Wine Wisdom recently visited Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Fla., a restaurant that boasts the biggest wine list in the world.
Every wine lover has a favorite restaurant, where the wine list by the glass or bottle is impressive and a delight to behold. I have a number of such places I enthusiastically visit. However, there is one place that ranks at the very pinnacle of any serious wine lover's list of spectacular vino venues. Having now been to the mountaintop, I can write there is no other place quite like it.
Who would think that Tampa, Fla., of all places, is the home of the restaurant with the largest wine list in the world? Bern's Steak House is a veritable wine mecca for those who are devoutly passionate about wine; my first visit there made me a true believer. I'd heard great things about the food at Bern's and about the incredible wine list, but I'd never ventured there because I had been misinformed that it was expensive; the truth is that it is a virtual bargain for both its fine food and aged wines.
An innovative Massachusetts retail store, Jordan's Furniture, made itself successful by endorsing the philosophy that "all business is show business." Bern's subscribes to the same philosophy. Guests are invited to tour one of the busiest kitchens in the country, where every steak is cut to order, including steak sandwiches served at the bar. On the typical weeknight, 400 to 800 dinners are served, a volume doubled on weekend evenings.
The kitchen tour is followed by a guided visit to the 100,000-bottle wine cellar downstairs. If there's a wine paradise, this is it. A refrigerated warehouse across the street contains another 400,000 bottles. The restaurant's wine list, updated periodically, includes more than 6,800 different wine labels. Almost 200 wines are available by the glass. Wines range in price from a $30,000 bottle of 1947 Chateau Latour to modest French wines dating to the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s from regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhone and the Languedoc priced as low as $27 a bottle. They are absolutely delicious and an incredible bargain by anyone's standards.
Bern's was established in 1956 by Bern Laxer and his wife, Gert. Laxer developed a passion for fine wine, a penchant for collecting an incredible volume of wines, and a philosophy of pricing wines reasonable enough that most guests could afford to taste and drink them. It's a tradition Laxer's son David maintained.
Bern Laxer was a hard worker and, at times, a demanding employer. He was also a colorful character as one would expect of a man who created one of the country's greatest restaurants. According to longtime employee Jamal Hussein, a foreign guest once asked to meet Bern and was taken on a tour of the kitchen where he engaged in a lengthy conversation with a dishwasher. On returning to the dining room, he was asked if he met Bern. "No," he replied, "but I had an interesting conversation with the dishwasher, who was very nice."
"That was Bern," he was told.
Laxer made frequent buying trips to Europe, where his guide was Harry Waugh, one of the big names in the wine business and author of several wine books. Dining at Harry's house one night, Bern was impressed when, after dinner, they retired to the study for sweets and dessert wines. Bern loved the concept and created the Harry Waugh Dessert Room at Bern's, where diners sit in private alcoves constructed from large wine barrels and enjoy a selection of scrumptious desserts and can choose from over 1,000 dessert wines.
Eric Renaud, the sommelier at Bern's, told me that guests fly in from all over the country for a weekend of enjoying fine old wines at incredibly good prices. "You don't get it until you come here," he said. "We have an incredible collection of wines, including old Rhone wines from $30 to $300 that offer unbelievable taste and value."
Most wineries are not making wines to age any more it seems, and aged wines are a delectable treat not to be missed. Bern's is a terrific reason to visit Tampa and might even be a compelling reason to move there. Enjoy.
Mark P. Vincent is a Shrewsbury, Mass., resident who has a passion for wine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News