Watch the leading authorities from Wine Spectator, and discuss the process for scoring the world’s best wines, including an interactive Q&A. Wine Spectator editors review more than 15,000 wines each year in blind tastings!
Marvin Shanken, Editor and Publisher of Wine Spectator, and James Molesworth, Senior Editor, will also share key qualifications for investment grade wines.
Moderator Kenneth Himmel, President & Chief Executive Officer of Related Urban and Co-Founder of WS New York, will lead this dynamic discussion.
Read below for a full transcript of the conversation.
Corey Dahline - Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Corey Dahline. It's my privilege and pleasure on behalf of First Republic Bank to welcome you here today. We're delighted to partner with WS New York on today's program. At First Republic, our team has in-depth experience with the wine business and are proud to serve the wine industry and highlight our partners and friends. Today, it's a pleasure to welcome Ken Himmel. Ken is president and chief executive officer of Related Union, the nation's leading developer of large-scale mixed use properties as well as managing partner of WS New York. Under Ken's leadership, Related Urban has captured the world's attention with award-winning destinations. Rosemary Square in West Palm Beach, Time Warner Center and Hudson Yards in New York, The Grand Avenue redevelopment project in downtown LA, Related Santa Clara in Silicon Valley, and the Galleria and Central in Abu Dhabi. Ken's expertise in creating thriving developments reflects the vitality of local culture. His extensive hospitality background includes managing partner of Time Warner's restaurant and bar collection, including Per Se, Porter House, Bouchon and Ascent. And managing partner of Related's Hudson Yards restaurant collection, WS New York, Jose Andres' Mercado, Michael Lomonaco's Hudson Yards Grill. His renowned Boston restaurants include the legendary Grill 23 & Bar, the Harvest Restaurant, Post 390, and Bistro Du Midi. In 2019, Mr. Himmel launched WS New York with partners, Marvin Shanken and Steven Ross. WS New York, a culinary and wine focused private membership club is the only one of its kind in New York City. Before I turn the conversation over to Ken, know you can submit your questions using the Q and A function at the bottom of your screen throughout the event. And with that, Ken, take it away.
Ken Himmel - Thanks very much, Corey. And welcome, everybody. This would be a much more exciting event if we were all doing this in person, but this is the way the world has turned here over the last six months. So I think this is going to be a very effective way to communicate with everybody. Welcome. It's my great pleasure to begin today's discussion by introducing Marvin, Marvin Shanken. Marvin is a legendary character of his own. Marvin and I have known each other and been friends for almost two decades. Marvin has built what I think today, I would call the preeminent lifestyle publication network. Best known of course, with Wine Spectator, but also very well-known with Cigar Aficionado and Whiskey Advocate. Focusing on those two segments of a lifestyle world. Today's focus of course is going to be on Wine Spectator. Marvin also has put together some of the most incredible events. Many of you have probably been to the Wine Spectator events, which are held all over the country. He also has Whiskey Advocate and Cigar Aficionado events in New York and Las Vegas. A part of this though, I'd like to, before turning it over to Marvin, I'd like to tell you also, Marvin is incredibly philanthropic with the work he does. I know he contributes most, if not all of the benefits that come out of all those events to educational institutions and scholarships, supports a great deal of wine events and philanthropic events that go on in wine country. And of course, he's also the lead in the Ernie Els effort for autism, which we all support. So with that, I'd like to have Marvin pickup on this and we'll continue.
Marvin Shanken - Good afternoon. My job is to explain who James Molesworth is. James, for those of you who are viewing in from Napa and Sonoma, you know him. He's been with the Wine Spectator, believe it or not, for 25 years. And he's one of my younger editors. Most of them have been here 30 or 40 years. He's sort of the new kid on the block. He's got a very, very difficult job, which nobody feels sorry for him. He's in charge of Bordeaux, Rhone, California cabernet and vintage port. He should be paying me to work at the Wine Spectator because he gets to travel all over the world to these areas every year. And it's quite sickening that I have to pay him. He started out in retailing. He was a sommelier at 21 Club. He's been a real star at the Wine Spectator and built quite a following. And there are other things which I won't say that he knows what I'm talking about, but anyway, you're all very lucky that you're able to hear from him. He's got very unique knowledge on the subjects that we're talking about. And that's, James, you want to say something?
James Molesworth - Thank you, Marvin, for that nice introduction. I think you've introduced me twice in 25 years. It gets better every time.
Marvin - Well, I didn't know you the first time.
James- I'm looking forward to this. Transparency at Wine Spectator is one of the things that we're really big believers in and answering questions and making sure that our readers are just as educated about how we work as it is about the subject matter itself.
Ken - So I would add for everybody's benefit that this is a very, very unique event because it is with rare exception that you've actually had Marvin and James directly live to talk about what we're going to be talking about here today, which is really the inside story of what goes on in the rating of wines and the curation, if you will, of those that qualify and the process that goes on here. And I think it'll be fascinating for all of us. I know I've read this publication with great loyalty over many, many decades, and I've never really known the full story inside. It'll be very interesting for all of us. So with that, let me ask Marvin, if you can first maybe give a little bit of background on how did all this start? How did Wine Spectator publication begin and how it has grown into the incredibly wide widespread appeal that it has? How did you start all this?
