Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'm Not Worthy

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.


  1. I'm not sure if you were aware of this, but the WS Restaurant Awarding Panel were recently exposed as not quite being on top of things, to say the least.

    I've only dined at your restaurant once. But as a winemaker in California, one of the largest factors in my decision to eat there was your focus on Virginia wines. I love VA wines and I get plenty of CA and French wines here. And I will continue to visit your restaurant whenever I'm in Winchester (I have family in the area). Good for you on keeping things local - as it should be.

  2. Whining and crying about how the WS conducts business just sounds like sour grapes to me. Also, while I think it's nice (perhaps quaint would be a better word) that you're a big fan of the wine contry in which you live, the fact of the matter is that the professional world does not share your passion. My understanding is that both the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker have blind tasted/sampled a considerable amount of Virginia wine over the years, some of which have achieved respectable scores. Unfortunately, most haven't, and after having visited and tasted a considerable amount of Virginia wineries and wine over the years, I'd say that's hardly a surprise.... but I digress. In any event, I dare say a restaurant in Maryland, Michigan or Arkansas would get the same treatment from the WS if they peppered their wine list with local wines. Ah, but of course I'm sure you would argue that Virginia winemakers make vastly superior wine to wineries residing in those states. Uhuh. Of course they do.

    Passion about the area where you live is understandable and even admirable... expecting that same level of passion from others just because you're passionate is something else entirely.

  3. I debated whether to delete or post the anonymous comment above. Being a staunch First Amendment advocate, I figure the writer is entitled to his condescending opinion, even if he doesn’t have the guts to sign his name to his comments. Plus, I wanted the readers to see the nasty tone of the comment, an example of what I deal with—and many are much worse—frequently. Such, I suppose is the price I must pay for blogging what I feel.

    Mr. Anonymous hints that he may know something about wine, but we’ll never know for he says nothing about his credentials. On the other hand, I taste hundreds of Virginia wines (and thousands overall) each year to pick the select few for our wine list. I’ve seen and tasted firsthand the incredible improvement in quality that Virginia wines have made, especially over the past 10 years.

    I’ve never argued that Virginia wines are better than any other wines. To be sure, a few are awful. But, a great many are wonderful and should be tasted. That’s why they are on our wine list. That and I firmly believe in keeping my money in my local economy.

    I don’t expect Wine Spectator to be passionate about Virginia wines. It’s obvious from their ratings that highly extracted, high alcohol, fruit bombs are the big scorers. And we don’t make those kinds of wines here; we don’t have the climate for it. But I would hope that when they are evaluating wine lists based on “thematic match to the menu,” that they might open their minds a bit more.