Erin White’s history with New Orleans and wine began in 1982 when she moved to town to work at a wine bar on Magazine Street. She went on to work alongside renowned chefs like Emeril Lagasse and garner James Beard nominations for Outstanding Wine Service, then took a break from restaurants to try her hand at wine retail in Colorado while raising her son. In 2010, she reconnected with longtime friend chef John Besh and returned to New Orleans to oversee the wine program for his flagship restaurant, August. White spoke with Carson Demmond about what bottles Orleanians like best.
Your wines by the glass are pretty diverse…
It’s really menu-dictated. We have one of those kitchens where we reprint the menu all the time, so what we pour by the glass is in direct association with what is currently on the menu. When they change the grouper dish, for instance, I’ll change one of the wines by the glass as well so that it’s the right pairing. I’m getting ready to pour a gros manseng from the Basque country by the glass. I try whenever possible to support wines that don’t get as much attention—to keep it so that it’s not always the primary popular grapes.
Is that how an Alsace wine—the Gassman Auxerrois—does so well?
That Auxerrois is very unusual. It has real viscosity and richness. We have a shrimp mousse-stuffed shumai dumpling that then has an étoufée sauce made with roux. It’s kind of an odd overly spiced Asian-Louisiana style appetizer, and the Auxerrois, being a little honeyed, is just amazing with it. When it’s a pairing like that, people are very on board. It’s about having something that is a killer pairing without them having to buy a whole bottle.
You list white Burgundy among your top-selling wines, and the biggest success for you has been a Chablis, from Domaine Jean Collet. Is New Orleans a big Burgundy town?
I have to say it is. We’ve always poured a lot of white Burgundy. But when I’m going to pour something as mineral as the Collet Chablis, I have to also offer a chardonnay with some creaminess and weight to it as well, because not everyone is comfortable with Chablis. Right now, I’m pouring a St. Véran and the Neyers chardonnay from Carneros in California. Chardonnay is so style-driven, so one wine is hard to fit for all chardonnay drinkers. People seem to be from two schools: those who like a lot of oak and those who don’t. We’ll bring both tableside and give them a sip of each to see which one makes them happy. People love to feel like they’re getting their own mini wine tasting. When they come in and find something they love that they didn’t know before, it makes the night that much more rewarding.
The same goes for pinot noir; I always have to pour two—a Burgundy and something domestic. The French is typically lighter because the ones priced to pour by the glass are coming from the southern part of the region, and Côte de Beaune wines can be a little lean. In New Orleans, we do a lot of fish, so the guest can have Burgundy with fish… and then for someone who wants that richness, I’ll pour something [from California] with more fruit. It’s two styles, because it’s not the same consumer. If you’ve fallen in love with pinot noir from California, something like Volnay can be perceived as too dry.
Cakebread, Kistler and Merry Edwards are also very successful at August. Is that brand recognition?
They have a reputation, for sure. Cakebread sells like crazy on its own. It’s the perfect storm: these wines get so successful because the name is easy to remember… they had it at someone’s house and liked it. These brands are so popular with people that you think, “That’s one I don’t have to babysit.” But you have to occasionally check in on them to taste and see what they’re up to. As wine buyers that’s important. I tried that Cakebread chardonnay recently, and the fruit was flowery and sweet. I drink way too much French chardonnay, so it surprised me.
What about Rhône wines…. You list Guigal’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape among your top-selling wines. Do you see that category having much traction these days?
We’ve always sold a decent amount of Cotes du Rhône. We have probably as many wines from the Rhône as we do Italian on the list, so it could be the fact that New Orleans is kind of a French city. That, and they’re priced well compared to wines from, say, Napa. I’ll always keep a dozen or so southern Rhône wines on the list and keep at least one on by the glass. I love to sell things like Cornas as well… but that’s harder to do here. Not everybody is looking for syrah.
Guigal has such an amazing story that if you tell anyone, they fall in love. Starting as a very poor child… kicked out of the house at 8 years old… He worked from the bottom job to the top job at Vidal Fleury and then started his own company right after WWII… really a self-made man. I poured his Gigondas with venison not that long ago, and people love the wine, but they also love the story.
What would you say is the biggest steal on your list?
I have this little lost section called “& Others” that is all pigato and gros manseng, and xarel.lo from Spain… All these oddball varieties that I want people to support. And it actually gets shopped plenty. Part of the reason being, most of that page is under $50.
For someone who’s pairing food and wine all the time, I love all the different shades. You get in to the profile of what a wine is like and then you fine-tune it like a radio. Maybe I don’t want as much acidity as riesling. Maybe I want that cleanness. All those coastal wines from Italy are priced so friendly and are just great. Instead of doing a pinot grigio, why not try a pigato?