Marvin - Well, it's a very long answer, which I'm going to try and make very short. It was first launched in 1976 in San Diego, California, by a guy by the name of Bob Morrissey. And he and I became friends. And he was starving doing the Spectator in San Diego. And I was starving in New York doing my trade publications. And we became friends. And after two years he couldn't make it and he tried to give it to me, and I wouldn't take it. And then a year later he came to New York and forced me to take it on. It had annual revenues of $40,000 and he gave it to me. And I told him I read in a book that publishing companies are worth one times revenues. So I said, I would pay him $40,000, but I didn't have it. So I paid them out over five years. And took it over and had a vision for what the magazine could become. It was a giveaway newspaper at the time. What the vision is or what the vision was, is actually what it became. And over time it started to make money. And we started to build our own full-time staff of editors, which was part of the dream. And today it's quite successful and it's due to the great editors and people that work there. And that's, you know, pretty much, it's got over 3 million readers around the world and that along with the events make it a very unique company. And that's it.
Ken - So, it's amazing that you're reviewing, you and your staff of experts, are reviewing over 15,000 wines annually. Which is almost incomprehensible to think about going through that kind of review process. So I mean, how do you in fact decide which wines? How does somebody get into that group, first to become part of the 15,000 and then to move their way up to becoming, you know, at the top of the list of the highest rated? How do you go through the process of selecting who gets into that list?
Marvin - I'm going to speak for a second, then I'm going to turn over to James. Actually, there were times when we were at 18,000 and 20,000 wines. Last year, I think we were around 15, but I'm trying to push the editors to taste fewer wines, especially now during the coronavirus, when it's very difficult to be at the offices and to receive the wine and taste the wine. We want to taste mainly the wines that are relevant to our readers. And with that, I'm going to turn it over to James.
James - Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, we used to have basically an open door. If you were a bonded winery, you could send in your wines, unsolicited, and chances are we would get to them. And those were the years that we tasted 18. I think even one year we topped 20,000 wines in one year. In more recent years, we've tried to trim that down just for logistical purposes. And now with COVID obviously there's some speed bumps that we have to deal with in terms of getting tasting set up in an office and going in, because we do taste blind, which requires assistance. But basically now wineries will propose what wines they want to submit for review. They have to do that with some information. The editor in charge of that region then goes through and decides if the wine makes sense to taste. And that's kind of a sliding scale on a bunch of different categories. The price, how many cases are available in the marketplace? Does the winery have a track record? Is it a brand new winery? And if so, who's behind it? All of those things try to make, you know, headway into how we make this selection process. The idea is we want to taste what's in the marketplace that most people can find. We want to taste the best wines and point people to them. We're not really in the business of hammering wineries with bad reviews, though, if something is astride, we will deal with that. But we want to point people to the good. And so we're just trying to streamline the process a little bit. So instead of 20,000 reviews where maybe some of those wines you can't find, its 15,000 reviews of wines that you're probably going to find.
Marvin - I think lower. I have a battle all the time with the editors because they want to taste more, and they don't know how complex it is. Or they know but they ignore it because they want to taste more. And from a practical standpoint, we need to taste less. That's one of the battles that I have with these prima donnas.
Ken - So over the years, and just having gone to a number of the wine events, your wine experiences, and just looking at the best vintners who attend those events from all over the world, and then having attended some of those directly with you, Marvin, I mean, you are, you know, you're beloved for many reasons. But as you go to these events, it's amazing to me, as you travel around to 300, 400, 500 individual presentations, how many people really know you and how you've connected with that audience. How do you keep this process independent? How is it that the lobbying effect that goes on with people who know you and are really looking to get high ratings, how do you keep this independent?
Marvin - Well, you've asked that question in a very friendly way. You know, quite often less so now, because I'm not that available, vendors used to come and complain. And they take it personally. If they get an 86 or an 82 or an 89. And I get it, you know, a wine is a, it's one of their children. There's a great deal of attention and care and money that goes into producing these things. They spend their life doing it. What we tell them, which they already know is that we taste blind. There are many, many wines that, and most of the wines we don't know the people necessarily who get great scores. In the old days somebody would say, "Well, I only got an 88 from Wine Spectator." And somebody would say, "That's because you don't advertise." They don't do that anymore, but they used to do that. The truth is most of the high scoring wines are limited production wines that don't advertise because they don't have budgets for it. But I think if you were to ask most wine makers today, "Can you buy a score? “Can you tilt the scale?" They would tell you it's impossible at Wine Spectator. There've been so many people that have tried. There've been so many things. We are very, very independent. We don't just say it. I have close friends who I've had for many years, who, you know, in the old days, an editor might bring the score in to show me that they were going to get an 84 or something like that. And I said, "What are you showing it to me for?" If that's the rating, you publish that. And in the old days, I used to have people that would fly in to see me and so forth. And one case in particular, where I was in a pool swimming, and he's complaining about a 68, not knowing the next issue he's going to get a 58. And a very, very well-known guy. And that's life in the big city. Molesworth, you're in it but from a different angle, why don't you comment on that?
James - I mean, first and foremost is that we taste blind. We taste single blind. So when I'm sitting down to a flight of wines in the office, I know that I'm tasting for example, 2016 pauillacs, but I don't know who the producer is. And I don't know what the price of the wine is. And so I'm merely tasting, focusing on what's in the glass. And I don't have that extra context that might influence someone. And there's plenty of studies that show that even if you say you're not influenced, if you know what it is you're drinking or what you're looking at in terms of art or what you're tasting in terms of food, you will be influenced by it, even subconsciously. It's just the way it is. So to remove that inherent bias, we taste blind. In addition, there's, you know, there's a pretty stringent code of ethics for the editors. We don't accept any travel assistance. We book our own itineraries. We pay our own way when we visit wine regions. We set our own schedules.
Ken - That's great to know, yeah.
