Josh Shields

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Words by: Carlly Chun

The world of wine is filled with rich buyers battling over rare bottles amid myths of untainted ancient vintages. So who'd have thought the largest private collection on the planet is owned by a steak house in Florida of all places? Sommelier Josh Shields from Bern's in Tampa talks about the collection, selling wine 'cheaply' and the eccentric wineophile founder, Bern Laxer.

Ours is the largest private collection of wine we know of. We're also the largest working cellar in the world. We keep about 100,000-115,000 bottles on site but the entire collection has around 600,000-700,000 bottles. We sell 75-100 different selections including bottles from the 19th century. Rarely is a collection this big held by a single individual.

The cellar has grown from a single room and expanded to something of a maze. Bern started with a single unit in the centre of an indoor strip-mall that was built in the '20s. As the years went on they expanded, bought more units and he transformed each room into what it is today. I think the wine cellar used to be a grocery store before it was bought in the '70s.

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At any given time we have 10 or 12 wine stewards and three sommeliers. The wine stewards fetch bottles, maintain the cellar and give tours. I guess they're really cellar stewards because they spend so much time down there. We get around 100,000 visitors every year so they help the customers to get round and tell them about it all. We don't sell unopened bottles - obviously we can sell it if it's been opened for the restaurant, but we don't sell to buyers.

The way we store our wine is completely controlled. The wine cellar is carefully controlled and regulated with air conditioning, staying at about 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit and with 75% humidity. It can look after itself though: one time the whole restaurant lost power but the cellar only changed about 2 degrees.

If Bern found something good he'd say 'I'll take all of it.' Bern developed a reputation internationally as he would travel round Europe with a chequebook and buy what he liked the best. He once unloaded a whole rail carriage of wine into our warehouse.

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Not too many people fully appreciate Madeira wine, but for us it's very big. We're definitely very proud of the collection of vintage Madeiras. Other than that it's a steak house so we have a lot of French and Californian wines in the cellar, including some really great Bordeaux and some old Zinfadels you just don't see any more. We've got really old German Rieslings as well.

We sell good wine by the glass and not at crippling prices. Our philosophy is that we want people to come from everywhere to taste good wine. We have 150 different varieties by the glass and you can have older, rarer wines without having the full bottle. We've got a new hotel opening up across the road and that has it's own wine cellar as well, although it's not going to have full access to the restaurant cellar!

I can't say I've got a favourite glass of wine. That's always a difficult question because I've had the best in the world, from really rich Bordeaux to ancient Burgundies. I mean, the gem on our list is the $30,000 double magnum 1947 Latour. That'll be going to a special occasion I'm sure.

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