Willi’s Wine Bar – Lost and Found

By: Eve Bushman

One of the favorite questions people ask at Willi's, over and above "What have you got for me to taste today?" & "Where can we buy these great posters?" is "Who is Willi?" Well, the answer to this question is simply that Willi – abbreviated from William Foster Simpson Browing III, was the patrons much loved quadruped. Willi a true pedigree party animal if there ever was one – he closely resembled the rare breed of 'B' Basset otherwise known as the Swinging Basset Hound – passed away in the mid 1980's having lived the good life squarely on all fours.

His tomb lies beneath the paving stones to the right of the door at N° 13, directly below the gas meter. On the 13th of October each year, the bar's birthday, glasses of the finest champagne, Willi's ultimate undoing, are raised and raised again in his memory. Mention of Willi whereabouts in Stan Brown's best selling novel The Naked Leonardo has encouraged a steady flow of Willi Fans to linger for a few moments at this spot, often anointing the pavement with a splash of bubbly.

I wanted to visit Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris during a 1992 trip because I was intrigued by an article in Wine Spectator magazine naming it as one of the “100 Best Wine Bars in The World”. Back then I only knew what I had learned from just four French wines classes – four classes that only served to whet my whistle.

We hoped to meet Willi that year, on September 21 to be exact, if we can trust my wine/travel journal. Now, some twenty-five years later, come to find out that Tim Johnson, that day’s barkeep, chose not to enlighten three westerners (my husband Eddie, my brother Mike, and me.) to the true history I have since found and quoted above. Our Frommer’s guide hadn’t either so who was to blame?

Apparently it was the Canadians. A breed unlike the Westerners in front of Tim at the bar or the Parisians behind him in the restaurant.

“No don’t use the guide’s directions. Use the Metro…right…then you can get a taxi by the McDonalds…yes, there is one right next to the Eiffel Tower…on the shady side…yes that’s right…then ask the first person you see…” and then, to us after he had hung up the phone, “We don’t sell Canadian beer here.”

Tim poured us two Bordeauxs: a Lynch Bagues and a Talbot. The former for free. I was happy. He poured, and tossed out, the only thing he wouldn’t pour for us: his own label. Now, if you call it your own label shouldn’t you be the wine bar owner? Or at the very least the dog’s owner?

As we settled in at the bar and looked forward to the next phone call asking for directions, our eyes were drawn to the street. A tiny car, the type made famous from Grace Kelly to Mr. Bean movies, had decided to park his car parallel in a space that was only big enough…perpendicularly.

Mr. Bean Kelly hadn’t been leaving Willi’s, therefore having an excuse to drive drunk – he was trying to get into Willi’s. And Ed and I were guessing he was Canadian. We settled into our bar stools and proceeded to watch his bump and grind. Mr. B.K. pushed and prodded; remarkably not setting off a single car alarm or honks from passersby. When he successfully wedged into the space and hopped out we had only one response. Applause. He turned to us, bowed and entered the bar to join a group of friendly Willies.

Then, just beginning to feel more than comfortable at the bar, we were called into the recesses of the restaurant to prepare for dinner. Their French chef had perfectly paired meals for any wine chosen.

In my journal I recalled an appetizer of salad greens with filet mignon, potatoes blended with basil and, surprisingly, cod fish! We had it paired with a white Cotes-Du-Rhone while my brother enjoyed his first Australian Shiraz with his preferred pork entree.

My journal then read, “The Shiraz was excellent so we ordered more with our dessert of crème caramel and chocolate mousse. We finished off with café (Café (kuh-fay) is plain coffee with nothing added, but is strong as it is brewed like espresso.) and headed home to try and play Hearts again.”

Not your average wine bar. Of course not. This was Paris. And beyond the rim of my glass was the rim of all European wines. And the beginning of my wine drinking/writing interest!

Fast forward. We were on a wine tasting trip just a couple of years ago in Santa Ynez when one of our friends suggested a wine bar in the town of Los Gatos. We had never gone to a wine bar in a wine area; wine could be tasted in wineries. We didn’t want to go. We were snobbish…we were stupid.

When we were finally coaxed to try it out not only where we surprised to find that we could taste many wines from local wineries that we would never have had the time to visit, Willi was there!

Posters adorned all of the walls of this Los Gatos wine bar from Willi’s Wine Bar. We thought it a fluke. Another Willi’s perhaps? There was one now in the US: http://news.williswinebar.us/. Was our Willi’s that famous? Come to find out that the wine bar had produced a yearly award-winning poster. I found myself staring at the one for 1991. One I imagined seeing before when it was only a year old.

Two fat green bottles topped with stringy red hair danced in a tango-esque embrace. Both were adorned with white angel wings, jaunty hats and oh-so-skinny legs. The silhouettes of the wine bottles now resembling mine and Eddie’s. The skinny dancing legs did too. And someday, I hoped, would come the wings.

This column will undoubtedly hit well after October 13, Willi’s date of demise, but we will continue to toast memories of small cars and smaller parking spaces as well as our first decade of drinking fine wines now becoming three. And we’ll be thankful that if we live life well enough to receive our wings, we’ll be able to share a nice Bordeaux with the Willi-dog after all.

About The Author

I began writing satirically about wine as a columnist in a local newspaper in Southern California. I now write for my own site, a wine 101 column in the WestRanchBeacon.com and in print for SCVelitemagazine.com. I have a Level 2 Wine Spirit and Education Trust certification (WSET), have interviewed many winemakers, sommeliers, bar owners and drunks. I also continue my education via the internet and "study". There is something daily on my site(s) as well as the original SCV Wine Calendar.Sip it!

Visit Eve Bushman's web site