Wine Enthusiast’s First Annual Restaurant Wine Awards

Wine Enthusiast's First Annual Restaurant Wine Awards

In finding America’s best wine-driven restaurants, we’ve turned up a plethora of wine-related facts, stats and figures, all indicating that now is a great time in the history of American fine dining.

Here at Wine Enthusiast Magazine we think it safe to say that the overwhelming majority of Americans enjoy dining in restaurants. According to estimates from the National Restaurant Association, about six percent of nationwide consumer spending takes place in restaurants, or to be more precise, “on food away from the home.” At the very least it appears as though people are getting out to eat.

But what about wine? Are American restaurant patrons more conscious, and as a result more serious, about wine today than in the past? And are restaurants, on average, focusing more keenly on their wine programs than they did, say, ten years ago?

Answers are difficult to gauge scientifically, even though we do know that approximately 25 percent of wine purchased in the United States is bought in a so-called “on-premise” environment. But we are convinced that the answer to both questions is yes. And how do we know? By poring over the boxes of applications we received for the first annual Wine Enthusiast Magazine Restaurant Awards.

Our Methodology and Findings
Last spring and summer, as our editors met to plot out a course of action for the magazine’s inaugural restaurant wine awards, we determined that not only did we want to identify and honor individual restaurants with stand-out kitchens and laudable wine programs, but we also wanted to capture data that, when crunched, would indicate the general direction in which restaurants are headed with respect to their wine offerings.

In grouping applicants into one of three categories of distinction—Ultimate, Unique and Standard—our panel of seven judges concluded that many restaurants are as committed to wine as cuisine, and occasionally more so. Building and installing temperature-controlled storage facilities, using name-brand stemware, offering special wine-themed dinners, pouring flights by the glass, permitting BYO and crafting imaginative international wine lists are all common practices among America’s most wine-friendly restaurants, at least those seeking fame for their efforts.

As for the array of wine lists our judging panel examined, a good many were broad, with about two-thirds of applicants offering between 100 and 500 selections, and more than one-third offering between 15 and 25 different wines by the glass. In terms of wines in stock, 65 percent of applicants said they keep between 1,000 and 5,000 bottles.

Attention to detail usually indicates a high degree of commitment. Some 38 percent of applicants claimed to update their wine lists weekly, while one out of ten said they go a step further, adjusting their lists daily. Another 25 percent choose to make changes either biweekly or on a monthly basis. As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life.

When asked about glassware, a combined 40 percent said they are using Libby and Riedel models for their “regular” service, while more than 60 percent use a combination of Riedel and/or Spiegelau stems for their “special” service.

We know you would agree that a trained staff is the best staff, and in grading applications we noted that nearly six in ten applicants offer special wine training for their staff. Meanwhile, only six percent of our applicants report employing a full-time sommelier, wine director or wine steward to oversee procurement, storage and service. More often than not, someone with the title of “beverage manager,” “general manager” or “owner” handles the wine program.

To separate restaurants deserving an Award of Ultimate Distinction (7 percent of the total field) from those receiving an Award of Unique Distinction or an Award of Distinction, we paid special attention to, well, wine enthusiasm: Frequency and depth of winemaker dinners, the existence of special pairing menus, breadth and depth of wine selections, overall pricing, corkage policies, and most of all, how the entire wine program matches the tenor set by the chef and ownership. That said, we are also fans of unconventional bottles, that is—innovative, daring, unexpected choices that still make sense with the menus. And restaurants that are making an effort to offer multiple large-format and half bottles earned extra consideration.

Interestingly, it didn’t really matter much what type of cuisine a restaurant specializes in. It seems as if all types of restaurants are capable of accumulating and serving excellent wines. As for the raw numbers on our participants, restaurants specializing in American-style food and steakhouses led the way among applicants, accounting for 36 percent of our submissions, while the French, Italian, seafood, Californian and Asian categories also produced measurable blocks.

Best of the Best
Throughout the process of evaluation it became clear that a fair number of restaurants want to serve their customers good food and wine, even if their wines and menus are modest. And in most cases, that was good enough to merit an Award of Distinction.

However, with our star performers, which hail from all corners of the country and several states in between, we were frequently blown away by what we found. For example, Crabtree’s Kittle House, an Award of Ultimate Distinction winner in Chappaqua, New York, boasts a mind-boggling collection of 5,800 wines, with 67,000 bottles in inventory. The Kittle House’s collection ranked as the largest and broadest among applicants.

