A Toast To A City


This has been a tough week for me. My hometown of New Orleans is under water—under terrible, toxic water. Fellow New Orleanians are suffering, having lost everything, and I feel powerless to help them. Sure, I took several bags of non-perishable food, baby formula, blankets, etc., down to the Trade Mart, but I still feel as if nothing I could ever do would really help. At times like these it's easy to get caught up in the bad stuff, almost to the point where I feel like I'll never see my beloved city again. Of course I'll return someday, but it will never be the same.

Today I made it a point to recall only good things about New Orleans: places defunct even before Katrina, food I plan to eat again as soon as I am able, wines that will never taste as good as they did in that fantastic place.

About 11 years ago I worked at Bayona Restaurant on Dauphine Street as a lowly hostess. I was given so many opportunities to try great wines and eat fantastic food. Chef Susan Spicer would often pop up to the hostess stand with a sample of something she was working on for an evening special and ask me to taste it. "Do you think we should go with that tonight?" she'd ask.

Then the sommelier would arrive with a taste of wine, wondering, "Do you think this works with that sauce?" It was my first experience with a real sommelier and my first true exposure to the marriage of wine and food. I remember "approving" a coupling of a lobster appetizer and a Kalin Chardonnay, feeling so proud and honored when Chef Spicer told the staff at the pre-shift meeting that "Lesley loved this!"

Bayona's then-sommelier, Michael Fisher, left the restaurant to open his own place, a wine bar on Decatur Street called Vino! Vino! To say that I was a regular there would be a gross understatement. The wines by the glass were constantly changing, offering a curious new oenophile like myself a great opportunity to develop my palate. The kitchen offered basic bread and cheese boards with sides of whipped whole butter and roasted garlic. Humble yet fancy, I thought.

It was here that I first tried a Spanish sparkling wine. Crisp and refreshing, but with beautiful richness from the Chardonnay grapes from which the wine was made . Michael told me all about the Cava district, where these wines are produced, and I drank enough of the stuff to have believed that I was actually in the Cava district.

My roommate and I lived at just a few blocks from Martin Wine Cellar. At least once a week we would have lunch there in that incredible deli, then take our time roaming the aisles and pointing out wines we'd had before, wines we could never afford and wines we'd be taking home with us that day.

One of the cool things about that place is that they are always offering samples of wine and cheese featured each day, neither of which we ever refused. I discovered Eberle wines there, which might never be available here in Mississippi. (If you see it anywhere, BUY IT!) We sure were broke, but we always had money for wine and cheese.

In 1999 I attended the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience at the Convention Center for the first time. The La Louisiane ballroom was packed with hundreds of winemakers and restaurants showing off their wares. In three hours time I probably tasted a hundred wines and ate about 30 plates of food. A newly certified sommelier at that time, I chatted with winemakers, proudly passing them my brand-new business cards while inviting them to come to Jackson where I would showcase their wines at a wine dinner or some other fun event.

My friend Karen and I ended up scoring some passes into a private party for the folks from the wineries where we hooked up with John Larchet, owner of the Australian Premium Wine Collection, and took him down into the Marigny to the R Bar, another favorite haunt of mine. There we drank Chimay, a strong Belgian Ale, out of big goblets, and listened to John tell us all about his son Benji, the namesake of his Hill of Content Benjamin's Blend (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon).

I remember being so hungover the next day that Karen and I both almost swooned upon entering a wine lecture at 9 a.m., where we were offered glasses of water by a man who said we looked like we could use it.

I hope that man is down there right now offering someone a bottle of water.

Previous Comments


I know that this is a wine column (even though there's been one beer column so far), but I think this is appropriate. Lazy Magnolia down in Kiln, the state of Mississippi's only distributing beer brewer, was apparently spared the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. The problem? Approximately 80% of their coastal business was WIPED OUT 2 weeks ago. Since they've only been in business a year or two and haven't had time to expand, this is devastating. They had even recently expanded to Hattiesburg, but we all know that the 'burg got dealt a pretty heavy blow, too. According to the beer website where I found this information, they will be trying to expand to Oxford and Starkville soon. If any of y'all have connections with bars around Jacktown, I'm sure the folks at LM would greatly appreciate any plugs you could give. Hal and Mal's seems to be the regular haunt for JFPer's, so maybe we could let them know about this, too. I've been wanting to try their beers for a while, but haven't made it down to the coast in a while. Unfortunately, it will be months before that's even possible for a lot of folks. If you can, let's try to help these guys out... Hell, it's BEER! :D


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