.Banter Wine

Chez Panisse alum offer genuine hospitality at El Cerrito's new wine bar

Most couples who have a glass of wine after work don’t go on to start their own wine bar and shop. But five months ago, Claire Sullivan and Devin Hohler opened Banter Wine in El Cerrito. The pandemic pause prompted the couple to reconsider the direction of their lives. “We can keep working for other people, or maybe we could have a wine bar, hang out with each other, pour wine and listen to good music,” Hohler recalled them thinking. The personal—drinking wine at home—quickly morphed into the professional. 

Sullivan and Hohler decided to take a look at commercial properties in their neighborhood to see what was available. When they visited an address on San Pablo Avenue, they saw the potential and contacted the landlord to start the process of negotiation, which was “something that felt super unattainable. We thought we were going to be told, ‘No,’ by everybody. We just kept on being told, ‘Yes,’” Sullivan said. By September 2021, they signed the lease and began to make the space their own.     

The two aren’t amateurs who are suddenly dipping their toes in the hospitality business. They met while they were both working at Chez Panisse, that East Bay fount of culinary creativity from which chefs, cookbook authors, nutritionists, teachers and oenophiles spring. “We worked in the industry for a long time,” Hohler said. “It’s not like we were going to open a wine bar or a used car lot.”     

Hohler started working in restaurants when he was 16 years old and was hired at Chez Panisse as a busser in 2013, subsequently getting promoted to be a bartender. After tasting wine at the restaurant, he realized, “It’s a hell of a beverage.” 

Similarly, Sullivan started as a Chez Panisse busser and then a waiter in the downstairs café. And her parents own a wine-importing company. “My mother is French and comes from a winemaking family,” she said.  

“The primary thing most of us who worked at Chez Panisse take from it is the intense feeling of hospitality,” Sullivan explained. “The true joy of bringing people together over food and wine is something that has definitely inspired all the offshoots to go out and do the same.” She added that offering a genuine sense of hospitality isn’t a forced smile—but the real joy of welcoming someone into a space and making them feel at home. 

After working in an environment like Chez Panisse, where everybody has a shared passion, Hohler asked the question, “What can we offer that’s not necessarily being done?” They wanted to start a wine bar that was humble, inviting and friendly. Ultimately, that’s the message Alice Waters instilled in her employees. 

The Banter wine stock isn’t limited to one region. Sullivan and Hohler buy domestic, French, Italian and Spanish wine. There are a few outliers from Georgia, Mexico and South Africa. “We’re not trying to restrict ourselves,” Sullivan said. “We do tend to have a majority of French wine because I grew up around them, but we’re not putting ourselves in a box.” 

“We also work with a handful of different importers and distributors,” Hohler added. “We taste with them on a weekly basis. Whatever they bring in, we decide if we like it or not.” Their tastings range from Eastern European wines that have been made the same way for hundreds of years to Oregon chardonnays and “weird” wine from Texas. Hohler said he’s not a sommelier. “My primary goal with wine is more humble, to enjoy it. I can sometimes get notes of random things, but want to be able to pair it well with food,” he explained.

Banter Wine doesn’t have a full menu with a chef in the kitchen. “We have a cheese plate, a meat plate, olives and almonds and little anchovies,” Sullivan said. Those are classic snacks to eat with wine. “They’re healthy, a little fatty and a little crunchy,” she added. “We’re inspired by wine bars in France. You have a little something to accompany wine. Oftentimes, that’s something very simple like a piece of cheese or an olive in the afternoon.”

The vibe at Banter, as Hohler described, is meant to be “warm and inviting.” He and Sullivan didn’t want people to be apprehensive about going to a fancy wine bar. It’s okay if one doesn’t know anything about wine. Hohler plays rock ‘n’ roll on the record player, in a space with a pinball machine and concert posters hanging on the walls. “The space is a living, breathing thing that’s constantly being improved upon,” he said. “Our vision going into it was to have a very relaxing living room feeling, and that’s what we’ve done.”    

Banter Wine

Open Wed to Sat, 4-9pm

10368 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito

instagram.com/banter_winebar

Jeffrey Edalatpour
Jeffrey Edalatpour’s writing about arts, food and culture has appeared in SF Weekly, Metro Silicon Valley, East Bay Express and KQED Arts.

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