The results of Restaurant Hospitality’s 14th Annual Best Wine List in America Competition are in, and our judges—the experts at The Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago—say this year’s winners truly know the fine art of creating an excellent wine list.
Class in a GLASS
Your wine list says a lot about your restaurant. A poorly written list with a boring selection is as bad for a restaurant’s image as stale bread and dirty silverware. But an exciting list that shows creativity and imagination in the selection and presentation of wines can excite guests and waitstaff and help create the elusive "buzz" that sets one restaurant apart from another.
A great wine list should be a well-chosen and wide selection of interesting wines that complement the menu. The best wine lists all have several things in common: They are interesting and enjoyable to look at and they encourage customers to explore new and different wines. It almost goes without saying that the wines on an interesting list should be good examples in every given style and price point.
Restaurant Hospitality’s 14th Annual Best Wine List in America Competition is designed to reward those restaurants that have made the commitment to provide the best possible wine experience to their guests. Driven by the passion, knowledge and hard work of many dedicated people, these wine programs have created exciting lists that deserve acclaim.
Entries are solicited each year in three categories: International, United States, and Short List. Wine lists entered in the International category are expected to demonstrate a comprehensive selection of great wines from around the world. Entries in the United States category are expected to offer primarily American wines from a wide selection of regions, grape varieties, styles and producers. In practice, this seems to be a category almost created for steak houses, but good examples were submitted from many other types of restaurants. The Short List category is for those lists offering around 100 wines or fewer.
From the large number of entries, it is obvious that, once again, the most competitive category is the International category. With many restaurants offering dishes influenced by world cuisine, it isn’t surprising that many lists are created to match a wide range of flavors and traditions.
In the past, great wine lists with selections from around the world were often larger than a telephone directory. Those days are happily gone. In today’s uncertain economic times, smaller, concentrated wine lists are more profitable and easier to manage. Yet, while smaller, these lists continue to offer a diverse selection of exciting wines to a restaurant’s guests.
Most entries in the International Category had at least basic coverage of the major wine regions of the world. Unfortunately, far too few of the entries were willing to venture outside of well-known producers and over-represented regions. The noticeable exceptions were those restaurants brave enough to venture into new territory with small, exciting and little-known producers. These restaurants looked to Austria, Spain, New Zealand, Lebanon and Canada for exciting new flavors and styles. In the well-known regions, they chose quality producers and lesser-known wines that often provided their guests with excellent values.
And the envelope, please...
The winning entry in the International Category is Martini House in St. Helena, Calif. Since opening in November of 2001 in a Craftsman-style bungalow, Martini House’s wine program has showcased not only wines from local Napa and Sonoma producers, but also great wines from around the world. The restaurant has received high marks from many quarters for its comfortable atmosphere, excellent food, knowledgeable servers and outstanding wine selection. Although not as large as many other entries, the Martini House wine list caught our attention with its well-chosen selection and engaging presentation. Sommelier Lisa Minucci has created a list that encourages exploration. This is a wine list that we could spend much of a dinner reading.
In the United States Category, we were looking for wine lists that offer a wide range of American regions and styles. We rewarded those wine lists presented new producers and unique wines. Unfortunately, too many of the lists submitted in this category were merely long compilations of wines too easily available in large-volume retail stores. The highest scoring entries were notable exceptions to the many lists we saw built around mass-market wine.
The winning entry in the United States Category is Smith & Wollensky in New York City. Although the list is driven by big name California red wines, we were happy to see that it still offers plenty of small producers and handcrafted wines. Long-time beverage manager Pat Colton has created a list with serious breadth and depth. Many wines on this list would be hard to find even at wine auctions. (Some of the rarest wines on the list are priced as "Make an offer," which led one of the judges to imagine competing bids being shouted to the server from neighboring tables.) With moderate prices, many affordable alternatives, a good number of large format bottles, and a few international wines to fill in the large selection, this wine list quickly emerged as the leader in this category.
