I am fascinated by the work of Bern Laxer who founded Bern’s Steak House in Tampa. He has accumulated wines to the point that the wine cellar represented up to two million bottles. Since his death the cellar is today « only » six hundred thousand bottles. He is a man who trusted the old wines to the point that there is still some Bordeaux from 19th century in the cellar.
When I came the first time, a sympathy happened immediately with Brad Dixon, head sommelier, who handles sales of wines for more than ten million dollars for the only activity of the wines served at the restaurant table .
Brad having understood my passion for old wines had said, « if you had come there twenty years ago, you would have tasted treasures » because due to the reputation of the restaurant, all the great years such as 1900, 1928, 1929 have been decimated. And there are only few very old wines whose conservation is increasingly uncertain, wine levels in the bottles have fallen and colors being increasingly tiled. Brad said he hardly sells more of these relics which are in the cellar for more a symbol than to be enjoyed.
Nevertheless, of the two meals I have experienced in Bern’s, I chose wines over a hundred years and I have had only good surprises. Although with Brad, we chose the most beautiful.
Tonight I’m having dinner with my son and my youngest daughter, my wife took the view that do ten hours’ drive, five to go and five return for a steak, not to drink wine, is not for her a real attraction. My son had received by mail the list of wines from Bern’s, which has 174 pages and about thirty lines per page. I selected 19 wines from the younger 1961 to 1888 with 13 wines having hundred years or more. I submitted for approval to Brad. Brad told me that he had watched the 19 wines and five could hold my attention, others being with uncertain color.
We arrive at 4 pm in the restaurant and we are welcomed by Brad who receives us with a pleasant smile. The five wines await my verdict. There are Bel Air Marquis d’Aligre 1961, Pontet Canet 1916, Léoville Poyferré 1901, Haut-Bailly 1913 and 1926 La Gaffelière Naudes. Colors except one are engaging, but the levels of all the bottles are low. You really have to be passionate to tackle these bottles. I told Brad I’ll open the bottles in order of age, oldest first. I will open three and a fourth if there is a problem. Brad left me in the hands of Chris, who keeps and arranges the cellar. I open the wines in the cellar where it is very cold and Chris illuminates the work surface because the cellar is very dark.
I want to open the 1901 Léoville Poyferré. The label is handwritten and when touching the capsule I see it very clearly marked « Château Latour 1920 ». The capsule is a rare beauty and by its age, it is clear that the wine is a Latour 1920 and it is a labeling error at Bern’s. I had in mind drinking wine over a hundred years, so Chris gets me the other Léoville Poyferré 1901. There are five and none found favor in my eyes. So I will keep Latour 1920.
The first bottle I open is that of Haut-Bailly 1913. The cork resistant, comes in pieces. The smell is very interesting because there is a pretty good red fruit. But there is a hint of acidity which I hope will disappear. The fruit looks pretty.
I then open the Pontet-Canet 1916 for having a bottle of just a hundred years, when the Verdun centenary is celebrated where my grandfather was seriously wounded, is a strong symbol. The cork comes to shreds because there is an incredible bulge inside the neck which means that the cork is torn and crumbles when pulled on. The scent of the wine is less fruity and less appreciated by my daughter but I believe in it because I feel it will blossom nicely. You should know that these are very fragile wines.
I finally open the Château Latour 1920 whose cork is incredibly dry and breaks because it sticks to the neck. Perfume is also quiet but perhaps a bit more square. The three fragrances seem possible and do not require that I open a fourth bottle. If there is a nasty surprise in the service, I ask that Chris keeps the Château La Gaffelière Naudes 1926 I think I can open even if at the last moment, because Saint-Emilion is particularly strong in those years, 1928 and 1929 have always been strong when I drank them.
My daughter is frozen and quickly leaves the cellar. We go out. My son will ride a bike, on loan from the hotel, in the beautiful residential areas of the old Tampa, my daughter will swim in the hotel pool and on my side I write this account about opening wines with the hope that they illuminate our evening despite the enormous risks of wines so old and with quite low levels.
If Brad sells less wines of this age, there is also another reason. If they are open at the last moment in the restaurant room, there is already the problem of time spent to open them, then, to see the inconvenience of corks’ parts making mess all around and finally the fact that the wines do not have time to recover by slow oxygenation, so crucial for their return to life.
