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The Spectator Grand Award Wizard Speaks

No system of awards and ratings for restaurants can ever be perfect. From Zagat to Michelin to the James Beard Awards, they've all got their own way of doing things that any number of people can object to. Having said that, it's clear that all award systems are not created equal.

You'll often find me criticizing the Wine Spectator for this or that, and while I've often wondered exactly what goes into their restaurant awards (my Dining Issue just appeared in the mailbox recently) I haven't lost much sleep over it. Not so for Mark Fisher of the Dayton Daily news. It seems he likes to read the fine print, and he's not only giving me a reprieve from my usual role as Spectator basher, he's done one better. He's got the editor and publisher Marvin Shanken in a heated discussion about the validity of and criteria for their restaurant awards.

I must admit, I've been to more than a few restaurants that have had Wine Spectator awards, even Grand Awards, and I've always marveled that some of them possess the most boring wine lists I've ever seen, albeit with a number of very expensive bottles from California. Not to mention the fact that many of them have average food, mediocre service, and sometimes very un-knowledgeable staff when it comes to wine.

This is because the Wine Spectator Dining awards have nothing to do with food or service or atmosphere or ingredients or anything like that. They merely evaluate the wine list (with some examination of the printed menu to evaluate whether the wines on the list are appropriate for the food).

Mark has laid into the Spectator with a post today, expressing outrage at the fact that the Spectator doesn't even visit most of the restaurants that it gives awards to. It just accepts their $250 entry fee, a copy of their menu and a copy of their wine list.

Anyone who has sat in a restaurant scratching their heads about why a list that has 12 vintages of Far Niente on the list along with a few other big names got an award might be interested in the exchange between Shanken and Fisher.

Check it out.

Comments (17)

Alder wrote:
07.25.06 at 9:09 PM

For anyone who cares, here are the restaurants in San Francisco with Spectator Awards:

Fifth Floor
Michael Mina
Gary Danko

Absinthe Brasserie and Bar
Cafe Tiramisu
Campton Place
The Carnelian Room
The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton
Fleur de Lys
Fournou's Ovens
Nectar Wine Lounge
Restaurant LuLu
Shanghai 1930

A. Sabellas
Ana Mandara
Asia de Cuba
The Big Four
The Bubble Lounge
1550 Hyde
First Crush
Cliff House
The Cosmopolitan
Cozmo's Grill
Grand Cafe
Hawthorne Lane
Il Fornaio
Jack Falstaff
Julius' Castle Restaurant
Laurel Court
The Matterhorn
Morton's Steakhouse
Nob Hill Restuarant
One Market
Palio D'Asti
Rose Pistola
Ruth's Chris Steakhouse

Jean-Louis wrote:
07.26.06 at 7:43 AM

They do not visit the restaurants they rate? Maybe they should label their list as the $250 fee list and be done with it. Ridiculous!

Tish wrote:
07.26.06 at 8:54 AM

What do you think the chances are of a link to Mark Fisher's piece ever appearing on WS's blogs? In fact, I would bet a magnum of good stuff that the WS bloggers will avoid the topic of Restaurant Awards completely, simply to avoid the chance of a reader post bringing up Marvin Shanken's shocking comments. Let's hope they avoid going after Mark as they did Amanda Hesser a few years back when she wrote an article in the NY Times exploring the same lame aspect of the WS awards. Bottom line: WS Restaurant Awards are about their sense of power than they are about wine in the fine dining scene.

Alder wrote:
07.26.06 at 9:00 AM

Well Tish,

Considering that the wine spectator, to my knowledge has never mentioned ANY wine blog anywhere in the pages of their magazine or online site, I'd say you're placing a pretty safe bet.

St.Vini wrote:
07.26.06 at 9:41 AM

The best part is that Marvin calls it a "service" - I wish I had a service that generated $1,000,000 in fees for some typing....


Lenn wrote:
07.26.06 at 5:47 PM

It's funny. I have a subscription (a gift mind you) to WS and I feel like after I thumb through my issue each month, there is SOMETHING that, frankly, pisses me off.

Alder, of course the wine lists are boring at many award winners. All it takes is a lot of money to build up those cellars. You give most anyone the right amount of money and they can get on that "award" list. It's just sad that the average WS reader is too stupid to realize that.

And kudos to Mark for his discussion with Mr. Shanken...I've had similar "discussions" with Tom Matthews after I've criticized their handling of NY wines. They are SO defensive...it's really quite telling.

Joel Bates wrote:
07.26.06 at 8:30 PM


I have ranted and raved about the Spectator for years but it has not kept me from subscribing and giving gift subscriptions to three close friends/relatives. SHAME ON ME. Most of my rants about Speculation Central are wine related, but I agree and support Mark Fisher and you or anyone else that can get that drunk Shanken's goat. Way to go.

I remember a couple of years ago when Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa, which probably still has the greatest wine list ever assembled, was removed from their Grand Awards. No reason was ever given and I cannot believe that it was Bern's refusing to pay $250. To this day I have no idea why it was done and you cannot convince me that that wine list does not deserve a special place in heaven. So don't tell me they know what they are doing. If anything, they should be rating lists based on how obscenely they rip off their customers. Give me a break, you ever see Charley Trotter's or Everest's wine pricing. That should be the main determiner.