Another Ultimate Distinction honoree, New York City-based Montrachet, features 38 different Montrachets along with hundreds of wines from the Montrachet satellites, such as Puligny and Chassagne. How could we possibly ignore such a staunch commitment to what is arguably the world’s premier white wine? And California’s Patina, featured in our July 2004 issue, maintains a collection of 1,800 wines, including some of the finest labels from St. Helena to St. Julien.

We also found “Ultimate” restaurants that feature hard-to-find regional wines, like Cascadia in Seattle, which takes the Pacific Northwest food-and-wine genre to a whole new level. Add to that list Columbia Restaurant in Tampa, which aims to offer a Spain-dominated wine list without peer.

Now that the first installment of the Wine Enthusiast Magazine Restaurant Awards is wrapping up, we thank all of the establishments that participated in the 2004 project. We invite all restaurateurs who did not submit an application this year to participate next year—and our readers to alert us to their favorites. Just as restaurants see their operations (and wine collections) as works in constant progress, so do we.

Here’s to a successful, wine-filled 2005.


141 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, California
Last year restaurant followers in Los Angeles questioned star chef Joachim Splichal when he relocated his highly respected flagship restaurant from Hollywood to the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown. A year later, the questions have subsided as widespread praise for Patina has taken over. Recently named Esquire Magazine’s Restaurant of the Year, Patina was unanimously selected as a Wine Enthusiast Magazine Award of Ultimate Distinction recipient.

Patina’s impressive wine program, which consists of 1,800 selections and a mammoth inventory of 30,000 bottles, is overseen by 30-year-old, French-born sommelier Eric Espuny, with much input from Splichal, himself an enophile of the first order. To measure Splichal’s involvement, one need only look at the restaurant’s mile-long roster of fine and rare wines: Many are refugees from Splichal’s sizable personal collection, while most of the top Burgundies, Bordeaux and mature California Cabernets—and there are literally hundreds of them—have been with Patina for years, first on Melrose Avenue and now in one of America’s most stunning performing arts centers. And always have the wines rested in perfectly maintained cellars.

With a sought-after private chef’s table, executive chef Theo Schoenegger’s delectable, French Californian cuisine and Hagy Belzberg’s star-worthy interior design, 100-seat Patina is one of the stars of the SoCal wining and dining scene.

Key Stats
Number of selections: 1,800
Bottles in inventory: 30,000
Number of large-format
bottles: 53
Number of half bottles: 27
Corkage fee: $25
Wine list highlights:
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1995 Grands Echezeaux ($605); Marcassin 1999 “Three Sisters” Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($231); Château Rayas 2000 Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($176); Emilio Moro 1999 “Malleolus” Ribera del Duero ($94)


Lake Inn
963 Friends Lake Road
Chestertown, New York
High in the Adirondack Mountains is not where you would expect to find one of the country’s premier wine-oriented restaurants. But in tiny Chestertown, New York, chef Ben Niese teams up with long-time wine director Dave Sullivan to create the quintessential fine-dining escape. One part traditional and one part modern is the experience at Friends Lake, in a rustic, historic 19th-century lakefront inn.

Seating but 60 people in two dining rooms and a parlor, Friends Lake Inn, which Wine Enthusiast Magazine has selected for its Award of Ultimate Distinction, provides an intimate, top-quality new-American meal, ideally accompanied by a selection from the inn’s encyclopedic wine list. A wine-cellar table that accommodates up to 14 people is the perfect way for larger groups to enjoy a dinner.

To match appetizers like butternut squash bisque or Prince Edward Island mussels sautéed with leeks and pancetta, and then topped with a garlic-based cream sauce, the ticket might be a youthful or aged German Riesling from the likes of Muller-Catoir, Kurt Darting or Dönnhoff. For a meat-based main course such as grilled loin of lamb and merguez (a spicy sausage), or venison chops topped in a Port wine and cherry demi-glace, the appropriate California selections span nine pages of the list, while Bordeaux reds smother their own nine pages. In between are myriad treats ranging in origin from Washington State to the Rhône Valley.

Friends Lake Inn maintains both a wine bar, where as many as 30 selections are poured by the glass, and a retail wine shop.

Key Stats
Number of selections: 2,300
Bottles in inventory: 28,000
Number of large-format bottles: 95
Number of half bottles: 88
Corkage fee: $20; personal wine lockers available (no
Wine List Highlights: Château Cos d’Estournel 1990 ($220); Didier Dagueneau 2002 Pur Sang Pouilly-Fumé ($100); D.R. Stephens 1999 Carneros Chardonnay ($68); Château Musar 1993 Lebanese Red Table Wine ($68)

Grill 23 & Bar
161 Berkeley Street
Boston, Massachusetts
Whereas many of America’s most wine-dedicated restaurants are precious places that cater to a select type of customer, Grill 23 in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood is a large steak and seafood house that encourages its guests to sink their teeth into something big, juicy and satisfying, be it a two-pound Porterhouse, a bottle of Tim Adams Clare Valley Shiraz, or both.

Wine director Alex DeWinter, with assistance from wine manager Suzanne Castle and cellarmaster Nina Seymour, presides over a rock-solid 50-page wine list that includes about 850 selections from all quarters of the winemaking world. A three-pound Maine lobster ordered up to celebrate the first Red Sox World Series title in 86 years? With a bottle of Marc Aubert’s 2000 Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast or Verget’s 2002 Les Enseignères Puligny-Montrachet, it would be hard to go wrong.

In bestowing an Award of Ultimate Distinction upon Grill 23, Wine Enthusiast Magazine was particularly impressed with the restaurant’s something-for-everyone approach. Finding “interesting and unusual” wines is DeWinter’s priority, while education ranks a close second. To that end, he and chef Jay Murray regularly host producer-sponsored and region-based wine dinners aimed at broadening customers’ horizons. And they are fastidious about staff training.

Grill 23 seats up to 385 patrons on two floors and in several private rooms, including the private wine cellar (capacity 14). The décor is traditional but not colonial, a semimodern (it was founded in 1983) rendition of a classic American restaurant.

Key Stats
Number of selections: 850
Bottles in inventory: 13,000
Number of large-format bottles: 58
Number of half bottles: 50
Corkage fee: Illegal in
Wine list highlights:
Chateau Palmer 1982 ($400); Ramey 2001 Hyde Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay ($105); Siduri 2002 Garys’ Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($95); Seresin 2003 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($45)



Crabtree’s Kittle House
11 Kittle Road
Chappaqua, New York
“Our customers come to dine, not just to eat,” proclaims John Crabtree, owner of Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua, New York. “It has long been our goal to see a bottle of wine on every table.”
Sounds like something a sommelier might say. And lo and behold, Crabtree is an active member of the Sommelier Society of America. He is also the figurehead of the family that has owned Westchester County’s premier fine-dining establishment since 1981. “We have a true passion for wine,” he says. “It has been a tradition to seek out the best wines from every corner of the globe, and from every moment in time, in order to offer the most comprehensive selection of great wines in the world.”

In awarding Crabtree’s Kittle House an Award of Ultimate Distinction, Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s judges found nary a crack in the Crabtree game plan. First and foremost, pricing is extremely fair, and, in some cases, downright philanthropic. With respect to holding special wine dinners and tastings, Kittle House does it all the time. “All types, all sizes; formal and informal, with winemakers and winery owners from everywhere,” boasts Crabtree.

And when customers come in to dine on chef Greg Gilbert’s refined American-style fare, like Peeky-Toe crabcakes before an entrée of grilled loin of North Dakota elk, the pairing opportunities are endless: Crabtree has amassed a wine list with 5,800 selections, many of them representing excellent value, spread across a list as thick as the phone book.

Built in 1790 as a working barn, the building was owned in the late 1800s by the Kittle family. Subsequently it was remodeled into a 17-room mansion before becoming a Prohibition-era roadhouse and inn.

For the past 20 years, however, the Kittle House has been known simply as the best place north of Manhattan for fine food and wine.

Key Stats
Number of selections: 5,800
Bottles in inventory: 67,000
Number of large-format bottles: 95
Number of half bottles: 176
Corkage fee: $35 ($70 if wine is on list); waived on Mondays
or when another wine is purchased.
Wine list highlights: Ambroise 1996 Clos Vougeot ($150); Egly-Ouriet 1990 Grand Cru Brut Champagne ($110); J.J. Prüm 1997 Wehlener Sonnenheur Riesling Spätlese ($50); Viader 1995 Napa Valley Meritage ($85)

239 West Broadway
New York, New York
In Burgundy one white wine is synonymous with excellence: Le Montrachet. And in New York City, one wine-dedicated restaurant rises above the rest: Montrachet.

Since the early 1990s, Montrachet has been at the center of the Manhattan restaurant wine scene. And from the beginning, owner Drew Nieporent has seen to it that Montrachet is known as much for its rarefied yet accessible wine program, which leans heavily toward France, as for its high-end French cuisine. And with Daniel Johnnes at the helm as wine director, with support from sommeliers Bernard Sun and Troy Kinser, customers are rarely left wanting.

Why not start at the top, with some actual Montrachet? The list includes a whopping 38 different Montrachets, some in magnums and some dating as far back as 1947. Of course you will pay for your pleasure, as no bottle costs less than $500.

Yet to prevent the restaurant from being perceived as a spot only for fine, pricey French whites, the wine team has assembled a tantalizing collection of high-end red Burgundies along with plenty of tempting California wines, to match chef Chris Gesauldi’s modern French food.

Overall, what we at Wine Enthusiast Magazine like best about Montrachet, and one of the prime factors in the 90-seat restaurant receiving an Award of Ultimate Distinction, is that pretense is not part of the puzzle. What other restaurant would, on a monthly basis, play a game with customers called “What’s My Wine?” Diners identify a mystery wine in six categories: country, region, appellation, variety, vintage and producer. They get 10% off the price of the wine just for playing, and deeper discounts come with each additional correct answer. Are you game?

Key Stats
Number of selections: 1,300
Bottles in inventory: 20,000
Number of large-format bottles: 50
Number of half bottles: 25
Corkage fee: $25; no corkage Mondays; waived Tuesday through Thursday when another bottle is purchased
Wine list highlights: Ramonet 1999 Le Montrachet ($500); Domaine Jean Grivot 1995 Les Boudots Nuits-St.-Georges ($130); Domaine de Courcel 1997 Les Rugiens Pommard ($115); Dauvissat 1999 Séchet Chablis ($90)

Mr. Stox
1105 East Katella Avenue
Anaheim, California
Mr. Stox, located in the shadows of Disneyland, has been an Orange County standard bearer for the past quarter century. And while the menu today veers toward traditional American fare, with classics such as Caesar salad, Maryland crabcakes and prime rib taking center stage, its wine program is firmly rooted in modern times.

Under the guidance of co-owner Ron Marshall, Mr. Stox features one of the most complete, balanced wine lists in the greater Los Angeles area. And for that, along with its many ancillary wine offerings, Wine Enthusiast Magazine honors it with its Award of Ultimate Distinction. “We strive to be the best large fine-dining restaurant in Southern California, and our wine list demonstrates the extraordinary effort we put into that aspect of our business,” says Marshall, who runs the restaurant along with his wife, Debbie, and brother, Chick.

To measure the Marshalls’ dedication to wine, fine food and getting the customer intimately involved, one need only look at Mr. Stox Epicurean, an information-packed newsletter published regularly by the restaurant. Inside are detailed invitations to wine dinners at Mr. Stox (Newton, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Silver Oak are three that were offered last spring); field trips, which include plenty of great wines, to places like the Hollywood Bowl, the Getty Center and the Walt Disney Concert Hall; and even cooking classes with chef Scott Raczek. Want to learn how to make true blue risotto and match it with a proper Italian wine? Then Mr. Stox is the place to go.

Mr. Stox seats up to 250 people in a Mission-style edifice that the Marshalls have completely redone since acquiring the space in 1977. Guests are encouraged to indulge amid mahogany molding and artwork imported from Italy. And last but not least, they are welcome to drink some sensational wines from around the world, including hundreds of classified Bordeaux from the best vintages.

Key Stats
Number of selections: 1,100
Bottles in inventory: 25,000
Number of large-format bottles: 75
Number of half bottles: 50
Corkage fee: $15; waived if another bottle is purchased
Wine list highlights:
Vieux Château Certan 1989 Pomerol ($170); Bruno Giacosa 1993 Falleto Barolo ($125); Nardi 1997 Brunello di Montalcino ($95); Zind-Humbrecht 2000 Wintzenheim Gewürztraminer ($58)


Columbia Restaurant
2117 E. 7th Avenue
Tampa, Florida
When a restaurant claims that its goal is to have the world’s “best collection of top Spanish wines,” and that restaurant is located not in Madrid or Barcelona but in Tampa, Florida, then some investigation is in order. Yet when Wine Enthusiast Magazine followed up on the stated aspirations of Columbia Restaurant, owned by the Gonzmart family and specializing in Cuban cuisine as much as Spanish, we were impressed by our findings.

