Reflections on Wine List Awards

A glance around any major tasting suggests that sommelier ranks are growing at a rate that would put both rabbits and Duggars to shame. An equivalent scan through the major wine publications reveals that we’re also a fairly well-decorated bunch. Top sommelier lists, wine service awards, wine list awards, feature-length profiles, and a variety of other accolades abound. But this is relatively new territory for the wine industry. A generation ago, there was little to no public recognition of the work of sommeliers. Heck, a generation ago, there were hardly any sommeliers.

Perhaps this is why traditional restaurant reviews continue to pay scant attention to wine. Some critics are more inclusive than others, but wine is typically allocated a single sentence or lumped together with comments on service. Culinary efforts will be exalted or decried, atmosphere romantically recreated on the page, the triumphs and failures of the service team mercilessly detailed, but wine remains a footnote. Why this persists is perhaps fodder for a separate article, but the result has been that wine-oriented publications have picked up the slack. They are now the champion of sommeliers, despite the fact that our role, at its essence, is not solely about wine but inextricably linked to both food and service.

The first major publication to issue wine list awards was The Wine Spectator in 1981. Founder Marvin Shanken’s reputed purpose in creating the awards was to celebrate restaurants that promoted wine as an essential part of fine dining at a time when, for most, it was a secondary concern at best. The original model was far different than the triple-tiered system all restaurant professionals know today. Back then, The Wine Spectator was printed in black and white on folded paper like a newspaper, and restaurants did not apply for the award but were nominated. Only Grand Awards were given; the lower two tiers were not introduced until 1985. Among the original 13 winners, Yankee Silversmith Inn, The Down Under, Ernie’s, Narsai’s, Scandia, The Silverado Restaurant, and Windows on the World have since closed, while The Breakers, The American Hotel, Bern’s Steakhouse, Valentino, Sparks, and The Forge remain open. Of the latter group, all but the last two still hold Grand Awards.

As today, 1981’s Grand Awards were handed out at the then-newly minted New York Wine Experience, held at the time at Windows on the World. Kevin Zraly, Wine Director of said restaurant from its opening in 1976 until its destruction on 9/11, had conceived of the Wine Experience as a way to attract weekend business and approached The Wine Spectator to be its sponsor (he continued to run the event for a decade, long after the Spectator ran off with that particular ball). Zraly recalls the feeling of that first year. “It was great. All the restaurants were there, and many of us knew each other. We were all coming from the same rare position—that a great wine list helps make for a great restaurant.” Though Zraly admits that the publication was nowhere near as powerful as it is today, it still had a profound effect on his business. “Aside from the occasional local mention, I don’t believe there was anything like it at the time. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Grand Awards were a wake-up call for people in the restaurant industry to understand how important their wine lists could and should be.”

Master Sommelier  worked with two different Grand Award-winning lists in Chicago during the 1980s and 90s and was able to personally track the accolade’s growing influence. George Badonsky's Maxim's on Astor, a historic Chicago restaurant famous in the 1960s and 70s, reopened in late 1984 and received a Grand Award the following summer. “At that time, maybe one or two other restaurants in Chicago held a Grand Award,” recalls Spellman, “but I don’t think the clientele were too swayed by it.” Seven years later, much had changed. In August of 1993, Spellman replaced  at Charlie Trotter’s, mere weeks before the restaurant’s first Grand Award was announced. “In 1993, being in the national spotlight of The Wine Spectator was a really big deal, and it brought a bunch of business. This was also the year we won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service.” Spellman continues, “In essence, the 1980s and early 90s marked the beginning of the rise of the sommelier as star performer. Sommelier competitions and the Court of Master Sommeliers became more important. Even so, the idea of a wine collection as the foundational idea for a restaurant was unusual.”

