Where Y'Eat: Wine Tastings With More Than Wine

Nov 14, 2013

Across New Orleans, wine merchants are tapping the appeal of comfort food and street eats to promote, and possibly demystify, their product as the market gets more competitive.

Wine lovers head to their neighborhood wine shop for the latest finds from wine country, for guidance and pairing advice from the staff and, on the right day, maybe the chance to taste a few samples. They might not expect Middle Eastern street food, tapas cooked up as they watch, or big bowls of red beans and rice served up on the house.

But those are some of the unusual twists New Orleans wine merchants have been employing lately in the familiar game of wine tastings and wine pairings. The unconventional amenities come partly in response to an increasingly competitive marketplace, which has seen more small wine shops open in recent years and supermarket chains upping their wine selections.

But it also represents an effort by wine sellers to demystify their product for potential customers who might still see wine as a rarified luxury. The thinking goes like this: if you want people to feel comfortable trying something new, you set the stage with something they already know. In this case that means comfort food.

So it goes at the Mid-City wine shop Pearl Wine Co. This store was known as Cork & Bottle for years before New Orleans native Leora Madden took over and renamed the place early in 2013. Since then, she’s developed a regular schedule of decidedly egalitarian accompaniments, from food vendors cooking grilled cheese sandwiches on site or setting up a macaroni and cheese bar during evening wine tastings, to a slow cooker of red beans with wine pairing advice at the ready (for the record, Madden recommends a fruit-forward California Zinfandel for this peppery dish).

It’s all about fostering a more laid-back attitude toward wine, one similar to the everyday wine culture found in wine-growing regions.

Today, opportunities to sample wine abound across New Orleans at promotional tastings and special events. Their individual approaches run the gamut, from the Bywater’s Bacchanal, which has live music during its weekly tastings, to Hopper’s Carte des Vins, which has a dedicated tasting room for formal events but also provides an assortment of open bottles and ready wine glasses for self-serve, come-as-you-are samplings on Saturday afternoons. The historic museum home Pitot House even continues a wine tasting series that includes an optional canoe paddle down Bayou St. John, which flows past its door.            

But others have dialed in specifically to the appeal of casual food to draw a crowd. Swirl Wine Bar & Market has evolved a weekly calendar of tastings, happy hours and special events that can sometimes make the colorful sales floor at this Faubourg St. John shop feel like a neighborhood block party. Sometimes you’ll find a freelance chef cooking small plates on a portable stove amid the wine racks, while on Tuesday evenings the food truck Fat Falafel parks just outside to sell its signature Middle Eastern pita sandwiches and paper cones of hand-cut fries.

Similarly, food trucks have become Friday evening fixtures outside Faubourg Wines. This is a relatively new store in the St. Roch neighborhood, along a stretch of retail turf better known for used furniture and boiled seafood. Now you can also find fine wines here, and if you have trouble seeing how that might work, just look for the food truck parked out front and see for yourself.

Free weekly wine tastings: 

Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits

600 Poland Ave., 504-948-9111; bacchanalwine.com

Saturdays, 3-5 p.m.

Faubourg Wines

2805 St. Claude Ave., 504-342-2217; faubourgwines.com

Wednesdays, 6-8 p.m.

Hopper’s Carte des Vins

5601 Magazine St., 504-227-3888; hopperscartedesvin.com

Saturdays, 2-5 p.m.

Keife & Co.

801 Howard Ave., 504-523-7272; keifeandco.com

Thursdays, 5-7 p.m.

Pearl Wine Co.

3700 Orleans Ave., 504-483-6314; pearlwineco.com

Thursdays and Fridays, 5-7 p.m. 

Swirl Wine Bar & Market

3143 Ponce De Leon St., 504-304-0635; swirlandsavor.blogspot.com

Fridays, 6-8 p.m.