Chi Spacca in LA, I really liked it

chi spacca esquire magazinePosting in a flurry this morning from the road in LA, where I poured my client Bele Casel’s Prosecco Colfòndo last night at DomaineLA.

After the tasting, which was super fun, a group of us — food and wine professionals and music trade folks — headed to the newish Chi Spacca across the street on Melrose (at Highland).

I really liked this latest Silverton-Batali-Bastianich concept, a pseudo-butchershop and salumeria affair: there were no celebrities, you could hear your dining companions speak, and the food was simple, pure, and wholesome.

I was geeked to find Ca’ Lojera Lugana del Lupo (from Turbiana or Trebbiano di Lugana) on the list at a reasonable price. Paired nicely with the delicious focaccia di Recco, a favorite dish among restaurant trade people, I learned.

Ok, gotta run and taste… Thanks for being here.

A chat with Matteo Lunelli, the once & future king of Italian bubbly

Angelinos, I’ll be pouring Bele Casel Prosecco Colfòndo at DomaineLA tonight from 6-8. Click here for details and please come out and taste with me if you’re in town.

matteo lunelli ferrari new yorkOne of the great things about working as an Italian wine blogger in Houston is that, more and more, the top names in the business are coming to this southeast Texas metropolis to see what all the wine buzz is about.

When a New York-based publicist reached out to me a few weeks ago to let me know that the self-proclaimed once-and-future king of Italian bubbly, Matteo Lunelli (above), would be coming to Texas, I jumped at the chance for a tête-à-tête meeting.

A former Goldman Sachs banker and now director of Ferrari, his family’s winery and one of Italy’s leading producers of classic-method sparkling wine, Lunelli made big news in April when he announced that he had acquired a 50 percent stake in Bisol, the historic Prosecco house and one of the appellation’s top names.

“I want to become the sparkling king,” he said in an interview with the Italian national daily La Repubblica at the time.

In person, Matteo was easygoing and down-to-earth. And even though he was in town to promote Ferrari, I was keen to ask him about his thoughts on the problematic Prosecco DOCG, which was created in 2009.

You may remember that earlier this year, I translated an excerpt of an interview with Matteo that appeared on an Italian-language wine blog.

“Unfortunately,” said Matteo in the post, “the uniqueness of the Prosecco DOCG has gone unrecognized and there are just a few brands that consumers identify with it and that they ask for by name. When Prosecco is perceived as a generic wine — ‘unbranded’ as they say in English — it focuses the competition solely on price. As a result, the value of the product is put at risk. We must work to build awareness of the Prosecco DOCG.”

He was referring to a mounting issue faced by Prosecco producers today, big and small. Whether in Great Britain, the U.S., or Australia, English-speaking consumers generally don’t differentiate between the Prosecco entry-tier DOC and the higher quality DOCG.

“They’re just going to buy the cheapest Prosecco,” conceded Matteo in our chat yesterday in the bar at Tony’s.

“We need to increase the awareness of the diversity of Italian sparkling wine,” he said. “I’m not against the [Prosecco] DOCG. But we need promote an understanding of the differences among U.S. wine lovers. There is space in the market for both [categories].”

I really liked Matteo and his fresh and honest approach to the challenges faced by Italian sparkling wine producers today.

In a world were pride and often arrogance can trump good business sense, his earnest voice is informed by a greater-radius outlook and by his experience working “on the ground” in the very market that he and his counterparts hope to dominate.

If this is the new “face” of the new Italian sparkling, then I’m buying what he’s selling.

Tracie P’s fabu birthday picnic, glam dinner & end-of-the-night smooch

best picnic basket recipeOn Saturday, the Parzen family celebrated Tracie P’s birthday.

Maybe because we’ve been eating out a lot lately and finding a babysitter can often be a challenge, offers to take her out to dinner of her choice had been rebuffed this year, although that changed (as you’ll see below).

