When Wines Flows Through New Orleans

New Orleans, La. –

The Deep South is pretty far from wine country, those determined local efforts with the Muscadine grape notwithstanding. And yet, a world of wine flows through New Orleans. Chalk that up to a robust fine-dining scene, with many, many restaurants keeping wine reps busy here. Credit it also to visitors who arrive ready to live it up and mark their occasions with special bottles. And, perhaps most of all, look to locals who still kindle the area's vestigial French heritage - namely, those who decant at the drop of a hat. This week, that spirited approach to wine is in high gear at the annual New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, or NOWFE.

This five-day event draws wine makers and wine lovers to the tune of about 10,000 people and raises money for local charities along the way. Just as at other, similar events around the country, NOWFE features wine dinners at restaurants across town, a series of wine education seminars and a high-dollar wine auction. The most distinctive and defining events of the festival, however, have an essential New Orleans flavor that taps into what this city and its people do best.

Food is part of the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience not merely in the name of pairings, but rather as an essential, inescapable part of the festival's setting and character. Naturally, it's everywhere around NOWFE's two Grand Tastings, held Friday evening and Saturday afternoon in the Convention Center. These tastings are bacchanals of sipping and sampling as guests rove between the clustered booths of wineries and some local restaurants. Across the board this year, chefs will be focusing on seafood, part of the ongoing effort to support local fisheries impacted by last year's Gulf oil disaster. In fact, during Saturday's Grand Tasting chefs will compete in the annual Louisiana Seafood Cook-off, with the winning chef to be crowned the year's king or queen of Louisiana seafood.

The other great example of how NOWFE does a wine event New Orleans style is the freewheeling Royal Street Stroll, which essentially turns a six-block stretch of the French Quarter into a wine tasting by way of a pub crawl. Rather than in pubs, though, it all takes place in the galleries and shops of Royal Street, each pouring samples from a long roster of wines, and out on Royal Street itself, where the stroll slows to a meandering party, which always seems to be the case whenever New Orleanians gather convivially.

And what would a New Orleans festival of any sort be without a little interactive participation? At NOWFE, this is supplied during the Royal Street Stroll by the wine-centric spectacle of the Krewe of Cork. This krewe is a colorfully costumed marching group founded by a circle of local food and wine professionals, now more than 400 members strong. As this debonair assemblage saunters down Royal, glasses in the air, don't be surprised if you catch wine-themed beads from someone dressed as a Blue Nun or if you see Dionysus sharing a toast with a giant, walking box of wine. 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.