Chef Grant Gordon, rising culinary star in Houston, dies at 28

grant gordon chef houstonImage via Houston Press.

Today, the Houston restaurant community mourns the loss of one of its most promising and beloved stars, Grant Gordon, who died on Monday night.

A Houston native, Gordon, age twenty-eight, rose to prominence as the chef at Tony’s, one of the city’s leading fine-dining destinations, where the kitchen earned a top rating from the Houston Chronicle in 2011.

In 2012, he was a James Beard Rising Star Chef semi-finalist and one of Forbes 30 Under 30.

In 2014 he was selected by the U.S. State Department as a culinary ambassador and earlier this month, he and his business partners had announced plans for an ambitious new restaurant to be opened in 2015.

Click here for the Houston Chronicle notice of his passing and here for Culture Map’s profile. As both mastheads reported, the cause of death has not been determined.

As the media director for the Vallone Restaurant Group, which includes Tony’s, I had known and worked closely with Grant for nearly four years. And while he worked with my client Tony Vallone, we regularly ate his food. Since the time I moved to Texas in late 2008 to be with Tracie, his excellent cooking had frequently punctuated family birthdays, anniversaries, and celebrations.

We even had shared a drink on occasion, including the time he and I attended the Forbes 30 Under 30 SXSW party in Austin in 2013.

grant gordonAbove: Grant, second from right, at the Forbes 30 Under 30 SXSW party in 2013.

In the wake of news of his death, my workday was surreal yesterday.

As Tony’s media media director, I began fielding calls from writers around 11 a.m. It was a local food writer who informed me of what had happened.

It happened that I had booked a photo shoot at Tony’s with the same photographer who had taken many memorable images of Grant over the years. We met at the restaurant just as a flood of messages and calls began to arrive.

The restaurant’s current chef, who had worked as a sous chef with Grant during his tenure there, was clearly shaken by the news. But she, the photographer, and I decided to move forward with the shoot.

We spent the next two hours in the same room where we had shot portraits and food photos with Grant. At one point, the photographer’s assistant remembered that he had a video from the last shoot with Grant on his phone.

We watched a minute of it together and it was simply too much to bear.

Today, our thoughts and prayers are with Grant’s family and friends. The social media outpouring of disbelief and grief over his senseless passing is a reflection of the vital role he played in the restaurant community here. He was one of its undisputed stars and the news of his death is as hard to fathom as it is heartbreaking.

Thoughts & prayers for our friends in #NapaQuake

napa earthquakeAbove: my favorite Napa-based blogger Vinogirl posted this image on her blog Vinsanity yesterday.

It’s never a good time for an earthquake.

I remember the 1994 Northridge earthquake well: I was living in the Hollywood Hills at the time and it was a terrifying experience (magnitude-6.7, 4:31 a.m.).

Today, our thoughts and prayers go out to our friends and colleagues in Napa and Sonoma, where a magnitude-6.0 earthquake struck early Sunday morning.

See this post by W. Blake Gray for WineSearcher.com on the earthquake and its effect on the wine trade there. And see also Vinogirl’s post on her family’s personal experience. And see Antonio Tomacelli’s gathering of images he culled from social media on Intravino.

I’ve read a number of accounts where grape growers and winemakers point out that the damage would have been worse had the earthquake come later in the harvest and the 2014 vintage were in the cellar. Tumbled tanks and cracked casks would have results in bigger losses for wineries.

But it’s never a good time for an earthquake.

Napa and Sonoma friends and colleagues, please know that you are in our thoughts and our prayers.

Resolution (?) to our October 2013 burglary

crestview austin brentwood burglary burglariesAbove: one of my Austin restaurant clients had his contractor board up our front door after the burglar broke it down.

The date was October 9, 2013, two days before Tracie P’s birthday, when two men burglarized our home in Austin in broad daylight.

I had left earlier in the morning for my weekly commute to Houston (where we now live) and Tracie had taken our daughters to the grocery store.

One of the men broke down our front door and searched through our belonging for valuables (here’s my post from the week of the burglary). The other waited outside with their getaway car.

The police were able to identify one of the burglars because he took a selfie with our family iPhone and we saw it in our iCloud. He also took a photo of a brand new pair of tennis shoes.

Both men left Texas and went to California. The driver had been pulled over by police in Austin and fled. He was ultimately apprehended in California.

From what we were told by the Austin detective who handled our case, the man who entered our home was killed in Los Angeles in June in a gangland shooting. He was twenty-four years old.

On Friday of last week, the driver accepted a plea bargain. He will spend the next ten years in jail.

In the end, the news of the one’s passing and the other’s guilty plea made me feel terribly sad.

They had been implicated in tens of burglaries in Austin. And they were bad men.

But none of it makes any sense to me.

After all, renter’s insurance covered the few valuables they did steal (mostly electronics and audio recording equipment). And beyond cherished possessions lost — a necklace I gave Tracie the day we brought Lila Jane home from the hospital and a box that contained every ticket stub from every rock show I saw as a teenager — and a few anxious, shell-shocked nights in the weeks that followed, our lives moved forward. We continue to be middle-income Americans, struggling to build a financial future for our children but living comfortably.

Today, one of them is dead at 24 and the other is behind bars. And what was it all for? A pair of shiny new tennis shoes?

How will I explain all of this to Georgia P and Lila Jane when they’re old enough to ask questions about our life in Austin?

A lot of you shared your support and solidarity here and so I wanted to post about the resolution. Tracie and I both greatly appreciated everyone’s thoughts and wishes. We’re doing well and it’s been a good summer for us and our daughters (our first in Houston).

I’ll see you next week… thanks for being here.

Indigenous grape pioneer Paolo Rapuzzi has died

paolo rapuzziFriulian grape grower, winemaker, and founder of the Ronchi di Cialla winery, Paolo Rapuzzi (above, center) has died.

He passed away in his sleep on August 13, said his son Ivan.

Rapuzzi was a much beloved figure in Friuli, where his legacy as a pioneer in reviving indigenous grape varieties continues to shape local viticulture.

He was among the first in a wave of growers who embraced native grapes in the late 1970s.

And his superb wines — especially his coveted Picolit — are treasured by Italian wine insiders.

Please see this profile of Rapuzzi that I wrote for the Colli Orientali del Friuli consortium a few years back.

Google him and you will find that many of my peers and colleagues were inspired by him as well. He was a sweet and gentle man and he shared a little bit of his magic with everyone he touched.

His contribution to Friulian — and Italian — viticulture played a fundamental role in the current Italian wine renaissance.

Extraordinary Piedmont white: 2004 Malvirà Tre Uve (& harvest updates)

malvira tre uveOn more than one occasion, I’ve heard Angelo Gaja say that white wine is a category with immense potential for growth in Italy.

There are a handful of whites from Piedmont that have captivated the imagination and palates of Italian wine lovers: Gaja’s Gaia e Rey (I remember tasting 1994 with him at the winery a few years ago), Aldo Vajra’s Riesling (he likes to call it “a wife for Barolo”), Ettore Germano’s Riesling (such a focused, brilliant wine), and Walter Massa’s Timorasso (we all remember when this wine hit the U.S. scene and knocked everyone’s socks off) are some of the more memorable.

But they remain just a handful. Unlike Friuli, Campania, and Jesi/Matelica, where white wine is a long established category with myriad standouts and impressive expressions of longevity, Piedmont has yet to make its mark as one of the greater producers of vini a bacca bianca.

I was a little skeptical when my good buddy Nathan hooked me up with a bottle of 2004 Tre Uve by Roero producer Malvirà. I know the winery but, with spotty distribution, you don’t see much of its in wine in the U.S. today.

It’s a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Arneis. According to WineSearcher (and what Nathan told me), 2005 is the current vintage available.

This wine had all the right stuff: freshness, acidity, clarity of fruit (stone and white fruit), and wonderful vibrancy. Ten years out from its harvest, it had depth and nuance and it danced on the palate. Great wine.

It aromatic breadth rivaled some of the great white blends that you see from Collio’s top wineries.

A truly original and exciting wine imho. Could Chardonnay blended with aromatic varieties be the future for Piedmont whites? If this is any indication of their potential, I think the winemaker at Malvirà is on to something great.

In other news…

I continue to receive tragic reports from northern Italy, where seemingly incessant rains have seriously threatened the vintage.

