This week I review Hatchet Hall, and in the review I make a few complaints about the restaurant's wine list, put together by Maxwell Leer. There wasn't enough room in the review for me to include all of my thoughts on the list, which are many. But it's a subject that is worthy of deeper consideration than the few sentences I was able to give it.
Here's what I said in the review:
You’ll be presented with two documents when you sit, one of them a long food menu, the other a piece of paper that appears to be a wine list. It’s a little hard to tell. This is the work of wine steward Maxwell Leer, who made his mark as a young and enthusiastic presence at Bestia, where he introduced the city to a lot of cool and interesting wines not usually found on restaurant lists. To many drinkers, those wines were a little confusing, but if they thought they were confused then, Leer has a whole new level of befuddlement waiting for them at Hatchet Hall.
I get the feeling that Leer is going for some kind of Dadaist wine performance art with this list, a thing that’s rife with hashtags and signifiers that mean nothing to anyone but Leer and his brethren (Adam Vourvoulis, who used to be the GM at Trois Mec and puts on “wine raves” with Leer, also is working here a few nights a week). Is there some fantastic wine to be had on this list? Absolutely. Will you be able to find out what it is? Only if Leer or Vourvoulis feels like telling you about it. The thing is unreadable.
Let me expand on what I mean by “unreadable:”
Wines on the list are grouped not by style or region or varietal, or even by such fuddy-duddy designations as “white” and “red,” but rather by what looks like random first names: Jerome, Michael, Heather. One waitress told me these are the names of the “portfolio managers,” something no one outside the wine world would begin to understand — and even those thoroughly in it would be guessing who and what it signifies. The wines themselves are described with usually one word and the vintage year: “Teleki '13,” “Vesper '13,” “Bela Jufark '11,” and so on. Are we supposed to know what these things mean? We are not.
Even if we were wine experts and could gather way more from these one-word descriptions than the average diner (though I'm not sure what that says about the contempt these guys must feel for the “average diner”), there’s zero consistency in terms of what descriptors are used. Sometimes it’s the varietal, sometimes it’s the name of the producer, sometimes it’s the name of a farm, sometimes it’s something utterly useless, such as “Kabinett Halbtrocken,” which gives us a vague understanding, if we know a lot more than most drinkers about German wine, what style we might expect but nothing about who made it or where it’s from. In short, it is purposefully impossible for anyone to read the list. Which is a bummer, because I think there’s probably a lot on there I’d like to drink. As a collection of wine, it’s a triumph. As a way of presenting that wine to customers in a restaurant, it’s a cruel joke.
I know that's not the way it is intended. During my interactions with Leer and Vourvoulis, they were animated, enthusiastic, friendly and genuinely excited to be sharing all the fun they're having with this list. I’m sure Leer would say that the list prompts these kinds of conversations, that it allows him to talk to customers and steer them in the right direction. And in all my visits, I was introduced to some amazing wines by Leer and his compatriots. But I wasn’t really given a choice in what those wines were; because I couldn’t read the list, I was completely at their mercy.
I found this quote from Leer, describing why his list is designed the way it is: “The menu design was selected from Notes on a Cellar-Book written by George Saintsbury in 1915 in London. In the back of this amazing book, he shares samples of some wine dinners he attended, and the menus 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.”
There's a fair amount wrong with this reasoning, even if we are to take it at face value. What “end user” is he talking about? Someone who is reading a book as a historical document of what someone drank with dinner years ago, or someone who is trying to decide what to drink with dinner now? I'm not super familiar with George Saintsbury, so I asked a friend who is, wine writer Jon Bonne. He looked at Leer's list and wrote back, “Saintsbury himself will rise from his grave in dire protest for the defilement of his name.” He went on:
For one thing, Saintsbury's notes are from an era when producer names, outside of Bordeaux, were functionally irrelevant. So “Romanée 1887” was all that anyone would know a Burgundy by. Estate bottling was almost entirely unknown. Those wines known by producer — Bordeaux, Champagne — are noted about as they would be today.
Needless to say, the wine world was infinitesimally smaller. A proper Brit like Saintsbury would barely have drunk beyond a small range of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Germany and, of course, Port and Sherry. He would have been utterly mystified by [Leer's] list, perhaps even more so than the average diner. WTF, Saintsbury would say, is “Bengoetxe”? Is that some new disease discovered in the wilds of darkest Peru?
Also, obviously, Saintsbury was sharing those menus as historical documents, not transactional ones.
At its root, Hatchet Hall's list is a hostile document. Wine is not yet at a place in culture where people can giggle at something like this and move on — for many people, it is still intimidating, and a list that promotes the feeling that people are outside of an insiders club is going in the wrong direction. This is the extreme of insider-y know-it-all-ism, and it’s obvious these dudes are in on the joke of how much they’re obfuscating here. One menu from a few weeks back had a directive that said: “Got questions? Call Adam,” with a phone number printed there, acknowledging (as all the servers do) that the thing is basically illegible. (Also, for all its cool-kid smugness, this list sure has a lot of misspellings.)
Above all else, the list is a failure of hospitality. I know that's not what Leer and company had in mind. But it's what they've achieved thus far.
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