Searching for Louisiana's good grapes by PAUL F. STAHLS JR. For a road trip that’s perfect for summer – “cool” enough, in fact, to repeat in any and every season – let’s blaze a trail through the southeastern parishes seeking the sources of those Louisiana wines you’ve seen in groceries and restaurants. We’ll also swing by the Abita Brewery and brewpub in its namesake town, then end up in New Orleans at a rum distillery that proudly bears the mark of “Cane.” The usual rules for our “Traveler” tours apply: take maps, take back roads, take cameras. This particular drive, in fact, follows a couple of those officially designated Scenic Byways through some of our most picture-perfect towns, plus photo ops at vineyards, three varieties of berry fields and five wineries. Incidentally, seven tasting rooms also lie along the route, waiting to tempt you with a dozen different Abita Beers, four rums and upward of 50 wine varieties, so if you’re afraid fuzzy photos might be a problem, remember, the operative word in “tasting room” is “tasting,” not “chugging,” so our excursion will be far more bucolic than alcoholic. Still worried? Just ask your designated driver to double as designated photographer (or set your camera on automatic focus). The drive starts north of Baton Rouge in Jackson, its shady streets lined with antebellum homes and churches, and a state historic site there preserves the sole surviving building (a colonnaded brick beauty built in 1837) of the original Centenary College, which relocated to Shreveport in 1908. Other attractions are a restored narrow-gauge train (board it at the West Florida Museum for a ride through the town and countryside) and wonderful old Milbank House (225-634-5901), now a bed-and-breakfast inn. Jackson was first known as Bear Corners, and you’d be well-advised to experience the cuisine at Bear Corners Restaurant, next door to Milbank and almost in sight of our first winery.

FELICIANA CELLARS

East-west Louisiana 10 (not to be confused with Interstate 10) completely crosses the state (with an assist by the St. Francisville ferry at the Mississippi River), and one of its most eye-appealing sections is the stretch that leads through Jackson, Clinton and Greensburg as you head east toward Interstate 55. Louisiana parishes east of the river and north of Lake Pontchartrain were part of British and later Spanish West Florida before the famous West Florida Revolt of 1810, and the Mission-style Feliciana Cellars Winery, facing Highway 10 at the eastern edge of Jackson, commemorates those early Spanish days. That theme continues throughout the cool and pleasant building (open 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. other days), where you’ll find Spanish flags, portraits of Spanish governors, a “vintage” two-wheeled grape cart from Spain, and four giant 300-year-old clay wine containers, also from those ancient Iberian wine lands. The Louisiana wine industry, although relatively young, has carved a secure niche for itself in these parts, and Feliciana Cellars’ “winemaker and vineyard manager” Devin Barringer, also relatively young – he has to show ID to sample his own product – has carved a niche for himself in that fledgling local industry. He’s from the berry-wine country of Tangipahoa Parish, born in Ponchatoula and schooled at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, but he turned his attention to the grape during his college years. He then apprenticed at Feliciana Cellars under a professional winemaker, Tim Jobe, and recently took the reins himself when Jobe returned to the vineyards of his native Pennsylvania. Alas, natural enemies of grape production thrive in Louisiana, but one hearty native that’s proved resistant to disease and climate problems is the muscadine grape. Our earliest vintners had no choice, therefore, but to focus their experimentations on developing as broad a spectrum of muscadine products as they could, from the natural sweet-sweet to something approximating a dry wine, but the “drys” in those days were still sweet enough to roll your lips inside-out like a sock too quickly pulled off. Feliciana is now offering its first-ever non-muscadine, a crisp and spicy dry white from a cross-pollinated French-American grapevine called Blanc du Bois, and it’s also growing a native vine called Norton-Cynthiana for a dry red that will be introduced in 2007. The other nine labels, as you’ll discover at the handsome tasting bar, are products of three varieties of muscadine grapes, but thanks to years of ceaseless experimenting, those offer flavors of refinement and sophistication that our pioneer growers never dreamed possible (including the Carlos dry white, LaSalle dry red, semi-sweet Galvez white and wonderful semi-sweet Tunica red). Even the sweetest of the sweet, like the fruity white Evangeline, are popular with a large faction of consumers who’ve grown fond of muscadine and blueberry sweetness as a sort of yin-yang offset to the hot and spicy foods of Louisiana.

