Sporting a shock of auburn-ginger hair and a tight-fitting T-shirt that shows off forearms studded with tattoos, restaurateur Sebastien Auvet gives off a first impression similar to a SoCal surfer dude. The vibe at Vin Sur Vingt, a New York City-based wine bar brand the Frenchman brought to Logan Circle in late March, is similarly casual.
Auvet, who opened his first shop along with business partner Rakesh Chandiramani in 2011, is not a classically trained sommelier. He earned his chops in a series of high-end hospitality gigs in New York after moving there in 2003. After spending years learning from restaurant colleagues and studying different styles of wine at each job, he felt he was ready to lead his own neighborhood place.
“I’m not necessarily a wine expert,” he says, “but I love wine, and learned how by tasting and then educating my palate.”
Auvet says he wants to help customers discover French wines “without it being intimidating.” That approach has helped Vin Sur Vingt grow to six locations, including the latest inside the former Drafting Table space (1529 14th Street NW).
Vin Sur Vingt translates as “wine over twenty,” a play on words that references a perfect score on French grammar school tests: 20 out of 20. Logically, the list of wines offered by the glass runs 20-deep in both reds and whites. Along with a handful of roses and sparkling wines, there are about 50 options by the glass ($12.50-20) and more than 250 offerings by the bottle. “We aren’t perfect to get that 20 out of 20,” Auvet says, “but we are always trying.”
At wine shops, he notes, the French section can seem ostentatious, with fancy-looking names and labels with depictions of colonnaded chateaus. Vin Sur Vingt has some of those labels, too. But he relies on a French-speaking staff, same of which hail from far-flung locales like Burkina Faso and Madagascar, to talk about them in a simple, straightforward manner.
“I’m not here to tell the biography of the wine and the river it grew up next to,” Auvet says.
Vin Sur Vingt differentiates itself, beyond the lengthy list, in showcasing niche wines. The menu will soon add a key full of icons denoting wines that are organic, natural, sustainable, and biodynamic. Auvet says he has plans to include another symbol next to wines made by women. “I believe in the winemaker and their passion for the vines,” he says. “The wine is as much about its terroir and grape as the passion of the grower.”
Although Vin Sur Vingt is located on the buzzy 14th Street strip, the bar’s simple wood furnishings, lack of tablecloths, and communal tables display Auvet’s aim to make it a laid-back place that welcomes locals. “It’s not a bistro,” he says, adding that he doesn’t even carry a full liquor license for hard alcohol. “It’s very much focused on the wine and the neighborhood.”
Auvet also wants guests to see their glasses as (literally) more than half-full. His heavy hand, he notes, means that “glasses here are three or four elsewhere: “I only get four pours of wine out of each bottle.”
Vin Sur Vingt represents pure passion for Auvet. His eyes tear up as he gesticulates about certain producers. The bar carries its own small private label, featuring choices like a Bordeaux from the Chateau Moulin de la Roquille vineyard by a young winemaker named Catherine Audouin. Auvet says it boasts “berry and cherry character with just a hint of cut wood, with light tannins and a slightly bitter finish.” He also waxes poetic about grapes plucked from the steep hillsides of Corsica, a Mediterranean island with a growing reputation in the wine world.
As for the food, Auvet works closely with the group’s executive chef, Luis Hernandez, who started at Vin Sur Vingt in 2013 and is splitting his time between NYC and D.C. Auvet is proud of the small but growing cheese and charcuterie options, many organic and imported from France. A brie with black truffle excites the co-owner, as do several “very stinky” cheeses he plans to carry.
One of the most popular entrees is beef bourguignon. It’s one of several dishes in which the bar relies on recipes handed down from Auvet’s grandmother. Other cassolettes, or baking dishes, are filled with traditional items like ratatouille or cauliflower gratin. There’s also a straightforward burger and fries playfully served alongside plastic diner-style ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles, “which is how I like my burgers,” Auvet says.
The Logan Circle bar is Vin Sur Vingt’s first location outside of Manhattan. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
“Washington, D.C. felt like both New York and Paris, with its busy food culture and European architecture,” Auvet says, making it a compelling place to open. He signed the lease just before the pandemic hit, but was only able to open now because of construction and supply delays.
When restrictions ease, the bar will offer afternoon by-the-glass happy hour, and half-off bottle discounts after 10 p.m. on certain days. There are expansion plans elsewhere in D.C. in the works, too.
“This is an opportunity to be simple but not shy, and share what I love,” Auvet says.