Marvin R. Shanken looked out at nearly 1,000 people dressed in tuxes and gowns and said, "It's been a great ride." The editor and publisher of Wine Spectator was talking about the last 40 years, which saw the magazine grow from a humble newspaper to a magazine and digital brand with more than 3.5 million readers. But he could have been summing up the past three days, because he was speaking at the Grand Award Banquet, the final event of the 2016 New York Wine Experience.
After a weekend full of outstanding wines and surprise guests, attendees celebrated one more time. The event kicked off with a Champagne reception, where houses including Bollinger, Taittinger and Roederer poured their sparkling wines while a bubble machine made the room feel like Champagne come to life.
Around the room, wine industry members and wine consumers chatted with each other, sharing their favorite wines and memories of the weekend. (The most popular question was whether you had been in the room a few hours earlier for Sting's surprise performance.)
Upstairs, dinner was served as guests enjoyed a video look back at the past 40 years, as wine in America evolved from just another drink to an essential element of a good meal or a fun time. Antinori Umbria White Cervaro della Sala 2014, Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 40th Anniversary 2012 and, with dessert, Graham Vintage Port 1985 filled diners' glasses.
The Grand Award Banquet began as a celebration of winners from Wine Spectator's Restaurant Awards Program, which recognizes the world's best wine programs. This year, seven restaurants—Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.; Epicure in Paris; Geranium in Copenhagen; Jean-Georges in New York; the Modern in New York; Murray Circle in Sausalito, Calif.; and the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, Calif.—received the highest honor, the Grand Award, for the first time, joining 80 existing winners.
"A couple of years ago, I was sitting in the back of this room, thinking how amazing it would be to be up here," said Michaël Engelmann, wine director for the Modern, as he accepted the award with Danny Meyer, who won his first Grand Award for Eleven Madison before selling the acclaimed restaurant to its chef and general manager. Meyer had said the Modern could be a Grand Award winner someday if he found the right team, and Engelmann and his colleagues fit that bill, growing the program from 1,000 selections to 3,000 in just 18 months.
To win a Grand Award, a restaurant also must serve its diners, noted Meadowood wine director Victoria Kulinich. While the restaurant has impressive verticals of old Napa Cabernets from legends like Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyard, Dunn Howell Mountain and Robert Mondavi Winery, they're no good collecting dust. "We love being able to open old bottles with our guests and show them what Napa was like before we were there," said Kulinich.
STORY CONTINUED BELOW
Napa's classics are legendary, but its present wines keep raising the bar, and one of them was awarded the 2015 Wine of the Year: The Peter Michael Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Au Paradis 2012. Accepting the award, winery owner Sir Peter Michael said, "This is the best business in the world, and I am proud to be a part of it."
Mel Dick has been a part of the wine business for six decades, and few can match his record of bringing new wines to the marketplace. Presented with this year's Distinguished Service Award at the banquet, Dick is president of the wine division for Southern Glazer's Wine & Spirits, the nation's largest wine wholesaler, which now sells 100 million cases of wine a year, one-third of all wine sold in the United States. What's more, he has succeeded by focusing on wine education—teaching his salespeople, restaurateurs and retailers, and consumers.
He has also given back, to multiple charities and to the annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami, which supports Florida International University's Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, teaching the next generation of wine professionals. "What Ernest Gallo and Robert Mondavi were to wine production, Mel Dick is to wine distribution," said Shanken as he presented the award.
After wine and food comes making merry, and rock legends Huey Lewis and the News came out to help the crowd have fun. Anyone who missed out on Sting's performance earlier in the day was in luck: He joined the band on stage to perform a stirring rendition of "Every Breath You Take." The crowd cheered them on, then danced the night away.
Accepting his award earlier, Dick said that every night, he and his wife, Bobbi, ask, "Who are we going to drink tonight?" The answer is always, "Let's drink friends." Rather than worry about price or score or region, they drink wines made by the hundreds of people they have met in this industry. In a room filled with some of the wine world's best, this was an evening to drink to friendship.