James - We're tasting the wines that we're allowing into our system to taste based on what we think our readers want to know about and what we think are exciting. And that's how we maintain our independence. And to be honest, I don't think there is another major publication or critic that tastes blind today. I think we are the only ones.
Ken - That's incredibly helpful to know. You know, for all of us who travel and we're all looking forward to doing the traveling again, missing it tremendously, whether it's business or personal. I know being in the hotel business and being in the restaurant business, how dearly we cherish getting rated with our hotels and restaurants in the travel publications. And how much an angst is caused when, last year you were rated at a 95 and you were one of the top three. In the following year, you're down to an 88. And you know, we don't understand how somebody went from 95 to 88. It's not fair. So, and we kind to draw the line in the restaurant business, of which I'm pretty extensively in it, you know, we kind of draw the line and say for a wine to really be considered special, we look the Wine Spectator. We kind of draw the line at 90. We say if a wine is 90-plus, I mean, it's got to be special enough because you guys have done a pretty good independent job of evaluating it. How, help us understand how somebody gets to the 90. You know, that fine line between 82 and 90, 94. How do you get to that number?
Marvin - Jim, you want to go first or you want me?
James - Yeah, I'll just give you folks some quick numbers first. So last year we tasted 15,111 wines. Of those only 52% scored 90 points or higher. So only half the wines.
Marvin - But let me comment, because that sounds like a lot.
Ken - A lot.
Marvin - But what you don't know is there's probably 20 to 30,000 wines that they wanted to send us the wines, but we wouldn't accept it. So we're only accepting to taste the very best wines produced in the world. And that's 15,000 of probably 50,000 that they would have liked us to taste. It's of this 15,000 that 50% got 90 this past year.
James - Yep, and most of the wines that we print in the magazine proper are the higher scoring wines. Everything else is on our website. So the website always has more reviews than the magazine proper. And that's where a lot of the other scoring wines go. Not that they're bad. And we'll get into that maybe later with another question. Anything about 85 is considered very good. Anything above 80 is good, but Ken you're right. 90 is sort of the breaking point for most people. When they think of wine, it's either above 90 or below 90, and they want to focus on the 90 point wines. So for us, 90 to 94 means outstanding, and 95 to 100 means classic, those two categories. Basically what we're looking for is what makes a wine great. We're talking about the length. We're talking about the complexity. We're talking about the density. And we're also talking about tapicities. So for instance, when I'm tasting Bordeaux, I want a pauillac to taste like a pauillac. If I'm tasting Napa cabernet, that's a different experience. I expect Napa cabernet to have a different expression. However, a 90 point pauillac and a 90 point Napa cabernet are equally qualitative. They're the same wine in terms of the quality. It's then up to the consumer to decide based on price, based on the tasting note that we write for those wines, what it is that they want to try. But you're right in the sense that as when we were in school, you know, 90 is basically an A or an A-, and above that, you know, that's the breaking point for what's really, really good. I would say though, that 85 to 89 points is a terrific sweet spot for people who are looking for great wines often at more value prices.
Ken - A good value, yeah, right.
Marvin - What I would add to this is that wine is a very personal thing. And I can tell you wines that one of the editors gave an 88 or 89, I might love. And wines that they give a 93 to, I might not love. It's just because the Spectator gave it a high score, that doesn't mean it is in your sweet spot. You have to find, it's like a restaurant, not a restaurant. A movie critic, a movie critic, raves about a movie. You go see the movie and you walk out. That happens three times, you no longer read the movie critic or a restaurant critic. The food they rave about, you go and say, "What was so special about that?" It's a very personal thing. And you have to build a relationship with yours and get the trust that taster or that editor, whoever it was.
James - And we try to keep that in mind. I mean, there is personal preference, but there are also wines that I would rate highly that I might not put in my own cellar because they're not personally wines that I am crazy about. But I can recognize them for their style and quality. If you want to use the movie analogy again, maybe you don't watch westerns, but you have to admit that there's some pretty good westerns out there, even if you don't watch westerns. And the same is true for wine. So just to take two brands that you could maybe consider opposites. There's Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and there's Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa. Wines in two very different styles. And I've given them both the same score because they're excellent examples of that type. And I try to take myself out of the equation personally, as best I can, which again, by tasting blind is a lot easier to do.
Ken - So as we look at trends going on, at least in the United States today, what can you, I don't know if you can answer this, but the percentage of wines that are consumed in America that are California versus French versus Italian versus Spanish. You know, today, I mean, at least in all of our experience in the business that the dominant it's California, its France, its Italy seem to be, of course, the dominant regions that have the best exports of the best product. How does that look? How does that stack up today? And how has that trended over the years?
James - That's probably more of a question for our market watch people that get all those Nielsen numbers and can give you specifics. All I know is from a broader sense that France and Italy are always kind of flip flopping back and forth between the number one imports into the US. They're clearly the two big guys on the block. And of course, California. The way I see that often play out is California's quite popular on the West coast, incredibly popular in the Midwest, a little less popular on the East coast. The East coast tends to favor France and Italy and a slightly more European style, but that's not to say you can't find great burgundy in the Midwest and West coast as well. And then there are other categories that, you know, they have their ups and downs such as Spain and Australia and South Africa, but none of those has ever really broken through to be in this marketplace the way France and Italy and California are. It's really those three and then everything else.
Marvin - Yeah, but that being said, if you're a subscriber to the Wine Spectator and you read it over the course of a year or two, you will learn about every wine region and who's doing what. And you'll be able to discover whether it's from Chile or Argentina or Spain, which is making some really, really great wines, or Oregon or Washington. There's so many different wine regions and our editors cover them on a regular basis. So it's not just California, France and Italy. It's much more diversified than that. And that's what makes it so interesting to learn about wine.
James - Yeah, I mean, just to give you some more numbers really quickly, for instance, in 2019, we tasted 500-plus Austrian wines, tasted over 500 Australian wines. We tasted over 600 German wines. I mean, these are categories that may not leap out at you when you walk into the retail store, but they're extremely important categories because they make great wine, and we are trying to cover everything as best we can.
Ken - One of the interesting things that will affect the whole wine industry as it's doing the spirits industry as well, are just looking at the kinds of restaurants that are, and by the way, as you know, we're experiencing one of the most difficult, one of the most challenging periods. I've been in the restaurant business for over 40 years, none of us have ever experienced anything close to what we're all going through right now. And we're all trying to evaluate the restaurants that really are going to survive, those where there is going to be enough demand. And of course, what we're all faced with here is looking at this younger demographic. As we look at that audience who's traveled, who's grown up in our homes and has traveled with us and has good taste. But these young people, 25 to 40, as they go through the next 15 years and evolve as great consumers, the impact it's going to have because the kinds of restaurants that they're going to are very different from the restaurants we grew up in. I mean, we were all gravitating to New York Times 4-star, Michelin 3-star restaurants. And as we all know, there's an awful big audience today that's really not gravitating to that. Where there were exceptions, you know, as we know the really great flagship restaurants of Keller and others, but you know, if we look at the more informal trend, I mean, the people today who are looking for something that's got more energy in terms of the kind of restaurants, more informal that they want to go to and the effect that's going to have on wine. And how would you profile that, James? How do you see that going forward?
James - Well, I think you're talking about that millennial category, which a lot of us are still trying to understand. I was raised by Francophiles. I went dining out with my parents when I was young. I, like you, I took this as a sort of an important part of my education as a person. I'm not sure that happens now. And I don't mean that pejoratively. I mean, just that things have changed. And I think millennials and younger people in general, they move a little quicker. They don't want to sit down for three hours for a meal. They're not necessarily drinking as much wine as our generation did, although they do drink some wine and then they drink pretty good wine at times. So I think they're just looking for a slightly different experience and, you know, pre-COVID, New York obviously had a terrifically vibrant restaurant scene. And that includes everything from your simple dumpling shop on the corner with a couple of seats at the counter to something like Per Se. And I think what millennials like is that they can simply walk around and pick and choose as they go. And that sort of more casual dining, not necessarily white tablecloth. Something like what the Tavern by WS has captured. A more casual vibe, but they do want quality ingredients. They do want an experience, I think, which is key to them. They want to feel like they're being transported. They want to feel like they're being given something new, unique, and special from a place that they might not know that much about. And I think that's where they're coming from. It's not necessarily about the most expensive or the finest or the poshest experience. It's about the experience in and of itself.
Ken - Well, one interesting anecdote which I'd add to this part of the conversation is I'm a very proud graduate of the hotel school at Cornell. And I actually went into the hospitality business as a part of all that, having that as my educational background in graduate school. And today, if you looked at Cornell, which is a, it has a tremendously diversified academic offering, the single most, the single highest demand course in the entire university, not the hotel school, the entire university, is the wine course at the hotel school. It is the single highest demand course in the entire university. Kids who are interested in learning about wine. So I think that's encouraging for all of us. One last question, maybe on this particular part of what we're talking about here is, as a wine ages, and as you rate wines, how do you follow the progress of a wine as you rated it? It gets a rating at a particular point in time. Does it then get rated again? How does a wine, as it matures over time, get rated?
James - Well, the rating that we give on release, essentially when we review the wine is the rating that we feel the wine deserves when it reaches its maximum potential as a wine in terms of its evolution. So if we're giving a young Bordeaux 95 points, it's not that it's 95 points right then and there. It's a 95 point wine, but it's going to need 15 or 20 years to show its best. And all of that is detailed the tasting note and the drink recommendation that we give. Now we do go back and re-review wines at certain times. And those are usually in the form of vintage retrospectives for vertical tastings, from a particular winery. And those wines will then supersede the previous release review. Does that score change? Yes, it's going to change from time to time. Sometimes it's a different editor that reviewed it on release than might be reviewing it later. Obviously over time, things can change a little bit. I have found though that those scores don't deviate that much, you know, from personal experience. I think wine is always a moving target, but if you're thinking about where it's going to be when it's at its potential, that eliminates any of the variability or much of the variability in scoring.
Ken - Good, okay.
Marvin - I should just add one comment, which I probably shouldn't, but you know, what the hell. We taste for the consumer. There are other periodicals that taste for the trade. And in virtually all cases, these other sources tend to rate wines higher than we do, because they're trying to promote the product. We're not promoting anybody's product. We're representing the interests of the consumer, which is different than the trade trying to sell their wine. And I'm sure they would all disagree with me, but that's the reality of what I've witnessed for the past 30, 40 years.
James - I do think that's an important point. I think we are the toughest graders out there right now. I personally have not given 100 points to a wine in print in my 25 years at Wine Spectator. And most of my current colleagues have not done that either. There are very few 100 point wines in the history of our magazine. We are very, very serious about wines that score that high. And we're just, we're the toughest I think, modestly saying, I think we're the toughest critics out there.
Marvin - There's some critics that give out 100 every year. But that's why an 88 from us could be a 92 from somebody else. It's a really good score if you get an 88. I sort of understand, but don't agree with drawing this fine line that it it's got to be 90 or better because there's so many great wines in the high 80s. It's just a matter of personal taste of that particular editor.
