Cover Story

The Wine Seller

by Mary Tutwiler

For a decade, Philippe Simon has been cultivating palates and preaching philosophy to Lafayette’s oenophiles. Eleven bottles of wine, their corks pulled, are breathing. On the wall above them hangs a cluster of old photographs, all of a very young man with a very big Gallic mustache. Here, he is examining a cluster of ripe grapes, ready for the vendange, or wine harvest. In another, he is hefting a glass of red wine. He is in thought, deep in a wine cellar, checking his notes on a wine tasting. He is 23 years old, the maitre d’ of the Moulin de Montaletang restaurant in the town of Limoges, in the heart of the French massif central, where wine connoisseurs come every year to taste the magnificent bordeaux in the cellar. He doesn’t drink. He knows nothing of wine. His name is Philippe Simon.

Sommelier, connoisseur, wine merchant: Philippe Simon, (pronounced See-mon), 51, is the voice of authority, a very French accented voice, when it comes to wine in Lafayette. “He’s always on top of the wine game, and that’s a pretty difficult task because it’s so vast and changing,” says Lafayette attorney Steve Baker. A wine collector with a cellar bulging with thousands of bottles, Baker says he owes his knowledge and appreciation of wine in large part to Simon. “He encourages younger, inexperienced wine buyers and he challenges experienced wine buyers with his knowledge and love and tasting ability. Over the years he has always been a friend of those lovers of wine.”

Simon’s story is a classic tale of an emigré with a dream of coming to America and making a life for himself and his family. But while he loves Lafayette, he is a Gaul to the bone, so unyielding in his customs that at times other members of the international community complain that he is too exacting, too French, for someone who has thrown in his lot with America.

Simon was born and raised in the Loire Valley, in the town of Azay-le-Rideau. As student of chemistry and physics at the University of Angers, he says he had no time for drinking. “I was not the brightest boy on the block,” he jokes. “I had to study.” A summer job found him in Dublin, waiting tables, until the owner, noticing his accent, made him the restaurant’s wine steward. “I became a sommelier by default, because I am French,” he laughs.

But he stopped laughing when his new brother-in-law offered him a job in his restaurant in Limoges. “My brother-in-law gave me the maitre d’ job. He had to teach me everything. I had to study to become sommelier.” The Moulin de Montaletang restaurant drew customers from all over the world. They went to eat the regional cuisine and drink great wine, but back then, in the early 1980s, there was only one kind of wine served in three star restaurants in France. “Sommelier was much more simple. If you are from France, you must know French wine,” says Simon.

Eight years later, Simon went on to open his own restaurant, La Sommellerie, in the town of Gevrey Chambertin, in Burgundy. Steep slopes and mini-climates, tiny villages and variable soils all contribute to make knowing the wines of the Burgundy region, nearly exclusively made from the temperamental pinot noir grape, a daunting task. With a higher number of appellations d’origine contrôlée (demarking the place where a wine is bottled) than any other French region, Burgundy is often seen as the most terroir-conscious of the French wine regions. Wines, like Gevrey Chambertin, can achieve cult status. “It was my thought to put some rhone, some bordeaux, some langedoc [on the wine list],” says Simon, “but it was not possible to sell. I had to keep it for myself. The customers came for Gevrey Chambertin.”

Working in the two restaurants, Simon learned what he asserts is the key to pleasurably drinking wine: matching it with food. “My first advice I give to a customer, who says, ‘I want a red wine, a merlot.’ I say, ‘Yes, but what type of food do you want to eat?’ To bring back to my knowledge of what I did in France, you have to think food first, wine after. When I talk about terroir — if you go in Burgundy, the food from Burgundy will match better the wine from Burgundy. It’s very simple. The food from one region and the wine from one region, historically, evolved at the same time. The people, their mind set was a certain taste. So they made their wine to fit their food. That’s the best way to match wine and food.”

Philippe, Sylvie and Sebastien Simon surrounded by a sea of wine in Philippe’s Wine Cellar

Photo by Robin May

Why would a successful restaurateur leave one of the most famous wine regions in the world to start all over in America? The legacy dates back to the good will of American soldiers in post-war France. Simon was a small child in the 1960s. “When I was growing up there was an American military base close to the house. The soldiers were passing every day in front of the house, and offering candies and stuff like that, and nobody had cars except them at that time.” As he grew up and traveled, the idea of America stayed with him. “It was always a dream for me. Anybody can come to this country and make a lot of money.”

And so in 1997, Simon, along with his brother, who was the chef at La Sommellerie, decided to open a restaurant in the states. “The people who move to the U.S. from Burgundy were living in Florida. So in Coco Beach, I was planning to open a restaurant. Unfortunately, his wife [Simon’s brother’s wife], she didn’t want to move. Some want an adventure; some want to stay home.”

Simon explored California, without success, before landing in Scott. He credits the friendliness and good will of Lafayette’s residents in extending a hand to a foreigner. “You’re on your own in Florida and California,” he says. “But when you come to Louisiana, if you get some help, if you meet the right people, who give you the right direction, it’s going to be good. You meet people, you meet people, you meet people, they are willing to help you, you know. That was a dream come true.”

Wine was his calling card, and Simon was shortly introduced to some of the town’s wine lovers, like Sandy Kaplan, former wine critic of the Times of Acadiana, and Dean Metcalf, who owns Deano’s Pizza.

Metcalf immediately took to Simon. “Philippe was trying to get himself settled and into some kind of profession that he had background in so he could bring his family over and gain citizenship. He tried everything at the time from selling vacuum cleaners to getting in as a sommelier in the restaurants here in town.” Through Metcalf and others, Simon was introduced to wine merchant Gene Todaro, owner of Marcello’s. Todaro put Simon to work on his floor, selling wine.

Baker, as a neophyte wine buyer, bumped into Simon at Marcello’s. “We didn’t have much wine growing up in Baton Rouge,” he says. “I’d go to a restaurant and they’d hand me a wine list and it was like a foreign language and I hated being uninformed. So I began to subscribe to Wine Spectator. I’d go to Marcello’s when Philippe worked there, and I didn’t know Philippe, but I was obviously lost in this sea of wine. He was intimidating to me because he knew so much. Looking at this young Frenchman, whom I could barely understand, who has this magnificent mustache, and I’m thinking, wow, that guy knows way too much and I don’t want him to waste his knowledge on me because I’m so uninformed.”

Todaro also introduced Simon to James Graham, chef at an exciting new restaurant, Fish and Game Grill. Graham hired Simon on as sommelier, albeit, sans green card, under the table.

Sylvie Simon is the store’s champagne expert.

Photo by Robin May

Baker sought out Simon’s advice on wine choices to accompany his dinners at Fish and Game Grill. “He’d make some great recommendations,” says Baker.

Todaro, an emigré to the U.S. from Sicily at the age of 14, understood Simon’s desire to become an American citizen and offered to sponsor him. Todaro was an experienced restaurateur as well. In partnership with Ralph Schumacher, they opened Café de France, in part to give Simon a resume created for him alone. Simon was the restaurant’s wine expert. The French bistro was a hit from the first day, but ultimately there was a falling out between Todaro, Schumacher and Simon.

Simon says he needed to own his own business, and began making plans to open a wine shop.

That was September 1999. Simon went back to his friend Dean Metcalf. “After Café de France didn’t work out,” says Metcalf, “I asked Philippe what he wanted to do and he said he would like to open a wine shop. I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It was prior to Christmas, and fortunately I had a pretty substantial wine collection myself. We set up all night putting together wine racks. Everybody pitched in, my son helped, someone else helped with the finances, and we were able to get it going. And sold quite a bit of wine that holiday season.”

Philippe’s Wine Cellar opened Dec. 1, 1999. A fixture in the store from the start was Simon’s wife, Sylvie. “I came over with $30,000, four kids, three cats and nine suitcases,” says Simon. “You need a strong wife to support you.” He guided customers; she ran the cash register — the typical arrangement in a French family business.

Wine drinkers who knew Simon’s talents pairing food and drink from his nights working as a sommelier found their way to the store. Baker describes those days: “I would go by his shop on a pretty regular basis and just talk wine with him. We’d sample wine. But I got a lot more out of his conversation than I did the wine tasting. How the different regions and vintages compare. He has a great memory for wine as well. I began to buy [cases]. And I’d buy an occasional extra bottle of wine if he thought it was special. For Philippe, it doesn’t have to be expensive to be special. Philippe gets excited as much about value as anybody does, if it’s a quality wine at a great value. I think that’s one of his strongest characteristics. Often, when Philippe and I get excited about a wine, I’ll have a little dinner party and invite Philippe and Sylvie. He’s amazing at a party; he has a great knowledge of food as well as wine. And he can be critical as well. With the food, wine and everything else, you know where you stand with Philippe.”

