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Business Is Pouring In 

A native of the metro area, Lacy Johnston always figured New Orleans "was just a beer kinda town."

But that notion is outdated for Johnston, who pours glass after glass of red and white wines for people whose smiles grow wider and happier upon each return to her table. A rep for Glazer's wine distributor, Johnston showcases several vintages during a Friday evening event at Sip in Bayou St. John. These happy hours are not how many would stereotype a wine tasting. The acoustic guitars of the String Bean band provide soothing background music, though the duo at one point swings a cover of Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-in-Law." The crowd buzzes about casually, and the feel evokes a neighborhood house party vibe.

"There's such a community feel to these events," Johnston remarks during her first tasting at the second Sip location, after having done five at the first Sip on Magazine Street. "It's really unpretentious."

Bayou St. John resident Craig Geisecke echoes Johnston's description of the tasting as easygoing. Standing by a table filled with his homemade, smoked cheeses such as an asiago, Geisecke's demeanor and marketing approach complement the party's style as much as his cheeses complement the wines. With his shoulder-length curly hair tucked under a Kango hat, Geisecke explains that after 30 years in journalism, he discovered a career in cheese by accident. An avid barbecue fan who ran a shop out of a trailer in the months following Katrina, Geisecke wrapped a block of cheddar in cheese cloth and set it in the smoker. The result was delicious and ultimately led to a business that is now Craig's Forgotten Coast Foods. It figures that such an epicurious man would also appreciate wine.

"The great thing about this night is there is no snobbery involved," he observes of the increasingly festive partiers sashaying around him. "Wine is one of those things that can't be measured in price. Say you're drinking a $6 bottle. If you're enjoying it, if it pleases your palate, then it's good."

The success of the two Sip locations, opened in the city post-Katrina, is evidence of a new trend in the local social scene. Wine shops have established themselves as destinations, places where partygoers can drink and relax with ease -- plus gain some exposure to the delicious nuances of wine.

This trend was first spotted in the city five years ago when Chris Rudge, a former wine buyer for Marisol's restaurant in the Marigny, opened up Bacchanal on Poland Avenue in the Bywater. Nestled in a cozy, century-old structure with exposed-brick walls, Bacchanal offers everything from hard-to-find single-malt Scotches to imported beers. And, of course, wine. Bacchanal has also become a popular spot for events such as Friday night movie screenings, spirited Saturday afternoon tastings and Sunday evenings filled with live music and catered cuisine. The success and sheer fun at Bacchanal has become a blueprint for newer wine shops in the city.

"It was a bit of a three-ring circus!" Kerry Tully says with a laugh when asked about the Friday evening wine tasting and party held at the Bayou St. John Sip.

Tully owns the shop with partner Beth Ribblet. The two decided on the investment because of "location, location, location," Ribblet explains, citing the space tucked between The Market and Fair Grinds coffee shop as an ideal retail space. They called owners of the Uptown Sip with the proposal to franchise. Since opening in mid-June, they have sought to create an inviting, relaxed feel at their shop, a mood embodied by the previous Friday's tasting.

"We want this to be a place where people can go that's not a bar," Ribblet explains. "A place where you can go, taste a nice glass of wine, meet some people from the neighborhood and hang out."

Ribblet estimates that her store carries roughly 60 percent of the same inventory of the Uptown Sip, and it's clear the stores share a similar philosophy.

On a recent steamy, rainy Tuesday evening, the Magazine Street Sip hummed with an infectious energy. The staff -- women with pigtails and tattoos -- pause to offer friendly shopping advice as they put into action their plans for the night's tasting, which will pair certain wines to the music of Tom Waits.

Mary Youngblood, co-owner of the Magazine Street Sip, was set to open her business the week Katrina struck and finally opened the store in mid-October. The shop's owners developed a philosophy, and a loyal customer base soon followed.

"We were well received by the community from the start," Youngblood says. "People were in shock, they wanted a sense of community. And certainly that occurred at the store, though it's a little surprising, the extent of the bond that's formed. But that's what we want: for people to come here and have an experience. A shop that's user friendly and takes the mystique out of wine."

"We want to have 250 wines available for under $15 -- that's our goal," she continues. "Finding a good expensive bottle of wine is easy, a no-brainer. But finding an affordable bottle you love, that's fun."

click to enlarge At Sip on Magazine Street, wine tastings have turned into - busy happy hour events. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
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