That’s a big deal: Marcello Ristorante Italiano in Sarasota recently received “Best of the Award of Excellence” from wine spectatorthe most popular wine magazine in the world.

The award is the result of an annual competition, in which restaurants submit their wine lists to the magazine and are judged on the quantity, depth and uniqueness of their wine offerings. The minimum requirement for “Best Of” designation is 350 selections, and only one other restaurant in Sarasota has that award: Michael’s on East. Marcello exceeded the magazine’s requirements, listing over 500 wines he serves.

The restaurant’s owner and chef, Marcello Aquino, readily admits that he spends more on wine than most establishments, but it has always been a passion of his. It also seems to be for his clientele, as he says he has no trouble selling very expensive bottles.

Aquino’s main devotion has always been Brunello from Tuscany, as he believes the wine best complements most of his dishes. However, he has no problem getting great American wines like Harlan and Opus. For the magazine award, it expanded its selections vertically by buying back vintages of wines, as well as moving into previously underrepresented wine regions.

Aquino’s investment in wine is unique in part because his restaurant is one of the smallest in Sarasota. With only eight tables and a small private dining room, his commitment to wine is remarkable. Also, most of the other winners are usually located in major cities and also serve spirits. Chez Marcello is all about wine and beer.

Another requirement for winning the award is staff training. Aquino has two servers who are level two sommeliers and interact daily with other servers on all wine matters. It’s not uncommon for customers to seek out a certain server because of a previous pleasant occasion.

The “Award of Excellence”, meanwhile, is a step down from the “Best Of” designation and several local restaurants can claim it: Bijou Garden Cafe, Duval’s, Element, The Capital Grid, White House, Wise, Seasons 52, summer house and Grove. Two former recipients no longer have it: The crows nest and Ophelia is on the bay. The ultimate prize is the “Grand Award” and only two establishments in Southwest Florida hold it: from Bern in Tampa and Blue Provence in Napoli.

Bob McGinn has spent his entire career in the wine industry – forming wine clubs, working in wine sales marketing, and engaging in all facets of the winemaking process, including vineyard management, fermentation and yeast analysis. He has developed wine programs for companies such as Marriott, Sheraton and Smith & Wollensky, and consults local restaurants. You can read more about McGinn’s work at www.gulfcoastwinejournal.com.