For those who have traveled and tasted wines where they are grown, buying boutique wine in Lafayette was not easy. What set Philippe’s Wine Cellar apart was his deep knowledge of terroir, the French term for the connection between the earth, the food and the wine of a region. “I was lucky to know some of the best importers because they had been customers of mine in Burgundy,” he says. “I even met Robert Parker. He came to eat several times in my restaurant, but I didn’t know he was such a guru.” Parker is an international wine writer. His recommendation, or criticism, can make or break a wine. Simon’s steady business brought cult-winery distributors like Eric Solomon and Bobby Kacher into Louisiana.

With the opening of his business came the cherished green card which bestows official status on its owner. Five years later, in December 2004, the Simons became American citizens. “I was at the party when Philippe and Sylvie were nationalized,” says Baker. “Judge Haik gave the oath. There were tears in Philippe’s and Sylvie’s eyes. It was a small crowd, only about 40 people who know and love Philippe and Sylvie, and most of them had tears in their eyes as well.”

Lafayette has been good to Simon. He moved his store from the Oil Center to Ambassador Caffery Parkway in 2006, tripling the size of his wine shop and doubling the business. Christophe Juillot, also from Burgundy, manages the shop as well as a second store Simon opened in Broussard 18 months ago. Sebastien, 21, the Simons’ oldest son, also works with the couple. Simon is looking to open another storefront downtown, in the old Tribune Printing building, that will cater to wine tastings.

A rare acquisition: a library jeraboam of Spottswoode, 1986

Photo by Robin May

Juillot’s deft hand with the shop has allowed Simon to play to his strengths. “He has a tremendous knowledge of wine,” says Metcalf. “He’s a great cook as well. He has such a great personality and the ladies dearly love him.” Simon really enjoys the one-on-one relationship with his customers. He is able to focus on individualizing their wine selection, paying close attention to the purpose of the purchase, be it laying away cases for the future or planning tonight’s dinner party.

Visiting the shop is also great fun. Mornings, Simon tastes wine several days a week. One morning he was confronted with 60 bottles of wine, a daunting undertaking for anyone, even someone with as much experience as Simon. Ultimately, he decided to carry only four of the wines. The next day, 11 bottles sat on his counter. Tasting, from the first light Portuguese white “a perfect wine for sipping with a picnic on a hot summer day,” to a big fruit forward malbec with sage and juniper notes from Argentina, “me, I don’t drink this, two glasses and you’re full, but this one is easy to sell,” he concluded that he would buy the whole offering, minus a corked (spoiled) bottle. Why the difference between the two days? “These wines over deliver for the price,” says Simon. They are the good values he is looking for every day.

Around noon, Simon is cooking for his staff on a small Coleman stove in the back of the store. Lucky customers sometimes arrive just as the steak au poive is coming out of the skillet, and get a little lunchtime lagniappe with their purchase. Friday afternoons are turning into a happening at the shop. There is a well attended free weekly wine tasting, which Simon uses as an opportunity to educate his clients’ palates. Novices chat with aficionados as they compare a winery’s flight, side by side. Simon’s blue eyes glitter with pleasure when a new customer tastes a well made wine and discovers that flavors, be it a rich humus note from the soil or the high tropical perfume of mango, papaya and pineapple, rise magically from a glass of grape juice. “He has helped me so much,” says Rita St. Amant, a Notary Public, who was blown to Lafayette by Hurricane Katrina. “Here, every woman is a star. It doesn’t matter her age or what she looks like. He’s so charming.”

Simon is constantly teaching how to bring a wine to its top, by serving it at the best temperature, in the best glass, with the best food, and — most important — in the best ambience.

“I sell passion,” he says. “The magic is not all the wine. In your kitchen, you just had an argument with your husband, that wine sits on the counter for two days at 75 degrees, you drink that in your plastic cup. (He is rolling with laughter). The key for me, I make people change their habit. The way people eat, standing up, in the kitchen. The wife at 5, the boy after sports at 6, the husband at 7. Everybody in his own corner. I try to tell them, you buy this bottle of wine, it’s a wine you cannot drink by yourself. You have to come back home, sit around a table, make some dish, serve a bottle of wine, and you will see it makes the whole difference in life. Communication with the husband and the wife takes time; people aren’t communicating more because they aren’t eating together any more. The wine is to bring back communication at home. So then this philosophy is very important. There will be less divorce, if you know to drink wine. The more you cook, the more you do things together, the better life is.”