The Deep South is pretty far from wine country, but a world of wine still flows through New Orleans. Chalk that up to a robust fine-dining scene, visitors who arrive ready to live it up and locals who decant at the drop of a hat. This week, that spirited approach to wine will be in high gear at the annual New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (NOWFE).
NOWFE draws nearly 10,000wine makers and wine lovers to New Orleans and raises money for local charities. About 175 wineries and importers are represented, each presenting several wines for a total of more than 1,000 varieties being poured.
"Each year about 40 percent of the wineries are different," says NOWFE executive director Jamie Peckenpaugh. "For a lot of them, the decision (to attend) is about their vintage that year. When they have really special wines, that's when they want to come and show it off."
These wines are featured at restaurant wine dinners held across town Wednesday night; at NOWFE's premium wine tasting, called Vinola, held at Harrah's Casino on Thursday; at a number of marquee events that give the wine festival its essential New Orleans character.
Thursday evening is NOWFE's freewheeling Royal Street Stroll, when galleries and shops along a six-block stretch of the French Quarter pour an extensive array of wines. There's also food and live music along this festive route. On Friday and Saturday, NOWFE has two Grand Tastings at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The tastings feature hundreds of wines and food from 65 local restaurants.
"Across the board this year, chefs and restaurants will be focusing on seafood because they know that's still so important to highlight," Peckenpaugh says.
During Saturday's Grand Tasting, chefs will compete in the annual Louisiana Seafood Cook-off. A special food attraction at Friday's Grand Tasting hews closer to the land. Dubbed the "Church of Swinetology," it's a showcase for charcuterie paired with wines and serves as a "preview tasting" for Cochon 555, a national traveling culinary competition to be held as part of NOWFE on Saturday at the Foundry (see www.cochon555.com).
NOWFE seminars on Friday and Saturday add wine education to the itinerary, and these too include plenty of tastings. For instance, on Friday Rob Davis, vintner at the Sonoma winery Jordan since its start in 1976, leads a retrospective tasting of his Cabernet Sauvignons, discussing how they've evolved over 35 years.
This year, the week starts with a special tribute from NOWFE. The festival's Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality Award was created last year and given to its namesake, the matriarch of the Commander's Palace restaurant family. This year the honor goes to chef Paul Prudhomme, whom Ella Brennan hired at Commander's Palace in 1975 and who is widely credited with popularizing Cajun cooking outside Louisiana. Prudhomme will be feted Tuesday night at a dinner at the JW Marriott Hotel, which also includes NOWFE's charity wine auction.
All NOWFE events require tickets. Visit www.nowfe.com for schedule and details.