Wine Bars Offering Local Wines: It Has to Make Money to Make Sense
By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor
Photos by Morgan Dawson Photography
"You should support local wines."
"Why aren't you offering more Finger Lakes wines?"
"Don't you care about local growers?"
By now you've heard some variation of the above, and likely you've said something similar to a restaurant manager or bar owner. At a time when restaurants are closing and businesses are feeling pressure, it's important to remember that businesses make decisions first and foremost to survive. They are not charities, and if they're not making money, they're gone.
With that in mind, it is thrilling to discover the wine list at Solera, a wine bar in Rochester's south wedge. Not only does owner John Fanning stock current releases from a healthy range of Finger Lakes producers, he carries some library selections as well.
"The Wiemer library tasting last May really opened our eyes," Fanning says. "People tend to forget that this region has been around for more than 30 years. You can find nice wines that are 20 years old from the Finger Lakes. The wines from that event were beautiful, and we thought it would be cool to add a vertical like that to our list."
Solera offers a vertical of Wiemer Dry Riesling from 2002 to the current release, along with current releases of the producer's single-vineyard wines. On a recent visit we ordered the Hermann J. Wiemer 1990 Dry Riesling, which showed a mature, sherry-like edge, full of marmalade and gunpowder. Poured blind, a friend guessed that we had opened a Lopez de Heredia.
"That was a pretty special wine at the library tasting event," Fanning says. "We don't add library wines to our list expecting them to sell quickly. To be honest, they sell poorly. But we know that there doesn't have to be a large segment of our customer base to want these kinds of wines. Eventually they'll find a following."
Fanning's love of wine offers a kind of protection in offering these wines: If they don't sell, they get older, and most of the time that's a benefit to the wine. "I'll drink the stuff if my customers won't," he says with a laugh. "I've already paid for it!"
To be successful, wine bars can not rely heavily on the sales of local wines. Not yet, anyway. Fanning understands this from experience. "People used to always tell us that we needed to carry Finger Lakes wines by the glass. When we started doing that, very few people ordered them. I guess some customers wanted local wines on the list to feel better about supporting local, but they wouldn't follow through and buy them. It's a slow process to convince more people to try those wines."
Last night Solera put the Keuka Spring 2008 Gewurztraminer on its by-the-glass list, and Fanning says it will be another test to see if customers will buy glasses of local wine.
The strength of Solera's list lies in its diversity. Casual drinkers can find the safe by-the-glass choices, but on an adventurous evening they can find Vouvray and Cotes-du-Rhone for the same price. Aficionados will have a hard time deciding from among a 1982 Barolo, a handful of Brunellos, Mosel rieslings from the late 80s and early 90s, several recent vintages of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, some hard-to-find Spanish wines, and more.
"We have so much fun putting the list together," Fanning says, smiling at the thought of what else he can add. "Working in the wine trade is not as glamorous as a lot of people probably imagine, but if you love wine, you have to love creating a wine list. And it's great when someone comes in and asks for one of our more obscure bottles. You know you've done something well at that point."
A native of Long Island, Fanning expects to continue to add to his New York section, but slow sales of New York wines will make the list expansion correspondingly slow. He travels through the Finger Lakes every year to meet winemakers and discover the best new bottlings.
"I can't imagine trying to come up with a strong list of Finger Lakes wines without spending time in the region," he explains.
Eventually Fanning expects more of his wine geek customers to try a Finger Lakes bottle. He doesn't hide New York wines on a back page or separate list, which is an important distinction.
But Fanning's first experience with Finger Lakes wine offers a cautionary tale to the industry.
"When I moved here, I wanted to try the local wines," he says. "I asked someone for a glass of Finger Lakes wine. They gave me Red Cat. I thought that was what Finger Lakes wine is all about. Now, nothing against wines like Red Cat, but I almost feel there should be a different designation for Finger Lakes vinifera wines. Think about Oregon or Washington — they don't have a Red Cat problem. Serious wine drinkers who come to our place tend to have that image of local wine."
For now, carrying New York wines is an investment for a wine bar like Solera. The slow sales of local bottles means that wine bar owners must put down some dollars that they won't recoup in the short term. Fanning believes his investment will pay off eventually, and it will have to if bars like his are going to keep offering local wines.
But he's taken the first step. Now it's up to his customers to prove it was a step worth taking.