Restaurant Awards: The Best Wine Lists of 2009

In tough times, nearly 4,000 restaurants keep the wine pouring with award-winning wine lists
Nathan Wesley
Posted: August 31, 2009

Every restaurant in New York City is down at least 20 percent," says local restaurateur Paul Grieco, who owns Hearth, Insieme and Terroir in Manhattan. "And if they say they're not, they're lying."

Greico knows it's nearly impossible for restaurants not to be affected by the recession. Big cities and tourist destinations such as New York and Las Vegas have been hit hard, and restaurants are drastically cutting costs to survive.

Wine programs are in the crosshairs as diners have reduced the amount they budget for wine (for more results from our recent online survey "What You're Drinking Now," see page 41). In response, some restaurants are treating wine as a luxury, scaling back inventory, decreasing the number of selections they offer, even laying off their sommeliers. Eighty restaurants that earned Wine Spectator awards for their wine lists last year withdrew from consideration this year citing economic concerns. And for another 120 past winners, the situation is even worse: They have closed.

But the 3,845 restaurants that are honored in Wine Spectator's 2009 Restaurant Wine List Awards program are still pouring wine—excellent wine—and at the best price-to-quality ratio that diners have seen in years.

In fact, some restaurant owners are seizing the opportunity to attract wine-savvy patrons by improving their wine programs. They see that prices at wine auctions are down, giving them the chance to stock rare bottles and older vintages, and that wines formerly in high demand are now easier to get. They know that wine-loving customers are loyal customers. They are betting on the long term. This year, nearly 100 wine lists improved enough to be elevated from the Award of Excellence, our basic category, to the more demanding Best of Award of Excellence; on average, these restaurants have upped their lists from a few hundred selections to an impressive 650 for 2009.

"I'm a bargain hunter," says Inez Ribustello, owner of On the Square in Tarboro, N.C., one of this year's upgraded winners. "A lot of distributors are liquidating their inventory, so it's an affordable time to buy."

At the top of the pyramid are restaurants that in many ways define themselves through their wine program. The Grand Award is Wine Spectator's highest honor for restaurant wine lists. Cellars earning this distinction offer serious breadth across classic wine-producing regions, display rare vintage depth, and have an eye to the best emerging appellations and producers. They are accompanied by skilled wine service and a complementary cuisine.

Addison, in San Diego; Blantyre, in Lenox, Mass.; Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas; and Wild Ginger, in Seattle, are new Grand Award winners in 2009. They join 68 other restaurants that successfully renewed their Grand Award. All are designated by a three-glass symbol in the Dining Guide, beginning on page 81.

By nature, Grand Award wine lists tend to focus on the high end, featuring many of the world's best and rarest wines. But that's no reason for diners looking for a serious and affordable wine experience to be intimidated. These lists also offer many bottles at lower prices and often deliver their rare wines at reasonable markups. In addition, all four of this year's new winners have broad half-bottle selections that allow guests to enjoy premium wines for fewer dollars.

"We're aggressively buying half-bottles," notes Blantyre owner Ann Fitzpatrick Brown, whose restaurant offers more than 150 such choices. They're in high demand by her guests, and they also allow her staff greater flexibility when pairing wines with the restaurant's three-, four- and five-course menus.

Addison wine director Jesse Rodriguez has also assembled a large collection of half-bottles. But it's his unique wine-by-the-glass program, which features private bottlings from some of the world's top winemakers, that's garnering attention. "The private labels give me a chance to custom blend a wine to match the chef's cuisine," he says. And because Rodriguez is working directly with the wineries, he's able to keep costs low and pass the savings on to the restaurant's customers.

The Best of Award of Excellence winners also offer plenty of great wine choices, with service and cuisine to match. This year's record-setting 816 recipients are honored for having wine lists that exhibit either vintage depth or superior breadth across select regions. These lists are a collective testament that diners' expectations are shifting toward larger selections of mature, quality wines, and these restaurants, designated by a two-glass logo in the Dining Guide, are delivering.

Greico's Hearth, in New York's East Village neighborhood, is among the class of new Best of Award of Excellence winners this year. The restaurant's wine list offers a concise yet eclectic collection of 400 food-friendly bottlings. Riesling and Pinot Noir dominate, but be prepared to be poured anything from Assyrtiko to Zierfandler. Those willing to experiment can sit down for a $35 prix-fixe dinner accompanied by an optional $15 wine pairing, or commute to the bar for a $10 salad-and-beverage pairing.

The Award of Excellence recognizes lists that present a solid collection of quality wines. They generally offer at least 100 selections that pair well with the restaurant's menu but are also interesting in themselves. The 2,957 restaurants that earned this award are designated by a one-glass logo in the Dining Guide.

While the Wine Spectator Awards program acknowledges current achievement, it also encourages restaurants to grow their wine programs. This year, 93 previous Award of Excellence winners were upgraded to the Best of Award of Excellence for their additional efforts; they're denoted in the Dining Guide with an upward-pointing arrow. In fact, two restaurants have progressed all the way from the basic award that each earned more than a decade ago to the Grand Award. Blantyre first earned an Award of Excellence in 1994 with 300 wines, and Wild Ginger entered the program in 1998 with just 126 wines.

In 2009, 453 restaurants are first-time Award of Excellence winners; they are joined by another 77 restaurants that returned to the program after a hiatus. These smaller wine lists tend to emphasize value, and when they do, the restaurants are busy.

"February outsold December," reports Julie Mulisano, wine director of the Short Story Brasserie, in Granville, Ohio, which opened in 2008 and quickly earned an Award of Excellence. Mulisano has assembled a wine list that's built on value and grassroots research. She works with the restaurant's chef to identify wine flavors that pair well with the menu and appeal to the brasserie's clientele, and sources bottles that fit that framework. The result is a thoughtful collection of mostly offbeat wines, all of which are marked up a scant $10 over the state-mandated minimum price.

"If customers are going to spend money dining out, they want to see value," Mulisano says. That's a perspective that's quickly spreading throughout the industry. Whether it's by trimming margins, offering affordable food-and-wine pairings or searching for unfamiliar but high quality bottles that come with low price tags, this year's award winners are doing what they can to keep the wine pouring. Let Wine Spectator's 2009 Restaurant Wine List Awards issue be your guide to getting quality and value in your glass.

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