Profiting from local pours

For many years, it has been one of my greatest disappointments: Local restaurants give little support to our regional wineries.

I can’t figure out why. Fifteen to 20 years ago, local wines had their issues – distribution was difficult and quality was sometimes questionable – so I understand why restaurateurs may once have been hesitant to commit precious space on their wine lists to regional wines. But Missouri wines have come a long way since that time, so I have to wonder why we don’t see more of them on local lists. Nor does it make sense that, as more and more restaurants support the use of local products, wines made within a few hours’ drive don’t receive the same support. It’s not as if the wines aren’t popular: Many Missouri wineries sell out of their products every vintage.

Of course, there are some notable MO wine supporters in the dining industry; two very quickly come to mind (though there are others). Vince and Tony Bommarito have sold local wines in their restaurants since the 1980s, and Andy Ayers, chef and owner emeritus of Riddle’s Penultimate Café and Wine Bar, has been the ultimate supporter of our wines for more years than I can count. “I told people that if we didn’t buy these guys’ wines, nobody would and they would never get any better,” Ayers said. “Such defensiveness is unnecessary today because they have gotten very good indeed. I can’t figure out why more sommeliers and bar managers don’t understand that locally made wines need not be just a marketing conceit, but a profit center.”

So what about the rest of the industry? I asked Rich LoRusso, chef and owner of LoRusso’s Cucina and president of the Greater St. Louis chapter of the Missouri Restaurant Association, for his angle on this question. “We enjoy offering … Missouri wines on our list, but there is little or no guest comprehension of Missouri wines,” he said. “We cannot always expect to be the educator – the fact it is on my list validates that the wine is exceptional. If it’s worthy of my list, it’s worthy of my guests’ consumption. Beginning [this month], we will be offering Chardonel and Norton by the glass and see where it ends up.”
An eye toward business practicality helps, it seems. “I would be lying if I said the wines fly off the list, but many out-of-town guests are interested in experimenting with what Missouri has to offer,” said Scott Gaghan of Eleven Eleven Mississippi. “This is where we find hand-selling the most successful.”

But word seems to be spreading, and MO wines are finding their way to smaller restaurants, too, if slowly. “I just put Hermannhof Norton on my wine list,” said Tim Brennan, owner of Cravings Gourmet Desserts in Webster Groves. “I like a lot of Missouri wines. I personally hand-sell these wines. I went to a dinner at Five [recently] with all locally produced meats, vegetables, greens – and all paired with Missouri wines. Fantastic!”

Danene Beedle, marketing specialist for the Missouri Wine & Grape Board in Jefferson City, thinks more restaurateurs will follow Brennan’s lead. “I think that restaurants are more open than ever to the need, through consumer request, for Missouri wines. The local food movement … demands that restaurants address the viability of carrying Missouri wine. Everyone seems to be talking about Norton, and with its food-friendly characteristics, it’s certain to show up on local menus.”

I can attest to this personally. When I began at Annie Gunn’s in 2001, my first challenge was to incorporate into the wine list local wines that were equal in quality and food compatibility to the hundreds of international wines already offered. After more than seven years, the list includes 20 local wines that have earned the space on our wine list. At one time, selling MO wines was more like missionary work. Today, it is just business.
Europeans have known for centuries that local foods nearly always pair wonderfully with local wines. The world of Missouri wines is just beginning to learn how true this old adage still is.

Certified sommelier Glenn Bardgett has overseen the award-winning wine list at Annie Gunn’s for the last eight years.