Ask a Somm: Awards and Wine Allergies

“Every restaurant seems to boast having this award or that. What goes into these awards, and what do they mean for me, the wine customer?”

Those fashionable awards hung in dining rooms around the world are likely Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Wine List Awards, Wine Enthusiast’s Best Wine Restaurant Awards and—if they’re lucky—the coveted Michelin star.

There are three levels within each award. Award of Excellence (Wine Spectator) and Award of Distinction (Wine Enthusiast) are basic-level honors recognizing the combination of quality wine producers with a thematic match to menu, at least 100 selections. Restaurants in this category are typically at an affordable price point. Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant has received both, and delivers value for quality wine and dining experience.

Best of Award of Excellence (Wine Spectator) and Award of Unique Distinction (Wine Enthusiast) indicates a restaurant with 400-plus selections along with vintage depth, vertical offerings of top wines and various selections from around the world as well as harmony of service and menu. Recent Best of Award winner Twist by Pierre Gagnaire in the Mandarin Oriental has three seasonal tasting menus from which to choose that showcase wines and cuisines from all over the world.

The highest awards, the Grand Award (Wine Spectator) and Award of Ultimate Distinction (Wine Enthusiast), represent less than 7 percent of the awards given out, restaurants with wine lists of more than 1,500 selections showing a serious breadth, plus superior service and menu harmony. In 2003, Picasso in Bellagio and Aureole in Mandalay Bay were the first two restaurants in Las Vegas to receive a Grand Award. In the decade since, both have received the Grand Award due to their exceptional pairing menus and extensive wine books to get lost in.

Michelin Guide gives a restaurant 1, 2 or 3 stars based on an anonymous inspector’s overall experience of the restaurant, including the greeting by the host, restrooms, service, wine list, etc.—and even getting one star is a feat. Fine-dining establishments deem the Michelin star the only award that counts. Only one restaurant in Las Vegas has three Michelin stars, and that is Joël Robuchon in MGM Grand.

Pretty as they are on the walls, these awards can also be useful to wine consumers. If the restaurant has an award from the second highest or highest levels of wine awards, the wine experience should be solid. And if it has at least one Michelin star, so much the better.

“Whenever we go out to dinner, a friend of mine always claims to be allergic to wine. Is this even possible?”

Every night working the floor as a sommelier I would have a guest who claimed to have wine allergies. Although some are likely imagined or misattributed hangovers, it is definitely possible to have real allergic reactions to wine. Luckily for my guests, I am sommelier plagued with actual wine allergies and intolerances, so I am familiar with their pain.

The three main culprits resulting in negative reactions of wine consumption are sulfites, histamines and alcohol. Sulfites are used to preserve wine from oxidation. Typical sulfite allergic symptom is the “wine headache.” U.S. food and beverage labels must declare the presence of sulfites if the product contains a detectable level, defined as 10 parts per million or more. Most wines contain sulfites, although some wines, such as organically-made ones, are sulfite-free.

However, most negative reactions to wine are not the product of allergies, but of intolerance to histamines and alcohol. Histamines are a natural byproduct of fermented beverages. Most people can metabolize histamines, but if you cannot, you could experience sneezing, itching, asthma or flushing of the skin.

Alcohol intolerance is genetic, and is most common to people of Asian or Native American descent. Intolerance to alcohol is caused by the absence of the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase. Symptoms are similar to histamine intolerance.

However rare, severe symptoms such as anaphylactic shock, vomiting and hives can occur. Talk to your physician about an allergy and intolerance test if any symptoms arise when drinking wine or alcoholic beverages.

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