2010 New World Wine Experience: Marking Three Decades of Excellence

Awards banquet pays tribute to restaurants, wineries and winemakers that have raised the bar
Nov 3, 2010

Back in 1981, Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken had an idea: Create a program to recognize restaurants for excellence in their wine lists. Some people thought it was pointless; at the time, few American restaurants devoted much attention to their cellars or their wine service.

That year, in Wine Spectator’s first major wine event, 13 restaurants earned a Grand Award for having the finest wine lists in the country. Today, 75 restaurants around the world hold a Grand Award for cellars with unequaled depth and breadth, while some 3,600 others hold an Award of Excellence or Best of Award of Excellence. (See all the Restaurant Wine List Award winners.)

“Thirty years later, we know the point,” says Thomas Matthews. “These are restaurants that care passionately about wine. … It’s a labor of love.”

To pay tribute to their commitment and to other leaders in the wine industry, wine lovers, vintners, chefs and sommeliers gathered to celebrate at a black-tie gala at the Venetian. Since it was Halloween eve, revelers donned elaborate masks with their gowns and tuxedos; some even came in full costume, including a trio of Civil War-era generals. In keeping with the New World theme, they sipped a selection of California’s finest sparkling wines instead of Champagne at the reception, and enjoyed a Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands and a Washington Cabernet with their meal, before wrapping up the evening on the dance floor.

In 2010, new Grand Awards went to seven recipients, from destinations as close as the Wynn Las Vegas and as far-flung as Sydney and Hong Kong. “In the midst of the worst economy in half a century, we have the largest class of new Grand Awards in half a decade,” said Matthews. Among them was chef Wolfgang Puck’s Spago Beverly Hills.

Although Puck has won numerous accolades over his long career, this was Spago’s first Grand Award. In 1982, he had a one-page wine list, and the most expensive bottle was Cristal at $100. He thought he was doing pretty well. But little by little, the list got larger, until “a young guy who has the same love for wine as me” took Spago to the top. Puck credited sommelier Christopher Miller and those who laid the groundwork before him, quipping, “I had very little to do with it … except that I had to open my wallet day after day.” This 28-year path is a testament that a Grand Award really “takes a lot of hard work and dedication,” said Puck.

Just as restaurants have reached new heights with wine over the past three decades so have the growers and vintners of Washington. When editor at large Harvey Steiman first visited the state 33 years ago, only a handful of wineries existed. Now there are nearly 800, trailing only California, and “dozens of them have dazzled us.” Among them is the state’s largest wine company, whose portfolio includes Columbia Crest, producer of the 2009 Wine of the Year, its Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Reserve 2005. At 95 points and $27 on release, with 5,000 cases made, this pick was a “no-brainer,” said Steiman.

Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, accepted the award, paying tribute to current winemaker Ray Einberger, the original Columbia Crest winemaker Doug Gore and everybody in Washington wine for reaching this pinnacle. “You measure an organization by the people, and we have some of the most passionate people in wine.”

Also marking the number 30 is Wine Spectator’s Distinguished Service Award, now held by 30 luminaries of the wine world, from educators to researchers to wine marketers, but mostly the vintners—all of whom are notable not only for their achievements and innovation but also for their willingness to give back. (See the full list of Distinguished Service Award winners.) “It's important to remember our history and where we came from,” said Matthews.

The latest to join this elite group is winemaker Helen Turley “for her impact in shaping the style and quality of California wine today,” said Matthews. In his cover story on Turley, senior editor James Laube compared her reach and influence to that of another Distinguished Service Award winner, the late André Tchelistcheff, the famed consultant who pulled California wine out of the Great Depression.

From her 1985 Cabernet for B.R. Cohn to cult Cabernet startups such as Colgin and Bryant Family to her own Marcassin label of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, made with husband and viticulturist John Wetlaufer, “it seems that everything Turley touches turns to gold,” Matthews said.

After receiving a standing ovation, Turley noted that another Distinguished Service Award winner, Julia Child, was one of her earliest heroines and that, like Julia, as we get older, we get better with experience. “I hope our greatest wines are ahead of us,” said Turley, “both my own efforts and those of the young winemakers striving to make the best possible.”


From left: Michael Price, Shari and Garen Staglin, and Danielle Price, wine director at Wynn Las Vegas, whose Alex Restaurant was a new Grand Award winner this year.
 
From left: Elliot “Grant” Dash, Shirley Brooks of Elk Cove winery, Matt “Sherman” Firth and Jeff “Custer” Dash.

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