The Many Faces of a Wine Festival

New Orleans, La. –

Thanks to the way they proliferate across the New Orleans calendar, most folks seem to have a pretty good lock on what a local festival looks like. Most are outdoors and have music, food and drinks. There will probably be T-shirts for sale, possibly even an official poster. This is the fundamental template for everything from Jazz Fest to small neighborhood festivals.

But what does a four-day wine festival look like? In the case of the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, or NOWFE, which is now underway, the answer depends a lot on the day.

NOWFE is a festival with many faces, from the freewheeling Royal Street Stroll with ticketholders drinking their way from one French Quarter shop to another, wine glasses in hand, to the Grand Tastings, which are essentially gigantic food and wine samplings held inside one of the biggest rooms around, the Louisiana Superdome. Along the way there are wine dinners at local restaurants, led by winemakers from around the country; there are wine and food seminars hosted by chefs, wine experts and media personalities; and then there's a high-dollar wine auction, which, like the festival as a whole, benefits local charities and educational causes, particularly those related to the culinary and hospitality industries.

So that's what NOWFE looks like, a celebration of wine across different venues and in different formats. But the veteran local festival-goer still may wonder "why wine? And why in New Orleans?" After all, most festivals here celebrate something definitively local, and the Deep South is not wine country. But New Orleans certainly is a wine town - thanks to its vestigial French cultural heritage, thanks to locals who decant at the drop of a hat, and thanks also to the visitors drawn to the city for a taste of its good life. This is a town that goes through a disproportionate amount of juice.

Now consider again this festival's full name: the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience. It's New Orleans food that helps set this event apart from other wine festivals around the country, and while some of those others may have blossomed close to picturesque vineyards and wine-rich valleys NOWFE is in the heart of a great American food destination. More than 75 restaurants and other food-related businesses take part, hosting dinners or serving samples of their dishes at the Grand Tastings, close by the wine reps and wine makers pouring their own wares under the gigantic roof of the Superdome.

But one final signal that this wine festival is a New Orleans festival is the way locals put their own stamp on it, and the way visitors seem to fling themselves into the same spirit upon arrival. The greatest example is the wine-centric spectacle of the Krewe of Cork, which makes an annual parade during NOWFE's Royal Street Stroll event. This krewe is a colorfully costumed marching group founded by a circle of local food and wine professionals. Now more than 400 members strong, it celebrates its 10th birthday this year. As this debonair assemblage saunters down Royal, don't be surprised if you catch wine-themed beads from someone dressed as a Blue Nun or if you see Bacchus toasting a giant, walking box of wine with his sloshing goblet. Dressing up for some wine events means formalwear. During the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, dressing up can mean really getting into character.

For festival details, visit the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience Web site.