Perhaps no industry was impacted more directly economically by the COVID-19 pandemic than restaurants. According to the National Restaurant Association, sales in 2020 were $240 billion below estimates and more than 110,000 restaurants closed their doors permanently that year. Even as the U.S. recovers in staggered steps, the pain continues, with staff shortages and rising food costs hitting restaurants hard.
And despite all that, restaurateurs, chefs and sommeliers rallied to the challenge of the past 18 months, coming up with innovative ways to feed customers, to feed people in need and to offer wine service during dark times. Since 1981, Wine Spectator has recognized thousands of restaurants for their wine programs. At the pinnacle is the Grand Award, honoring cellars of exceptional breadth and depth, presented with pitch-perfect service. At the 40th anniversary Wine Experience, the three newest Grand Award winners were recognized.
For New Orleans landmark Brennan’s, the Grand Award was a comeback story. The French Quarter restaurant first won a GA in 1983. But a sustained power outage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina destroyed the cellar in 2005, and financial difficulties in the following years limited the wine program. When Ralph Brennan and Terry White bought the restaurant out of bankruptcy, they vowed to rebuild the program.
Beverage director Braithe Tidwell did it by acquiring an impressive collection of top wines from Burgundy, Champagne and beyond, but also by teaching staff the blend of expertise and hospitality Brennan’s is known for. “Braithe is one of the most knowledgeable and personable sommeliers I have ever had the pleasure of meeting,” said Wine Spectator editorial advisor Thomas Matthews as he presented the award.
At New York’s Le Bernardin, chef Eric Ripert, wine director Aldo Sohm and their team have been known for years as masters of exquisite seafood dishes and excellent wine pairings. But 2021 was the year they pushed the wine program to new heights and won a Grand Award. Accepting the award, Ripert and Sohm emphasized that their restaurant’s success comes down to its team. When Le Bernardin reopened its doors after a pandemic shutdown, it had retained its entire staff.
For the husband-wife duo behind SingleThread Farm in Healdsburg, Calif.—Kyle and Katina Connaughton—owning a world-class wine destination has been a lifelong dream since they traveled through Sonoma as a young couple. Making it happen hasn’t always been easy. Certainly not for wine director Rusty Rastello, who arrived at SingleThread during the 2019 wine country wildfires.
As Kyle explained to the Wine Experience audience, when the pandemic forced the restaurant to shut down, he asked whether they should sell portions of their wine inventory to keep them afloat financially. “Rusty said, ‘No. We’re going to start an online wine store. We’re not going to sell the cellar. We’re going to build it.’”
In troubling times, restaurants continued to do what they do best, feed people and bring a little hospitality to the world.
A chef helping feed the world
It’s one thing to feed hungry customers, it’s another to feed people in crisis around the world. Chef José Andrés decided to put his energies into a charity organization, World Central Kitchen (WCK), which he founded in 2010. Wine Spectator gave its Distinguished Service Award to Andrés and his group to recognize their hard work.
Since its founding, WCK has served more than 75 million meals. This year alone, it has brought relief in the wake of natural disasters such as earthquakes in Indonesia, extreme winter weather leaving people without power in Texas and without water in Mississippi, a volcano eruption on St. Vincent, Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, floods in Germany and a devastating earthquake in Haiti. But it’s not just relief from natural disasters; WCK has also helped people in Gaza displaced by violence, asylum seekers at the U.S.–Mexico border, and health-care workers in India after a dramatic COVID-19 surge in February.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, WCK created another program, Restaurants for the People, designed specifically to nourish medical workers and members of distressed communities by paying local restaurants to provide meals for those in need and delivering those meals to people without access to fresh food. This program has been implemented in more than 400 cities across 35 states and is ongoing.
To Andrés, it’s not about charity, but about respect. “People don’t want our pity,” he told the audience in a video address. “They want respect. How do you show respect? By being there with a plate of food. One day we will be there. The next day they will be there for us.”
All net proceeds from the New York Wine Experience go to the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, which has raised more than $30 million for scholarships and grants for the hospitality and wine industries. In the past year, the foundation donated $250,000 to WCK. (It also received a $100 million donation from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.) At a time when the world has experienced crisis and suffering, the power of good food and wine to make a difference remains unquestioned.