When sommelier Brent Kroll opened Maxwell last June, he didn’t want it to be just another wine bar. Set on a corner in Washington, D.C.’s buzzy Shaw neighborhood, the bustling boîte—which Kroll oversees with his partners and fellow veteran somms Niki Lang (Fiola Mare, Voltaggio Brothers Steak House) and Daniel Runnerstrom (Iron Gate) —doesn’t embrace the usual stereotypes. The shelves aren’t full of trophy wines, insanely priced bottles don’t rule the menu, and buttoned up somms don’t use flowery language to describe the wines.
Instead, the staff wears playful tee-shirts tied to the monthly wine specials—the art inspired by everything from Schoolhouse Rock! and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou to Bill Murray and AC/DC—and talk like, well, normal people. Meanwhile, the music is loud, the atmosphere is anything but stuffy, and the wine list has nearly 50 options available by the half glass (wines by the glass make up approximately 85% of all sales) and just over 500 bottles.
“Whether you’re a somm or it’s your first glass of wine, you’re all invited to the party,” says Kroll. “Maxwell is not trying to be overly serious. I picked wines that I would go and get at a wine store without killing my budget.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Kroll has a pedigreed past littered with white tablecloth, high-end restaurants throughout the District, including the Oval Room, Iron Gate, Proof, and Alain Ducasse’s now-closed Adour.
Though he had earned countless accolades throughout his career, including nods from Wine Enthusiast, Star Chefs, and a RAMMY Award from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, Kroll hadn’t expected Maxwell to share the same attention. “It was my only time in D.C. without PR representation,” he says. “And I wasn’t wearing a suit to work.”
Nonetheless, the wine bar opened to plenty of plaudits from the local media, which helped pack the place on weeknights and weekends alike. And, life all of a sudden went into overdrive when Kroll got a call from Food & Wine. He was going to be named one of the sommeliers of the year for 2018.
After taking a moment to digest the news, he called his parents to thank them for their many years of support and poured himself a glass of congratulatory champagne. Kroll couldn’t make the news public until the issue hit newsstands this past March. But when it did, he took the uncharacteristic step of closing down the bar for an evening to celebrate with his friends. “A lot of the pictures I saw of that night were out of focus, which is always a sign of a good time,” he says.
Though, sure the honor is a big deal, Kroll wasn’t sure how it might affect his bottom line. But, when he ran the numbers for the month of the award’s announcement, the proof was in the figurative pudding—it was their best month ever. “We definitely got a bump,” he says.
Looking forward, Kroll plans to build and age the repertoire he keeps in his wine cellar, the building’s converted 700-square-foot, temperature controlled basement currently housing just over 100 cases. He’s also working hard to keep Maxwell’s vibe just as irreverent as ever. A recent post on the @maxwelldcwine Instagram feed featured Kroll and his partners porron-ing neon green txakoli wine.
Kroll’s experience is a testament to how awards can be selling points to a food-and-wine crazed clientele. “People come in and mention it,” says Kroll. “Though some people seem surprised I got that award when they’re sitting out on the patio with their dog.” Some might say it’s exactly that casual, laissez-faire approach that put Kroll on the podium.