Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Valley Restaurants are Wining Diners

Nope, that’s not a typo. Wine Spectator’s list of restaurants with award-winning wine programs, released online today, shows that Coachella Valley restaurants are elevating their diners’ wine experiences, wining their diners if you will.
In addition to the 15 valley restaurants that made the list, another six restaurants are located in other parts of the Inland Empire, including Cabazon with its steakhouse Cielo at the Morongo Casino Resort.

Not surprisingly, seven of the valley restaurants garnering an award are steakhouses. Of the 15 local winners, Palm Desert is home to six while Palm Springs claims four. Three of the 21 in the greater region are in casinos.  

Most local restaurant wine programs earned the “Award of Excellence” or “Best of Award of Excellence” designations (only 88 worldwide earned the highest “Grand Award”). However, Wine Spectator gave many valley programs a 2 of 3 in “wine strength”, with only Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar in Rancho Mirage reaching 3 of 3 in this new (to date, undefined) category.

These awards and similar types of accolades have been slammed. Their critics claim that such honors are instead creative marketing because getting an award may require little more than showing up, doing the paperwork and paying the fee, akin to being listed in a “Who’s Who” directory. (Current application prices for the Wine Spectator awards range from $325-375.)

Not so, says Wine Spectator. Their website specifies basic requirements for a wine list to be considered, including its appearance – yes, spelling counts – and overall presentation. The list entered into competition must reflect the exact wines currently being served at the restaurant at the time of submission, that is, the wines that customers can truly review on a list and be served. This requirement likely discourages applications from status-seeking restaurateurs and beverage program directors who might consider padding the application list with fantasy wines, depth or variety sure to please the judges.

The list itself must include vintages, appellations and prices for all the wines, including by-the-glass selections. In all, at least 90 selections must be presented for “Award of Excellence” consideration. Restaurants seeking the two higher-level awards typically offer at least 350 and 1,000 selections, respectively.

Besides the actual wine list and current dinner menu, the application’s cover letter includes other relevant wine program information such as the wines’ storage conditions, pricing, inventory and other aspects that distinguish the applicant’s wine program. After that, it’s up to the judges, whose methods and identities remain unknown.

Whether you believe this or any other type of wine award accurately reflects the strength of a restaurant’s wine program, diners who seek a quality dining experience should still find Wine Spectator’s list a useful guide, especially when traveling or choosing a special night out. Their new geomapped interactive guide makes it easy to find a winning restaurant nearby.

One way to view these types of lists positively is that in general, restaurants that invest in developing strong wine programs are more likely to serve food that merits their range of carefully chosen wines. They also tend to offer better service. Though many can be pricey, others are more moderately priced, as with valley awardee Cork and Fork.

Sadly, the reverse is not true – that is, plenty of restaurants with fabulous food have wine lists in need of major resuscitation. Some establishments have wine lists that are out of sync with the style of food served, perhaps due to clients’ loyalty to tried-and-true favorites (Rombauer and Caymus or Prisoner with everything!) or owners’ particular reasons for not putting more energy or creativity into the wine list and wine service. Also, dedicated wine service doesn’t come cheaply, starting with glassware, proper storage space and perhaps a sommelier.

Other times you encounter what might be considered a lazy wine list, for example, at Italian restaurants with exceptional food that deserves excellent wines but whose lists instead present an uninspiring, safe or predictable range of Italian and California choices that will sustain but not elevate the meal.

Enjoy your next memorable food-and-wine experience at some of the restaurants included in Wine Spectator’s list below, whether here in the valley or within an hour’s drive. (Dates in parentheses denote the year they first won a Wine Spectator award.) See the full list in the magazine’s August 31, 2016 issue.

Coachella Valley:

Cork & Fork, La Quinta (2014) 
Cuistot, Palm Desert (2005)
Europa Restaurant, Palm Springs (2005)
Mastro’s Steakhouse, Palm Desert (2013)
Morgan's In The Desert, La Quinta (2012)
Morton's, The Steakhouse, Palm Desert (2016)
Ruth's Chris Steak House, Palm Desert (1997)
Sullivan's Steakhouse, Palm Desert (2001)
Spencer's Restaurant, Palm Springs (2011)
The Steakhouse, Palm Springs (2004)
The Steakhouse, Rancho Mirage (2007)
Vue Grille and Bar, Indian Wells (2015)
Zin American Bistro, Palm Springs (2015)

Inland Empire and Environs:

Caprice Café, Redlands (2015)
Cielo, Cabazon (2015)
Citrone Restaurant & Bar, Redlands (2015)
Mario's Place, Riverside (2004)

The Sycamore Inn, Rancho Cucamonga (2003)