Jeannie Pierola, 45, is the executive chef at Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Fla., which was first awarded a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 1981. She is also the chef partner at SideBern's, which is located just a block away. Pierola considered legendary restaurateur Bern Laxer "a visionary, and the greatest possible mentor." Today, along with Laxer's son, David, Pierola is committed to maintaining the best of Bern's traditions while constantly developing innovative programs and concepts. Pierola is a Tampa native who briefly considered careers as a stand-up comedian and an attorney before deciding to focus on hospitality. She worked briefly at Bern's in the early 1990s, and owned and operated three Tampa restaurants—Tia Lena's, Cool Beans Café and Boca—before taking the reins at Bern's in 1998. Wine Spectator Online spoke to Pierola recently as she was preparing for the 10th annual Bern's Winefest.
Wine Spectator: How did you become interested in wine?
Jeannie Pierola: When I was in my teens and 20s and just so completely consumed with restaurants and cuisine, I would travel and eat and study. Wine just became a big part of it. Wine and food, it's like French fries and ketchup. They just belong together. I really, sadly, cannot enjoy much food without a glass of wine.
WS: I understand that you host a number of winemaker dinners at Bern's?
JP: In the last couple of years I've done a DRC [Domaine de la Romanée-Conti] dinner, a Sassicaia dinner, a Pétrus dinner—we have vintages of Pétrus that Pétrus no longer even has. … I did a Lagrange dinner last year … I just did a Gaja dinner … [Bern's] is able to get some of the greatest winemakers in the world.
WS: Can you give us an overview, from your perspective, of the wine programs at Bern's and SideBern's?
JP: I look at it in terms of fashion: Bern's is like Versace, and SideBern's is like Jean-Paul Gaultier. To put it another way, Bern's is a timeless steak house, based on eccentric steak house disciplines. There are things that were being done in this restaurant 20, 30 years ago that are now on the forefront of cuisine. To give you one example, we buy the grain to grind the flour to make the bread to make the toast to rub with garlic and spices to then hand-break every crouton we put on a Caesar salad. So that's what I mean by eccentric discipline. … From a chef's point of view, with SideBern's, I wanted to have a restaurant that was about the complete progression and evolution of cuisines. It's changing constantly … so we needed to have a very international, diverse wine list that spoke to the spirit of the cuisine. There's an extraordinary Spanish selection, an incredible Austrian selection. It's a very diverse list, all about food wine. Whereas Bern's, it's got 6,500 selections, and is obviously red meat-driven.
WS: Do you have personal favorite wines or producers?
JP: I've been addicted to Grüner Veltliner for almost two years. I just love that whole lentil and peppercorn thing going on in that wine. Pichler is obviously phenomenal. Unfortunately for me, when I go to a restaurant and there's a Pichler on the list, I have to buy it, and they're expensive as hell! [Laughing.] And I'm in love with Spanish wines. I love the Riojas, I love the Ribera del Dueros. I love Vega Sicilia.
WS: With your menu at SideBern's in a constant state of evolution, how does your sommelier staff maintain a wine program that evolves along with the food?
JP: Next to SideBern's is Bern's Fine Wines & Spirits. Kevin Pelli is our wine merchant … not only does he buy all the wine for the shop, he buys wine for SideBern's. … Five days a week, I'm in there with him, and we're constantly tasting. … It's just a constant process of learning and tasting and talking and reading and studying.
WS: Do you have a wine cellar, and what's in it?
JP: I just bought a new house, and I have a wine cooler. I've designed a wine cellar for my house, but I'm not there yet. Right now my cooler is filled with Spanish wine, white Burgundy, Grüner Veltliner, a little Weinbach Riesling, a lot of Oregon and California Pinot and red Burgundy.
WS: Have you done much travel to wine-producing regions?
JP: I'm going to France for the first time this spring. One of our former wine directors, Michael Rugers, does a trip every year, so I decided this is the year I'm going. … Michael's been to every winegrowing region in the world, every single region … I've been all over the country with Michael and … the minute he starts asking questions or answering questions, the entire room turns to him. He is one of the most knowledgeable wine people I have ever met … but he's a cantankerous pill, he really is. [Laughing.]
WS: With such a large inventory of wine at Bern's, including older bottles that may be more susceptible to leaks and oxidation, do you also see a higher incidence of cork taint?
JP: Sometimes, rarely, someone buys a really old bottle, and they're disappointed. There's nothing wrong with the cork. There's nothing wrong with the wine. It's an old wine. Old wines experience a lot of changes. The sommelier staff will drink it and say, "I'm so sorry, but this wine is exactly where it's supposed to be." That's not to say that we don't ever open a bad bottle. Once every blue moon, no matter how old or young a wine is, you'll have a cork problem. But when old wines are purchased here, we almost never have a problem, because of the way the wines are handled. We have a separate building that is 16,000 square feet, totally refrigerated. Not air-conditioned—refrigerated. That's the big cellar. Then there's the working cellar in the actual restaurant, which is also refrigerated. Our maintenance crew, I'd say 45 to 50 percent of their work is on refrigeration—constant maintenance, cleaning the coils, constant, constant, constant. Those things go down, that's a problem. There's no way to value the inventory. I couldn't even tell you how many bottles there are.
WS: What advice can you offer to aspiring chefs with a passion for wine?
JP: First, travel to all the wine regions, as much as you can. Getting into vineyards, seeing those grapes, understanding how different wines are handled and made in different regions of the world, that's an experience you're never going to forget. Second, get into a hotel or restaurant that has a commitment to wine, to a great list, and to your education. It's almost impossible otherwise to gain the exposure you need. That's the simple answer.
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