Given Hudson's undeniable (and occasionally insufferable) hipness and the meteoric rise of natural wine, the two are a match made in unfiltered heaven. Over the past few years, several of the city's restaurants have introduced natural wine into their beverage programs. Last year, James Beard-winning chef Zak Pelaccio’s restaurant Fish & Game was inducted into Wine Enthusiast’s Hall of Fame for their acclaimed natural wine program. When Fish & Game’s sister restaurant, Backbar, opened, serving Malaysian food in a more casual environment, they curated a fun, funky, more affordable list of low-intervention, organic or biodynamic natural wines, available both by the glass and by the bottle, to fit the setting. Ahead of the curve, in 2016, Pelaccio also founded Peripheral Wine Festival in Hudson, an annual celebration of natural wines that anticipated the current craze. Down the block, Lawrence Park serves up a selection of close to 30 natural wines by the glass and the bottle, in addition to their craft cocktails and beer. On the other end of Warren Street, the tavern at Rivertown Lodge and Lil’ Deb’s Oasis hold down the natural wine front.
When lockdown hit, chef Daniel Bagnall was living in New York City, doing freelance restaurant consulting with the hospitality collective the Oberon Group after wrapping up a contract in the kitchen at hi-fi vinyl and cocktail bar Public Records. He’d been planning to move back to his home state of California to catch his breath. “I’ve been a restaurant chef since I was 15,” says the now-30-year-old proprietor of Sonder. “I was super burnt out. I had a job offer as a private chef close to home in San Luis Obispo. I was going to take it easy. It had better salary, benefits, weekends off—all the things being in a restaurant doesn’t give you.” Then, COVID. He stuck it out in the city as long as he could, but then hightailed it to his Germantown house when things “got too weird.”
Then, one late spring day, wandering around Hudson, he passed a For Rent sign in the window at 610 Warren Street and immediately texted the number. “I had been debating opening my own spot for the last four or five years and could never make the math work,” he says. This time, the numbers made sense. “I was like, 'Dude, I just want to give it a shot.' So, I went from thinking I would take a break to doing way more work than I would have. So stressful.”
Both Public Records and Rhodora, where Bagnall worked previously helping design the pioneering no-waste food menu, were exclusively natural wine bars. “I was just super, super into it, learning about natural wine around the bars, and I also had roommates that were super big natural wine buffs,” he says. “That’s what excited me about Hudson. It’s starting here. All the local places have broken through a little bit."
So after weeks of painting the tin ceilings and brick walls in the shoebox space and assembling a small-but-mighty team of three (including Bagnall), Sonder quietly opened its doors in the first week of August.
He had originally planned to hire a talented friend as the beverage director, but that fell through in July. “So now it’s me doing it,” Bagnall says. “And I’m anarchistic. I am also still learning the process, so I’m just constantly looking for stuff that I enjoy.” The wine list, which will change weekly, aims to showcase products from nontraditional wine regions (think Slovakia, Mexico), with the goal of offering bottles in the range of $50 to $75 (high-end outliers included because they’re “just really cool!”). “Obviously, quality comes first, but the focus is on a really small list of light, chilled, and relatively affordable wines,” he says. “We’re trying our best to make it work at a lower price range.”
In early September, the bottle list had 15 options, including La Casa Vieja, Grenache valle de Guadalupe—a light red from Baja California ($100), the Castello di Stefanago, Stuvenach Orangiosaurus—a full-bodied, toffee-tasting skin-contact from Austria ($90), and Weingut Pittnauer, Rosé by Nature—a barely effervescent Austrian rosé with notes of ginger and Sour Patch kids ($75).
But the wines by the glass is where Sonder will really shine. You can always expect a chilled white ($12), chilled red ($13), pet-nat ($14), rosé ($14), and an orange ($15) on the menu, though what’s being poured rotates weekly. “The wines by the glass are a better deal than they would be by the bottle,” Bagnall says. “It’s going to be break-even for us, but it’s to get people tasting, trying. If you love this wine like I do, you’ll come back.”
For Bagnall the driving obsession is: how to bring natural wine into the mainstream. “How do we get people to want to drink a cloudy orange wine from Hungary? How do we get people to understand that natural wine is cooler?” he asks. Define cool. “It’s interesting. It’s got personality. Music on a record player is better because of its imperfections. The popping, crackling, whirring is beautiful. That’s sort of what natural wine is like. It has character.”
As for the food, Bagnall has embraced the same mentality as with the wine: minimal intervention. The simple, vegetable-forward menu consists of fewer than 15 rotating options, featuring local produce and housemade products like focaccia, pickled veggies, and chili oil. “We want people to feel comfortable,” he says. “The food is super shareable, vegetable-focused, 90-percent vegetarian. A lot of it is actually vegan by accident.”
His garnishes are spare and deliberate, leaving room for the produce to shine. “I can't make things more beautiful than nature,” Bagnall says. “Perfection is not beautiful. Who needs perfect squares and 90-degree angles?” His current favorite on the menu is the Badger Flame beets ($14), made with local, peeled, and boiled beets that are tossed in sesame oil and honey-infused apple cider vinegar, and served atop a housemade cashew butter with salt-fermented soy bean, Catskills vinegar, and hemp oil. “It’s about 50/50 local and not, but all the ingredients are the best we can find,” Bagnall says. “We treat the ingredients as simply as we can to highlight what it is.”
Within the next year, the goal is to transition 90 percent of sourcing to within the region, including oils, vinegars, and spices. The bar is closed on Sundays and Mondays, but every other day of the week there is a special, including industry night on Tuesdays, grilled cheese and pet nat for $15 on Wednesdays, 10 percent of bottles on Thursdays, and rosés by the glass for $12 on Saturdays. One Sunday a month, Sonder will have a pop-up event showcasing a guest chef. The rest of the time it’s just Bagnall; the cook, Clyde Woodstock, who relocated from the Bronx for the project; and the server, Rachel Hodes. “Everyday we walk the razor's edge of if we’re staffed ok,” Bagnall says. The idea is to be a real family where everyone takes responsibility. There’s no real management.”
Plucked from John Koenig’s compilation of invented neologisms The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, “sonder” means “the realization that each passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” Basically the antidote to narcissism. “I come from a heavily fine dining background—two and three Michelin stars, kill yourself and get yelled at kind of atmosphere,” Bagnall says. “For me, COVID was a reckoning, where I wanted to appreciate my loved ones more, and cook for friends and family more. I’ve always sacrificed personal life for career, so this is my vision of having a shared friend-and-family atmosphere where we can throw the playbook out the window and do whatever we want.”