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Bacchus in the Bywater 

By opening Bacchanal, Chris Rudge hopes to turn a New Orleans neighborhood into an oasis for oenophiles.

Besides the full racks lining its perimeter, a few effects in Bacchanal's small retail space suggest that this might be a fine place to buy a bottle of wine. There's the 200-year-old building's exposed brick walls, which give it a cavernous, cellar-like feel; there's the floor of commercial tile that, with a layer of dried glue left over from the stripping and remodeling process, looks just as worn and elegant; and there's owner Chris Rudge, who receives customers at a round table in the center of the store. On this recent Saturday, he waits with a 2000 Pra Soave Classico Supremo. "I'm kind of in an Italian mood today," he says, holding it out to show off the $11.99 price tag.

Vernon, a regular customer and neighbor, sits with him. "He takes care of me," Vernon says, referring to the fact that Rudge stocks one of his three narrow refrigerators with Busch beer. Bacchanal isn't exactly a Busch kind of store -- Vernon's stash is wedged between bottles of Belgium's Chimay, McChouffe brown ale and Bitburger from Germany -- but Rudge is that kind of salesman and this is the neighborly spirit that keeps small businesses alive in the Bywater.

In fact, such businesses long have lured New Orleanians from other, often more upscale, neighborhoods into the Bywater. There are longtime traditions like Trout Mandich and Thursday night jam sessions at Vaughan's, and more recent additions like the Country Club's pool and biscuits and gravy at Elizabeth's. But Bywater inhabitants know that it's a neighborhood of under-tapped potential. While real estate prices Uptown, in the French Quarter and in the Faubourg Marigny continue to skyrocket, working-class people can still (perhaps not for long) afford to purchase a Bywater home. At a slow, steady pace, a low-level gentrification has neighbors here talking about opening produce stands and wine bars.

Sitting on the neighborhood's far corner, at the intersection of Poland Avenue and Chartres Street, Bacchanal is the most recent addition to this up-and-coming community. "I live here and I love the neighborhood," says Rudge. "They [the neighbors] thought it would be another dive corner store when we first started renovating. Now they love it."

Soon after Vernon leaves, another neighbor enters in dark sunglasses and flip-flops. "Man, it's hot out there," she complains. Rosy-cheeked but cool in a Guayabera shirt, Rudge holds up a dry rosé wine -- Illuminati's 2000 Campirosa ($9.70). "I'm working on turning the neighborhood into a bunch of sniveling pink-wine drinkers this summer," he says with a smile. "It's perfect for the heat."

Rudge is another modern-day wine lover who debunks the tired stereotype that all oenophiles are snooty connoisseurs with large bankrolls and larger personal wine cellars. He's a boyish, 27-year-old David Cassidy look-alike who talks out of one side of his mouth so that he's at least half-smiling, and who opened Bacchanal on credit cards. He's always on the lookout for a deal -- be it the mint-condition refrigerator he found abandoned down the street, or an easy-drinking, $8.60 bottle of 1999 Andretti California Claret. All of Bacchanal's 125 wines (and growing) run in the $8 to $15 range.

"I have this habit: I can't stop buying wine," he laughs. "Whenever I find something good to sell for under $10, I'm stoked. You don't have to spend a lot to drink good wine."

On this summer day, friends from Rudge's former home base in Tallahassee, Fla., stop by the store for the first time during Jazz Fest. "He was a barback just a few years ago," one of them marvels. In fact, when he moved to New Orleans, Rudge landed a bartending gig at Marisol, a restaurant recognized for its well-chosen wine list and ambitious cuisine. He soon graduated to wine buyer and stayed on for two and a half years, accumulating passion and knowledge as he tasted with distributors and dug into wine literature.

He opened Bacchanal in February with Judy Bolton -- "my partner in the store and everything else" -- and says that his approach to wine hasn't changed. "At Marisol I paired it with food. Here I have people coming in and telling me what they're having for dinner."

At this point, Rudge sells only frozen foods -- housemade sausages, stuffed shrimp, marinated ribs. Pending approval of a permit, Bacchanal customers will be able to purchase wines by the glass starting in June; Rudge would like to get permission to serve small bites as well. "In Madrid, a glass of wine costs 50 cents, and it comes with a snack! I want to design this like a Spanish bodega."

It's well on the way. A friend has already built the structure for a wine bar in an adjoining room, which opens onto Bacchanal's back courtyard. If all goes as planned, it'll be an idyllic setting for converted neighbors to sip rosé on warm afternoons.

click to enlarge 'I'm working on turning the neighborhood into a bunch of sniveling pink-wine drinkers this summer,' Bacchanal founder Chris Rudge says with a smile. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • 'I'm working on turning the neighborhood into a bunch of sniveling pink-wine drinkers this summer,' Bacchanal founder Chris Rudge says with a smile.
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