TAMPA — A few times a month, the sommeliers at Bern's Steakhouse go hunting for wine lost and forgotten in the restaurant's cellars.
They climb the shelves, crawl over cases and shine a flashlight on anything not on the inventory list. It's like mining for gems, says restaurant owner David Laxer. You never know what you'll find.
This spring, they struck gold. A double magnum 1947 bottle of Chateau Latour.
The selling price: $30,000.
The first-growth Bordeaux will be on the 61st edition of Bern's wine list due out in early January. It's by far the most expensive wine in the restaurant's history.
Senior sommelier Eric Renaud found the bottle during a "project day'' at the restaurant. He was working in the rare wine room when he saw the bottle tucked away on a high shelf in the back. It was on its side, instead of pointed outward like the rest.
"It looked like someone had hid it there a long time ago,'' he said. "The second I saw it, I almost had a heart attack.''
Laxer figures his father, Bern, who founded restaurant in 1956, bought it a half century ago for about $100. It had probably been sitting there for decades, gathering dust but improving with age.
He thinks fewer than two dozen bottles of it exist worldwide.
• • •
Bern Laxer amassed wine by the truckload in the mid to late '70s when few others in Florida were buying it in large quantities. He would travel to vineyards, shipping ports and auctions around the country, buying cases upon cases and hauling it home to Tampa. David remembers he and a crew of about 10 would spend entire days unloading semitrailer trucks filled with wine.
What he didn't keep in the restaurant, Bern stored in a warehouse across the street on S Howard Avenue. When the stacks got too high, he built a second floor. When the shelves filled up, he took over the aisles.
"He was not shy about buying wine,'' David Laxer said. "He had the foresight to buy a lot of wines that were dirt cheap. He bought a lot of wine for $3 that now sells for $500.''
Bern Laxer died in 2002 at age 78, leaving as part of his legacy a 500,000-bottle wine collection. It's the largest of any restaurant in the world.
The restaurant updates its 180-page wine list every year, usually in December or early January. It deletes wines no longer in stock and adds ones discovered in the cellars. In all, the list has about 6,500 selections, not including the spirits and ports on the 20-page dessert room menu.
The wines range from the latest release of popular New World wines to century-old bottles never inventoried. The oldest is an 1827 Bual Madeira.
"We are still finding wines that are buried that we thought we no longer had,'' Laxer said. "Guests always ask, 'How do you keep having old wine?' We just keep finding it.''
• • •
Laxer doesn't expect the newly found Chateau Latour to last long on the wine list.
Some out-of-state customers already have expressed interest and are looking to pool their money to buy it. Laxer promises to sell it on a first-come, first-served basis to whoever puts down a deposit and makes a reservation. He priced it based on the estate where it was made, the vintage and large bottle size, which is extremely rare.
It could sell easily for $50,000 at an auction in Asia where much of the rare wine buying occurs, said Greg Gregory, a sales representative for BP Wine in California who lived in Tampa. The fact that the bottle was kept in a 50-degree restaurant cellar untouched for so many years makes it even more valuable.
"This wine would be considered one of the better wines of the last century,'' he said. "It's a great trophy piece for Bern's to have.''
Whoever buys it must drink the bottle on site. Because it's so big — about four bottles worth — Laxer estimates a party of 10 or more will consume it. It's an "experience wine'' meant for savoring and reflecting upon, he said. Not for washing down a slab of steak.
"Part of the fun with these older bottles is thinking about what was going on in the world. What was happening in the region,'' he said. "That's the romance of it. You start talking about history.''
In the case of the Chateau Latour, rewind to 1947, not long after the invasion of Normandy and the end of World War II. France was a pretty interesting place.
So what happens if the wine is bad? The sommeliers say that's extremely unlikely, based on the excellent condition of the bottle and label. But if it has gone sour, Bern's will take it off the bill.
If anything, the wine may still be young, said Gregory, the wine expert. It could last another 50 to 75 years.
The $30,000 price far exceeds anything ever sold at Bern's. The closest was several years ago when a local businessman — whom the restaurant would not identify at his request — bought an 1841 Chateau Lafite Rothschild for $10,000.
He told Laxer he plans to uncork it when his stock prices go up. Until then, it's aging gracefully in the cellar, where every so often he and his friends go to visit it.
Bern's founder would have been amazed that anyone would pay so much for a bottle of wine, his son said. Selling it would have been have exciting but bittersweet.
"He became very attached to his wines,'' he said. "He didn't like to part with it if it was his last bottle.''