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