Anyhow, they all disturb me but I keep readin' em, so why should they change.

Joel Bates wrote:
07.26.06 at 8:44 PM

On further reflection, I think perhaps the biggest problem is that the Spectator no longer should contain Wine in the name. Several years ago they became a lifestyle magazine. In last year's food issue, I counted pages devoted to wine and it was something like 50% or less. I mean how can they call it the Wine Spectator when in most issues 25-35% of the mag is non-wine related. At least they got the Speculation part of the title, er, never mind. At any rate, they clearly choose topics that will make money for old Shankster.

The Spectator has always taken the easy way out. Their tasting is flawed as tasters are basically told what they are drinking prior to the taste. They even allow them to retaste to make sure they get the ratings their advertisers' expect. Talk about taking the easy way out. Is it really all that surprising that they do not visit most of their awarded restaurings? Visit my Wine Blog for my rants on the Spectator. Since it is new, it only contains my rants about the Spectator and Barry Bonds. I guess I gotta get on with my life.

Alder wrote:
07.26.06 at 11:40 PM

I can’t believe Bern's doesn't merit a grand award. I've never been there but I've cried reading their wine list before. They must have just stopped paying for the entry fee. That's the only reason I could possibly imagine.

Anonymous wrote:
07.27.06 at 9:02 AM

Hey Alder,

I think Matt Kramer mentions blogs in the restaurant issue. He doesn't mention any one in particular, and he kinda starts out with "the problem with blogs..."

Now does "excellence" really come before "best excellence"? The Cliff House is rated better than Boulevard? I guess I should just look it up myself, but I am just so damn lazy.

CV wrote:
07.27.06 at 12:36 PM

Personally, I don't think only score whores can find value in the WS Dining Guide.

The ratings probably help a wine fan pare down choices when visiting an unfamiliar place. From there, it's up to the individual to exercise due diligence by soliciting more complete reviews (either from local professional restaurant critics or from amateurs/restaurant-goers). The capsule reviews in the WS Dining Guide are pretty useless by themselves.

The WS Dining Guide and their various award levels do not gracefully handle concise wine lists of carefully selected wines. Notable SF Bay Area restaurants that fall in this category are Zuni Cafe and Chez Panisse (and maybe Oliveto too). And certainly, there are probably restaurateurs who simply don't care to pay the $250 fee.

The Michelin Guide is even more of a racket, especially in France. In terms of bureaucracy and restaurant politics, the Michelin Guide is hands-down the winner (or perhaps loser) in the wicked and corrupt industry of professional restaurant criticism.

Pim wrote:
07.27.06 at 2:02 PM

The Wine Spectator's position is absurd. They are charging the restaurants for what service they render exactly? The magazine surely profits from the sales of the Dining Guide, I don't see why it's the restaurants who shoulder the cost for putting it together. What rubbish!

Ben Bicais wrote:
07.27.06 at 3:01 PM

At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, I don't know how anyone, including WS, can claim to be a critic when they accept payment from those they are "criticizing." If it too expensive for them to actually visit and evaluate all of the restaurants that apply for these awards, (which seems like a bare minimum to rank them intelligently), then perhaps WS has bitten off more than it can chew.

Alder wrote:
07.27.06 at 3:30 PM


Thanks for the comments. I'm not an expert on the various guides out there, but it is worth noting that there is a pretty big difference between the Michelin guides and the WS guide in that the Michelin Guide has reviewers visit every restaurant that is in the guide, multiple times, and Michelin doesn't charge their award recipients to be "considered for an award."

Joel wrote:
07.31.06 at 8:28 AM

Just an update. Berns' did earn a Grand Award this year and rightfully so. Although the magazine claims Berns' has been a winner since 1981, that is not true. For a couple of years they were removed from the list and I think the reasoning was that there were too many vintages that were on the list but not available when WS visited the restaurant. I guess when you try to keep on top of a hundreds of thousands of labels of wine inventory (wines, not bottles of wine) that you will have some diffuculty keeping up with the list.

This was about the time that Mr. Berns died (early 90's) and I think the family sold off a bunch of the older stuff on the list though retail store they opened that I think still exists in Tampa. They then revamped the wine list and got their award back. I can only guess that the Spectator removed them because they were revamping the list and when their reviewer visited (I heard it may have been the Shankster himself) they were unable to get a few of the bottles they wanted to try. By the way, at least the couple of times I visited, they had about the fairest pricing I have ever seen on mature wines on a wine list in a good to very good restaurant.

Stephen Trask wrote:
08.01.06 at 7:13 PM

I enjoy the Wine Spectator, expecially when I am travelling. I don't particularly spend a lot of time reading the restaurant issue but it can be helpful when travelling. A good wine list can be an indication of quality in a restaurant. Why complain so bitterly that they charge a fee for consideration as long as restaurants are willing to pay it and readers understand that many of the mentions amount to little more than an advertisement for a restaurant's wine list.

As far as their supposedly corrupt reviewing methods, I find the reviews to be fairly accurate, as long as other sources are consulted for the more expensive wines. But cross checking and trusted recommendations should be a part of the process whenever one buys an expensive bottle, I would think.

Jim wrote:
08.08.06 at 4:10 PM

I found the most useful information to be what the restaurant charged for a corkage fee or if they allowed you to bring a bottle.

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