Best sommelier in Texas? And a Nebbiolophilic hypertext

thomas moesse divinoAbove: Samantha Porter (left) and Thomas Moësse are two of the wine professionals from Houston who will be competing in the “Texsom Best Sommelier Competition” this weekend in Dallas. Houstonians account for nine of the 25 contestants (image via Samantha’s Facebook).

It’s come to this: the Texsom “Best Sommelier in Texas” competition has been changed to include all the states contiguous to Texas and is now called the “Texsom Best Sommelier Competition.”

This year there will be contestants from Texas but also New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

But of the 25 entries, nine — yes count them, nine! — will be from Houston.

I wrote about it today for the Houston Press.

Over the arc of my life as a Texan, I watched Texsom grow from being a homegrown, however large, wine education session to being a major date on the international wine calendar.

It attracts marquee-name talent from all corners for the sentient wine world as well as top players from the Texas scene.

This year, for example, the super in-demand and super nice James Beard-award-winning Shelley Lindgren will co-chair a panel on Chianti Classico with Italian Wine Guy Alfonso Cevola, the number-one Italian wine blogger in the U.S., who happens to be a Texan.

But what’s even more incredible to me, beyond the surging and soaring interest in wine education in our country, is that nearly half of the contenders for the “best sommelier” title are from Houston.

When I first moved to Texas in 2008, Houston was just a spec on the map of the “somm” craze in Texas. Today, it’s become the epicenter.

Who would have thunk it?

Check out my post for the Houston Press here.

Knock it out of the park, Houstonians!

In other news…

Speaking of wine geekery, I wanted to share a couple of posts here, one from Fine Wine Geek Ken Vastola and another from Wine Without Numbers by Mark Scudiery.

Both of them posted recently on a fabulous July lunch we shared paired with a truly stellar flight of old Nebbiolo (here’s my own post from the July 6 flight).

It’s great to read their hypertextual thoughts and impressions. And I can’t thank them enough for their generosity.

Who said that wine blogging was dead?

monprivato 1999

Angelo Gaja tasted by Victor Hazan circa 1982 and one of the most moving passages of wine writing I’ve ever read

victor hazan wine writerIn another chapter in my life, I was gravely afflicted by bibliophilia.

And while today my financial situation precludes me from pursuing my bibliophilous desires (the Aldine octavo is my greatest weakness), I do regularly indulge in low-wager purchases, generally $10-20 online and in used bookstores.

It’s remarkable how many great wine books that you can pick up, like the ones above. I recently bought the Hazan through Amazon for $4 and the Ray for $15 at a shop in San Francisco.

Leafing through Italian Wine (Knopf 1982), I was blown away by Hazan’s prescient description of the wines of Angelo Gaja.

“One cannot mention Barbaresco producers,” he wrote,

    without bringing up Angelo Gaja, the largest and best known. His wines, especially the ones from single vineyards, Sorì Tildin [sic] and Sorì San Lorenzo, enjoy the most extravagant praise and prices They are wines made with intense care and with the single-minded objective of making them as big and full and ripe as possible. I cannot deny that he succeeds, but, though mine may be the lone dissenting voice, I cannot bring myself to admire them wholeheartedly. Gaja’s wine does not seem to me to give what one most looks for in Barbaresco. It attempts to outmuscle Barolo, but fails to achieve the gracefulness that makes Barbaresco’s natural endowment of flavor and body stylish rather than pushy.

Today, we think of Hazan as Marcella’s scribe. But in 1982, he was also one of the pioneering voices of Italian wine writing.

And, man, what a passage! It’s even more powerful knowing that in the decades that followed, Gaja went on to become one of the world’s most famous and successful winemakers and one of the trade’s most brilliant marketers.

I love how he so eloquently and delicately expresses his “dissent” without the slightest hint of antipathy.

As I enjoyed the book last night after dinner, I marveled at how au courant it reads (save for the fact that his vintage ratings stop at 1981). The appellation maps, including excellent topographical renderings, are also superb.

As for his take on the new style of Barbaresco created by Gaja, I’ll let the reader arrive at her/his own conclusions.

Hazan’s book was trumped this week only by Cyril Ray’s, in which I stumbled across the one of the most the most moving example of wine writing I’ve ever read.

“It is salutary for an Englishman to live for a while in a wine-growing country,” wrote Ray in Ray on Wine (Dent 1979), “where wine is neither a symbol by which snobs can demonstrate their wealth or their taste, nor a means of fuddlement, but as natural and as necessary as bread.”

