Yesterday I was greeted by the arrival of that greatest of anthologies of cardiologist advertisements and extra large photos of white men in their late middle-age, Wine Spectator. My 3-4 regular readers know that my general opinion about that magazine is that it’s about as relevant as a Whig Party membership and has a readership made up primarily of goateed baby-boomers and pooping wine shop employees. This particular issue was the magazine’s annual “List” of “3,795 restaurants wine lovers need to know.”
I knew I was in for a treat.
For those of you who don’t know, Wine Spectator gives out “Awards of Excellence.” It’s one of those classic pay-for-play “awards” where you send in your wine list and a $250 submission fee and, barring egregious incompetence, you receive a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for your wine list. In fact, in 2008 a guy perpetrated a hoax where he created a non-existent restaurant, typed up a wine list, and submitted it with his fee to Wine Spectator. He even made a point on the list to include many of the magazine’s all-time lowest scoring wines. And he won an “Award of Excellence.” This indicates not just the rubber-stamp nature of the process, but also makes it clear that the award does not even indicate a value judgment against Wine Spectator’s own internal rating criteria.
(An article in 2003 pointed out that, of 3,573 entrants, 3,308 received some level of award, most of which, 2,808, were the basic award. To be fair, the magazine does offer two higher levels, but clearly the restaurants who write checks and get their basic award are subsidizing the more rigorous review process for those other restaurants. Every player’s a winner!)
(Oh, and you have to reapply and pay your fee every year to keep your award.)
The award also does not really award the inherent quality of a list, but merely its breadth, depth, and “harmony with the menu,” to quote the magazine. Based on the magazine’s criteria, a restaurant is more likely to receive a higher honor merely for having a very large cellar with “vertical offerings of several top producers from major regions,” than a restaurant with a tight, well-curated, ever-changing 60 bottle list–that restaurant is unlikely to be recognized at all. Not only is innovation not rewarded, it looks like it may even hinder a restaurant in its quest for an award, as both upper tier awards make a point of emphasizing “major regions” and “well known producers.”
And look, that’s fine. Clearly the awards are meant for the readers of the magazine and the magazine is clearly and unapologetically written for that particular type of incurious wine enthusiast whose consciousness revolves around the Napa-Bordeaux-Northern Italy axis. A quick review of its list of award winners shows a list heavy with steakhouses and corporate restaurant chains, which is suggestive of this bias: big money restaurants with big wine cellars, even if 90% of its wine revenue comes from its by-the-glass Pinot Grigio.
I know I’m not telling most of you anything new, but it’s worth pointing out each year, I think: A Wine Spectator Award of Excellence–hell, even the Grand Award–is indicative of nothing other than an ability to write a check and fill a cellar with well-known vino.
In short, it’s as reflective of the wine culture of 2012 as Wine Spectator itself.