As a trained visual artist, Arthur Hon approaches the curation of his guests’ wine experiences as a multi-dimensional canvas for his creativity.
Born in Taipei, Hon moved to the San Francisco Bay area with his family as a teenager. Rebelling against the competitive academic track his parents sought for him, Hon secured a coveted spot at The Art Institute of Chicago and pursued a degree as a graphic artist. Yet part-time restaurant jobs as an undergraduate student ignited Hon’s passion for wine, setting him on a different path. After he graduated, he went on to become the beverage director at Chicago’s renowned Sepia restaurant and then Proxi.
Hon moved to New York City in 2017 for the opportunity to work at Union Square Hospitality Group’s (USHG) legendary Union Square Café. Next, he spent two pivotal years as beverage director at David Chang’s Momofuku Ko, where he helped the restaurant’s team reimagine their business model during the pandemic closure. (Watch our video interview with him from that time.) Last year, Hon returned to USHG, taking the helm as beverage director at one of the group’s crown jewels, the Modern, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner located in the Museum of Modern Art—a fitting location for the artist-turned-sommelier. Hon spoke to senior editor Kristen Bieler about the connections between art and wine, managing dramatically different wine programs and his favorite value regions.
Wine Spectator: After studying to become a graphic artist, what drew you to a career in wine?
Pursuing art for me was a way out of the rigorous academic path I had been on. While I was an undergraduate, I wanted to learn how to socialize and interact with people—I had always been an introverted person—and I thought working in restaurants would help me do that. Through those jobs, I soon became very passionate about wine, yet never thought it could be a career. But after graduation, I helped open Sepia in Chicago and realized I could do this for a living.
Do you remember the wine experience that first intrigued you?
It’s not a very glamorous one. My first adult wine experience was at [now shuttered] Blackbird in Chicago. The sommelier recommended a moderately priced Petite Sirah from California, just a juicy, easy-to-drink red wine. But I thought: ‘What is this? Someone handing me a binder with words and a language I don’t understand?’ I kept that bottle for years; it started me on a journey. I spend many weekends sitting alone at bars in restaurants just ordering different wines and learning. I drank my way through the Northern Rhône and then through Burgundy.
Where do you see an overlap between art and wine?
Art is essentially creating experiences to emote, which is very similar to how food and wine and atmosphere work together to create emotion in a restaurant. I see what I do as working in a three-dimensional space, creating synergies between food and wine and arranging objects—almost like installation design. It’s not totally different from looking at a painting or a sculpture; it’s just a different kind of medium.
You’ve managed some very different wine programs, from a Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winner in Chicago to New York City restaurants in Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group and David Chang’s boutique Momofuku Ko. What did you learn from each experience?
At Sepia and Proxi, where I stayed for 11 years, I learned how critical it is for any on-premise beverage professional to have very strong management and operation skills; my goal was to become a very well-rounded professional that could lead me anywhere, even a GM at a restaurant.
I’d always wanted to come to NYC as an artist, and the opportunity arose in 2017 for me to join the beverage team at Union Square Café. The energy in New York is so different; people drink so much wine! I learned how to scale up everything I knew; we were doing 400 to 500 covers on busy Saturdays. I became very savvy at ordering and inventory management.
Momofuku Ko is the opposite–very intimate, hands-on and bespoke. When I joined in 2019, it was one of the hardest reservations to get in New York, and I built a very dynamic wine program with a combination of classic wines and more experimental and natural producers. When COVID hit, we went down to a team of five people and had to figure out how to do retail and learn how to offer take-out experiences that still represented our brand, starting with pizza. It was extremely challenging, but it really brought our team together.
In 2021 you took the lead beverage role at the Modern, when it reopened after closing during the pandemic. How have you made your mark on the wine program?
The Modern had been such a well-run machine, but the entire team had left for other jobs when it closed during the pandemic, and the extended closure resulted in us missing allocations for the past year. So I had the blueprint but had to build back the team and the wine cellar in a financially responsible way.
I firmly believe that the by-the-glass program should be a snapshot of the wine program at large rather than being treated as a separate part of the program. We are known for a diverse, global wine list, and I wanted our by-the-glass selection to reflect that. I incorporated a lot more Southern Hemisphere and lesser-known regions. We started pouring a New Zealand Chenin Blanc, a Chilean Pinot Noir, a Petit Manseng from Virginia and a Chasselas Doré from Oregon.
I want our wine program to provide a platform for many great regions that are underrepresented elsewhere. It’s so exciting what’s happening in Australia right now—low-alcohol, skin-contact wines—and I’m interested in featuring more of the indigenous grapes of Chile, which fit into that lightly-chilled red category that is so popular right now. It’s not about being weird or esoteric but about taking people out of their comfort zone in an experience that is fun, unique and enjoyable.
How have guests reacted to the Modern’s more diverse, eclectic list?
What I learned in Chicago is that you can sell anything when you have an educated and passionate staff. I spend a lot of time getting our team excited about our list and developing their own experiences with wines they can share with guests. Tasting notes are very personal and I don’t want them to repeat what I tell them, but to articulate what they are tasting, so our sommeliers’ recommendations are more shared experiences. And what we’re seeing is that our by-the-glass and bottles sales are very strong, so it’s working.
Which wine regions do you believe offer great value right now?
As Burgundy continues to become more and more expensive, I look to outer peripheral areas, such as Auxey-Duresses, and I believe Chablis continues to deliver good value. Within France, the Loire is still very untapped with a lot of really well-priced, unique wines, and I’m a big fan of Alsace for value. German Rieslings also offer a lot of quality for the money, I believe. Portugal really made a name for themselves as a source of value during the 2008 market crash, and they have really shed that international style and are offering more local character today.
Tourism is returning to New York City in big numbers. How does that impact wine sales at the Modern?
In August, we saw a complete shift as Europeans began coming to New York in large numbers. We started selling more American wine and just a broader spectrum of wine as a result. At the Modern, we have a very diverse clientele, and what I’m seeing is a lot more adventurous drinking in general. I’m working to meet that curiosity with more diverse wines—natural wines, skin-contact wines—alongside more traditional, classic offerings. I’m also seeing tremendous growth in cocktails and spirits.
What is your favorite wine and food pairing at the Modern right now?
The fried maitake mushrooms and pickles with the 2020 González Bastias Naranjo from Valle del Maule in Chile. I love to showcase well-made skin-contact wines with food, because they are so much easier to understand this way. The tannins become less forward, and the salinity in the wine melts into the dish like a finishing salt. The brightness of pickled green tomatoes with the umami of the fried maitake mushrooms works so beautifully with the floral, fruity notes of the Moscato Rosa.
When you’re not working, where will we find you?
I love old movies and foreign films, and I go to MOMA [Museum of Modern Art] whenever I can. Cooking at home and being with friends keeps me grounded. I miss oil painting, which is difficult to do in my Brooklyn apartment because you need a lot of space. But I still do a lot of pencil drawings.
For more from Arthur Hon, read his answers in our Sommelier Roundtables: