By Lenn Thompson, Editor-in-Chief
Photo of Church & Main's dining room from Yelp.com
A few weeks ago, I did something at a restaurant that I almost never do — at least not at a fine dining restaurant.
I drank beer before and during my meal.
On the surface, that's not that big a deal. I drink beer all the time. Heck, I was a beer geek long before I became obsessed with wine. Besides, sometimes beer is a better pairing that wine. Yes. It's true.
So why was I drinking beer at Church & Main restaurant in Canajoharie, NY — and why is it worth reporting?
I've been thinking about this post from the second I looked at Church & Main's wine list. I wasn't sure how I'd frame this post, but I've decided that I'm not going to sugarcoat it…
Their wine list infuriated me.
It infuriated me enough that refused to drink anything from it. I can be stubborn like that.
So, I drank beer. Some good beer by the way, but we'll get to that later. Let me take a couple steps back and provide some context before I continue.
I was excited to eat at Church & Main — a restaurant purportedly dedicated to sustainability and supporting local farms and agriculture. My in-laws have eaten there several times and always rave about it. I've also read quite a bit about it online and I even saw it listed in a Whole Foods-produced calendar. It sounded like the kind of restaurant Nena and I would love. When we had the chance to go, we jumped on it.
On the surface at least — and when it comes to the food — the locavore-friendly reputation is well deserved. The menu is seasonal and locally driven, to the point that there is a separate sheet in the menu listing the local farms that have grown and raised the food on your plate. I dig that. I wish more restaurants did that.
The food was terrific too. From the perfectly cooked veal sweetbreads with charred onions and veal jus to pan-seared diver scallops over (no doubt local) spaghetti squash with arugula and pistachios to slow-roasted local pork with white beans, leeks, celery root and beets, to monkfish with pumpkin-potato hash with hen of the wood mushrooms, it was all delicious. Best of all maybe was the semolina pudding cake with local apple compote and fresh whipped cream.
Well-prepared, locally sourced and delicious. This should have been a meal to remember, and I it was — just not for the right reasons.
The wine list was short, maybe 6-8 wines, which is often a good sign. Usually that means thoughtful selections that are hand-picked and tuned to the chef's style of cooking. But as I read the list, beyond being infuriated — we've covered that part already — I was flat out disappointed to see how uninspired it was. Yes, there was one local wine, a riesling from Dr. Konstantin Frank, so there is that. And that's what Nena drank, not being as stubborn as I am.
The rest of the list? Cheap, mass-produced plonk. And not suited to the fresh, local food either. I didn't grab a copy of the list or take any notes, but I remember a cheap, over-oaked chardonnay that I've had before , a cheap (like $10 retail) malbec from Argentina, a decent-but-boring California pinot noir and a ubiquitous Italian pinot grigio.
In short, it was the kind of list that we've all seen a million times, at a million restaurants, probably chosen by whatever distributor rep happened to be in the right place at the right time. A boring, throw-away sort of list.
I don't know how you handle these sorts of list, but I usually ignore them and don't give them much thought, largely because they are most common in middling restaurants that I often find myself in only because they are family friendly (I have a toddler after all) or because I've been invited to dinner by someone far less interested in food and wine than me. It's okay. I know how the system works. I can accept it at restaurants of that ilk. Really, I can.
But at any restaurant that portrays itself as "sustainable" and "supporting local agriculture" it is absolutely unacceptable.
Now I know that there are "local" restaurants that don't focus on local wines. Eric Asimov, chief critic for the New York Times, recently wrote a piece about restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area sourcing their food locally but looking mostly to Europe for their wines lists.
The main (and best) argument those restaurants make is that many California wines aren't as food friendly as those from Italy, France and other European countries. I tend to agree with that generalization, but the same isn't true of New York wines. All of New York's wine regions are cool-climate, meaning that natural acidity and balance is preserved throughout the growing season. New York wines are among the food-friendliest made in the U.S.
Maybe Church & Main is just looking for cheap wines (the markups weren't bad, by the way) that they don't have to think much about. But, for a couple bucks more per bottle (if that), there are similar-style local wines that would not only support local wineries, but pair better with the food.
Instead of that plonky California chardonnay, serve the barrel-tinged but balanced chardonnay from Lamoreaux Landing on Seneca Lake. Lose that boring pinot noir and serve the non-reserve bottling from Heart & Hands Wine Company on Cayuga Lake. Put away that insipid pinot grigio and pour Ravines Wine Cellar's dry, clean Keuka Village White.
It's not hard to find affordable local wines for your wine list. Really it's not. Plus, if you really care about sustainability, getting wines from a couple hours away is a lot better than stuff trucked in from California.
Before I forget, let's talk about that beer list too. Even with local breweries like Brewery Ommegang and Saranac less than an hour away from the restaurant's front door, the beer list didn't offer a single local brew. Not one. But, at least the Samuel Smith Ale and Wolaver Brown I drank were organic, which can't be said about the non-local wines on the list.
So the question I'm left asking is: Do you think restaurants like this are truly dedicated to "local" or are they just using it as a marketing hook — a way to get locavores into their restaurant because eating local is so hot and trendy right now?
In my opinion, either you're dedicated to it or you're not. And if you are, it goes well beyond the produce and meat you buy.
What are some of the other "local" restaurants that you'd like to see carry more or better local wines?