If there is a common complaint among readers of these columns, it goes something like this: “Gregg, we can never find the wines you write about.”
First of all, it’s Gil. And second, “never” is pretty definitive. Never ever?
To further alienate readers (both of them), I’ll say this about the column you are now reading: You will never be able to find today’s featured wine save for one place. And in a few short months, that place likely will be gone.
Dante’s Down the Hatch seems like a relic amidst today’s uber-hip, chef-as-star restaurants. Places that hail organic produce like it’s something new or use obscure ingredients and techniques as a substitute for culinary skill. Ostensibly, Dante’s has no chef. You are the chef when it comes to fondue, right?
At the heart of Dante’s is Dante Stephenson, who for 43 years has weathered numerous culinary revolutions and a failed re-birth of Underground Atlanta. Through it all, Stephenson has maintained a wide-ranging, voluminous wine list that was nearly peerless in the 1970s and still overmatches the simplicity of his menu and the wine lists of most other Atlanta restaurants.
If you’re just hearing about Dante’s—with its subtle nautical theme and live crocodiles—my space does not allow further explanation other than to say it is distinctive. Exhibit 1: Dante’s Down The Hatch Sauvignon Blanc.
Private label wines are common. Some restaurants go to the trouble of selecting barrels and are true partners with the winemaker; others slap a label any ol’ California chardonnay. Few…er…none travel to South Africa to source their wines.
Unless you have some serious time on your hands, don’t ask Stephenson about his world travels, especially his numerous journeys through Africa. During one of these trips in the late 1990s, he came across the winemakers for Landskroon Wine Estate, located on the southwestern slopes of Paarl Mountain, just outside Cape Town. After careful consideration, which included a serious evaluation by Stephenson’s staff, a deal was struck. The winery would make a sauvignon blanc and a pinotage just for Dante’s.
I was skeptical when Stephenson handed me a sample of his sauvignon blanc, which I took back to the lab for analysis. Pre-judging wine is an occupational hazard for me and, to be honest, I did not expect much from this wine. But like his restaurant, Down the Hatch sauvignon blanc is an enigmatic reflection of the restaurant’s owner.
Rather than insipid, it was sublime. I was expecting a slightly off-dry, mass-appeal, soft white wine, but it was crisp, distinctive and dry as a bone. These dry, zesty South African sauvignon blancs have more recently struck a chord with consumers, making Down The Hatch a bit of a trendsetter.
“I believe in bringing in wines from all over the world,” says Subo Hale, the wine buyer for Dante’s. “I’ve been trying to put more types of grapes on the list in recent years instead of just [French varieties]. I think a wine list should be fun and exciting and I want people to try different things.” Hale has been with Dante’s since 1974 and maintains a list that ranges between 180 and 200 selections.
Hale turns melancholy when the subject turns to Dante’s closing, which is projected to be this July. (Stephenson is coy about the exact date, or if fact if it will come to pass.) Hale doesn’t know what will happen to Dante’s wine collection if the restaurant does close, but she contemplates something special, befitting Dante’s unique style.
What does Stephenson have to say about the pending closure? “Forty-three years is a long run. The federal stats for entertainment clubs is that 39 out of 40 do not make it to year three. We have apparently done something correct.”
One out of 40? C’mon, Dante! You’re one in a million.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog