America's Wines and Restaurants Grow Up.

America's Wines and Restaurants Grow Up

Remember when dining out meant going to either a diner or a palace and most wine lists were a shambles? We've come a long way.

Cold Duck. Mateus. Boone's Farm. When I think back to the wines that were popular during the infancy of this country's wine culture, I can't help but smile. Fine products for their time—they served to introduce people to wine—they evoke the same reaction that we get looking at pictures of ourselves at our senior proms, hairstyles and all. They remind us how far we've come.

I've been thinking about how far the American wine industry has evolved in the past 60 years. What inspired me was our Wine Enthusiast Wine Awards Dinner. It was held in January in a magnificent facility overlooking the Rose Planetarium in New York City. We hosted the wine world's royalty, dressed to the nines and toasting one another with the wines of their own creation.

Among the 300 guests were Robert Mondavi and his wife Margrit; Gina Gallo and her mother, Marie; Tony Terlato and his wife, Jo, and their sons, Bill and John; Patrick Léon and his wife, Yvette; and Julien Sereys de Rothschild. These are some of the people, some of the families, who helped to bring our young wine industry to maturity.

Robert Mondavi, in particular, grew up in a world where French wines were the epitome of quality and always would be; a world that looked upon 1940s California as a quaint place to grow grapes but nothing more. America as a first-tier wine producing nation? It was unthinkable. So to forge ahead when everyone around you doubts or, worse, puts up roadblocks—that takes extraordinary vision, courage and determination. Robert Mondavi had it all. Ernest and Julio Gallo, too, were believers. Also helping form our contemporary wine culture are people like Tony Terlato, who believed that American palates were ready for fine Italian wines and were prepared to pay for them.

I sometimes think of the American restaurant industry in the same way—that it is finally maturing after years of infancy and adolescence. When I was a kid, going to a restaurant meant one of two things—eating at a greasy spoon where meat, potatoes and string beans were slopped onto your plate (and the check was served with the meal), or going out in your starchy dress-up clothes to an intimidating crystal palace with waiters in tuxedos, a French (or "Continental") food menu and a wine list that was as heavy as it was one-dimensional. Clearly, American restaurants have come a long way. American cuisine has just emerged from its adolescence, that time of life when the child thinks he's a grownup. I'm referring, of course, to the nouvelle cuisine era of the 1980s, with all its mature cuisine marred by preciousness and self-consciousness.

Now restaurants in this country are presenting great food at a wide range of prices, in venues that likewise run a range of images, decorating motifs and themes. And wine menus are evolving. They are no longer Bible-length tomes more suitable for hammering tent stakes than choosing a wine at leisure. Restaurateurs are hiring sommeliers who are less interested in their own egos than their diners' pleasure, and who are savvy enough to match their wine lists to the chefs' cuisine. They are trimming their lists to suit.

In this issue we take a look at the contemporary restaurant scene. We offer profiles of some of the new breed of restaurateurs, who are transforming the nightlife and dining habits of customers in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, Houston and Chicago. We'll take a closer look at wine lists, digging behind the scenes to discover how they're made, how they're organized, and how you can extract the best bottles for the most reasonable prices.

I can certainly understand the pride that restaurateurs take in offering the finest food, the most alluring décor, the most efficient service. As host of our Wine Awards dinner, I was proud and gratified, not only that everyone had a good time, but also in being a member of the vital, thriving wine industry. During her acceptance speech, Gina Gallo toasted her fellow winemakers, thanking them for challenging her and her team to create better wines. I know she spoke for all of us, because that's how people, and industries, mature.


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