When Catherine James first floated the idea of opening a wine shop on St. Claude Avenue in 2012, it felt like a bit of a gamble.

Though the corridor was becoming a popular destination for artists and musicians frequenting the downtown party scene, opening a store that specialized in wines on a still rough-and-tumble strip seemed a little risky.

“Back then, it was vacant buildings, tire shops, secondhand stores and maybe a few barbershops, and that was pretty much it,” recalled James. “Fast-forward a little more than six years, and I’m shocked and delighted that we have as much going on in the wine scene as we do today. It’s wonderful, and I didn’t see that coming.”

Faubourg Wines (2805 St. Claude Ave.), which sits just a block off the Press Street tracks, has since become a go-to for wine lovers in the neighborhood and throughout the city, both for the shop's extensive and affordable selection and for its popular Wednesday night tastings, which serve as both a casual mingling point for curious wine drinkers and an educational outlet for more adventurous oenophiles.

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Lesser known wines are offered at the outdoor bar space at Mouthfeel in New Orleans, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019.

The shop’s success is indicative of the shifting demographics of the neighborhood as well as the city’s evolving wine scene. The burgeoning downtown row, in particular the portions that cross through the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, is quickly becoming a destination strip for wine newbies and connoisseurs alike. 

The focus across the board is increasingly on so-called natural, or raw, wines, which are farmed organically with minimal human intervention, without the addition of sulfur or other additives at bottling, and often using a naturally occurring native yeast fermentation process.

That’s the focus at Mouthfeel (4017 St. Claude Ave.), a new bar run by two women, tucked behind the restaurant Sneaky Pickle, near St. Claude Avenue and Mazant Street.

Alexis Tabor and Uznea Bauer opened their outdoor, three-night-a-week wine hub last October. The spot’s name is a tasting term often used by those in the wine business.

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Owners Uznea Bauer and Alexis Tabor sit in their outdoor bar space at Mouthfeel in New Orleans, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. Mouthfeel showcases wines that are not as well known.

Both women are seasoned experts in their field. Bauer was the longtime wine buyer at Bacchanal and trained with producers in Oregon and France, before returning to New Orleans to launch several wine pop-ups. Tabor was the general manager at both Sylvain and Angeline, and also worked at Warehouse District wine spot Keife & Co. and at David Chang's celebrated New York restaurant Momofuku.

The idea for the spot was hatched after a mutual friend introduced the women, who were both looking to branch out their businesses at the time.

“I had been thinking more and more about a collaborative space and just about how beneficial that is to so many things,” said Bauer. “It was just about finding the right space and the right partnership.”

Tabor's brother owns Sneaky Pickle, and the wine bar sits annexed to the restaurant. Though the bar is only open Thursday through Saturday evenings, word-of-mouth has caught on quickly, in particular with those in the restaurant and wine world. Hanging pendant lights, picnic tables and potted plants, a corrugated tin roof and banana plants peeking out from behind the fence give the spot a wild, outdoor charm.

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Flowers and candles decorate the outdoor bar space at Mouthfeel in New Orleans, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. Mouthfeel showcases wines that are not as well known.

Both women run the bar, chatting with customers and offering recommendations on the list, a largely international selection that’s categorized by sparkling, white, skin-contact — often rose or orange wines — and reds. The list consists of roughly 35 to 40 wines by the bottle and a selection of about 10 wines by the glass are rotated frequently while half-glass pours offer curious customers the chance to try out several wines.

“Part of the fun is being there and getting to connect with guests,” says Tabor. "We’re dealing with wines coming from such small producers — these are like appendages of them. It’s a way to travel and connect people to other people throughout the world … that’s a really fun thing to be able to have as the basis of a conversation.”

While Mouthfeel’s approach feels unique, the growing interest in natural wines from smaller producers is part of a blossoming national trend that’s found a home in New Orleans’ evolving wine scene. 

Joe Briand, the wine director at Bacchanal (600 Poland Ave.), the Bywater wine pioneer and backyard garden party, says the interest in more obscure wines and smaller producers goes hand-in-hand with the explosion of wine-focused social media accounts. 

“I think access to information has led to an interest in wines that used to be really, really obscure and not on the mainstream level,” said Briand. “Sometimes the more obscure it is, the more people are into that. It’s no longer this kind of esoteric thing that only a certain percentage of the population knows about — you’ve got 23-year-olds who are coming in and are after these super obscure producers because they saw it on somebody’s Instagram account.”

Briand, who for years helmed the wine program at Donald Link’s fine-dining flagship Herbsaint, also curated the wine list at The Elysian Bar (2317 Burgundy St.), the new restaurant and bar inside the Hotel Peter & Paul in the Marigny. There, the wine list is 100 percent domestic — something Briand says is indicative of how far American winemakers have come.

“Fifteen years ago, if you had told me 'hey, we want you to do an All-American wine program,' I would have not been very excited about it,” Briand said. “But the American wine scene is so young, so change happens really fast ... there have never been more exciting wines coming out of the States.”

At the wine bar and contemporary French bistro Saint-Germain (3054 St. Claude Ave.), the spotlight is also on all natural wines, a focus inspired by the restaurant’s food menu, where the chefs — inspired by the modern bistros of Paris — try to highlight seasonality and technique, while curbing the number of ingredients in each dish.

“I tend to go more toward classically styled wines — with as minimum human intervention as possible and as much respect for the natural processes of nature and the planet as possible,” said Bodhi Landa, the restaurant’s sommelier and wine buyer.

“But, in terms of the way the wines communicate to the guests, a lot of them are fairly classic — they speak to express terroir, variety, character and some of the artistic character of the winemaker.”

A lush and spacious outdoor backyard encourages mingling over bottles, while the long wine bar that stretches through the indoor space provides an opportunity to sample wines by the glass with recommendations from the staff, where Landa might steer a previously hesitant drinker curious about orange wines to a Slovenian skin contact pinot grigio, for instance. 

When the restaurant first opened, the list included a few people-pleasers — Oregon pinot noir, California chardonnay — but to the owner’s surprise and delight, those wines proved far less popular than some of their lesser-known counterparts.

“People come in here with pretty adventurous palates,” said Landa. “They want to be led to something new, and they really are curious about wine.”