After Hurricane Ida obliterated the New Orleans power grid earlier this year, it took about two days to accept the reality of the situation, and after that, things weren’t quite so grim. New Orleans is a subtropical city. Post-Ida, temperatures reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day with 97% humidity and stagnant winds overall. At night, it was like being slow-roasted. We knew only that electricity would be out for weeks, and maybe months.
Wine helped, in ways it could only help here, in one of the great wine cities of the United States.
On that second day, not long after 9 a.m., I brought to the balcony of my Prytania Street apartment a 2014 Burgundy from Jean-Jacques Girard, set out my best stemware, applied key to cork, and began to pour. It wasn’t my first bottle since Ida’s arrival, but now, with the rain stopped and cell service down, life was on pause. Wine was the order of the day.
A hurricane community
From that balcony, covered and just high enough to catch a soft breeze that made conditions sufferable, my relationships flourished and matured. Neighbors whose names I never knew became friends and confidants. A wave to passers-by on the streets below yielded updates about other parts of town, and we shared what we knew in return. Not just at my place, but across the entire city, balconies and porches were peopled, bottles frequently in hand, four twists and one cork away from fellowship and goodwill.
We all smelled terrible, our skin ever coated with a thin membrane of sweat.
At night, City Hall had us under an enforced curfew, and sitting on that balcony, another bottle of something in our glasses, you could see only the moonlit outlines of buildings older than the United States itself. There was no artificial lighting, no sounds of cars or revelry. Only the charm and splendor of the 300-year-old New Orleans. Those nights brought me closer to my community, and to the city, than I had ever been before.
The surrounding river parishes sustained apocalyptic flooding and then quick-thinking insurance agents who found all manner of reasons not to make victims whole. Their recovery has been slow, and is ongoing. New Orleans avoided the worst case scenario: a repeat of Hurricane Katrina, which had made landfall exactly 16 years earlier. Still, the city endured winds of 150 mph, which wiped out several significant jazz heritage sites, dropped trees onto rooftops, and pulled houses apart one piece at a time. Many local businesses, already moribund after the worst days of the pandemic, succumbed at last to reality, and closed for the final time. Hospitality workers endured yet another blow, having just survived the quarantine and its attendant closures of bars and dining rooms. Our death toll reached the double digits, some during the storm, and some in the stagnant heat to follow.
In the end, my neighborhood, the Lower Garden District, lost power for nine days.
Life for New Orleans locals is almost entirely unrelated to the Epcot-like experience that tourists get. When modernity grinds to a halt, we live the city in its unsullied and most-authentic form. After Ida, through wine and conversation shared beneath dark, starry skies, the communal city was reinvigorated with comity and solidarity.
“We use the term ‘porch pounder’ a lot to describe wines that are easy to drink, but not many people have porches, in general. In New Orleans, we do, and we use them,” says Joanne Close, one-half of the husband-and-wife team behind The Independent Caveau NOLA, a wine bar and storefront in the Zion City neighborhood of Mid-City. “Going to a neighbor’s house, sitting outside, and drinking wine is an integral part of the city’s culture. We are neighborhood-centric.”
Food and wine destination
Founded by the French, later controlled by the Spanish, and settled heavily by the Italians, New Orleans is culturally the most European city in the United States. Its food and architecture reflect that, and the wine lists of its finest restaurants dispel any doubt.
The mélange of cultures and the early fusion of their respective cuisines made New Orleans a food destination of the world. It also gave the city an unquenchable thirst for Old World wines, which pairs nicely with Old World food. It is the architecture, though, that brought it all together and infused the society of America’s Paris with a joie de vivre that centuries have been unable to erode.
The French founded La Nouvelle-Orléans in 1718 and set about building a city in the French colonial style. The city’s oppressive summers in a subtropical climate led broadly to the architectural adoption of balconies and galleries, an innovation inspired by homes in the West Indies. Later, when the Spanish took over, they had wooden railings replaced with wrought iron ones, part of an effort to make the city less prone to burning to the ground. Centuries later, ornate balconies and gallery railings remain part of the city’s iconography.
When balconies proved impractical elsewhere in the growing city, porches filled the void, and in every instance, in the air or on the ground, these private-but-public social spaces cultivated a convivial sense of community. And if Southerners have nothing else instilled in them, it is that one should never show up to a gathering without something in their hands. In New Orleans, that means bringing a bottle.
“Going to a neighbor’s house, sitting outside, and drinking wine is an integral part of the city’s culture. We are neighborhood-centric.”
How does New Orleans drink wine?