Outtake from Wine Spectator's 1985 Grand Award photo shoot. Pictured left to right are George Badonsky and Joe Spellman. (Photo credit: The Wine Spectator)

As Spellman experienced, the James Beard Foundation was another early player in American food and wine awards, though their allegiance has largely been to chefs. These awards were founded in 1990, with the wine-centric categories of Outstanding Wine Program and Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional added the following year (Square One and Robert Mondavi were the inaugural victors). Interestingly—and to many, frustratingly—these remain the only two wine awards despite the dramatic increase in our national consumption. That said, the Foundation took one more step outside of the kitchen in 2012 when it recognized PDT as having the nation’s most Outstanding Bar Program. Bill Addison, Chairman of the James Beard Foundation Restaurant Committee and National Restaurant Editor for Eater, explains, “The James Beard awards come very specifically through the lens of the restaurant experience, meaning that they are not so much about wine in isolation, but as it relates to the total dining experience.” He cites an example, “When we awarded Aldo Sohm with Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional, his work with stemware was a big part of his consideration, not just his skills as a sommelier.”

More recently, a handful of consumer-oriented publications such as Zagat, Food & Wine, and Wine Enthusiast have become important sources of sommelier and wine list recognition. Food & Wine’s annual top sommelier listing (the exact number vacillates between seven and ten) has become a serious badge of honor within the trade. “This award actually began in 1999 as a Best New Wine List award,” explains Editor Ray Isle. But in 2010, they shifted the focus to sommeliers. “We essentially felt that it made more sense to recognize the person who created the list, rather than the list itself,” Isle admits, going on to comment that not only did rewarding sommeliers feel more “personal,” it was a better foil to their long-standing chef awards. The final lineup is ultimately editorial, but the nominations are peer-based, with former winners weighing in on the next generation of star sommeliers.

Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants list debuted in 2011. Unlike The Wine Spectator’s awards, wherein the number of labels, vintage depth, and bottle size play determining roles, the criteria for a Wine Enthusiast nod are a bit more vague. “It’s not about how big the wine list is,” Food Editor Nils Bernstein explains, “but how well wine is woven into the experience.” He continues, “A lot of restaurants in the US right now have access to a great deal of wine and money. But a big wine list isn’t necessarily a great wine list. I find that, in a lot of cases, a list that abounds in personality and focus is better than one that is big for big’s sake.” Though Bernstein says they regularly receive unsolicited submissions, their list is generally assembled via the private dining experiences of their many editors. “It’s daunting. There are so many restaurants with really interesting wine programs now; we could easily do a top 500 list.” Instead, they are inching toward international waters, starting with last year’s 10 Best Wine Restaurants in Canada, although they intend to keep most of their focus on the United States. “We feel that sommeliers now have a huge influence on wine culture. This may be the case all over the world, but it seems especially true in the US.”

On the subject of international coverage, perhaps the biggest challenger to The Wine Spectator’s wine list award dominance was launched recently from London. The World of Fine Wine magazine is a widely respected English-language quarterly that focuses on long-form articles of serious academic merit. Following their 2014 acquisition by Progressive Luxury Publishing (now Compelo), Editor Neil Beckett launched the awards as a way of expanding the magazine’s reach. Beckett describes his thinking, “We hoped that there would be an opportunity to do something worthwhile for consumers—restaurant wine lists are still the least transparent sector of the wine market—and for restaurants themselves, [as] many still do not receive the recognition they should for their wine lists, and sommeliers are among our readership.”

As with The Wine Spectator, World of Fine Wine entries must submit an application and pay a not insignificant fee. World of Fine Wine also grades on three levels, bestowing one, two, or three stars to all qualifying lists. Beyond that, the awards differ dramatically. A major point of departure is the composition of the judging panel. Aiming to be deliberately international from the outset, WoFW’s judges are based around the globe and include Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers, World’s Best Sommeliers, and a stable of notable authors and critics. They have also created a wide range of award types to celebrate list diversity, including specific prizes for those of medium, short, and micro length, as well as for lists that focus on a single region. As modern fine dining moves in a more casual direction, and sommeliers start to dissociate “great” from “grand” vis-a-vis wine lists, this strategy seems essential for staying both relevant and fluid.

The timbre of the two publications also affects their reach. The Wine Spectator is predominately a consumer rag with a long history and broad reach. World of Fine Wine, however prestigious, caters more to wine professionals and extreme geeks. , Wine Director and Co-owner of Copenhagen’s Geranium, has had an exceptional couple of years. In 2016, Geranium was anointed not only with a Grand Award but three stars from World of Fine Wine, as well as their special jury prize for best sparkling wine list in Europe. They retained all three accolades in 2017. Ledet was elated by the recognition, but allows that it was the Grand Award more than anything that elevated their status. “There is a different category of guest now wanting a table, there are more wine journalists wanting to write about us, and there are a lot more sommeliers applying for jobs than before. It’s like we are in a different league now.” He adds, “Almost all our guests know about the Grand Award.”

