Sommelier Kevin O. Hart is opening a brick-and-mortar location of Hart & Cru in Pendleton this summer.
How did you get into the wine business?
The wine world started to become a major part of my life and who I am as a person in 2006, while I was waiting tables at Boca in Oakley. I barely knew anything about wine when I started and I was fortunate to work alongside some of the best in the city at that time.
Learning and sharing about wine was fun, and it reminded me so much of my childhood when my grandmother used to make ciders from her own orchards on my grandparents’ farm. There were always conversations when I was a child about when things were ripe and if a cherry or other fruit was of good quality. I connected with wine quickly due to these lessons that my grandparents imprinted on me. Once I started traveling the world to see vineyards and meet the farmers behind the bottles, there was no turning back.
What does a brick-and-mortar location allow you to offer that you aren’t currently able to offer online?
Wine is about relationships, it’s about shared experiences. After spending years talking to tables and putting on events in restaurants and clients’ homes throughout the region, it felt like it was the right time to open a bottle shop and tasting room here in Cincinnati—to have a space to call our own. I really miss seeing our supporters, pouring glasses for wine lovers and, mostly, telling stories.
During the pandemic, we rapidly launched our e-commerce site. There was a pretty steep learning curve and our team put a lot of work into the website to communicate stories and share bottles the best we could, but being able to talk in person in the new location is really about deepening our relationships and making new friends who share our passion.
Why did you pick Pendleton for your first brick-and-mortar spot?
The urban core is so important for a city. It gives a city its soul. Neighborhoods are also very important, but downtown is the center of it all. Pendleton seemed so unique because it is on the edge of Over-the-Rhine but also feels like a little neighborhood. I loved that combination and the vibe that’s coming from the mixture of other restaurants, bars, and the arts district. There are so many incredible neighbors who we have been friends with for a long time. We wanted to be part of a neighborhood where we could truly feel at home.
How has the pandemic changed your field? What do you do differently now?
The last 15 months have been incredibly challenging for so many businesses and we had to pivot drastically to keep the lights on. So much of our work before was consulting for restaurants, corporate businesses, and event locations like Music Hall and Greenacres. When events and dining stopped, we had to find a way to connect with more wine drinkers. And make their wine experience easier, which is why we put so much work into our website and user experience. We actually redesigned our site four times! We kept updating the experience and responding to customer feedback. This also meant we had to completely reinvent our logistics, developing daily delivery routes to make it easy for people to get bottles to their homes, often on the same day as their orders. There were some very hectic moments figuring out how this was all going to work for a small team. But now, we are so proud of how we have evolved and adapted.
What have you learned about Cincinnatians’ wine needs during your many wine roles in the local dining scene?
Wine is very personal, so I think needs and tastes will naturally change over time. What I am most excited about is the continued growth in the local food and wine scene. Over the years, we have become a city with an enthusiastic and engaged community of wine lovers. I believe two key factors led to this growth. First, many people I have worked with and learned alongside have developed their own wine programs and have begun teaching others (staff and guests), and this education is making it easier and more natural to talk about wine. Second, Cincinnati has many close-knit families and friend groups where people casually talk and share wine amongst themselves. So both formal and informal wine communities have really helped establish and build a wine culture here, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
What’s your favorite wine?
This is a unique question as wine is so about the moment. The people I am with, the food that is being shared, the location where we are. Wine can really help be part of the mood, and every situation is a bit different. There is a place for simple table wines with home cooking—to celebration bottles on nights you want to cherish.
I would say I am really into drinking wines that are made with low intervention and a light hand, wines that allow the variety and the place from which it was grown to come through. I find a lot of these wines right now in an insanely steep river valley region in Spain, Ribera Sacra. There the wines are light to medium in body, but the variety Mencia is so wild and herb focused on the palate.
I am always going to be a Burgundy lover. Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the classic French region, made by a caring hand, are nearly impossible to match anywhere in the world! Burgundy to me is a region where there is so much talent and so much dedication to their wines; the wines truly stand out so much.
How has the local craft beer boom affected the wine business?
In a positive way, for sure. I believe the craft beer boom encouraged people to open their minds and try new things. Unique ingredients in beer that make them delicious also spark interest in wine—with people trying varieties and regions they never would have before.
Wine is intimidating; I wish it wasn’t. I have spent 15 years trying to have fun with it and inspire others to have fun with it. I encourage people to try new things and define their palate and figure out what they think is good, regardless of the critics. I think the beer scene is very much in line with this process, and I applaud the creative world that is such a part of the craft beer world. I think this creative attitude is suitable for all things in life, especially for enjoying wine.
What makes a good wine?
Wine is an agricultural product at its core, so farming is so important as well as winemaking techniques. I think the best wines in the world are made in the vineyards under a watchful eye, and once the grapes make it back to the winery, it is about allowing the quality of fruit to come through. This is harder than it sounds, and in the same way there are great chefs and great lawyers, the farmers who put in the work and don’t cut corners make the best wine.
Good wine is a personal conversation when it comes to one’s taste. For me, I find wines that are not covered up or manipulated bring me the most joy. My personal palate leans towards lighter- to medium-bodied wines with a lot of brightness, and natural acidity in the wine that keeps it fresh and vibrant. Grapes that do this and bring me joy are Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Mencia, Cabernet Franc, and many more.
Do you have any advice for those interested in sommelier work?
I am a big believer in surrounding yourself with people who know more than you. Over the course of my career, I have been lucky to build relationships with a lot of sommeliers nationwide and to learn from others’ experiences. I talk to winemakers regularly and always try to keep learning. Both studying the sommelier world, and the wine world in general, is important to me. There is never a finish line. It is a lifelong journey, and I am just beginning mine.
So my biggest advice is to experience as much wine as possible with an open mind, and try to taste, ask questions, and enjoy the journey. The restaurant sommelier world can be a lot of fun and incredibly rewarding due to the relationships with guests. Always remember the wine world is about community and relationships.
Hart & Cru, 1206 Broadway St., Pendleton, (419) 348-9592