Guided by the adage, "less is more", an excellent short wine list is difficult to create. That being said, we were surprised to see some excellent short wine lists. The best entries that we saw in the Short List Category focused on one or two regions or countries, and then found a diverse collection of wines in that area. Working with a smaller wine program, these wine buyers have nonetheless found a workable balance between focus and diversity. Restaurants seeking to create memorable wine experiences for their guests with a short list should consider this strategy. As an aside, we didn’t see a lot of short list entries this year, which is surprising, given the amount of restaurants using this format. Restaurants looking for a less-crowded playing field in the wine list competition next year should enter this category.
The winning entry in the Short List Category is Paesano’s, in Ann Arbor. Paesano’s wine director, Chaad Thomas, has put together a well-crafted list of Italian wines offered at fair prices. The list includes an extensive wine-by-the-glass section. Each has a description to help those who know little about Italian wines, and the staff is well-trained to help guests with their selection. By working within the confines of a smaller wine program, Paesano’s has demonstrated that a well-thought-out list of any size can greatly add to a guest’s dining experience.
All of this year’s winning wine lists, and many other of the fine lists that were submitted, deserve credit for an excellent job in creating a great wine experience for their guests.
With that said, we’d be remiss if we did not point out that entries that in the United States Category were not as strong as we’d like to see. In fact, there were so few good entries we did not give out bronze medals this year. As for silver medals in this category, we gave awards to three units of one chain.
While all of the Sullivan’s Steakhouse chain restaurants consistently offer a very good wine experience to their guests, three of their restaurants’ wine lists stood out as outstanding: Sullivan’s Steak House, Houston; Sullivan’s Steak House, Palm Desert, California; and Sullivan’s Steak House, Tucson. Each of these restaurants has created a wine list with a wide selection of mostly American wines to complement their menus.
A few suggested exercises
In judging this year’s entries, one issue repeatedly surfaced: The all-too-obvious role of large wine suppliers in influencing or "co-writing" many restaurant wine lists. A number of lists were culled for this reason. Many lists offered wines from only two or three major importers or companies. Limiting one’s selection of wines to those from just a few sources deprives consumers of the myriad choices and experiences the highly diverse U.S. wine market provides.
To create a great wine list, a restaurant’s wine buyer has to be in control of the process. While wine buyers and distributor sales representatives can and must work well together, a restaurant with a distributor-written list will never have an exciting and award-winning program. What is needed is a healthy give-and-take between the restaurant and the distributors. But at the end of the day, the wine buyer has to direct the wine program, and a wine list must be chosen based on the restaurant’s food, guests, concept and the buyer’s taste and experience.
Even if you are writing your own list, you could still be depending on your distributors a bit too much. If your wine sales representatives are your major source of knowledge and information on wine, your wine list will never stand out. Buy and read good wine books. Subscribe to a number of wine magazines. Visit wine-related websites. Take a few classes. Make time in your busy schedule for organized trade tastings. Make it your passion to learn as much about wine as you can and seek out the unique, interesting and great wines that you learn about. Ultimately, this is the only way to create an excellent wine list.
Try to build a diverse wine list with selections chosen by taste. It seems remarkable that so many buyers don’t do this and that too many lists submitted had a large number of well-known wines that all taste similar. Perhaps the temptation is to increase sales by offering a large number of best-selling labels, instead of trying to bring in good examples of many different wines and styles. The result, however, is a list that will fail to excite customers and probably won’t have the intended commercial payoff in the long run.
The persistent belief that consumers only buy wines they know might have been true in the mid-1980s, when Americans were just starting to discover wine. But, today, the wines that stand out are those that are well-made examples from smaller producers. It’s quite possible to make a profit selling wines that have never been stacked in your local retail store. Look for small producers, alternative wine regions, and wines from unheard-of grapes, and then give your staff the knowledge they need to talk about those wines. Your customers will thank you by returning again and again and by telling others about your interesting wines.
Creating an excellent wine list that stands out from the competition excites your guests, and selling a lot of wine takes knowledge, hard work and a willingness to offer wines that aren’t in the mass-market. It’s a difficult task, but one that has its own pleasures and many obvious rewards. Those wine buyers who have made the extra effort to offer great selections deserve the recognition of everyone in the food and beverage industry.
Congratulations to all of the Gold, Silver and Bronze medal winners in each of the categories, and to each of the restaurants who entered and have made an effort to build an exciting wine program for their guests. We hope that you have a prosperous year.