French Wine Sans Snobbery

A night at Le Caviste, downtown’s new wine bar, is like a drinker’s semester abroad.

By Allecia Vermillion May 1, 2014 Published in the May 2014 issue of Seattle Met

The name refers to a person who tends to a wine cellar, but the new wine bar adding an unexpected dose of charm to the foot of a sterile apartment tower near the federal courthouse occupies narrow, decidedly aboveground quarters that used to house a dry cleaner storefront. At Le Caviste, the brainchild of francophile and oenophile David Butler, every bottle hails from France, most glasses go for less than $10, and a pair of massive triple-tiered chandeliers casts a low, room-altering gleam over just 25 seats. Right now Le Caviste is frequented by plenty of industry cognoscenti—people who know their wine, or know Butler, or both. And yet, here’s the great irony: Butler is at his best when he’s describing the charms of an Entre-deux-Mers or a Savigny-lès-Beaune to unindoctrinated but Franco-curious wine drinkers. 

“The red wine list is kind of like a full gray scale, instead of everything being giant,” Butler explains to a couple perched at his eight-seat counter, peering intently at the chalkboard menu. “You have light-bodied reds, reds that are black as ink, and this range in between.” But it’s his tale of the 10 villages of the Beaujolais region and how the ability to name them all is a popular bet in Parisian wine bars that clinches their order. Butler pivots off in search of a bottle, which he warns the couple is served cooler than your average stateside red vintage. “Don’t be alarmed when it touches your lips.”

Butler’s ardor for French wine was first ignited as a barman at Campagne, then fueled by his tenure behind the bar for the first six years of Le Pichet, and the final six years of Le Gourmand, plus plenty of trips to France. His 30-odd selections of reds and whites are listed on two chalkboards in a moderately legible script (a third board recounts the cheese and charcuterie plates and poisson en papillote produced in the sparsely appointed kitchen). The boards don’t offer much in the way of elucidation should you be unfamiliar with entries like Macon Uchizy or St. Emilion, though the list generally moves from lighter to fuller bodied, and geographically from north to south. 

That’s exactly the way they do it in the little wine bars tucked into crowded blocks of Paris, Butler’s inspiration for Le Caviste. The purposeful lack of varietals or adjective-riddled tasting notes, combined with France’s system of classifying wines by region rather than grape, means all but the most wine--savvy visitors will look to Butler to translate the geographic idiosyncracies of his pours. Which he does without sounding like a high priest, a snob, or a jackass.

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