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These Tampa Bay restaurants have the best wine, says Wine Spectator

How did Tampa Bay do when it comes to wine this year?

We rocked it.

On Thursday, Wine Spectator released its 2017 Restaurant Awards, which recognize the world's best wine lists. This year, the program honored 3,592 dining destinations from all 50 states and more than 75 countries internationally. Started in 1981, the awards have three levels: the Award of Excellence, the Best of Award of Excellence and the Grand Award, with 2,335; 1,168; and 89 winners this year in each respective category.

With more winners than ever before, the area boasted 23 winners for the Award of Excellence, eight for the Best of Award of Excellence, and one Grand Award, Bern's Steak House, our long-standing heavy-hitter in this category, winning every year since the awards started. So, 32 awards total, compared to 29 last year and only 18 awards in 2015.

There was one demotion (sorry, Maritana Grille, try again next year) and a handful of additions to the list this year. Welcome to the wine big time (or welcome back from a hiatus), Annata Wine Bar and 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House in St. Petersburg, Ava in Tampa and Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores.

Making the list pays dividends, according to Dave Madera, director of operations for Caledon Concepts, the parent company of Rococo Steak, which scored the Best of Award of Excellence for its fourth straight year. It's more than just 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 awards are used by wine-savvy travelers as a shorthand for quality.

"It puts our wine list in a higher echelon. For people who really know their wines, for wine geeks, getting the award makes them more intrigued to come in. With Bern's, even I go in there twice a month for the wine list alone," Madera said.

He says it's no accident that the Tampa Bay area has an increasing number of award-worthy restaurants.

"We're catching up to some major metropolitan areas. Tampa Bay, and definitely St. Pete, are getting more sophisticated. What's important is making sure your staff is educated, that helps in getting people to try new things."

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. But it's not just a function of what's in the cellar. 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.

The Grand Award is a whole other level of scrutiny. This elite group comprises the world's best wine programs, which deliver serious breadth of top producers, outstanding depth in mature vintages, excellent harmony with the menu and superior presentation. Wine Spectator assesses each Grand Award candidate, including rigorous independent, on-site inspections of the wine program, cellar, service, ambience and cuisine of the restaurant.

The full list of award winners is available in print in the Aug. 31 issue of Wine Spectator, on newsstands July 18 and online at restaurants.winespectator.com.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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