Drinking wines whose average age is 98 years, with two of my children, it will, I hope, a unique pleasure.
When we go to the restaurant at 7:30 pm, time of our reservation, we are at least thirty to wait in the lobby a waiter who comes to drive us to the table. I go to Frank Russo the restaurant manager to say hello and he remembers me. It is he who leads us to our table, and Paul, our server, will take care of us. On the table, the three bottles were just being laid and the three saucers containing the torn and shredded corks.
This is Brad himself who advises us the choice of menu. For me it will be snails which, in the United States, cannot be served in their shells, then a piece of beef called Demonico, my son and I take for 16 ounces, which is unreasonable, with a gratin potatoes.
Brad says he thinks the labeling error Léoville-POYFERRE 1901 was made in the 60s by Christie’s when the bottles were bought by Bern’s. And he said, « this wine has been recorded in our books in 1960 as Léoville-POYFERRE 1901. I’m a bargain you selling it and you make a big deal since you drink a Latour 1920 at the price of my inventory » . The moon, full on that day, although inspired me.
Brad asks me if I want to make by myself the service of wines. He knows the answer: I take charge and I will offer to Brad to drink a glass of wine each.
The perception of wine before we did eat a dish is very different from what we have when the meal begins. At this stage the 1913 Château Haut-Bailly has a nice fruity nose, a lovely delicate attack, in the fruit, but a final a little bitter, which limits the pleasure.
The 1916 Château Pontet-Canet has a quieter nose, the wine shows great balance but still a great emotion and Château Latour 1920 is noble, seated, barely sugary, high personable. It is the color of Pontet-Canet which is the most brick-red, barely, and the most beautiful is that of Haut-Bailly.
When we eat the panorama changes and it will vary slowly throughout the meal. When we eat, the weakness I found in the final of the Haut-Bailly disappears and the wine grows, romantic and delightfully feminine. It is he who has the most charm. The three wines are growing in contact with food.
Pontet-Canet shows solid, but as it is square and the Latour is more than him, adding to the nobility, the ranking which was: 1920, 1916, 1913 becomes 1920, 1913, 1916. What most strikes me is that the three wines become great wines, pleasant to drink, with nice subtleties. Haut-Bailly is ‘charm’, the Pontet-Canet is ‘structure’ and Latour is ‘nobility’. And the three I like and I wonder how it is possible that these three wines are as good at such ages and as their levels were between mid and low shoulder, Haut-Bailly being the lowest. I think the secret is the examination of their color under a flood lamp, which allows to see the wines that have retained their vitality.
Snails are delicious, the meat is tasty and typical, with about 60 days of maturation, the potatoes are eaten with relish, so all is well even if it is impossible to eat it all. I prefer for cooking Japanese Wagyu there to grilling, but the meat is good.
The more time passes, the more refined delicacy of Haut-Bailly is expanding, even if Latour is very large. I pour bottles of funds into new glasses to better enjoy. The review of the lees is always revealing. The lees demonstrate the extreme vitality of the three wines. I prefer the dregs of the Haut-Bailly, that of Latour is softer and therefore less vibrant.
Brad that allowed me to all three dinners to choose the bottles in the cellar, for three dinners where all wines which shown life, and more than alive, refined. Brad said, « it would seem to prove that your method of opening is good. » I think the examination of colors counts for a lot. Latour 1920 is the largest of the three wines because its material is more noble, but it is ultimately the Haut-Bailly 1913 that will have the bonus of originality and charm that wins the prize in our hearts.
Brad gave us a tour of the premises, large rooms, and impressive kitchens. This place is a hive, all staff from all functions being 200 employees, serving 1,100 customers tonight. He tells us all inventions of this visionary Bern Laxer, who practiced vertical integration by creating farms for cows that give superb meats that ripen in cold rooms, building insulation itself from its cellars, manufacturing all kitchen utensils, coffee roasters and machines make roasted onion rings.
The passage in the cellar, he made us taste a Blandy Madeira Bual 1907 delightfully delicious and intense. A delight. Launched Brad tells a lot of stories about wine and he gives me a half bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape Pierre Ponnelle 1961 I hasten to drink to his health.
Bern Laxer created an extraordinary restaurant, thought to detail in innovative precursor. With his creative genius, we could drink tonight three historic wines before, middle and after the Great War. It was a memorable meal.