The final night of the Wine Experience is marked by the Grand Award Banquet, which provides a last chance to catch up with longtime friends, make new ones and talk about the incredible wines everyone had the chance to try over the past few days.
But it’s also the official recognition of the restaurants which have recently joined one of the most exclusive clubs on earth—Wine Spectator Grand Award winners. These 91 restaurants, located in 14 states and 16 countries, have built the most impressive wine selections and service in the world.
At the banquet, executive editor Thomas Matthews explained how Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken first proposed the Grand Awards. “The Restaurant Awards program was an idea that Marvin came up with in 1981 that no one believed in,” explained Matthews. “He said, ‘Restaurants in this country have crappy wine lists. This is something we have to fix. How can we fix it? Let’s give an incentive to restaurants to build up their wine lists and that will give consumers a reason to go to those restaurants.’”
“Everyone said, ‘It will never work.’ So here we are in 2018, and nearly 4,000 restaurants around the world are in our program. It’s become the crown jewel of a restaurant to win a Grand Award.”
Befitting such an auspicious evening, the celebration started with Champagne. Guests gathered in a ballroom downstairs for hors d’oeuvres and a selection of nine different top-flight bubblies, including Bollinger Brut Champagne Special Cuvée NV, Perrier-Joüet Brut Rosé Champagne Blason NV and Pol Roger Brut Champagne 2008. Attendees could say hello to some of the vintners who presented their wines during the weekend. Several longtime winemakers snapped selfies with old and new friends.
Upstairs, guests dined and enjoyed the wines of Domaine Serene in Oregon, whose owners, Grace and Ken Evenstad, were being honored with Wine Spectator’s Distinguished Service Award. The Evenstads joined a who’s who of the wine industry at the head table, including Angelo Gaja, Piero Antinori, Prince Robert of Luxembourg of Château Haut-Brion and Mel Dick of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits.
The restaurateurs and sommeliers representing the 7 new Grand Award winners for 2018 recounted the lifetime of work put into building such amazing programs, featuring thousands of wine selections. Ryan Fletter, owner and wine director of Denver’s Barolo Grill, said, “I actually cried when I first got this award. I’ve been at Barolo Grill for 25 years. I was a busboy, bartender, wine director, general manager … I’m a bit of a wine eccentric in that I can’t stop buying it and collecting it and serving it and serving it the right way.”
For Paul Mekis, wine director of Madera in Menlo Park, Calif., the Grand Award was a sign of how far American wine service has come in the past few decades. “I would like to thank Wine Spectator for opening our eyes to the world of wine since 1976,” he said. “I feel honored to be a part of such an elite group.”
The winners also recognized that the Grand Award is not just for who can amass the biggest wine cellar—it’s a recognition of excellent service and food. “This is a hospitality award,” said Hristo Zisovski, beverage director of New York’s Ai Fiori. “So to all our guests, past and future, thank you for coming in. Thank you for letting us take care of you.”
Hospitality was also on the mind of the Distinguished Service Award winners. The Evenstads moved to Oregon’s Willamette Valley when its wines were still relatively unknown. They have helped build it into a world-class wine region and are now giving back, including donating $6 million to establishing the Grace and Ken Evenstad Center for Wine Education at Linfield College in Oregon. Accepting the award, Grace remarked, “Most importantly, I want to thank all of our customers who have supported Domaine Serene all these years. Thank you.”
A celebration is never complete without music, and the night was capped off with a performance by R&B legends Kool & the Gang, performing “Celebration,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Ladies’ Night” and numerous other hits. It was certainly the perfect night to celebrate good times.