Kevin Bratt charged into the world of wine helmet-first. A football scholarship brought the Seattle native to the Midwest, where he studied business while waiting tables to make ends meet. He soon learned that he had not only an interest in chatting up guests, but also a talent for pairing wines with food. With the goal of someday opening his own restaurant, Bratt worked in management positions but found himself gravitating toward the beverage side, studying wine and tasting as much as he could.
In 2000, restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You partnered with the iconic, historic Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach, to open a new project: Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in Chicago. Bratt, then 22, applied for the wine director position and quickly hit it off with the Joe's team. In his new role, he worked to curate a wine list that satisfied the expectations of Joe's Miami lovers (though he is not involved in the management of that program), while diversifying the list for steak lovers. When Joe’s debuted in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace in 2004, Bratt was promoted to concept wine director for both restaurants, and he now manages the Best of Award of Excellence–winning beverage programs in Chicago, Las Vegas, and the newest location in Washington, D.C., which opened in 2014 a block from the White House. Wine Spectator editorial assistant Lexi Williams spoke with Bratt about his 16-year career with Joe's and his wine philosophies—from the tall order of managing beverage programs in three very different cities to his choicest steak and crab pairings—and how it all started, more or less, on the gridiron.
Wine Spectator: What sparked your interest in wine?
Kevin Bratt: My family did not have a hospitality or restaurant background, and it's actually kind of funny how the whole thing started. I was having a conversation with some of the upperclassmen on the football team about a wine auction and the price that one of the bottles of wine went for. Not that I was fascinated by money, but I was fascinated by how much someone spent on a bottle of wine, and that's what got me into reading about wine. So, football is what drove me to the beverage world.
WS: You work in three prominent, but very distinct, wine cities. What differences do you notice in wine tastes among the clienteles?
KB: They are very different. Even if you just take each city individually, you can kind of tell that Las Vegas would be much different than Washington, D.C., and I see that in the drinking trends, as well. Las Vegas, from a wine standpoint, is much more geared toward common names—labels mean a lot out there. People don't tend to be as willing to try newer and exotic grape varieties; they like what they like, and we give it to them. On the other end of the spectrum, in Washington, D.C., I find that people are very savvy and willing to try new labels, new products or new grapes from different countries. And I think Chicago kind of fits right down the middle. The spread is that some people like their big labels from Napa Valley, but they'll also try something new from, say, Portugal or something like that.
WS: How does your wine list complement the cuisine offered at Joe's?
KB: We are a seafood restaurant first, and stone crab is our signature item. But our thinking when we opened in Chicago was that Chicago is a great steak town, so if we're going to feature good steaks, we should have the best. So that does create pretty much a 50/50 split when it comes to white and red wine sales, with red wines being a bit more of a higher percentage. Cabernet is still king at Joe's.
One of my favorite go-to [pairings] for stone crab was a revelation. I had the chance to visit Santorini a few years ago and taste some Assyrtiko from Domaine Sigalas. I remember thinking I couldn't wait to get back and try that wine with stone crab, because the minerality was a perfect pairing for it. It's still one of my favorite pairings to this day. With our steaks, we have a signature bone-in filet, which is one of our most-purchased and requested items, I usually go with more of a fruit-forward wine for that; you don't need a lot of tannin or acid, so I would recommend a Syrah. If you have a rib eye, you can never go wrong with Bordeaux: Some big names that I love that pair very well with that cut are Château Palmer or Château Margaux. From Washington state, Quilceda Creek is a pretty bold Cabernet that has always been one of my favorites and is a really great pairing, as well.
I don't want to jump on the trendy bandwagon, but rosé is extremely popular, and it goes with so many things. And any time you drink rosé, living in a cooler climate, it immediately transports you to a warmer mindset. I love a rosé from a producer called Clos Cibonne, the grape is Tibouren. Domaines Ott rosé is really delicious. I really like Matthiasson, a domestic producer.
WS: Do you still harbor the idea of opening a restaurant of your own one day?
KB: I came to work for Lettuce Entertain You for a few years to learn the ins and outs of how to properly run a restaurant, and then I realized I love Joe's and the Lettuce Entertain You family.
I almost feel like Joe's is a part of my family now. All three restaurants are doing really well, and we want to make sure we are opening in the right places and that we are getting everything done perfectly. I would love to see another Joe's open at some point; we just need to make sure the Atlantic Ocean is fruitful enough to provide us with enough stone crab.