New Orleans Day 2
October 10, 2o17
The oldest memories I have of the early years of my relationship with my father are of him playing a clarinet. I think it must have been 1980 and his tenth reunion at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire and was taking place on a warm summer weekend. I was eight years-old and my sister was six and my parents were just in their early thirties and I remember wandering around in a haze from one sunny campus spot to the next. All of it was quite green. I remember feeling precious little of the anxiety I might have felt from being in a new place for the first time. It was my first taste of something bucolic and I loved it with all the ardor an eight-year-old can muster. In the middle of the experience, under tents in the warm country air, were a couple of sets performed by my dad’s college Dixieland band. I learned for the first time about the mesmerizing powers of great music.
My visit to New Orleans was enthralling, inspiring, disappointing, and more than
anything else, provocative. On my first night there, I stood in a crowded bar of friendly people waiting for the six or seven members of the Rebirth Brass Band to arrive and take the stage. Ten years ago when my father was sick with cancer I sent him an original illustrated jazz festival poster of the band walking down the street, in the center a giant tuba with the word ‘rebirth’ taped in bright letters to the inside of its bell. I was hoping in those days to make the case to my dad that he wasn’t done yet and it just now occurred to me that I had identified jazz music as the platform most likely to help me convince him. That little bit of personal history had never been so present before as it was while I was standing in the bar, finally, and waiting to hear the sound on which I had pinned my hopes.
The Rebirth was loud. It was thrilling when it started and the volume and intensity never abated. By the time I left, after six or eight tunes, I thought I was feeling the stirring of a headache. Two or three young guys were up front playing trumpet and blowing their instruments so hard that it looked like their lives depended on it, which maybe is the point and is an essential aspect of music called Zydeco. When I walked out of the club I found a street suddenly filled with revelers with drinks in hand, and a couple of food carts now arrived to make sure there was a hot dog for everyone. Only then did I realize that I came to New Orleans
with some idea that I might find Jelly Roll Morton or Louis Armstrong on a stage somewhere. I felt their influence in a town so in love with jazz and improvised live music, though I wondered after a few days whether it was music so much as noise and fun being exalted all over the city.
The next night I walked all the way through the French Quarter and then through the neighborhood known as the Bywater, under the most giant full moon I have ever seen, to the destination I had been anticipating the most from the recommendations I had received. At the corner of Chartres Street and Poland Avenue I found Bacchanal, a place more than one person told me changed the way they feel about wine. Oenological epiphanies are impressive to me. I guess they evidence at least a perceived interest in a person advancing their own
sense of taste, something with which I can get down.
I entered a little clapboard store on the corner, no more than a couple of hundred
square feet, populated by a half-dozen customers and clerks and a few hundred bottles of wine for sale. The selection of the wines in the room was not the worst kind, which is supplied in its entirety by a single corporate distributor that distributes the same wines produced in massive quantities at nine out of ten wine retailers in most towns in America. The wines for sale in this shop were wines you don’t see everywhere, which is a step up from the usual. Unfortunately
that initial instinct of a young wine buyer to buy things his customers are unlikely to recognize often turns into a juvenile quest for esoterica, to have the thing his neighbors don’t have. He’s the first wine buyer to offer Greek wines; she found a wine made from an indigenous grape variety grown near Patagonia for 400 years. The world has no shortage of viticultural and oenological diversity and those stories about the rare and intriguing will circulate for as long as we walk the planet. They have no bearing at all on a question I regard with a bit more pressing
urgency, which is what’s good to drink.
For my taste, I wished there had been a few more classics on the shelves in terms of top producers and a grape for instance like chardonnay. One of the hallmarks of a small shop with inexpensive small-production wines is neglect of chardonnay. The chardonnays of Burgundy, the reasoning goes, is for snobs and rich people, and most of the time it’s not as bright and fresh as this ugni blanc right over here for $17.99. Among younger wine-drinking crowds all over the country, for good reason, California chardonnay still carries the burden of the decades- old race to richness it is forced to run. There are exceptions, but most of the time I would rather drink the $17.99 ugni blanc than chardonnay from Napa.
Nonetheless. I brought a bottle of delicious 2015 Clos Cibonne tibouren to the counter. I paid for it and a woman behind the counter with a corkscrew asked me if I was going to drink it on the premises. I nodded and she opened the bottle. “Follow that door at the back and you’ll find some glasses around the corner,” she said. I retrieved my glass and shortly found myself in a massive backyard, probably fifty feet or more across in both directions. Under shady trees and on gravelly ground sat dozens of outdoor tables and mixed and matched chairs. To the right was an ice and drinking water station with carafes and glasses and plastic buckets for wine. On the left in the back of the little house I in which I had just bought my wine was a walk-up window, intermittently attended, with a few minimalist menus in a box on the wall, one wrinkled and stained on the counter. A man approached the window and asked me what I wanted. I ordered the watermelon gazpacho, the curried cauliflower on hummus, the crudité with vegan green goddess and the
papatas bravas. I paid again and the man gave me a pole with a number on top.
Within twenty minutes a band called Sapatos Novos took the stage, and played soft and unassuming jazz with what sounded like latin influences. I situated myself at a table with my bottle of Clos Cibonne, which was just coming up to the perfect temperature as a cold drink does on a warm night. Tibouren is a red grape which is often made into a very lightly-inflected rosé wine. I had a feeling that was the kind of wine I was going to be wanting, something delicious and without any intention or desire to be the center of attention.
Neither the wine, nor the food nor the music was the center of attention at Bacchanal. They were all perfectly satisfactory and each almost pointedly uninterested in what we might usually regard as excellent or innovative. The food was perfectly tasty and well-executed and somewhat obviously disinclined to taking any chances, which was exactly what I was trying to find for dinner. The service, to use the term loosely, was benignly rude (after a young woman delivered a bowl of gazpacho she told me where I could go to grab my spoon) or it was non-existent. And yet, it was the most innovative hospitality concept, especially with regard to wine, that I have encountered in I don’t know how long. It was more inviting and warmer than the sum of its parts by a wide margin, not just because it was early fall in New Orleans.
Bacchanal is the iteration of the most essential thing about wine, which is its role in nurturing camaraderie while receding into the background. My own path with wine over the years has included retreats with Meursault and Corton-Charlemagne, but it occurs to me on the heels of my evening at Bacchanal that those wines very often do not recede into the background of the dinner table. They stand up to be counted and to be remarked upon and remembered for the weight of their personalities. At fancy restaurants and among insatiable tastes for
fine white Burgundy I have heard countless dinner conversations suspended inertly in some strange analytical ether as though the participants had nothing else to share with each other. It dawned on me that this place, with all of its rough edges, understands the essence of wine more than all of the palaces around the country with leather-bound wine lists and one bottle of expensive, noteworthy wine after another.
The man standing outside the front door at Bacchanal told me after dinner that I might take a car back to the French Quarter instead of carrying a quarter of a bottle of tibouren through the unlit Bywater streets. I was grateful for his advice and rode with a young man who told me that he had just returned to New Orleans after leaving the city with his family for Nashville in the days just before Katrina hit, about twelve years ago. I thought to myself that it’s no wonder local real estate seems so reasonably priced for a lovely city—many locals have been
faced with questions about whether to stay or go or return or build a life somewhere else.
He dropped me off on Frenchmen Street, where thirty minutes later I was standing in a street drinking the rest of my bottle of wine and watching eight men with brass instruments assemble on a street corner and start blowing their horns to the considerable delight of dozens of dancing people.