Bar Beat: Santé

Santé is nestled in Asheville's Grove Arcade, just near the winged lions that stand guard over the Battery Park Avenue entrance. It's early evening, with the sun still in the sky, and wine drinkers are scattered around the patio.

Photo by jonathan welch

If you don't know much about wine, but are looking to learn, a good place to start here might be with a flight of Santé's signature wines ($13.50). These change regularly, and on this occasion, they're a Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir along with a Russian River Valley Chardonnay.

All were quite delicious, in very different ways. The Cabernet Sauvignon was dry and lingering with an excellent aftertaste, the Pinot Noir extremely rich and the Chardonnay crisp beyond belief.

“This was a mid-life crisis business,” owner Carla Baden revealed as she brought over a cheese board ($13, best split among at least two). “We [she and the other two co-owners] all sold our houses and moved from California. We saw a niche here.”

That was three years ago. What kind of niche were they looking for?

“Well, downtown Asheville seemed like the perfect place for an affordable wine bar — we usually don't have any bottle that tops $55 and our glasses start at $4.50,” she said, also noting that Santé doesn't focus on any particular country or region in its selection. “We wanted some light food, nibbles, too, but food that compliments the taste of the wine; you go to most restaurants and they look at things the other way around — wine to compliment the food.”

The cheese board was particularly delicious (nuts and fruit were added for good measure). Santé has the good sense to serve a true bleu cheese among its offerings. The deep, pungent flavor is an acquired taste — people seem to love or shy away from a good bleu — but for those of us who crave the stuff, this is a rare delight. Spears of light, slightly sweet Jarlsburg make a perfect contrast.

There's a reason why wine and cheese are historically associated with each other, and experimenting with the different flavor combinations proved a pleasure.

Santé bustles more at night, and boast a large patio (something Baden is quite proud of), central bar and various nooks and crannies scattered around the space. The place's name is one of the thousand “cheers” toasts — French, in this case — to be found around the world, and it does seem reflected in the genial attitude of both patrons and servers.

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