13 rue des Petits Champs, Paris
We first met Mark Williamson (Willi's wine bar owner) at a Napa California wines tasting in the salons of Hotel Meurice last june 16th. California wine people had staged this one-day event in Paris on their way to Bordeaux's Vinexpo. This was for us a good opportunity to taste both big names and lesser-known ones (for us at least) like Peju and Atalon. This gave us also a few leads for when we'll visit the area ( but I know Alder will help me )... Whatever, at the end of the event, we saw this tall Englishman with Willi's on his badge who like us had been given a bottle or two, and we exchanged a few words, as I had planned to write something about his work and bar.
Willi's wine bar is a reference in Paris now, and I wanted to write about it for the 25th anniversary of the bar, last october (a bit late, I know), which makes the wine bar maybe not the oldest, but a well-entrenched one in the Paris wine scene.
We met Mark in the bar recently for an interview and a glass of wine. When we entered the place, after looking from the outside at the beautiful 1930's shop window, the bar was buzzy and lots of North American expats (or travellers) were enjoying the wines at the counter [picture on top]. The venue is quite narrow, with the counter on the left and a dozen tables in the back (Willi's wine bar is also known for its fine food). We sat at the other end of the counter and Helen, who is from England and has been working here for two years, poured us our wines as we enjoyed the atmosphere while looking at Willi's framed posters on the wall. Each of them have been created by a different artist each year, and can be (as it says on the menu) mailed to anywhere in the world, EVEN in France...
Willi's wine bar was born shortly before the socialists came to power : october 1980. Mitterrand was elected the following may 1981. He says he ironically benefited from the first economic blunder of the new regime : a 33% new tax on "Luxury" that touched off a recession in gastronomic restaurants. In the matter of a day, the business in the sector fell sharply and durably. As a wine bar, he was out of the target zone of "Luxury", and while the rest of the sector (and the economy) nose-dived, he saw his bar prosper.
Speaking about the economic environment today in France, he says things have been so far in terms of taxes and work legislation that things can only improve now. He is optimistic that plans to lower the VAT for restaurants from 19,6% to 5,5% will go through. About the restrictions on wine consumption due to tighter checks on drivers, and to the negative impact of state-funded campaigns against alcohol, he says there is an important question here : Wine being a cultural asset , a "patrimoine" in France, people should be proud of it, encourage it and promote it. If wine looses its place in french hearts, it could as well disappear around here.
Mark Williamson gives a special place to Rhone wines in his selection, which counts altogether 200+ wines. For the anniversary, he organized a 2-day trip in the Rhone last november for a dozen people (there are 9 employees at the bar including part-time) where they all had a wonderfull time, walked on top of Hermitage hill and visited one of his favorite estate, among other things. But he keeps looking for new wines. Speaking of the Languedoc, he says the region was below the radar when he opened his bar, and was still then a region known for high-yield low quality wines . He remember his first encounter with outstanding Languedoc wines, that was in 1985-1986 : It was with the Domaine de L'Hortus wines, by Jean Orliac. The Languedoc has changed a lot since then , with a long list of good wineries sprouting everywhere. He says that when he looks for new wines and tastes, there must this trigger mechanism. If there is some hesitation, he does'nt buy it. Also, he says that like artisanal butter or good meat, wine has a consumption window that has to be respected. Learning to drink and serve it at the right time, not too early, not too late in its elevage is part of the job. There's a climate of confidence with his producers, and they tell him if they think this or that millesime is lighter and has to be served rapidly and not kept in the cellar.
The restaurant has a menu that can change everyday depending of the seasonal supplies. Lunch : menu (25 Euro) or "à la carte". Dinner : menu (32 Euro) or "à la carte". 8 entrées, 8 mains, 6 desserts and cheese. We have not eaten here, but his "Tartare de thon rouge & pain grillé à la plancha" (entry) and "Cotelette de biche, poire rotie & airelles" (main) make me think about it (no, Mark, it's not a hidden message...). The food is the work of chef François Yon who works here since 1993 and with whom Mark had worked at La Madeleine.
The wines-by-the-glass list a few days ago had 5 Xeres, 6 french whites, 6 french reds, 1 Irouleguy rosé wine, 3 champagnes, 10 "Sweet Surrender" (from France, Hungary, Spain, Portugal) and 7 "Hard Stuff" Eaux de Vie.
Prices start from 3 Euro for a 10cl dry white or red, and other volumes are 15cl, 50cl and bottles. While B. had a Frick Pinot Blanc 2004 from Alsace (priced 3 Euro), I enjoyed my very aromatic Jurançon sec 2004 (white) "cuvee Marie" from Charles Hours (4,5 Euro).