I’ve written a couple of posts about craft beer over the past few months, and you’d probably thought I’d put it to bed. After all, this is a blog about wine…But a couple of things happened that made me think it was time for an update on the craft beer vs. wine issue.
First, Cy and I took a day trip to visit local craft breweries with friends, Jenn Barger and Callan Swenson. Jenn was writing about the local brewing scene for a regional magazine and wanted our opinions on the beers. The second was an e-mail from another friend, Chris Hoene, who lives in California. He and his wife, Darrene Hackler, love wine but also drink nearly everything else. They have begun to notice a trend toward paring down wine selections in favor of craft beers and cocktails.
I’ll let Chris go first, since he wrote me all about it, and, lazy blogger that I am, I can cut and paste with minimal edits (every blogger’s dream!). Here’s what he had to say:
“Hi from Los Angeles, where I am staying at a hotel part owned by [let’s call him Currently Hot Celebrity Chef, or CHCC] and has two of his restaurants.
“My new wine pet peeve, which has been building to a crescendo in recent months, is places with compelling wine lists, but they don’t actually have the wines listed. Case in point (pun intended), I was at a dinner tonight where the intriguing wines listed included:
– an Austrian Zweigelt,
– a Napa Carbono,
– a Spanish Mencia (Bierzo),
– a Barbera D’Alba (Piemonte), and
– a Cab Sauv from Broadside in Paso Robles (one of my favorite Central Coast wines).
Those are the reds. Their whites/pinks include a Pecorino and Sancerre Rosé.
“But half of them weren’t available, just on the list. Why is this okay? I have increasingly been encountering this problem (admittedly a very “first world” one). The bartender tonight finally admitted what I had already guessed when he said ‘We aren’t really focused on our wine anymore. We are focused on our craft cocktails and beer. So, our wine is suffering.’
“I have seen this a lot recently. But, it isn’t okay. The wine is way more local than the spirits and arguably equally or more local on the beer front. I chalk it up to laziness (on the restaurant’s part) and customers’ default assumption that a locally-brewed craft beer is actually made with local ingredients.
“Tragic. And shame on CHCC for not maintaining the good list he started. There is even Copain Pinot Noir in the hotel room mini bar…a pretty awesome Anderson Valley Pinot for a mini bar. So, the bottom line is that they aren’t trying hard enough.
“I had a similar experience at one of our favorite spots in Sacramento, which went from having a list of about 15-20 wines by the glass (sparkling, whites, reds) and bottle. When Darrene and I were there last week they didn’t have any of the wines anymore and instead had shifted over to a short list (5-6 wines) that they would only sell by the glass. It’s a similar deal — the place has become known for its craft cocktails and beer and I think they just decided not to put the effort into the wine list anymore.”
Three things struck me after reading this: first, a restaurant ought to be able to update the wine list in a timely manner and remove things that are out of stock or that they will no longer carry. Not doing it is lazy and just makes customers angry. (Particularly since CHCC appears to take great care in preparing food.)
The second applies more to the kind of food that CHCC typically serves. While there are suitable wine pairings for all kinds of foods, some are a bigger stretch for most customers. They may not expect to drink wine with a particular cuisine, or the wines on the list may be unfamiliar. If the restaurant wants to sell more wine with the food, either a sommelier is required, or someone to train the staff and write the list in an enticing way. Both of these cost money, though, and a restaurant may want to focus on a cocktail specialist instead. (Most restaurant beverage managers aren’t experts on all types of alcohol, either.) Finally, if the restaurant’s food also naturally pairs well with beer (as CHCC’s does), then customers may default to that, particularly in the absence of help with wine pairings. Terms like lager, IPA, etc., are pretty well-known these days and easy to understand.
In Chris’s case, it seems like a perfect storm of all three at once. But his point about customers assuming that a locally brewed beer is really “local” is a good one. Two contradictory things I learned back in January at the wine conference I attended strike me as appropriate here: the first is that craft brewers emphasize the local nature of their businesses, as does the national organization that represents them. At the same time, though, most of the hops in the U.S. come from the Pacific Northwest. So even if the brewery gets all its other ingredients from local farmers (a big assumption), chances are the hops would disqualify the beer from being completely local — unless you’re in the Pacific Northwest.
This point also came up on the beer excursion Cy and I made with Jenn and Callan. We visited three breweries in Loudon County, Virginia. None of them used local hops, and in fact, one of them listed its smoked hops from Germany on the beer menu.
Not being an expert in beer brewing, I wasn’t sure why there weren’t local hops available. It turns out hops will grow almost anywhere. But they have to be dried right after harvesting or they can spoil. Drying hops isn’t as easy as it sounds because improper drying can compromise flavor. Any one brewery or local farmer probably won’t have a hops processing facility. It takes a critical mass of growers and breweries to create demand for one, and even then they may need help.
