We Talk to the Florida Somm Overseeing a Collection of 150,000 Bottles

Welcome to Bern’s, the Tampa icon where the oldest wine ever served was a Revolutionary War-era Bual Madeira

July 14, 2023 7:15 am
A classic steak dinner from Bern’s Steakhouse.
A classic steak dinner from Bern’s Steakhouse.
Bern’s Steakhouse

Bern’s Steakhouse has so many bottles of wine that staff say they aren’t completely sure of the exact count. Open since 1956, Bern’s Steakhouse, in Tampa, is a local legend, famous for its dry-aged steaks (ranging from 45 to 100 days) and the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, where guests will encounter dozens of sweets. Reservations, released 60 days in advance, are often snapped up within an hour. 

Nothing, though, tells the story of Bern’s quite like its gargantuan wine collection — with room for 150,000 bottles, it’s reportedly the world’s largest private collection of wine for a restaurant. A separate warehouse holds even more, and bottles are replenished on a daily basis. In 2016, Bern’s won a James Beard Award for outstanding wine program.  

Sommelier Brad Dixon has been working at Bern’s since 1989 and became sommelier in 2004. “I’ve been selling wine one way or another since I was 21 years old,” Dixon says. “Mostly restaurants. I worked for some French guys back in the early ’90s, and they convinced me that California pinot noir and California zinfandel weren’t the only wines on the planet. I used to love going to the bar at Bern’s and ordering all these crazy things by the glass that you couldn’t get anywhere, old Charbono from the ’60s or old Cote-Rotie from the ’60s.”

Since then, he’s been continuing the legacy of the restaurant’s wine program: “There’s just no place like it. I feel like I have the best wine gig in the world.” We talked to him about runnning one of the wine world’s most unusual jobs. 

InsideHook: How do you decide what wines you want to add to the menu? 

Brad Dixon: [Founder Bern Laxer] would try to stick with the classic wine regions, Old World and New World. People really thought that only wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux, and maybe a few Italian wines, were the best in the world. Bern traveled all over the world, and if he found something that he thought was world-class, he would buy it. 

We have wines from California going back to the early ’60s, and those wines weren’t considered special or world-class back when he bought them. The fact that he treated them with the same respect that he did the “first-growth” Bordeaux and the Grands [Crus] from Burgundy is I think what makes it special. Our state is on a three-tier [distribution] system so it’s not like we can just go and buy stuff. All these old wines that we have, we’ve had them since Bern purchased them.

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What are some of your most unique or special bottles? 

Our most unique bottles are probably our oldest bottles. We have wines going as far back as the 1820s. The oldest wine ever served at Bern’s was a bottle of 1780 Bual Madeira.

What’s the most expensive bottle? What’s the most inexpensive bottle? 

Our most expensive is the 1845 Gruaud Larose for $49,000. The most inexpensive is a tenth bottle of 1991 Cadilac-Branda Bordeaux Blanc for $7.95. We want to have a wine for everybody, and we want to have it properly aged. When you come to Bern’s, you want to drink something different. That’s part of the draw. And we don’t want to make that just for bottles that are thousands and thousands of dollars. We want to be able to offer that experience to the person that only has a hundred dollars.

What would you recommend for a first-time diner? 

For a first time diner, definitely our 100-day dry-aged Delmonico [steak] with a nice bottle of properly aged Bordeaux. When you come to Bern’s and you order a steak, it’s an $80 or $90 steak, but it’s been dry-aged twice as long as anywhere else. It comes with French onion soup, it comes with a salad [and] we try to grow at least some of it in our own farm. It comes with vegetables, a baked potato and onion rings. All [that] comes with the price of that steak. That’s a good value.” 

What do you like drinking at the moment? 

I live in Florida, and it’s hot. I drink a lot of rosé from the south of France, and it’s getting costly. I really enjoy white Burgundy. Kind of my rule [for rosé] is that hopefully the vineyard is less than an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean. 

What would you recommend for an engagement or special occasion?

For a special occasion, it has to be a great bottle of Champagne with some caviar and oysters!


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