A couple of our friends, Nate and Mary, are getting married and then moving away for an exciting opportunity owning a restaurant. They wanted one final fling at Bern’s Steakhouse, one of America’s best, before they left. We were happy to oblige. Four other friends of theirs, two who live here and two in town for the wedding, also came along, providing the maximum size table I ever want to be at in a restaurant. Four is perfect for conversation, six it okay, and eight is the limit for keeping things coherent. After that, it just becomes chaos.
If you know anything about Bern’s, you know it has the world’s largest operating wine cellar. There are over 100,000 bottles on-site and nearly a million in their off-site across the street. Reports vary on just how much is over there, and since the collection started decades before computers, I imagine we’ll never know. The great thing about the cellar is that if you want trophy bottles, they’re there. You can lay out serious cash like we did in January 2012, when we started drinking Burgundies (1926 was the oldest, 1970 the youngest) with some wine nerd friends. That was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. The secret to Bern’s cellar is the old and well-maintained stuff that most folks might not have heard of. We’ve been there on several occasions when we’ve had two bottles from the 1970s and our wine bill was less than $100. You just have to know what you’re looking for (or ask for some help from the somms).
Since I was in charge of the list, and knowing we wanted to keep the budget on the more reasonable end, I decided nothing was going to cost more than $100. I had an endless number of choices.
On this occasion, we started with a sparkler since we were celebrating Nate & Mary’s nuptials. I chose the 2008 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs, at a nicely affordable $75. It’s a wine we know from what we think is the best American producer of sparkling wine. It led to a brief discussion about whether I prefer their Blanc de Noirs to the Blanc de Blancs (at basically the same price point). Gretchyn insisted that I had told her I liked the latter better, and I had it in my head the other way around. I decided to trust her, and she was right. As soon as I took the first sip, I remembered what I love about it. Great golden straw color. The Chardonnay shows through, rich and round. Great flavors of honeyed green apple and just enough citrus make it shine.
For the second choice, I wanted one of those old California wines. Nate was born in 1979, so that’s the year I zeroed in on. The Zins from that era are the great values. I finally chose 1979 Ridge Zinfandel San Luis Obispo. I’m sometimes worried about the fruit profiles of these older wines, but this one still held a grip on its structure and fruit. Beautiful aromatics and excellent length, all at $72. A real find. Only after we were drinking it did one of Mary’s friends tell me that her last name is Ridge, so she was doubly excited about the wine.
Everyone knew that a Cab was going to be the last wine, being in a steak house and all. Gretchyn ordered a shrimp dish, I ordered a Delmonico (pictured above—which was enough for a full meal and lunch the next day), and the rest of them shared a 48 oz Chateaubriand. Good California Cabs can get a little pricey as well as be quite monolithic. That Chateaubriand doesn’t have as much fat as the Delmonico, so I looked for something with a bigger fruit profile while still having the backbone to go with the steaks. If I was at home, I would have pulled a Bressler Vineyards Cab out, because I think it’s perfect with the lower-fat steaks. Being out, I searched immediately through Australian Cabs. I found a few I liked the idea of, finally settling on 2005 Rusden Ripper Creek. It’s a little generous to call it a straight Cab. It’s more of a Cab-Shiraz blend, which fit the bill perfectly. Notes of leather and spice, cassis, and blackberry jam. Intense fruit without being over the top. I would have hoped for just a touch larger tannins, but they were still enough to stand up to the beef. It was well-received all around.
One of the fun things about Bern’s is that you eat dessert in an upstairs room where every table is a private cabin. The list of whiskies, Ports, Cognacs, and Armagnacs is second to none. I didn’t need anything sweet, so I chose a 1961 St. Aubin Bas Armagnac to finish a perfect meal. It had a little sweetness on the nose that was a little reminiscent of the raisin and toffee of a Port. The rest was delicious liquid fire. Gretchyn was driving so she stuck to tea and a chocolate dessert. Mary had a 20-year-old Graham’s Tawny Port to go with a Bern’s Cappuccino, which Nate also had. He finished with a Calvados from 1965. The other four were about 15 minutes behind us getting to the dessert room because being first-timers, they took the kitchen and wine-cellar tour. I missed what they ordered for after-dinner drinks.
It was a great evening. We made a few new friends and got to send off two close ones in exactly the right fashion.