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Restaurant Poll

The Restaurant Poll Revealed

by Kara Headley • posted on March 23, 2015

Producing the Annual Restaurant Poll is a time-intensive process that starts in November with calls to update a database of some 2,800+ restaurants chosen from Zagat’s nationwide lists of most popular restaurants (a contact list the magazine has been building since 1989). In recent years, the list has grown to include W&S’ New & Notable picks. Staffers and interns work to confirm the names of beverage directors and wrangle email addresses out of reluctant hosts. There are mailings and reminder emails to design and send, and phone calls to unresponsive restaurants made in the hopes of getting as wide a swath of respondents as possible. With only a few weeks to collect and analyze data in time for the publishing deadline, it was no small feat to get the 242 restaurants that participated in this year’s poll to respond in the time required. And that’s only the beginning.

First, we have to fact check incomplete entries. (Does “sauvignon” mean blanc or cabernet?). Then we have to confirm the names of the wines entered (Is it “Stag’s Leap [Wine Cellars]” or “Stags’ Leap [Winery]”?). Even down to the last minute, we adjust for branding changes (When did Belle Glos switch to Meiomi? Is this sommelier listing Decoy or Duckhorn?).

Once the data is clean, it still needs plenty of attention. A small army of knowledgeable wine geeks reviews the information, crunches the numbers and compares them to past years to spot the trends highlighted in this year’s 26th Annual Restaurant Poll.

The Fun Part
The poll questions aren’t designed to show actual sales data, but to catch a glimpse of what people are drinking in America’s most popular restaurants. To report on what’s driving wine choices, W&S staffers interview dozens of sommeliers about their responses.

This, quite honestly, is our favorite part of the process. Wine directors are excited to share their latest discoveries and talk about the wines that took off on their lists. It may have been a new grower Champagne they feared they’d never sell through, or a Sicilian wine that inexplicably sold like crazy by the glass.

Over time, we’ve watched as sommeliers have become increasingly influential when it comes to what people drink. Not only are people more likely to seek out a sommelier’s advice than they were ten years ago, but they often want to try what the sommeliers are drinking—or making.

Consider the rise of sparkling wine—long a darling among sommeliers—or obscure, limited production wines, like Tatomer Grüner Veltliner (the winery’s total production is 1100 cases), which came out of left field to make the Most Popular By-the-Glass list for the first time.

Rajat Parr (top), Justin Willett (left), Eric Railsback (right) Rajat Parr (top), Justin Willett (left), Eric Railsback (right)
This year, Lieu Dit, made by sommelier-turned-retailer, Eric Railsback and his winemaking partner, Justin Willett, bested the ever popular Sancerre to become the most popular sauvignon blanc by the glass. And Sandhi, from sommelier-turned-winemaker Rajat Parr, made this year’s list of Most Popular By-the-Glass wines for its chardonnay. Diners today are more adventurous, and it shows in the increasingly diverse results of the poll.

While the annual report offers glimpses into many of our conversations with wine buyers around the country, we collected far more information than we had room to print. Check out what else sommeliers had to say as well as our complete list of the most popular wine brands. You never know what will make the list next year, which is why we continue to keep track of the wines ordered most at America’s top restaurants.

Kara Headley joined the staff of Wine & Spirits this year just in time to help us with the Restaurant Poll. A working lawyer who’s enrolled part-time in NYU’s Master Program in Food Studies, she’s with us through a food writing internship with the Julia Child Foundation.

This is a W&S web exclusive feature.