What Goes Into Award-Winning Wine Lists?

Wine director Chris Tocci discusses what goes into his wine lists, and highlights a few Italian whites to drink beyond pinot grigio.

The wine cellar at La Griglia in Kenilworth. Photo by Chris Tocci

Wine Spectator debuted its award system for “extraordinary restaurant wine lists” with the “Grand Award” in 1981. There were 13 winners. In 1985, they added two more tiers, “Award of Excellence” and “Best of Award of Excellence.” Fast-forward 34 years and over 3,800 restaurants globally are recognized for excellence in wine. Not only is New Jersey home to 87 of those winners—overlapping with more than a few on our 30 Best Restaurants list—but two of the lists come from the same palate. Chris Tocci oversees the wine programs at Water & Wine in Watchung and La Griglia in Kenilworth, both “Best of Award of Excellence” winners for over a decade. We caught up with the largely self-taught Tocci (who, amazingly, isn’t bored of winning) to ask what it means to be recognized by Wine Spectator, how to navigate an award-winning list, and what we’re getting wrong about Italian wine.

Table Hopping: La Griglia has 775 labels and 12,500 bottles. Water & Wine has 775 labels and 9,000 bottles. How do you put together wine lists so massive?
Chris Tocci: All the wines are hand-picked by me. It’s kind of an obsession!

TH: Is there a common denominator in what you’re looking for?
TC: I’m typically looking for wines from smaller producers, family-run estates. We do have some big names, but I concentrate on smaller, boutique producers, where winemakers are in the vineyards themselves. Grower Champagnes, too. Wherever there’s more attention to detail.

TH: How did you learn wine?
TC: I took the Court of Master Sommeliers entry exam. I did the Kevin Zraly Wine School exam, a couple other Italian wine certification programs. The truth is, it’s always been a passion of mine. To this day, every couple years, I’ll travel to Italy, go to a different region, different producers, drink and learn.

TH: Your brother John is the chef for the restaurants, both Italian, one with a seafood focus. How do you coordinate your list with his food?
TC: You won’t see a lot of big, clunky, over-the-top California stuff. We try and find wines that are more refined. [It’s about] the nuance and the interaction of wine and food.

TH: La Griglia began winning “Award of Excellence” in 1998 and leveled up to “Best of Award of Excellence” in 2004; Water & Wine started with “Award of Excellence” when it opened in 2004 and went to “Best of Award of Excellence” in 2006. What did it take to get to that next level?
CT: We had to step up our wine lists. They have to be more in-depth: verticals of different wines, multiple vintages. If you look at La Griglia’s full wine list, you’ll see tons of verticals.

TH: A “vertical” is the same wine from the same producer over successive years? Why is that important—or interesting?
CT: Every vintage is different. As wine ages, three vintages could have three different flavor profiles. Our guest can come in, pour three different vintages of a wine, and really talk about them, be a wine geek!

TH: Speaking of, your lists have depth—and dollar signs. Do you have to be wealthy, or a wine geek, to drink well?
TC: Not at all. There are wines on my lists that are $40 a bottle. Even the super expensive wines are half the price you’d find in Manhattan. Guests come to our restaurant in lieu of going to Manhattan specifically because our pricing is competitive. But my recommendation is don’t order a $100 bottle straight away. Pick out a wine in the $50 range and take a shot. If you don’t like it, I’ll take it back!

TH: What about approachability? What if I can’t tackle a massive wine list?
TC: Look at our by the glass program—that’s what we use to really introduce our guests to new wines. For instance, we’re doing a teroldego by the glass; it’s a chilled red wine from North Trentino. Once people taste it, they’re blown away. But my [full] wine lists can be intimidating, I get that completely. But we’re always there to offer help. We want people to try stuff. We’re bringing over bottles and letting people try stuff all the time. And we have a Coravin program also.

TH: Can you explain what a Coravin does?
TC: It’s pretty cool. It’s a very thin pin that drops through the cork and pumps in argon gas and, through another spout, wine comes out of the bottle to drink. So there’s zero interaction of oxygen and wine. And the cork reseals itself and the wine lasts.

TH: That’s a good way to partially sample more expensive bottles?
TC: Exactly. It’s summer, so we’re not going crazy, but we currently have a 2013 Oddero Barolo on Coravin at $35 a quartino, or third of a bottle.

TH: You do more than Italian wines, but they’re clearly a specialty. But some of us have a limited perception of them. How do you work with that, expand that?
TC: The staff is trained on bringing bottles to the table, letting guests taste them, showing them what we have—what Italy has to offer. If I’m going to recommend a Chianti—and I actually love Chianti, and my Chianti list is really good—I’m going to find a bottle that’s will blow you away at a $50 price point. But that’s not going to be my go-to. Instead of Chianti, I’ll say “Let’s try Aglianico from Campagna, or what do you normally like to drink? California Cab? Okay, let’s talk about a Super Tuscan.”

TH: How often do you change your wine lists?
TC: Seasonally. We have certain staple wines, but everything else changes. We’ll do a full “by the glass” list change after Labor Day. The larger wine list is just always a work in progress. I have wines in the cellar that I haven’t even put on the list yet! I like to hold and release them when the wines are a little bit more approachable.

TH: If you could advise our readers what bad habit to break when ordering, or even approaching, Italian wine, what is it?
TC: Stop drinking pinot grigio! Not to badmouth pinot grigio, but most of them are just bulk wines. And among those that are really good, the price point becomes prohibitive. And there are so many better Italian white varieties out there! Friulano, made in the same region as pinot grigio, has so much more depth and it’s so much more age-worthy. There are some killer friulano or sauvignon blancs and rieslings from Northern Italy. Getting into Southern Italy, Sicily’s Etna Biancos are so, so beautiful and much more profound. I can find you something for under $50 from those regions that will blow you away. I promise!

Chris Tocci can be found overseeing his award-winning wine programs at Water & Wine Ristorante-Taverna at 141 Stirling Road in Watchung (908-755-9344) and La Griglia Seafood Grill & Wine Bar at 740 Kenilworth Boulevard in Kenilworth (908-241-0031).

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