A Humble Evening at Bern's, Some Observations, and the Omnipresence of Rolland in My Life

He follows me like an aggressive viral strain that mutates over time. But I get ahead of the story. And please pardon any hint at delusions of grandeur. Of that, this humble country squire has none. I’m a Who in Whoville as far as Rolland knows.

Like a Baller on a Budget, I chauffer from Orlando to Tampa in a big ugly red dodge caravan courtesy of Uber. A smart move given the potential consumption rates, but not the most auspicious way to start an evening. As we pull into the valet, shades on, I quickly slinker into the restaurant lest my clients see me arrive in a soccer mom vehicle rather than the deerslayer. With rain and traffic, my desire to arrive early to peruse the wine list failed. I would be flying on Somm recos only. Brad was in the house.

Started with cocktails. Funny that I have never done that at Bern’s, but client gets what client wants.

I then quickly segued to a bottle of the NV Salmon Billecart Rouge, always a winner to get the dinner rolling as we perused the menu. Really one of my favorite house champagnes.

Since this dinner was business and social, and I did not have the time, I did not geek out over the menu, other than a general flip-through (with some comments below). I asked Brad to handle the wines. Advised him we had a non-geek crowd of mixed tastes, bring us an old world and new world wine to drink side-by-side. Gave him a general idea of perhaps a Cab from 1991-95 and a Bordeaux from a vintages like 1990 or 1996. Gave him a budget of $600. They do ask.

He brings the 1995 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet - an old friend from moons ago - and a 1996 Chateau Haut-Bages Liberal. It donned on me that I may not have ever had this Chateau. Having Brad do the service with his usual adeptness and formality, and in a very social manner, briefing the group on what we are drinking and why he is decanting, etc., is great. An excellent conversation flow for a business group. Different, but not the range of difference one might expect were we doing this with a new Cabernet. Both had some earthy notes on the nose, with the Beringer bending more toward camp fire and the Haut Bages going dry forest floor and tobacco. The Beringer exhibited more cassis and pure fruit, with the Haut-Bages a bit more subdued in that respect. I liked the range of flavors on the palate with the Haut-Bages, interesting indeed but not a blockbuster, just four square. The Beringer had a very powerful, tight core of red fruits that fanned out to darks. Rich but not lush, a nice - and I use this word for Johhny Morris - beam of red fruits and acid springing from the tongue, keeping things lively. The Beringer is the better wine.

My very best friend and business partner - who also happens to be a quick drinker - tells the Somm he would like a 2003. Now this is where my Ovid-loving, Ovid-hoarding buddy and I part ways. He thinks 2003 is the greatest vintage ever. And he loves modern Pavie. Sheez, he likes Caymus. With sushi, he doesn’t care. Somm asks the budget: $500 tops. But I also hinted that I would be fine, and might actually prefer, a 2000.

And of all things, he brings a 2003 Chateau Pontet Canet. It’s bad enough that my buddy brings me to Ovid, and we learn Rolland consults there. So now we get another Rolland-inspired wine. It’s like my buddy is Mr. Magoo, and just stumbles into these things. Interestingly, when I joked about it, the Somm did not know Rolland consulted there. I assume he thought I was off my rocker, especially as I did not push the subject, not that it really mattered. Well, the wine following in the heals of the two prior bottles really showcased the modernist difference, granted it also showcased a fairly warm year. The wine was deep, lush, low acid, and frankly, quite diffuse on the nose and palate. If you like big rich wines, with woody notes, this is for you. It did not move me. But, in all fairness, I was the minority. Everyone at the table except me and a guy who rarely drinks wine, preferred the Pontet Canet. He actually preferred the Bordeaux, and was quite descriptive as to why. Sophisticated guy. I understand PC is all biodynamic, non-interventionist, etc., but this wine did not appeal to me. Especially not at $500.

We later went to the dessert room with all of its quirks, like packing people into phone booths or train cars. And the little rooms are quite warm. Enjoyed an excellent 2001 Chateau de Malle, all honey goodness with nutmeg, cinnamon spice and a range of yellow and white fruits and citrus. We then finished the table desserts with a 1988 and 1968 D’Oliviera Sercial Madeira. Hard to beat Madeira as an accompaniment to dessert, where I normally find Sauternes with the sweet-sweet pairing a bit off. So we started with the Sauternes before the desserts arrived.

Overall a wonderful evening of 4.5 hours. Bern’s is exceptional for long-social gatherings, with its celebration of wines, fine aged meats, the desert room, the gauche décor, and the kitchen and cellar tour are always fun. And for a Sunday, the place was packed.

Some closing observations:

  1. We’ve been saying it for years, but it really hit me this time, but that list is getting thinner and thinner on quality wines from quality years. Even wines that were recommended to me recently have already been plucked. That said, you can generally win by putting the decision in the hands of the Somm, they know what’s drinking well right now.

  2. Sadly, the Madeira list has been hammered. Seems not too long ago you can have Madeira from the 1800s, including a small handful of wines pre-Civil War. They are all gone. Oldest was a Malmsey from 1908. Bummer.

