Every spring my most determined companion is a Phoebe. This drab little flycatcher constructs her muddy home with maniacal focus atop an electrical outlet on the Foggy Ridge crush pad, just behind the blending tank and next to the glycol chiller. She fusses at the bottling crew, ignores the drone of the air compressor and swoops in with stems and straw, intent and single minded. Last year after she left I dismantled her nest and found dried apple pommace, fuzz from a cigarette butt and grey lichen from the Roxbury Russett trees. She is quite resourceful and cannot be deterred.
In late spring we’re rushing to finish bottling while caring for an orchard awake far too early, but the Phoebe is good for a smile—I anthropomorphise her antics, imagine her extreme case of OCD then fret that the blacksnake will find her low vulnerable nest. But this determined little bird reminds me of a paradox I frequently encounter in the wine and cider market.
Last week I called on a prospect, a charming restaurant with the motto “Fresh. Local. Good.” The menu names the provenance of every ingredient, most sourced within a few hundred miles…Guilford Mills, Goat Lady Dairy, Snow Creek Family Farm and more. I see passion in every dish, from “Very Good Deviled Eggs” to an honest burger with grass fed beef. This is a place I’d eat twice a week, if it were located in the wilds of Southwest Virginia.
The beverage list is another matter. Here the Factory Farm rules with cheap imported wines, “Big Box” California options and six pack ciders. There is nothing artisan or local about the beverage side of the “Fresh. Local. Good.” claim at this restaurant or at many others. This focused chef likely drives extra miles to purchase heirloom tomatoes and certainly pays more for grass fed local beef. So why is it that so many chefs and owners often lose their focus when it comes to the beverage list?
Foggy Ridge is lucky to partner with several retailers that carry through on their promise to sell something other than Factory Wine. In Durham, Wine Authorities’ Craig Heffley offers artisan made estate wine from around the world, with an emphasis on small family farms. Craig offers well run and informative tastings, with real education about the “farm” side of winemaking, and I always find an interesting new wine I can’t resist when I drop off cider. Charlottesville’s Feast has long championed local food, and extends this focus to Virginia wine and cider. Their well edited wine rack is an ideal companion to their over the top cheese counter. Foggy Ridge Cider’s SC and AL distributor, Grassroots Wine, boasts “Farms, Not Factories” and “Tractors, Not Tankers” as its mottoes. You can see this passion—and focus—in their portfolio with its excellent selection of grower champagnes. Again, all hard to resist.
If retailers can focus on Farmer Wine, so can restaurants. Here’s my challenge to the many talented chefs out there who focus on produce and meat from local family farms: peruse your wine list and add a few Farmer Wines to the beverage side of the equation! Take a moment and consider your focus on farming…and think over my replies to your most common objections:
“Local wine—which in a good part of our market area is Virginia wine—is too expensive.” Too expensive compared to what? Compared to cheap imports made from mechanically harvested grapes, sweetened with concentrate and made in enormous quantities, yes local wine and cider is more expensive. But aren’t your heirloom beans and tomatoes more expensive than produce from Sysco? Frank Morgan writes eloquently about the value of Virginia wine on his DrinkWhatYouLike blog. Try judging beverages on quality and value the same way you judge ingredients for your dinner menu and I’ll bet you find a few farmer wines or ciders to add to your list, if not from Virginia, perhaps from a farmer-winemaker in another corner of the world.
“Local wine is not very good.” Granted, I hear this more in NC and SC than in VA, but there is a lingering perception that no good wine (or cider) can be made in this region. Think again. It was not too long ago that restaurants were famous for flying in New Zealand lamb. Smart chefs now offer lamb from Border Springs Farm and look closer to home for compelling produce that captures their imagination and palates. Taste again and learn about beverages made with care and skill by some of the top ranked wineries and award winning cideries in the country. Virginia wine—and cider—more than holds its own. If you think otherwise, you haven’t tasted lately.
“Customers want to drink something they know they’ll like.” I just don’t buy this one—Foggy Ridge Cider’s restaurant customers offer inventive menus full of snout to tail meats, uncommon herbs and the latest heirloom vegetables. Pickled ramps, Sea Island Red Peas, Candied Bacon and even Head Cheese are everyday ingredients for most chef driven spots on our customer list. And customers line up for the latest from these talented chefs. Why not offer the same surprise and delight on the beverage list? Charlie Berg of the late Town House restaurant in Chilhowie, VA, did an amazing job of pairing John Shields’ highly inventive food with a wide range of beverages from big Barolos to Virginia Viognier to Sake to Foggy Ridge Cider. In Rogue 24’stasting menu I see similar creativity in the match ups between RJ Cooper’s delightful dishes and the perfect beverage, often an uncommon one (cider again!). And Jay Pierce at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen pairs Skilled Fried Chicken (fried in lard of course) with Foggy Ridge Handmade for his famous Tuesday suppers.
Even Peter Brett at DC’s Blue Duck Tavern combined 5 of his special desserts quite creatively with 5 Foggy Ridge ciders, proving that customers want to be delighted not bored.
Back at Foggy Ridge, bird song surrounds me in the spring orchard. Jack’s bees visit thousands of blooms a day; I dig ramps and find a new fox den. This season is full of distractions from late frost to the first asparagus. I don’t know about you, but I’m taking a lesson from the resourceful, determined little Phoebe who sits contentedly on her nest even while I pressure wash the crush pad—I’m doing my best to keep my focus.
PS…Remember that restaurant with the “Fresh. Local. Good.” motto? They just placed an order for Foggy Ridge Cider.