Fellow sommeliers Marco Pelletier and Thomas Simian met at Epicure, the flagship restaurant in the top-shelf Bristol Hotel in Paris. They seemingly had everything a sommelier could want: Epicure features three-star cuisine from a world-renowned chef coupled with a 3,000-selection wine list that earned a Grand Award in 2016. The 95,000-bottle inventory comprised the best of Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux and more.
But they chose to start something new and utterly different.
In 2016, Pelletier opened Vantre, leaving behind the tony 3rd arrondissement for the decidedly more laid-back 11th. Along with chef and partner Iacopo Chomel, Pelletier brought Simian on as head sommelier. In doing so, they transitioned from Epicure’s grand, formal dining room to a casual bar à vins with just 30 seats.
The dining room may be small, but the wine collection is impressively large. Pelletier first stocked the cellar with 5,000 bottles from his own collection, focusing on Burgundy, his love. With additional purchases over the past few years, Pelletier and Simian now oversee a cellar of 4,800 selections backed by 17,000 bottles and growing. It’s a wine program rooted in a passion for producers and wines that Pelletier and Simian admire and covet.
“We just want to defend and support producers who make good wine. It’s all we want to do,” says Simian. “I want to promote the people who make the wines and make sure our customers are enjoying and learning at the same time.”
Vantre’s list is centered on Burgundy (the region accounts for the greatest percentage of sales) and is France-centric overall, with excellent coverage of the Rhône, Loire, Champagne, Bordeaux and Jura. Nods are given to Italy, Spain and California.
The average price of a bottle is around $112 (100 euros), suggesting that the more casual tone of the neighborhood doesn’t hinder an influx of wine lovers willing to spend for quality. Menu prices are $9 to $22 for appetizers, $28 to $39 for mains.
“In the 11th [arrondissement] we have a new kind of clientele,” says Simian. “It’s a challenge at times, as 100 euros for a bottle is different for this clientele. Burgundy is popular and we have a lot of selection at that price point. But we want to support Jura, Loire and other regions where there is also great value.”
At the high end, Vantre’s list features an ample number of trophy wines, including J.-F. Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne 1999 ($1,028), Château Latour Pauillac 1990 ($1,067), J.-L. Chave Hermitage 1999 ($444), Marchesi di Barolo Barolo 1967 ($225) and Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Martha’s Vineyard 1974 ($2,022). There’s eclecticism as well, such as a very rare 1928 still Pinot Noir from Champagne producer Moët ($8,987).
But the bulk of the list sits in a more accessible range, with wines such as the 2014 Simon Bize Bourgogne Blanc ($51) and the 2015 Domaine Guiberteau Saumur White Brézé ($85).
There’s also ample vintage depth, including an eye-opening 14-vintage vertical of Jamet’s rare Côte-Rôtie Côte Brune cuvée back to 1991, plus numerous intriguing older wines such as a 1970 Château Malartic-Lagravière Pessac-Léognan ($236) scattered throughout. It’s this marriage of classic blue chips and offbeat offerings at all price points that makes the wine list so much fun for both the customers and Vantre’s staff.
“Whether we are selling an older Burgundy for 250 euros or a Montlouis from the Loire for 40 euros, I have the best sommelier job in the world,” says Simian.
While wine decidedly takes center stage at Vantre, the food menu is far from an afterthought. The fresh and well-executed fare is French in tradition, with a daily market feel. The compact menu spans dishes such as gnocchi in sage butter, roasted cuttlefish, yellowfin tuna crudo, and turbot with artichoke and red cabbage. The flavors are pure and defined without being complicated, giving diners an easy path to pairing multiple wines with a meal.
The vibe at Vantre is convivial too, with locals, tourists and vintners all in the mix. Wineglasses are sent from one table to another, and the din of conversation is steady, warm and pleasant.
Most restaurants choose to be either high-end or casual. Vantre bridges that divide, with wine as the keystone. Its broad, deep wine list is backed by professional but personable wine service. Its unfussy, wine-friendly cuisine is served in a comfortable, no-jacket-required room. It’s a combination that makes Vantre an ideal prototype for a 21st-century wine bar.
Read the entire 2019 Restaurant Awards package, including the cover story, “Sharing the Table," in the Aug. 31, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator.