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The Rise of Destination Wineries?

The term “destination restaurant” came into being a few years ago because of one solid fact and one cultural phenomenon. 

The solid fact is that if you want to experience a restaurant’s food, you have to go there to eat it.  Of course, people have tried to soften that fact.  The most obvious occurred years ago when some chefs tried to extend their reach with canned or frozen foods or by selling their spices and ingredients.  But tasting Paul Prudhomme’s catfish rub on the ones you bought and were blackening on the stove wasn’t the same experience as standing in line outside of K-Paul’s on a hot summer evening in New Orleans, as I and a few thousands others have done. Takeout?  Sure, takeout is prepared fresh by the restaurant crew, but you lose all the ambience even before you’ve nuked it because the sauce congealed on the drive home.

Since everything in sales economics comes down to margin and volume, a chef will never get really rich from one restaurant.  No matter how many tables you have or any many times you turn them, you can only charge those few dozen (or few hundred) daily customers so much.  Which is why so many star chefs have restaurants in Vegas, London and Hong Kong in addition to their original one in some big-city neighborhood or affluent suburb.  Sometimes, these satellite restaurants work well, sometimes they are busts financially or artistically.  How well-trained are the line chefs who are not autographing the star cookbooks?

Which leads us to the cultural phenomenon, which I call “flying foodies.”  I know many friends who trade worldwide restaurant reviews and know which star chef has just moved where.  These are the folks who created destination restaurants.  Sooner or later they find their way to Yountville and stand in line in the backyard of the French Laundry for evening cancellations.

Wineries are different.

It may be fun and personal to drink from a barrel with Alois Lageder, but his wine will taste just as good when you bring it home for dinner from the neighborhood wine shop, probably better.  Unlike restaurants, wineries that have great reputations for quality have little problem in getting their product to distant customers in great condition, ready to drink or store.  Big wineries with great reps – such as the crus of Bordeaux – are parts of a huge distribution network.  Small wineries that are great – such as the cult Cab wineries of Napa – have waiting lists for their mailing list.  Missed a vintage?  Go online for a wine auction.

Now, I see a couple of glimmers of a different type of winery – a throwback to the days when the international ex-pat community in Geneva (or Paris) would drive on a Sunday afternoon to Beaune and buy directly from the artisan winemakers of Burgundy in their basement caves. 

For me, the most visible glimmer is Va La Vineyards, only a couple of Led Zeppelin tunes on my car radio from where I live.  The winemaker and owner, Anthony Vietri, has been making wines from a seven-acre vineyard in the middle of southern PA’s mushroom country for about a decade.  Va La wines are always very good and often outstanding.  Southern Pennsylvania is proving to be perhaps the ideal place in the United States for growing northern Italy grapes, especially Barbera, certainly better than what California has shown thus far, and Vietri makes the best blends of them I have tasted outside of Northern Italy.  And don’t take just my word for it.  Any critic who has come to taste has gone away and written songs of praise. 

Vietri doesn’t buy grapes anymore, and he ruthlessly controls production of the ones he has. So his supply is limited.  In spite of the fact that most of the four primary wines he makes cost around $45 a bottle and that small East Coast wineries are seldom reviewed by Parker or The Wine Spectator, the tasting room is usually full of locals and out-of-towners who pay around $20 for a generous four-wine tasting.  Often, they are limited to only a bottle per family to take away.

Pennsylvania makes it very difficult to ship wine, so, if you want to taste Va La wines, you have to make your destination Avondale, PA, where Va La is located to taste them or have a nearby friend secure a bottle for you.

It’s a trend I would like to see more of.  Come to the winery, see the vines, enjoy your tasting, buy what’s available.  Forget exclusive lists and mailing costs. I know only a couple other wineries who are small-production, high-quality that are primarily available only at cellar door. I’m sure more exist, but I doubt that there are any in California. 

“Va la,” Vietri says, in its polite version in Italian means “go there.”  A great name for a modern destination winery.


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