Ken - You know, one interesting fact also, you know, when Marvin and I started this club together, WS New York, Marvin set out as a precedent and a mandate that our list would be, if not dominant, it would be absolutely a requirement that we have 90-plus wines throughout the list. And really we were trying to dedicate the entire list to 90-plus. What's amazing is just the depth and breadth of wines that do qualify at the 90-plus. And so it does give our list at WS New York an interesting edge and an interesting perspective. And you know, being in the restaurant business as deeply as we are, that's what we seek. We seek to really be able to show people, at multiple price points, because as James and Marvin could tell you, it's not that every 90-plus wine is the most expensive wine. As a matter of fact, these guys find some incredible values.
James - Yeah, all told I think out of the 15,000-plus wines we tasted last year, only 3% rated 95 points or higher. So I think that gives you a sign of how tough we are. Yes, there are a lot of 90 point wines because wine is better than it's ever been. And it's hard to make bad wine these days, even from regions you might not be familiar with, but really getting into the upper stratosphere. That's where we get tough.
Ken - So for a lot of our clients, both members of the club and also at our restaurants and at our hotels, our best clients often come to us with an interesting question. They want to put together a cellar. You know, they may be buying a second or third home. They may finally have gotten to a point where they really want to make an investment in wine. How would you go about recommending, how do you go about servicing a client in terms of answering the question, what should I be investing in? What should I be buying in terms of wine for a wine cellar, collecting and drinking?
James - You want to go first Marvin, or?
Marvin - Well, I really dislike the question because I truly believe, even though I'm guilty of violating it, that you buy wine to drink it, not to put it in a home wine cellar with the idea someday of selling it. I'm guilty because I've bought so much wine in my lifetime because I love wine so much, that there's no way I can consume everything I have. So at some point, I'm going to have to think about that. But you know, you buy wine because you're looking forward to sharing it with friends over a great meal or an evening out or what have you. That having been said, I would say in general, if you buy smart, if you're buying quality with longevity, in terms of the grape variety, it's very hard over time not to be successful in terms of an appreciation in the value of the wine. Other than that, I wouldn't comment, James.
James - Yeah, I think I'm with Marvin. Anytime I've ever sold wine it's so that I could buy more wine. I just, I don't sell. I don't buy to collect. I buy to drink and I buy to share with the people that I want to drink wine with. And then I fuel my wine cellar that way. That notwithstanding, there are investment opportunities if that's what someone is interested in. There are basically two factors that are involved here. One is the scarcity of the wine. So things like burgundies which are in small productions, from Champagne, other things like that, cold cabernets from Napa Valley and so on, right bank Bordeaux. These are wines that are hard to get. They're often a little pricey on release, but they tend to hold their value and appreciate over time, in part because they are so scarce. And then they're the wines that are the blue chips. I'm thinking mostly classified growth Bordeaux from the left bank and a few other California wines where over time, piedmont, Barolo, Barbaresco would also fit into that category. Because aging those wines is so critical, someone who takes the time and expense to store them properly, maintain pristine provenance, and then release those quantities 10, 15, 20 years down the road, there tends to be appreciation on those wines as well, but obviously that's a different angle of attack.
Ken - That's great. Let's move on to a little bit different topic, but obviously a related one, which, and your publication Wine Spectator does an incredible job of covering this topic, which of course is the Grand Awards for restaurants, which is incredibly coveted. I can speak to that firsthand, having owned and operated a number of restaurants over the last 40 years. And in 2007, I opened a restaurant in Boston called Grill 23 & Bar. I opened it at the old Salada Tea building in 1983. We've owned it and operated it since '83. And in 2017, after five years of trying, we finally got a Grand Award in that restaurant. And we are the only restaurant today in Boston that actually holds that Grand Award. And I can tell you firsthand, it was a completely arms-length process. As well as I knew Marvin, even at the time and as involved as we are. I mean, it was maybe, maybe the fact that we knew each other so well, it became even more difficult for us, but it's quite a rigorous process. And all I can tell all of you is, you know one thing. If you go to a Grand Award winner in terms of a restaurant, you're going to have incredible food, incredible service, and you're going to have a wine experience like none other in that market. That, to me, is the real seal of approval of what it does for you. So tell us a little bit, Marvin, you know, how did this evolve? How did the Grand Award process evolve? And how do you view that today?
Marvin - We moved to something a little more serious. In 1981, I created this program to acknowledge great wine lists at restaurants to give them an incentive to want to improve the selection of what they were offering. Many times in the '80s, a restaurant would have a wine list designed and printed by a distributor where they basically took whatever it is the distributors sold them. And I wanted to create a reason to take pride in what you were creating. And my editor at the time said, "A Grand Award? Nobody’s ever heard of a Grand Award, what a dumb idea." And I said, "Jerry, maybe not today, but someday they will." And today they're 100 Grand Award winners in the world. There's close to 4,000 restaurants have awards from us. It's a very big deal. People spend years and years and years trying to earn an award for best of award or the Grand Award. Now Molesworth worked on that program for how many years?
James - I think I administered that program for about eight or nine years in my early days.
Marvin - So he was in the trenches, dealing with the restaurants and the sommeliers. And talk about your experiences. You were, you were doing it, and you were building those lists for those years. Other people do it now, but it was, in the beginning, nobody could care about it. And today everybody wants it. It's all about credibility, but Jim, why don't you comment?
