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A Locavore Restaurant With No Local Wine

By Charles Olken

It is a recurring theme in the Bay Area these days. Many of the most inventive restaurants, most intent on the best of locally source foodstuffs, do not serve California wine. Frankly, it makes no sense. The reasons these folks give are mostly hooey, and they either know it and are supersnobs or they just do not understand what they are talking about.

Now, let’s be clear. Any business, and that includes restaurants, is free to run itself in any way that it sees fit. I have no argument with that notion. Where I do draw the line is at the big lie technique when it comes to justifying their mysterious lack of commitment to locally produced wines that would easily fit their so-called profiles.

A classic case in point is The Slanted Door in San Francisco. Very cool place with food that I love to eat. Today, if you look at its admirable list, you will find a dozen or more locally sourced wines out of well over a hundred. That is something like a dozen more than you would have found no more than five or so years ago. So, while I have no extra special complaint with Slanted Door, I did recently run into its cousin in sin just last week.

The restaurant in question is Camino. It sits on Grand Avenue in Oakland, an upscale shopping street immediately adjacent to the even more upscale city of Piedmont. Let me be clear about one thing. I will go back to Camino in a heartbeat. Without being fussy or smug about itself (something that too many San Francisco restaurants exude as if being stuffy, prissy and overly engaged in the culinary equivalent of navel gazing were a badge of honor), Camino is one of the most inventive, creative and sane restaurants around. It turns out homemade tasty food that is fairly priced and enjoyable to eat right down to creating its own sodas, breads, sausages and so much more.

But the wine list. Oh, that wine list. Probably three dozen options and only one from California, a blended red from an unheard of producer. I will admit that I simply decided to ignore the list and not get into a discussion with the wine buyer. But, circumstance changed all that. Although he slipped out about halfway through dinner service, probably because wine sales had crested, he did come around to help clear our table at one point and asked how we were doing. Nice fellow. Easy to talk to. Proud of the fact that Camino is high on sustainable, earth friendly, locally sourced foods.

One of our number took that as an opening to ask the very question that I had decided would not be asked. “Why”, she asked with a sly, demure, friendly smile, “do you have almost no California wine when you are so proud of your locavore standing”?

And out poured the silliness. No sustainable wines in California. All too heavy and old-fashioned. Europe has been making wine the same way for hundreds of years (that sort of blew my mind as it immediately followed the claims of no sustainable wines in California because we are too young to prove ourselves).

Now, here is a funny thing about Slanted Door. It may not have a lot of local wine, but virtually all of the California wine on the list would meet the standards (except hundreds of years) that the Camino man stated so vehemently. And the funnier thing still is that many of the two dozen wineries right there in the East Bay make wines with as much organic, natural practice as happens in Europe in, frankly, a very small percentage of existing wineries.

I do try not to patronize restaurants that insult California wine, and I will admit that, having seen the Camino wine list online, I took two exceptional bottles from California to the restaurant that night. They were highly rated and balanced, for that is the kind of wine that most of us like anyhow. But, Camino will not even entertain them because it has a built-in bias bordering on snobbery—a kind of snobbery that is not nearly so evident in its food.

Sure, they can serve whatever they want, and their corkage of $25 is entirely reasonable. The Slanted Door corkage is now $35, for example, for meals that are often lower in cost than those at Camino. But, I cannot abide the silly arguments that proudly trumpet locavore food stuffs and then diss California wineries like Pey and Peay, like Matthiasson and Donkey and Goat without so much as an attempt to find out why those wines, made in the lighter, higher acidity, natural or organic styles that the restaurant claims to like, are so widely admired.

Maybe it’s just a trend, but it is a trend that now needs to be shoved out the door.


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CA wine
by grumpy winemaker
Posted on:3/23/2016 3:44:43 PM

You need to visit Washington. All of our restaurants here serve California wine instead of the local Washington wine.

WA Wine
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/23/2016 4:31:19 PM

I visit Seattle from time to time, and I drink WA wine almost all of the time.

Funny thing is that I often order imported wines in restaurants here. After all, I spend lots of time tasting CA wine and enjoy good wine from anywhere.

But these phony locavores who diss CA wine without even trying to find local wines that fit their taste profile bug me and make me bring CA wine instead of buying something off their lists. Or I don't go there at all since the Bay Area has so many great dining choices.

You have good reason to be grumpy if your locals are ignoring good local wine.

by Peter
Posted on:3/24/2016 10:09:00 AM

Spot on. The other sad irony is the carbon footprint of imported wines. In a time when climate change is threatening the viability of wine regions around the world, buying wines that have to be transported by ship in climate controlled containers is at best a blind spot and at worst hypocrisy.

No Subject
by Neal
Posted on:3/24/2016 11:38:28 AM

I would be happy to share some of our certified organic wines with you and Comino. Though our boutique winery is just outside the formal definition of Locavore (we are about 150 miles north east of Oakland), we (literally) hand-craft our wines in a combination of old world style and modern science, built around sustainability

Missing the point
by Gabriel
Posted on:3/24/2016 7:51:14 PM

The dissatisfaction of the state of the industry here is completely misdirected at the fantastic restaurant Camino. When I sold wine in The Bay Area and to Camino, it involved a dialog involving soil types, fermentation methods, sustainability, dry-farming, and then finally cost. When I showed European wines to them, I could find nearly countless wines that satisfied their discerning vetting process. And the costs of these wines are easy to stomach. To find California vintners who dry-farm, use native yeasts, farm organically, and price the wines for a casual-upscale restaurant proves to still be an impossible task. I commend Camino for staying true to their concept, and I dare the cgcw staff to try to fill Camino's list with wines that incorporate their values.

Offering The Proof
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/24/2016 10:48:11 PM

A couple of important points first. I liked Camino and will go back despite my distaste for the complete lack of respect for and knowledge of California wine. I will simply bring my own carefully selected wines.

And, nowhere did I call for all of Camino's wines to be from California. So, your "challenge" is really just too argumentative to take seriously.

But, there are names in the text above that would meet the requirements stated by the Camino winebuyer. And to those, I would add Benziger, Lioco, Tablas Creek, Edmonds St John among smaller wineries and Grgich Hills, Hall and Paul Hobbs among bigger wineries. And the list does not stop there.

The indisuptable fact is that you give no credit to those wineries and neither does Camino. But the bigger point is that the tendency to call yourself an unabashed locavore and then not even try to find local wines that meet their criteria is a sign of rampant snobbery or just plain bias.

great article
by gabe
Posted on:4/6/2016 10:11:39 PM

Thanks for going to bat for local wines in local restaurants.  I'll never understand why a business would refuse to work with their neighbors.

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