After a weekend full of tastings and seminars, Wine Experience attendees donned their black-tie outfits and met one last time to sip sparkling wine, share another meal together and recognize achievements in the wine world. Saturday’s Grand Award Banquet was a festive night of socializing with hundreds of winemakers, sommeliers, chefs and wine lovers—but also a heartfelt thank-you to leaders in food and wine for their dedication to excellence.
The honors began with a formal salute to the 2011 Wine of the Year, the Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Sonoma County 2009. Senior editor James Laube retold the story of how friends and restaurant coworkers Dan Kosta and Michael Browne pooled tips to raise enough money to buy grapes and winemaking equipment in 1997. By 2003, noted Laube, the duo had created the model for the ripe, opulent, elegant wines they are known for today, racking up a string of outstanding and classic scores for their different Pinot bottlings. Of having their wildest dreams become reality, founding partner Chris Costello said, “This is the thrill of a lifetime.”
Executive editor Thomas Matthews reminded the crowd that the banquet originated with Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Awards program for excellence in restaurant wine lists. In 2012, four restaurants were newly awarded the program’s highest honor, the Grand Award, bringing the total to 75. The inductees included New York’s A Voce Columbus, San Francisco’s Acquerello, Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and Sierra Mar Restaurant in Big Sur, Calif., which had to rebuild its Grand Award program after being sold in 2006. Commander’s Palace proprietor Ti Adelaide Martin called the award the “Holy Grail” of recognition and admitted to “some very un-ladylike hooting and hollering” when she learned about the award earlier this year.
Introducing the Distinguished Service Award, Matthews explained that it goes to inspirational leaders in wine who have given back to the community and either transformed their regions or brought a grape variety to new heights. (Former recipients in attendance included Angelo Gaja, Chuck Wagner and Christian Moueix.) The 2012 recipient was Argentinean pioneer Nicolás Catena, who helped modernize the country’s wine industry and brought it, and the Malbec grape variety, to global prominence.
The guests sprang to their feet twice to give Catena a standing ovation, the humble vintner insisting that the recognition wasn’t a personal distinction but an award for Argentina’s Mendoza region. Catena recounted how inexpensive, simple wines were traditionally made in Argentina by his father’s and grandfather’s generations, before Catena visited wineries in Napa and Sonoma, which inspired him to adopt new practices and try to rival the world’s best wines. Catena began planting grapes at high altitudes, where there is a strong threat of frost, but where, he insisted, the sunlight intensity at those elevations makes the wines so distinctive.
Attendees enjoyed two Bodega Catena Zapata wines served with their dinner, the Chardonnay Mendoza Adrianna Vineyard White Stones 2009, which was paired with a lobster and mascarpone risotto, and the Malbec Mendoza Argentino 2004, which went perfectly with an oven-roasted rack of lamb.
The evening concluded with a performance by The Midtown Men, four stars from the original cast of Broadway’s Jersey Boys. “I want to say that, if you don’t have a great time, I’ll give you your money back,” quipped Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken before the performance began. “I want to say that, but I won’t say that, because this is a charitable event, and I don’t want to take money away from the charity.” He pointed out that the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation has raised more than $20 million and given out more than 500 scholarships at institutions such as the University of California at Davis, the Culinary Institute of America and the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.
Once the big band started playing, it didn’t take long for wine lovers to hit the dance floor. The Midtown Men started with a medley of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons originals and covers that included “Let’s Hang On,” “Working My Way Back to You” and “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” before moving on to hits from the Beatles and others. Afterwards, reluctant to let the evening end, wine lovers headed out to L.A.’s nightspots, where more glasses of wine and more toasts celebrated another fantastic weekend.