James - Yeah, so, I mean, just to give a little quick background. So the program started in 1981. And in essence we're reviewing wine lists the same way we're reviewing wine. In this case, we know where the wine list is from so it's not a blind rating, but we're trying to give readers or point readers in the direction of restaurants that had great wine lists. And 20 years ago, it was not that long ago, when a lot of restaurants would have a wine list, as Marvin was indicating, maybe it didn't have vintages on it. Maybe all the wines were from a single producer or there wasn't a lot of energy being put into wine lists even just 20 or 25 years ago. So a lot has changed in that time. And I think, you know, we've both charted that progress and help spur that progress at the same time with this program. We now have about 4,000 entries annually. Only 100 have won the top award. So again, it's kind of like our 95 to 100 point wines. The Grand Award is really the ultimate, you know, restaurant experience in terms of wine. Now, those restaurants wind up getting anonymously inspected by one of our editors. They go in and they dine there. And then show up a day or two later for an inspection, which sometimes is scheduled and sometimes isn't. That's how we keep them on their toes. And we go through the cellar, and we start asking them to pull out bottles that were on the list that they actually submitted to us for review to make sure that they have what it is they claim that to have on their wine list. And then there's a middle tier and a bottom tier, and those are also excellent wine lists. So those are more like in the bistro style or more casual dining. The upper Grand Awards though, are really where you can go for vintage depth, wines from either they are specifically dealing with one country or one region. So maybe they specialize in Piedmont or Burgundy, or they're trying to cover the whole world of wine. But basically these are the encyclopedic wine lists with the top service, the top sommeliers, the top glassware, everything that you want from a wine experience and the dining experience.
Marvin - I don't know, but there may be 80 countries that participate with restaurants from there. And what is left unsaid, there's probably 400, 500, 600 restaurants every year that apply and don't get it. And we explained to them why they didn't get it. So that next year they could, if they do the correct work on improving their wine list, they might earn it in the following year.
James - We do give feedback on the wine list, because we do want to pull them along. We want to both educate and entertain, not just our readers, but also the restaurateurs that we partner with in this program. And we want to get them to improve their wine lists for the benefit of wine consumers.
Ken - I can tell you having gone through the grilling process for this firsthand, in 2010 in Boston at Grill 23, we decided to go after this award. And I had three young sommeliers working for me. One of them was a superstar. He was in his early twenties, and he committed himself to going through the process, the rigorous process of becoming a master sommelier. It turns out he became, I think either the youngest or one of the youngest who ever got the award on his first try, just to show you how smart this guy was. He was going to go to law school. He decided to stay in the business with us. So we spent, as I said, we got the award in '17. Between 2010 and 2017, every year, we stepped up to try to get this award. And I kept investing in the product, investing in the depth of the inventory. And we added three more sommeliers, one of whom also became a master sommelier, and I was there for the four-hour grilling when we finally got the award after they'd been in for three unannounced visits and had gone through this place in spades. So we deserve that award, I can tell you. And it was a phenomenal thing because imagine people coming to a city like Boston or wherever, it's a seal of approval. I mean, people, look, they read the magazine when they're going to a city and they say, "I'm going to a place, "I'm going to a Grand Award restaurant." So it's a very meaningful.
Marvin - We've had restaurants get the Grand Award from China, from Paris, from London, from South Africa. Nobody gets it unless there's a personal inspection done by our team. So that's one of the things where we'll give them a list of wines based on the list they submitted. And they have to bring it to the table to show that they have it in the inventory, and it's not fake news, that they're listing great wines that they don't actually stock. And then we go through a myriad of other tests to demonstrate to our satisfaction that this is the real deal. But every Grand Award winner has been inspected.
Ken - So Corey I'm cognizant of the time. We're now 45 minutes into this, I think from our schedule, we should be moving through this a little rapidly. So I think we're going to turn this back over to you at the moment.
Corey - Okay, sounds great. Thanks guys that was incredibly informative. Before we turn it over to Q and A from the audience. We're searching through those and trying to pick out a couple. There's a lot of fantastic questions. I had a few questions about the WS New York for Ken and Marvin. I understand it's a private membership club focused on food and wine, two things that I love. So could you give us a little background of your two personal relationship and how that evolved over time?
Ken - So the dream, the vision for this started 18 years ago when Steve Ross and I were developing Time Warner Center. And I brought Thomas Keller in Per Se to New York. And I brought Masa to New York. Two Michelin 3-star restaurants. And Michael Lomonaco, who is a beloved chef-operator with us in our partner at Porter House. And I said, the crowning touch for Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle would be to develop a wine cellar. Literally take a level, a big level of 35,000 to 40,000 foot level below grade and turn this into a wine and food and beverage experience like none other in the world. And so I can't tell you how much time and money I spent putting schemes together, plans together, renderings together. And I enlisted the help of my chef partners who were already in the project. And we came up with this dream idea of putting together a wine and cuisine combination that would just be like none other. Now that was in, we opened this project in 2004. So that was in 2002 and 2003. It kind of fell flat with Marvin because he really didn't know us that well. And I think it was just a little too early in the process, but it did light a fire and it kindled an idea that never went away. I mean, to be honest with you, I've been thinking about this since the time we opened in 2004, when we put Hudson Yards together and we really saw Hudson Yards as the really new age, the new New York project on the West side, really creating a whole new downtown on the West side of New York. And for those of you who have followed it, I mean, this is like a 20 million square-foot project. We've already developed and opened 12-million square feet of this. But when I put all of the components of the project together with all of the incredible office and residential, the cultural facility, the shed, a collection of restaurants in the project and the Equinox Hotel, the one thing that was missing in the entire project and missing on the West side of New York was a private club. A club that would be a home for the quality of the participants who were both living and working and visiting the project. And thank God we got our timing right, because Steve Ross was the first to really approach Marvin. After I said to Steve, "This is the moment we should try to get Marvin to join us in this." And we enlisted, you know, Marvin will fill in his side of this very quickly, I'm sure, but it was an idea whose time had come. And I can tell you that we brought David Rockwell into the process with us. The images that you saw on the screen here reflect the quality of what we've done. I've been involved in this business for 40, almost 45 years. I have never executed anything at this quality level that turned out exactly the way you want it to. There's almost nothing missing in this project in terms of how we've executed it. Marvin, you should pitch in a little bit here.