And so I decided to surprise her with a catered picnic at our favorite park around the corner from our house.

Tracie loves the charcuterie and cheese plates by our friend Felipe Riccio at Houston’s hippest wine bar, Camerata.

I know he does some catering work and so I discreetly contacted him and asked him if he’d be game to make us a picnic.

best picnic basket houstonMan, he outdid himself! And thanks to chef Kate McLean from Tony’s (a good friend), he even managed to get his hands on a picnic basket!

Just look at that spread!

Tracie really didn’t expect a thing. But as Felipe was putting the finishing touches on the mise-en-place, a sudden Texas rainstorm arrived. After some frenetic, furtive texting (because it was a surprise), I asked him to come to the house. We decided to set it up in our girls’ playroom, which added to their excitement because food is not allowed in the playroom.

frittata di pasta recipeFelipe is so talented and resourceful and every dish reflected things I had told him about Tracie.

The frittata di pasta, a nod to her years in Naples (above, right), a Parthenopean classic, was rivaled only by the superb insalata di mare that he made.

Wholesome macaroni and cheese for the girls, housemade peanut butter, a berry-heavy fruit salad (they love berries)…

For mom and dad, mozzarella di bufala with a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil and fleur de sel, his expertly sliced prosciutto, his house-cured olives… And of course, it can’t be a picnic, as Nino Ferrer sings, without the cornichons!

(I highly recommend listening to the song while reading this post.)

It was outta sight! Thank you, again, Felipe! We LOVED it. And btw, the girls had more macaroni and cheese for dinner and we munched on the leftovers throughout the weekend.

white truffles houstonI had taken the girls out all morning that day so that Tracie could sleep in and go on the nice, long run she had asked for for her birthday day. And for whatever reason, by the time they were ready for their naps, she decided that yes, after all, she did want to go to Tony’s for dinner for her birthday.

And thanks to our good friend Joanne Witt, aka “Food Princess,” a super cool lady whom I know through food writing here in town, we were able to find a last-minute baby sitter for the cost of a bottle of Venica Pinot Grigio. (THANK YOU AGAIN, Joanne! You are THE BEST!)

If you follow the harvest news from Italy, you know that this very wet vintage was extremely challenging for grape growers but outrageously good for truffle foragers.

Tony treated us to his Alba white truffle soufflé (above), which paired brilliantly with a somewhat tannic, meaty Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi by Garofoli.

lobster roe risotto recipeBut the star of the evening, among the many other wonderful dishes we did that night, was the lobster roe risotto with lobster mushrooms. Un-frigging-believably good…

Chef Kate and Tony, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Your food is truly extraordinaire. And we were thrilled by our excellent dinner. Thank you!

But nothing could compare to the kiss that we shared at the end of an unforgettable day of great food and our time together as family.

jeremy parzen wife

Why social media strategy matters at LA’s grooviest wine shop

best wine shops los angelesAbove: DomaineLA on the edge of West Hollywood. Owner Jill Bernheimer has raised the profile for her shop and brand through a brilliant social media campaign.

There are a lot of cool wine shops in LA: Wine House and WineExpo on the westside, Silverlake Wine and Wine Hotel toward the east are among my favorites.

But the place I feel most at home is at Jill Bernheimer’s DomaineLA, where the focus is on the natural-leaning and old-world style.

I visited Jill earlier this year and we had a long talk about her business and her brilliant (imho) social media marketing strategy.

Launching an aggressive, high-design online e-commerce platform in 2013, she said, was expensive and time-consuming. And the hoped-for online sales boom hasn’t materialized, she conceded.

But the ambitious project has paid off marvelously for her, she told me. Her information-heavy site, she explained, has helped to get her on the radar of leading wine writers in the U.S.

“The fact that writers can see what I’m doing and the style of wines I like,” she said, “has led to great coverage in the media.”

This year, for example, she was quoted in a high-profile article by Eric Asimov in the New York Times and she was featured in Food & Wine as a guest “sommelier.”

