As we judge the restaurants that enter our wine program each year, we look for the best new entrants that can potentially compete for our top honor, the Grand Award. These establishments are typically newer, and they've burst onto the scene with deep pockets and big wine cellars.
In doing so, it can be easy to forget about restaurants that have earned the award for a long time. (Some of the Grand Award winners currently in our Restaurant Awards program have held the award since the program's inception in 1981.) But as great as the cellar needs to be to earn the award, it must also maintain that level of excellence in order to keep it. Crabtree's Kittle House Inn in Chappaqua, N.Y., has done just that.
Crabtree's Kittle House Inn earned a Best of Award of Excellence in 1990, the first year it was in our program. It earned the Grand Award in 1994, and it has held onto it ever since.
With more than 6,000 selections and 70,000 bottles in inventory, the wine list there is in its prime. It isn’t top-heavy with young, expensive cult wines, nor is it a fading list, with only a few verticals of Bordeaux and other wines that are past their prime. Instead, owner John Crabtree and wine director Don Castaldo are sitting on a load of great wine that is ready to drink—and they aren't overcharging for it. (Castaldo began his career at the inn in the late ‘80s and returned after stints at various New York City restaurants.)
Nancy and I made our way up there last night—it's only 40 minutes from Manhattan without traffic. We had a bottle of 1996 René & Vincent Dauvissat Chablis La Forest , a pure, crystalline, mineral-filled Chablis that is drinking with rapierlike definition right now. It's arguably the world’s purest expression of Chardonnay, and you can drink it at Crabtree's Kittle House for only $75. We then had a bottle of the 1995 Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a screamer of a CdP that floored me when I did a recent retrospective of the ‘95s. It’s crammed with juniper and sage bush flavors, racy fruit and great cut on the finish. Where else can you find one of CdP’s greatest estates, in a mature, outstanding vintage, again for just $75? I should have had two bottles ...
There’s tons of other great buys on the list: The stunning 1995 Ridge Geyserville for $50 leads a host of delicious Cali Zins from the ‘80s and ‘90s. There’s plenty of other Rhône, Burgundy, German Riesling (such as a ’90 Selbach-Oster Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese), Tempier Bandols and more—all in their prime drinking window, and all moderately priced. (There's also heavy-hitter Bordeaux, Cali Cab and Piedmont at triple-digit prices too, if you want to go that way.) The wines are in impeccable condition and the glassware and service are excellent. What more could you want from a wine experience when dining out?
The best part is that Crabtree and Castaldo are still buying wine. They’re even expanding the cellar space below the restaurant, meaning the trove of great wine will continue to be there. Individual items might get cherry picked, but there’s enough there that you won’t notice what’s been drunk up.
“I love selling the last bottle of a wine,” says Castaldo. “It’s here to be drunk, not held on to.” (Here’s a tip: There’s one bottle left of the ’92 Robert Weil Kiedrich Gräfenberg Beerenauslese—first one to it gets a gold star).
It takes deep pockets and a lot of passion to build up a Grand Award–worthy wine cellar. But sometimes those cellars hit their peak and then begin to fade (meaning they lose their award). But keeping that passion going, and maintaining a cellar in prime shape, is the ultimate test. Crabtree's Kittle House Inn is doing just that.