For Red Hook Tavern beverage director Kenneth Crum, Champagne is the perfect burger pairing. // Credit: Molly Tavoletti

One Great ListNew York

The Mellow, Sublime Wine Bounty of Red Hook Tavern

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One Great List is Resy’s occasional tribute to particularly noteworthy or unique wine programs around the country. 

Red Hook Tavern’s burnished wood façade is such a willful homage to an older New York that it can distract you from the fact the tavern itself opened just last year. One decoration, though, is indeed a holdover from the past: the sign above the entrance that reads “Wines Liquors,” a now totemic reminder (it’s on their t-shirts) that this corner spot once was a liquor store.

The irony is that the Tavern’s wine list might be its most modern feature — and one of Brooklyn’s most thoughtful and ambitious wine programs. Overseen by Kenneth Crum, the tavern’s general manager and beverage director, it is a sort of anti-poseur kryptonite. (OK, not the bottles of Gut Oggau.) If many Brooklyn lists strive to capture this current moment in taste — COVID-19 or no — Crum’s selections lean elsewhere: toward a mellow blend of classic but not stuffy French wines — especially Burgundies from producers like Boyer-Martinot — and well-edited, naturally minded fare from wineries like Spain’s Clos Lentiscus and Micro Wines in Australia.

True, this mix has been pulled off by others in New York (Joe Campanale’s Fausto comes to mind) but Crum has a particular knack for finding a balance of choices that particularly fits the Tavern’s aesthetic. It’s edgy in one moment (AMI’s unusual Le Gaminot blend from Burgundy) and demure the next (Bisson’s very traditional ciliegiolo rosé), and shows a meticulousness — not a single wine out of place. And while it would be tempting to suggest that these wines skew high-fashion in contrast to the Tavern’s embrace of no-frills burgers and wedge salads, that would imply burgers and wedge salads are low, and Burgundies are high. There’s no such silliness here. The wines are simply presented without pretense.

That, in particular, makes Crum’s work stand out for those paying attention; it’s free of the posturing that has saddled many New York wine lists, natural and otherwise, in recent years. Especially as the tavern shifted to takeout and grocery sales in the first months of COVID-19, its wine selections managed a through line that was just indulgent enough, yet mindful of the times. Yes, you could get a $80 bottle of La Tuilerie from Champagne prodigy Flavien Nowack, but you could also get a bottle of piquette from Maryland’s Old Westminster for less than a third of that. “It can be so heavy these days,” Crum says. “So I remind people to have fun.”

Fun might alternately be defined as a bottle of Romain Guiberteau’s Saumur Blanc — a modern benchmark for Loire chenin blanc — alongside Marc Pesnot’s milky, mineral-punchy La Bohême, Muscadet recreated as an exercise in naturalism, neither more than $30. It might be Texas touriga nacional from Southold Farm + Cellar’s Regan Meador, or a healthy dose of skin-macerated whites. 

I don’t think there are any real secrets to this, but such as Crum has one to share, it’s his joyous embrace of natural wine without ever leaning on it as a nametag. As he points out, you could easily order a bottle of Arnot-Roberts pinot noir from California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, and never think twice about its would-be natural cred.

And as it happens, the stretch of Van Brunt Street where the Tavern sits on the corner of Sullivan Street has a good history with such endeavors. Red Hook is no longer quite the tough old waterfront neighborhood of workshops and docks it was, but it remains largely cut off from the rest of Brooklyn. And perhaps that has made it a spot where forward-thinking wine people have congregated, dating back to the pioneering bistro 360 Van Brunt, opened by Arnaud Erhart in the early 2000s. Erhart served many of the era’s protean natural wines, producers like Pierre and Catherine Breton, gaining a loyal following of wine lovers who trekked to a desolate corner of Brooklyn. More recently have come chill but wine-friendly spots like Fort Defiance and the Good Fork (the owners of both have partnered to bring back Gage & Tollner in downtown Brooklyn). 

Then there was Hometown Bar-B-Que, Tavern proprietor Billy Durney’s original restaurant. Durney dived into wine after launching Hometown down the street from where he would open his follow-up. He connected with Jeff Porter, who’d run the wine program at Del Posto and then beverage operations for Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali’s restaurants. The two worked on a modest wine list for Hometown.

Crum, meantime, had worked with Porter as the wine director at Lupa, Batali’s West Village trattoria, and prior to that, as bar manager at Bar Corvo in Crown Heights — putting him “very in the Italian world.” But he’d also helped to open other venues in his native Brooklyn, assisting his aunts Myriam and Marva Babel with launching the bars Ode to Babel and Good Life in Prospect Heights. Porter introduced Crum and Durney, who connected over what Crum calls being “Brooklyn fellas.” And so, a trio; the three tasted every wine for consideration on the Tavern list; consent had to be unanimous.

Yet it’s Crum who shows a particular knack for co-locating formidable names, like Dominique Lafon in Burgundy and Ridge Vineyards from California (he’s partial to their rare grenache blanc) next to sleeper hits, like Beaujolais from Jean-Claude Lapalu. A perfect example of his selections might be the Nef des Folles, a skin-macerated pinot gris from Alsatian producer Jean-Marie Bechtold, which he recently paired with a Pat LaFrieda corn dog. All through COVID, he’s maintained the restaurant’s wine pricing near retail, to encourage customers to stretch themselves with wines like Gabbrio Bini’s Serragghia ($90), deeply saline macerated dry zibibbo (muscat of Alexandria) from Pantelleria, one of those must-try items in the natural world.

And always, there’s Champagne — perhaps because the tavern’s original strength was intended to be fried chicken. Crum finds just as much pleasure matching the wine considered that dish’s quintessential pairing with what has in fact become Red Hook’s signature: its burger. “No matter how many times people look at me and say I’m crazy, I will never stop saying it,” Crum says. “It’s just magic.”

Update: In fall 2020, Crum moved to become beverage director at Niche Niche, Tokyo Record Bar and their associated restaurants, with Rebecca Flynn (ex-Eleven Madison Park) taking over at Red Hook Tavern.

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Three Essential Wines from Red Hook Tavern

Bechtold Nef des Folles Alsace Pinot Gris ($25): In its traditional Italian form of ramato, pinot gris is orange wine, but here Crum looked to France’s Alsace, which similarly has embraced the form. And the Bechtold is a standout, with subtle coppery tang but also a pleasantly chewy texture. It fits Crum’s preference for natural skin-macerated white wines that are “floral and pretty and elegant.”

Chateau Moulin de Tricot Margaux ($54): Not to discount pairing Champagne with a Tavern burger, but the beauty of cabernet works its own magic. And this is beautiful old-school Bordeaux from a tiny property owned by the Rey family. Mostly from cabernet, always dusky and with quiet toasted spices, it’s a perfect reminder of why Bordeaux, utterly uncool these days, has been beloved and could be again.

Inconnu Lalalu Rosé ($25): Laura Brennan Bissell’s microscopic Berkeley winery has coaxed out some of the more interesting minimalist California expressions in recent years, including this improbable pink mix of cabernet franc, merlot, and mourvedre. It’s got that sunniness of northern California fruit, but with grip enough to be substantial — arguably just the thing for Brooklyn summer.

Jon Bonné is Resy’s managing editor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Follow @Resy, too.

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