Pilgrimage to Bern’s Steak House
May 15, 2020
This is the fifth chapter of my monograph: Stories, experiences, and advice that I hope you will find entertaining, compelling, and useful. You can find me on Instagram @winebarter. I encourage you to go back and read my earlier installments if you haven't already at The first introduces the series, the second is on Bordeaux, the third is on Burgundy, the fourth on Buying wine at Auction, and the fifth starts here:
I have made two pilgrimages to Bern’s. Why do I use that word? A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place. My intention is not to be sacrilegious, but to emphasize that on both occasions I flew to Tampa with a singular purpose — dining at Bern’s that night — and flying home the following morning. Each time, planning took several months for dinners lasting approximately four hours each. So, to me the word pilgrimage fits. Why Bern’s? Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida has the second largest wine collection in the world.
The largest collection of wine is held by Milestii Mici in Moldova, officially the Republic of Moldova, which is located in Eastern Europe bordered by Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north, east, and south. In 2005, it was registered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest wine collection in the world containing some 2 million bottles. Bern’s currently has about 500,000 bottles. When I first visited in 2014, it was reported to have 600,000 bottles, and its size probably peaked at 750,000 or so in the early 2000s. Bern and Gert Laxer started Bern’s Steak House back in 1956. Throughout the 1970s Bern traveled to the legendary wine regions of France first, and then to California to buy wine. Remember, Steven Spurrier’s Judgement of Paris was held in 1976. After a heck of a run, Bern Laxer passed away in 2002 and Gert died just this past April. Their son David has been running the restaurant for over twenty years.
In 2016, Bern’s received the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Program, and Owner David Laxer and Wine Director Eric Renaud accepted the award in Chicago. The news was out. But in fact, it already had been. Note that both of my trips to Bern’s occurred before the awards were announced at the May 2, 2016 Gala in Chicago. Also, both of my dinners took place early in the week, on relatively slow nights in the restaurant business so we could have the sommelier’s full attention. Let me cut to the chase and give you the list of wines we enjoyed at each of these dinners. Afterwards, when your appetite is whetted and your enthusiasm has grown sufficiently, I will give you advice about arranging your own pilgrimage to Bern’s.
Dinner no. 1- Tuesday, May 20, 2014. There were seven of us in a private room and we were assisted by Senior Sommelier Eric Renaud. Below is our drink list:
First two whites:
1983 Louis Michel Et Fils Chablis (Villages Classe)
1970 Domaine-De-Perdrix Chateauneuf-Du-Pape Blanc
1961 Domaine Leroy Le Chambertin (Mise D'Origine SA Leroy)
1964 Faiveley Beaujolais-Superieur (Gamay Grape)
1964 Pierre Olivier Morey-St-Denis
1953 Domaine Ponnelle Corton-Clos-Du-Roi
1962 Thorin Romanee-Saint-Vivant
At this point some of us tried some cognac from the 1865 vintage, assisted by Nate Wilson, Director of Spirits.
1865 Chateau Lagrange from Denis Mounie
Then onto Bordeaux:
1921 Chateau Rauzan-Gassies, Margaux
1955 Chateau Montrose, St-Estephe
1947 Chateau La Grange, St-Julien (En Magnum)
1964 Rioja Claret, La Rioja Alta from Haro, Spain
After dinner we went across the street to their 3600 square foot, temperature-controlled warehouse, a monolithic building with no windows. We spent 40 minutes there before heading back to the restaurant, and up to the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, comprised of 48 booths made of redwood wine casks. It’s all very campy and fun. Of course, it was named after Bern Laxer’s friend who had an illustrious career in wine. Harry Waugh had been the wine buyer for the St. James’s Club in London, as well as on the QE II. He was a consultant to the Queen, Christie’s, and many fine restaurants and hotels; as well as being a Director for the Chateau Latour. He wrote many books about wine: Bacchus on the Wing (1968), The Changing Face of Wine (1968), Pick of the Bunch (1970), Winetaster’s Choice (1973), as well as ten volumes of Wine Diaries (1972-1987).
In addition to desserts we enjoyed the following digestifs:
1834 Barbeito Terrantz Madeira
1910 Cossart Malvasia Madeira
1830 Malmsey Madeira
Finally, we stumbled back to the Epicurean Hotel. I said, quoting Arnold:”I'll be back!"
Dinner no. 2- Monday, April 25, 2016. And two years later, I did go back with a completely different group of guys. This time there were six of us. One of our group flew in from Paris. He should have been exhausted, but it was his first time to Bern’s so his adrenaline kept him vertical throughout. Our Somm was once again Eric Renaud, now Bern’s Director of Wine.
