A Wine Market of a Different Flavor
As disastrous as the post-Katrina levee failures were, the wide-open landscape also created new business opportunities – and few enterprises have emerged from that time as successfully as the Swirl Wine Bar and Market.
According to Beth Ribblett, founder and owner of Swirl, she and her partner were considering opening a wine store at some point, but it was not in their immediate plans. Then she went out for a run one day in her Faubourg St. John neighborhood.
“I ran past the storefront here and saw a ‘For Rent’ sign on the door,” she recalled, “and that’s how it started. Katrina had that way of making you think about losing things. So, we thought, why wait to do something you want to do?”
Ribblett was also motivated by wanting to invest in the revitalization of New Orleans and her neighborhood, and Swirl has indeed become a vital part of its community. From supporting neighborhood events to hosting weekly wine-tastings that became the unofficial neighborhood happy hour, the store is deeply woven into the neighborhood fabric.
“I want everyone who walks in the door to feel comfortable and welcome,” said Ribblett. “That’s the kind of place I would want to go to.”
Ribblett’s personal touch is reflected in the varied selection of wines that Swirl carries. She hand-selects virtually every bottle on the shelves, with a focus on smaller vineyards, many of which she has visited herself.
“Ninety-nine percent of the wines we carry are made by families,” Ribblett elaborated. “We meet them, have lunch, get to know their history. There’s no better way to learn about a place than to be there.”
While Ribblett’s favorite wine-producing country is Italy, her selection encompasses California to Croatia, Oregon to Spain. A recent emphasis has been the Republic of Georgia, considered to be the oldest wine-producing region in the world.
She employs the same hands-on approach to helping her customers find the perfect wines for their taste buds. This starts with the arrangement of the store. Rather than sorting the bottles by grape – merlot, chenin blanc, etc. – the selection is presented by flavor profiles. Does your palate prefer soft and lush? Crisp and lively? Big and bold, or supple and refined?
“Organizing the wines this way makes you ask people what they like about a wine, what are they going to be doing with it,” Ribblett explained, “It gets them out of their wine comfort zones, gets them to try something different. When we put that sauvignon blanc next to a vermentino, it starts a conversation.”
For wine lovers on a budget, Swirl also features a Cheap and Tasty section, which still offers high quality, mostly small vintage bottles from around the world.
Wine conversations are also the heart of the weekly tastings. Pre-COVID, these were a free-for-all, with long lines and brief interactions with the pourers. Now the tastings are limited to eight people at a time, in 25-minute sit-down sessions that must be booked in advance. This enables the pourers to go into much greater detail about the selections.
“This allows us to educate people more about the wines, and an educated consumer is a smart consumer,” said Ribblett. “And it adds to the enjoyment of the wine to know the story behind it.”
The whole Swirl staff is similarly passionate about the store’s approach and played a major role in helping it get through the COVID pandemic. “We worked it in a way that we all stayed healthy,” Riblett said gratefully, “and provided people with a lot of stress relief and enjoyment.”
For customers who really want to learn the stories behind the wines, Swirl does occasional excursions to vineyards in France, Italy and Oregon. These small-group tours provide unique insight into ages-old winemaking traditions and processes, a great blend of learning and adventure.
Some of the family vineyards represented on Swirl’s shelves have been producing wine for sixty generations or more. While Swirl’s own history may not go back quite that far, Ribblett and her team have definitely established their own tradition of offering unique wines, hand-selected to please their customers’ palates.