I represent a pretty specialized group of wineries. Wineries that largely make sense in an interesting restaurant program. Therefore, I see an awful lot of those "Award for Excellence" plaques hanging beside the bars of my clients. When I was a somm, I coveted these distinctions. I felt like it validated everything I was working for. I worked hard to achieve the 2 glass award. I spent hours assembling the most attractive package to send in, with beautifully written verbiage about the passion behind our wine program, to only receive, 1 glass, again. Frustrated, I stopped submitting, writing them off as tools, accurately albeit prematurely.
Then, I traveled. I traveled many parts of the country, seeing these signs, and looking at lists, and here's what I've concluded: Wine Spectator doesn't care about your wine list. Hilarious individuals have completely debunked this entire process and proven as such. This is obviously (partially) a moneymaking scam for Wine Spectator. Here is the math: If you employed 1 full time employee to read every submission during their 150 day submission period, it would add up to about 20 minutes per wine list assuming an 8 hr work day. Heck, double it. Lets say you have 2 full time employees, and you pay them each $50k per year. What would you need to bring in in order to justify that? Last year, they gave 2827 Awards for Excellence (1 glass), 833 Best of Award of Excellence (2 Glasses) and 74 Grand Awards (3 Glasses). It also costs $250 for every submission, regardless of what or if you win. So that makes $933,500 in revenue from this program. Yeah, that probably justifies 2 full-time employees (but I bet they use interns).
So now that that we acknowledge that this process has been corrupted by money, what does Wine Spectator want to do? They want to keep you happy and receiving awards, so you keep handing a $250 invoice to your restaurants accountant each January. The tragedy is that, the people that run these wine programs could use a legitimate award. The majority of the people that receive these awards probably deserve them. People that care enough to send in for this sort of thing tend to run pretty legitimate operations. Wine Spectator has parameters and qualifiers, and I've even heard that they visit every Grand Award winner each year (that would certainly increase the cost of running such a program). But the flip side is that anyone with a passing knowledge of wine can throw together an award winning list with no interest in developing a dynamic and interesting wine program. They just want the hardware.
Beyond the critique of the motivation behind these awards, I have a huge issue with their parameters. They set large and arbitrarily high numbers of selections, with too much emphasis on holding older vintages of wine and collecting verticals. I'm much more interested in restaurants that are focused and always changing their selections. I believe that creativity should be awarded, and exposing people and educating them to new wines, and especially new wines in interesting contexts should be lauded. Flights, pairings, glass pour depth, events and staff education have no bearing on the criteria. A wine list never lives in a vacuum, it always depends on the people within the program and the interactivity in that dining room.
Here is what I offer to you, restaurateurs. I will give you my own award. No one has ever heard of it, but I'll give you something with your name on it, that gives my professional opinion that you have a kick ass wine program. It won't cost anything. There are no parameters. You don't need to buy any of my wines. You just need to care. send me an email, FB or Tweet me (follow the links to my sites). Tell me about what you do. If you really rock, I'll talk about it out there. All I care about is that you have a passion for your wine program, you have really interesting wines, and you are showing some sort of creativity. Bonus points for spreading the gospel out there via interweb.
Good Luck, and suck it Wine Spectator!
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