Is Salt Lake Ready To Support Local Wineries

Industries related to alcohol have been slow to grow in Salt Lake due to restrictive liquor laws, that have primarily been influenced by the Mormon church. However, as the laws have been relaxed, high end restaurants, a bar scene, and companies producing alcohol locally have begun to show up all around the city. Slowly but surely, the alcohol production industry is growing in Salt Lake and surrounding areas. Both micro-breweries and distilleries have had a large measure of success. A great example is Squatters Brew Pub, which produces beer that is sold not only at home in Salt Lake but, in other large regions of the the country. "We're really popular in Texas." Brewmaster Jason Stock told The Daily Meal. High West Distillery, who not only make quality whisky but also have a terrific restaurant, has also been well received. Both beer and sprits are definitely managing to gain a solid foothold in Salt Lake but, what about wine? Is Salt Lake ready to support a local winery as well?

A winery in Utah faces different completely different challenges then a brewery. Certainly both  types of businesses are subject to Utah's more conservative liquor laws. However, when the success of breweries and distilleries that have been opened in Salt Lake is taken in to account, it's clear the liquor laws have relaxed enough to allow alcohol production businesses to flourish.

For wine the issue may be more a matter of logistics. Beer is generally produced in a much shorter time frame, and with less physical labor, then wine. This means it's much easier to produce large quantities of a product and keep up with purchasing demand. Perhaps most significantly of all, ingredients for beer can be grown in a greater variety of climates then wine grapes. In fact many wine experts would argue that the climate of Utah is not at all suitable for wine grapes. Perhaps it's less of a question of is Salt Lake ready to support an urban winery, as is there a winery that can account for Utah's climate in a way that will be successful.

Salt Lake is currently home to two wineries: Ruth Lewandowski Winery and Kiler Grove Urban Winery [pronounced Kye-ler]. Both are currently attacking the problem of the local climate on grapes by using grapes grown elsewhere, primarily California. Though they actually make the wines they sell in Utah. However, the owner of Lewandowski Winery, Evan Lewandowski, hopes to some day grow his own grapes right in Utah. "The soils here are varied and pretty amazing...pebbly, cobbly, rocky...sandstone, limestone, shale! Many places are absolutely perfect for the cultivation of extremely high quality wine grapes," Lewandowski expressed, "I'm one million percent certain that world-class wine will one day be grown here. It's a matter of time. If I don't do it, someone else will."

Though Lewandowski is flying against the conventional wisdom in his goal to produce grapes in Utah, don't misjudge and think he is in any way uneducated about wine. Before deciding to settle in Utah he spent a great deal of time traveling and exploring fine wine. He spent time in France, Italy, California, Washington State, and New Zealand, all the while learning more and more about wine. He also did an internship with Ferrari Carano and then worked on a degree at The Walla Walla Institute for Viticulture and Enology in Washington State. He then went on to work for Domaine Audrey et Christian Binner, before coming back to Utah. Lewandowski is also the current Sommelier at local fine dinning, and well reviewed, restaurant Pago.

There is also some precedent for wine grapes being grown in a less then ideal climate with successful wines being produced. Take Laughing Cat Winery in Colorado, who not only grow their grapes locally but manage to produce some fairly quality wines. Though, admittedly they aren't as well reviewed as their counterparts hailing from California or other wine regions.

On the other hand Michael Knight, the owner of Kiler Grove Urban Winery, feels that Utah's terroir, the special set of characteristics that the geography, geology, and climate of a place have on wine grapes, are not really right for producing the quality grapes needed for fine wines. He plans to continue using the Paso Robles, Rhône-style grapes from his vineyard Kiler Grove in California, for his wines. He does however, prefer producing his wines in Utah as opposed to California where the bulk of his grapes come from.

Knight originally had planned to set up his winery and tasting room back in California. Knight explained that he went through California's lengthy application process and spent about 100,000 dollars in application fees, trying to get started. However, he when he was given permission to start his winery he was not allowed to have a tasting room. "Not having a tasting room is death for a winery. You have no way to promote your wines." Knight told The Daily Meal. Instead of continuing to operate in California and fall into a slow slide downward, Knight chose to move his production to Utah where he could have a tasting room. Though possibly not what you would expect, because of the formerly restrictive liquor laws, Salt Lake was very welcoming to Knight. The Kiler Grove operation in Utah was up and running quickly, with a mere $300 dollars in fees.

Despite Salt Lakes warm reception, Knight is not having the success he would like with local restaurants carrying his wines. Only six local places, most notably Pago, offer Kiler Grove wines. Knight is incredibly frustrated and even feels he is getting 'lip service' from the local restaurants. When has local chefs, sommeliers, and restaurateurs to his tasting room he is told his wines are good. Yet, very few restaurants actually place any orders. Is this do to the quality of Kiler's wines; or is this perhaps a sign that Salt Lake isn't really ready to support an Urban Winery?

Certainly some of Kiler's wines could use improvement. The 2013 Dry Riesling, which is the one wine Kiler produces that doesn't source grapes from Paso Robles, falls flat. However the 2012 Trebbiano, 2010 Grenache, and 2013 Rose are all quite respectable wines. According to Alexis Korman, a Contributing Food Editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Kiler Groves major issue may have nothing to do with either Salt Lakes willingness to support an urban winery or the quality of Kiler's wines.

"I've seen wines sell like crazy that don't taste as good as these. Sourced from Paso, you know they're working with great fruit. I think it's a question of packaging: In today's image-centric world, so much of wine sales depends on marketing, especially killer wine labels." Korman commented. Kiler's wine labels were created by Knight and an artist friend. Unfortunately the labels do have an amateurish presentation, which really doesn't present the wines in the best possible light. High end restaurants are just not going to want to bring a bottle that looks less then one hundred precent professional to the table. On the other hand, Ruth Lewandowski Winery's labels seem to prove Korman's point. They have a much more artistic and polished look and the winery seems to be having a lot more success pedaling their wines.

Salt Lake actually does look to be primed and ready to accept and support a local winery. Liquor laws are changing. Restaurants and bars are opening. Being the local winery is a nice little niche market to be filled, if a business can market and present itself right. Certainly Ruth Lewandowski Winery seems to be on the right track, having been praised by both local individuals and the local media. People are excited about the idea of Kiler Grove Urban Winery as well. The people of Salt Lake want to have their own local wine options but, they have to look good. Kiler will need to adapt their image and marketing to be successful but, if they do Salt Lake is ready for them.