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.