To inherit the wine program at Bacchanal in New Orleans is to inherit way more than a list and cellar full of wines.
In 2002, Chris Rudge, a former sommelier, opened a wine shop, selling the Old World wines he loved out of a 200-year-old brick building at the corner of Poland Avenue and Mazant in the Bywater, steps from the great Mississippi. “All he wanted to do was have a little wine shop where he could sit and talk about and drink wine with his friends and play chess,” says Coryn Caspar, Bacchanal’s director of operations. At some point, Rudge stocked a fridge with some good cheese and filled the garden out back with mismatched patio chairs and a small stage for live music. Bacchanal became the site of the uncontested best backyard party in New Orleans. It still is.
But what solidified the legacy of Bacchanal was its role New Orleans’ recovery post-Hurricane Katrina. Rudge and his bar soothed the Crescent City with wine, music, food and a dinner series featuring a rotating string of guest chefs, including those who’d lost their restaurants in the storm. In the following years, Rudge was joined by two business partners: longtime friend Beau Ross and Joaquin Rodas, a chef. The three continued to build Bacchanal into must-stop for both locals and tourists.
Then, in 2015, at 40 years old, Chris Rudge tragically passed away. The staff banded together to manage what had grown to be a 400-label wine selection, informed by Rudge’s wine ideals. Most recently, an energetic, personable sommelier, Patrick DiFilippo, ran the program, but shockingly, he too died at only 33 years old this past August. Once again, the staff pulled together, with Caspar taking the lead until it was decided that Bacchanal’s current wine director, Joe Briand, was the right person to take the job.
Briand, who’s been the general manager and wine director at Herbsaint for the past four years, had been a regular practically since Bacchanal opened. He’d also known Rudge, and shared a similar aesthetic when it came to wine. “The tenets of the program really are European wines, certainly, value wines, wines that are about truth and not about manipulation,” says Briand. “Everyone who has been in charge of the wine program at Bacchanal has really tried to push the wines that Chris [Rudge] championed… All decisions are trying to honor what Chris set out when he founded this place.”
Bacchanal is a pretty big switch from fine dining for Briand. Guests come into the wine shop, pick out a bottle, select some meat and cheese, order a couple dishes from the kitchen and then head out back to commandeer a table near the stage.
Whereas on a busy night at Herbsaint, Briand might have talked with 25 tables, he’ll talk to that many in an hour at Bacchanal; the place flies through wine—hundreds upon hundreds of bottles every day, according to Briand. Here, he’s inside the small wine shop with just a few seconds to figure out the right wine for each customer. “It’s all these quick interactions, guiding people toward the right bottle,” says Briand. “I love wine, I love talking about wine… and there’s really no place in city where you can do as much of that as you can at Bacchanal.”
While Bacchanal does stock premier cru Burgundy and grower Champagne, those aren’t the focus by any means. “It’s a big garden party in the back, so it’s not about these intellectual wines that you have to spend all this time thinking about,” says Briand. “We’re about wines that are delicious and value-driven… $25 to $30 is where people really can find lots and lots of wines from all over the world.”
Briand’s first day on the job was November 18th, 2017, which happened to coincide with Bacchanal’s annual Bubblyfest; this year, it involved 40-some grower Champagnes and sparkling wines, people in costume and a raucuous party. The rest of the staff joked that they were surprised when he showed up the next day.
But the more dressed-down, party atmosphere—one that is truly unique to New Orleans, and to Bacchanal—is just right for Briand. “This place is magical,” he says. “It’s amazing to see people come in, whether it’s their first time or their tenth, it never really gets old.”
Bacchanal in Five Bottles
In 2014 Chris Rudge, the founder of Bacchanal and his partners, Beau Ross and Joaquin Rodas, visited Napa to blend a signature wine with Hope & Grace winemaker Charles Hendricks. “They set out to make a California wine that had ties to the European wines Chris loved to much,” says Briand. The resulting wine is blend of syrah, grenache, mourvedre and cabernet, “a powerful wine, with some of the earthy, garrigue kind of flavors that you get out of the Rhône, but it’s unmistakably a California red.” The wine was released after Rudge passed away in 2015. Briand says that he and his team will work on two new wines this year, a red and a rosé, this time with Division Wine Co. in Oregon. The plan is to work with a different U.S. winery every vintage.
- Vintage: NV
Jean Foillard Beaujolais-Villages
In an effort to keep up with ever-rising demand, Jean Foillard made a Beaujolais-Villages bottling for the first time in 2016. The wine, sourced from four different parcels around Beaujolais, is aged in concrete for seven months and then released—a much faster process than that of his culty Côte de Py from Morgon. With the Beaujolais-Villages, Briand doesn’t have to worry about holding back bottles from a tiny allocation. “It’s just gamay love,” says Briand. “It’s really pretty, all whole cluster without that carbonic, bubble gummy characteristic—kind of like a gamay with a little bit of a Burgundy attitude.”
- Vintage: 2016
Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina Rosé "Rubentis"
Ameztoi’s lightly fruity, frothy pink txakoli, Rubentis, has left a lasting impression on Bacchanal (it’s a perennial favorite), but so too has Bacchanal made its mark on the wine. Apparently, six or seven years ago, co-owner Beau Ross nicknamed the wine “baby Jesus,” a moniker that spread across the city to other restaurants, including Herbsaint, where Briand was wine director. “[Now the name] has really started to spread nationally and that it came out of what they called it here at Bacchanal is pretty cool,” says Briand. Naming rights notwithstanding, “It’s the perfect wine for what we do in the backyard for sure,” he says.
- Vintage: 2016
Monastero Suore Cistercensi Lazio Bianco "Coenobium"
An improbable collaboration between nuns at a Cistercian monastery in Lazio, a region northwest of Rome, and esteemed Umbrian winemaker Giampero Bea, this slightly orange blend of three white grapes—trebbiano, malvasia, and verdicchio—is Briand’s favorite way to introduce people to funkier bottles. In his two short months at Bacchanal, he’s been impressed by the adventurousness of the younger clientele. “This one of those really geeky wines that you can take someone who’s maybe not had a skin-contact wine before and get them into it without going all the way to crazy town, as far as tannin and color goes.” It’s also a favorite amongst restaurant industry folks on their days off. “We’ve got a lot of wine geeks down here—we may have an accent, but we’re into the fun stuff, for sure,” says Briand.
Darting Dürkheimer Hochbenn Riesling Kabinett
“I’m a riesling geek, which Chris [Rudge] was as well,” says Briand. This, from Germany’s Pfalz region, is the first wine he added to Bacchanal’s selection. Whereas in other restaurants that Briand’s worked in, people shied away from rieslings with residual sugar, at Bacchanal it can be a selling point. He looks to Darting as one of the more value-driven producers of kabinett-level wines that are low in alcohol, have a delicate, sweet fruitiness and the acidity that German riesling is known for. “To me, the wines are similar to Müller-Catoir, who is way more famous and way more expensive,” says Briand.