  3. Bern’s has recalibrated their wine prices. I saw a big jump in the more mature wines, some with very large increases. Some still a buy relative to retail, but nothing like before.

  4. Many of the younger wines, like that 2003 Pontet Canet, are way over-priced. The $500 we paid was silly.

  5. They will not seat you until all of your guests arrive, even with large parties. If one person shows late, you all wait. Yes, it happened. Hence, the cocktail starter course.

  6. I think that I prefer to be the geek at Bern’s in a much smaller setting, or even solo at the bar chatting with the Somm. I would have taken some flyers on stuff much older.

  7. There are still a lot of old Beaujolais on the menu, many from the 1970s, that are dirt cheap. End of night I asked the Somm if anything was worth grabbing, and the response I got was pretty much, no. Might still be fun to line up a few and have at them.

That was a long, lonely Uber ride home last night. Everyone else hitting their Tampa hotels, while I go home to Orlando.

Sounds like a great evening! Though also bittersweet as it seems the mother of all arbitrages, at long last, has come to an end.

After hearing about Bern’s for years, in the mid-00s I finally had the chance to go there. At the time my company had an office in Tampa, and, well, of course we need to see each other now and then.

It was a large group, hosted by a local who seemed to know one of the somms well. As I recall the somm had carte blanche. I remember getting started with a 3L red burg from the 1960s. When he saw the expression on my face, he said, “Oh, we won’t be drinking from anything smaller than mags tonight.” Alrighty then. After numerous mags of old (50s-70s) bdx, I remember a little Civil War malmsey intermezzo (either 1862 or 1863) before a 1970 Lafaurie Peyraguey mag in the dessert room. (I agree on the sweet/sweet thing.)

The wines were so overwhelming that I don’t remember the steak in the least bit. I don’t know what the evening cost, but I’m certain it was far less than it could have, or should have, cost.

A very enjoyable read. Thanks for putting in the effort.

$500 for '03PC, you are right, what has happened to Bern’s

Thank you for the entertaining read [cheers.gif]

Would you say the 2009/2010 Pontet Canet have improved on the 2003, or are they essentially the same

Agreed! So much more a fan of Sauternes in lieu of dessert (or with cheese / other courses)

Thanks, Yao!

I have not tried the 2009 or 2010 PC. This wine has not really moved me enough to buy it much. I had the 2004 about a month ago, note posted. I cannot recall if I have tried anything post-2005.

Let’s be clear: He doesn’t follow you. You follow him, like Ahab and his whale.


Call me Ishmael.

And the mega-whale is purple.

I should have closed with cautionary advice:

Don’t Uber home sober-drunk (allegedly) at midnight after a night at Bern’s and jump on WineBid.

I bid on multiple wines, as if I need more.

I’ve always liked 2003 Pontet Canet, which seems like a very joyous, extroverted take on Bordeaux, yet one which still (to me) speaks of Bordeaux.

I can see how it might appeal less to someone who strongly prefers old-school Bordeaux vintages and stylings. Though I would have liked to see how you responded to it blind, without knowing the producer and the vintage.

Obviously $500 is ridiculous, but that’s about the restaurant, not the wine.

Billecart Salmon, not Salmon Billecart

2003 was a “warm” year? 19,000 people died! Living in FL has warped your perspective.

If Pontet Canet is 100% biodymanic and non-interventionalist, is it just possible that you are reacting to Rolland’s name and not the wine?

Since we’re in proofreading mode, it’s Billecart-Salmon, not Billecart Salmon. champagne.gif

If I had two bottles, is it Billecart-Salmons?

Billecarts-Salmon. Like Attorneys General

Nice report, Robert, but it leaves me a bit sad to hear how Berns has changed.

I’ve been to Berns twice and was wowed by the wine list and prices both times, but that was years ago. That was the main draw for me. Seeing what’s happened to prices and that the list has been picked over means a return visit is no longer on my to-do list.

I paid $70 for 2003 Pontet Canet and yeah, that was a retail price 13 years ago and not a restaurant price, but it’s still available at retail for under $100. $500 is expense account only territory. I happen to like the stuff and agree with Chris that it’s a “joyous, extroverted take on Bordeaux.”

Come on, you know Michel sprinkled pixie dust on it!

I asked my son recently, when Mike Trout’s and Tim Salmon’s families send out Christmas cards, do they say “Merry Christmas from the Trout” and “Happy Holidays from the Salmon?”

I just checked to see if you bid against me on ‘82 Maggies. I promise I’ll share if I win! [truce.gif]

I love those mid 90’s Beringer PR’s and totally agree with the smoke/campfire note in the ‘95. Along with the ‘94 Dominus and ‘86 Montelena, that wine has been the most “first growth left bank-like” of all the CA Cabs and blends I’ve had. I’m not sure if it is just a touch of brett or what, but I love it. And the ‘95 can often be found or about $100 which is an excellent QPR. ‘92-94 are also awesome, and the ‘93 can get as low as $60-70, which is ridiculous.

Lol, that’s was you!?! I’m so sorry, I ran up your price then bailed out like a cheap date! Sorry. Then bid on five other things.

The Beringer was $240. I was cool with that. The Haut Bages at $360 was a bit pricey.