The mood on Election Night was as tense as a cold vintage Condrieu inside the dank, red velvet-lined interiors of Bern’s steakhouse in Tampa, Florida. Home of the largest private wine collection in the world and any cow’s worst nightmare, the windowless, carnivorous version of a Disneyland for adults had plenty of men and women in “I Voted” stickered-suits clinging onto wine stems and Republican dreams. “Don’t you worry,” said a permed older woman with shoulder pads in line with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ uniform, “it’s still early, and we’re gonna get our country back tonight.”
I quietly sipped on a 2007 Jean Luc Colombo Terre Brulees Cornas while I waited for Irishman Freddy Matson of Vineyard Brands Imports and the chief wine buyer for Whole Foods and his wife to turn up for what was set to be an encyclopedic evening of older wines. I was alone in my bearded, short sleeved, California persuasion and had just stepped off the plane. The bartender allowed me to linger over the by-the-glass list which had mostly current release wines and yet a double take-inducing Chateauneuf-du Pape from 1975 for $14.75 and a 1986 Gigondas for 5 bucks. On the last gamey, sedimentary sip I caught the white, glimmering rock-and-roller curls of Freddy in the back with two others, and he was waving in my direction.
After introductions we were seated at a back booth in the bar and greeted by the sommelier Eric Renaud who is the envy of many master sommeliers by having the luxury of working with one of the oldest, most famous and random wine inventories on the planet. The wines and beef variations flowed for the next four hours, all at Eric’s recommendation.
Wine # 1: 1971 “Les Beaux Monts” Vosne-Romanee
Wine #2: Mid-1960’s left bank Bordeaux (pristine color, winery name escapes me)
Wine # 3: 1981 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chappelle
Wine # 4 1989 Henri Bouges Les Les Pruliers Nuits St. George (my wine of the night)
Wine # 5 1976 Beerenauslese in the dessert room.
After the euphoric experience and a tour of the dank cellars, we parted company. I noticed that the bar was like a ghost town by 10 pm. Had the election gone a different direction I imagine the place would’ve smelled of cigars and vintage Napa Valley Cabernet and been raging at full capacity.
* * *
The last time I was in Florida I was 13 years old and Disney World was the focus. This time around I was working the Gulf Coast territory, visiting restaurants and wine retailers and pouring the current releases of Tablas Creek to wine buyers. With Freddy as my guide and six different Tablas Creek wines open for tasting, we crossed various bodies of alligator-infested waters from Sarasota to St. Petersburg, and Tampa to Naples to show our stuff. The wind was coming from the north all week so humidity was low and the temps were crisp and warm. The businesses we visited varied from Whole Foods Markets to independent wine shops/bars, and modern-hipster restaurants to Nixon-era relics. I was blown away by a few funky old school restaurants, like Bern’s, that were packing surprisingly deep and consumer-friendly bottle lists. One such restaurant was Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber in Clearwater Beach. This place was out of the 1970’s for sure, had a massive dining room and surf and turf concept going on, with merely a two page wine list full of 1980’s and 1990’s Champagne, Burgundy and Rhone at prices that never changed since release. All in a place where most customers probably drank gimlets, Napa Cabernet or White Zinfandel more than anything else! We had an odd sit down appointment with Bob in his back office with all his security cameras going as the kitchen prepped up for dinner. He wasn’t tasting, said his liver might be done, and merely removed the corks of the wines and sniffed off the bottles. He hadn’t seen Freddy for years and I got the impression that these two used to get snowed on more than Aspen. Bob told a story of getting so fucked up one night that he lured a couple others to go to the Tampa airport straight from the bar and got the first flight to Las Vegas.
On my second night in Florida, Tablas Creek was the featured winery at the cool new restaurant in downtown Sarasota called State Street Eating House and Cocktails. Not only did the lead singer of AC/DC turn up to taste through our white wines (he loved the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc), but a packed house thoroughly enjoyed chef Christian’s pairings, which included Alligator Ribs matched with Patelin de Tablas Rouge. Freddy ordered a gator platter afterwards and lumped a fat one onto my salad. I ventured a bite and a local guy named Kyle leaned over and asked me “Do you actually like that, man?”
“I’m guessing you don’t eat this stuff,” I said.
He widened his eyes like we were insane.
Freddy gave me a lift back to the hotel and we recapped on the pro and cons of the event. “I get the drift there’s a bit of drugs going on in there,” he said with his Irish accent.
“Oh yeah?” I asked.
“And I would know.”
* * *
Freddy had me booked to do a couple in store tastings at various Whole Foods Markets over the next two days. The first one was in Sarasota right by the bus depot which is a fairly new store. The buyer David introduced himself and helped me set up the table full of both Patelin Blanc and Rouge. Turns out he is from San Francisco. I’d never worked one of these tastings before, but it entails engaging wine browsers and cheese department-bound customers to stop by for a couple free tastes in hopes that they tuck a bottle into their cart or basket to go. A hobbling, trenchcoat-adorned man on a wooden cane and with about as many teeth as my 3 month old son was our first guest of the day, and it took me ‘til his second taste to realize he had no cart or basket at all. He waxed poetically about the wine being better than “any French wine anywhere” and took my card and told me he wanted to come visit the estate sometime before moving on. A similarly fashioned woman turned up next and David swiftly intervened and told me not to give her any more alcohol and that they kick her out of the store daily. Some Tablas Creek fans materialized next and took four bottles of Patelin red with them. Another young mother packed away two bottles of the white. A group of grommets rocked up – one in a Viking helmet and another in face paint – and I carded them before pouring them the wines. When all was said and done we sold about a case and a half.
The culmination of my Floridian five day run was the Stone Crab Food and Wine Festival at the Longboat Key Club in Longboat, FL. The event organizers set us up in probably the most amazing setting at the best time of the day for a wine and food event. I poured along with 20 other wineries at sunset as guests ate the first delivery of stone crab while a classical quintet performed on the center stage. We were positioned next to Burgess Cellers and Robert Kacher Selections which wasn’t a bad place to be, since Bobby brought along nothing but White Burgundy to a crab festival.
With a flight leaving Tampa at 6 am the next morning, I wisely left Freddy Matson in a hotel room after party and called it a night.