get a small fraction of bridal groups who are willing to pay a premium for quality.
    Still I understand that it is tempting for LI wineries to accept tourism as their main source of revenue and most sell 100% of their wine through their tasting rooms.

  14. I”m an infrequent wine tourist from Colorado. We’ll be doing Napa and Sonoma and one or two other places next month.

    Last night, we dined with serious wine tourists who are in their 70s. They just completed a wine cruise in Italy and had a terrific times. We got together because DW and I wanted their opinions on the four or five Napa Valley wineries that would be worth visiting. We want to taste what we can’t find or buy in Colorado. We’re looking for quality and stuff to buy and ship home.

    While visiting in Sonoma, we’ll do a tour or two with our hosts who are hobby vintners and grow and make their own. So their advice and opinions will count, too, when it comes to Napa and Central Coastal visits.

    Point is that in previous trips, we kinda blindly visited wineries. This trip, were’ reading our old wine books, blogs, a new ebook on Napa and Sonoma and talking to folks.

    There are tourists and there are tourists. Can you generalize? A bit, I suppose. I guess serious makers of quality wines pay attention to quality tourists and those who aren’t so serious welcome the limos.

    As for local wines, know folks who buy local because they know the owners of wineries and they’re proud of their states’ wines. Not in Colorado. I think I’ve only like one local wine, and I can’t remember what it was. It wasn’t that good.

    If I lived in CA, I’d be serious about quality locals. I don’t and I’m not.


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