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Raise a Glass to the Loca-Pour Movement

As restaurants support locavore dining, they have started to embrace locally-sourced beer, wine & spirits

Johnny Gnall

When it comes to food, California is an embarrassment of riches. It boasts the best of the best across the board: produce, dairy, meat, poultry, seafood...the list goes on. It is no wonder that the concept of eating locally has grown from its humble roots as an abstract idea held by crunchy hippies and obsessive purists into a lifestyle now being embraced by families, restaurants and entire communities. Its logic is clear on any level, be it environmental, economic, or culinary. It just makes sense to eat local.

But does drinking locally make sense as well? As the so-called “locavore” movement continues to gain momentum, what are the next phases of its growth? Is there a separation between food and drink when it comes to thinking locally? And most of all, do the principles applied to thinking locally about food in a professional kitchen also apply to the drinks at the bar attached to that kitchen? In short, are we seeing the beginning of the

The grape next door

Steve Izzo, beverage director at seafood restaurant Waterbar in San Francisco, has been studying wine for nearly 30 years; he brought his study (and love) to California roughly 15 years ago, for reasons that he felt were obvious. “California is an Eden of farming,” he explains, “and the Bay Area is smack in the middle of wine country.” Then it is no surprise that the origins of the locavore movement, beginning with Alice Waters in the early ‘70s, lay in the Bay Area as well.

But while it took dedication and work from figures such as Waters to help spread the concept of eating locally, it was consumer demand that fueled the California wine explosion. “There are a huge number of local wines that are just excellent,” Izzo notes. “Quality is the biggest reason for their demand overall; locality is sometimes just an afterthought.” After all, almost every state in the country has at least one bonded winery; but you don’t see a high demand for the wines of Nebraska or Florida. Consumers want quality, and the simple fact is that California (boasting over 3,000 wineries), as well as Washington and Oregon, are blessed with a just-so combination of terrain and climate that allows for spectacular wine.

That being said, is there more to the loca-pour movement than fantastic local wine? For many professionals in the industry, like Saul Gropman, owner of Cafe La Haye in Sonoma, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” His restaurant strives to present customers with a “neighborhood wine list.”

“Some grapes grow better in Sonoma than in Napa,” he explains. “When selecting wines for our wine list, we try to look at the specific varietal and where it grows best.” He and his team then blind taste and choose a variety of price points within each local varietal.

But choosing the wines is only the beginning. Getting customers to drink them can be equally as involved a task, especially with more traditional wine enthusiasts who often scoff at local wines taking the place of their trusted French counterparts. Gropman has found that the passion for local wines, from that of the winemakers themselves to that of the bartender recommending them, is the first step in opening minds. Because his staff is able to speak with enthusiasm about their recommendations, the wines are given the chance to speak for themselves. “We have French wines available on request,” he notes, “but our staff can also recommend a Bordeaux-style Napa Cab instead.” And the verdict in such cases? “Most people have been thrilled.”

Even more thrilling, however, is the fact that many local wines aren’t just trying to imitate or replicate their centuries-old French cousins. As David Burrola, sommelier at Moreton Fig in Los Angeles, points out, “sourcing beverages locally is also about finding [local wines] that are gems.” One of the most valuable aspects of California winemaking is the ability to experiment. Even today, winemakers are still learning what grows best where. And while France has government-regulated laws that allow or prohibit producing specific varietals in specific areas, the U.S. has no such laws.

Moreover, local winemakers, emboldened by past successes with more traditional or popular local varietals, are experimenting with historically foreign varietals like Argentinean Malbecs & Spanish Tempranillos. The response from customers, Burrola relates, has been overwhelming: “People just fall in love!”

How then, do these clearly excellent local wines connect with equally excellent local food? For John Hulihan, who oversees the all-local beverage programs of Lark Creek Group restaurants like Fish Story in Napa, that connection is the very foundation of the restaurant’s wine list. “Because we are mainly a seafood restaurant, we look for local wines that will pair with our food and are not overly assertive,” Hulihan explains. “Balance is a key parameter.” The daily service lineups at Fish Story always involve both food and wine; wine pairings are highlighted daily. The restaurant also frequently changes their wines by the glass in order to keep stimulating staff and guests. The beauty of this approach is that there is no shortage of local variety. “Be open-minded,” Hulihan urges, “and do some reaching out. A lot of it is building personal awareness.” In doing so, one will have little trouble finding an excellent local wine that will pair well with whatevercuisine is on the table.

Backyard brews

In the context of drinking locally, beer cannot be
ignored; however, there is one important caveat therein to note: unlike wine, beer is considered to be “from” where it is produced, not necessarily where its ingredients come from. Therefore, though the hops and barley in a California beer may come from somewhere in the Midwest, it is considered a California beer if the brewery itself is in California. In this way, one is forced to view its role in the loca-pour movement as slightly different.

However, this is not to say it should be discounted, as local beers are often the most staunchly highlighted and supported by bars and restaurants. Aaron Smith, bartender and co-owner of San Francisco’s 15 Romolo, a longtime staple of the city’s bar scene, is extremely passionate about local breweries and their wares. His beer list, though constantly changing, features exclusively California beers, and regularly highlights smaller operations and microbreweries. His reason for California exclusivity? “Featuring smaller, local breweries allows us to better develop relationships with them while also allowing them to reach a wider audience.”

