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America's Best Wine Lists

What's your problem? Seriously, what is your problem? You've managed to avoid the suffocating last few years of a nearly fatal "downswing" in the restaurant industry. You're still open, people are coming, they enjoy your food, and, most of all, they're spending money at your place. What problems? You have no problems. You've found the secret of success, so there's no need to read the rest of this article. For everyone else who is not so fortunate, please pay attention: You do have a problem, and it's your wine list.

You see, as any successful and insightful restaurateur will confess, "People come for my food, I don't need to sell them that; I sell them wine." Wine sales are at the core of a profitable restaurant. Yet, despite how many times this platitude is written, read, said, heard, and ostensibly learned, its message is often lost. And the easiest way to lose it, and the restaurant game, is not to put hard work into your wine list.

Creating a good wine list can be fun work, it can be exhilarating work, but it is work and it needs to be done. Most often, it will be challenging and require a lot of time, planning, patience, learning, trial and error, and of course, money. It will take all of these things and more, but it will be worth it because you will have all of the goodies that a brilliantly conceived and executed wine list can bring: inspiration, passion, recognition, excitement, "buzz," and, oh yes, those elusive customers.

Creating a good wine list is challenging and requires a lot of time, planning, patience, learning, trial and error and, of course, money. It's a lot of work, but fun and exhilarating work.

In the course of judging RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY'S wine list competition, we come across lessons that we hope are helpful to you in the development of your successful wine program, big or small. And, in the spirit of the time-honored, artistic tradition of stealing good ideas and making them your own, it's our pleasure to present to you this year's winners and our insights into the principles that make their wine lists outstanding. But first, a few details:

THE RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY BEST WINE LIST IN AMERICA COMPETITION is divided into three categories: International Lists, U.S. Lists, and Short Lists. Occasionally, some of these categories are blurred (even to the entrants!) so we move some entries into the category that make the most sense for them. A two-page international-list (regular-sized font, mind you) definitely belongs with the short lists (no offense). By the way, there are no better or worse categories. Each has its place because each category addresses the needs of a particular restaurant, community, and clientele and each presents its own unique challenges. As Einstein said (reportedly after he finished a magnum of Domaine Romanee Conti) "Its all relative."

Awards are solely based on merit and on the specific criteria elaborated in "Judging the Lists" (see sidebar) not how many drinks entrants buy us when we're in town. (We always throw them in the planters when they're not looking.)

The French Paradox has begat the wine list competition paradox: despite their losses, there are no losers in this competition; all are to be commended for a job medium-well to well-done. So, without further ado, here are the results:

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  • International List—Restaurant Gary Danko, San Francisco
  • U.S. List—Arterra, San Diego
  • Short List—Southpark Seafood Grill & Wine Bar, Portland, Ore.

What makes the Grand Prize winners so special? Let's take a look at each top-place finisher.

Restaurant Gary Danko is a unassuming yet obviously elegant restaurant located in the Fisherman's Wharf area of San Francisco. It has sumptuous California fusion cuisine, a healthy $115 check average and a very healthy 40% of F&B wine sales propelled by an outstandingly researched, cleverly written, and just plain fun wine list. It's a list that features a mind-boggling collection of far-beyond-allocated California and Pacific Northwest boutique wines (they've got to be friends), super-deep first-and second-growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundies, to-die-for Italian treasures, and a halo of interesting and virtually unheard of gems from around the world (Indian Sauvignon Blanc anyone?).

The key to Restaurant Gary Danko's wine list is not a perfunctory "I've got to have a telephone-book-size list," but rather a focused crusade into the world of distinctive and distinguished wines. Every wine is special and has a purpose.

The key to success here is not a perfunctory, "I've got to have a telephone-book-size wine list." kneejerk response, but rather a focused crusade into the world of distinctive and distinguished wines. Whether you are familiar with the wines or not, (don't worry, many are the stuff that are whispered about rather than tasted) you feel that every wine is special and has a purpose. You also feel a remarkable sense of ease and trust through the insightful comments and perfectly selected quotations of sommelier Christie Dufault. This is a list that, if crafted by less skilled hands, would be ultra-intimidating; instead, through subtle, personalized presentation and creativity it actually inspires you to dive in. Lesson learned.

Arterra Restaurant, located in the San Diego Marriot del Mar, has got it going on. Partner Bradley Odgen offers delicious farm-fresh California cuisine, an ideal environment and a killer U.S. wine list. The emphasis is clearly on boutique and other choice California selections with some intriguing Oregon and Washington State wines added for a twist. This list stands out because of its easy-going, precisely casual, thoroughly convincing approach. Everything from the pinstripe watermark paper stock, to the friendly fonts and spacing, to the "by the way" didactics just screams (or is that whispers?), "come in, relax, and let's go for an appellation-by-appellation ride through wine country."

This is a list that flows: with the food, with the pricing, and with the spirit of trying a wine that you've never had and unearthing something that you'll love. Discovery and adventure are intangibles that are hard to codify and capture, particularly in a wine list, but the simplicity and charm of wine director Dan Chapman's approach and the focus on representative and obscure selections really draws you into the action. If the art of creating a great short wine list is like crafting a haiku, then the Southpark Seafood Grill & Wine Bar's list is pure poetry. Every wine selected is a distilled essence of a grape varietal, wine region, or interplay between the two and carefully chosen to match the innovative pan-Mediterranean cuisine.

