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In vino veritas, part XXXII: 100-point wines

What’s in a number? More specifically, what does 100 mean on a rating scale? Typically, something that reaches triple digits like this is equivalent to a perfect score — the best there is.

When it comes to wine, numbers are important. Those who are aficionados understand ratings issued by Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, Wine Advocate and so on. (New entrants are also coming onto the scene to guide beginner oenophiles on their quest for grape enlightenment; try playing around with the mobile app Vivino.)

Each of these well-known resources ranks vintages every year based upon their staffs’ finely tuned and trained palates. The rating scales used tend to be logarithmic in design whereby an 88-scoring drop — while quite acceptable for the average person — is really the equivalent of a Chateau Plonk for the calibrated tongue. When a wine is ranked 100, it is not just a good wine. It is one of the very best in the world. And if you think about the tens of thousands of vineyards and the multiple varieties sold by each winery, it is incredible to think that a 100 rating is annually bestowed on a handful of bottles at most. In fact, a 100 wine is so rare that even to drink one is a very special occasion — perhaps one should wear a tuxedo or evening gown for the occasion.

Given their rarity, few hotel restaurants offer 100-rated bottles on their wine lists. If they do, fewer places still have more than one or two, and in very limited quantity. On top of all that, with prices soaring into the high triple and quadruple (and quintuple!) figures, there are only a morsel of consumers willing to fork over the necessary cash for such an indulgence. In this sense, a restaurant’s 100-rated wines are not really for drinking, but instead a vehicle to propel the wine list into the limelight.

Hence, while drinking 100-point wines is on my bucket list in perpetuity, I don’t actively seek them out on a regular basis as I’d be broke within a matter of weeks. Instead, I use the presence of said bottles as a barometer for the rest of the cellar. A respectable collection of 100-pointers indicates a commendable selection of everything else.

When you extrapolate this inductive reasoning, it’s easy to see how a well-curated wine list can serve as an alternative promotional vehicle for an establishment; be renowned for your cuisine as well as your wine. Moreover, when a restaurant (in a hotel to boot) has a vast store of 100-rated bottles, not just a handful, it greatly augments the wine’s marketing power to the point where the cellar becomes an attraction in its own right.

A recent trip to Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, New Jersey, just outside of New York City and its Restaurant Latour (Wine Spectator Grand Award Winner 2014) provided a firsthand experience with one of the finest cellars on the continent. Here, wine is not just a computerized bin number (there are close to 135,000 bottles in stock), but a true passion. Here you will find more than 200 different 100s, and they are all for sale with more than one of each available. The cellar itself is built like a museum; a true cave à vin, it is designed to be visited.

I lucked out in that my own tour was directed by Robby Younes, the vice president of hospitality and lodging as well as the hotel’s wine director (parallel positions). Robby holds a sommelier certification as well as membership in Les Chevaliers du Grand Vin and a Masters of Wine certification. Charismatic to the core and effusive about all things food and wine, Robby knows the cellar blindfolded. On this basement level, which is ostensibly far larger than my whole house, we meandered our way through tight, cold, stone-walled corridors, ambling between viewing windows for each of two dozen featured French Chateaus, Super Tuscans, rare Californians, Rioja gems and so much more. And when we finally sat down for a meal, the wine list was presented in the form of 2-inch-thick binders (one for red, one for white).

This isn’t just wine appreciation on steroids — it’s oenophilia with an injection of Captain America’s supersoldier serum. And in rural New Jersey, no less! The strategy here is that Crystal Springs Resort has clearly leveraged its world-class wine cellar as a prime differentiator. In its competitive market for meetings and groups business, the hotel’s wine list serves as a core asset to draw this segment and other corporate social events.

As Robby elaborated, the wine isn’t merely an adjunct to the restaurant, but at this level it acts as its own hotel amenity whereby guests can tour the cellar at their own convenience, independent of whether they are about to dine or not. With a valuation at more than $25 million, the property’s cave à vin is virtually unforgettable, which plays a significant role in both repeat visits and positive word of mouth.

It’s all about creating as unique and authentic an experience as possible. While reaching the echelon of Crystal Springs Resort in this regard may be a tad out of reach, there are still many opportunities on the wine front for you to excel. Offer the best local wines you can from one particular vineyard or even one specialty (for example, icewines). By getting involved and creating something exceptional, you will add to your property and your sales.

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