One hears a lot about the spirit of New Orleans, whether it is the love of music and celebration or the grit that has been bringing the city back from the worst of Mother Nature since it was founded. But let us face facts, New Orleans also finds its spirit in spirits. Alcohol, that is. Not for nothing is the internationally renowned cocktail convention, Tales of the Cocktail, held here every July.
Now Orleans is the most European of American cities, which means its culture still carries an aristocratic sensibility. In terms of its alcohol consumption, the peasants are fully represented by such slamming concoctions as the Jester and the Hand Grenade. The upper classes are represented by the city’s love affair with wine. Of course the latter also fits nicely with our food obsession. Indeed, New Orleans sports more than one restaurant that offers suggested wine pairings with breakfast.
Wine has a noble, if complex, origin. Dionysus, the Greek god of the vine, vegetation and re-birth, is said to have taught the world the art of tending grapes and the enjoyment of wine. A rather roguish fellow, he brought both the poetic ecstasy and madness of inebriation to humanity. The festivals in his honor each year included the classics of Greek drama; associated with sex, the more possessed of his female followers, called the Maenads, were known to run through the woods ripping animals apart and eating them raw. The Romans renamed this blessing and curse of a divinity Bacchus. No accident that each Carnival includes the Krewe of Dionysus and the Krewe of Bacchus. (Krewes, a name picked up from John Milton’s poem “A Mask,” are organizations that stage the parades with floats during Mardi Gras.) New Orleans does love its wine, just as the duality of Dionysus comes out in jazz.
But enough abstraction, let’s get down to glasses and racks—of wine, that is. New Orleans has top-shelf wine bars and restaurants with world-class wine lists. Located in the Warehouse/Arts District just minutes from the French Quarter, W.I.N.O.—Wine Institute of New Orleans—tops many a list of our world-class wine bars. Housed in a classic New Orleans building, the atmosphere is relaxed but elegant. W.I.N.O. conducts classes, including in wine certification, so tipplers can be sure that the staff knows its vino. Their recommendations are superb, as is the wine list. Enjoy the tasteful menu of tapenade, bruschetta, cheeses and more for just the right complement to the wine. Here is just the spot to start or cap an evening, especially if romance is in the air. Live music also is offered most night.
Recently voted one of the top ten wine bars in the nation by both Gayot and Fox News. Patrick’s Bar Vin in the French Quarter makes everyone feel like a welcome guest more than a customer. The wine selection is not extensive, but it makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity. Enjoy your selection in either the richly comfortable interior or old New Orleans courtyard. Most nights Patrick, one of the city’s most loved bon vivants and founder of the Krewe of Cork, is there for good conversation, whether about wine, Carnival, New Orleans or his native Belgium. Though wonderful anytime, Patrick’s is the perfect spot to wind down the evening or get a second wind before taking in late-night jazz.
Take a fifteen-minute cab ride to the Upper Ninth Ward’s Bacchanal (there’s that god again) for an only-in-New Orleans experience where fine wine meets funky. Located at the bottom of Poland Avenue, devotees of the quintessential New Orleans novel A Confederacy of Dunces will recognize that the Levy pants factory was put just across the street. No need to dress up here. Be sure to go on a night suited for sitting outside. Bacchanal’s large back yard filled with tables and fine, local New Orleans music sits only yards from the Mississippi River under the Creole moon. Here’s a top spot to settle into the locals’ New Orleans groove with a fine taste of the grape. The excellent vintages run a little cheaper here, as well, and food also is available. To order your cab for the return to your lodgings, consult TRAVELHOST’S transportation listings.
Other recommended wine bars are Tommy’s, Delachaise and Swirl. However, fine wine in town is not restricted to such bars. Many of our fine restaurants come with some of the world’s finest wine lists. Wine lists have a few criteria besides the quality of the individual selections. How extensive are they? If not, does the overall quality of the selections make the list? Does the list hit all three affordable, middle and high-end ranges? Narrowing the list to a few is impossible, but I must. Before doing so, however, one sad, historical note: two of the city’s best wine cellars, Antoine’s and Brennan’s, were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Each lost something like 20,000 bottles. The latter is closed temporarily, but the former is well on its way to returning to wine glory.
Perhaps the hottest restaurant story of recent memory, the newly opened and instant hit R’evolution in the French Quarter’s Royal Sonesta Hotel has one of the city’s best cellars. The extensive wine list covers every type imaginable. Though one can find a bottle for $5,000, many selections are surprisingly affordable for such a fine dining establishment. This menu does cover all three pricing levels. R’evolution is not a place for a quick meal. Here is where to enjoy contemporary New Orleans cuisine at its finest, along with some of the world’s best wines.
For a more intimate experience with the same quality food and wine, dine and drink at Chef Susan Spicer’s award-winning Bayona in the upper French Quarter. Spicer burst on the cuisine scene in the 1990s and has been a young gun of contemporary Creole cooking ever since. It is said she inspired the chef character in the HBO series Treme. The wine list here is much more modest than at R’evolution, but Bayona’s selections are considered impeccable. Courtyard seating is available.
John Besh, native son made good, has dedicated his career to preserving and promoting the cuisine of Southern Louisiana. He now operates nine restaurants, has won a James Beard Award, has multiple cookbooks and gives back to the community, for example through microloans to local farmers. Though all his properties are top of the line, especially two have quality wine lists: Restaurant August and Domenica’s. Other establishments known for their wines include Stella’s! and Le Foret, the city best French restaurant.
Do not be daunted by these spectacular cellars and wine lists. The sommelier will be happy to assist you in selecting.