A few years ago, Joe Meteye was hosting a private dinner inside Ruth’s Chris Steak House, a downtown New Orleans restaurant. Beaming and besuited in front of seventy-five guests, he told them about Clicquot, a luxury champagne from Reims, France. After speaking for thirty minutes — about his career in the wine and spirits industry, about the history of Madame Clicquot, about the restaurant’s founder Ruth Fertel, about why Filet Mignon Roquefort is best paired with Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2004 — he asked if there were any questions. A hand shot up, and someone called out: “Hey, don’t you play cards at Harrah’s?”
He does indeed. Joe can often be found playing no-limit cash games and tournaments inside Louisiana’s only land-based casino — across the street from Ruth’s Chris. We met last month at Meril, another downtown New Orleans restaurant, and discussed how Joe ended up as a Luxury Specialist for Beam Suntory, what it takes to become a Master Sommelier, friendships forged around the poker table, and the best places to eat and drink in New Orleans.
Ben Saxton: Are you enjoying Mardi Gras season?
Joe Meteye: I’ve been over Mardi Gras since year one in the liquor industry, when I was twenty-two years old. To me, Mardi Gras means nothing but work. I was either bartending or setting up events for Captain Morgan on Bourbon Street. This year Jim Beam is at the Pontchartrain Hotel and we’re doing a bunch of Cruzan Rum and El Tesoro activations. I move into the hotel on Friday, and I won’t move out until Tuesday morning.
How did you get into wine?
Before Jim Beam I worked at Glazer’s [Wine and Spirits of Louisiana], and their sales team was very spirits-driven: we repped Diageo, which is the company known as Crown Royal. Once I had to do a wine pitch — I was selling Erath Pinot Noir, from Oregon — and the experience was disastrous. The guy bought the wine from me, but I have no idea why. I was horrified that I knew nothing about wine, and I didn’t want to feel that way ever again. So I immersed myself in learning everything I could.
How did you educate yourself?
No one was paying attention to the wine portfolio, so I decided to be the wine geek of the division. There was a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) certification given through The Society of Wine Educators. I studied, passed that exam, and got certified in about two years. After that, wine became a huge passion. I went on to the The French Wine Scholar Study and Certification program, and started studying for that.
What does “study” mean?
You’ve got to really be able to “gut” a wine. Where do the grapes grow? What’s in the soil? Is it a warm or cold climate? Is it clay, silt, or sand? You’ve gotta know each region inside California, for instance, until you can hone in on a single vineyard in Napa Valley. You need to get really specific.
You’re describing a kind of book knowledge. Do you also have to be able to taste and distinguish one wine from others?
That came along when I was doing the Court of Master Sommeliers program. I’m not pinned —
What does “pinned” mean?
It means that you’re a Level 2 sommelier. I was scheduled to take the Level 2 exam the week that I started with Jim Beam. Sommelier certification involves theory — which wines grow where, that kind of thing — and also blind tasting. They give you four wines and you have to deduce what they are, where they’re from, and what year they’re made. Level 1 is pretty easy to pass. Level 2, Certified Sommelier, will get you pinned. Level 3 is Advanced Sommelier. Level Four is Master Sommelier, and there are only a couple hundred of those dudes on the planet. It’s incredibly demanding. There’s a great documentary called Somme that follows four guys who are training to become a Master Sommelier.
What’s a sommelier’s role?
When you’re planning an important meal at a restaurant, you want to make sure that the wine pairs with the food. That’s priority one. I’m friends with a sommelier who’s at Emeril’s [New Orleans]. You can pick a meal off the menu and ask him, “What goes with this? We don’t drink red, we drink white.” He’ll suggest a Vignette or a Sauvignon Blanc — it could be anything — but whatever he chooses, when you get the right combination, it’s an unbelievable experience. They also have to keep the costs in line. So there’s a business side of the meal, and the romantic side.
Where did your fascination with poker come from?
My dad loved to gamble. He preferred horses to anything, but he taught me five-card poker when I was a kid. I’ll tell you the same thing that anybody my age will tell you: I experienced the Moneymaker Effect and started playing online. Then Black Friday came around and I had to start playing live. At first, it was weird because the game seemed so slow.