And that has led to increased business.

best wine shop websitesAbove: DomaineLA’s ambitious online commerce program hasn’t directly led to more sales. But it has landed owner Jill in the national media and raised her brand’s profile among consumers.

In my view of online wine marketing, Jill’s approach is a model and benchmark for wine retal anywhere.

Her investment in her site was risky, in terms of both cost and sweat equity. And it hasn’t delivered in the way she had expected.

But it has repositioned her brand and given her fantastic exposure in the national discourse in wine today.

And that, to me, is key: it’s not the direct correspondence of social media investment that drives sales but rather the indirect correlation of brand positioning that delivers the desired results.

By using social media, where she is very active, to express her brand’s ethos, she has connected with like-minded consumers across her market in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the pre-social media era.

Jill is a super cool and very groovy lady — online and off — and I’m very proud to be pouring at her shop next week. I hope to see you there!

Details follow for my Bele Casel Prosecco Colfòndo tastings in Southern California next week, including my Tuesday evening tasting with Jill at DomaineLA. If you happen to be in that part of the world, please come out and taste with me!

domaineLA
Tuesday, Oct. 14
6-8 p.m.
$8
6801 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 932-0280
Google map

Jaynes Gastropub
Saturday, Oct. 18
3:30-5:30 p.m.
$20 (includes passed bites by Jayne and team)
4677 30th St
San Diego, CA 92116
(619) 563-1011
Google map

Italy’s dismal harvest news: my report for @WineSearcher

From the department of “ne nuntium necare”…

best barolo monforte alba 2014Above: Ferdinando Prinicipiano in Barolo (Monforte d’Alba) remains optimistic about his harvest despite the extreme challenges of the rain-soaked, “bizarre” 2014 growing cycle.

Even before I began contacting Italian winemakers for my 2014 harvest report for WineSearcher.com, I kept hearing the same refrain: the 2014 growing cycle has been “bizarre.”

A “non-existent” winter and a cool and extremely wet summer have made for a nail-biting roller coaster ride for Italian producers this year.

“Rain, rain, rain, and more rain,” said Ferdinando Principiano in Monforte d’Alba (in the Barolo appellation, above, left) when I spoke to him by phone on Tuesday. He still holds out hope for his 2014 Nebbiolo, including his single-vineyard wines. But he’s one of few growers who remain optimistic.

The good news is that there will be exceptions to the overall bleak outlook. Barbaresco, it appears, will have a good to great vintage and Chianti Classico also fared well.

Click here for my report for WineSearcher.com.

“It could be a ’72, which was horrible,” said Gaia Gaja in an interview that Antonio Galloni filmed in late August and posted on his site this month (I highly recommend it to you). “Or it could be a ’78,” which was one of the greatest vintages of the decade, she adds, citing her father, who worked both vintages.

She gives a great overview of the challenges faced by growers in Barolo and Barbaresco.

In other news: Houston, “Wine City USA”…

A confluence of prosperity, expanding wine education, and ambitious wine professionals is making Houston one of our nation’s leading wine destinations.

I wrote about new wine trends here this month for Houstonia magazine and the piece is now available online.

I’d already filed the article when I met with California winemaker Jasmine Hirsch in late September. But the fact that she and Rajat Parr are bringing their In Pursuit of Balance tasting to Houston in early 2015 is yet another sign of Houston’s growing allure in the U.S. wine scene.

From the oilman’s cafeterias to the hipster wine bars, it’s never been a better time to be a wine lover in the Bayou City.

Argentina surprised me with fresh, stainless-steel aged reds

This just in: check out this awesome write-up today of a recent New York Wine Writers Guild tasting of white wines from Campania by Italian wine maven Charles Scicolone.

expresion tanatAbove: I really loved the Finca Sierras Azules 2013 Tannat. It was fresh and bright in the glass, with great acidity and balanced alcohol. It would cost roughly or under $10 in the U.S. (although it’s not currently imported).