Now this is a powerful illustration of wine writing at its finest, where the author reveals so much about himself, his times, and the society in which he lives and works.

It’s even more powerful considering that the experience refers back to his time as correspondent during World War II in Italy (I wrote about the passage yesterday for the CanteleUSA blog because the account comes from Ray’s time spent with British troops in Puglia).

Not that I could ever achieve it, but this is the wine writing to which I aspire, where wine (the object) becomes a window onto the human experience and where a bourgeoisie can at once acknowledge his and his fellows middle-class shortcomings while using them as synecdoche for society at large.

For my fellow bibliophiles, my autographed copy of Ray on Wine is set in Bembo typeface (just to bring it back to my predilection for Aldine incunabula).

Thank you for letting me share my enobibliophily with you!

What do weed flamer and grapevine yellows have in common?

weed torch flamer vineyardAbove: a weed flamer or weed torch. Increasingly, organic grape growers in Italy are using weed flamers for grass management between rows (image via BeleCasel.it).

Here are the most recent entries in my Italian Wine Terms Glossary:

flasvescenza dorata grapevine yellows (flavescence dorée)
diserbante termico weed torch/weed flamer
pirodiserbatore weed torch/weed flamer
pirodiserbo weed torching

Grapevine yellows, aka flavescence dorée, is a bacterial disease that affects many growers in northern Italy. Its vector is the Scaphoideus titanus or leafhopper.

Weed torches or weed flamers are currently gaining favor among organic grape growers in Italy who have found weed torching to be an effective approach to herbicide-free grass management.

The updated glossary follows. I hope you find the index useful. Thanks for speaking Italian wine!

ITALIAN ENGLISH
a giropoggio east-west row orientation
a ritocchino north-south row orientation
acciaio [inossidabile] stainless-steel [vat/tank]
affinamento aging
alberello head-trained [vines]
allegagione fruit set
allevamento training
argilla clay
arresto di fermentazione stuck fermentation
assemblaggio blend
azoto nitrogen
barbatella grafted cutting
barrique barrique [small French oak cask]
bâtonnage stirring on the lees
biodinamica biodynamics/biodynamic
biologico organic
botte traditional large cask
bucce skins
Cabernet [Sauvignon] Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Franc Cabernet Franc
calcare/calcareo limestone/calcareous [limestone-rich]
cappello sommerso submerged cap maceration
chioma canopy
cordone speronato cordon-trained spur-pruned [vines]
cru vineyard designation/single vineyard
cuvée blend
délestage rack and return
deraspare/deraspatrice de-stemm/de-stemmer
diradamento pruning/thinning grapes/dropping fruit
diserbante termico weed torch/weed flamer
DOC DOC [designation of controlled origin]
DOCG DOCG [designation of controlled and guaranteed origin]
DOP PDO [Protected Designation of Origin]
doppio capovolto double-arched cane [training]
esca esca [alt.: black dead arm or black measles]
escursione termica [diurnal] temperature variation
fementazione arrestata stuck fermentation
femminella lateral shoot
flasvescenza dorata grapevine yellows (flavescence dorée)
follatura punching down
galestro galestro [a marl- and limestone-rich subsoil unique to Tuscany]
giropoggio east-west row orientation
grappa grappa
grappolo cluster/bunch
Guyot Guyot
IGP PGI [Protected Geographical Indication]
IGT IGT [typical geographical indication]
leccio holm oak
lievito naturale native/ambient/indigenous/wild yeast
lievito selezionato cultured yeast
limo silt
macchia mediterranea Mediterranean maquis [shrubland]
maestrale (vento di maestrale) north-westerly wind
malolattica malolactic fermentation
marna/marne marl
millerandage millerandage [alt.: shot berrieshens and chicks, or pumpkins and peas]
monovitigno single-grape variety [wine]
mosto must
oidio oidium [powdery mildew]
peronospora peronospora [downy mildew]
pied de cuve pied de cuve [native yeast starter]
pigiatura pressing
pirodiserbatore weed torch/weed flamer
pirodiserbo weed torching
portinnesto rootstock
quercia oak
rimontaggio pumping over
ritocchino north-south row orientation
sabbia/sabbioso sand/sandy [sandy soil]
Sauvignon [Blanc] Sauvignon Blanc
scacchiatura disbudding
siccità/stress idrico hydric stress
sistema di allevamento training
sottosuolo subsoil
sovescio cover crop/green manure
spollonatura disbudding
stralciatura deshooting
stress idrico/siccità hydric stress
sulle bucce skin contact [macerated on the skins]
sulle fecce nobili lees aged [aged on its lees]
sur lie lees aged [aged on its lees]
terreno/terreni soil
tignola della vite vine moth [Eupoecilia ambiguella]
tralcio shoot/cane
tramoggia hopper/feeder
tufo tufaceous subsoil [porous limestone]
vasca vat/tank
vento di maestrale north-westerly wind
vigna/vigne vine/vineyards
vigneto vineyard
vinaccia/vinacce pomace
vite vine
vitigno grape variety

