Wine can elevate great food, kindle new friendships, raise our spirits when we're down, and even heal our wounds. On the last night of the 2017 New York Wine Experience, it did all that, as vintners, restaurateurs and wine lovers from around the world gathered at the annual Grand Award Banquet to dine together and lift each others' spirits.
As the crowd gathered in a ballroom of the Times Square Marriott Marquis, many were still thinking of the recent fires in California, which had been the topic of a seminar earlier that day. But the focus now was less on the horrors of what was lost than on what can be done to help rebuild.
"We feel deeply for all the people who lost their homes, and we're going to try to help all we can to make things better," said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator, as he addressed the audience.
The evening began with bubbly, as guests mingled and enjoyed glasses of top Champagne cuvées from producers like Roederer, Bollinger, Krug and Charles Heidsieck. Arrayed around the room were photos of Grand Award–winning restaurants. Wine Spectator's Restaurant Awards program spotlights the best wine lists from around the world. This year, more than 3,500 restaurants from 50 states and more than 75 countries earned honors, reflecting their commitment to providing wine lovers a pleasureful dining experience.
The Grand Award is the program's highest honor, marking 87 restaurants as elite wine destinations for diners. In between courses at the banquet, the five newest Grand Award winners accepted their awards—Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House of New York City, Grill 23 & Bar of Boston, Les Climats of Paris, PM & Vänner of Växjö, Sweden, and Wally's Beverly Hills in California.
"Someone once told me we would never get a Grand Award," said Crystl Horton, sommelier at the New York Del Frisco's. "I heard that as a challenge." Del Frisco's team has spent years building the wine program to its current 2,220 selections, with an inventory of 12,400 bottles.
Several of the sommeliers and restaurateurs accepting the awards noted that they could not have done it without the fantastic vintners who work with them, many of whom have suffered during a tough year. As Brahm Callahan, corporate wine director of Himmel Hospitality Group, which owns Grill 23 & Bar, accepted the award with his team, he talked about the moment he realized that his restaurant could help fire victims by adding special offerings to their by-the-glass wine list that would raise money for relief efforts.
"The real priceless part of this award is that I have a platform to stand up here and talk to my peers and the leaders of the industry I have grown to love," he said. "I try not to take my work too seriously; I always joke, 'I don't save lives, I sell wine.' But in this case we have the ability to change lives out there."
For Randy Lewis, cofounder of Lewis Cellars with his wife, Debbie, who died earlier this year after a long battle with cancer, the banquet was the chance to pay tribute to her and the wine she helped him make, Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013, Wine Spectator's 2016 Wine of the Year. Accepting the award with tears in his eyes, Lewis remarked that "it's been a tough year," but he was happy to be on stage and to be accepting the award with Debbie's son Dennis, now the company's president.
The final honor of the night was Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes leaders in wine and food for what they have contributed to their industries and to philanthropy. Barbara Banke, chairman of Jackson Family Wines, received the award as recognition for her crucial role in building one of the wine industry's most dynamic companies, her unflagging support of environmental sustainability and her dedication to numerous children's and educational charities around the country.
But as she came to the stage to accept it, she was thinking about the future. Jackson Family Wines is headquartered in Sonoma County and owns multiple properties that were near the fires. In the weeks of uncertainty, her team housed workers who lost their homes and served more than 11,000 meals to first responders and Sonoma residents in need.
"Distinguished service means to me that I haven't started yet," she told the crowd. "Because we have a tremendous task ahead to rebuild the community of Napa and Sonoma. And I am fully committed with my family, my executives and everyone in my company to helping with that rebuilding effort. All of you can help us a lot. What we really need are people to come out and see us, to visit small wineries and restaurants and hotels and help us get back."
All net proceeds from the Wine Experience go to the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, which has raised more than $20 million for scholarships and grants for the hospitality and wine industries, including Washington State University’s enology and viticulture program, Sonoma State University's Wine Business Institute, the viticulture and enology program at the University of California at Davis, Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and Florida International University's hospitality school. Those donations would not be possible without the continued generosity of the countless vintners who share their wines and time, as well as the Wine Experience attendees.