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07.25.2006

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.

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