Stirring The Pot
Updated: Apr 20
DO YOU RECALL WHEN FRIENDS would remark that an item they admired, or more often wore, came from Paris, or London? Those days are mostly behind us placed squarely in our rearview mirror. Popular today, buying most things “local.”
The “buy local” mantra is everywhere. It seems to span a range of products and services ranging from lawyers to grass-fed herbivores, and this includes beer and wine. The movement has leaped forward this past decade and carries with it converts who are questioning their previous global yearnings. There seems to be some good old Protestant guilt sprinkled into this new focus.
What were we all thinking the story goes? Today, supporting local producers is a prerequisite to honorable citizenship in the U.S. So much for New Zealand spring lamb and big city law firms.
The logic rooted in this new-age thinking makes only partial sense to me. What about price and other compelling factors like the price? I am from the old school of economic theory supporting a model of efficient producers and distributors regardless of origin. Price was king.
Let’s look at this phenomenon using two popular beverages I referenced earlier, beer and wine. If one were to measure familiarity by volume consumed, I would be near the top of my class. Northwest Michigan, where I now live and drink full time, is teeming with micro-breweries and wineries that dot the landscape all offering their “localness.”
Most micro-breweries appear to be doing quite well which defies my rational economic model. Directly to the point, I visited one of the twenty micro-breweries in my region and enjoyed a 16-oz. glass of craft beer paying $6, plus a tip. Later, at a neighborhood bar, I enjoyed a couple of Pabst, brewed in Los Angeles, served "on tap" for $1.50 a pour.
Now, digest these numbers so you have a solid footing for my point of view.
Next on the block is local wine, further demonstrating my concerns and laying the groundwork for my curious introspection. A locally produced white wine, say a Pinot Gris, hovers around $15 to $20 a bottle at retail. Comparing this to a bottle of wine from Australia or South Africa, say a Syrah, or Chardonnay, that can be purchased at a grocery store for under $6 a bottle, one-third the price of an Old Mission, or Leelanau Peninsula offering. These figures are reasonably accurate and are certainly subject to audit as I do not want to be bantering from a false premise.
I don’t mind paying a premium to support local producers - I want to, but three times the price is perplexing to me and just seems high.
How do global vintners grow the grapes, harvest and ferment them, bottle and package them, ship them in ocean freighters, and finally deliver them in trucks to my small-town grocer landing on shelves at a retail price of $5.88? (all in one breath.) This is my overriding point and the basis of my angst.
Now, to get the pot really stirred, I believe my international wines taste better. With hundreds of years under their belt, they have learned the art of obtaining very respectable flavor profiles from their grapes, soil, and micro-climates at a darned reasonable price.
Revealing all sides for a fair and balanced argument, I admit I can’t quite say the same about a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer over that of our local craft beers, especially with local hops that generate such complex flavor profiles. But again, how much price difference must one allow along this continuum? I am likely causing dissonance for many, as this is near heresy in the campaign to support our local breweries.
So, how do we address this obvious conundrum?
Tourism and alcohol both play heavily into this behavior of unbridled spending for locally made craft beverages. A tourist “is on vacation,” and forgoes restraints that would otherwise govern a more rational economic behavior. Consuming alcohol creates euphoria altering the brain function that one possesses allowing the consumption of more beer, or wine, with little concern for price.
Tourists and alcohol represent the perfect combination helping to line the pockets of area entrepreneurs. And, because I so strongly believe in capitalism, I applaud their efforts and investments. But my foreboding question remains, what about the local population whose income is often on the lower end of the bell curve? Something doesn't seem right. The efficient producers will win in the long run, but for now, the breweries and wineries can thank their lucky stars for tourists.
Here’s a call for a $10 bottle of local wine and a $3 pour of local craft beer.