‘Where are the local wines?’

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Appalachian State professor wonders why regional wines don’t appear on Appalachia wine lists

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Jessie Blackburn, right, wondered why Appalachian wines lists didn’t serve local wines. (Ellen Gwin Burnette photo, Appalachian State Univesity)

Part 1 of 2
North Carolina’s wine industry continues to grow, with nearly 200 wineries and more than twice that many vineyards. But how often do you see North Carolina wines on a restaurant menu?

At their annual meeting in 2016, the North Caroline Winegrowers discussed ways to raise the profile of their industry. One strategy was to get more of the state’s top restaurants to put North Carolina wines on their menus. Despite a thriving farm-to-table restaurant culture, it is difficult to find the state’s wines being poured in fine restaurants.

Jessie Blackburn, associate professor at Appalachian State University with degrees in rhetoric and Appalachian studies, noticed the same thing. While driving from New York to North Carolina several years ago to relocate for her current position, she was surprised by the number of wineries she passed in the Appalachian Mountains, especially Virginia and North Carolina. Wineries don’t match the outdated “moonshine” stereotype that so many still have in their minds about Appalachia.

She began visiting winery tasting rooms, talking with winegrowers. She was impressed with the quality of their wines and the experience that greeted tourists. At the same time, she was aware of a “culinary renaissance” going on in Appalachia — restaurants with a strong farm-to-table ethic. Her experience will be the topic of an upcoming book, Appalachian Terroir: Stylistic Approaches to New Landscapes, to be published by University of Kentucky Press.

But where were the North Carolina wines? “I looked at chefs’ menus, and few were selling local wine,” she said. And that didn’t match the tradition that you would experience in other parts of the world, she said. In places like Italy and France, food and wine from the same region are proudly served together.

“When you eat food or wine from a region, you’re tasting terroir. Why is there a disconnect here?” she asked, pointing out that restaurants in North Carolina and Virginia seemed to have no problem putting local beer and spirits on their menus.

She had the opportunity to talk with Appalachian chefs who are committed to a sustainable, local food system. She asked them, “Why do you not have local wines on your menu?”

She believes there are many reasons why North Carolina wines may suffer from an “image problem” with chefs and consumers.

“It may be that every chef has a different reason,” Blackburn said. Some fear that their clientele’s wine literacy suggests the best wines come from other places – California, New Zealand, France or Italy. Some chefs just have an idea of what a standard wine list typically looks like.

And there are other reasons why N.C. wines may suffer from an image problem. Some North Carolina wineries are perpetuating a low-brow image of the industry by cashing in on the state’s bootlegger, moonshine stereotype, “which does us few favors,” she said.

Developing a tasting room experience “that is worth coming back to and that reflects the nuances of the terroir” is important for enhancing the wine industry’s image. “Wine is one of those things that is symbolic. Some of the wineries are still struggling to create that experience that people are willing to drive for or to come back for,” she said.

Wineries also benefit from being located close together, creating a destination for tourists, a scenario that you would certainly find in many parts of North Carolina.

People should see wine country as a destination.

“So the more wineries open up, the better our destinations become,” she said. A winery that is isolated from other wineries faces more struggles than a winery or vineyard surrounded by others, and trails and winery passports help pour dollars into local economies.

Yet Blackburn believes that getting wines on the menus of top restaurants is the best way to promote the state’s wine industry. So she decided to bring together some of the area’s finest chefs and regional winemakers to expose the chefs to regional wines that are good enough for restaurant wine lists. And the idea for the Chef and Winemakers Summit was born.

Check back Wednesday to read about the summit!