CASA DE SUE

Seven hilly miles east, Louisiana 10 becomes the main street of Clinton, where it’s customary to drive around the town square to eyeball the 1841 East Feliciana Courthouse and the antebellum offices of Lawyers’ Row. It’s then one block farther to the tasting room of the local Cazedessus family’s Casa de Sue Winery. The cozy little wine bar is tucked inside the Pink Pig antiques shop at 12324 St. Helena St., where you can also inspect paintings by shop owner Carolyn Loubier and other artists of the region. The tasting room, open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Sunday, offers pourings of Blueberry dry and Blueberry sweet (often compared to Cabernet and Burgundy), and 10 popular muscadines ranging in attitude from the dry white Carlos to a sweet blueberry-muscadine blend aptly named Jambalaya. To see the Casa de Sue winery and one of its vineyards, take Highway 10 five miles east of Clinton to Slaton’s Store and turn south on Hatcher Road. From the turn it’s a bumpy but scenic five-mile drive to the spot where the Cazedessus family has been nurturing its grapes and blueberries for many years. Call (225) 683-5937 to schedule tours. From the Hatcher Road turnoff, continue east through 15 more miles of therapeutic hill country, pausing in Greensburg to see its principal landmarks – the handsome St. Helena Courthouse and, behind it, a tiny 1855 jail and 1820 land office (both retired but well preserved) – then 10 more miles to I-55.

AMATO’S WINERY

From Highway 10, it’s 13 miles and three exits south on I-55 to Independence, home of Louisiana’s annual Italian Festival in April. Exit eastward on Highway 40 to drive into town, then turn right to follow old U.S. 51 about three miles south to the Black Cat Store, which serves as the essential landmark for your right turn onto West Black Cat Road. A country mile west of the store, Black Cat crosses I-55 (perhaps shedding bad luck on all those oblivious motorists below), and, beyond the overpass, the first right-turn drive (12415 W. Black Cat) leads to the home, fields and production facilities of a culinary Renaissance man. Amato’s Winery is a place where memories become tangible things: where a mother’s cherished cheeses are re-created for new generations of family and visitors, and where long-lost berry and fruit wines, like the strawberry wine bottled by the venerable Pioneer Winery in the 1950s and the beloved “Sig’s” orange wine from Plaquemines Parish, live again. This little empire really should be called “Amato’s Winery, Etc.,” because here have been assembled the bins, vats, tanks, compressors, boilers, bottlers and every other sort of machinery – most of it handcrafted or salvaged and refurbished – that’s necessary not only to distill the wines but to create the syrups, jellies, cheeses, Italian sausages and every other traditional food significant in the past century of history and tradition in Tangipahoa Parish. More important than the equipment, of course, is the head on the shoulders of Henry Amato, in which is filed a half-century of observations of how the machinery works; how to position beehives to pollinate the Tangipahoa strawberries, blueberries and blackberries; how to gather pine straw for bedding the older varieties of (hence the name) strawberries; how to prepare the Plaquemines oranges; how to coax the lusty flavors from all these ingredients to make the traditionally proper wines. All the while, somehow, he remembers and juggles the overlapping schedules required for creating complex products like the sausages, the Salata cheese and the whole-milk ricotta. There’s even a patch of fava beans growing on the place. For luck? Nope, for love. The resurrection of these wines and foods – not only the production techniques but the very knowledge of their existence – is as much a work of historic preservation as any act of architectural restoration: a priceless gift by Henry Amato, the Amato family and Amato Winery to Tangipahoa and all of Louisiana. And now, after years of planning and building, there’s finally a suitable setting for the proud presentation of all these wonders, and the various Amato wines are now shelved in rows (their distinctive labels drawn by one of the sons in a college art class) in the brand new ash-paneled Amato visitors center, which, needless to say, was designed and built by family and friends. The operating schedule of the visitors center and tasting room is not yet firm, so call (985) 878-6566 to plan your visit.

LANDRY VINEYARDS

From Black Cat Road, return to Independence and turn right on Louisiana 40, which leads generally east but does so by tacking like a sailboat, so get set for a 15-mile drive east, south, east, north and east to the St. Tammany Parish village of Cranky Corner. Along the way you’ll pass Zemurray Gardens (sorry, but open only during azalea season) and an adventurous 900-acre attraction called the Global Wildlife Center (call 985-624-9453 for a schedule of “safaris” to see 3,000 free-roaming animals from the world’s endangered and threatened species). Just east of the Wildlife Center, turn right on Highway 1077 for a six-mile ride south to Tantela Ranch Road, then left to the delightfully secluded Landry Winery at 11650 Tantela (open Saturday afternoons only, by appointment, 985-294-7790). Jeff and Libby Landry and “staff” (four young sons) planted their first vines, the French-American Blanc du Bois, in 1999, and production so far consists of their Blanc du Bois dry and Blanc du Bois semi-sweet, plus an interesting blueberry-Merlot blend created by importing California merlot grapes for mixing (40 percent to 60 percent) with Louisiana blueberries. The family has more recently begun planting the American Norton-Cynthiana as well, which will produce a bottling in 2006. “We’re getting closer to mastering wine growing in Louisiana,” Jeff says, “which means a better shot at inspiring other Louisiana growers to produce the grapes winemakers need. More wine, better wines – that means greater influence in the out-of-state market, more respect for our product. That day is coming.” If this young winery’s temporary Saturday-only schedule doesn’t jibe with your big-tour timetable, consider a special Saturday drive that could combine a morning visit to the Global Wildlife Center and an afternoon with the Landrys.

