PRAIRIEVILLE — You don’t expect the owner of the winery to walk in with a corkscrew through his head, wearing a “Night of the Living Dead” T-shirt and ripped jeans. Or a Skittles vinaigrette. Or a wine called Horror Show. Well, given the first unexpected thing, maybe the last was a little expected.
But Thursday was a night for the unexpected at the first-ever wine dinner at Roux Wine & Spirits, 17540 Airline Highway, Suite E, Prairieville. The event showcased Vending Machine Winery’s four labels and BiteandBooze.com’s Jay Ducote’s vending machine-inspired cuisine.
Neil Gernon, he of the corkscrew, owns the winery, which is New Orleans-owned but mostly features wines from California’s Napa Valley. Gernon is a wine business veteran, previously working as a sommelier for Dickie Brennan and running his own wine shop. Now, he runs Vending Machine and works for a wine distributor.
“There we were on my back porch sabering bottles of wine …” Gernon said, describing the birth of Vending Machine three years ago and the flamboyant process of sabrage, or using a saber to cut off the neck of a wine bottle rather than uncorking it.
He refers to his winery not as boutique, which generally refers to wineries that produce less than 2,000 cases a year, but as “garagista.” Vending Machine turns out about 150 cases of each of the four labels a year. Those cases are distributed around Louisiana by Neat Wines, but also in New York by Avant Garde and in Pennsylvania and New Jersey by Vine Street Imports.
Gernon said his wines are for drinking, not collecting.
“You can sit on it,” he said. “But how does it taste now?”
Most of the bottles are priced around $30, and Gernon said that was on purpose.
“We want it to be accessible to anybody,” he said.
The name Vending Machine has roots in many places, but Gernon likes to point to his labels, taken from artwork by brother-in-law Grant Schexnider.
“Our labels are kind of eye candy,” he said. “Like you’d find in a vending machine.”
Which brings us to Ducote’s food, and the second unexpected thing — a Skittles vinaigrette. He took every flavor of Skittles, ground them down and melted into a syrup, then added a good quality balsamic vinegar and olive oil. It was served in the first course, on a salad of spinach and arugula over a toasted piece of local bakery Forte Grove’s brioche and topped with pears and Belle É corce goat cheese. While most people associate Skittles with a sugary jolt, the vinaigrette managed to highlight the fruity taste of the Skittles while sparing diners the jaw-clenching sweetness.
It should also be mentioned that Roux doesn’t have a kitchen, meaning Ducote was running his second pop-up restaurant off of tables set up in the parking lot.
“I like the idea of doing something crazy,” Ducote said. “It’s fun to do this in an environment that doesn’t have a real kitchen and the opportunity to cook here with Neil’s wines intrigued me.”
Ducote’s salad was accompanied by Gernon’s Double Shotgun, a 50-50 mix of petit verdot and cabernet franc grapes. These aren’t, Gernon said, “superstar” grapes.
“These grapes, if they retired in New Orleans, would live in a double shotgun,” Gernon said.
The second course featured Vending Machine’s only white wine, a chardonnay called Loula’s Revenge.
“We make a chardonnay because my Mom loves chardonnay,” Gernon said.
The name, he added reflects Louisiana and the spirit of the people who live there. Loula is Louisiana twice abbreviated and Revenge “is kind of how we live here in Louisiana,” he said, bouncing back and rebuilding no matter what type of disaster befalls the state.
To go with it, Ducote offered a trio of Zapp’s Potato Chips, each with a different topping. A Zapp’s Original Potato Chip was topped with a tuna tartare and a wasabi aï oli, a Cajun Crawtator held a perfectly cooked cornmeal dusted catfish nugget perched on a creamy and colorful corn maque choux and a Hotter ’n’ Hot Jalapeño Chip held a chili-lime shrimp ceviche with a cool cilantro crema.
As diners dug in, Grenon jumped up and implored them to taste how each chip changed the flavor of the chardonnay.
“Sorry to interrupt, but I’m freaking out,” he said. “This is cool.”
For the third course, Ducote offered a short rib braised in a Hershey’s Dark Chocolate mole sauce served over a velvety creamed corn polenta.
“It’s a manly, dinosaur-bone kind of dish,” Ducote said.
The short rib was seared in bacon fat before it began its long, slow mole braise, which ensured the meat was succulent and tender, slipping easily from the bone. One diner, between bites, referred to it as a “religious experience.”
The short ribs were paired with Vending Machine’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, Crooked Mayor. Gernon said the name needed no explanation here in Louisiana, but he did talk about the wine itself, which had an attention-getting, peppery kick.
“This baby’s singin’ right out of the bottle,” Gernon said, again urging people not to sit on the bottle of the wine. Instead, he said, if it felt a little “tight,” to decant the wine and give it some oxygen before drinking.
“We make wine not for the collector but for the drinker,” he said, which received a roar of approval from the diners.
The fourth and final course was a chocolate panna cotta with ground Honey Maid graham crackers and a marshmallow foam, which Ducote said was a riff on the s’more. It was accompanied by Gernon’s “personal baby,” Horror Show.
Horror Show, a blend of sousao, montepulciano and tannat grapes, is a “dark, fun, brooding” wine that was inspired by Gernon’s love of horror movies. The sousao is a Portugese grape that’s usually fortified with alcohol and used in port while the montepulciano is an Italian grape Gernon described as “bright and flavorful” and the tannat he called an “earthy, terroir-driven” grape. All three were chosen for their dark color.
Gernon also has fun with Horror Show’s label. For the first vintage, the label bore a single character. In this the second vintage, he chose a picture of the twins from “The Shining.” He sent it to artist Schexnider and asked him to “make it creepier.” Gauging from audience reaction, the artist, the blend and the dessert were a success. The wine delivered a complex, fruity burst of flavor that paired well with the smooth, creamy chocolate in Ducote’s panna cotta.
Reveling in the unexpected, Roux’s first wine dinner won’t be its last, owner Myrna Arroyo promised. And Gernon promised Vending Machine would keep turning out its colorful wines.
“The whole thing’s been a lot of fun,” he said.
He gave diners a preview of the third vintage of Horror Show’s label, which he hopes will be a 3-D depiction of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” which is taken from his love of horror films and the fact that “Creature” was the first horror film he saw in 3-D. Everything in Vending Machine’s lineup, from the name of the winery on down, has a story like that. And it’s no accident.
“Each wine has its own story,” Gernon said. “Wines have to have a lot of story to be interesting.”
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