Many snobbish Bay Area wine lists have downplayed or excluded California wines for several years. This week we were treated to two stories on the issue, by the New York Times' Eric Asimov and the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Bonne.
Why two stories this week? My theory is that Asimov was out here working on a story for the Times' new Bay Area edition, and Bonne got wind of it and wanted to publish first. The funny thing is, do you ever read either of these guys praising California wines in their regular columns? But I digress.
An issue neither one addressed is the political aspect of wine drinking.
Unlike food, which may be stylish but is also sustenance, wine is often a personal statement. Some people express wealth through the wine they order; others (the middle-class "Two Buck Chuck" crowd) express pride in their down-to-earth refusal to put on airs.
Some wine geeks are truly interested in dry Hungarian furmint (guilty!). There are also many young drinkers who express counter-culturalism through ordering wine they've never heard of; it's not so different from looking for music from bands that aren't seeking a hit single.
I often talk to people who express a great interest in one country's wines: Italy, Spain, France, and yes, the US. For them, wine is inextricably tied with culture. Maybe they lived in Italy and loved the food culture. Maybe they love flamenco music. Maybe they're into NASCAR and they're patriotic.
As any honest person who lives here will tell you, the Bay Area is full of anti-Americans. They're not as loud now that George W. Bush is finally retired, but they're still here. I live near a park where they assemble frequently on weekends, bearing placards equating the Stars and Stripes with a swastika or calling our military racist. Sometimes it seems like San Francisco is in a perpetual state of protest, and Berkeley is even more so.
I'm an international guy; I lived 10 years abroad. But I'm a patriot, and a locavore. I have often asked sommeliers at the restaurants with few or no California wines why they don't carry more.
The first answer is usually, "They don't go with the food," to which I sometimes reply, "Are you sure you've looked hard enough?" Sometimes I recommend a food-friendly wine I've had recently.
The conversation then often turns social/political, with an underlying theme that California wines represent American culture in ways the wine buyer doesn't like (i.e., too loud, too extreme, no finesse, no terroir, no respect for tradition, etc.)
Of course this is crap. There are plenty of California wines that are balanced, food-friendly, and a product of their terroir. You just have to look for them. Those that refuse to do so are making a political statement, and it's a statement that finds many anti-American advocates here.
I'll say it again: I'm a patriot and a locavore. Restaurant wine buyers who refuse to carry American wines are stipulating that they are neither. The first won't upset them. But the second?
If you have an Italian restaurant and you want to offer only Italian wines, fine -- that's a theme. But if you have international cuisine and wines from various countries, then you need to have several good choices from your local area. I would believe this if I lived near the wine regions of New York, Virginia, Texas, Michigan or Missouri, and I believe it even more strongly since I live within two hours' drive of the best wine regions on the American continent.
So please, Bay Area sommeliers, don't kid yourself that there aren't any American wines that can match your precious cuisine. Have you never had Schramsberg or Iron Horse bubbly? Donkey and Goat Chardonnay? Siduri or Black Kite Pinot Noir? How about Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc -- that's under $10. None of these fits your rarified palate?
It's OK to hate this country we live in; freedom to protest is one of the things that makes us great.
But you don't hold our farmers' nationality against them, do you? Then why do so to our winemakers?
At least be more honest with us, and yourself, about it.
Maybe you can put on the wine list, "We don't carry California wines because we don't believe in the Guantanamo prison camp." It's the same message, just more overt, and in Berkeley it would probably help increase traffic. You might even make Glenn Beck cry.