Here is the drink list, and the order in which we drank them:
Only one white:
2005 Ramonet Chevalier-Montrachet
Then older Bordeaux:
1952 Château Gazin, Pomerol
1952 Chateau Pichon-Lalande (En Magnum)
1953 Chateau Leoville-Las Cases
1921 Chateau Rauzan-Gassies
Next, younger Burgundy:
1979 Bouchard Moulin-A-Vent (Beaujolais – Gamay grape)
1990 Bouchard Pere Beaune-Greves Vigne-De-L'Enfant Jesus
2007 Armand Rousseau Chambertin Clos-De-Beze
Followed by Northern Rhône:
1978 Leon Revol St-Joseph
1985 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage
After dinner, this time we took the kitchen tour and were able to see a few of the onsite, narrow wine cellars for dinner service access (photos included).
Then we went upstairs to Harry Waugh’s and enjoyed desserts and our digestifs:
1929 Grande Champagne Cognac from Berry Brothers & Rudd
1977 Graham's Port
The importance of your Bern’s Sommelier to your experience.
Your Sommelier is crucial, much more so than at any other restaurant I know. Even more important than when my wife Laura and I dined at L’Tour d’Argent in Paris (its cellar contains 300,000 bottles), or Rekondo in San Sebastian (its cellar contains 100,000 bottles). This is because your Sommelier is your guide to what’s drinking well. As I reported, I have seen both the wine cellars in the restaurant, and the warehouse across the street. While those in the restaurant appear organized, the wines stored across the street in the warehouse are not. Inside the warehouse is a scaffolding of 2x4s and plywood shelves with wine everywhere, seemingly disorganized, and much in dilapidated boxes which have been tortured by humidity and time (at least this is what I saw when I was there in 2014). The Somms know where the good stuff is. Over the years, after many, many such pilgrimages to Bern’s, many of the gems have been drunk. As someone explained to me, there is no 1811 vintage cognac anymore. But there is 1865! The highly prized bottles made by the great producers in great vintages have been combed over at Bern’s, although I am sure there are some left within the 500,000 remaining bottles. Regardless, the trick to finding gems now is to look for a great vintage from a lesser producer, or a lesser vintage from a great producer or négociant. Alternately, you could look for some Villages wine from a great producer that should have been drunk already (and would have been drunk from every cellar in France), but because the bottles were undisturbed for decades in a perfectly cool, dark, humid cellar; they are still drinking well. The Somm knows which bottles these are because they taste every bottle of wine after they open it for guests/patrons. There is no other way. Bern’s has four Somms, but for me the two best are Eric Renaud and Brad Dixon. I will always use Eric because we have a relationship, a history. I trust him, and value his opinion. He has not steered me wrong yet!
Looking at the drink lists above, at both of the Bern’s dinners we drank very old Beaujolais. At the first, a bottle of 1964 Faiveley Beaujolais-Superieur, and at the second, a bottle of 1979 Bouchard Moulin-A-Vent. I was involved in our wine choices at the second dinner so I can tell you the 1979 was priced at only $29. Our Parisian friend chose this saying that every single bottle would have been consumed in France long ago. For both wines, independently, my notes included the description “great texture.”
Looking back at the wines we chose, I’m sure you all recognize Domaine Leroy, Armand Rousseau, Clos-De-Tart, Chave Hermitage, Leoville-Las Cases, Pichon-Lalande, Montrose; but what about Ponnelle?
The Ponnelle family began in the Burgundy wine trade in 1870 when Pierre-Lazare Ponnelle founded his winery and Domaine. He collaborated with the famous scientist Louis Pasteur, who was living not far from Beaune, specifically researching the wine-making process with a particular interest in understanding fermentation. Ponnelle’s sons followed him into the business. One of his grandsons- Albert, decided to create his own business, and I found an old reference that said he was vinifying, cellaring, and selling some of the best quality wines in the Côte-De-Beaune and the Côte-De-Nuits! Albert’s son, Louis carried on with the family passion for wine, followed by his son Pierre, grandson of Albert. Born in 1847, Pierre Ponnelle is one of the great figures of Burgundy in the 19th century. Throughout his life he was, above all, passionate about oenology, founding his wine merchant house in 1875. Today, there is a Ponnelle connection to Domain Georges Roumier, founded in 1924 and run by Christophe Roumier who is the son of Odile Ponnelle and Jean-Marie Roumier, Georges Roumier’s third son. It’s a small wine world. Personally, I always look for old Ponnelle bottles, both at auction, or on big old wine lists.
Next, I want to share an interesting story about Château Gazin. We had the 1952 vintage at my second trip to Bern’s. Gazin dates all the way back to 1772, when the land was purchased by Antoine Feuilhade and planted with vines. Château Gazin shares borders with two great Pomerols: Petrus and l’Evangile. While Gazin is a middle of the road Pomerol producer today, you may not know that it sold vineyards to Petrus. It’s true. In 1969, Château Gazin sold 5.5 hectares of vines to Petrus. That’s a lot of land for a Pomerol producer, just over 13.5 acres. Robert Parker in his 1985 book lists the size of Petrus at 28.4 acres, so the purchase from Gazin nearly doubled its size. While the sale helped the cash-starved property cover its tax liens, the loss of those vines reduced the quality of Château Gazin wine. So, the terroir of our 1952 was superior to vintages today.
