Contributors: Speaking from Experience
Senior editor Sheila Gibson Stoodley, who was in charge of this year’s dining and antiques sections, has been an integral part of the Best of the Best issue for more than a decade and has seen it evolve significantly since her first experiences with it in 1997. "We used to let the readers pick the winners," she says of the earlier format. "I was pulling readers’ responses and logging them to sort the data. I remember going through hundreds and hundreds of those."
Some of the readers’ selections were surprising, even questionable. Now that the choices are made by the magazine’s editors and regular contributors, the picks are occasionally unexpected and sometimes questioned. But rest assured, they are always researched thoroughly by people who know their subject matter as well as anyone does.
"To truly understand the individual cultures and heritages of luxury companies and the distinguishing quality details of their products, it is important to personally visit them," says senior editor Laurie Kahle, who first worked on a Best of the Best issue in 1999 and has since fostered strong relationships with the world’s top jewelry and watch brands. "As my experience has grown," she continues, "our Best of the Best criteria have become more specific and timely; we now select companies that not only produce exceptional products but also drive innovation and advancement in their respective industries."
2008 marks associate editor Mike Nolan’s eighth year of writing for a Best of the Best issue. Having traveled to five continents during his tenure at Robb Report, Nolan has gained the perspective necessary to determine whether a resort, hotel, or golf course belongs in the Best of the Best. Still, Nolan does not rely only on his own experience when evaluating properties. "I’ll tell you what makes working on the Best of the Best so much fun," he says. "It’s not just traveling to these fabulous places, but it’s being able to simply walk down the halls of this office and discuss ideas with people who, collectively, have more than a century of experience covering the luxury market."
"What surprises me—and it’s never failed to surprise me—is, once you learn the industries, you find out just how small they are," says senior editor Michael Schulze, who covers the boating and aviation sectors and has worked on the last three Best of the Best issues. "Once you get to know these people, you really do feel like you have a very thorough sense about what is happening and what’s going to happen in their industry. Best of the Best is an annual chance for the editors at Robb Report to get to know these people again and to touch base and learn what the cutting edge is in that particular field. It’s the most pleasurable time of the year, because that’s when you can get in touch with old friends and reestablish the relationships, which are really at the heart of any magazine."
Assistant editor Shaun Tolson, who has traveled halfway around the world to play a round of golf, says the Best of the Best selection process— choosing only a handful of new courses from a hundred or more candidates—only seems like a daunting task. "Once you experience some of the courses firsthand, you begin to understand what distinguishes a very good course from a great one. It’s not a skill that you can develop overnight," he adds, "but that’s what makes every Robb Report editor so valuable. They all bring years of experience to the table."
Contributing editor William Kissel, now in his 30th year covering men’s fashion and his 11th contributing to Best of the Best, says this year marks a point of departure for the top luxury brands. "What surprised me is that so many niche brands that typically focus on one classification, such as tailored clothing or outerwear or sportswear, could be equally adept in other areas where they have no previous expertise. It’s easy to put your name on a collection of knitwear or trousers," he adds, "but if a company is known for its tailored clothing, those newer products often lack the finesse and artisanship of their suits. That wasn’t the case with all of those who made this year’s list."
Home and design editor Samantha Brooks, who now has worked on five Best of the Best issues, took a different approach this year when selecting the winners. "It’s difficult to select the best appliances, the best furniture collections," she says, "because there are things that don’t fall into those categories. So I asked myself, ‘What are the best products that came out in the past year?’ Then I made a list and worked backward to create the categories."
"It’s gotten harder, but that’s by design," says contributing editor Brent Butterworth of selecting the Best of the Best cigars. He acknowledges that four years ago, when he first helped make those choices, the final list included a wide range of quality. This year, he is much more confident in the results. "There’s a greater likelihood that a Robb Report reader will enjoy all the cigars that we have listed," he says. "This is a great year for cigars."
Contributing writer Richard Carleton Hacker, with Brent Butterworth and nine other veteran cigar smokers, participated in the smoke-off that produced the Best of the Best cigar selections. He concurs with Butterworth’s assessment of the candidates. "This year was notable in the fact that there were more new cigars worthy of consideration than we have seen in the recent past," he says.
Hacker, who has written about cigars since the 1980s and has contributed to Robb Report since 1995, could not pick a favorite from this year’s list, but he is confident any reader could. "The taste spectrum ranged from the ultralight Por Larrañaga all the way ?up to the rollicking San Cristobal and the 601 Blue," he says. "There was something for every mood, day, or night."
"Quality is coming in lots of different sizes and shapes. It’s not necessarily that the biggest is always the best," says Kim Kavin, who helped make the selections and wrote all of the text for this issue’s boating section. "A lot of people are trying to go bigger and bigger because they think it is, by definition, better. But the latest trends in the industry show that you can have a really great custom configuration in a smaller package."
Kavin, who was recently reelected to a second term as president of Boating Writers International, notes that boatbuilders are incorporating customer demands even in the series yachts. "Comfort on board is becoming just as important as yacht design itself," she says. "Personalization is becoming a hallmark even in smaller-size boats."
"Part of motorcycling is the attention that you get," says Robb Report MotorCycling senior editor Don Williams. The Big Dog Pitbull, one of the Best of the Best motorcycles that Williams writes about, is definitely an attention getter. "Wherever you ride it, people give you a thumbs-up. It’s a head-turning bike."
Williams adds that most people don’t want to ride completely under the radar—unless they are on the Kawasaki Concours 14, traveling at top speed. "If it weren’t for the cops, I could ride that bike at 120 miles per hour all day long," says Williams, who has been riding motorcycles for 38 years and writing about them for 30. "It encourages you to go riding and explore places you’ve never been, and it gives you the ability to do that very quickly."
Southern California native Marco R. della Cava has written about cars and the automotive industry for the past 23 years, but this year marks the first time that he has contributed to the Best of the Best issue. Of the cars that he test-drove, the Porsche 911 impressed him the most. "The 911 Turbo is staggeringly good," he says. "It almost makes you a better driver because it’s so intuitive. You get in, and within a half hour you’re driving it almost to its limit. It’s an incredibly user-friendly car."
Fellow automotive writer Ezra Dyer holds a similar opinion of the 911 in general, but not of the GT3 RS in particular. "The Porsche 911 has become a very user-friendly car over the years," says Dyer, who got behind the wheel of the GT3 RS to judge it against other Best of the Best sports car nominees. "I was pulling out on a slightly damp road and suddenly the ass end was trying to pass the front end," he says. "That one is still a very gnarly car to drive. It’s kind of a throwback. It will bite you if you’re not careful, but that’s actually what I liked about it. Porsche seems to have reinstated the old 911 challenge-versus-reward thrill to it."
Journalist Matthew Phenix began his career at The New York Times more than 10 years ago, before moving on to Automobile magazine. He has since written about the automotive industry for a number of publications, and this year marks his first as a Best of the Best contributor. "The biggest surprise was just how beautifully these automobiles balanced technology and a real sense of brand heritage," he says of the cars honored in this issue. "The Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione is the best example of that, really. It’s a car that marries cutting-edge materials and racing technology with a truly jaw-dropping shape that almost magically evokes the great touring and sports cars from Alfa’s history. It really is a car built on the greatness of those that came before it."