Here’s the rub: a best wine to pair with Texas bbq imho

bbq lamb chops barbecueFrom what I’ve been told, I ruffled more than a few feathers with my post from last month on the incongruous nature of pairing big bold (Californian-style) red wine and Texas bbq.

It seems that I had transgressed an absolute held dear by many a Texan: if the pairing is to be wine, it must be a high-alcohol, low-acidity, oaky, concentrated, “fruit bomb” red wine, a style described this week by Master of Wine and widely read wine expert and journalist Jancis Robinson as “California’s late-20th-century love affair with alcohol, oak, sweetness and mass.”

It’s important to keep in mind that “Texas” bbq is unique in the panorama of American bbq because its foundation is smoked meats (mostly beef and primarily brisket) that have been seasoned with dry rub.

In “Memphis” bbq, for example, sweet and tangy vinegar-based sauce is used instead to baste and flavor pork during smoking. In my view, it’s nearly impossible to pair wine with this style of bbq because the sweetness and acidity in the basting sauce, which is often applied liberally after the meat is cooked, overwhelm nearly any wine (in Texas bbq, sauce is an afterthought if applied at all). It’s similar to the oxymoronic pairing of chocolate and red wine, however popular it may be.

jurancon grapes french wineI recently returned to the same Houston bbq joint where I offended my comrades, Roegel’s BBQ, for a mandate with a (male) food writer friend.

The 2013 Jurançon Sec by Bru-Baché (made from Gros Manseng in the French Pyrénées, above) was the wine I brought.

In my view and on my palate, this is the style of wine that pairs best with Texas bbq, where the intense smokiness of the meats dominates the flavors.

The rich white and stone fruit and gentle citrus character of this wine, its freshness despite a slightly oxidative note, and — most importantly — its low alcohol at 12.5 percent, make it ideal for pairing with dry rub bbq.

It may be counterintuitive for some but the greatest pairings are based not on resemblance but rather contrast.

Consider how deliciously lemon juice tastes works in fish prepared à la meunière where the fat of the butter and the lean acidity of the citrus accentuate the flavor the fish.

Where the savory flavors and earthiness of my beloved Nebbiolo would be eclipsed by smoky Texas bbq, the Jurançcon delivers brilliantly — just like the lemon in the meunière.

roegels bbq houstonAnd here’s the rub (excuse the pun!). The greatest incongruence lies in the fact that many of my fellow Texans insist on matching higher-end red wines with bbq. I’ve seen this countless times.

Not only are the wines technically mismatched, but they are also misaligned from a socio-economic perspective.

As bbq authority J.C. Reid (a good friend) wrote in a recent column for the Houston Chronicle, “an ice, cold Lone Star Beer paired with great Texas barbecue is a Houston tradition for a reason: they just go together from both a flavor and a cultural point of view.”

When people cross into the “final frontier,” as Reid has called it, of pairing wine and bbq, they tend to reach for extremes, like the $50 bottle of 15.6 percent alcohol Syrah that someone poured me during my previous meal at the bbq joint. There is nothing delicate about Texas bbq and people tend to love a show-stopping “wow” factor when pairing with wine.

At under $20 a bottle, even the Jurançon could be considered extravagant. But since it’s become the Parzen family’s house wine for the summer of 2015 (hence the dinosaur and apple wedges in the photo above), it seemed just the right choice for my bbq experience the other night. It was perfect…

A history of Montalcino that I’m translating into English, a new and cherished project

stefano cinelli colombini barbi montalcinoAbove: I’ve always admired Stefano Cinelli Colombini’s writing and the “voice” that he has given to Montalcino and its wines.

Ever since I realized that I was never going to make a decent living by translating and writing about Italian poetry (one of the great passions of my intellectual life), I’ve tried to find ways to incorporate my academic interests into my work as a wine blogger for hire.

From Roman times to the current day, Italy’s cultural patrimony has continued to fascinate and inform the western world and its ars poetica, as it were, its aesthetic sensibilities. Nearly every art and literary movement today, from naturalism to the avant-garde, can trace its origins back to Italian intellectual life. Where would be today without Michelangelo… or Marinetti, for that matter?

