There are a lot of places to drink in New York City. (Arguably somewhere between 1,500 and 1,700, depending on which corner of the internet you trust more.) Yet one bar, situated on an unremarkable stretch of the city’s SoHo-Chinatown divide, is hands-down the hottest industry hang. If you are out on the town with sommeliers, visiting winemakers, off-the-clock servers, or anyone else in the business, it’s a safe bet that your evening will include at least one stop at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels.
The third outpost of an international fleet by the Paris-based Experimental Cocktail Club team, La Compagnie opened in NYC in 2014. It wasn’t until after 31-year-old Caleb Ganzer, an Eleven Madison Park alum, joined as head sommelier in March 2015, however, that the bar started gaining traction as an industry go-to.
“Our vision for the place was be the neighborhood wine bar for the world,” Ganzer, now wine director and managing partner of La Compagnie, says. “I want people to come from all corners of the globe and feel like they’re at home, but also be reflective of the fact that New York is the greatest wine market of the world.”
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It’s a big mission. When Ganzer came on board, he began by reinventing the bar itself — starting with its list.
The original La Compagnie opened in Paris in 2011 with the goal of pouring good wine without pretension. (The name translates to “The Supernatural Wine Company,” a nod to the owners’ ethos that natural wine can be good, but isn’t always.) The Experimental Cocktail Club team enjoyed drinking wine, but they didn’t necessarily have Ganzer’s expertise.
“There were certain things on the list that just made the other stuff look bad,” Ganzer says of the bar’s original offerings. “Something about it just didn’t feel like what New York wanted to drink at the time.” A copy of La Compagnie’s opening wine list from 2014 includes a bottle of Pétrus 1988 ($3,150) alongside several $1,000-plus Bordeaux bottles. A few pages earlier is a Layer Cake Chardonnay 2012, which retails in supermarkets for around $10.
Ganzer never returned to La Compagnie after attending its 2014 opening, and he doesn’t remember any of his industry friends returning, either. Eight months later, he was considering departing Eleven Madison Park and reconnected with the team at La Compagnie. Suddenly, he had the opportunity to create the wine bar he always wanted without the difficulties of a new opening.
“I really had nothing to lose,” Ganzer says. “It was kind of like, here’s the keys and no money. Just sell what you want, and then you can buy whatever you want.”
Fortunately, what Ganzer wants to buy, sell, and drink resonates with New Yorkers. In keeping with the city’s high-low ethos (where else are you going to find foie gras in your doughnut?), Ganzer balances the 20-plus-page wine list of Burgundy and Bordeaux with $50 bottles of Grüner Veltliner and Ribeira Sacra.
“Winemakers are always the most cool, humble people,” Ganzer says. “They’re always down for a good time, but somehow their wine gets so stuffy in export markets. That’s always been my vision, to channel the winemaker.”
Ganzer jokes that La Compagnie is a fine-dining refugee camp. All staffers are sommeliers, and they do everything from pop corks to bus tables. The team wears T-shirts, Hawaiian-print button-downs, or, in Ganzer’s case, track jackets in lieu of three-piece suits. They speak as enthusiastically about Muscadet as Montrachet, and open as much Sauvignon Blanc as they do Chablis. A $12 wine might be served in a $60 glass, or a $300 magnum might be waterfalled straight into the mouth (if it’s one of those kinds of nights).
“Just because you work in fine dining doesn’t mean you take yourself too seriously,” Ganzer says. “I want this to be the best job for somms out there. I’ve done those jobs and I know what’s good, I know what’s bad, I know what I want, and I know what other people want, too.”
That includes wildly popular events, ranging from the Wine Mixtape series, in which pros like Rajat Parr and Aldo Sohm pick and pour flights, to an Austin Powers-themed Halloween party. Ganzer admits that he breaks even at best on these types of nights, but they are essential to his mission, informing past, present, and future guests, “This is who we are, this is what we stand for, and this is how we like to party,” he says.
In doing so, La Compagnie has built a loyal clientele that includes happy-hour first dates and late-night industry parties. Ganzer appreciates the chance to get to know his guests personally.
“In fine-dining restaurants, your best regulars might come once a month, a couple times a year,” he says. “We have people literally coming in three to four times a week here. For me, that’s how you build regular hospitality that feels good. You’re part of their lives.”
In a city where bars and restaurants debut and shutter with alarming frequency, operating a consistently packed establishment that manages to be both friendly and cool is akin to launching a restaurant at the end of the universe. (Manhattan’s wine-fueled graveyard includes Veritas, a Grand Award-winning Gramercy restaurant with a well-regarded kitchen and 75,000-bottle cellar, among countless others.)
“The best wine bars are very personal reflections of their owners,” Ganzer says. “There has to be a vision and a message behind it.”
La Compagnie resonates with wine professionals and notoriously fickle New Yorkers because Ganzer embodies the modern sommelier: a person who is passionate about wine but not stuffy about service. This is not just changing how New Yorkers drink wine. It’s the future of the entire wine-drinking industry.