Live poker is such a different game.
Oh, man. Online you’re playing four tables at the same time, you’re looking at a hand every few seconds. Live poker, you’ll see thirty hands an hour and think: why does anybody do this?
Why do you do it?
I’ll tell you what I tell my wife. Obviously, I play recreationally. I’m not a pro. When I have to decompress, put me at a poker table. I have to focus on what I have, what somebody else has, if I should raise, if I can make somebody fold, if I want to see another card, whatever. There are so many things to think about that I can’t think about anything else. Poker is a perfect way for me to check out of the planet.
Do you miss playing online?
I miss entering those massive huge-field tournaments, where a $25 buy-in gives you the chance to win $90,000. That said, I like playing live. You’d think that at thirty-five or forty years old you have all the friends you’re gonna have. That couldn’t be further from the truth, going to Harrah’s. I’ve made so many friends going in there as often as I have, and we probably never would have crossed paths if we hadn’t sat together at a card table.
Do you think that kind of camaraderie is specific to New Orleans?
The Harrah’s regulars are pretty welcoming people. They’ll talk to anyone. If I sit at a table with Spider or Charlie or Kenny or whoever, there’s always conversation. I’ve been in other places like Vegas, or even in parts of Louisiana, where I know that guys know each other, but they don’t have anything to say to each other. Look at our 15/30 [limit Omaha hi] game: those guys play literally every Tuesday and Friday, and all they do is talk shit the whole time. It’s a big party.
I love hanging out with everybody in there, but if I’m going in with the intention of winning money, give me eight strangers. I feel stupid taking a friend’s money. I let one regular off the hook for a thousand-dollar-pot the other day. I flopped the nut flush, he had pocket kings with the king of hearts, and I told him, “Fold. You’re beat.” He said, “I’m gonna have to see the nuts if you want me to fold.” So I turned my cards over. I do that kind of shit all the time. I want to see my friends win, too. If I walk in and I know five people at the table, I’ll sit down to get in the game, but then I’ll ask for a table change.
You told me a story a long time ago that’s stuck with me, and I’m wondering if you could tell it again. It was about the guy with the chicken wing.
Oh, yeah! There was an old dude who came in every day and said crazy shit to the dealers. He wasn’t rude, he was just bizarre. He was wearing a blue Member’s Only jacket, and we had been playing for hours. None of us had gotten up. All of the sudden he reached into the pocket of his jacket, pulled out a fried chicken wing, and started eating it at the table. Holy shit! Gross!
[Laughs] There was no wrapper or anything?
Nope. Old boy pulled out a naked chicken wing. Rest of the game, there’s grease all over the cards.
Those moments are surreal. And the table’s responses can vary from everyone throwing a fit to nobody saying a word.
At the time we were ten-handed, and I can tell you, nine people paid zero attention to it.
While I have you here, I’ve gotta ask: What are your favorite New Orleans restaurants and bars?
Right now, by far, my favorite spot is Jack Rose, in the Pontchartrain Hotel. The chef, Brian Landry, is a genius. But there’s also something about the vibe of that place. You walk in and it’s white tablecloth dining, high-end cuisine, but then there’s a disco ball and Mannie Fresh is being piped in. I’ve never had a bad meal there. I also like Restaurant R’evolution, in the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street.
Now that I’m with Jim Beam, I have an interest in whisky and bourbon. I’m always looking for those places where you can get something really random. The Avenue Pub has an incredible selection. I also love Cure, on Freret Street. Ten years ago, when they opened — a high-end, craft cocktail bar — I didn’t think they would last. That was really a seedy, dangerous part of town when they rolled the dice on that place. Now the neighborhood is blowing up. It’s like a second Magazine Street.
Thanks for the recommendations, and have a great Mardi Gras.
I’ll be at the Pontchartrain Hotel the whole time. Like I said, I’m glad that Mardi Gras happens, but as far as going to parades, I can take it or leave it.
*Originally published in the March 2019 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine