The finalists for this year’s James Beard: Outstanding Wine Program are storied restaurants where extensive wine selections are augmented with superior service.
Just as authors fawn over the Pulitzer Prize and directors aim for the Oscars, wine professionals and sommeliers covet the James Beard Awards. The category for Outstanding Wine Program celebrates the best wine programs, selected among entries from coast to coast.
In early May, Bern’s Steak House—one of the five finalists culled from 20 semifinalists—was revealed to be the winner at the James Beard ceremony in Chicago. The Tampa, Florida, restaurant boasts a wine list of 6,800 labels, the majority of those being red wines but also about 200 sparkling wines, 1,000 white wines, and 300 dessert wines (Madeiras, Ports, and Sherries). Vintages in the by-the-glass program—of which there are 150, including the 1985 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, and 1975 Mondavi Zinfandel, also from Napa—date back to the 1970s. The list is revamped quarterly.
“Bern’s is one of those iconic wine destinations and has been for a long time,” says Phil Vettel, chair of the James Beard Awards’ committee for restaurant and chef awards. He’s also restaurant critic for the Chicago Tribune. “Someone put forth Bern’s name, and we went
back into the archives and were surprised it hadn’t won yet.”
What is a winning wine list? “The focus is on wine service as well as on the list itself. [Judges] are looking for depth and breadth, anything unusual, or a topical focus. A really good wine program engages both the customer and the staff. How well do the servers know the wine? Do they get to taste the wine on a regular basis, and do they know the stories behind the wines?” Vettel says.
To be eligible for the award, the restaurant must have been open for five years—and can’t be nominated across categories within the same year, a tactic very unlike the Academy Awards, where each year a trio of films seems to walk out with many of the awards. “We’re looking for sustained elegance, which means some very good wine programs are still a few years shy of being considered. Like the wine themselves, wine programs are best appreciated after they’ve aged a little,” he explains.
For Canlis in Seattle, which was another finalist this year, seven decades of business has translated to the family-owned restaurant offering wines from its personal collection—a process that can only evolve over time. “We’ve been collecting wine for a long time,” says co-owner Mark Canlis, pointing out that “extensive” doesn’t always translate to “the best.” Diners order off a tasting menu that spans three, four, or seven courses. A wine flight, priced $65 to $145 and categorized as either the Classic or Sommelier flight, can be tacked on.
“Of all the finalists, ours is one of the smallest lists and that is indicative of our program, which offers a world-class wine selection—but not too many,” he says. Another focal point at Canlis is to make wine approachable so diners don’t “feel like they have to bow down to the owner or sommelier,” Canlis says. To that end, there’s effort spent on hiring an “emotionally mature” staff. “What’s happening at the table is way more important than what’s in the bottle,” he says. “It is our job to cull and select the wines. We’re trying to take the work out of it for the guests. You can literally point to any wine on any page and it’s going to be a good value.” Five sommeliers are on staff and many employees have gone through the certification process for becoming a sommelier.
Conversely, another legendary destination—Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, which first opened in 1880 and was also a finalist this year—flaunts a massive list practically guaranteed to satisfy all palates. “It’s a bit of a monster,” Dan Davis, the restaurant’s “wine guy,” says of the 137-page wine list, which features about 2,600 options.
“I like to give people some depth and breadth in areas they don’t normally find, like a selection of rosés,” Davis says. “Also, we cellar wines for many years before they go on the list.” This is one of the characteristics that makes the restaurant stand out. Its highly curated wine-by-the-glass program is another highlight: “You wouldn’t normally find a Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the 1990s being available by the glass,” says Davis. That the Modern Creole food menu folds in Caribbean, African, Spanish, and French influences also gives Davis lots of room to build the list. “You really have to have a broad palate of wines,” he says, to accommodate the menu’s diversity. “The seafood dishes are so precise and delicate, but the next course could be a gumbo and a coffee-lacquered quail.”
Taking a cue from the local market, large-format bottles are sprinkled throughout the menu. “New Orleans is a city built on celebrations,” says Davis, who joined the restaurant nearly a dozen years ago. That said, the restaurant is also a top spot for locals, and the wine list reflects that, too, with frequent refreshes.
For another of the James Beard finalists, FIG, in Charleston, South Carolina, a core belief is that a wine program shouldn’t only be in the hands of the sommelier or wine director. Instead, all of the staff should know wine, especially with a small staff, like at this seasonally inspired eatery.
Morgan Calcote, FIG’s general manager and director of wine, started as a server. Coaching the waitstaff to be conversational about wine—but not too chatty or stuffy—is an art, she says. “People come to have dinner and not to have a 45-minute conversation about wine,” Calcote suggests.
Even so, the FIG wine list is stellar and changes twice weekly. Between 150 and 200 selections are always on the list, averaging $80 to $85 a bottle, and focused on Northern Hemisphere wine regions, along with an extensive selection of California Cabernet Sauvignon and a handful of orange wines (white wines where the grapes have had longer contact with the skins after being picked). “We want the list to be, price-wise, approachable across every budget,” Calcote says. “Most people dine out for an experience,” adding that they never want guests to have to sacrifice the experience because of the expense. “That thoughtfulness in our selection helps us identify winemakers and regions we believe in.” Whimsical descriptions help pull diners in, perhaps enticing them to try a new varietal or new winery. “We try to [bring] an element of enthusiasm to the wine program,” she says.
The fifth finalist, Sepia (so named for its location in a late-1800s print shop), is a Michelin-starred restaurant serving New American cuisine in Chicago’s West Loop. Open since 2007, the restaurant’s sommelier and beverage director is Arthur Hon, who presides over the 23-page wine list that is sorted into fun categories like The Wine Geek’s Soap Box and is filled with notations about his personal favorites. There are 17 large-format bottles, including a crisp and bubbly 2007 José Michel & Fils Champagne, as well as selections from Austria, France, and Italy—even an offbeat 2012 Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling from New York.
Two selections from Eyrie Vineyards in Willamette Valley, Oregon—the 1996 Pinot Noir Reserve and 1985 Pinot Meunier Estate Vineyard—are presented with poetic descriptions written by the late winemaker, David Lett. It’s personal touches such as this that contribute to the overall presentation of a wine program. As the wine list at Sepia notes, “The results yield wine with a clear voice of the land and of the vintage,” just one little detail proving that the task of building an award-winning list requires extensive time and thought.