Bar and restaurant owner Mark Williamson is on a mission to stimulate wine drinkers in the French capital, writes ERIC RIEWER.
Mark Williamson has played no small part in making sure that the libation of Paris today is wine. Were Hemingway alive today, he would surely join the ranks of other Americans who have chosen Willi’s Wine Bar and its restaurant neighbour, Maceo – both owned by Williamson – as their watering holes of choice. Williamson’s morning starts at 10 with its routine flurry of calls, emails, and invoices. But the real work begins with a late-morning wine tasting at Maceo for a select circle of journalists and wine trade to sample rare California wines from Manfred Krankl’s Sine Qua Non. A light lunch then brings out an array of Rhône wines to compare with Krankl’s powerful, and sometimes stunning, wines.
Mark Williamson has just enough time to make a quick appraisal before dashing to his office upstairs to confer with Davida Deutsch, a visiting New Yorker helping Mark to organise the shipping of a special edition of this year’s Willi’s Wine Bar poster by the photographer Lyu Hanabusa to benefit the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund. This fund has been set up for the families of restaurant trade workers who lost lives and jobs following the New York attacks on 11 September. Generosity has been a hallmark of the wines at Willi’s ever since Mark got the idea for a new breed of wine bar during a visit to winemakers in southern France. The Rhône ranger returned to offer Paris a gamut of juicy reds and fragrant whites that went beyond the pale of the drab fare of mediocre Beaujolais that usually flowed in the rare Paris wine bars of the 1980s. Mark brought to Willi’s the philosophy acquired during his tenure at Steven Spurrier’s Académie du Vin: ‘Enable people to have fun with wine while learning, and encourage them to drink differently each time they order a glass.’
Willi’s was soon crowned with success as ‘the place where one could feel at home and find delight in wines not found elsewhere’. In 1997, he added another venue where he could expand his wine philosophy. He had had his eye on a restaurant next door, and this was reborn as Maceo, refitted in a rakish mix of modern furnishings and historic stones. It sets a hybrid tone not unlike the funk music of the restaurant’s namesake, saxophonist Maceo Parker.
The message here is simple: ‘People are making wonderful wine everywhere, so Maceo eschews the wine racism that characterises most French restaurants – they ostracise all quirky wines, even those from less prestigious French wine regions, to the back of the wine list, if they exist at all.’ As night falls, Mark switches hats for his role as the maître d’hôtel at Maceo. This is a delicate task he relishes. ‘If you begin by letting the client think he does not have good taste, he will begin to wonder why he chose this restaurant. I prefer to collaborate and ask about his usual choices. ‘There is no point in pushing people to try something they may not want. Happily the French no longer have the rigid notion that they must drink French. It is the American tourist who persists in being “plus royaliste que le roi” and drinking French when in Paris. At the end of the day, though, it makes me happy to see empty bottles reflecting a diverse choice of wine.’
Written by ERIC RIEWER