I would also like to give a little information about 1962 Thorin Romanée-Saint-Vivant, which we drank at the first dinner. I was searching the internet and found a reference in a Sotheby’s wine catalog for the Don Stott Cellar: “Romanée-St-Vivant 1962, Domaine Marey-Monge Côte-De-Nuits, Grand Cru shipped by Thorin Vins Fins for Bern's Steakhouse, J. Thorin label and capsule.” What does that mean? Do you recognize the name Marey-Monge? The name appears on Domaine Romanée Conti’s bottles of Romanée-St-Vivant. In fact the entire Romanée-St-Vivant climat was bought in 1791 by Nicolas-Joseph Marey, son-in-law of the famous mathematician Gaspard Monge, when it was up for sale after the French Revolution. The family kept it as a Monopole for over 100 years. Then in 1898, a small piece was sold to the Latour Family. Sometime later, a small parcel was sold to Charles Noellat. But I want to tell you about what happened in 1966 when the last member of the Marey-Monge family leased the remaining 5.28 hectares (13 acres) to Aubert-De-Villaine of Domaine-De-La Romanee-Conti. Per the family’s request, DRC continued to use the traditional label (with the Marey-Monge coat of arms and golden medals). This continued through the 1972 vintage. In 1973, the Marey-Monge heirs agreed that their label would be abandoned and replaced by DRC's own classic Domaine label with ‘Marey-Monge' as an indicator. That was until 1988 (September) when DRC was able to buy the vineyard from the Neyroud family, which had inherited it from Marey-Monge. For a brief period of time, specifically the 1989-1992 vintages, the designator ‘Marey-Monge' was dropped. But in 1993 and onwards the name ‘Marey-Monge' was again included on the labels of DRC Romanée-St-Vivant where it has remained since. Fun trivia, right? I love this stuff!
By the way, I have included photos from my second dinner here, but not from my first back in 2014 because I didn’t really take photos to document my life in wine. I started my Instagram account in early 2016. So, following our second dinner, I posted photos of the wines.
How to plan your Pilgrimage to Bern’s.
It is extremely important to contact Bern’s many months ahead. Get a hold of Eric or Brad, calling them first. Your goal is to convey a signal to them that your party will be worth their time and effort. Tell them you have a group that will be flying to Tampa specifically to come to Bern’s. Tell them you would like to reserve a private room. I’m not sure, but I think 8-10 people might justify it. We had six guys on my second trip. and we did not have a private room, but it doesn’t matter because it’s only the signal that you want an attentive, dedicated Somm, and access to special, older wines that’s important. Eric and Brad may pass you off to their two younger Somm colleagues. Don’t be discouraged and note that both of my trips happened prior to Bern’s winning the James Beard Award. You must somehow convey that you are coming for the wine, that you want to have the Bern’s wine experience with older bottles, that you intend to spend a lot of money, and really need their help. Hopefully the Somm will ask you questions that try to probe what kind of wine you will be looking for. You have to say well-aged, and that price is less important than choosing the right bottles, reiterating that you need to employ his craft/expertise and are happy to pay for it. Ask if you can email him with some ideas about what your group is thinking: Number of bottles, wine regions (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Cognac, Madeira), and some kind of idea about your budget. At each of our dinners, the average wine consumption per person was roughly two bottles (yes, each!). In your email, ask him which wines he recommends that are drinking well and that you should not miss, whether regions, climats, producers, vintages, or classe. This is a process. And if at any time they say that Bern’s has lots of wonderful wines on the list and you do not need to order in advance, then you have failed because all of these wines will have to be pulled from the cellar/warehouse in advance of your visit. And that takes time. It takes preparation akin to a museum curator. Note that you do not need to know exactly which wines you will be drinking, as long as the Somm has done this legwork in advance. If you are lucky, the Somm will send you the wine list. Some bottles might not be there the night of your dinner because some other group may have got there first, or some wines might not be showing well, so you must give your Somm some flexibility. You have to trust him. If you are successful, I promise you that he will create a lifetime memory/experience.
I have nearly covered this topic, but I want to share with you one of favorite pastimes: I love reading wine lists. Before I go out for dinner, even casually, even at restaurants I’ve been to many times before, I try to look at the wine list. If Laura and I are traveling without specific dining plans, we often go to restaurants earlier in the afternoon or perhaps the day before to take a gander at their wine lists. Why do I like reading wine lists? It gives me insight into the Sommelier, how he thinks, what he likes, and obviously, food-wine pairings. It may show you what the owner or chef wants the restaurant to be. It shows you bias. It can introduce regions or producers that you should research (for future purchases for your own cellar). I particularly love seeking out the best QPR (quality price ratio) on the list. It’s often in the higher priced wines. In fact, sometimes you can find a wine on the list that costs less than current retail, either because it has appreciated since the restaurant purchased it and they have not refreshed their prices, or they bought below market from a mailing list, or possibly they appreciate the game (I’m playing), and want to reward diners who are willing to spend the time. In closing, I always hope the food will be good; but I go for the wine!