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Fall /Winter 2008

A Wish Upon A Star

The Michelin Guide's Jean-Luc Naret waxes philosophical about ratings, restaurants, and those infamous stars.

By Bonnie Wach

When Michelin, the revered and feared French guide to the world's top restaurants, arrived in California two years ago and doled out only a fistful of its coveted stars, the food world erupted in outrage like a scene out of Ratatouille. In kitchens and food columns from South of Market to St. Helena, chefs ranted, restaurateurs railed, and critics sniffed dismissively. Jean-Luc Naret took it all in stride. "I think [San Francisco Chronicle food critic] Michael Bauer expected us to put a stamp on his selections," recalls the Paris-born director of the Michelin Guide. "We had a different opinion." With his trademark crisp, white dress shirt, perfect tan, and French insouciance, Naret is the epitome of unflappable cool. "We do our selection for our readers. Getting one star from Michelin means you are among the 1,800 best in the world, two stars you're one of 200, and three stars you're one of only 68. That's quite an achievement." Thus far, no one in California has attained four stars; only French Laundry in Yountville has received three; Cyrus and the Restaurant at Meadowood each have two. In October, Michelin releases its third edition, and Wine Country chefs are once again holding their breaths. "We were surprised that we didn't get a star the first year," says Todd Humphries, chef-owner of Martini House in St. Helena. "It's hard to know what their guidelines are." Martini House made the grade the following year with one star. "I was really pleased," Humphries says. "I think we saw a lot more Europeans coming through the restaurant as a result." For his part, Naret is sanguine about the ratings. He considers Wine Country "one of the great places in the world" for its diversity of restaurants and its use of fresh, regional ingredients. "But stars are based on the restaurant as a whole-plate flavors, personal style, product quality, and consistency of dishes-even when the chef is not there," he explains, adding with a knowing smile, "The stars are also like marbles-they're crystal and they break easily."

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