Recently listening to a panel on drinking local during a conference, I was a little surprised by what I heard. Two main issues were raised among the panelists:
- Price is the main issue: consumers are reluctant to pay more for local wines. One of the panelists got a few laughs from the audience when he asked why American consumers are ready to pay $10,000 for a mass-market car and $50,000 for a luxury American one?
- Drinking local and eating local should be disconnected as producers do not have the same production costs in wine and food.
Both issues are important but, as a European, I had the feeling that the main issues were bypassed by the panelists. In Europe, “local” wines are really produced locally. When you visit an estate, you see the vineyards around the house. if, on a bottle, there is no mention of an estate, consumers know this is a cooperative wine, like in NV Champagne, for example. In the US, it is not uncommon to be invited in a vatroom or a tasting room at a “local” winery and not see any vineyards around the place. The winemaker or the owner will explain matter-of-factly that grapes or juices are bought from grape growers not too far or much further.
In such a context, what does “drinking local” mean for a consumer? Reading the back label of many wine brands, I see frequent mentions of grapes being bought to growers sharing the same values as the winemaker, such as low yield or healthy grapes. It might be one of those “cultural differences” but I do feel a little perplexed: where do the grapes really come from? When I read “Central Coast” on the front label, are the grapes from Paso Robles, Buellton or Santa Ynez Valley? What kind of quality guarantee do I get as a consumer? Not being able to see the actual vineyards is very frustrating. And speaking of price point, why should a consumer pay $15 for a wine whose grape growing is unknown?
This said, it does not mean that the wines are not good or well made. It just raises the question of what “drinking local” means in the US from an international point of view: how can American wine producers successfully market their wines on European markets where origin is a crucial issue? How can European wine producers successfully market their wines in the US where origin is not an issue? If you have the answer, let me know…