A restaurant doesn’t need to reside in California to offer regional wines anymore. Discovering local vinos from surprising terroirs can be an explorative and profitable experience for dedicated operators.
The minute Tyler Sailsbery—chef/owner of The Black Sheep in Whitewater, Wisconsin—decided to pour local wines, business partnerships started to happen.
Suddenly he was hosting chef dinners six times a year at Staller Estate Winery, one of the wineries whose bottles appear on his list. The winery is in a rural part of Delavan and run by a young couple. In some ways, the partnership was very organic. Black Sheep is a farm-to-table restaurant, and Staller makes wine from estate-grown grapes. “We started off with that [farm-to-table concept] in mind, from day one,” says Sailsbery.
Wisconsin isn’t the only state where the wine industry is making inroads on restaurant wine lists. Virginia, Texas, Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, New York, and Michigan are among the states where the wines are rising into acclaim.
Sussing through local wines, however, takes considerable amounts of research. Unless in California, distributors might not be as familiar with regional options as they are with those from far-flung wine regions. In preparing to open Black Sheep in 2012, Sailsbery took to the road in the name of research, visiting local wineries and their tasting rooms. After finding wines he felt were a good match with his cuisine, he inquired about carrying them at the restaurant. Prairie Fumé, a white wine crafted from Seyval Blanc grapes at the Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, and popular throughout the state, was added almost immediately. A couple of bottles from Vetro Winery in Jefferson, Wisconsin, are always on the menu. And from Staller, Sailsbery curated a selection of four wines by the glass, plus two bottles. There are imports on the menu, too, but only if they are the best expression of a grape, such as a Malbec from Argentina.
Selling wine by the glass is key to listing local wines, as most diners aren’t familiar with the winery—or the grapes. “It’s harder for us to sell a local wine in that customers are trained to say, ‘I want a Merlot or Chardonnay,’ but Wisconsin doesn’t grow those,” says Sailsbery, who feels Wisconsin wines are sweeter than their domestic counterparts, a factor he takes into consideration when balancing the food.
But Sailsbery wanted to dig deeper into his commitment to regional wines by introducing diners to the winemakers and being able to say, “This is where the wine comes from,” and ‘This is why they make their wine.” In the restaurant, he also shares fliers about the local wineries he supports, for guests who want to learn more. “We’re not necessarily pushing [the wine],” he explains, “but more likely to ask: ‘Did you know this is the top-growing grape in Wisconsin?’” He’s also active in using social media to promote the wines on The Black Sheep’s Twitter and Facebook pages.
Another region that is becoming more celebrated for its wine is the North Fork of Long Island, New York. For instance, Adam Petronzio, the wine director at Oceana in the Midtown section of Manhattan, entered into an exclusive partnership with Brooklyn, New York’s Red Hook Winery. A Sauvignon Blanc was made just for Oceana, to pair with its General Tsao’s Lobster, a popular entrée served with spicy sweet and sour sauce, cashews, scallions, and forbidden rice.