The recent rage for wine bars reflects a change in the way the French think—and drink.
I’ve been visiting Paris since the 1970’s. But on a recent trip, I noted something radically unfamiliar. At Verjus, a new hot spot by the Palais Royal, a roomful of people were sipping Chinon and Chenin Blanc by the glass, not a dinner plate in sight.
Wine bars have always seemed the antithesis of how the French experience wine. While Americans gravitate toward big-bodied creations with the kick of a cocktail, the French favor restraint, seeing it as a piece of a larger prandial puzzle. An aperitif in Paris has always meant a Lillet, a kir, maybe a beer. Wines by the glass were usually barely drinkable vin ordinaire.
These days, there is a bar à vin every few blocks. A short stroll from Verjus are Legrand Filles et Fils, inside a retail shop, and Les Fines Gueules, where locals down organic bottles while nibbling on charcuterie. Farther east, in-the-know restaurant Frenchie recently sprouted a wine bar annex. And the selection at La Crèmerie, near the Jardin du Luxembourg, is imposing.
Back by the Palais Royal, I stopped in at Willi’s Wine Bar, a pioneer when it opened in 1980. It’s just finished an expansion. “France today is a long way from the place that was going to export its culture around the globe,” said its British-born owner, Mark Williamson. Parisians travel far more than their parents did. “They’re integrating things like wine bars into their culture in their own way,” he said.
Gerard Sibourd-Baudry, owner of Legrand, agreed. “Things happen slowly here. But they do happen.” We were drinking champagne at his 130-year-old shop, across from a table of four enjoying a cheese plate and Chablis. I scanned the list to see what to order next—a mature Bordeaux? A racy Alsatian white—and realized that, for a wine drinker in Paris, these are the best of times. “Good wine by the glass is finally accepted,” Sibourd-Baudry declared. “More than that. It is fashionable.”