You know that excitement when you discover a rather wonderful place heretofore unseen, unknown, bypassed on the corner, down a narrow side street, up a flight of stairs? One day, there it is; there you are. Serendipity is what it is.
Voilà! Hervé Wine Bar is one of those happy finds residing a block west of Santa Fe’s heart, The Plaza. Set back from San Francisco Street, through open gates of filigreed wrought iron, at the end of a long bricked walkway lined with wine barrels, it’s quite unlike anything else in Santa Fe.
Hervé Lescombes, a scion of a French multi-generational family of winemakers from Burgundy and Algiers, made his way to southern New Mexico and put down roots—and vines—in 1981. Three years later, the first vintage was bottled. Today, the St. Clair Winery in Deming has 180 acres of vineyards in the Mimbres Valley, one of only three officially designated American Viticultural Areas in New Mexico. At 4,500 feet, the high-elevation vineyards have a significant impact on the ripening process. It’s called diurnal variation. The heat of the day promotes sugar accumulation in grapes, while the cooler nighttime temperatures preserve desirable acidity, producing wines of balance and complexity. While the family produces multiple labels, their best grapes are used for D.H. Lescombes wines.
The Santa Fe project is unique for the family. Rather than using the St. Clair Winery name as do the other bistros and retail stores in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Farmington, this had to be special. It was to honor their father, Hervé, 75, and celebrate a legacy. The Lescombes group remodeled the fallow space of what had been, over the last few years, incarnations of late night bar and music venues Milagro and Skylight, reopening with little fanfare as Hervé Wine Bar in May of 2018. Through the large carved doors, you’ll find a wood and stone tasting room as handsome as any along Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail. Stand and sample the long suit of still, sparkling and fortified wines at the copper-covered tasting bar and browse myriad retail offerings of New Mexican artisan specialty food items.
Move into the adjacent atrium “Garden Room.” Tall windowed walls define the restaurant from a warren of offices and galleries. Amid a profusion of plants, settle into leather sofas for a flight of wine, perch at a highboy for live music on a weekend, take a stool at the bar for local ales, or have a leisurely meal at a table, with a bottle of wine. A second story balcony lined with café tables overlooking the dining area is available for private events. Look up through the lofty two-story glass and iron skylight into blue sky or moonlight and imagine yourself in the train station of a small European city, awaiting departure, a rendezvous or a stolen moment of anonymity.
While the Lescombes family isn’t defined by job titles, Hervé, who still spends time in the vineyard, has turned the day-to-day business over to his two sons. Emmanuel, 51, is the viticulturist whose watch is the cultivation of the vineyards and the harvest of grapes, while his younger brother, Florent, manages the winery operations. At a recent event in Santa Fe to launch their 2014 D.H. Lescombes Limited Release Petite Sirah and raise money for The Food Depot, Florent, 48, tall and lean, spoke with—what else?—a charming French accent. “My father wanted to be an artist in Paris, but with a young family, you know, he began to work in the wine business in Burgundy,” Florent said. “Still, he had the desire to create something unique. But, in Burgundy, you are restricted by rules and history so he explored. Deming and Lordsburg were along the way.”
In a banquet room off the balcony where guests sipped the Petite Sirah, inky and structured, and nibbled fine cheeses, Florent nodded toward the atrium. “It’s special when we produce something like this,” he said. “We opened here because we aren’t known in Santa Fe. We want people to experience who we are. This isn’t just a wine bar. People don’t have to come here to drink. They may come for a coffee, meet friends before going next door to The Lensic, or just relax from shopping.”
Part of the experience—the serendipity—of Hervé Wine Bar is due to Marilyn Litton, general manager. Born and raised in Shreveport, LA, she’s a charismatic, natural host with her own version of a charming Southern accent. Marilyn brings courtesy, hospitality and humor, as well as considerable culinary and business savvy to the job. Florent describes it as, “Her touch.”
“After I graduated from high school,” Marilyn says, “I worked in a small café to get the feel and learned to make the perfect cheesecake. Let me tell you, that ain’t easy! I got the wander bug and moved to California, until a friend offered me work in New York City. I packed my stuff and took off. That’s what you do when you’re young.” When her father became ill, she returned to Louisiana to look after him. As life allowed a few years later, she enrolled at Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona. “It was a wonderful school, with excellent teachers who put the fear of God in you. I did my due diligence,” she says, “and after graduating, I was hired as an instructor.
“But I always traveled to Santa Fe whenever possible. To me, it was California meets the Wild West, laid back, great art scene and so beautiful. When a headhunter suggested a job at a hotel here, I jumped,” Marilyn says. Happy years were spent at the Inn and Spa at Loretto, followed by a successful stint with the Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort in Phoenix, Ariz. Recently, having returned to Santa Fe, she spied an ad for a general manager at a new wine bar, met with the director of bistro operations for St. Clair, and was offered the job. “The family and staff were so thoughtful,” she says—and after a pause, adds, “Not something you find with corporations.”
As the remodeling began, sleeves were rolled, and myriad decisions were made collectively. “We all did tastings, thorough pairings with wine and food to get it right. When you’re new, you have no luxury to make mistakes,” she says. “We don’t serve New Mexican food, but we honor New Mexico in our own way.” Marilyn explains, “I started researching the little guys; purveyors who needed a voice. There’s many chocolatiers, but finding one that also wholesaled was challenging. The Art of Chocolate here in Santa Fe speaks to what we do. I don’t want stuff everyone has.” Marilyn sourced gelato from The Chocolate Cartel and bread from M’Tucci’s, both in Albuquerque. Her goat cheese comes from The Old Windmill Dairy in Estancia. “There are Southwestern influences, but our food is Mediterranean-influenced. It’s food to pair with wines,” she says.
You’ll find well-priced small plates of olives, hummus, Serrano ham, bacon wrapped dates, an array of bruschettas, soup, full-sized salads such as Niçoise and Cobb, and a selection of focaccia panini. Individually, these dishes serve as a light repast for one or to share, but in combination, any two make a filling meal. Marilyn’s culinary training comes out when she speaks of cooking with wine. “Wine doesn’t always impart flavor” she says, “but I use our Chenin Blanc in the shrimp and chorizo, and its essence jumps into that dish.” The simple pan sauce of wine, butter and parsley, along with large, sweet shrimp and piquant sausage is a pretty pair with the honeysuckle, orange zest and nutmeg notes of D.H. Lescombes Chenin Blanc. Flights are available in sets of three or four wines. Taste side by side a rosé of Syrah, redolent of fresh strawberries, a dry, citrusy Sémillon and a sassy Prosecco-styled sparkling. Pair the flight with a lime-scented Ahi tuna tartare and avocado, and vote for a winner.
Florent is correct to say their wines are not well known in certain circles. It’s a shame, and hopefully this will change now that we know what’s down the brick passageway off of San Francisco Street. You’re invited. Hervé and family await your respondez s’il vous plaît.
Hervé Wine Bar is located at 139 W. San Francisco St. in Santa Fe, 505.795.7075, stclairwinery.com/santa-fe-herve.