Santa Monica's Capo restaurant has won for the first time one of the top honors in Wine Spectator magazine's annual list of awards, given to restaurants "that show an uncompromising, passionate devotion to the quality of their wine program."
Capo joins a list of seven Wine Spectator Grand Award winners from Southern California — there are only 18 in the entire state. Spago has had the Grand Award since 2010, Patina since 1994 and Valentino since 1981. The Stonehouse at San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara and Studio at Montage Laguna Beach came onto the list last year. Addison in Del Mar has held the title since 2009.
Are we chuffed that New York has a mere 12 Grand Award winners? Certainly. In fact, California has more winners than any other state or country. France gets a measly two, Italy five, England just two, and Spain ditto. One of them, though, is the two-Michelin star Atrio in Cáceres, which has an entire jewel-like room devoted to Château d'Yquem going back to the 19th century.
Over at Capo, owner Bruce Marder and wine director Justin Prairie are thrilled with the award, which comes after 11 years of winning the magazine's second-tier "Best of Award of Excellence."
Prairie has been at Capo for eight years, and during his tenure, the wine inventory has more than doubled from $700,000 to about $1.5 million. For years, Marder has been reinvesting some of the profits in the wine program. He also travels in France and Italy a great deal and has made deep connections with wine producers there.
Also, two of Capo's co-owners — Marvin Zeidler and former Wally's owner Steve Wallace — are noted collectors and have helped flesh out the list with their wines.
Prairie says that since Capo has been open for 18 years, it's longevity is paying off; many of the older bottles on the list were actually purchased in the early years. They've had an allocation from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti for many years.
Occasionally, wineries will release older vintages. That's how they picked up the 1972 Bertani Amarone. Also, importer Kermit Lynch made some older vintages of Méo-Camuzet Burgundy available to the restaurant.
The 20,000-bottle inventory represents 2,500 selections, many of them mature vintages of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, Piedmontese and Tuscan wines — and coveted California cabernets. The inventory is updated every day by computer. And not only that: Six servers have passed sommelier certification courses. Steiman calls Capo's wine list "a stunning achievement, painstakingly built over nearly two decades."
Every year, Prairie would submit Capo's wine list to Wine Spectator and ask to be considered for the Grand Award. In the application letter, he would "highlight what's going on with the wine program, mention the wines we've acquired, the directions we're taking the wine list and what we're doing to educate the staff."
This year, however, he was in France for the first time, visiting wine regions, and had to write the application letter from Burgundy. He got so wrapped up in describing all the amazing experiences he was having in France that he forgot to mention the Grand Award in the letter.
But early this year, Wine Spectator editor-at-large Harvey Steiman showed up at Capo to dine. "It was pretty nerve-wracking," remembers Prairie. "He sat down for a tasting menu, and I did the pairing for him. After all that, he inspected our wine cellars and interviewed me about our wine program and how it's grown over time."
That evening, Steiman also produced a list of 15 wines Prairie had to verify the restaurant had. "He inspected all the bottles to make sure they had been stored correctly. We had 14 out of 15. The 15th had sold out since the submission letter."
Santa Monica's Valentino restaurant received one of the very first awards, way back in 1981. That year, says owner Piero Selvaggio, "I received the visit of a gentleman named Marvin Shanken, who told me he had just bought a little San Diego tabloid called Wine Spectator. And he wanted to see my cellar." Inside, were "cases and cases of Mondavi, BV Private Reserve and such that were the darlings of the times," recounts Selvaggio. "I had Barbarescos from a newcomer called Angelo Gaja, a wine Shanken didn't know called Tignanello. And from that, he got the idea to give an award to restaurants with the best wine lists."
In other results this year, Arroyo Chop House in Pasadena, Hinoki & the Bird in Century City, Mar'Sel at Terranea Resort and Spa in Rancho Palos Verdes and Parkway Grill in Pasadena got an upgrade to the second-tier Best of Award of Excellence, a category that includes 973 restaurants. This is hard to believe, but Osteria Mozza gets the nod for the first time for this award, along with Bourbon Steak in Glendale and Wally's Beverly Hills.
Restaurants earning the basic Award of Excellence level, a category that has 2,563 winners: Beachside Restaurant in Marina del Rey, Café Stella in Silver Lake, Claude & Co Eatery in Pasadena, Del Frisco's Grille in Pasadena, Ocean Prime in Beverly Hills, Pistola in Los Angeles, The Roost at LA Farm in Santa Monica, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Marina del Rey, Smoke Oil Salt in Los Angeles, Spaghettini & the Dave Coz Lounge in Beverly Hills — and Vino at Trios in Alhambra.
Capo, 1810 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 394-5550, www.caporestaurant.com.