Over the arc of my adult life and career, wine and food history has taken the place of prosody as a window that offers a humanist perspective into Italy and its many wonders, natural and crafted. Whether the etymology of a term like sovescio (cover crop) or my reflections on a Pasolini poem inspired by an Italian wine merchant in Mexico City, viticulture — the culture of wine and the vine – has become a pretext and conceit for writing about a cultural legacy that continues to bewilder me.

Legacy winemaker Stefano Cinelli Colombini’s writing first came to my attention via his posts for the popular Italian wine blog Intravino.

On more than one occasion, I found myself translating his work for posts on my blog or blogs where I have contributed as a reporter/journalist.

He is a superb writer and his posts made a deep impression on me because he is virtually the only member of the Montalcino community who speaks out regularly (and eloquently) on cultural and political issues that affect the wines, wineries, and people there.

We met and tasted at Vinitaly this year. And then we met again in May at his winery in Montalcino. When I proposed that we work together to produce a blog devoted to Montalcino, its history, its people, and its wines, he was enthusiastic. He had already launched a similar project, in Italian, years ago.

The result of our delightful conversations is MontalcinoBlog.com, a new online journal devoted to the history, life, and times of Montalcino — the appellation where I first discovered an interest and passion for viticulture as a student in Italy.

Currently, I’m translating Stefano’s excellent History of Montalcino from the Italian and I’m loving every minute of it.

Yesterday’s post — Montalcino History: Montalcino fends off the Medici’s troops and becomes Italy’s last free city — was a study of numismatics. Stefano’s notes on coins forged by Montalcino during the 1550s became a rabbit hole that had me researching Latin inscriptions during the Renaissance.

There’s an expression in Italian: pane per i miei denti, literally bread for my teeth or something I can really sink my teeth into.

Call me a kid in a candy store. It’s a dream job for me and I’ve been having a blast reading and corresponding with Stefano, whose erudition and knowledge of Italian history (not to mention his classic Tuscan wit) are as entertaining as they are thrilling.

Once I complete my translation of his history of Montalcino, we’ll move on to myriad subjects he’s covered in his writings and work. There’s much more groovy stuff to come.

Please check it out here and thanks for reading…

Franciacorta, you’ve come a long way, baby! Notes from my Franciacorta summer tour…

best champagne wine tasting san diegoAbove: my Franciacorta Real Story tasting in San Diego at Jaynes Gastropub was a blast.

Franciacorta has two things in common with Champagne: the classic method and two grape varieties.

But that’s where the analogy ends. With its Alpine climate, maritime influence, and morainic subsoils, Franciacorta stands alone as one of the world’s most compelling wines and one of its most extraordinary expressions of Chardonnay (imho).

Its greater ripeness, its lower dosage, its lower pressure, its incredible freshness, its pairing versatility, and its enormous aging potential make it one of the world’s most captivating appellations.

And add to that its relative dimension: there are currently fewer than 110 grower/bottlers in the Franciacorta consortium while there are roughly 20,000 growers in Champagne. And of those growers, 30 percent farm organically. Some believe that this little northern Italian oasis might become the first Italian appellation to be 100 percent organic. This is possible because it’s relatively easy to farm organically there. It’s a place that special

Thank you to everyone who hosted and tasted with me over the last two weeks in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. I greatly appreciate and deeply cherish your support. And it was a blast to taste so many fantastic wines together!

Click here to read my complete notes from the Franciacorta Real Story summer tour (including the hefty flights of wines I poured on both coasts; all of the wines I poured are available in the U.S.).

At Osteria Francescana “Our cellar is not a museum where you kneel before this producer or that label.” Contrast over harmony…

giuseppe palmieriI really enjoyed translating this post today for my clients and friends at Bele Casel.

In it, Osteria Francescana wine director Giuseppe Palmieri (above) discusses his approach to wine pairing and his list at the Michelin three star, a restaurant considered by many to be the best in Italy right now.

“With all due respect to those who believe that a great food and wine pairing can be created using a list made up of famous names and appellations,” he writes, “we love those names and appellations as well but they aren’t part of our personal and professional histories.”

“In their kitchens,” he explains, chefs Massimo “Bottura, [Davide] Scabin, [Paolo] Lopriore, and [René] Redzepi had launched a revolution that opened the doors for contemporary cuisine. We were spurred by their work and it ‘forced’ us to follow and feed off this energy and their unusual approach. Clearly, their food had moved past the stereotypes of the 1990s like rack of lamb and seared foie gras with fruit confit. And so we wanted to find new pathways for new ideas and a new narrative.”

