Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world …

Well, maybe not all the gin joints, but the current issue of the Wine Spectator (August 31, 2008) identifies many of the most serious wine and liquor programs to be found in all the towns in all the world.

In this, their annual roundup of what they tout on the cover as the “World’s Best Restaurants for Wine,” the Spectator bestows three levels of awards for wine excellence on 4,129 restaurants. Included among the honorees are six restaurants here in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Leading the way, of course, is Montagna at The Little Nell, just one of 73 establishments on the planet to receive the Spectator’s “Grand Award” for what the editors consider to be the “World’s Greatest Wine Lists.” Montagna’s cellar, currently under the control of Wine Director Richard Betts and Sommelier Jonathan Pullis, has made the prestigious list every year since 1997. It rubs shoulders with other star establishments renowned for their stunning lists, such as Taillevent in Paris, Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence (and Tokyo) and Daniel in New York.

The Grand Award is given to restaurants that generally feature over 1,500 separate offerings on their lists (Montagna boasts 1,700 wines and 20,000 bottles). These lists run both deep and wide with many vintages of difficult to acquire selections from both the Old and New World. The investment necessary to build and maintain these collections can easily run into seven figures.

Befitting a financial commitment of this type, one can be assured of being served by well-trained wine professionals who have a passion for the products they proffer. A Grand Award does not guarantee that you will always have a great dining experience at that restaurant, but your chances of having an outstanding bottle of wine are pretty close to perfect.

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The next level Spectator award is the “Best of Award of Excellence.” This year, there are 802 worldwide recipients in this category with Aspen’s Cache-Cache, under Wine Director Alexandre Harvier, earning the honor for the first time.

Mitch Levy’s Cuvee World Bistro in Basalt, as well as Jimmy’s: An American Restaurant and Bar, and Social Restaurant, both in Aspen, were all given the “Award of Excellence,” the third tier in the Spectator’s structure of honors, for the first time. Rounding out the locals list is Elevation, which also received the “Award of Excellence.”

So, what does this all mean?

Well, first of all, congratulations to the honorees. They sent in their lists to the Spectator and a savvy group of wine professionals reviewed them and deemed them worthy of recognition. For the restaurants honored, there will be a plaque to go on the wall noting their accomplishment; they will be listed in the pages of Wine Spectator and on their website; and they will have achieved a certain degree of credibility for their wine programs. It is hoped an adjunct to the awards will be a renewed sense of pride and care amongst the owners and staff for their wine and liquor programs. That can only be a good thing.

For consumers, a Wine Spectator award gives a degree of validation to a restaurant’s wine program. Not all winners may turn out to be great but if you are in, say, Greenville, S.C., and you are looking for a good meal with fine wine, checking the Spectator winners list may well steer you to Soby’s, where Wine Director Danny Baker will guide you through his 600 selections to help you find just the right pairing for the Fried Green Tomato Napoleon.

But just because a restaurant wins a Spectator award does not make it the best in a city or region. Here in this valley, we have many other excellent wine programs that are not on the list. Syzygy comes to mind, as does the consistently innovative and thoughtful list Bill Bentley puts together down at SIX89 in Carbondale.

These awards, like so many others (think ESPYs, Oscars and Gammys), are creations for the purpose of marketing products. They may well honor the right things (Amy Winehouse’s “Song of the Year” for “Rehab”), but sometimes they get it wrong as well (was “Kramer vs Kramer” really better than “Apocalypse Now”?).

I’m just saying, when you’re looking for a gin joint, check with the experts and then consider your options.

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