So I recently found myself at a very high-end steakhouse in Houston called Pappas Bros.
The highlight for me was the prodigious wine list that features upward of 3,900 different wines and would take an hour or more to properly peruse. My companions at the dinner had come not for the wine, but for the steak. So as I buried myself in the list, much grief was passed my way for being “an anti-social wine snob.” While there was some truth to their criticism, it stung nonetheless.
I tried to explain that this list was special and it was one of just 100 in the world to be granted Wine Spectator’s Grand Award. “That would be like being named a Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated,” I offered, attempting to give some context. But the group would have none of it, so I was left, odd man out, with my book of wines, my solitary appreciation for the breadth of bottles obtained by this Houston institution, and fortunately, my glass of Heitz Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
But the Sports Illustrated analogy got me to thinking about just how powerful an influence Wine Spectator is, and has been, on the world of wine. In addition to their restaurant wine list awards, of which over 3,800 restaurants worldwide are ranked based on their wine programs, the publication also produces the definitive “Top 100” most exciting wines of the year issue which came out this month.
The Top 100 list was originally conceived in 1988, to provide a service for readers to help them navigate their way through the wines of the world. Since then, however, the list has become a powerful force in the industry. Making the Top 100 can make an unknown brand both profitable and relevant. It can also bolster a well-known wine to stratospheric sales.
A team of 10 tasters at the publication, including its senior editors, started with over 6,250 wines that scored 90 points or higher in 2019. These wines represent successful wineries, regions and vintages from around the world. While it may seem like a fun process, tasting and rating wines, it can be a long and laborious journey for those at the publication whose job it is to whittle the world’s wines down to the final 100.
The goal is to create a list featuring wines that are not only tasty, but also reflect the tenor of the times, can reasonably be found in wine shops and have great stories behind them. Or, as they say at the Spectator, wines that bring “quality, value, availability and excitement” to the table. The wines are tasted blind and rated on a variety of criteria. Once the best wines are identified, they then undergo a thorough review so that the final rankings can be determined.
Of course, the wine which attains the rank of No. 1 on the Top 100 becomes a coveted commodity and that will no doubt be the case with 2019’s winner, the 2016 Château Léoville Barton St.-Julien from the Medoc region on the Left Bank of Bordeaux. A second-growth estate, the wine sold for just below $100 a bottle at the time of the coronation. It will be interesting to see what the market does in the coming months for the collectible wine that those who have tasted it say should be ready to drink in another five years or so. The guess here is that it will become a hot property in steakhouses like Pappas Bros. and much of the 11,000-case production will be consumed in its youth. On expense account, of course.
France, Italy and California were heavily represented on the 2019 honors, with 66 bottles coming from just those three regions. The 2016 vintage, one generally considered as outstanding across much of the planet, also was featured prominently, with 7 of the top 10 grown in that august year.
While one may think the list includes only wines of great expense, there are some values, as well. In the top 20, for example, there are three chianti wines from Tuscany that are all available for reasonable prices (2016 San Giusto a Rentennano $36, 2017 Castellare di Castellina $22, 2015 Tenuta Bibbiano Chianti Classico Riserva $30). The most expensive wine was a Bordeaux, a 2016 Château Pichon Longueville Lalande Pauillac, which retails for $197 a bottle and placed 97th on the list. By my count just 14 of the wines on the list exceed $100 a bottle and the average price of the Top 100 is $54 a bottle.
The issue, on newsstands now, is one I keep. My pile of Top 100s goes back a few years. It is always fun to count the wines I have tried and to compare notes with what those at Wine Spectator had to say. I guess that’s just one of those things that an “anti-social wine snob” does.