DC is Surrounded by Vineyards, So Why Don’t the Restaurants Serve More Local Wines?

Photograph by Scott Suchman

Washington restaurants love to brag about their all-local beer taps and cocktail lists dominated by local spirits. But when it comes to wine? Good luck finding a place that has more than a handful of local options, despite all the wineries now in Virginia.

“It would be super-hard to do an all-Virginia list,” says sommelier Sebastian Zutant, co-owner of the buzzy Bloomingdale Italian eatery the Red Hen, who’s working to start his own winery.

For starters, being on menus isn’t a priority for most local wineries. They make more money selling bottles out of their tasting rooms. What does make it to area restaurants is often limited.

Because of the high costs of labor and land, local wines often veer pricey—some say overpriced. “It’s sort of a Catch-22. You want to support local, but when the low-ball stuff is pricing itself out of the market, it’s really hard to be completely onboard,” says Zutant.

Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that local labels are simply not household names like some out of California. “Other wines in the US are brands,” says sommelier Brent Kroll, owner of the forthcoming Shaw wine bar Maxwell Park. Some restaurants, especially those without a sommelier, would rather feature wines that sell themselves without explanation.

Even at the Dabney, the Blagden Alley restaurant that prides itself on sourcing nearly everything from the Mid-Atlantic, only about 5 percent of the wine list is local. Co-owner Alex Zink says part of it has to do with his comfort level with European wines. But he admits it can be tough to convince guests to spend, say, $85 on a Virginia Pinot Noir.

“If I can get that on the table and in front of them, the wines are beautiful and they love them,” he says. “But it’s a sell. I don’t want to be in the business of selling. I think we’re in the business of hospitality.”

This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.