I was a little worried when I posted the Wine Lists of Shame blog. I have enjoyed eating at about half the restaurants on the list (thanks to a generous mother and father-in-law) but was always disappointed by the absence of Missouri and Kansas wines from their wine lists. The thought of stirring an angry response from the city’s restaurants got me quite excited and nervous in the moments before the blog was posted. Of course my small act of defiance wasn’t in the same league as Martin Luther giving one to the Pope and I’m not reporting for BBC News anymore, this is a WordPress blog, so I suppose the muted response has been understandable. So far only Bluestem Restaurant has commented and they say they’re planning to include local wines on their new wine list – full marks to them.
The issue of how to break into the Kansas City restaurant scene is a topic I brought up with the winemakers I visited on Mission Impossible I: The Search for a Drinkable Norton. I also spoke on the phone with Tim Puchta, president of Adam Puchta Winery (resplendent in blue overalls in the photo for the Defenders of Norton blog) and in a long conversation he was clearly frustrated about the situation. “It’s a very tough issue to deal with”, he says, noting how on the one hand restaurants have adopted the slow food movement with local produce, “but when it comes to wine, they absolutely have a totally closed mind. They absolutely do not like to even think about attempting to even try some of the Missouri wines.”
When I turned up at Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport it sounded like winemakers Cory Bomgaars and Jacob Holman were trying to expunge their frustrations about this issue by playing in a heavy rock band. The sound blasting out of the winery was so loud and clear I thought I was interrupting a band practice. It turned out to be just a very good sound system and anyway, Cory and Jacob are probably more surfer types than rockers. Cory sees restaurants as crucial to positively changing people’s opinions about regional wines. “The service industry is kind of the ambassador of wine, and good restaurants really have a lot of influence on perception of wine quality for the community,” he explains to me in his small office behind the winery’s shop.
Kansas City isn’t alone in generally turning its back on local wine, winemakers say the situation is the same in top restaurants across the region. But there are notable exceptions to the Wine Lists of Shame, says Tim of Adam Puchta Winery, like Annie Gunn’s Restaurant in Chesterfield, Missouri that features about thirty Missouri wines on its wine list. However, getting MO and KS wine into most restaurants depends heavily on the sales reps and distributors, who are more likely to push their better known French and Californian bottles because they are easier to sell. For that reason, some restaurants say they never see any regional wines. Cory says the answer is to incentivize the distributors and make it worth their while to push the local, regional wines.
But even if distributors are convinced to push the local stuff, Cory says restaurant staff need to be educated. Otherwise, says Tim, even if the restaurant’s manager or wine buyer purchases the local wine, it generally won’t sell unless the restaurant staff know about the wine and promote it. “We were in a couple of places in Kansas City for a while,” says Tim, but the restaurants would say the wine wasn’t selling and drop it from the list, “I would say 99% of the time the wine wasn’t promoted or mentioned.” Or there’s a change of manager or chef at the restaurant, and in the change of regime, the regional bottles are often the first to be dropped from the wine list. Educating restaurant staff can be difficult says Tim, “even though we educate them, we bring them out to our tastings, we go through the motions and their minds are just really closed.” But Cory says this education drive needs to continue and across the industry. “Bring them up here and teach them about what we are doing with Missouri wines,” he says. “All the way through to chefs thinking about what they are cooking and the waiters behind the product. To really break that barrier is going to take some intense one-on-one stuff.” He says in the next twelve months Missouri vineyards are likely to do some organized industry-wide marketing aimed at restaurants.
The West Bottoms area of Kansas City © kcphotoblog.com
I met Michael Amigoni in the tasting room of his Amigoni Urban Winery in the West Bottoms area of Kansas City (for the full interview see: Regional Wines: “We’re catching up”). There was a tasting in progress and about a dozen people were there to taste Michael’s wines and listen to him chat about them. With his commanding presence he reminded me of a Roman emperor as he strutted and talked about his wines (but I’m a bit obsessed with ancient history). His location right in the heart of KC has probably helped his relationship with restaurants there. He told me afterwards that part of the restaurant problem is the difficulty selling wines made from grape varieties like Norton and Vignoles that haven’t been accepted by the wine establishments on the east and west coast and are still unfamiliar to many local wine drinkers. Michael says he’s the only winemaker in Missouri who, despite the challenging climactic conditions here, focuses very heavily on growing European varieties like Cabernet Franc. As a result, he says he’s had some success breaking into the Kansas City restaurant scene, but it’s been tough going. “It’s very difficult, but we probably broke some of that ceiling that was there. The local restaurants, especially here in the metro, have not embraced any of the Missouri wines.” He tells me as we talk on the long wooden benches in his tasting room. “They felt that someone would have a hard time paying the prices for some of the hybrid varieties and the other varieties that people are not familiar with and since we brought in varietals that they can put on a restaurant wine list and people understand those varietals, they can be assured that they might sell it a bit easier.”
But at St James Winery the studious looking CEO, Peter Hofherr, told me with enthusiasm that times are changing and the dawn of the native grape breaking into KC restaurants is nigh. “I think that the wine culture for local wines is changing. We’re seeing some of that now.” He says, “I’ve done a lot of work in Kansas City that shows me that while you don’t see them in the restaurants right now, we are seeing some chefs that really are embracing local wines, so I think that you will begin to see more than them.”
Cory from Les Bourgeois agrees and puts it down to improvements in the quality of local wines. “I guarantee that you could wrangle up 40 wines across the state of Missouri, red and white, that would be delicious at any dinner table,” he says. “I think we have the product now, and we have the reputation on the product. Most restaurants at this point are really eager, and as the restauranteur says: ‘Well I’d put some local wines on the wine list if someone came and talked to me.” Winemakers say, ‘Well shit! I’ve got a warehouse full of wine!’ ‘You and I should get together!’”
Peter from St James views it this way: “We see ourselves as sort of on a wine frontier here.”