The first time I visited Commander's Palace was not one of the restaurant's better days. It was spring 2006, just six months after the levees failed during Hurricane Katrina, and Ti Adelaide Martin, one of the owners, met me in the garden because the Victorian mansion that houses the 126-year-old restaurant was completely gutted. The floodwaters never reached Commander's Garden District neighborhood, but wind had badly damaged the roof, and rainwater had gushed in through the holes, rotting the walls below. Weeks without power had not been kind to giant walk-in refrigerators packed with food, either. Commander's would not reopen for another six months.
Ti was tired, but as welcoming as could be. The daughter of Ella Brennan, a restaurant industry icon, Ti was raised in the business, and her blood is part hemoglobin, part hospitality. I was in town reporting on how local restaurants were doing at a time when half the city's population had yet to return. Business was down 40 percent. Some national pundits were still chattering about whether New Orleans was "worth saving."
While not a priority when people's lives are upended, wine had been a casualty of Katrina too. A day earlier, I had walked through the nearly empty cellar at Brennan's, the French Quarter institution run by a different wing of the family. Brennan's was a longtime winner of Wine Spectator's Grand Award for its wine list, with 35,000 bottles in its cellar, including 19th century Bordeaux and Burgundy acquired over decades. The heat had murdered it all. Standing among the vacant racks, I listened as longtime wine director Harry Hill described the riches that had been lost. With what money he had, Hill was already buying new wines.
When I moved to New Orleans in 2010, I was curious where the city's wine programs would be five years after the storm. While the city had always had stars like Brennan's and Emeril's, a lot of restaurants were happy to have average programs, with maybe a little extra French depth. People visited New Orleans for the food.
But I have found a generation of young sommeliers here who reject that idea—and like so much down here now, pre-storm complacency has been rejected in favor of creative wine programs.
Commander's has been at the forefront. Ti told me in 2006 that she had big goals for the wine program. Looking at the rotting restaurant behind her, I thought it was a nice sentiment. But soon afterward, she put Dan Davis in charge of the wine program, and they decided they wanted a Grand Award. (Check out the whole story of how they did it in our August issue.) "After Katrina, it was one of those moments where we said, 'Damn it, we're going to live life to its fullest and go after every one of our goals,'" she told me. "Even though we weren't sure what exactly was going to happen around New Orleans, we just went for it."
Commander's award is a great achievement for Ti, Dan and the whole team at the restaurant. But it's also a marker for New Orleans. Today, almost seven years since the levees failed, there are more restaurants open than before the storm. Today, wine matters in New Orleans.