In Boston, a city known for its oyster bars and Red Sox and, let’s face it, a lot of big-box bars with big-screen TVs, there lies one of the most charming natural wine bars—that also happens to be championing female winemakers. Haley Fortier, 40, opened up Haley.Henry two years ago, and she still works the door of her bar this cool summer evening. Tonight, she’s got a Bowie-esque coif and a purple blazer fit for Prince. From inside, the mumble rap melodies of Famous Dex and Tyler the Creator welcome me, along with the promise of funky, weird wines I can’t find anywhere else in the city.
The 680-square-foot space feels intimate and chill, like hanging out at your artist friend’s Bushwick apartment. There’s a small counter and a couple induction burners for cooking and an upstairs loft for wine storage. Fortier only features small-batch wines, a.k.a. made in fewer than 5,000 cases at a time. (To better understand this figure, an estimated 415,000 cases of David Beckham favorite, Whispering Angel Rosé, were produced in 2016.)
Before getting into wine, Fortier was many other things. She was a records-shattering high school soccer player, a winter sports photographer, and a corrections officer at the Boston city jail. But after breaking up fights and keeping an eye on high-profile inmates for six years, she decided to go into restaurants. “I’m a people person,” Fortier tells me with a shrug and a smile.
She was a server at Chart House on Boston’s Long Wharf, a national steakhouse chain, then worked her way up over four years to help manage the restaurant’s wine tastings. In 2008, she joined the opening team at Sportello, chef Barbara Lynch’s pasta-powered restaurant. Under the guidance of Cat Silirie, Sportello’s executive wine director, Fortier immersed herself in the world of Italian wine and was first introduced to natural wine via a memorable bottle made by Arianna Occhipinti, a groundbreaking winemaker in Vittoria, Sicily. She became obsessed.
“I like big, bold, dirty wines,” Fortier says, with a laugh. She read everything Alice Feiring, a respected, yet controversial wine writer and advocate of natural wine, wrote (The Dirty Guide to Wine, Naked Wine). Almost four years ago, she first hatched the idea for Haley.Henry, named after herself and the son her dad never had (a family inside joke, since he has five daughters). It would be a haven for natural wines, made mostly by women, and tinned fish, somewhat of an obsession of hers after a trip to Portugal. So Fortier cashed in her savings, and with longtime Sportello customers who’d chipped in as investors, she turned an old cupcake shop in retail-crammed Downtown Crossing into Haley.Henry. She blindly emailed a favorite tinned fish producer, Da Morgada, and ended up becoming a distributor in the U.S.
When I visited recently, I tried a wine that stopped me in my tracks: the 2017 Old Westminster Winery pét-nat from Maryland. “Yes, Maryland!” my mind-reading server said as I pointed to the menu. It was tiny-bubbled and almost creamy, the perfect thing to sip while snacking on a few salty sardines and griddled tuna belly sandwich.
The sometimes unusual, or unexpected wines can be an uphill battle for some customers, but Fortier and her team draw them out of their comfort zone by being engaging and as helpful as they can.
“We’ve had a lot of customers come in who aren’t familiar with natural wines, or they think wine is precious or pretentious,” she says. “So we just talk to them. What a novel concept! But by the end of it, we’ve gotten them to at least appreciate what we’re doing, found something they like, or,”—she kids—“opened their eyes to a variety of wines that they absolutely hate.”
But so far, it seems like people are starting to geek out on these natural wines, much like Fortier did years ago.
“We didn’t have any natural wine bars before in Boston, and we need it because you can get classic wines anywhere,” Fortier continues. “So when our customers come in, don’t look at the wine list, and ask for something interesting, we know we’re doing something right.”