The Eastside wine scene is no small operation: Woodinville alone is home to more than 130 wineries, wine bars, and tasting rooms featuring locally made wines. Yet for those who pine for the experience that is associated with drinking European wines — especially those from countries with centuries-long reputations for making excellent wine — pickings can be difficult to come by.
When found — typically in a restaurant setting — European wines tend to run at higher prices than local ones in large part thanks to a multi-step process of importation and distribution, each step of which tacks extra dollars onto the retail price.
Enter Julien Hervet, a former Microsoftee originally from Tours, France, who noticed a lack of access to European wine when he started bringing bottles back to the states for friends and family as a hobby in 2015.
“I was bringing over these wines and there were suddenly more (people) interested than we anticipated,” Hervet said. “There were a lot of products we could get that weren’t found in this market, and if they were, they were expensive. I saw an opportunity for simplifying that process.”
This simplification started as an operation run out of Hervet’s garage that involved trips to small wineries in France, Spain, Italy, California, and Oregon. The idea was simple: Rather than involve multiple people and companies to source, import, and distribute wines, Hervet would hand-select products himself and cut out all the middlemen, keeping costs low and diversifying the selection of foreign wines available in Washington’s market.
Less than two years after leaving Microsoft — and three years after he first started casually importing European wines — Hervet opened Cépaé in July 2018 in downtown Bellevue. Cépaé — a word created by Hervet that nods to French and Latin roots pertaining to vines, bulbs, and grapes — is a tasting room with over 120 wines by the glass as well as the brand under which Hervet sells bottles to more than 50 restaurants in the area.
The low cost of authentic and high-quality European wine makes Cépaé stand out in the local wine arena. Prices by the bottle start at $12, and the most expensive bottle — a grand cru classé from a prestigious French winery — goes for $209. This price, Hervet said, is a good deal in the U.S., where the cost of a grand cru classé can easily be over $500.
The physical space of the wine bar also makes it unique: Cépaé is connected to La Parisienne French Bakery, which originally opened doors in Seattle five years ago and has now opened a second location through a partnership with Cépaé to create a one-stop French experience in the heart of Bellevue.
“The idea is to create a day-to-night atmosphere,” Hervet said of the conjoined businesses. “In the morning, you can (have) the most authentic French croissant. As the day progresses, you can shift into more of a wine bar experience. Bellevue is a place where there are a lot of look-alike restaurants; we’re trying to disrupt that.”
Cépaé and La Parisienne each have their own entrances, but once inside, the two businesses merge into one, seamlessly transitioning from a wall of stacked wines and a bar to glass displays of French pastries, sandwiches, and desserts. Small tables dot the open space, which is full of natural light thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows. In the evening, a curtain hides the bakery section to create a more intimate wine-drinking experience.
The French feeling in the space itself is championed only by the philosophy that Hervet has instilled in his brand: one that stems from France’s cultural approach to wine.
“Wine is about stories, it’s about family passion, it’s emotion in a bottle,” Hervet said. “Often, we work with people who have been doing it for generations and generations — one winemaker’s family has been doing it since 1630.”
Beyond his insistence on building personal relationships with the winemakers whose products he sells, Hervet also is the only person importing, distributing, and retailing wine in Washington. At Cépaé, the only degree of separation between the consumer and the winemaker is Hervet himself. This, he said, makes the experience for Washington wine-lovers closer to what it would be if they were sipping wine on a street terrace in Paris.
“I think that authenticity is the key word,” he said. “In everything we do, the authenticity is there.”
This spirit of authenticity, in Hervet’s opinion, is what keeps Cépaé competitive in a local market that includes wine giants like Chateau Ste. Michelle.
“We bring in new wine, new stories, new discoveries,” Hervet said. “We do regular tastings, bring winemakers over from Europe, offer wine classes. (All these things) make people interested in coming back time after time. They make us different from the competition.”