Rick Gratia made his own leap of faith early in the recovery, and the city will see how it pays off this weekend as the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (NOWFE) returns for its 15th year.
Gratia is the managing partner at the Creole restaurant Muriel's Jackson Square, which reopened in October. This year, he is also president of the nonprofit organization that puts on NOWFE, the five-day festival that brings 200 wineries and several thousand visitors to venues downtown and restaurants around the area. It begins with a roving wine-tasting through Royal Street galleries and stores on Thursday; it features wine and food seminars, vintner dinners and a pair of Grand Tastings with hundreds of wines and food from local chefs; and it culminates with a champagne brunch on Sunday. (For a complete schedule, visit www.nowfe.com). The uniting theme of the events is refined indulgence and a celebration of the good life.
In early September, the good life resided only in dreams for New Orleanians, Gratia included. He was holed up in Starkville, Miss., in an apartment complex packed with displaced families all watching the agony of their city play out on TV. Local cell phones were still inert, but through e-mail Gratia reached NOWFE's new executive director, Joyce Godbold, who had been hired in July.
"I told her to go ahead, to keep planning like we were going to do it," says Gratia. "What else could we do? Saying anything else would mean we weren't doing it."
And not holding NOWFE this year, he says, "would probably have killed it."
Gratia has long been involved with running NOWFE, but he says it had stymied in the past few years. Before Katrina, the board had resolved to make it better in 2006. They brought on the new executive director to shake things up and hired the prominent national wine consultant Michael Green to help lure larger sponsorships. The goals were to improve the quality and selection of wines, fine tune the event for guests and bring in more money for the local hospitality training programs that are the nonprofit's community beneficiaries.
The plight of postdiluvian New Orleans upped the ante exponentially. And while it has made planning the event much harder and riskier, in the end it has also brought a groundswell of support from both small and massive wineries that want to support New Orleans and the event.
The sponsorship hunt paid off, with major new commitments from American Express, Nestle Waters, Gallo Family Vineyards, the Oregon Wine Collaborative and Gourmet magazine, among others. The sponsorships have helped NOWFE attract more diverse and higher caliber wineries, Gratia says, as well as bring on event staff to help its programs run smoothly. And Gratia expects a few changes of venue that were forced by Katrina to improve the festival as well. The Grand Tastings, previously held on the display floors of the convention center, will this year be held in ballrooms at the Hilton Riverside hotel. Seminars will be hosted in local restaurants with the participation of staff and chefs, rather than meeting halls as in years past.
"Cosmetically, on paper, the schedule looks much the same as always, but there will be a huge difference in the quality of the wines and events," says Gratia. "All this was a dice roll when we were planning it, but we had to keep moving."
NOWFE is out to do more than please palates this year. Gratia says this year is a chance to impress new sponsors and win larger commitments for the future to help build the festival into a larger event.
"Some of us think this could grow to become as synonymous with New Orleans as Jazz Fest if we keep building on it," he says.
In addition to his work with sponsors, Green is also contributing to the programming for NOWFE this year with the debut of his wine-themed stage production, a musical called Wine Lovers: A Romance in Five Glasses. Also new this year is a behind-the-scenes training session to teach the basics of wine selection and service to people taking jobs in the area's staffing-starved hospitality industry.
More winery principals are getting personally involved in NOWFE this year, pouring their wines at the Grand Tastings and attending the vintner dinners. One of them, Todd "Toad" Williams, founder of the small Russian River winery Toad Hollow, has a particular affinity for New Orleans and has done some heavy lifting to help the city's recovery.
Immediately after the storm hit, Toad Hollow created a commemorative label for a cache of its 2001 Merlot and decided to donate all of the proceeds to local schools. Called Katrina "Recovery" Merlot, it proved extremely popular and virtually all 1,635 cases of the wine sold out in two weeks. Its sales raised more than $120,000 for four area school districts. The last six liters of the Merlot were combined in a one-of-kind large format bottle with an etched label, which will be auctioned at NOWFE to benefit the organization's charitable giving.
"Everywhere I go, I tell people they've got to come down to New Orleans," says Williams, who worked as a French Quarter bartender in the 1950s. "I think this is the best event of its type in the country. It's the people, it's the attitude. I mean, it's New Orleans, it's the grande dame of the South. You've got to go down and give her a goose."