Stag's Leap Wine Cellars has an apostrophe before the S. ¶ Stags' Leap Winery has one after it. ¶ And the Stags Leap District in Napa has no apostrophe at all. ¶ Slip up on any of this punctuation minutiae and Rococo Steak's chances of nabbing a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence is diminished. ¶ For this reason, Joe Orsino, Josh Fan and Chris Prachar sat in a dark conference room one morning in January, Rococo's wine list projected on a screen above them. They were combing through for missing umlauts, for French accents "aigu" when they should be accents "grave." They were checking vintages and nixing wines they've run short of. ¶ And by Feb. 1, their wine list and menu, cover letter and $250 application fee were in the mail to the corporate office of the world's most famous wine magazine. Of an estimated 990,000 restaurants in the country, there are 2,869 winners of the regular Award of Excellence, 850 winners of the Best of Award of Excellence, and 72 winners of the Grand Award. Although a restaurant does not apply for a particular level of award, the team at Rococo has high hopes for the Best of Award.
"We feel we're in that sweet spot for 'Best of,' " says Prachar, who with Fan serves as general manager of the 3-month-old steak house downtown. "And we'll be very disappointed if we don't get that."
But the awards are based on more than proper punctuation.
Winners of the Best of Award typically offer more than 400 selections on their list, displaying depth in vintage years (the term "vertical" denotes a run of vintage years of the same wine) and bottle sizes, with breadth across several wine regions. And, it doesn't just depend on what's in the cellar, but also about how it's in the cellar — or, in the case of Rococo, the temperature-controlled attic of the renovated 1924 YWCA building.
Wine Spectator judges evaluate how the wine is stored and served (are older vintages "candled" and decanted?), whether the list meshes with and complements the menu and ambience, and even how the wines are priced.
There are currently no Best of Award winners in St. Petersburg, although Parkshore Grill and Marchand's at the Vinoy have received the Award of Excellence. In the greater Tampa Bay area, eight restaurants are Best of Award winners. Only one, Bern's Steak House in Tampa, has received the Grand Award.
"Every business is looking for a way to separate themselves from others," says Orsino, who is CEO of Caledon Concept Partners, the parent company of Rococo. "This is a way to do it on a national level, to show we're dedicated."
If Rococo makes the cut, it will get more than a plaque on the wall. In the way shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives have driven "culinary tourists" to seek out featured restaurants, the Wine Spectator drives wine-savvy travelers to places that have gotten its awards.
Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator, says it is rare for a restaurant to achieve Best of or Grand Award levels in its first year.
"We look for stability and excellence maintained over time as one of our principal criteria. In my experience, most restaurants gradually work their way up from one level to the next as their business grows and allows them to more fully implement their owners' passion for wine," he says.
Some of this comes down to cash. It takes time and a whole lot of money to assemble an award-worthy list.
"Someone with $100 million can just buy the wine," Fan says. "This is about showing commitment, not the sheer number of inventory. It's about what kind of list should go with what kind of food."
Rococo's 3,500-bottle inventory has a secret weapon of sorts — inventory from Clearwater's now-closed Tío Pepe, a fabled Spanish and Mediterranean fine-dining restaurant that Caledon Concept Partners bought in 2010.
Owners Joseph "Pepe" Rodriguez and Jesus Exposito had been purchasing and cellaring exceptional wines since the debut of the Gulf-to-Bay restaurant in 1976. All that wine came with the sale and became the foundation of Rococo's list. Vintage champagnes and major Spanish wines are not the typical strong suit of American steak houses, which tend to be long on name-brand California cabs.
Prachar and team decided to go big. For instance, they took a substantial vertical of Spanish Vega Sicilia Unico dating back to 1962 and filled in the missing years. Then Prachar adopted a "don't take 'no' for an answer" strategy, scrambling to get allotments of coveted wines like Screaming Eagle and to sweet-talk winery owners like Susan Groth into parting with some older vintages to fill in holes in Rococo's verticals. Laws prohibit restaurants from buying from private collectors (it is illegal for private citizens to sell wine in almost every state), so distributors and winery cellars themselves became instrumental in filling in what Rococo's list lacked.
Along the way, there were casualties. Cataloging some of Tio Pepe's rarest bottles one day, Fan lifted a bottle of '74 Chateau Petrus (if you can find it, it might retail for $2,000) and it began pouring out on the cellar floor. With only one other bottle from that vintage, they chose not to put it on Rococo's list.
But why not just pad things, put that '74 Petrus on there and hope for the best? How are the judges going to know Rococo's list reflects what's actually in the cellar?
In 2008 a man named Robin Goldstein shook things up, applying (and receiving) an Award of Excellence for a fictitious restaurant he called Osteria l'Intrepido (a ruse that was "fearless" indeed). Chastened when the scam came to light, Wine Spectator has since instituted a policy of sending inspectors to spot-check cellars without notice.
Divided by sparkling, white and red, then by country and either region or varietal, Rococo's list has a little whimsy to it: The wine list books carry different names derived from classic literature. There's Wine and Peace, the Grape Gatsby, Adventures of Huckleberry Vin and Grape Expectations.
Orsino, Fan, Prachar and the Rococo team will have to await an email from the Wine Spectator in May to know whether their personal grape expectations have been realized.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.