For years, the New York wine industry has wondered how to convince local restaurants to carry local wines. They’ve tried a variety of approaches, all of which have largely failed.
That could be all about to change, starting in Rochester.
Michael Warren Thomas, host of the Savor Life radio programs on WYSL AM, has launched an ambitious new program. It started with Thomas visting more than 100 restaurants in the greater Rochester area. At each stop, he examined the wine list, tracking how many Finger Lakes wines were offered.
“It was a lot of work, but I thought it was the only way to be thorough,” Thomas told me during a recent visit.
What he found was shocking to some, utterly unsurprising to others: not a single Rochester-area restaurant had at least half their wine list represented by the Finger Lakes.
“There’s just not a lot of support,” Thomas said. “It’s a problem.”
So here’s what Thomas decided to do: First, he ranked the restaurants. A simple list, determined by how many Finger Lakes wines are on the list, and by what percentage. It would give restaurants the chance to see their position on the list, then make some changes.
Then, Thomas set a baseline that is both achievable and fair. He wants local restaurants to offer at least a third of their list as local wines. Not all, not half. Just one-third. And he gives more weight in his rankings to the by-the-glass list, which “is where the volume is,” he explained.
After Thomas explained to restaurants what he was doing, he quickly heard from Warfield’s High Point restaurant in Victor. General Manager Eric Mueller said that the restaurant wanted to add enough Finger Lakes wines to move from 89th on the list to the top spot. Warfield’s will also now waive corkage fees for customers who bring a bottle of Finger Lakes wine.
“We’re excited to be a leader in this challenge and to show off the wines of our region,” Mueller said.
And yet, no other restaurant contacted Thomas.
“It shows that restaurants don’t care very much about their wine lists,” Thomas said. “That’s surprising, because the wine list is a big profit center.” He noted that many restaurants seem to find it easier just to let someone else — a big distributor, usually — handle the list.
Thomas published the top ten restaurants in the Rochester region, and will release the remaining 100 next week. On Monday night, he’ll help launch the new program called New York Wine Spotting. Casa Larga will host the kickoff event from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
NY Wine Spotting’s Facebook page will offer a card that customers can download and print out. Thomas wants customers to leave the card at restaurants, encouraging them to add New York wines to their list.
The card approach has been tried in the past, without much coordination or impact. Thomas hopes this time is different, with more public awareness and consistency. “Our list might help, but a restaurant is more likely to pay attention to Finger Lakes wines if they get 100 customer cards asking for it.”
Thomas plans to take NY Wine Spotting across New York State, and then the wider northeast. “New York State has a huge opportunity,” he said. “If you talk to people in central Pennsylvania, or Rhode Island, or Boston, or New York City, they’ll tell you that New York wines are their local wines. So the local wine movement has the potential to go farther than just the nearest cities.”
The New York Cork Report will follow this effort closely. We could envision a future partnership, adding Long Island wines (and restaurants) to the program as the effort gains steam.
For now, though, Thomas has a difficult task. “Anyone in the top 50 can get to the top 10, simply by adding something like three wines,” he said. “That’s sad, but it’s the truth. It’s not a high bar right now.”