Krewe of Cork Parade
3 p.m. Friday, Feb. 25
Visit www.kreweofcork.com for details about membership and events
Krewe of Cork King for Life Patrick van Hoorebeek has a confession:
"Natural corks are a pain in the behind," he says, laughing. "They are very hard to work with; they're not easy to cut."
The sommelier, best known for his 18-year tenure at the Bistro at the Maison de Ville, isn't talking about extracting a cork from a bottle of wine. He's referring to his first costume for the krewe's first parade. He decided to cover a suit in corks and found that while the elastic-but-firm stoppers keep wine in a bottle, they are less than ideal as craft materials. That's why he wears the same cork suit every year when he greets the guest grand marshal in advance of the krewe's annual Mardi Gras festivities.
The Krewe of Cork's Carnival calendar starts on Wednesday with a wine dinner honoring the grand marshal, generally a vintner or winery owner invited to serve. John Conover of Northern California's Plumpjack and CADE wineries is this year's grand marshal. There's a party for the entire krewe Thursday evening, and on Friday, roughly 400 costumed members parade through the French Quarter, stopping at hotels and restaurants to offer toasts to sommeliers, managers and proprietors.
"The krewe is made up of many restaurant industry people, and also people who like wine and dine out three times a week," van Hoorebeek says. "Many of them know each other."
The 11-year-old krewe started like many marching krewes do in New Orleans: on a whim.
"We were sitting at the Bistro on a Friday having some lunch and some wine and a parade went by the window," van Hoorebeek says. "We said, 'We can do that.'"
The krewe's first foray ventured only a couple of blocks. Prospective members had to show up with a collection of 365 corks to join, arbitrary proof that they drank at least a bottle of wine every day. They used the corks as krewe throws, but many people tossed them back, so the following year the krewe had its own corks made with its name printed on the side. The California cork-maker found the request odd, since it had never produced corks not inserted into bottles. It put information about the krewe on its website, but the group was already on the radar of California winemakers.
Steve Reeder, now a vice president at Simi Winery, met van Hoorebeek in the late 1990s at a wine presentation he was giving at Commander's Palace. He was offered the position of grand marshal in 2004, but he had to wait and serve in 2005. That year, as the krewe emerged from its luncheon at the Court of Two Sisters to begin the parade, it started to rain.
"By the time we were at the end of the first block, it was pouring," Reeder says. "Patrick and the organizers were thinking about canceling the parade and going back inside, and I asked, 'Do I have any authority here as grand marshal?' And they said I did. So I said, 'Let's march.'
"We got totally soaked. I think we had to pay for destroying the costumes we had rented. But it was great."
Reeder hasn't missed a Krewe of Cork parade since, and that includes two annual events. The krewe marches on the Friday 11 days before Fat Tuesday and during the Royal Street Stroll at the annual New Orleans Wine and Food Experience in May. At Carnival, Reeder dresses as the Pope of Cork, and wife Donna costumes as the Blue Nun.
The krewe's officials are installed as lifetime members. Instead of royals, the group chooses a vintner as a grand marshal. Past grand marshals have included Clovis Taittinger of the renowned French Champagne-producing family, Robert Mondavi Jr. and Kathy Benziger of Benziger Family Winery.
The highlight of the Mardi Gras festivities is the parade, and krewe members are fortified by wine dispensed from golf-cart floats managed by wine police tasked "To protect and to serve." Most of the wine is donated by sponsoring wineries.
Reeder is bringing four family members to march with him this Carnival, and he's learned a few things over the years.
"The Libation Ball after the parade is at the Royal Sonesta," he says. "I got us rooms there, because I don't want to try to walk anywhere else after the party."
The krewe is full of familiar faces in the local restaurant industry. Van Hoorebeek had hoped to open Patrick's Bar Vin in the St. Louis Hotel in time to have the krewe toast it. But that will have to wait for another holiday: St. Patrick's Day. If he can open on that day, he promises to christen the venture with Jameson Irish whiskey.