Wine is often portrayed as this ethereal, romantic nectar that transports us to another, better place. And no, we’re not just talking about the buzz.
But marketing manipulation aside, wine is most of all a business, relying primarily on the old supply/demand rubric. And when it comes to Minnesota wines and Minnesota restaurants, the demand has lagged mightily, even in eateries that flaunt a locavore mind-set.
“It really bothers me that there’s a lot of buy-local philosophy in restaurants, and it doesn’t carry over to wine,” said Annette Peters, whose Bourget Imports wholesale house carries Saint Croix Vineyards wines from Stillwater.
Not that there hasn’t been progress. Peters lauded Nick Rancone, co-owner of Revival in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, for pouring Saint Croix Vineyards Frontenac Gris by the glass. “I remember being in the restaurant,” she said, “and people being surprised by first of all how well made it was, and second that it wasn’t excessively sweet.”
A few other seasonal/local eateries have gotten on board. Wise Acre Eatery has carried WineHaven, and Brenda Langton — the Twin Cities’ original locavore — has been a strong advocate of Alexis Bailly Vineyards at Spoonriver.
“We had a lovely Alexis Bailly Dinner and always have Nan’s [Bailly] wines on our list,” said Langton, who made the winery’s Seyval Blanc a featured wine at the recent Mill City Farmers Market Harvest Social Dinner.
Still, these are the exceptions rather than the rule, as local-sourcing meccas such as Heyday, Bachelor Farmer and Lyn 65 have nary a Minnesota wine on their list.
To a degree, Spoonriver is another exemplar of a basic business formula: It’s (almost) all about relationships.
Bailly and Langton are longtime friends. With Sovereign Estate wines, the Savaryn family has personal ties with the owners of O’Donovan’s Irish Pub and McKinney Roe in Minneapolis and Jake O’Connor’s Public House in Excelsior, where their wine is served.
“A lot of these relationships build over time,” said Isaac Savaryn, viticulturist at Sovereign, adding that a Cambria rosé on tap has proved especially popular.
That relationship-building is essential since only three of the state’s 70-plus wineries — Saint Croix, WineHaven and Alexis Bailly — are working through distributors, who have widespread, built-in relations with restaurants throughout the state.
Among the others, even the folks who are making some of the state’s best wines acknowledge the quandaries they face. “It’s a little more difficult to get restaurants to commit to Minnesota wine,” said Jane Schwickert, general manager of Chankaska Creek in Kasota, Minn., “but we are making headway.”
Even the wholesalers have found the going tough with restaurants.
Sales manager Dave Roberson said the 8,000 cases of WineHaven that Paustis Wine Co. moves every year are almost exclusively to retailers, and that the restaurants buying them are as likely to be outstate (Lutsen Resort on the North Shore, Tangled Up in Blue in Taylors Falls) as metro-based (The Marsh, Pour Wine Bar & Bistro).
Patty Douglas, on-site (restaurant) sales manager for the Wine Company, said it has sold a smattering of cases of Alexis Bailly this year to such places as Cafe Barbette, Lake Wine Kitchen + Bar at the airport, the Commodore and Muffuletta — and that the wines often get lost in the shuffle.
“If it just gets put on the list,” Douglas said, “it almost needs to be highlighted like Minnesota-grown ingredients.”
Meeting the challenges
Which brings us to this:
Want to know what’s easy? Finding Minnesota-made beers, ciders and spirits on local restaurant and bar lists. What’s not so easy? Finding Minnesota-made wines on the same lists.
And that has gotten vintners’ dander up, especially since key ingredients such as apples, hops and grains often come from other states in these other libations.
“To be honest, I’m deeply frustrated that we can’t get into more restaurants,” said Kyle Peterson, owner/winemaker at WineHaven. “The interest is just not there the way it is with the beers, and it’s a shame.”
Peterson acknowledged that pricing can be an issue but added that he felt “[Paustis] would be flexible with pricing.”
Douglas of the Wine Company also allowed that the prices “can be a stumbling block,” as did several restaurant wine buyers. For everyone to get a decent cut, a winery would need to sell its bottles for far below the $15 it might get at the tasting room.
That’s another way that Minnesota wineries are competing less with one another than with large operations on the West Coast and overseas.
“What we run into,” said Savaryn, “are these California wines that restaurants are getting on wholesale for four or five bucks. That’s not even a break-even price for us, and so what restaurants have to charge for a Minnesota Marquette is not necessarily an introductory price.”
The critical palate
Another issue: Even though wine quality has improved, sometimes markedly, consumer perception has not caught up.
“More people are interested in local,” Douglas said, “but I think everybody just assumes the wines are not going to be good.”
On top of all that is an issue that’s quite simply a matter of style: What works for customers who visit these wineries is often incompatible with what restaurants are seeking.
“What Minnesota winemakers need to figure out is that the wines they make for tourists, that’s where the residual sugar shows up, and the restaurants need dryness. Saint Croix has taken that step, and it helps,” said Peters of Bourget Imports.
“But mostly, we are challenged to get consumers to see wine as a part of the local produce picture.”
Very slowly and semi-surely, that is happening, even with restaurant wine buyers like Rancone and Restaurant Alma’s James Hirdler, who said he is determined to bring in some Minnesota wines.
Actually, on a smaller scale, he already is. “I really like the WineHaven Honey and Pumpkin wines. I have bought some for our pastry chef to cook with,” he said, “and some for myself.”
For the first part of this two-part series, “The State of the Grape,” see StarTribune.com/taste.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.