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Restaurant Industry Intel

Why Do So Many Sommeliers Fill Their Lists with Weird Wines?

Sebastian Zutant

Sommelier Sebastian Zutant Photo courtesy of Sebastian Zutant/Proof

Sommelier Sebastian Zutant only pours what he wants to pour—and that means obscure wines. Here, he defends weird.

When we first opened the Red Hen, I hedged my bets and put a bunch of Tuscan and Piedmont wines on my mostly Italian list, just to get people comfortable. But I think the climate of the world is changing—or at least the mind-set of the American drinker. I think everybody's tired of drinking the same old thing; people are ready to see that there's different stuff out there. I'm currently pouring two Serbian wines and a Georgian one by the glass, and people are really into them. Plus, I've got a pretty extensive Slovenian selection.

Half the time, I go up to a table where people are reading my wine list, and they say, "We have no idea what we're looking at," which gives me a chance to make it an engaging and educational experience. But my style is more of a "What do you want to drink?" type of thing. I speak to 90 percent of the guests about wine—it's what I care about most, talking to people. And so I intentionally made a pretty esoteric list because it means I'll have a lot more interaction.

We're in Bloomingdale, which is a very funky little nook of Washington, DC, and everybody is really open-minded. I haven't had a lot of push-back. Sometimes we'll get guests who say, "We're more New World–style red wine drinkers." And while Italy doesn't really produce anything big and oaky, I have found some cool wines from the Veneto that are fat and juicy, and a couple of Super Tuscans that are really palatable and made by more international-style winemakers. So I'm able to stay within the esoteric genre.

In my old jobs, I found that I would have to pour an American Chardonnay, even if I didn't want to. Here, I looked at my business partners and said, "Listen, guys,I'm not gonna do that kind of thing anymore." Mikey [Friedman, chef at the Red Hen] said, "I'm cooking what I want to cook, so you should pour what you want to pour!"

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