As surfing is to Honolulu, so drinking is to New Orleans. I mean, you just have to jump in.
New Orleans is a city where guests are greeted at the airport with signs offering bottle service for the ride to town. It is a city with an official cocktail, the Sazerac, and another perhaps even more popular concoction, the Hurricane, that will make you feel like you’ve been buzzed by a Category 5 storm.
Among the hundreds of bars within the city, a personal favorite is one that rotates. The Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone serves as a destination location to sip a signature Vieux Carré cocktail and marinate in the bar’s 70-year literary history along with the ghosts of drunken Capotes, Hemingways, McGuanes and Williams. That would be Tennessee Williams. And then there is the legendary Cure, a hipster bar that cocktail connoisseurs revere and that singlehandedly helped resurrect the entire Freret Street neighborhood.
I have done my share of undisciplined imbibing in each of the above and, with the possible exception of a sickly sweet Hurricane, I would welcome the opportunity to rinse and repeat. But, as a wine scribe on a recent short visit, I thought I would eschew spirits for an evening and sample some local color, as in red and white wines.
New Orleans, if you didn’t know, is a great wine town. The significant expense account restaurants like Commander’s Palace, Emeril’s and Brennan’s all keep big-ticket bottles of Bordeaux and Napa cabs on their lists — at significant markups, of course. Then there’s a litany of new guard spots, many recently opened by top local chefs (Susan Zemanick of Zazu and Nina Compton of Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro, for instance) that are on board with the new natural wines movement as well as offerings from more obscure locales.
But on this hot and humid September night I set out for quick hits at a troika of wine destinations that were a bit more, shall we say, pedestrian. A shop, a tasting room and a by-the-bottle wine and jazz bar.
The evening began in the burgeoning and booming Warehouse District as I searched for a wine shop called Keife & Co. Making my sweltering way through the Robert E. Lee-less Lee Circle and past the newly opened NOCHI (New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute on Howard Street), I came across the awning that marked my destination.
An oasis in a concrete jungle, the air-conditioned interior resembled a library. But instead of books on the shelves, there was a complete and eclectic collection of hand selected wines stacked to the ceiling. A wooden ladder rose to the top of the stacks so that proprietor John Kiefe could access those at the top. On the floor, wooden boxes of wines were strewn throughout the entirety of the store — and nary a bad bottle in the bunch.
As impressive as the selection of wines, so, too, were gourmet meats, cheeses, nuts and chocolates, curated by co-founder and partner Jim Yonkus and displayed in a simple case at the center of the store. And the spirits, mixers, bitters, aperitifs and various amaro available were a hipster bartender’s wet dream. This place would have been a treasure in SOHO or the 6th arrondissement, but instead makes its home in the Big Easy. “Laissez les bons temps rouler,” as they say.
With the sun setting in the west, I made my way down Tchoupitoulas (go ahead, you can say it) to a place I had been before. The appropriately named WINO, or Wine Institute New Orleans, is a tasting room and wine education outpost on a street filled with fine restaurants and dive bars. It is a place where one can taste 120 wines from around the world that are lined up in a credit card-driven, Italian-made Enomatic pouring system. Give them your credit card and they hand over a pink card to insert under your chosen wine. Tasters can purchase a pour ranging from 1 to 4 ounces of wine. It is a great way to sample a number of wines without breaking the bank.
My final venue was Bacchanal, a so-called “wine labratory,” set within a ramshackle brick building in the Bywater section of the city. Patrons were lined up outside. Inside, wines from interesting regions and producers were for sale by the bottle. One of the owners spied me perusing the racks and suggested a wine from “the California Alps.” The 2018 iruai “California Alps” red, a blend of Trousseau, Monduse and Poulsard made by the Methode Savage winemaker Chad Hinds, was, well, hipper than I. Purchases in hand, a tree-shaded patio where live jazz wafted through the night was a must-stop. It was one of the most interesting wine-tasting spots I had ever been to.
The lesson learned is that you don’t need to drink cocktails on a trip to New Orleans. Wine is just fine, thank you.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at [email protected].