In 2004, an entrepreneurial spirit and an early interest in hospitality led a young Brad Steven, now 36, to open a sports bar with his brother, Brent, in their native Wichita, Kans. "Before I was into wine, I was always going to Vegas and looking at the nightclubs," Steven recalls. The duo operated the bar and then a nightclub, but by 2010, Steven had developed a more sophisticated palate and a passion for Pinot Noir. Wine Dive was born.
The wine bar earned a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in 2011, but Steven—and Wichita—grew ever more adventurous and serious about wine. "We had a great list, but I feel like there were some holes," Steven says about his desire to level up the program. "I wasn't doing multiple vintages of Mascarello like I am now. That was my goal." His efforts paid off: In 2016, Wine Dive was promoted to a Best of Award of Excellence for its 350-selection wine list that skillfully weaves together staples and eclectic bottlings. The brothers also own the Hill, a sports bar with an impressive craft beer list, and Industry Old Town, a hip cocktail lounge with a rooftop.
Steven recently spoke with assistant editor Emma Balter about how managing bars compelled him to dig deeper into wine, the new local craze that has hatched in Wichita, and a valuable lesson he learned from bottles being sent back.
Wine Spectator: How did you finally make the plunge into the restaurant industry, and how did wine come into play?
Brad Steven: I was born in a family of entrepreneurs. Back in 2004, my brother and I said, “Hey, let's open our own business; let's do a sports bar and grill.” We ended up buying a tiny little college bar [that] was connected to a comedy club. During the nights when the comedy club was open, we would get an older crowd, and they were always requesting wine. We didn't know anything about wine at the time. I started calling some of our distributors, inquiring about wine. Initially we brought in just Woodbridge and little single-serve bottles.
That got me intrigued about other wines, so I started trying Pinots. Pinot Noir was my first big wow moment. This was when Oregon Pinot really started to take off, so I started to carry some higher-end Oregon Pinots, which we weren't selling. I was drinking most of them!
WS: You started the Wine Dive wine list from scratch. How did it evolve?
BS: When we started the business, it was a hair salon and a coffee shop that we demolished and made into one big restaurant. The main issue for a long time: Kansas was Napa Cab and steak, and that's all everyone wanted. With the help of some distributors, those harder-to-get wines are now finally on the market; the demand is finally there.
WS: What do you like to turn your guests on to?
BS: We get a lot of guests who prefer red wines, and I really like Cabernet Franc from the Loire, which is the region that I try to get people into. We pour Bourgueil by the glass; we also have some Chinon. Cahors is another region that people are unfamiliar with—they're just thinking Malbec from Argentina. I always like to get people started with an Italian white. I've always been a big fan, and I think Italian whites are one of the best values in the wine world. For people wanting pairings, I lean a lot toward the Italians.
WS: What has been a standout pairing for you recently?
BS: One of our dishes is the wild boar pasta with a ragù sauce. We reach toward a Barbera or Dolcetto, because most of our customers are unfamiliar with them. It's nice to tell them there's more to Italian wine than Pinot Grigio or Chianti. We like to introduce them to the lesser-known varietals.
WS: What is the culinary scene like in Wichita?
BS: In two years, the scene has grown immensely. A lot of the local people are starting to be more into small-production, organic, locally grown [fare]. Restaurants are starting to feature locally sourced beef, locally sourced produce—us included. More people are starting to request organic wines, and I'm pretty happy about that.
WS: What do you like to drink on your own time?
BS: I drink a lot of New World wines at work, so when I'm home I drink a lot of Old World wines. Most of the time I lean toward France or Italy. I appreciate a very well-aged dry Riesling from Germany, as well as a Grüner from Austria. I drink a good amount of beer. I like saisons and sours. Our other restaurant, the Hill, has a very large beer list, so I've gotten into beer through that. But when I'm at home, I'm usually going for an Armagnac to end my night.
WS: Have you had any great learning moments on the job?
BS: We've had customers order wines on our list that are a little more vintage-dated. They completely did not like the wines and sent them back. They were several hundred–dollar bottles, and they were completely sound and perfect. It's not their fault; the customers were probably a little uneducated. It's happened twice. [The first time] I was home when the staff called me and I ran up there all heated about it. After getting the bottle and looking at it, and saying, “You know, it's not worth getting upset about,” I sat down and poured some tastes with the rest of the staff. So the second time it happened, I didn't really care! I can't get mad about it. I at least got to enjoy it and share it with people, and at the end of the day, that's all that mattered.