This mutually beneficial relationship alludes to an aspect of the loca-pour movement not yet mentioned, but still very significant, and that is the sense of supporting one’s local community and economy. Also a longtime tenet of locavorism, the idea of sourcing from the area around you in order to benefit the area around you, has shown to be win-win in virtually all instances. “We support local breweries, and they, in turn, support local bartenders,” notes Aaron. This chain of support is important to smaller breweries that do not have the budget for marketing as the bigger brand names do; especially in consideration of the fact that beer drinkers, more so than any other kind of drinker, are staunchly brand-loyal and the least likely to drink outside of their own comfort zone.

“We also change our beers seasonally,” Aaron points out, “to highlight what breweries are putting out there.” Bartenders at 15 Romolo can even bring in a new brew they may have tried and liked, and that will go on the tap list for a while. This idea of a changing menu and seasonal offerings go hand-in-hand with the longtime principles of the movement to eat and source locally; who knew beer would fall under these same guidelines?

Community spirits

Local drinking, though largely tied into beer and wine, is far from limited to it; on the contrary, with the growing popularity of mixology as part of restaurant beverage programs, cocktails have increasing potential to showcase what the local community has to offer, even to the most discerning of barflies. “Local products are vital to anything culinary,” explains Giovanni Martinez, Beverage Director at Hollywood’s newest gastropub Les Deux, “be it food or drink”.

Their beverage program stands out in its quest to find little-known or high-quality ingredients, and in Martinez’s words, “take things to a whole new level.” This begins with sourcing the majority of their bar ingredients from local farmers’ markets, their spirits from local sources whenever possible and, most notably, growing as much as they can in the restaurant’s own courtyard. “The space we had to work with was part of the motivation to grow things ourselves,” Giovanni says. What’s more local than that?

To those who don’t see the connection between cocktails and food, Martinez suggests this: “When you’re drinking, pretend [that] it’s food. You don’t just look to eat bread because it will fill you up.” Rather, you are looking for a culinary experience” and in the same way, “drinking should be a culinary experience. What you’re drinking is most important when you’re drinking.”

Rooted in this philosophy, Les Deux treats cocktails the same way they treat food. They start with local ingredients, allowing creativity and inspiration to guide them. The invention of a drink may begin as a conversation with a customer about what they like in terms of flavors or specific spirits. The outcome is likely to be a customized cocktail, flavored with locally grown fruits and herbs, perhaps made with a locally produced gin.

“Spirits can be a tougher sell,” Waterbar’s Izzo points out, “because people tend to be very brand-loyal.” But
Martinez relates that people have been surprisingly receptive to branching out, no doubt due to the creativity, innovation and passion of the staff. Moreover, the connection to food is taken a step further at Les
Deux, allowing for true pairing of local food with local drink. Take for example, their roasted beet and goat cheese salad; then pair it with their “Remolacha Borracha” (Spanish for ‘drunken beet’): a cocktail made with beet syrup (made from local beets), Reposado tequila, agave, and mezcal (whose smokiness complements the smokiness of the roasted beets).

Or for something entirely local and completely outside-the-box, try a drink featuring a California vodka with a very strong potato flavor that has been infused with bacon from local farms. Here, the line between local drinking and local eating is blurred, implicating that, perhaps, the two are not separate, but different aspects of the same movement. “When it comes to the kitchen and the bar,” Martinez states confidently, “everybody needs to taste what the other is doing.”

Drinking locally, however, means more than just local ingredients when it comes to cocktails. 15 Romolo’s Smith believes that food and drink cannot be separated. Though food is secondary at his bar, he knows that “places that have good cocktails are places where the kitchen and bar work together.” And in the spirit of keeping local food and local drink together, he creates cocktails that, like produce, change seasonally.

Smith explains: “In summer, the cocktails will feature summer fruits and flavors; in winter, the same.” Take, for example, the “Sleepy Jean,” a summertime staple at 15 Romolo, highlighting nectarine compote. Using seasonal fruit has been a foundation of the locavore movement since it began, but it is only just now that we are beginning to see more of the same principles applied to drinks. Similarly, Smith’s winter cocktails feature concoctions like persimmon compote and pumpkin butter. Not only are such elements adding pizzazz and unique flavors to a drink list, but they are also at the heart of eating and drinking locally; a clear indication toward the oneness of the loca-pour and the locavore movements.

Even CUESA (The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is reaching out to embrace cocktails in its mission. They are partnering with the US Bartenders’ Guild to host events at San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building that will pair local spirits producers with local bartenders (find out more at Clearly, the idea is catching.

A return to our roots

It is abundantly clear that there are a number of excellent reasons to drink locally. From the freshness of ingredients at their best, to small, lesser-known gems that can be discovered; in addition to supporting one’s community, it is undeniable that benefits reach nearly everyone. Not just the drinker, but also the drink-pourer and the drink-maker.

But there is also something to it that is harder to quantify, something that all loca-pour supporters seemed to share, whether they articulated it or not. The sense of provinciality has made a comeback, not only out West but across the country. Finding its roots in Waters’ early stages of the Slow Food Movement, this desire to get back to the mindset of the old days, where you ate and drank locally because there was no other choice, lies just beneath the surface of the more apparent motivations to embrace locavorism.

Hey, a San Francisco bartender may pour a wine from Santa Barbara. Why? Because the mixologist grew up in Santa Barbara and wants to share this sense of hometown pride with customers. Whether it is the indefinable attraction to things that grow in one’s own backyard or the desire to support your immediate community, the movement to drink locally may not be as widely embraced as locavore dining, but the movement is thriving, and undoubtedly worth raising a glass to.

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