Soren Ledet of Geranium. (Photo courtesy of Ledet)

Steve Morgan, former wine director for Formento’s in Chicago, had a different experience. Following years of working the floor at Tribeca Grill, Del Posto (both Grand Award winners), and Alinea, he wanted to craft a list that was humbler in scope, but still qualitatively rigorous. Because they offered less than 500 selections, he knew that a Grand Award was never a possibility. And yet, in 2016, Formento’s was honored as World of Fine Wine’s Best Medium-Size Wine List in the World. “The grandness and ridiculousness of being the best something in the world was really crazy. I didn’t know how to get my head around the idea,” Morgan confesses, “especially coming from the World of Fine Wine. The people that read that magazine really care and approach wine with a different level of depth. That makes for a different kind of guest and a different interaction.”

All of this leads us to the question: what is the benefit of these awards? Does prestige necessarily lead to profit? Are these accolades simply another notch on the resume of the receiving sommelier, or is their value tied to their ability to put “butts in seats,” per the old restaurant adage? In talking to sommeliers, it seemed that beyond the obvious honor, a major boon was not so much the quantity of butts, but their attitude.  replaced Steve Morgan at Formento’s right before the award was announced and was on hand to witness the transformation. “It brought in some new clients, but it also changed the way our existing clientele interacted with the sommeliers. You could see that they felt more comfortable being led by the staff. The award gave us more leeway in showing people cool or more unusual things.” Across the ocean at Geranium, Ledet had a similar experience post-Grand Award. “There is a whole other [level of] trust in what we do now.”

Another factor that determines the impact and influence of a wine list award is where the restaurant is located. In major markets like New York City, anything other than a top award may not move the needle much, especially for a long-established restaurant. I can remember the wine team at Veritas unpacking our Grand Award each year with something of a ho-hum attitude; we even hung it in our office, rather than in the guests’ view. But Veritas had already reigned for a decade at that point. Patrick Cappiello, who preceded me at Veritas and had also done time at the similarly lauded Tribeca Grill, was determined to win a Grand Award for his first self-authored wine list at Gilt. “For me, for sure it was a focus. It was a goal that I wanted, so much so that I got a tattoo to commemorate it! I was very excited. It’s always been a reference point for me.” Cappiello—who, ironically given his pedigree, has become somewhat emblematic of the shift to a more casual approach to fine wine service—was even more giddy when his later project, Pearl & Ash, received a Grand Award. “It was a goal at Pearl & Ash, but we never thought it would happen. We thought it was a pipe dream, as they had never given it to a place that was that casual, bordering on a wine bar, before.”

Outside of the major metropolitan markets, the full range of awards takes on a greater significance. For a wine-oriented tourist navigating the rocky waters of less populous markets, even the most entry level award can be a beacon. “When David Gordon and I go to a city we've never been to before, we always check the Wine Spectator list,” confides Cappiello. Kevin Zraly concurs. “I don’t live in NYC; I live 90 miles away in a college town. The restaurants in this town, they want to have a Wine Spectator or a Wine Enthusiast award. They may never get the Grand Award but they definitely want something, and they are definitely going to display it with pride.” At least in theory, this gets more people in more restaurants drinking more and better wine. Which is a very good thing, as someone’s got to give all these sommeliers something to do.

Anonymous
  • Kelli, you bring up some great points as to the measurable gains for accounts to pursue wine awards. As it is application season, many are considering applying or tweaking the menu to meet requirements.  The connected world has impacted the business model. 10 years ago, not many restauranteurs had heard of yelp, trip advisor, or other online review sites...and those that had paid them little mind. Now it seems to have gone 180 degrees, where its a managers ( or dedicated customer dept)  daily task to review and respond to any negative comment or experiences.  Wine awards and food accolades seem to be a key to getting to the head of the line, and thereby more foot traffic and possibly repeat business.