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Eat, Drink and Be Merry

Though times are tough, restaurants are strengthening their wine programs by broadening your choices

James Molesworth
Posted: September 9, 2002

The Post Hotel Dining Room joins the ranks of the Grand Award winners this year.
 
  New Grand Award Winners:  
 
  Daniel  
 
  Opus Restaurant on Prince Arthur  
 
  Piero Selvaggio Valentino  
 
  Post Hotel  
 
  Tribeca Grill  
 
  Also:  
 
  How to enter next year's program  
 
  Restaurant Awards Search Page  
 

Despite the events of September 11 and an economy that remains sluggish, the nation's restaurant scene continues to offer wine-loving diners a wide range of options. That's the message delivered by the hundreds of wine lists we reviewed for Wine Spectator's annual Restaurant Awards program.

This year's crop of new entries was the largest in the program's 21-year history: 848 new restaurants submitted their wine lists for judging; 670 of them (79 percent) won an award. Along with restaurants already in the program (i.e., those whose renewals were approved for 2002), the grand total of award-winning restaurants now stands at 2,866, our largest listing ever. This continued growth testifies to the importance of wine in restaurants worldwide.

Wine Spectator offers awards on three levels. The highest honor is the Grand Award, a distinction reserved for restaurants offering unparalleled wine experiences. They create exciting, comprehensive lists based on deep cellars of properly stored older vintages from top producers, and combine them with fine food, professional service and distinctive ambience. This year's new Grand Award recipients -- Daniel, Opus Restaurant on Prince Arthur, Piero Selvaggio Valentino, the Post Hotel Dining Room and Tribeca Grill -- are discussed in detail beginning on page 57. They join 90 preexisting Grand Award winners to bring the total to 95, which represents less than 4 percent of the overall number of award-holders.

Less difficult to achieve, though no less honorable, is our basic award: the Award of Excellence. This category recognizes restaurants that provide a sound wine program for their customers -- whether it's a modest 80-selection list or a list with a few hundred selections. This year there are 643 new Award of Excellence winners, bringing the category's total to 2,406, or nearly 84 percent of all award-winners.

The recently opened Marseille, on New York City's West Side, exemplifies the Award of Excellence winner. Its list features 145 wines and is backed up by a 3,000-bottle inventory. Wine director Hugh Crickmore has put together a hip, modern selection, picking interesting wines from underrated areas such as France's Loire, Languedoc-Roussillon and Beaujolais regions. Moderately priced and offering more than a dozen wines by the glass, the list provides flexibility while matching well with chef Alex Ure—a's French-Mediterranean cuisine.

The middle category, the Best of Award of Excellence, distinguishes restaurants that take their wine programs a step above the norm. These lists showcase vertical collections from top producers, display extended breadth over several major wine regions and exhibit superior harmony with the menu. Achieving this award has become increasingly difficult in recent years, as evidenced by the tally of only 27 new "Best of" winners this year. In addition, we upgraded 37 previous Award of Excellence winners to the Best of Award of Excellence this year. That brings the number of "Best of" winners to 365, just less than 13 percent of our honor roll.

Martini House, a new restaurant located in St. Helena, Calif., helps set the pace for current "Best of" winners. Despite its wine country location, Martini House breaks away from regional myopia with a 600-selection list that specializes in California but also provides choices from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Italy and Spain.

Michael Ouellette, wine director at Martini House, notes that today's wine consumer is very well-educated. "We don't even have a Merlot by the glass," he says. "There are so many choices out there, and the consumer is ready for it." Ouellette estimates that 20 percent of Martini House's wine sales are of non-Californian labels, a significant increase in the outside-California category for the state in recent years.

Marseille and Martini House are not alone. Marseille's eclectic mix and Martini House's foray outside the typical California framework symbolize a new wave of wine lists that are moving away from the standard lineup of California and French selections and gearing themselves toward other wine regions.

We determine a restaurant's wine strengths based on the emphasis of its wine list. A list that has "California" designated as a strength does not provide California wines only -- rather, California is one of its strongest suits. California (a strength on 2,382 of the lists we currently honor) and France (with 1,054) still dominate the overall scene. However, the rest of the world, led by Italy, along with regions such as Spain, South America, Germany and Austria, is catching up.

Olio e Limone restaurant in Santa Barbara, Calif., is another example of the trend. A first-time Award of Excellence winner this year, Olio e Limone provides diners with a 115-selection list that is two-thirds Italian and that moves beyond Tuscany and Piedmont with offerings from Veneto and Sicily. While co-owner Elaine Morello's wine list does give a nod to California wines, she is confident in its Italian emphasis. "We have a lot of regulars who are knowledgeable, and they love the [wine] list," she says.

Jiko takes an even bolder step away from California and France. Located in Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge in Florida, Jiko augments the safari theme of the lodge by putting forth an 85-selection list comprising only South African wines.

This year, we awarded 102 new winners whose lists have an Italian emphasis. Thirteen of the new winners have Spain as a strength, while 12 have Australia or New Zealand, five have Germany or Austria, and three have Argentina. These numbers, while small, are increases for regions that have historically had token representation, at best, on wine lists. Now they are starting to appear in their own, bona fide sections.

As for the trends we've seen established in recent years, Wine Spectator awardÐwinning restaurants continue to provide diners with excellent access to hard-to-find bottlings and older vintages, though some charge a hefty premium for them. Aggressive wine programs are continuing at chain restaurants, too, with steak houses such as Ruth's Chris, Morton's, Del Frisco's and Sullivan's updating and expanding their offerings in order to compete for diners' dollars.

And just as the Restaurant Awards program keeps growing in the United States (with 49 states now represented), it likewise is spreading in foreign countries. We honor 401 restaurants in 45 foreign countries this year (compared with just 299 foreign winners three years ago), including new winners from Argentina, Aruba, Cyprus, the French West Indies and Poland.

Despite the steady growth of the program, however, there continue to be disappointments. This year, 178 (21 percent) of the new applicants we judged did not receive an award, and a handful of renewals were rejected. As we work our way through the entries each year, the most common hurdles to winning an award are too few selections, poor spelling and weak presentation, and a lack of interesting, quality producers. Shockingly, we also receive wine lists that fail to indicate vintages or appellations. In today's world of laser printers and computerized inventories, there is no excuse for a restaurant not to provide vintage and appellation data for its entire list, including the by-the-glass selections. Sadly, we must reject wine lists that look promising otherwise but omit this basic information.

But the successes far outweigh the failures. A good meal complemented by good wine is one of life's pleasures, and with so many restaurants taking their lists as seriously as their menus, there are more opportunities than ever for diners to enjoy the marriage of wine and food.

How to Enter Next Year's Program

For next year, Wine Spectator opens its Restaurant Awards program to new entries from Dec. 1, 2002 to Feb. 1, 2003. Entries must be postmarked on or before Feb. 1, 2003.

To enter, a restaurant must submit a copy of its current wine list and dinner menu as well as a cover letter of no more than one page describing its wine program. The cover letter must be in English and include the restaurant's phone and fax numbers. A non-refundable entry fee is also required.

Upon our receipt of these materials, you will be sent via fax a Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards program "listing form," which must be filled out and returned as soon as possible to complete your entry. The listing form cannot be sent to you in advance of your entry -- it will be generated after receipt of all materials.

For further details on entering or for a complete set of entry guidelines, call (212) 684-4224, Ext. 781, fax (212) 481-0724 or e-mail restaurantawards@mshanken.com.

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