In northern Virginia, Governor McAuliffe announced a $40,000 grant, to be matched by local development authorities, to bring a local hops processing facility to the region. McAuliffe, like his predecessor, is a big supporter of the Virginia wine industry, but also sees craft breweries as a way to bring employment and tourism to the region, and they accounted for $625 million in revenue in 2013. Making the beer as local as the wine is a smart move. In fact, owners and servers at all three of the breweries we visited told us they’d be using the local hops from the new facility as soon as they became available.
Craft beer has novelty on its side now. But even when some of the novelty wears off, it doesn’t necessarily mean that wine will regain that piece of its former dominance. Chefs change their menus constantly. And as I mentioned before, craft brewers can turn on a dime compared to wineries because of the way their products are made. The locus of new cuisines increasingly moves away from regions that also traditionally produce wine, so it becomes more problematic.
In a recent interview, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik discussed how the geographic focus of fancier home cooking has changed over the years, from Julia Child’s French to Marcella Hazan’s Italian to Yotam Ottolenghi’s Eastern Mediterranean fare. All of these cuisines pair beautifully with wines. But home cooking often lags way behind restaurants. The hot new places here in DC? Laotian and Philippino food. Not exactly ones we think of for wine pairing.
That means, though, that we in the wine industry just have to work a little harder at it, right? In my (admittedly limited) experience selling wine to restaurants, I find I have to make it really, really easy for beverage managers to buy even when my wines are a natural fit for the food. If they’re not a no-brainer fit, even more work is in order to create the demand and get back some of the ground that has been defaulted to craft beers. Just wait until you see the pitch I’m coming up with for our own DC-based CHCCs. They won’t know what hit them!
I hate to admit it, because foodies are supposed to love most if not all aspects of food preparation, but I don’t really enjoy grilling. Part of it is that stepping outside in the summer heat of DC to stand over a hot grill isn’t a lot of fun. The other part is that our back yard isn’t the most pleasant place to be anyway, since we’re across the alley from a giant air conditioner for a large apartment building.
So it’s pretty much indoor cooking around here. The one thing that almost makes me want to grill, though, is fish. Most years we don’t really have spring here in DC — we go from kind of cool and rainy to hot and humid in about a week. So the air conditioning’s on and the windows are closed. Not exactly the environment for cooking something with a smell that can linger.
But I came across a recipe for steamed fish over greens this week, and it worked really well even with the a/c on. Of course, I had to remake it from top to bottom, but the technique adapts to a lot of different fish, greens, and steaming liquids. You’ll need a nonstick skillet big enough to hold the four fish fillets, hopefully with a lid. If there’s no lid, you can cover the pan with foil instead.
I chose salmon because it takes well to moist heat cooking, especially wild salmon. For four servings you’ll need about 8 ounces of greens. More assertive flavors in fish can take more flavorful greens, so for salmon I use a combination of baby kale and spinach. Wilt the greens in some olive oil with a little garlic, then place the fillets on top of the greens. Pour over a bit of water, cover, and steam until the fish is done. The greens will still have a little bite to them. Transfer the fish and greens to individual serving bowls with some cooked rice or rice noodles. Then make a quick pan sauce — mine was with ginger, scallions, soy, vinegar, and a pinch of sugar.
While salmon pairs well with red wines, I serve this dish with a rosé. Actually, a rosado, since it’s from Spain. Bodega Hiriart’s Sobre Lías ($16) is a rich, bright-pink wine. Sobre Lías means “on the lees,” a technique of letting the grape juice sit on the skins, seeds, and pulp of the grapes. Rosés generally come from red grapes, so they only sit on the skin for a short time to avoid becoming too red in color. But Hiriart adds a little Verdejo — a white grape — to the mix, to give the wine a nice acidity. Sitting on the lees of the Verdejo doesn’t add additional color, but gives the wine an excellent flavor boost.
Oh, and if you make the recipe and love it enough to decide you don’t want your grill anymore, let me know. I’m thinking I need one just to keep my foodie reputation intact, even if I never use it!
4 – 4 to 6 ounce salmon fillets, skin removed
4 ounces baby kale
4 ounces baby spinach
2 garlic cloves, sliced thin
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 bunch scallions, roots trimmed, white and green parts chopped together
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon vinegar
For serving: 3 cups hot cooked rice or 8 ounces flat rice noodles, cooked
Dry the salmon fillets with paper towels and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in a large nonstick skillet. Add the garlic and cook for a minute, then add the greens along with a little salt and pepper. Stir for a minute to wilt the greens slightly. Spread the greens out and place the salmon fillets on top of the greens. Add 1/2 cup of water and cover the pan (or use aluminum foil to make a lid). Steam for 7-8 minutes until the fish is done to your liking.
Portion the rice or noodles among four bowls and top each with greens, steaming liquid, and a salmon fillet. Add a little more oil to the skillet, heat it up, and add the ginger and scallions. Cook for 2 minutes, until slightly softened. Add the soy sauce, vinegar, a big pinch of sugar and a little water. Cook for a minute until slightly reduced. Pour over the salmon and serve right away.