The list offers a wonderful economy of presentation: two translucent, over-sized, single-faced "galley" sheets in a tastefully illustrated, cafè-scene hardcover; one sheet with very reasonably priced, by-thehalfglass, glass, and carafe options with two well-selected flights; and the other sheet, a concise listing of uncommon and intriguing wine selections categorically sorted by brush stroke titles like: "Persistent, with nerve, minerality and finesse" and featuring inspired and inspiring prose for five of the selections. All of the elements follow through and work together. The end result is a very easy read that catches your eye, intrigues your palate, and invites you to step off the well-trodden wine path. What appears to be simple and effortless remains so from the beginning of the wine experience to the end. It does not belie the broad diversity of the wines, the complexity of the selection process, and the seamless craft of general manager Karin Devencenzi, wine director David Holstrom, and the other poets involved.

So what we have learned from the winners is that, paradoxically, what makes a wine list outstanding is not an outstanding wine selection. Selection is certainly an important element, and there are many fine wine lists out there with outrageous selections, but they are not outstanding. They may be awe-inspiring, but they are not all inspiring. What you do with that selection and how you present it is what counts.

In these times, you need to reach out to a more and more diverse group of customers with drastically differing levels of wine knowledge and appreciation. How are you going to reach these people and make them into your best new customers? Develop a wine list that teaches as it sells; that inspires as it illuminates. A great list provides exceptional values and practical opportunities for exploration. It doesn't talk up or down to your patrons, but instead uses the subtleties of humor, personality, poetry, and style. It's not just a nice idea that you should try sometime, it may very well be the most powerful profit-making investment you can make in your restaurant. It might also be the solution to your problems . . . not that you have any.

2004 Winners

GRAND PRIZE: Restaurant Gary Danko, San Francisco
SILVER MEDAL: The Friend's Lake Inn, Chesterton, N.Y.
BRONZE MEDAL: Il Capriccio, Waltham, Mass.

Very Honorable Mentions

  • Swingos on the Lake, Lakewood, Ohio
  • Vivere, Chicago
  • Restaurant 301 at the Hotel Carter, Eureka, Calif.
  • Ringside Steakhouse-Glendover, Portland, Ore.
  • Salpicon, Chicago

GRAND PRIZE: Arterra, San Diego
SILVER MEDAL: The State Room, East Lansing, Mich.
BRONZE MEDAL: Barking Frog, Woodinville, Wash.

Very Honorable Mentions

  • Fulton's Crab House, Buena Vista, Fla.
  • The Dining Room at the Harbor Club, Norfolk, Va

GRAND PRIZE: Southpark Seafood Grill & Wine Bar, Portland, Ore.
SILVER MEDAL: Daveed's, Cincinnati (a very close second)
BRONZE MEDAL: Wild Onion, Rosemont, Pa.

Very Honorable Mentions

  • Barcelona Restaurant, Columbus, Ohio
  • Cafè in the Square, Snyder, N.Y.

Judging the Lists

After sorting the entries by size and category, all were screened to remove the lists that did not meet a few basic entry standards. Wine lists removed at this stage of the judging were either very poorly written or had serious technical flaws. (Many of the entries eliminated at this stage didn't include vintages, for example.)

The remaining entries were then individually reviewed and points were awarded for seven criteria:

1. Overall Wine Selection - We were looking for lists that chose the best examples in any given style and price point. We wanted to see a thoughtful selection of quality wines and not a wine list driven by price point and category decisions.

2. Variety in Style and Brands - We were looking for diverse lists with a wide selection of styles, producers and regions. (One restaurant had a large selection of wines from one or two "mega-producers" and their families of imported wines. From the looks of the wine list this wasn't just a monthly special. Sweetheart deals with one or two suppliers are not in the interest of the consumer.)

3. Fair Pricing and Value Options - We looked at each list to see if the pricing was fair for the consumer, with reasonable markups taken. (We took into consideration the higher prices and excessive taxes that restaurants face in some states.) We also looked at each list to see if there were a few inexpensive but decent alternatives for price-conscious diners.

4. Compatibility with the Menu - A wine list with an exclusive focus on First Growth Bordeaux can be awe-inspiring, but it is strangely out of place in a fish house. No matter how large the wine list, each and every wine should be chosen because it complements the restaurant's food, and for no other reason. Entries that didn't include a menu (as requested on the entry application) weren't eliminated, but no points could be awarded for menu compatibility.

5. Presentation - Your wine list speaks for your restaurant. Make sure that it is neat, well-organized, and looks professionally laid-out.

6. Extras -Wines from unique regions, availability of half bottles, tasting notes, and other well-thought-out extras were noted and awarded points.

7. Overall Impression - A good wine list should encourage consumers to explore new wines. It should be interesting to read. Ultimately we were looking for creativity and imagination. A boring wine list isn't a great wine list.

Based on these seven critera, both the Beverage Testing Institute staff and a select panel of restaurant and wine professionals reviewed the top quarter of entries. From these reviews we selected the winners in RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY'S BEST WINE LIST IN AMERICA COMPETITION.

Congratulations to all of the winners. Every restaurant that submitted a list should be thanked for working to raise the standards for restaurant wine service.

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