Tailgating is religion in Baton Rouge, La., and when it comes to a huge game between national championship contenders, the Tiger faithful pull out all the stops. Some of them even pull a few corks.
On Saturday night, the defending Southeastern Conference Champion Louisiana State Tigers hosted the undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks at Tiger Stadium, or as I've always known it, Death Valley. As the saying goes here, "You don't just walk into Death Valley." Sometimes, though, you drive up in a fine wine-laden white Hummer.
I've made it to at least one or two LSU football games a year since before I can remember. This past weekend, I joined plenty of family and old friends for the Gold Game, otherwise known as the Cock-a-Doodle Stew on the Bayou, to cheer on my parents' alma mater.
Night-game tailgates begin before noon. They almost inevitably feature a propane-powered grill for cooking up huge vats of jambalaya and gumbo, a barbecue pit for the boudin, ice chests stocked with beer and occasionally white wine, if not a keg, and, of course, a gas-powered generator and a satellite dish to keep the televisions showing all the early games. When I was a kid, those were the high-end tents, but these days they're de rigueur. Today, you'll find everything from the viral Internet sensation R2DKeg, a Star Wars-inspired engineering marvel created by LSU-alum and artist Barton Gilley that distributes beer on motion-sensor command (and shakes a tip cup), to tents outfitted with white tablecloths, fine china and a chandelier.
A few weeks before my trip, I'd mentioned to my Baton Rouge host for the weekend that it would be interesting to talk to one of the fine-wine tailgaters that surround Tiger Stadium on game day. He called Tiger Athletic Foundation president Rick Perry and set me up for an afternoon with the LeBlancs. Drs. Andy and Lori LeBlanc met in graduate school at LSU, and they've been holding their high-end wine tailgate near the campus Indian mounds for 12 years. I met them at the tail end of their enormous white Hummer on Saturday afternoon, where the Moët & Chandon was the drink of choice, though Lori said Schramsberg is occasionally on hand. "We bought this just for the tailgates!" said Lori of the Hummer.
Andy LeBlanc, now a successful Baton Rouge ENT, reached into the back of the LSU logo-emblazoned truck (which had two flat-screen TVs playing the day's early games inside it) to pull out the rest of the afternoon's cases of wine. Out came Chardonnays from Frank Family, Far Niente and Heidi Barrett's Fantesca label; reds from Ghost Block, Duckhorn, Round Pond, Reverie, Nickel & Nickel, Whitehall Lane and many more. There was even a special-edition LSU-branded bottle from Yakima Valley's Minick Vineyard that was made for the game the Tigers played at the University of Washington in 2009. And it was clear they weren't just pulling out "name brand" wines. Lori or Andy had a story about visiting just about each of the wineries, and they tour Napa Valley every other August.
At some point, a very large gentleman slapped a "Beat the Cocks" sticker on my chest. It was former LSU center Ruffin Rodrigue, a regular at the LeBlancs' tailgate who now runs one of Baton Rouge's better restaurants for wine, Ruffino's, which holds a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. When I introduced myself, he grinned from ear to ear and declared, "I sold 200 bottles of wine last night!"
Baton Rouge may be a college town, but it seems most of the LSU community never leaves (or is at least always coming back), and their tastes have matured. Restaurants like Ruffino's, Juban's (Best of Award of Excellence) and Mansur's (Award of Excellence) have been steadily raising the bar for Baton Rouge cuisine, and a new crop of young chefs like Elton Hyndman at Nino's and Nathan Gresham (formerly of Galatoire's in New Orleans) at Beausoleil are pushing the envelope further, devoting their menus to the freshest seasonal ingredients and innovative, exciting takes on French, Italian and Cajun classics.
I imagine there are some impressive wine-and-food tailgates (and restaurants) cropping up in some Pac-12 college towns too. What are you eating and drinking when cheering on your alma maters?
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