Click here for the post. Really interesting read…

Image via Giuseppe’s Facebook.

A cult California I really liked and the best restaurant in Tijuana

THANK YOU to everyone who came out to taste Franciacorta last week in California. I’ll be posting a report on all three tastings over on the Franciacorta Real Story blog later this week. But in the meantime, a couple of notes from the trip…

williams and heim wineAbove: a new and more acidity-driven style of wine is emerging among producers of “cult” wines from Napa.

San Diego-based winemaker Duncan Williams and I first met in 2007 when I was researching Italian grape varieties grown on Californian soil. I visited him at a winery in Fallbrook in southern California where he was growing and vinifying Sangiovese at the time. Impressed with the freshness and overall drinkability of his wines, I’ve stayed in touch with him over the years and we occasionally taste together when I’m in San Diego.

On Saturday, following the Franciacorta Real Story tasting at Jaynes Gastropub, he tasted me on one of his new wines, the 2012 Williams and Heim Triple Entendre (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc).

This wine had healthy acidity and good balance. Although the wine is very young and has at least a few years ahead of it before it fully comes into focus, its wood (55% new barriques) is already well integrated and its alcohol didn’t jump out ahead of the wine.

I liked it a lot. If you’re looking for a new cult Napa wine to collect, this is the ground floor. Check it out here.

In other Californian news…

The following post comes from Lawrence Cohen, a friend and wine rep who sells wine to Sotto in Los Angeles where I author the wine list. He possesses encyclopedic knowledge of European food and southern California restaurants. A recent conversation about the “best restaurants in Tijuana” prompted him to compose the following dispatch on La Querencia, which I gladly share here. Note that there is another La Querencia on the American side of the border in Chula Vista. Although I believe the two restaurants are related, the menus are far from identical.

abalone recipeAbove: abalone at La Querencia in Tijuana. Los Angeles-based gourmet Lawrence Cohen recommends the restaurant’s abalone and chorizo sopes (image via La Querencia website).

La Querencia is the best restaurant in Tijuana. And it is excellent for a crowd, or for romantic dinner for two. The mixture of the best food and casual family ambiance where you can bring the kids or the fine wine party of serious diners, with easy going service make La Querencia the go to restaurant of Tijuana. There is no other restaurant in Tijuana we returned to as often or as happily as La Querencia.
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California cooking, California dreaming: great meals @SottoLA and @StVincentSF

isabella pedroli chef los angelesAided by Sotto owner/executive chef Steve Samson and his team, chef Isabella Pedroli Giordano (above, left, with her mother) prepared an ASTOUNDING authentic Ligurian menu for a sold-out crowd on Monday. Los Angeles-born-and-bred, Isabella is slated to be the sous chef at Steve’s new Emilia-concept to be called Rosso Blu. I had a blast drinking Pigato and talking food with her at the end of the evening.

Unfortunately (fortunately?), I was too busy pouring and talking about Ligurian wines to properly photograph her excellent food. But I was blown away by the materia prima and the way she handled it. The California basil — used for her pesto — was enough to make you swoon.

california basilI was speaking to the waitstaff about the wines during lineup when the seductive aroma of freshly crushed basil leaves began filling the dining room as chef Isabella’s équipe put their pestles and mortars into action.

It happens every spring and summer when I visit my home state of California: once again I was floored by the bounty of high quality produce from in the El Dorado state.

best california tomatoesWhen I sat down for dinner on Tuesday night at St. Vincent, one of my favorite wine spots in San Francisco, owner and Italian wine sage David Lynch insisted (rightly) that I have the tomato and melon salad (above).

My beloved Golden State aside, few farming communities in the U.S. can deliver nightshades like this outside of Italy.

It was rivaled only the artichoke, butter lettuce, white peach, and almond salad (below).

microlettuces californiaPurely delicious, focused, and wholesome.

In other news…

It’s been tough to be away from the girls this week but I was cheered by the turn-out at my Franciacorta Real Story tasting yesterday in the Golden Gate City (below).

Thanks to everyone who came out to taste and chat Franciacorta.

Tomorrow we’ll be doing the same tasting — 14 wines — in LA and Saturday in San Diego.

Click here for details and RSVP info.

Only a few more days on the road before I get back to my ladies and some needed downtime. Wish me speed!

franciacorta tasting san francisco