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Wine Spectator is the dominant magazine and source of information for wine consumers. Since 1981, it has focused on rewarding restaurants that have invested in fine wines and made wine service a dominant part of their identity.

To this end, each year, the magazine produces a list of restaurants considered worthy of awards in three categories: Grand, Best of Award of Excellence and Award of Excellence. Restaurants submit their wine lists for judging, and may be visited for verification. The annual list is comparable to a road map for wine travelers. Many wine lovers will make travel plans around these restaurants, especially in New York and San Francisco. While the list originally focused on just American restaurants, it now encompasses international locations, as well.

The Grand Award, according to Wine Spectator, recognizes restaurants with an "uncompromising, passionate devotion to the quality of their wine program.” Their wine lists feature more than 1,000 selections and “deliver a serious breadth of top producers and offer the highest level of wine service.” Only two southwest Florida restaurants hold this distinction: Bern’s in Tampa and Bleu Provence in Naples. Bern’s has held the award since its origin in 1981. There are only 100 recipients worldwide.

The Best of the Award of Excellence, with 1,387 winners worldwide, highlights restaurants with “excellent breadth and depth of selections,” according to the magazine. They must have at least 350 wine choices and show a deep commitment to wine, both in the cellar and through the service team. Sarasota is fortunate to have Michael’s on East as a winner in this category.

Maison Blanche chef José Martinez

Image: Chad Spencer

The Award of Excellence this year was given to 2,289 restaurants that offer a well-chosen assortment of quality wine producers. They also deliver sufficient choices to satisfy discerning wine lovers. New to the list this year among local restaurants are Sarasota's Summer House, Longboat Key's Maison Blanche and Sarasota's Plaza Bistro and Tavern.

I spoke with chef José Martinez of Maison Blanche about the award. He is in charge of the wine selections at the restaurant, and concentrates on French and American producers. Although his restaurant is small, with 50 seats, his wine list boasts more than 300 selections, predominantly from prestigious producers. Maison Blanche received the award 10 years ago but did not apply since. Martinez has had extensive experience with Michelin Award-winning French chefs, and Maison Blanche has been recognized as among the 100 best restaurants in the United States by Open Table and a top French restaurant in Florida by Zagat.

Unfortunately, Summer House did not return calls and Plaza Bistro is now closed. Former recipients that maintain current standing include Duval's, Element, Marina Jack and Marcello.

Bob McGinn has spent his entire career in the wine industry—forming wine clubs, working in wine sales marketing and engaging in all facets of the winemaking process, including vine management, fermentation and yeast analysis. He has developed wine programs for companies such as Marriott, Sheraton and Smith & Wollensky, and consults with local restaurants. You can read more of McGinn’s work at gulfcoastwinejournal.com.

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