The Irascible Master of a Minuscule Domain

International Herald Tribune

Thursday, February 26, 1970

At the corner of Rue de Sèvres and Rue des Saints-Pères is a tiny, neon-lit café indistinguishable from any other corner bistro. Despite this, it is regularly jammed by a clientele of pretty shop girls and their bosses from the dress stores on the Rue de Sèvres, floor managers from the nearby Bon Marché department store, restaurant owners, various luminaries of stage, screen and the National Assembly and a scruffy assortment of journalists, artists and the like.

Au Sauvignon is not necessarily the nearest place to get a drink for any of these people, because the quartier is full of cafés. Nor is it the attraction of the salesgirls. There are plenty of good-looking girls in the other bistros.

Once inside Au Sauvignon the secret is out. Paintings of wine cellars, vineyards and good-naturedly erotic vintage scenes announce that the owner serves good wine rather than the stuff that in most cafés has turned the French to beer. The luminaries could be wrong, but when complexion and figure-conscious girls drink wine, you may be sure it is good.

But they don't all drink it. Some ask for Coca-Cola, which the owner refuses to sell to male adults. Here lies the real answer to Au Sauvignon's success – Henri Vergne, a loyal and typical son of Auvergne and a fierce individualist, itself an Auvergnat characteristic. Alternately charming and irascible, he is the absolute master of his minuscule domain.

It is he who chooses the wines and he who challenges his customers to contradict his claim that he has "the best Beaujolais in the city of Paris." The only thing to do when faced with this outrageous if nearly justifiable assertion is to agree meekly.

His frown immediately turns into a malicious grin of satisfaction. After a few more equally impossible vinicultural boasts or political jokes, he turns his back to shave slices off a huge boule of delicious country-style bread.

Once Mr. Vergne's back is turned, nothing tears him away from his deliberate and ostensibly stingy sandwich-making. The bread slices are as thin as his great carving knife can cut them off the round loaf held against his chest, but often the slices of rich Cantal cheese from his home province are thicker than the bread.

While he carves away, his buxom wife Alice serves the customers with unfailing good humor and charm. She is as much a part of Au Sauvignon as her husband, but without him it would be just another pleasant place to drink good wine.

Mr. Vergne does not permit coffee to be drunk from 11 a.m. until after lunch, nor during most of the rest of the day. Wine is the only drink fit to accompany his remarkable sandwiches, and he frequently invites those who prefer beer or soft drinks to take their business elsewhere.

His cellar is sacred and only a very privileged few have ever set foot in it. When he descends into this forbidden precinct, nothing will bring him out until he is ready.

Once, as he was busy cleaning and putting things into order behind the bar, two customers entered, deep in discussion. Mr. Vergne continued his work as they kept up their conversation. Eventually he backed down the stairs into the cellar.

Several minutes later the talk subsided and was followed by thirsty banging on the counter. After a brief pause, a muffled roar came up from the cellar: "While I was up there, all you wanted to do was talk. Now that I'm down here, you want to be served. Go to hell!" And this is precisely what keeps his customers coming back.