Friday, August 5, 2011

Winning a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence...

Recently the restaurant where I am the general manager and sommelier, Maestro 2300, was awarded the Wine Spectator award of excellence.  Since then I have been overloaded with questions about this award, the process to get the award, and what exactly it is.  I figured since that is the reason that I started these blogs to begin with, why not go ahead and write about it to tell everyone what I know about it.  As in previous blogs I warn you to bear with me as I am no literary genius and have no filter from brain to mouth sometimes.

So the obvious question is...what the heck is a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.  Well, The Wine Spectator is the largest and most prominent wine publication in the world with over 2.6 million readers world wide...which kinda trips me out that some little French guy is sitting in his cafe in Nice or wherever is reading the Wine Spectator and notices a little place form Auburn, Alabama called Maestro 2300.  So anyways, every August they issue a list of restaurants that they consider has the best wine lists in the world.  Just to clarify this point, this is only the opinion of one magazine and its editors, but since they have some of the most knowledgeable and experienced wine palates and minds anywhere....I would pay attention to what they say very closely. 

They base these criteria on not only the actual wines on the wine list but also every minute detail, including spelling, appellation, vintage, style of the list, size of the list, prices, storage conditions, and everything else that goes into making a wine list.  Moreover they also want to see the food menu for the restaurant to make sure that your not serving hotdogs and pickled pigs feet for dinner.  This is to ensure that not only is your wine list of impeccable stature but also that your restaurant is as well. 

To apply for this award a restaurant must submit a printed copy of its wine list, food menu, and most importantly a cover letter that outlines a few things that the gentlemen want to know about.  In this letter the restaurant must tell about its storage conditions, size of its inventory, and what they are trying to accomplish with their wine list.  My belief is that they do this to make sure that each person that finds your name in their publication will find a certain standard in every restaurant they visit off of this list.  For instance, one thing they appear to be very big on is making sure that the red wine is served at a proper temperature....not room temperature....but somewhere around fifty five degrees some of you are probably saying that is to cold for red wine, but in fact that is  the temperature range where red wine releases most of the fruit flavor and ages the if you happen to have a 1978 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon on your wine list the correct temperature ensures that a wine this old will not break down while in you possession and most importantly taste correct when served.  Now you may tell yourself that having a wine this old is a rare thing and most young wines don't need this attention to detail....well if you think like that then your probably not ever going to receive an award like see cork dorks like me believe that wine is a living organism....and as such it should be kept and treated with if it be a young 2009 pinot gris from Oregon or something as old as Abe Vigoda all wine should be kept at the proper temperature in a horizontal position....kinda like....well Abe Vigoda.  Another thing they want to know about in this cover letter is your inventory, meaning how much monetary value do you have in wine in your restaurant.  Now there is no set standard for this number to wine an award but this is the smallest of the inventories I have ever managed of the three awards I have won and lets just say it is several thousand dollars.  Once again I believe they want to see the same commitment in monetary value as they see in all other aspects of your wine list...because nothing says total commitment like the Benjamins!  Last, they want to know a little about what your wine list is trying to are you trying to be a small sidewalk bistro, world class steak house, or in our case just a small world class restaurant playing on the same stage as all the big boys like Gordon Ramsay, Emeril Lagasse, and John Besh.  In  our case our list is broken down into two major parts, old world wines....those from all over Europe....and new world wines....those from everywhere else.  In doing this we have tried to set up a list that will help the customer decide on what they will drink that night based on the country of origin...which can relate directly to the flavors found in these wines.  Our reason for doing this is because we are a Mediterranean restaurant and want to make sure that if our customers want to eat and drink from the old world it will be just as easy to find a wine as it is to find the classical Spanish paella on the dinner menu....while at the same time taking care of our new world diners in the same manner.  So for our "style" this set up works best....but there are all different types of wine lists all over the world...

So what then does a great wine list need in order to make this cut? To answer this questions remember, like I just said, every restaurant will have a different type of wine list....some will be nothing but big Napa wines....others mostly French or Italian wines....others small boutique wines....and everything in between.  I have seen alot of Wine Spectator awarded wine lists and alot of good wine list that didn't have the I  have asked myself whats the difference?   Well to answer this question in laymen terms I am gonna put it into something we should all!  If you can think of a great wine list like a great football team then it may help you to identify what to look for.  Both must have balance in all a good quarterback and wide receivers that play well off each other....just like great low end and high end Italian wines like Brunello and Rosso di Montalcinos.  Both must have their heavy an insanely fast and large interior linemen on defense....or in wine list terms a big huge Napa Cabernet like Caymus Special Selection or an aged wine like a 1978 Barolo.  Most importantly both must have great a great kicker that can make a field goal to win the game with the weight of the world on his shoulders.....or a 1978 Colhieta port to end a meal!  Now, it is very easy to do what the Dallas Cowboys do and go out and spend a ton of money on your team....but then something goes wrong and your star wine Silver Oak fumbles a snap on a routine field goal and you don't make the playoffs!  Just like a great football maybe our current NCAA national champions the Auburn Tigers (shameless plug)'s not about the top wine on your list but more about the unsung wine on your list....say maybe like a freshman running back that is not gonna stop until he hears a whistle.  Why do you ask...well which do you sell more of the $239.00 of Silver Oak or the $29.00 bottle of Bonarda that no one has ever heard of....most likely not the Silver that being said which wine is going to get your name out in the community more if a person really likes it....obviously the quiet little bottle that no body has ever heard of...except the guys at Wine Spectator...which in my opinion is why some places, even though they have a big beautiful list....and some football teams even though they are supposed to be the dynasty hu Alabama...may not get the top award...why the little cow poke team I mean restaurant may end up with one...but that just my two cents on the situation.... 

So now that you have submitted all of your menus, wine list, and cover letter...what next?  Well you do like the rest of us and wait.  If you have made some mistake....which can be a myriad of things like not putting an appellation on the list incorrectly, misspelling something,  or maybe a wrong vintage.... or if your wine list just simply isn't good enough by their standards....meaning that it is not a balanced list of depth both in regions of the world, vintages, styles of wine, or reputable producers....or if they don't like what you have done with your storage or pricing....well then you get a letter saying basically thanks but no thanks....then you try again next year.  Now...if you have met all of their exacting criteria, not misspelled anything, not forgotten anything then one day via mail you get a letter saying congratulations on winning the Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence...which is followed by a very nice certificate for you to display.  So what exactly does that mean?  Well the one thing I can tell you it definitely means is that your owner....especially if he suffers from what I call T.O.S. (typical owner syndrome)....he or she is gonna flip out...they are gonna talk about how awesome it is and how they are so happy.  The next thing it means is that in all 2.6 million issues of The Wine Spectator in August your restaurant's name will be listed with all of the contact information so that diner's and wine lovers know how to find you....pretty cool huh!?  That is all the stuff it means to everybody else....but what does it mean to a person like me who lives and breathes the wine business everyday and studies their butt off to get to that point?  Well I can tell you in this sommelier's eyes it is not so much about the prestige of winning an award like what it means is that a cork dork of equal or probably even more dorkness has gone over that wine list with a fine toothed comb.....checked and rechecked for any flaw or error....then passed it to his superiors and they have in turn passed it to their superiors...and that all the way up the food chain they all agree that it is indeed a grammatically correct world class wine list...and if these guys say it is...than it is....which to me means that even though you may be in east Alabama...and may be in the middle of nowhere by some peoples standards....when you dine with us you are indeed in a class with the rest of the world!   

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