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Virtual wine party builds something vital for restaurants

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — At our house in Mid-City, we opened the wines to breathe, put the cheeses out to temper and hauled the computer monitor from our makeshift home office to the back deck, for a needed change of scenery.

Across town in the Garden District, Commander’s Palace sommelier Dan Davis sat in the cloistered chill of the restaurant’s wine room, with a neat grid of bottles behind him and a nest of laptops, power strips, studio lights and marked-up scripts before him.

Around New Orleans and across the region, hundreds of people were looking back at Davis through the little rectangles of a Zoom video call.

Winemakers in Sicily and Barcelona and a pair of cheesemakers in the Adirondacks were awaiting their cues to join in, too. So was New Orleans burlesque dancer Trixie Minx from her own house and so was the jazz trio tuning up in Commander’s otherwise empty dining room.

It was 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, time for us to check out from pandemic life for just a bit and log in to a weekly happening spun very much from these vexing times.

For the past four months running, each Wednesday evening has brought a new edition of the Commander’s Palace virtual wine and cheese party or, as it’s known, “the show.”

It has become a ritual in my house. It has taken on a life of its own at Commander’s Palace. And it is showing how a restaurant can maintain not just a thread of business right now but also a sense of its old self, a connection to its calling as the ground keeps shifting under our feet.

The premise is an online wine and cheese pairing led by Davis and Commander’s Palace executive chef Tory McPhail. Commander’s Palace sells tickets that include access to the call, three bottles of wine and two cheeses to taste along at home.

The medium is the same video conference tool that bridges so much work life and what now passes for social life.

In practice, however, it has become a rollicking weekly variety show of food and wine, equal parts gourmet and goofball, more Jimmy Fallon than Robert Parker.

There’s a cast of recurring characters, ongoing bits, a house band, a “roving reporter” for surprise satellite appearances around town, cameos from local celebrities, ever-changing guests and a dedicated audience watching week to week.

They’re all sipping and sampling the same wines and cheeses, thanks to a DIY network of delivery and pick up that stretches from the restaurant through local partner businesses and to homes as far away as Lafayette.

There are themes, and there are costumes, because this is New Orleans.

Last week’s edition had a circus theme, so McPhail was dressed as the strong man, pumping iron while explaining the synergy of a rich St. Andre cheese and a bubbly cava. The roving reporter, Adam Drake, was in full clown makeup pedaling a miniature bicycle, ready to drop in on a living room of participants.

And Davis, in tux and red bow tie, was the ringmaster, the role he’s figuratively held for these shows from the beginning.

“There’s wine and cheese education, that’s part of it, but really it’s the experience,” said Davis, who prefers the title “wine guy” to sommelier.

“When people come to Commander’s for jazz brunch, it’s not just great food and a band. It’s the whole experience. How do we give that to people now? That’s what’s driving this.”

Commander’s Palace is a byword for New Orleans fine dining, draped with James Beard medals and Wine Spectator awards. It’s also a restaurant that prides itself on providing not just an upscale meal but a sense of fun and indulgence, whether that’s for a busload of cardiologists on a convention or a gaggle of gals on their third lunchtime martini.

Commander’s Palace has been closed since March. Most of its staff was laid off. But the restaurant has kept some business going with a handful of managers and chefs still on duty. The kitchen is shipping signature dishes through the national service Goldbelly and it’s now serving curbside takeout from the kitchen door. The wine cellar functions as a takeout retail shop.

The weekly wine and cheese party has been the most successful of these gambits, though that’s relative. Co-owner Ti Martin said it’s helping Commander’s “lose a little less money.”

Still, as it has grown and progressed, it’s helped sustain something of the restaurant’s culture, and just like a busy dining room in normal times that starts with the people who show up.

If this was an online wine class or seminar, people might sign up once to support or to pass another slow night at home, a change of pace from Netflix. But the show has become a weekly engagement. Many buy tickets as soon as the next edition is announced.

It has become a truly socially distant social event, a mixture of hospitality and community recast for the times.

People on the call can see each other. When we’re watching, we get texts from friends across town who spot us on our deck, people we haven’t otherwise seen since March. Side conversations are running throughout the show. Many don costumes, and gamesmanship is evident, with props, backdrops and dressed-up pets all put up for others on the call to see.

“I really don’t think this would have evolved like this anywhere but New Orleans,” said Davis, dazzled by a clientele with costume closets stocked from lifetimes of Mardi Gras.

The show is serious business. For any given Wednesday, Commander’s Palace might assemble 300 tasting kits, together representing 900 bottles of wine and 300 pounds of cheese.

Scroll through the video grid of people watching from home and groups of four or six are the norm. Upwards of 1,000 people are taking part in these calls.

The logistics of it all would seem to require an army. Instead, the staff still working at Commander’s Palace have taken on new duties and often learned new skills.

For instance, veteran dining room manager Kenny Meyer works the soundboard for the show, after some coaching from waiters who are musicians. Friends in the film industry coached the team here on lighting and mic placement, gradually upping the production value.

Others make the rounds on delivery days, ferrying wine kits to front doors. In Orleans Parish, home delivery is included (in other markets, people pick up their kits at partner retailers).

Business partnerships make it work behind the scenes, and they’ve become part of the appeal.

Each week, we look forward to seeing Stevie Kinast, wholesale manager at St. James Cheese Co., the local cheesemonger that supplies the tasting. She brings a local perspective to the constellation of cheeses we’ve now tried from France, Italy, Spain, Greece, California and New York.

We also marvel at hearing directly from the winemakers, who join the call from their tasting rooms, vineyards and cellars around the world. Davis tries to prep them beforehand.

“When I talk with them beforehand I say, ‘This isn’t what you think this is,? Davis said. “They’re always out there representing their brand in sales calls and seminars. But this is a party. We’re going to talk wine for three minutes and one minute of that will be jokes.”

Lirette Selections, a New Orleans-based distributor with a niche in small producers, procures the wines and often helps line up the winemakers for appearances.

“They’re blown away by this experience, how much fun is this, by how many people are watching and drinking their wine,” said Lirette sales director Karen Stone.

Winemakers in Slovenia or South Africa will be up at 2 a.m. to join the call. As word has gotten around, more wineries are asking to take part.

“People love New Orleans, and people know Commander’s,” Stone said. “A lot of people have always wanted to be on the Commander’s wine list.”

These parties are not cheap to join. The wine and cheese kits start at $99. But the value is high, considering the quality of the goods and the quantity. At our house, neighbors join us on the deck, sharing the wine and spreading out the cost.

The selections are key to making the kits viable, and this is another area Davis oversees. A prestige Bordeaux won’t fit the price range, but maybe a white Bordeaux from a property down the street will, he explained. It’s all fed into a matrix of pricing and availability to ensure hundreds of people can sip and nibble the same stuff all at once. The sweet spot is with lesser-known value wine, or as Davis calls them “over-performing wines for their price point.”

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