PONTCHARTRAIN VINEYARDS

It’s five miles farther south on Louisiana 1077 to Interstate 12, but stop halfway down for a good plate lunch or “fat” sandwich at the Kwik Stop in Goodbee Station (at the U.S. 190 intersection). Take I-12 east and North Causeway Boulevard (U.S. 190) about four miles north to Covington, then fork right on Louisiana 21 for a five-mile drive northeast to Louisiana 1082 (Old Military Road). Turn north and drive awhile (“awhile” is Southern-metric for “several country miles”) to the mailbox numbered 81250, where a long lane eventually comes alongside a vineyard and ends at the “Old World” tasting bar of Pontchartrain Vineyards. Despite the threats of Louisiana’s climate and the dreaded grapevine malady called Pierce’s Disease, Pontchartrain has cast its lot with traditional “bunch grapes” and grows strictly the Blanc du Bois and the old-stock Norton-Cynthiana. From the Blanc du Bois come Pontchartrain’s fruity Roux St. Louis (recommended for Asian, Southwestern or well-seasoned Louisiana foods – proclaimed “best wine with crawfish” by members of the Larose Fire Department) and Le Trolley (a close equivalent of Sauvignon Blanc, recommended for accompanying oysters or fresh gulf fish prepared with rich sauces). Products from the Cynthiana include a rosé (the mildly fruity Zydeco Rosato) and such reds as the woody-flavored Rouge Militaire (popular in St. Tammany in colonial and pre-Prohibition times, now thankfully rediscovered). Pontchartrain’s founder, John Seago, captivated by the wine cultures of Europe during his military days, is both an optimist and realist when it comes to Louisiana wines. He believes in the grapes themselves and in Louisiana’s potential to produce them in fine quality, but he laments the lack of recognition and support by the agriculture department and academia, the heavy taxation on wine production with no proceeds earmarked for industry development, and the lack of “reciprocity” legislation that would create new markets for our wines by establishing what amounts to import-export agreements with other states. All that will change in time and, meanwhile, John and Susan Seago, “with roots in the classic European tradition,” continue to apply “the highest standards of wine production with the fruit character only our region can produce.” Pontchartrain Vineyards is open for tours and tasting 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Call (985) 892-9742 or check www.pontchartrainvineyards.com to learn about its outdoor concert series called “Jazz’n the Vines” and its big Harvest Celebration on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. ABITA BREW Return via 1082 to Highway 21 and jog left to Highway 59, which leads three miles south to Abita Springs. The Abita Brewpub on Levenson Street is an atmospheric combination of laid-back bar and gourmet restaurant, and the Amber, the Turbodog, the Golden and all the other brews are always chilled and ready (hey, don’t forget that fine Abita root beer). If you’re dining, you’ll pick from a menu of Louisiana favorites featuring original touches you’ll remember. Abita Springs is a delight, filled with cottages and storefronts that date back to the town’s heyday as the region’s great “ozone air and water” resort. Browse a bit, then drive just minutes west on Louisiana 36 to the Abita Brewhouse, where tours of the brewing process (1 and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays) begin, happily, in the big tasting room.

CANE JUICE

Instruct the designated driver to cross the Pontchartrain Causeway to New Orleans, then take Interstate 10 east and the left fork onto I-610. From the Elysian Fields exit drive three blocks right, one block right on Abundance, turn left on Frenchmen Street and then just let your nose lead you the half-block to the Celebration Distillation Corp., where a little sign, like the label on the product itself, simply says “Cane.” The fragrance grows even richer as you enter the tasting room, where woodwork has absorbed as much “essence” of the rum as the barrels used to age it. Around the room also hangs richness of another sort, paintings (five-digit price tags) and prints of New Orleans scenes by James Michalopoulas, who in 1995 parlayed his artistic success into the fulfillment of a dream to create a premium rum distillery, and it was mainland America’s first. Rum cakes and other peripheral products are also available in the tasting room, but the stars of the show are the rums themselves, the ultra-premium Cane white and rich five-year-old Cane Amber, the light-bodied New Orleans Crystal and a blend of aged rums called New Orleans Amber. Which is best for sipping “neat,” for mixing fruit punches and cocktails, for barbecue sauce, for cakes and bread puddings? How are Louisiana cane juice and molasses transformed into clear and amber rums? These secrets and more are revealed in the distillery tours, conducted hourly (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) on weekdays and by appointment evenings and weekends (504-945-9400). Bottoms up!

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