The second hand of the clock still has a good 25 minutes of motion before it strikes the noon hour at NOLA Tropical Winery in the Riverwalk Marketplace. But the chic little tasting room, with its stressed-wood display table and elbow-shaped marble bar, fills, empties and refills with a steady stream of clients.
That can partly be traced to the free samplings that owner Todd Judice is pouring with a liberal hand. But a large part of the curiosity has to do strictly with the wares.
This wine bar offers reds, whites, roses, ports, sherries, even sangria. But not one of them is made from … grapes.
NOLA Tropical Winery sells wines made from an eye-opening array of (other) fruits and berries. Apple, cherry, apricot, pear, wildberry. Mango, pineapple, tangerine, key lime and coconut. Watermelon and dragon fruit. Grapefruit and pumpkin.
Discovering that I’m a pinot grigio fancier, Judice pulls a bottle out from under the counter like a magician brandishing a top hat, hiding the label from view.
“Tell me what you think,” he says. A sip, and the flavor lingers on the tongue. Fresh, crisp, surprisingly light and dry.
“Kiwi,” he says, turning the bottle with a flourish, so that the label appears.
Tropical wines, like their more traditional counterparts, run the gamut of flavors. A tart, bright passion fruit wine pairs well with food. A dry blackberry is akin to red table wine, while Cherry Red has a fuller bouquet and flavor. Key Limen plucked from the freezer makes for a great mock Margarita.
The only surprising thing is how little any of them taste like, well, fruit. Those expecting the cloying flavor of grandma’s homemade blackberry brew will discover that many of these concoctions have a bouquet and complexity that defies the stereotype of fruit wines.
Judice will tell you that he doesn’t sell so much to casual wine drinkers; rather, his clientele tends to hate wine — or love it.
“Those who generally don’t like wine find that they do like these,” he says. “And wine connoisseurs try it out of curiosity and interest in wines in general.”
More then one California wine snob, he says, has walked in expecting to find a contemporary update on Boone’s Farm apple, only to ship a case or two of the NOLA Tropical wines home.
Judice himself was an equally instant convert. He and his wife wandered into a tropical wine store while on vacation in Key West. They sampled and savored, and decided the wines would be a natural for New Orleans.
He’s an engineer; she’s a psychotherapist. Neither could claim to be an oenophile. But both are the type willing to take a leap of faith – they met, after all, on eharmony.com, these two New Iberia natives who had never known one another growing up in that Southwestern Louisiana town.
Within a year of their discovery, they had opened NOLA Tropical Winery in the Riverwalk. Soon after came stores in San Antonio and Sarasota. Now, they are branching out with a new concept for the French Quarter.
The NOLA Tropical Wine Smoothie Bar opened a couple of weeks ago on Bourbon Street. The entrance is on St. Peter Street, next to the Krazy Korner. The courtyard has half a dozen tables for sipping and savoring, and plans are in the works for wine and smoothie tastings for tour groups.
Each wine smoothie, available in three sizes or a refillable souvenir cup, is a blend of fruit, citrus or berry wine (many made in Louisiana), ice and a house-made fruit concentrate. There’s peach-mango, strawberry margarita, an orange cream that resembles the old dreamsicle, and their own Hurricane made with cherry wine.
“They have the same texture and flavor of a frozen daiquiri or margarita,” Judice says. “Without the calories.”
As at the Riverwalk location, the Bourbon Street menu includes tropical wines, as well as shots of Mango Port or Blackberry-blueberry port. And the house-brand smoothie mixes are available for blending at home.
A recent NolaVie blind taste test of Mango Tango produced an aromatic apricot-colored frozen drink that drew universal approval — and puzzlement.
The secret ingredient? Rum? Vodka? Fresh fruit?
Not one taster guessed … peach wine.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.