In 2021, the Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards Program marked 40 years of championing excellence in restaurant wine lists. The awards are designed to elevate wine selection and service around the world and encourage strong programs that complement a variety of cuisines, settings and prices.
Making its debut in 1981, the Grand Award was created as a way to recognize restaurants with extraordinary wine lists at a time when wine sales were surging, the California wine industry was expanding rapidly, and an appreciation for wine was becoming an integral part of American culture. Yet, says Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken, “I had a frustration: I would go to a lot of casual restaurants, and they had good food, but they really didn’t pay attention to the wine.” (Watch Shanken’s video interview on the founding of the awards.)
That year, 13 winners in the United States were selected for the Grand Award honor from more than 500 restaurant candidates nominated by wine writers, consultants, importers and distributors. Each wine list was reviewed for its quality of selection, breadth and depth, value and presentation. In addition, editors personally visited the final candidates to evaluate inventory and storage, service and ambience, and the quality of the restaurant's cuisine.
The response to the Restaurant Awards program was "much more than we ever dreamed possible,” Shanken wrote afterward.
Steadily, the program grew: In 1982, 12 more restaurants achieved the Grand Award, and another 75 restaurants were awarded honorable mention, coming together to create Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Restaurant Wine Lists in America for 1982. In 1984, the program honored its first international award recipients, and in 1985, Wine Spectator debuted the Award of Excellence and Best of Award of Excellence categories to create the three-tiered award system that is still used to this day.
Today, the program encompasses more than 3,100 award-winning lists hailing from more than 70 countries and all 50 states. Restaurant owners are increasingly attuned to offering value and diversity in their wine programs: Wine regions across the globe are represented, to match with cuisines from six continents and categories from classic steak houses to tapas to seasonal farm-to-table, vegetable-centric establishments. Despite perceptions that wines in restaurants are expensive, the majority of winners feature inexpensive to moderate pricing, as evaluated by our judges. (For more on pricing and other program details, read About the Awards.)
The three award categories are designed to serve as a guide for readers and set a level of expectation for a restaurant’s wine program. Wine lists that earn an Award of Excellence, whether compact or extensive, deliver sufficient choice to satisfy discerning wine lovers. Those with a Best of Award of Excellence display significant vertical depth of top producers or substantial breadth across multiple winegrowing regions. Winners of the Grand Award, our highest award, deliver serious breadth of top producers, outstanding depth in mature vintages, a selection of large-format bottles, excellent harmony with the menu, and superior presentation, offering our highest level of wine service.
Over the past 40 years, Wine Spectator has reviewed tens of thousands of wine lists. Year after year, these dining destinations continue to raise the bar of wine excellence: Today, the Grand Award winners total nearly 100 restaurants, with the size of their lists starting at around 1,000 selections and going up—a different world of wine from the Class of 1981.
Yet our award winners continue to prove that extraordinary wine lists can exist at any size, location, category and price point.