Marvin - Well, when Steve came to visit me at my home, I thought he was visiting me because I had been sick and was making a, you know, a call to see how I'm doing. It turned out that was not the case. He was trying to hook me into Hudson Yards. And I remember saying to him, "What's Hudson Yards?" I didn't even know what it was. And then we talked about it and so forth. And what Ken was saying was 15 years ago, they tried to get me to do a Wine Spectator tasting bar and restaurant at Time Warner Center. And I said, no. And then Steve was very upset. He came back and doubled the money, the offer to me. And I said, "Steve, it's not about money. It’s not something I want to do." Fast forward 15 years, and I'm more mature. I'm more open minded, I'd like to think. And the idea of the dream of doing a club, which pardon, don't tell Steve I said this, but spared no expense to create the ultimate experience where one person whose name I won't mention that many of you know said, this is the cherry on the top of Hudson Yards. If you looked at those pictures, you would see an assortment array of rooms that is quite extraordinary. When I sit there, I pinch myself, with great art and silverware and glassware and built around education, built around a great list, not only wine, but whiskey, built around education, doing seminars and like the things where we actually are doing with you right now. For those that love great food and great wine that happen to come to New York or live in New York. It's an extraordinary opportunity to live life on a higher scale. And I could, you know, they always say, you never know a partner until you live with them for a few years. We started this thing, I don't know, four or five years ago?
Ken - Five years ago, yeah.
Marvin - I can say that with Steve and Ken, I've never been disappointed. I totally trust them. They get it. They share the vision. They are uncompromising. And the next 5 or 10 years, this club will bring a lot of joy to a lot of people. I believe.
Corey - Thank you. Thank you. James, since you've been silent on this, I got to get your opinion on what, when this thing reopens and we're back to normality, if that can be a case, what's the one thing you're most excited about going back into the WS New York for?
James - Well, I have some wines in my locker that I'd like to get.
Marvin - Before he starts, I want to just say, He's there, I want to say, almost every day. I wish he would work more.
James - I mean, I pinch myself that I'm a member there. It's just an absolutely gorgeous place visually. The service is top notch, even the waiters have sommelier-level training. So for a food and wine experience, it's great. But at the same time, it feels very casual. It's lush, it's formal in its look. Its super detailed, but you can just go there and relax over a nice bottle of wine in the bar area. You can dine downstairs in the casual Tavern. You can be upstairs in the private club part. There's so many options. There's so many rooms. There's so many different ways to enjoy it there that yes, even though I am there often when it's open, each time it's different. And I've just had such a great time there so far. I can't wait for it to open again.
Corey - All right. So I've got a bunch of questions from the clients that are on the line. Sorry I'm not going to get them to them all. They're all great, but I'm just going to pick out a few of them, okay. I think this is probably mostly for James, again. Is a wine rated by a single taster, or is there a team underneath each senior editor that you all score them and then take an average?
James - Great question. Each wine is rated by an individual editor, that's in charge of that region. So as Marvin mentioned in my introduction, I cover the wines of Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley, California cabernet and port. And so when you see a port review or a California cabernet review, it'll have my initials at the end of it, J.M. And that's an indication that I was the only one who tasted that wine and reviewed it for the magazine.
Corey - All right, thank you. How is the wine of the year selected when you have so many really high scoring wines? Are there other attributes that go into that, you know, the top 100 list?
James - Another great question. So what we do is, I'll make a long process very short. Out of the 15,000-plus wines we taste, the first cutoff is essentially 95 points. I mean, technically its 90, but 95 points or up is where the wine of the year is going to come from. And then we collate a few examples that we want to retry again, and then all the editors get together and retry those wines blind, again. Now this isn't for a formal review, but it's just so that the group can come together and talk about these wines again in a blind context. And then there's a pretty spirited discussion that goes on sometimes for a day, sometimes a little longer. And out of that group of anywhere from 10, 15, maybe 20 wines, we hammer out both the wine of the year and the top 10. So the wines are tasted again just for everyone to familiarize themselves with them. Since obviously I don't necessarily taste the champagnes that our champagne editor tastes. It gives everyone a chance to know what's going on with those wines, but we do it collectively.
Corey - And Marvin, here's a good question, maybe for you or anybody can jump in. But do you believe Wine Spectator is such an influential thing out there, do you think magazines result in wineries making wines in a specific way to get a high score?
Marvin - If they do. I feel there's been a lot of rumors over the years with Parker, who at one point was very influential. Less so today that they were trying to make, they were trying to Parkerize a wine. If they do, it's a big mistake. They should really create their own style and create their own image, if you will. Molesworth, if you want to add to that.
James - When I visit wineries, I'm sometimes asked from time to time, what should we do? Should we do this, should we do that? And the first thing I say is: I am not a consultant, I am a journalist. I'm here to report on what you're doing. You need to make the wine you want to make. And then I will call it the way I see it. Do not make wines because you think I'm going to like them because that is not my job to give personal preference to wines. It's just to call balls and strikes.
