OK, so maybe the title is a bit strong, but it’s important to me to first lay out the purpose and reasoning behind this blog’s existence. The term “locavore” has emerged in recent years to describe a new food movement. There are several ideas driving this movement:
- Economic: The production of local foods stimulates and diversifies rural economies.
- Environmental: Locally-produced foods have a lower carbon footprint due to decreased shipping distances.
- Health: Removing the anonymity of food producers results in safer food and increased quality.
- Social: Locally-produced foods can add to a region’s identity and local pride, not unlike the concept of “terroir “in the wine world. People form a personal connection to food and the land upon which it was produced, as well as with the people that work to produce it.
This movement has taken off, with groups like Slow Food, community-supported agriculture (CSA), and farmers markets being more and more visible all the time. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of food consumed in Illinois is imported (around 90%), we have soils and climates conducive to producing a multitude of meats, cheeses, fruits, and veggies locally. As more upscale restaurants are striving to find high-quality, locally-produced food for their businesses, several are now contracting with regional growers. This not only helps with quality control, but also ensures that the supply of local produce will be available when in season.
However, you would be hard-pressed to find local wines on the wine lists at most of these establishments. In the old world, food and wine co-evolved; grape varieties were selected that produced wines best suited to pairing with the local foods, and new dishes were then created to pair with the wines of the region.
This hasn’t really caught on in America, specifically in the Midwest. What are the region-defining foods in the Midwest, anyway? So many of the foods we eat have origins in other countries that it’s difficult to visualize which foods really are local! Rather than dwell on truly native meats and produce, I would rather focus on the stuff that we are really best known for, in IL:
Meats: You name it – but Illinois really stands out for our commercial pork production, as well as the standard list of game (venison, fowl, etc.). These meats tend to be much leaner than steak, which present great wine pairing opportunities.
Fruits and Vegetables: We have a climate suitable to most temperate fruits, including apples, peaches, sour cherries, melons, strawberries, and a smattering of other small fruits. The veggie list is diverse: corn (duh), tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins and squash, asparagus, beans, and a variety of greens if planted and managed appropriately.
Where does wine fit in? Well, Illinois produces a bunch of locally-grown, food-friendly, high quality wines throughout the state! Perhaps what is keeping foodies from going for these wines is a lack of information and experience. The majority of Illinois wines are from lesser-known grape varieties; ones rarely addressed by big food and wine magazines, let alone local newspaper columnists. Also, wine style and quality does vary as our industry, still in its relative infancy, experiments and develops. It is not uncommon for decisions regarding “Illinois Wine” to be made based on a limited sample size. It is my goal to help connect the foodies out there with the wines already being produced in their backyard. We’ve a lot of information to cover, including grape varieties, wine styles, potential food pairings, etc. It may take some time, but I truly believe the effort will result in a long-term relationship with your local wines and wineries. I look to get started in part two of this post, where we’ll cover some general information about the Illinois wine industry, and hopefully discuss a few myths and generalizations about your local wine industry along the way.