Granted, tostones, black beans and ropa vieja may not be the ideal mix of foods to go mano à mano with a bottle of ’81 Vega Sicilia Unico priced at $335. But we can’t imagine the combination being bad. And if for whatever reason you don’t care for the ’81, you can dabble in the 1960, 1962, 1975, 1980, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989 or 1990 versions of this all-world blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec. Not what you’re after, or a touch too pricey? Check out the eight vintages of Vega Sicilia Valbuena, or the five vintages of Alion, Vega’s “second” wine.

Much of Columbia’s huge Spanish list was put together by David Lewis, who has been with the restaurant for four years after spending considerable time in Spain. His passion may lie with Sherry, but his 63-page wine list doesn’t overlook Rioja, Priorat, Ribera del Duero or any of the lesser or emerging regions in Spain.

That a Cuban/Spanish restaurant that can seat as many as 1,600 people would go so far as to round out its Spain-dominated list with beauties like the 1999 Laurona (Tarragona), the 2001 Clos Mogador (Priorat) and the ’99 Capçanes Cabrida (Montsant) is a testament to its mission. And in the end it’s what persuaded us to honor Columbia Restaurant with an Award of Ultimate Distinction.

Key Stats
Number of selections: 500+
Bottles in inventory: 30,000
Number of large-format bottles: 26
Number of half bottles: 6
Corkage fee: $15
Wine list highlights:
Vega Sicilia 1990 Unico Ribera del Duero ($285); CUNE 1996 Contino Viña Del Olivo Reserva Rioja ($150); Rene Barbier 2001 Clos Mogador Priorat ($118); Capçanes 2000 Cabrida Garnacha Especial Montsant ($82)


2328 1st Avenue
Seattle, Washington
Pacific Northwest cuisine with wines from Washington and Oregon to match: We can’t think of a more mouthwatering combination. These days both the food and wines from the region are red hot in terms of popularity, and ground zero for this style of regional American dining is Seattle.

Among the Emerald City’s many cutting-edge restaurants, Cascadia has emerged as one capable of turning out mind- bending dishes like Douglas fir sorbet, pan-seared Alaskan halibut and whipped Oregon blue cheese served atop black-pepper brioche. Even better, Cascadia is adept at pairing these types of preparations with the most apropos wines from the area, things like Ken Wright’s Pinot Blanc, Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Cold Creek Riesling and McCrea’s Viognier, among others.

Step over to the red side of the list, which is overseen by wine director Jeffrey Dorgan, and the Pinot Noirs from Oregon and the Bordeaux-style wines from Eastern Washington are stellar. It’s not often that you can find one restaurant stocking Pinots from the likes of Broadley, Cristom, Domaine Drouhin, Tony Soter and Ken Wright, as well as Merlots from Andrew Will and Cabs from Leonetti, Cadence and Woodward Canyon. But that’s where Cascadia, which seats 150 guests, makes its mark. And it’s why Wine Enthusiast Magazine has donned it with an Award of Ultimate Distinction.

In the kitchen, chef/owner Kerry Sear has put things largely in the hands of chef de cuisine Hervé Mahé and sous chef Philippe Thomelin, and their “Foods From Here” offerings are everything a fan of the Northwest could want. “Our pairing menus and ever-changing dinner menus allow even the novice to take the dining experience to a new level,” Sears declares.

Key Stats
Number of selections: 450
Bottles in inventory: 6,000
Number of large-format bottles: 10
Number of half bottles: 19
Corkage fee: $25
Wine list highlights: Broadley 2001 Claudia’s Choice Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($95); Ken Wright 2002 Canary Hill Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($90); Cayuse 2001 Cailloux Walla Walla Syrah ($90); Cadence 2000 Klipsun Vineyard Red Mountain Table Wine ($75)


321 W. 46th Street,
New York, NY

Dulces Latin Bistro
1430 34th Avenue,
Seattle, WA

Elizabeth’s Cafe & Winery
1177 Duck Road, Ste. 11,
Duck, NC

Thorn Hill Road,
Jackson, NH

272 Boylston Street
Boston, MA

1600 S. Disneyland Drive,
Anaheim, CA

1112 2nd Street,
Sacramento, CA

1401 3rd Avenue,
Seattle, WA

Click here for the complete list of the 2004 WE Restaurant Awards winners.

Published on February 1, 2005