I hate to bear bad news but today I heard about a Lambrusco producer who has virtually lost his entire crop. And a friend from Friuli (Colli Orientali) wrote that some growers are fearful that they will not have any fruit to vinify.

In Tuscany, things are looking up. The vegetative cycle — which started extremely early — is now moving very slowly. The cool weather has helped to balance out the accelerated start (caused by a very mild winter).

If sunny days arrive, one producer told me today via Facetime, they could have a great vintage. It’s all a matter of how much sun they get between now and harvest. She’s in Chianti Classico where they expected to harvest as late as mid- to late-October.

That’s all the news that’s fit to post. Thanks for reading.

Kurniawan, the Rabbi, and the Ham Sandwich

branded corkAbove: a friend at a major wine auction house once asked me to help out with the authentication of a lot purportedly from one of Italy’s most exclusive producers. In the end, she established the wine’s authenticity by verifying that the corks were branded and not printed (branded with an iron as opposed to printed with ink). The winery began using printed corks after the vintage in question.

Reflections on the affaire Kurniawan inspired by Mike Steinberger’s excellent post for WineSearcher.com, “Rudy, Fraud, and Wine Snobs” (my post today for the Boulder Wine Merchant).

Thanks for reading and buon weekend.

“Disaster” harvest 2014, potentially northern Italy’s rainiest vintage in our lifetime

rain veneto harvest 2014Above: my friend and client Luca Ferraro, grape grower and winemaker in the Prosecco DOCG, posted this photo on his Instagram this morning, noting that the 2014 is a “disaster… I’m losing hope,” he wrote.

As some northern growers have already begun to pick (Franciacorta) and some are preparing to harvest in roughly two weeks (Asolo-Conegliano-Valdobbiadene), incessant rains continue to plague embattled winemakers in northern Italy this week.

Scattered hailstorms have already caused widespread damage this year, particularly in Piedmont and to a lesser extent in Franciacorta and Prosecco country.

The following screen captures show weather forecasts for Valdobbiadene, Erbusco (Franciacorta, where they are already harvesting), Alba (Barolo and Barbaresco, the appellations hardest hit by hail this year), and Asti (Barbera and Moscato d’Asti).

The relentless precipitation is making it increasingly challenging for growers to combat rot and mildew in the vineyards.

My friend and client Luca Ferraro, a Prosecco producer, wrote last week that he’s abandoning in growing sites in the flats this year so that he can focus his already herculean efforts to save his hillside vines.

Piedmont is getting the warmth that it needs but note the cool temperature today in Valdobbiadene just two weeks from expected harvest.

valdobbiadene

erbusco

alba

asti

Harvest 2014 begins in Italy, a challenging vintage

coccaglioAbove: the village of Coccaglio as seen from a vineyard owned by Franciacorta producer Arcari-Danesi; photo taken in April 2014.

According to a press release issued this week by the Franciacorta consortium, growers in Coccaglio (Brescia province) began picking Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, and Pinot Nero grapes on Monday.

They are among the first in Italy to harvest in one of the most challenging vintages in recent memory.

According to Coldiretti, Italy’s national farmers union, the month of July saw a roughly 74 percent spike in average rainfall with respect to 2013.

As Corriere della Sera wine writer Luciano Ferraro noted this week on his blog, 1,000 mm of rain fell in the region of Trentino (northern Italy) during the first seven months of 2014 — the average amount of rainfall for a normal year.

Across northern and central Italy, a rainy and cool July has slowed the growing cycle. As Ferraro put it, citing the song by the Doors, winemakers are literally waiting for the sun. The arrival of warmer weather will be crucial: without it, the grapes will take too long to ripen fully and rot and mildew — already an issue for many growers in this wet, chilly summer — will go unchecked.

In Proseccoland, where nearly daily rainfall continues to plague the vineyards, producers expect to start picking in early September.

In central Italy, most are expecting harvest to begin around the middle of September. They cool weather, some have noted, has brought 2014 in line with the growing cycles of the 70s and 80s — the era before climate change delivered extremely warm summers and accelerated harvests.

In southern Italy, where winemakers have experienced a more “classic” growing cycle, many will begin picking their grapes next week.

weather italy harvest 2014Above: a screen capture taken at 3 p.m. Italian time.