Making it to ten years in the restaurant business is tough. According to a study conducted by Cornell University, 30% of restaurants fail or change ownership in the first year. And, yikes, that number jumps to 60% by year three.
So it’s hard not to be impressed by a Richmond restaurant that not only makes it to the decade mark, but does so with a year and a half of construction at their front door.
When C’est le Vin opened in 2009, Richmond was a very different restaurant town, one that wasn’t used to the regular attention of the national press. C’est le Vin felt like a secret treasure in Shockoe Bottom, a place offering a unique selection of art, wine, terrific food and price points that didn’t limit it to special occasions.
Ethiopian-born owner Genet Semere originally moved to Richmond in 1976, doing real estate and tax work. She returned to Ethiopia in 1993 where she opened several restaurants and clubs before moving back to Richmond – doesn’t everybody? – in 2002.
When she first saw the building on 17th Street, it was sad looking and boarded up, but it intrigued her. When it remained shuttered for the next four years, she took it as a sign. “Maybe it was waiting for me,” she concluded and finally called the owner.
She began renting it in 2008 and by 2009, set out to create a wine bar in a city that didn’t know from wine bars.
“I wanted to create a European-style wine bar, a place where people could come relax, get treated well and enjoy wine and tapas,” Semere says. “We were Richmond’s first wine bar and then in 2010 came Secco.”
By 2015, Wine Enthusiast included C’est le Vin its top 20 wine bars in America, noting that it featured “live ¬music, more than 200 bottles and a solid array of by-the-glass selections, with special attention paid to Virginia wines.”
The restaurant holds free wine tastings Wednesday through Saturday evenings from 5 – 7 p.m. and once a month, they bring in wine vendors for a bigger tasting of a dozen or so wines. The point is to educate people so that they learn what they like and perhaps expand their palates.
Then came the sledgehammer. The city closed the 17th Street Farmers’ Market in July 2017, assuring nearby tenants it would only be closed for six months. Because C’est le Vin fronts 17th Street, it was like a death sentence. But Semere hung in there despite the rubble, by limiting her hours to poetry Thursdays and wine-down Fridays and counting the days to completion.
“That made us have to start all over again,” she recalls. “Our regular customers are finally starting to come back.”
Everyone from regulars to first-timers are invited to C’est le Vin’s tenth anniversary party this Saturday from 4-8 p.m. The celebration takes place outside at the farmers’ market and will feature live entertainment and the opportunity to sample sixteen wines from Italy, Spain, Germany, Chile, Argentina and Virginia. There’s no cover charge for the party, but the wine tasting is $20, with tickets available on site.
After a decade in business, Semere has some strong opinions about what Richmond restaurant owners need, among them more support from the ABC.
“They’re always saying no to doing something, being negative all the time,” she insists. “I wish Richmond could be like New York or D.C. and be open for business. We want to do good things, but they’re always no-ing us. Let Richmond grow.”
C’est le Vin 10th Anniversary Celebration, Saturday, Oct. 26 4-8 p.m., 15 N. 17th St., cestlevinrva.com