This Classic Tampa Steakhouse Boasts One Of America’s Greatest Wine Cellars
Florida’s Bern’s Steakhouse has built a wine list that is truly mind-boggling.
I had heard rumors about Bern’s Steak House in Tampa for years from my wine drug-dealer buddies. Those guys you turn to when you need something extra special, unobtanium. The sort of wines you mostly read about but never see. “Old & Rare” as it were.
The stuff that scallywags plot heists around, and con men re-create in basements using their own alchemy and some tricks of the forger’s trade to sell at auction to unsuspecting billionaires. The sort of stuff that promotes dreams of avarice, and green envious eyes from others in the know who see you drinking it.
For wine is a special drug. And one that has carried with it the mantle of nobility for a very long time. He who was the king’s winemaker became a king himself in the eyes of the oenophile. And let us not forget that in classifications of wines often volume spoke as proxy for quality. It is why the “Growths” of Bordeaux are as they are.
But Burgundy is a different beast. Tiny plots of land, tended by tightknit families for what seems like eons, sending out into the world small consignments of what they don’t keep for themselves. Clinging on, limpet-like, to practices handed down from father to son, or uncle to nephew. The alchemy of the soil, and nurture, and timing; the alchemy of the fermentation and tending and filtering and bottling. All carried out with monastic rapture in the name of filling the bottle with something magical and revered.
Over time the veil of secrecy peeling back, and the word traveling with every touch down of every jet-plane to farther and farther reaches of this planet earth. To new Kings and Queens, Princes and thieves. To more and more people for whom that look from across the room as a cork is pulled becomes increasingly important. Some with a nose and palate able to discern the nuance that separates the good, the very good, and the ephemeral. Others just with more money than the Gods, and the need to show that they have taste in acquisition even if not in fact.
And so the market speaks, and the prices rise, and these special things become out of reach to the most, and then the many, and then even to the few. And they are consumed as fast as they are produced, making it more and more difficult to find the bottles left imbued with the magic of time spent in a dusty, cobwebbed cellar with perfect humidity and temperature for decades as the world rages, and fights, and extracts, and slashes and burns around it.
Unless, of course, you happen by luck or good fortune to end up at the doors of Bern’s Steak House. In Tampa. In Florida. Possibly the least likely place to expect what happens there to happen there. It is incredible. In the true sense of the word. Not credible. That such an Aladdin’s Cave of wines forgotten by time, but perfectly stored, should exist. Despite having been raided and pillaged for generations.
I had just written about the Domaine de la Romaneé Conti when I found myself in Naples, Florida for some meetings. So it seemed silly to not go to this Bern’s place I had heard so much about. It was unlikely that it would live up to the stories I had heard, but my intrigue got the better of me, so I reached out to them to snag a table for an early dinner sitting at 5 p.m.
We left after midnight. And what ensued was magical in every way. I honestly don’t remember the food. Not that it was not memorable, I am sure it was. But simply because the experience of the wines we were guided through by Brad Dixon, the sommelier who was kind enough to assist us, was other worldly.
There were more expensive wines on his list, and hell, there are more expensive wines on many lists, but I think it would be a tough-to-impossible task to match the journey he took us on that night. Of the five or six bottles of amazingness we consumed, the 1966 S. Dzikowsky Grand Cru Mazis-Chambertin may be the most memorable wine I have ever had.
A glass of freshly picked juicy, moist, baby strawberries. If I had closed my eyes I would have sworn it was from a fresh punnet plucked that afternoon from a virgin field in Neverland.
As we inhaled, and Brad led us on our journey, we heard the remarkable story of a man who fell in love with wine in Tampa in the 1950s. And nurtured his passion with trips to France and beyond, to learn, and taste and procure. Rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of the secret societies of wines. And managing to procure pallet after pallet of the most fantastical things to ship back to his small restaurant in Florida.
Over time he acquired hundreds of thousands of bottles. Of the finest wines ever made. From every producer, in every flavor, in every vintage. And then he kept buying more. And then more. His wine cellar outgrew his restaurant and required a warehouse of its own. And slowly the world around him woke up to what he had discovered decades before, as he acquired some of the finest and rarest gems that the fermentation of grapes has ever produced.
It has taken a while to process to be honest. And in between I have traveled to the heart of Burgundy to buy wines at the famous Hospices de Beaune charity auction, eaten and drank at some of the finest restaurants in the world, consumed innumerable bottles of Grand Cru Burgundy. And yet. And yet. I still yearn to go back to Bern’s. I hope they will still have me.