Rolling with the Wine Krewe at Mardi Gras

In the weeks before Mardi Gras, New Orleans descends into a kind of government-sanctioned madness. But it's not all Girls Gone Wild. Sarah Baird joins the Krewe of Cork for a look into the revelrous world of Fat Tuesday's wine worshippers.

new orleans mardi gras krewe of cork

“406, my girl, 406!”  Patrick van Hoorebeek, King for Life of the Krewe of Cork—one of the many walking krewes during New Orleans’s Carnival season—is gesturing wildly, wielding his three-gallon, mirrored goblet like a weapon. “In the year 406 B.C., Euripides said, ‘Without wine, there is no joy!’ That’s why our Krewe of Cork will never have any more than 406 members!” His voice lifts at the end in a sort of “heave-ho!” rallying cry, as if calling his small army of wine worshippers to the front lines of battle.

It’s a gloriously sunny Friday morning two weeks out from Mardi Gras and the krewe is gathering in the Court of Two Sisters, one of the French Quarter’s most extravagant and lush courtyards. But van Hoorebeek pays the beauty no mind. He is meticulously rearranging one hundred bottles of champagne in massive troughs of ice, holding his head at just the right angle to ensure his crown’s plumage doesn’t get damp.

“Of course, everyone says that ‘B.C.’ stands for ‘Before Christ,'” he leans in close and whispers, his ruddy cheek, jolly and soft, pressed against my ear, “but I’m pretty sure that it really means ‘Before Cork.'”

Many of the uninitiated believe that Carnival season in New Orleans—the period of time between Twelve Night (January 6th) and Mardi Gras day (March 4th)—is all debauchery and decadence, a time when the city descends into a kind of government-sanctioned madness.

They’re right, to an extent.

It’s part Girls Gone Wild and part disarming, topsy-turvy revelry. The groups of parading men and women—referred to as “krewes”—march, ride and dance down city streets for a two week stretch leading up to the biggest celebratory day of all: Mardi Gras. On any given Lundi Gras—the Monday prior to Fat Tuesday’s gaiety—pillars of the community don their best golden masks and gather on elaborate floats to day-drink and throw grape-shaped beads to onlookers. During Krewe du Vieux, a satirical parade that kicks off the season, it’s not unusual to see a New Orleans captain of industry (or your dentist) on the same float as a giant animatronic penis.

An egalitarian attitude towards wine consumption makes the Krewe of Cork something of an anomaly in the drinks world, where those who are simply enthusiastic imbibers often self-segregate from those who have a nuanced understanding of their drink of choice. Cork, though, allows generations-old vineyard owners and those who enjoy the occasional bottle of Barefoot Bubbly to sit at a table side-by-side, enjoying the camaraderie that, sometimes, only a bottle can bring.

Walking krewes are the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box of nuts and sweets that is Carnival season. These krewes are smaller and more specialized than their rolling krewe counterparts—which ride along on large, ornately festooned floats—but they often provide a more intimate and entertaining experience. The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus is completely sci-fi themed. The Krewe of Barkus allows our four-legged friends to have a day in the parading sun.

The Krewe of Cork is, not surprisingly, dedicated to the celebration of all things wine. Founded in 2000 by van Hoorebeek (Cork’s King for Life), who also operates one of the French Quarter’s most popular wine bars, Krewe of Cork’s membership is a one-way ticket to a bacchanalian fête unlike any other. While the annual parade during Mardi Gras is the krewe’s pièce de résistance, Cork also parades during various drink-related events throughout the year—including Tales of the Cocktail—and hosts regular membership dinners with plenty of wine in tow.

Tossing on a purple sweater and green shoes in solidarity with my wine-drinking brethren, I join up with the krewe for their morning block party, an event which serves as a celebratory meet-and-greet before the Krewe of Cork Parade’s long French Quarter march.

I quickly realize my outfit is subpar.

There are wine-themed hippies covered in head-to-toe tie-dye passing out tiny bottles of “Sonny and Cherdonnay.” A couple from Mississippi arrives dressed as matching boxes of wine made with the “swamp grapes” of their home state. Several men, taking a cue from Anchorman, are wearing bedazzled “Rhone Burgundy: Stay Glassy NOLA” blazers and conducting interviews, while a potpourri of more traditional costumes—women dressed as grapes and champagne bottles, capes of all shapes and sizes declaring a love of wine—rounds out the crowd.

It’s no secret that Mardi Gras krewes are rife with society snobbery, the majority of larger parading groups comprised of the patriarchs of upper-crust, old-line New Orleans families. Most don’t allow for female membership, let alone any notable socioeconomic diversity. But Krewe of Cork is alarmingly refreshing in this regard, with members that cut across a wide swath of age, race and gender. Each year the krewe boasts a new and highly active grand marshal and a queen.

This year’s grand marshal, George Sandeman, owns and operates Sandeman Port in Portugal, and is dressed like his vineyard’s logo—a shadowy, cape-wearing don. “You know what I am?” Sandeman says, pulling his cape mysteriously across his face, leaving just enough space for his eyes. “I’m a don!” Turning around backwards with a flourish, revealing his parade title spelled out in gold glitter letters on the back of the cape. “I’m also grand marshal!”

Sandeman is just one of a large number of European krewe members, a group that includes vineyard operators and wine buyers from Belgium and France.

“I have no idea how I became queen!” gushes 2014 Queen Amy Borrell, handing me one of her signature “queen’s cork” throws. “I thought I was going to Patrick’s wine bar for a night out, then all of a sudden someone was presenting me with a tiara and asking me to be queen!”

Prior queens—their sashes proudly worn—flock to the new queen like bees to a hive, giving advice and kisses and snapping photos. The majority of them are wearing large, Marie Antoinette-style bouffants with bunches of grapes dripping alongside the curls.

“Frankly, I don’t know all that much about wine,” a former queen confesses to me in a hushed tone. “I just know I like to drink it, and that’s what matters, isn’t it, baby?”

An egalitarian attitude towards wine consumption makes the Krewe of Cork something of an anomaly in the drinks world, where those who are simply enthusiastic imbibers often self-segregate from those who have a nuanced understanding of their drink of choice. Cork, though, allows generations-old vineyard owners and those who enjoy the occasional bottle of Barefoot Bubbly to sit at a table side-by-side, enjoying the camaraderie that, sometimes, only a bottle can bring.

After a lingering lunch inside Court of Two Sisters, we line up for the parade as hundreds of onlookers gleefully gather around, begging for beads and pointing at some of the more outlandish get-ups.

“Where’s the damn wine police?” a krewe member cries out, empty glass waving, as we begin our stroll to the tune of the Cork Poppas, the jazz band leading our procession. So that no glass goes unfilled while on the parade route, Krewe of Cork employs a “wine police” to pull coolers full of wine the entire length of the walk, refilling members’ cups as quickly as they can drink it down.

“It sure as hell beats being the real police,” laughs one “officer” as the parade rolls merrily down Royal Street, purple and green confetti exploding in the air above us. “Now, do you want red or white?”

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