Each year at this time, a letter arrives from New York, a letter whose envelope is emblazoned with "Is Your Wine List Worthy?" It's the annual pitch from Marv Shanken and crew at Wine Spectator to get restaurants to submit their wine lists to be judged worthy (or not) by Wine Spectator.
The idea is that if Wine Spectator deems my wine list "worthy," customers will come specifically to my restaurant because the list carries the WS imprimatur.
I was dumb enough to fall for this years ago. I packaged everything and sent it off to New York, along with a check for $250. Yes, it is pay to play. You do the math: there are currently 4118 restaurants that have been bestowed with this "honor." That's over a million dollars in revenue to Wine Spectator and that does not even include the restaurants whose lists are not worthy. I never said that Marv Shanken wasn't a great businessman. I'd kill for a profit center like that.
Anyway, back to my experience. A couple of months later, I got a letter back from Wine Spectator stating merely that my list was not worthy, but please feel free to send us another check next year to try again. The letter did include an email address for inquiries about specifics, so I inquired. And what I heard shocked me.
Before I get on with the rest of the story, I should tell you that I submitted my wine list for their basic award "for lists that offer a well-chosen selection of quality producers, along with a thematic match to the menu in both price and style."
As most of you know, my menu features local products from Virginia and more specifically, from the beautiful Shenandoah Valley where the restaurant is situated. It naturally follows that my wine list has an identical focus on Virginia wines, especially on those of the local wineries.
The email that I got back from Wine Spectator informed me that my wine list had too much of an emphasis on Virginia wines (the implication being that Virginia wines are not of sufficient quality for Wine Spectator). I have always suspected a bias against Virginia at WS, but to see it in writing was a bit of a shock.
I know that when the Wine Spectator crew is in a restaurant in St. Helena, they expect to see a lot of Napa wines on the list and when in Tain-l'Hermitage, they expect a lot of Northern Rhônes on the list. And when in Virginia, apparently they expect to see a lot of Napa wines and Northern Rhônes, too.
I just thought that you would like to know that my wine list is not worthy. Does that surprise you? 80 wines by the glass. 50 handpicked local wines. Wines from all the major wine regions of the world. Not worthy? I think my prices must be too low to attract the interest of the magazine that should be retitled Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
And Wine Spectator, you know what I'm doing with that $250 I'm not sending you? I'm buying more wine, more Virginia wine.