Corey - Got it. For beginners out there that are just starting this, is glassware as important as you read about it, and if so, what's your favorite glassware to use?
James - Glassware for me is very important. I don't want to play favorites with certain brands, but I think most people will know what the top brands are out there. Proper glassware and proper wine storage are the two most important things that you need to deal with, if you're going to be drinking wine. If you're buying wine and you don't have storage and glassware, you need to stop buying wine. You need to put some of your budget to proper glassware, a wine fridge or a wine cellar, and then go back to buying wine. It absolutely enhances the enjoyment. You don't have to over fetishize it, but you know, a couple of decanters, a couple of burgundy-style bowls, a couple of Bordeaux-style tulips, and a few white wine glasses and you're golden.
Corey - And with people not being able to travel right now, and so many restaurants not open, that's where a lot of us, right, experience our first great wine, or have this special experience where we get one of our favorites. What's going on out there to help us get access to wines that we maybe didn't have access before? We talked about this before, and I've got some ideas, but I'd love to hear your guys' input.
James - Well, I'll tackle that one. I mean, with the closing of many restaurants, and obviously we hope that they come back. And that industry is super vital to not only communities, but the country as a whole. There is a whole category of wine now that needs to find a new outlet. So a lot of them are obviously going to retail or DTC, direct-to-consumer and trying to up their game in those two areas. Chances are, if there was a wine that you liked that you couldn't get six months ago because it was too allocated or too rare, that winery most likely has an opening for you on their wine list right now, or has some inventory in stock that would have gone to a restaurant that isn't being absorbed by retail outlets. There is plenty of wine out there. And I would say now is an opportunity to pounce on some things that you might not have been able to get before.
Corey - James, this question is coming up a lot, so I got to ask it. Smoke effect of the West coast is all under enormous fire issues right now, what's going to be the effect of that long-term?
James - Yeah, so to keep it really brief, smoke taint is obviously when the residue from the ash and other remnants of a fire fall on the skins of the grapes while they're sitting on the vine. And then that winds up in the wine. What it does is essentially imparts what people typically describe as a dirty ashtray or a wet campfire kind of aroma and flavor in the wine. There is no health problem from consuming wine that has smoke taint. But for the most part, I would say 8 out of 10 or 9 out of 10 people would not find it a pleasant experience to drink it. Some people actually do like the flavor of smoke-tainted wines. And there have been one of the wineries that have marketed a smoke-tainted wine from time to time. I personally consider it a flaw and not really attractive. Now this year is really difficult. '17 was the other crazy wildfire year where the wild fires came through during harvest. And a lot of people had to truncate their harvest. And they basically didn't even bother with grapes that were still hanging after the fires came through. This year is really difficult because it's coming through before harvest started. There's a tremendous amount of smoke and ash in the air. People are testing grapes as they bring them in. There are ways to test for the chemical compounds in smoke taint and see if they're in the wine. We don't know however, how that plays out evolutionary in the bottle. This is something that's still, the wine industry is trying to catch up on. Conscientious producers will not make wines that have smoke taint in them. And that's where you should be focusing on in vintages like 2017 and 2020. As difficult as it is to say don't try someone's wines, 2020, we're going to have to do some sifting through when the dust settles, no pun intended.
Corey - We had 600 participants on, and I want to thank every one of you for coming on and listening to us and listen to these guys talk about something that's obviously near and dear to their hearts. Ken and Marvin, you want to wrap it up for us please?
Ken - I think this has been a very informative. I know certainly for us, we're thrilled with the relationship we've had with the bank. I think this is a, I'll make a plug for the bank because I can tell you being in our business, we're a tremendous borrower of hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars with all the work we do. And on a personal level, I have never experienced any bank over the last 45 years that provides the level of quality service, personal service and personal attention that First Republic provides its clients. So I give you an unsolicited plug here because you guys just do such a great job at every level we've ever asked for it. So, and I just appreciate, I guess everybody participating. This has been a pretty good turnout. And we hope we're going to get to see you here in New York. We look forward to any one of you that contacts us at the club. We're going to take great personal care of you. We're at the club all the time. And I can assure you, you won't be disappointed when you come and experience the club and our wine list.
Marvin - I would add to it, cautiously, that I've been a client of First Republic for 10 years. I've met the president. I've experienced the service. And I'm on your program. That says it all.
Corey - Alright, I'm sorry, Laura is asking a question here. Well, okay, last question. Because a lot of people did ask us, but I didn't want to have to make this, all three of you are drinking something. What are you drinking?
Ken - I've got a Kistler Chardonnay 2018.
Marvin - Oh, what a great wine.
Ken - Huh?
Marvin - What a great wine, bravo. Molesworth.
James - I'm drinking a Pascal Doquet Blanc de Blanc Arpege Premier Cru Champagne. I drink a lot of champagne even though I don't cover it because it's one of those wines I love so much at just about every time of the day.
Marvin - Do I have to say what it is?
Corey - No, of course not.
James - If you couldn't say what it is, don't say what it is.
Marvin - I'd rather not say, but I'm drinking one of my favorite pinot noirs from California.
Corey - Awesome, okay. Thank you everybody. Again, thanks for coming in. Thanks for all three of you to spend your time with us today. Have a great day.
Ken - Thanks everybody.
James - Good bye, everybody.
Corey - Bye bye.
Marvin - Hope everybody enjoyed it.
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