Photo by Laura Hayes
Photo by Laura Hayes

Diners at The Red Hen and sister restaurant All Purpose can no longer expect sommelier Sebastian Zutant to visit their tables with wine recommendations. The elaborately-attired and knowledge-stacked wine pro is taking a step back from his work with the growing restaurant group to focus on his own projects. Though his business partner Michael O’Malley confirms that Zutant will remain a partner.

“Basically, he’s the idea man,” O’Malley says, describing Zutant’s thirst for experimentation. “He’s got a ton of ideas, a ton of things he wants to do. Some are specific to wine and because we’re a restaurant group, it’s better to remove conflicts of interest before they happen.” He explains that remaining a partner will give Zutant “some income to work off of while chasing down what he really wants to do.”

Zutant wants two things. First, to open a wine bar with his wife Lauren Winter that focuses on natural wine. The quirky style that’s gaining popularity and improving in quality is characterized by wine made from organic grapes that sees minimal adulteration once it’s in the cellar. The result is unfined and unfiltered.

“It follows organic production all the way through to the release of the wine,” Zutant says. For example, instead of adding yeast, winemakers rely on whatever ambient yeast was present on the grapes’ skins.

“The quality is there now, there’s been massive strides in terms of making quality natural wine and that’s what I shot for at The Red Hen too,” Zutant says. The wine list at the Bloomingdale restaurant features more natural wines and orange wines than most other restaurants in the District.

Zutant is also excited to build a wine list at his bar that looks beyond one country. “It’s won’t be Italian focused, so I’ll be able to work with a whole slew of wines.”

Guests at Zutant’s forthcoming wine bar might even get to try wine that Zutant makes himself because that’s his second major venture. He’s been collaborating with Ben Jordan, a winemaker at Virginia’s Early Mountain Vineyards, to produce wine for two years. In 2015, he made 250 cases and in 2016, he made 350 casesall of which Zutant hopes to release in 2017. He’s currently working on all the necessary documentation.

The wines are all made from Virginia grapes and include a riesling and petit manseng blend as well as a more unconventional blend of syrah and riesling. “We’re basically trying to make something new every year,” Zutant says. 

While Zutant waits for these two projects to come to fruition, he’ll help out friends and colleagues. For starters, he’s chipping in at Chef Johnny Spero’s sold out Reverie pop-up dinner Monday night.

As far as wine at The Red Hen and All Purpose, O’Malley will be taking over the list with the help of general manager Jared Barker. “The way I look at it, we probably ran through 4,000 or 5,000 different bottles having been open for four or five years,” O’Malley says.

Since Zutant liked to change the list routinely, O’Malley says they have a huge database of wines they know guests like. “Sebastian certainly made his mark with this list in this town and we don’t want to change who we are.”