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Tardy Bern's removed from wine honor roll

The restaurant's extensive wine list was slow to be updated, resulting in a slap from the respected Wine Spectator magazine.

Ouch. This hurts worse than dropping a case of '86 Margaux.

Wine Spectator has taken its Grand Award away from the wine list at Bern's Steak House in Tampa after 18 years on the magazine's honor roll.

When the August issue arrived, it gave 83 restaurants around the world its Grand Award, the most coveted honor in the field. In Florida, the only winners listed are Maison & Jardin in Orlando and the Florentine in Palm Beach.

The reason for Bern's suspension is not wine but tardy paperwork: The wine list that guides diners to the 400,000 bottles in the cellar hasn't been updated in five years.

"We have no doubt that Bern's has one of the most complete wine cellars in the world," senior editor Thomas Matthews said in an interview from New York. "What we'd like to see is a complete, accurate wine list of what's in the cellar."

He said the decision was reluctant and characterized it as a suspension.

Ironically, the 47th edition of Bern's wine list, all 181 pages of it, has been in production for a year and just arrived from the printer. It will be on the tables Aug. 16, months after the Wine Spectator's patience ran out.

David Laxer, son of founder Bern Laxer, was surprised and disappointed but said he hoped the restaurant's absence from the list would be brief.

Of the magazine's 1999 winners, only La Tour d'Argent in Paris has a larger cellar and wine list; most have only one-tenth the bottles Bern's stocks.

The list was late, but Laxer said the restaurant had spent a long time inventorying, pricing and listing almost 7,000 labels in its cellars and its purchases of more recent vintages.

"I think they'll kick themselves when they see the new list," Laxer said hopefully.

The Wine Spectator decision stings because of the magazine's unique credibility in the world of wine, where Bern's has been a historic leader and has distinguished itself in the competitive steakhouse market. Although the Mobil Guide dropped Bern's from four stars to three in 1996, diners in the 1999 Zagat survey gave the restaurant one of its highest local ratings, 27 out of 30 for food and service.

Without a current list to the riches of the cellars, wine buyers at Bern's often were frustrated to see some of the oldest vintages in the book whited out by hand and most vintages of the '90s simply not listed. While the vast selection is intimidating for many diners, its 5-year-old prices were bargains; the outdated nature of the list aggravated some big spenders who travel to Bern's especially for its wine.

Wine Spectator's Matthews was pleased to hear that the new wine list had been completed and conceded that compiling it is a mammoth chore. "It's paradoxical that quality on one end (size of cellar) hurts quality on the other end (the wine list). If you have only 50 selections, it's easy to update."

Still, he said, the magazine's judges had been lenient for several years, deadlines and warnings had gone unheeded, and readers had complained. As part of its annual review, editor-at-large Harvey Steiman visited Bern's last winter. In a spot check, he asked for 15 bottles to be brought up, and all but one were on hand. That was a good showing, but Steiman reminded Bern's that the list itself needed to be updated.

"At this point we just had to take a stand," Matthews said. "We're hoping we've forced them into a proactive position on wine service. We still love the restaurant and want it back in the fold."

From Bern's perspective, there was some philosophical defense of the delay. "My father's position and mine is that wines are to be valued for their maturity," Laxer said. "As they get older, they have more character."

Accordingly, the strength of Bern's wine cellar is thousands and thousands of well-kept Californian and European wines from the 1970s, 1960s and long before, even some 100 years old. It's one of the few places wine lovers can find hundreds of labels _ French, Italian and Californian _ that are 15 or 20 years old, let alone buy them for $30 or $40.

In the past five years, however, the wine industry has exploded with new labels and vineyards, merlot madness and a new generation of wine drinkers. They are more eager to sample whatever wines and vintages get the latest ratings and buzz than to plumb the vintages of the past.

While connoisseurs may prefer to hold the best vintages since 1990, many chardonnays, white Burgundies and German rieslings released since then are enjoyable now; so are California merlots, zinfandels and pinot noirs. The great improvements in quality and availability of wines from countries such as Australia and Spain were missing, too.

Bern's did continue to buy new wine throughout the decade, but almost all vintages since 1992 were carefully stored in temperature-controlled warehouses across the street and not offered for sale in the restaurant. The restaurant had signaled that change was coming by giving away hardbound library copies of the 1994 edition of its wine list as souvenirs at its annual wine festival and other events.

Adding more than 3,000 labels "was more of an ordeal than I expected," said Bern's wine director, Mike Rugers, "and I take the blame for it. I'm sorry we were late getting it out, but I think the list speaks for itself."

The new list shows that thousands of wines have been added, with 1995 and 1996 the most recent vintages. As in the past, the list is predominantly red wines and deepest in those from France, Italy and the United States; pickings from Alsace, Australia and Spain are slim.

For a handful of the most prestigious wines, the price of modernization is steep. The best vintages of top growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy, for which connoisseurs once paid several hundred dollars, have in a few instances been tripled to more than $1,000.

"If you've been following the Bordeaux market, it's outrageous," Rugers said. "I had to do it, or we'd be out of everything tomorrow, but people who know can still find some real bargains."

The vast majority of wine remains modestly priced, with a great selection of older Rhones, Beaujolais, lesser Burgundies and California reds at $30 to $50, bumped up only a few dollars, and many bottles unchanged in price.

To encourage diners to experiment, Bern's provides 200 wines by the glass and 1-ounce pours.

In other aspects, Bern's has yielded to the modern thirst for youth. Past lists used asterisks to mark wines that needed more time (up to 10 to 20 years), but no longer. "We found people tended not to pay much attention. Since people tend to want the hot wines, we dedided to leave it up to them and avoid the confrontation. The sommeliers are there, of course, to make suggestions."

For chardonnays and other white wines from the United States and Australia, Bern's new list does not specify vintages and will serve those from the years currently available. Vintages are listed, however, for French whites from Burgundy, the Rhone and the Loire, and for German rieslings, where the year is more important.

Part of Bern's wine staff has also changed this year, with two senior sommeliers hired away by Emeril's in Orlando and La Mezzanine in Ybor City.

Bern's inventory system has been upgraded so that the wine list can be updated every six months from now on.

Though the lack of the Grand Award will discourage some would-be diners, Rugers said the wine list soon will be posted on the Internet and customers can judge for themselves.

In the meantime, renovation of food and decor in the restaurant has begun. Chef, Jeannie Pierola, who created the new menu and decor for spinoff SideBern's, has installed the first sous chef in Bern's kitchen and is revising preparation and presentation of appetizers and side dishes.

The interior makeover will start in mid-August on a room-by-room schedule. In the first phase, the lounge to the right of the foyer will be moved to another area and the old lounge remade into a caviar bar, with more than 25 caviars and vodka and Champagne available at a granite-topped bar.

One thing that won't change, Pierola said, is the steaks. "That's the bible for me."

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