I have been thinking a lot lately about the role of food in turning a place into a cultural landmark. This is the mirror opposite of the process through which foods acquire their reputation through a linkage to a place. That, of course, is what we refer to these days as terroir. The implication is that the place, through soil, climate, or traditions, is reflected in the food. The process in either direction seems to require that people be self-conscious about making the link work. This is the work of culture and history, not nature.
This is particularly true when the place in question is a store or restaurant, rather than a farm. In the spirit of such things, I want to call attention to a tale of a New Orleans wine shop and its relatively successful efforts to use wine to make a place. I think this is a particularly interesting process because, in a society in which many things are mostly sold in large big box chain stores, success for small-scale local retailers often draws on place-making strategies. This is true for bookstores, hardware stores, bike shops, and, of course, wine stores and other food-related businesses.
The wine shop in this instance is Bacchanal Wine, which is located in New Orleans Upper Ninth Ward, also known as Bywater. It was started in 2002 by Chris Rudge in what was then a slowly (perhaps even very slowly) gentrifying neighborhood in a ramshackle building. I visited a few times back then, mostly because it was near the original location of The Joint, which was a similarly ramshackle barbecue joint just up the street. I visited more often after the 2005 hurricane and floods, when Bacchanal became a bit more than a wine store. There was music in their courtyard, chefs cooking creative foods in an outdoor “kitchen” of sorts, sometimes food trucks. It was a lively and, it turns out, somewhat illegal scene and a sure sign that the neighborhood was changing much more rapidly. Having sorted out their legal issues a few years ago, the shop had to deal more recently with the death of the founding owner.
The wine store remains a lively scene. There is, of course, retail wine for sale in the store. And like a number of other New Orleans wine shops, Bacchanal also serves drinks at its own bar. There is also food, some of which is quite ambitious. And there is live music in their courtyard nearly every evening. There are other wine shops in New Orleans that engage in similar strategies (Swirl and Pearl, for instance), although Bacchanal’s full program may be a bit more ambitious than most (Do wine shops do this in other cities? Tell us about it in the comments.).
In just the last week, the store has added another element in what seems like a distinct effort to create what might be their very own terroir, if such a thing can exist in this sort of setting. They released their own wine, which Rudge and his partners had blended on a trip to California. They have also made a short documentary celebrating both Rudge and the history of the shop. The whole story has been told in interesting detail by Brett Anderson, on the nola.com website.
All of this comes together, then, to make a distinct place. Terroir is really not the right word, but it is perhaps the right spirit. Clearly, much of this is self-conscious place-making by the owners of the shop. Given their success, it seems like they have hit upon a strategy that resonates with people in New Orleans and beyond, as this article and video makes clear. This success also raises questions about what this signifies for the neighborhood and the city in general, since there are no doubt those who would prefer a different kind of place making. Yet the process of self-conscious place making itself is fascinating. How else can a small retail store succeed when the very thing they sell is easily available in big grocery stores? By selling place, rather than just wine.