Consider this opening tale of El Cerrito’s Banter Wine a modern-day, bar owner version of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day — but stretch it into a year-plus narrative that saw owners and partners Claire Sullivan and Devin Hohler encounter just about every type of delay you can imagine. After signing a lease back in September 2021, Sullivan and Hohler worked to flip a former art studio building into a full-fledged wine bar, navigating all the complexities of converting a commercial building into a food space. Throw in a car crash (no, really, a literal car crashed into the building), as well as a new baby and it’s easy to understand Sullivan describing the feeling of finally opening Banter on Thursday, April 20 as “unbelievable.” “I feel like we’re still at every moment waiting for the other shoe to drop, just because there were so many surprises,” Sullivan says. “We basically just can’t believe that we’re past all that. But that being said, we’re feeling really excited.”
The opening of a wine bar in El Cerrito, a city of about 25,000 residents, is an exciting prospect. El Cerrito is not (yet) well known for its bar scene, though there are outstanding bars in and around the city, such as Little Hill Lounge and Hotsy Totsy Club. But with exciting bars and breweries blooming in the nearby cities of Albany and Richmond, it feels like a new El Cerrito spot is overdue.
Sullivan, whose parents Sylvie and Michael Sullivan have owned and operated the wine import company Beaune Imports since 1991, is bringing her experience and know-how to the table. She previously worked front of house at Chez Panisse, before becoming Alice Waters’ assistant and then transitioning into a role at Waters’ nonprofit, Edible Schoolyard Project.
Expect an emphasis on French wines, plus Italian, Spanish, Mexican, and South African selections, along with some domestic options. She also plans to expand into Eastern European bottles down the line. In general, Sullivan prioritizes sustainable, organic, and biodynamically produced wines, mostly from small producers who lean toward minimal intervention practices. “We’re not dogmatically zero-zero,” she says, “but we are definitely prioritizing the climate aspect of it, the farming aspect of the ‘no intervention’ side of things.” It’s not a one hundred percent natty wine list, it’ll be a mix of natural and unfiltered wines alongside more classic bottles. And if customers enjoy the wines that Banter is pouring, there’s also a monthly wine club with an option of three “daily drivers” or two harder-to-find bottles.
The food menu will run on the lighter side to start, with options such as a charcuterie plate loaded with cured meats, Acme bread, mustard, and pickled peppers; a cheese plate; plus olives and Marcona almonds to snack on. Sullivan says there are plans to expand the menu in the future, branching out with a couple more options such as salads and paninis when they can. As for the decor, Sullivan describes the space as having a rustic, Western, funky vibe that’s “essentially the product of us.”
Hohler took on woodworking and welding projects, such as building the bar out of reclaimed wood and constructing the wine shelves. There are other personal touches as well, such as antiques, plants, and — for fun — an older TV and VCR playing 1990s movies on VHS, as well as a record player available for spinning vinyl on certain nights. There’s plenty of seating inside and space for groups including a lounge area with a couch and armchairs and a community table, plus seating within the art deco bay windows and at the bar. It’s a welcoming environment for wine enthusiasts of all types, Sullivan hopes. “All wine drinkers, no matter what their preference is, will find something that they identify with or appreciate,” she says.
Banter Wine (10368 San Pablo Avenue, El Cerrito) is open 4 to 9 p.m., Thursday through Saturday.