We’re sitting inside the West Village location of Sebastien Auvet’s Vin Sur Vingt, the first of his three New York City wine bars, balancing on stools in the far corner of the bar, shouting over the din of music and voices. If Auvet seems oddly content, he should be. In this instant, he’s achieved his ultimate goal: to create a French wine bar in Manhattan that evokes Paris but eschews overt Frenchiness.
“I’d like people to discover something new,” he says later in our conversation, summing up his mission with Vin Sur Vingt, which has grown from the original location where we’re seated to three wine bars, including a roomier space in the emerging NoMad neighborhood and an enclave in the sprawling Food Hall at the Plaza in midtown. In the end, Auvet says, he wanted to create the opposite effect of what most people would think, namely: “A French wine bar in New York? Oh, my God,” he says. “It could scare people. It scares me.”
Of course, it’s a funny sentiment coming from a guy whose English is as heavily accented as any Frenchman who picked up the language only after migrating across the Atlantic, as Auvet did as a 27-year-old. He landed in New York City, where he began working at a series of French restaurants and clubs, tasting every wine he came across and picking the brains of sommeliers and wine distributors. By the time he scored a front-of-house gig at David Bouley in 2011, Auvet was on his way to putting all his hard-earned knowledge to use. Just as Jay Z “ain’t passed the bar” but knows the law enough not to submit to an unwarranted search (see: “99 Problems”), Auvet sidestepped any sommelier exams and instead relied on his instincts.
In 2012, Auvet opened the first Vin Sur Vingt, which references a French wine-rating system — vingt sur vingt is “20 out of 20,” or a perfect score. For this emerging wine bar owner, the name also hinted at how many wines he’d offer by the glass: 20 reds and 20 whites. The menu has since grown, but the core idea remains, which is that Vin Sur Vingt should offer the widest possible range of French wines by the glass.
Vin Sur Vingt is something else altogether: A fervently French wine bar that feels more New York than Paris.
“There are a lot of wine bars that say they are wine bars, but only have like 10 wines by the glass. That’s not really a wine bar. In my philosophy, you need at least 20 or 30 by the glass. We carry 50 or 60 wines by the glass here. I want people to have different options. We have two or three different styles from the Loire Valley, for instance. It’s not just Sancerre,” he says. Vin Sur Vingt offers cheese, bread, charcuterie, light snacks — but mostly leaves serving food to restaurants. This is a wine bar, he says repeatedly.
Now 40, Auvet seems content with his progress, though he has an entrepreneur’s knack for suggesting that he needs to push harder. “We’ve had a really great response. I don’t want to say we’re successful, because our goal is to make people discover French wine but also to have people understand the concept of the wine bar.”
I have to give Auvet credit for this. The cave à vins in France is a great service to wine drinkers, whether of the somm level or the more casual variety. It’s a different experience than going to a restaurant and ordering a nice bottle of wine with dinner. The emphasis is on wine first, conversation second and ambience third — and that’s it. They tend to be great date spots, or places to stop in on the way to somewhere else. And surprisingly in New York City, a city that has everything, they’re few and far between, and were almost non-existent when Auvet opened in the Village in 2012.
In the ensuing few years, wine bars have begun popping up all over the city. Some specialize in natural wines, that on-trend movement of fermented grapes put into bottles with as little human interference as possible. Others focus on wine education or pairing small bites with wine. But Vin Sur Vingt is something else altogether: A fervently French wine bar that feels more New York than Paris. (Incidentally, Auvet does carry natural wine and is particularly focused on biodynamic and organic wines, but he chooses wines more from his heart than his head.) He says that while French wine bars in France strive to dictate wine trends — “I know everything. I’m French,” he sniffs, sarcastically — he aims to serve New Yorkers, who are more curious and open-minded about finding new wines.
As he sips a Pouillac during our conversation, I ask Auvet if he has a favorite winemaker at the moment, and his answer is telling. “Julien Montagnon from Domaine Lombard. He does some whites, some reds — he’s a crazy winemaker. What I like about him is that he’s young and he understands the market.”
The same could be said for Auvet, whose singular vision has led to three wine bars that are rapidly becoming neighborhood fixtures in three very different neighborhoods. I ask him if he’s considering opening other locations or whether he’d take the concept to another U.S. market. He seems intrigued, enthused even. He mentions Pittsburgh, then Detroit. “I can see [opening in] Detroit in five years. Detroit is going to be big!”
That’s a good idea, I say, telling him that we’ve covered all of my questions.
“Great,” Auvet responds, smiling. “More wine!”
Vin Sur Vingt
201 11th St.
New York, NY 10014
vinsur20.com (for all three locations)