From food trucks to festive events, wine merchants stretch beyond the standard tasting

More than a taste

“I wanted this to be a place where people felt comfortable hanging out among the bottles and the racks, not just grabbing some wine on their way home.” Leora madden, Pearl Wine Co.

Oenophiles head to their neighborhood wine shop for interesting inventories, pairing advice from 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 on the house.

But those are some of the twists New Orleans wine merchants have been employing lately. 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. They also represent an effort by merchants to demystify their product for potential customers who might still see wine as a rarified luxury.

“When you’re building a bridge over arrogance or someone feeling intimidated by wine, food is a great way to start,” said Leora Madden, owner of Pearl Wine Co.

Madden opened this Mid-City wine shop and bar in April, taking over the space that had been Cork & Bottle. Since then, she’s developed a regular schedule of decidedly egalitarian accompaniments, from sizzling grilled cheese sandwiches served during Thursday evening wine tastings and a macaroni and cheese bar on Saturdays to a manicurist on premises on Mondays and those red beans and rice on Tuesdays (Madden recommends a fruit-forward California zinfandel for this peppery dish).

A New Orleans native, Madden said she wants to foster the laid-back attitude to wine she experienced while living in California earlier in her career.

“I wanted this to be a place where people felt comfortable hanging out among the bottles and the racks, not just grabbing some wine on their way home,” she said.

Opportunities to sample wine abound across town at free tastings and special events (see sidebar for a schedule). The individual approaches run the gamut, from the year-old Keife & Co., which hosts straightforward Thursday tastings with various distributors and winemakers, 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 samplings on Saturday afternoons.

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 this colorful Faubourg St. John shop feel like a neighborhood block party. During the Friday wine tastings, there’s usually a freelance chef cooking small plates on the spot, and on Tuesday evenings the Fat Falafel food truck parks just outside to sell its signature Middle Eastern pita sandwiches and paper cones of hand-cut fries. For Swirl co-owner Beth Ribblett, it’s about giving customers more natural and accessible ways to enjoy wine.

“They way we look at it, wine isn’t meant to be a cocktail, it’s meant to be had with food,” Ribblett said. “So we want to give people opportunities to experience that in the store, you get to taste the wine with a food pairing and that can transform the experience of that wine.”

Similarly, the food truck Empanada Intifada has become a Friday evening fixture outside Faubourg Wines. This shop opened in November in the St. Roch neighborhood, new turf for a retailer of fine wines. But proprietor Catherine Markel says planting a food truck out front helps telegraph a welcoming, casual feel and provides a hook for more customers to stop in and check things out.

“And it’s just fun to come up with wine pairings at our bar with the food people get outside,” Markel said. Naturally, Argentinian malbec has been in heavy rotation beside her vendor’s South American meat pies.

Organizing all these extras on top of running a retail shop can be demanding, but merchants say it’s paying off as they lure new customers and cultivate a social scene for their regulars.

“I’m more of an event planner now than a wine seller, but that’s fine with me,” said Ribblett. “It keeps it all interesting and we’re always trying new things.”