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Always the Best of at Araxi and Bearfoot

Wine lists, like cellars, are always a work in progress at the Bearfoot Bistro

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Every month, two employees inventory the 2,200 label-cellar at the Bearfoot Bistro.

The painstaking process takes three days, but it’s necessary when you have a few million dollars worth of vintages that can turn from vino to vinegar within the flip of a calendar.

This commitment to inventory, group effort and a wine list covering all corners of the globe is what the Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Awards celebrate. Every year, the internationally renowned wine lover’s bible bestows three accolades on wine cellars across the world: Award of Excellence, Best of Award of Excellence, and the Grand Award.

Whistler restaurants The Bearfoot Bistro and Araxi were awarded a Best of Award of Excellence — only 748 restaurants across the world received such an honour. Not only did the award recognize their cellars, but the restaurants’ strong commitment to wine: from crystal wine glasses and wine education programs to wine directors and even a perfectly spelled wine list — well almost.

“The last two years we thought we might get the Grand Award,” said Andre St. Jacques at the Bearfoot Bistro. “Out of the 2,300 wines we have on the list, we had three spelling mistakes and that’s all it takes… Maybe next year. Everyone is trying to achieve the Grand Award. You must have a 1,300 (label) wine list to qualify. Less than 100 restaurants receive the Grand Award. It’s what everyone is trying to shoot for.”

In addition to the Wine Spectator honour, Araxi and the Bearfoot Bistro were also recently recognized by the Wine Access magazine awards, which rates the top 100 wine restaurants in Canada. Both restaurants landed a top-10 standing.

So what makes a top-10 restaurant?

Having executive chefs Melissa Craig (Bearfoot) and James Walt (Araxi) in the kitchens and wine directors Keith Nicholson (Bearfoot) and Pat Allan (Araxi) in the cellars is a great start, with visionaries St. Jacques and Jack Evrensel marrying the kitchens and cellars together.

However, there is little merriment between the kitchen and the Bearfoot Bistro cellar these days. Yellow tape temporarily blocks off the winding iron staircase leading down to the home of one of Canada’s largest wine cellars.

Renovations are currently underway to make the cellar staircase conform to building and fire regulations. Not a single nail hit and already the renovation cost St. Jacques a cool, room-temperature-controlled $75,000.

Should anyone get caught in the cellar during a flood this fall, walls soon-to-be water sealed, will guarantee safety — and passing the time amongst the world’s most legendary Champagnes, Bordeauxs and Italian vintages sounds like a disaster anyone would gratefully suffer through.

Renovations will double the size of the wine cellar and allow larger functions downstairs. A rarity these days when many restaurants don’t allow public access to cellars or floor-level, temperature-controlled rooms stand in for the traditional cavern-like vino vault. Like the new-screw-top caps that are replacing cork, the characterless, stainless steel rooms signal the demise of another wine tradition.

But at the Bearfoot, the cellar hideaway matches the history dusted off a 1914 Möet and Chandon, recently sold for $5,000 — a steal of a deal, St. Jacques says.

“Our cellar is filled with trophy wines. People from all over the world come here because they know they can find wines here they won’t find anywhere else.”

A wine list is a constant work in progress. St. Jacques, in consultation with Nicholson and his staff, have built the bistro’s cellar from a 110-label wine list 13 years ago to the 2,200-label hallowed hall it is today.

Wine is bought from private sellers, special orders from agents, direct from wineries and from other restaurants’ cellars. When an Italian restaurant in Vancouver closed, St. Jacques bought the entire stock, turning the Bearfoot into the largest Italian wine collector in Canada. The Bearfoot’s Bordeaux selection also grew after inheriting the cellar of another Vancouver restaurant.

French Champagne is a mainstay at the Bearfoot with a Champagne bar paying tribute to the 11 vintages of Louis Roederere, Cristal and 110 labels from the Champagne region poured there.

“We’ve got Dom Perignon dating back to 1959,” said the Guinness World Record holder for sabering champagne (21 bottles in less than a minute). “Our strength is in bubbles. I love Champagne. It makes you do crazy things.”

There is also a big focus on Spanish wines this year, supplementing the wine list’s California and B.C. staples.

“Spain is an emerging market,” St. Jacques said. “They’ve got great wines for great prices.”

And not to mention party-central Ibiza, the inspiration behind many of St. Jacques’s legendary parties.

Innovation, versatility in offerings and price point, compatibility of wine with menu and a passion for the elixir of the gods all build together for a “Best of” title.

Wine Spectator also congratulates other notable Whistler wine cellars with the Award of Excellence given to the Fifty-Two 80 Bistro, La Rúa, Aubergine Grille, and The Mountain Club Restaurant and Lounge.

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