What constitutes a “proper” wine list? Should it be informative, providing additional information such as tasting notes, region and typicity? Is it a document meant to serve as a price list, allowing guests to choose a wine within their given budget?
One thing it shouldn’t be is provocative, at least according to restaurant critic Besha Rodell of LA Weekly who recently penned a very angrily written review of new Culver City restaurant Hatchet Hall’s untraditional wine list. In the article, Rodell goes as far as claiming Hatchet Hall’s list is a “cruel and maddening joke” for its refusal to fit within the traditional, and more importantly expected, parameters of restaurant wine lists. Following her lead, several more reviewers jumped on the bandwagon to deliver their share of scorn.
So what is it about this wine list that has made it so controversial? Simply put – the formatting.
The Infamous Wine List
Hatchet Hall's wine program is undeniably nontraditional. And while the selections are entirely obscure, it is not the unfamiliar varieties drawing such ire – or at least not yet – but rather the very organization of such wines onto the list itself. Rather than including identifiers such as producer, region or variety, Hatchet Hall’s wine list foregoes familiar categories, excluding even traditional qualifiers such as red, white, rose and sparkling, choosing instead to organize their list by the names of the individuals who sell the wine.
Grouping a wine list by sales rep name (Heather, Amanda, Michael) may be an unorthodox categorization but stems from an experience Hatchet Hall Sommelier Maxwell Leer had while traveling through Europe during which he encountered a wine list which was entitled, in a rough translation, “Our Wines.” Offering such a simple, yet powerful statement about the level of hospitality that goes into compiling such a personal list, Leer and fellow Somm Adam Vourvoulis took on the moniker as inspiration (and even an entire social media following @ourwinez) and gave credit to the wine reps who not only sell the duo their wines, but are thereby sharing their own wine books with the restaurant as well.
In addition to the lack of traditional organization, Hatchet Hall’s wine list also provoked controversy by identifying their wines by somewhat confusing monikers which Rodell criticizes as a “Dadaist wine performance art," “signifiers that mean nothing to anyone.” Yes, names such as Ramato ’09 and Piak ’14 essentially communicate nothing to the diner – but this is the point.
Drawing inspiration from a book written by George Saintsbury in 1915 entitled “Notes on a Cellar-Book,” Leer explained that the menus featured in the publication “never contain more than two-word descriptors for both the wine and the food. In essence, the menu is a document that turns back the clock 100 years on the language we portray as relevant to the end user.”
Ironically, the very ‘wine speak’ missing from the list has also been criticized by others as confusing, isolating, and at many times downright pretentious. In fact, there are far more restaurants who feature wine lists that are just as incomprehensible to the average diner, yet apparently escape such ire by presenting their lists in socially accepted rhetoric. The difference, however, between Leer and Vourvoulis’ equally confusing wine list is that rather than meant as a divisive document, separating wine expert from novice by testing their ability to comprehend such a menu, Hatchet Hall’s list is meant as a democratizing one, putting all diners on the same page in terms of familiarity.
By wiping clear any preconceived notions, diners are then free to express to their server exactly what they feel like drinking. They can receive personalized pairing suggestions and get outside of their limited “Cabernet/Chardonnay” consumption habits by trying a fantastic wine from a grape and/or region they may have never heard of before.
Yes, the list is unreadable. But it is unreadable to all.
A Radical Document
Perhaps had they foregone a menu altogether, following in the footsteps of current wine darling Bar Covell, Hatchet Hall would have avoided such wrath. Yet playing it safe was not the plan. Leer and Vourvoulis’ wine program is not just delicious, (which, it is important to mention here, it is) but it also serves a dual function by questioning, or rather challenging, the rhetoric and ‘pomp and circumstance’ surrounding wine culture.
Yes, at times the list is a tad eccentric. Not only do the duo bottle their own “wine cokes” that include a number of various wine spritzers bottled in house, but the list features a number of other oddities as well such as ‘pet nat’ sparkling wine filled with floating peanuts or a bourbon lined glass of Vinho Verde entitled #Kistler15 for the oaky Chardonnay fans at the table. Leer and Vourvoulis are also experimenting with crafting their own pho flavored vermouth with leftover wine.
And sure, not everything is a hit. The #Cornas experiment comes to mind – a glass of red wine spiked with Angostura bitters meant to emulate the herbal, savory flavor profile of a Northern Rhone Syrah. Let’s just say, #fail.
Yet the very exploration is what matters here. How far are you “allowed” to go in experimenting with wine? What words are we expected to use when we speak about wine? Hatchet Hall’s wine list definitely takes these questions to the edge, but they are questions worth asking.
The criticism of Hatchet Hall’s unconventional wine program is thus just as important to consider as the list itself. Wine culture in America may have come a long way, but as evidenced by such a strong and virulent response to a challenge to the status quo, there still is a long way to go.
Perhaps if there were more Somms out there like Leer and Vourvoulis, we would get there a little quicker.