What does it take to be truly ‘local’?
At the most basic level, we all know what local wine is. It’s wine made by local wineries. But if we dig even just a little bit deeper, it gets a bit more complicated.
In a couple weeks, I’m heading to Charlottesville, Va., for the Virginia Wine Summit, where I’ll be speaking on a panel titled “Defining Local on the East Coast.” We’ll be tasting a handful of Virginia wines side by side with New York ones, including wines from Shinn Estate Vineyards and Bedell Cellars on the North Fork.
Because I always over-prepare for this sort of thing — I take my role as advocate and critic of New York wine seriously — how we define “local wine” has been on my mind a lot lately.
It’s common practice in many eastern wine regions to use California-grown grapes for at least some production. That doesn’t happen very often here. But it is legal in certain circumstances under certain winery licenses. To be labeled under one of our local American Viticultural Areas — those being “North Fork of Long Island,” “The Hamptons, Long Island” and just “Long Island” — only 85 percent of the wine in the bottle must be from within that AVA.
If you see a local wine with “New York” on a bottle, there is a good chance that some, or even all, of the grapes that went into it are from upstate New York, most often the Finger Lakes. You’ll see this most often with rieslings and white blends. If you’re touring wineries in the Finger Lakes or Hudson Valley and see “New York” on the label, there is a good chance that there is some Long Island merlot or cabernet sauvignon in that wine.
This is where the “local-ness” gets a bit more complicated. Are these wines local, even if there are vineyards in Connecticut and Pennsylvania closer to Cutchogue than vineyards in the Finger Lakes?
State lines — at least when it comes to growing grapes — are a fairly arbitrary construct.
I was recently introduced to a winery in Northern Maryland that buys grapes from just across the border in Pennsylvania rather than elsewhere in Maryland because they feel like the soils and growing conditions are more similar to their own estate vineyards. Is that local?
There are even AVAs that cross state lines. The “Lake Erie” AVA covers parts of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Is a wine made in Ohio from New York grapes — but within the same AVA — a local wine?
I’m asking somewhat rhetorically and without judgment. You can make your own decisions about what you consider to be local. I tend to think of all of it as local because I think of local as more a spectrum than a binary is-or-isn’t proposition.
The important thing is for the wineries to be transparent about their grape sources and educate their customers. Local-ness is complicated in the wine world. If simply supporting local businesses is what drives your buying decisions, great. If where the grapes are grown matters to you though, you may need to ask more questions.