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As a record number of restaurants enter Wine Spectator's awards program, fresh trends continue to emerge
By James Molesworth
The leading indicator of the growing importance of wine in restaurants worldwide must be the growth of Wine Spectator's restaurant awards program. Introduced in 1981 -- when we presented the first Grand Awards to 13 U.S. restaurants -- the program has grown by leaps and bounds to its current roster of 2,332 restaurants, which are ranked in three award categories based on wine-list breadth and depth.
Although the growth in our program throughout the last 19 years has been amazing, this year topped all others by a wide margin. A record-setting 613 restaurants entered their wine lists to be judged for the first time, exceeding 1999's 492, an increase of more than 24 percent. Portraits of some of the interesting and representative new award recipients are scattered throughout this year's complete Dining Guide, beginning on page 91.
It appears that restaurateurs from around the world agree that a strong wine list is increasingly pertinent to their success.
"People know what they want, and we have to have the wines they want," says David O'Day, sommelier for the Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House chain.
However, not every wine list that applies to the program earns an award. Wine lists that omit vintages or appellations are automatically rejected. Sloppy organization or spelling errors can also sink an entrant, as can a limited number of selections, a lack of better producers or the omission of interesting wine styles. This year, 185 new applicants -- 30 percent -- did not win an award.
An impressive 403 new entrants did receive our basic Award of Excellence. This award, which was first introduced in 1985, covers a wide range of wine lists, from 70-selection bistro-style lists up to those containing 300 or more bottlings. The Award of Excellence distinguishes restaurants that offer wines of interest along with a choice of better producers and a thematic match to the restaurant's cuisine and style. These aren't showstopping wine lists, but they are sound and thoughtful enough to stand apart from the crowd's.
Each year, our extensive judging process throws a spotlight on emerging trends in restaurant wine lists. Last year, it was the appearance of hard-to-find trophy wines; restaurant wine lists were offering consumers perhaps their only chance at cult Cabernets such as Screaming Eagle or Harlan Estate. It became clear this year that high-quality wine programs are no longer limited to independent restaurants. Increasingly, chain restaurants are making significant efforts to provide impressive wine programs.
The growth of the Wine Spectator restaurant awards program is not limited to the United States, as the number of foreign entrants has increased significantly. For example, the number of Caribbean winners presently totals 22, up from 16 last year. Overall, the number of non-U.S. award-winning restaurants stands at 337, up from 299 last year, covering 38 countries worldwide.
HOW TO ENTER NEXT YEAR'S PROGRAM
Each year, Wine Spectator opens its restaurant awards program to new entries from January 1 to March 1. Entries must be received by (not postmarked by) March 1, 2001.
To enter, a restaurant must submit a copy of its current wine list and dinner menu as well as a cover letter of no more than one page describing its wine program. The cover letter must be in English and include the restaurant's phone and fax numbers.
Upon our receipt of these materials, you will be sent via fax a Wine Spectator restaurant awards program "listing form," which must be filled out and returned as soon as possible to complete your entry. The listing form cannot be sent to you in advance of your entry -- it will be generated after receipt of all materials.