“Enthusiastically,” says Dan Davis, the wine guy for Commander’s Palace, the venerable New Orleans restaurant established in 1893 and home to one of the largest cellars in the city. “It is the nature of New Orleanians and the culture of New Orleans. Every meal is an opportunity to celebrate, and there is always something worth celebrating.”
Wine preferences among locals skew decisively Old World, says Jim Yonkus, the other half of the duo behind The Independent Caveau NOLA. Per capita, he says, New Orleans sells more European wine than just about anywhere outside of Europe.
“I think there have only been one or two people in the history of the city who said they were going to specialize in California, and they went out of business.”
The city, he says, caters to two distinct sets of wine drinkers. With a local population of 400,000 when soaking wet, but host to 18.5 million tourists annually, New Orleans is driven by the hospitality industry. People love to get drunk in New Orleans, and wine programs where tourists swarm tend to nod reluctantly in California’s direction to appeal to visiting palates.
Those tourists — or the lack thereof, post-pandemic — have in a sense fortified the city’s Old World devotion. The city’s wine preferences were set in stone by the people who first settled there. When Napoleon Bonaparte sold Louisiana to Thomas Jefferson in 1803, the settlers of New Orleans didn’t suddenly stop being French, after all. Moreover, the city’s location at the mouth of the Mississippi River made it perhaps one of the most important ports in America as the nation expanded westward. European immigrants arrived by ship and planted stakes. At the turn of the 20th century, 290,000 Italians — most from Sicily — immigrated to the city, which certainly didn’t hurt its wine game.
New Orleans is one of the few cities in the United States that people visit specifically to eat and drink, in a sense subsidizing the Euro-centric wine cellars of restaurants that have been around since the 19th and 20th centuries.
Wine bars, meanwhile, are a relatively new phenomenon in New Orleans, because for decades, credible, mainstay restaurants like Herbsaint on St. Charles Avenue, Clancy’s on Annunciation, and the myriad places owned by the Brennan family and Emeril Lagasse, already had excellent wine programs. There was no need.
But the pandemic, the economy, a painful run of hurricanes, and the embrace of wine by twentysomethings has disrupted the city’s wine scene. Wine bars with thoughtful lists that avoid grocery store names have emerged and hold sway in the ongoing oenological conversation.
Wine in New Orleans is about more than restaurant wine lists, however. This is most apparent after hurricanes wreak havoc and locals are left to live in the aftermath. As I saw and experienced post-Ida, when wine and words flowed freely, when offices are closed and there is nowhere to go and nothing to do, uncorking wines from sunup to late night is a viable option. Pulling food from thawing freezers and throwing it on communal outdoor grills is a New Orleans tradition that pairs well with whatever bottle is at hand.
Not that anyone needs an excuse, Close says.
“New Orleans has a let’s-have-lunch-and-talk-about-dinner culture, and it takes wine to do that right.”
3 places to visit:
Secluded from the more egregious tourist haunts in New Orleans, but ten minutes at the most from every point in the city, The Independent Caveau NOLA on 1226 South White Street is where locals drink wine. Founded in 2019 by two 25-year veterans of the wine education and retail trade, the Independent is three wine destinations in one: It is a funky wine bar with a private patio and eclectic music. It is a wine education center, offering intimate specialty and WSET certification courses. And the front of the shop is a wine store with a world-class selection of wines, cheeses, chocolates, and charcuterie.
Bottles bought from the store can even be opened in the bar for a $10 corkage fee — an anomaly at a time when 300% markup is the norm.
A few minutes away from the Independent is the Garden District of New Orleans, famed for its enormous oak trees, opulent mansions, and Anne Rice vampires. The neighborhood is also ground zero for the finest dining in the city. Coquette, located at 2800 Magazine Street, specializes in New American cuisine, and has cultivated an inventive Old World, French-heavy wine program with sane markups and careful avoidance of the usual suspects. Like most restaurants in the city, the two-story-plus-sidewalk-seating Coquette is an appropriate destination for those wearing anything from shorts and sandals all the way to a little black dress.
Also in the Garden District is Commander’s Palace, a 19th-century New Orleans institution located at 1403 Washington Avenue. When Hurricane Katrina obliterated the city in 2005, the restaurant’s owners were not sure if they would ever open their doors again. Fourteen months later, however, with the restaurant rebuilt, dinner services resumed. In the interim, the Brennan family gave their wine guy, Dan Davis, a clear objective: win a Wine Spectator Grand Award for Commander’s Palace.
He did, for five consecutive years and counting. Today, its wine list features 2,600 bottles and very likely the deepest selection of wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France that can be found in the United States. Because the restaurant has been around for a while, and has enough cellar space to sit on wines for years at a time, Commander’s Palace is able to offer wines affordable at age by the bottle or glass.