Fellow Houston wine blogger and good friend Sandra Crittenden, author of Wine Thoughts, had extended an invitation to a walk-around tasting of Argentine wines on Friday afternoon.

And so I went, inspired more by collegial respect than by the anticipation that I would taste wines that I’d like.

To my surprise, I found that many wineries in Argentina produce two separate and distinct lines of wines: the “important” label, more concentrated in flavor and aged in barrique; and an “everyday” label, vinified in a fresh, food-friendly style and aged generally (at least based on my experience on Friday) in stainless steel.

The 2013 Tannat Expresión by Finca Sierras Azules (above) was a revelation for me. It danced in the glass with bright, lip-smacking red fruit flavors. It had that zinging acidity that I crave at the dinner table and it had a wonderfully clean and refreshing finish. The rep at the table told me that none of Sierras Azules wines are aged in oak. I estimate that the wine would cost roughly or under $10 based on the ex cantina price that the rep quoted me.

tracia malbecAbove: the Tracia 2013 Malbec was another standout for me. Malbec from Argentina can be so delicious, I discovered, when it’s not doctored with cultured yeast and dominated by woody flavors.

“We’re not focused on the wood,” said Alejandro Isaias Brant, who showed his family’s Garbin wines at the tasting. “We are more focused on the typicity of the grape variety.”

The tasting reminded me of tasting in Barbera country, Italy, a few years ago. The producers had their “important” barriqued wines and then they had their fresh, stainless-steel or cement-aged wines that they drank themselves.

Aaaaaaa… the misguided power of the American palate and wine market!

The sparsely attended tasting seemed strangely geared more toward consumers than to trade (no proper spittoons, no stemware station, and overly chilled white and rosé wines were annoyances) and the winemakers were oddly startled by my many questions about aging regimens and winemaking styles.

But as I headed back to my desk, I couldn’t help but think about how Argentina could really break through in the American market if the producers would get hip to current wine trends in the U.S. today (acidity over alcohol, food-friendliness, lighter styles inspired by traditional European winemaking, etc.).

“We’re just behind Chile,” said Alejandro. “But we will reach them soon.”

Timorasso, Melon from California & other cool wines & things this week

Here’s the link for the Facebook event page for my Bele Casel Prosecco and Prosecco Colfòndo tasting in Los Angeles week after next. Angelinos, please come out and taste with me…

bubba stark zidarichMan, it’s been an insane week. It’s only October 3 and OND (October-November-December, the busiest time of year for restaurants and people who sell wine) is already in full swing.

One of the highlights of my wine week (although I actually tasted it last week) was the 2011 Zidarich Vitovska, which I shared with my friend Bubba Stark at Bufalina in Austin (yes, his name is really Bubba but I call him Moses for obvious reasons).

I’ve loved and followed Beniamino Zidarich’s wines for many years now and they consistently deliver vibrancy and wholesome, nuanced fruit flavors with just the right amount of oxidative character so as not to trump their balance. And these wines make you feel great the next day (if you know what I mean).

walter massa timorassoI was very stoked to taste the 2011 Timorasso by Walter Massa at my good buddy Nathan Smith at Dolce Vita in Houston where he runs a fantastic Italian wine program.

If you follow along here, you probably already know and love this profound expression of Timorasso, the white Piedmontese grape variety that Massa singlehandedly and brilliantly revived. The wine showed great this week but it has many years ahead of it imho.

But the most exciting thing is that it’s yet another benchmark wine that’s finally found its way to Texas, where Italian wine lovers continue to thirst for thoughtful and meaningful expressions of Italian viticulture.

lieu dit melonHouston’s own celebrity sommelier Vanessa Treviño-Boyd turned me on to the Lieu Dit 2013 Melon from Santa Maria, California when I tasted with her and Jasmine Hirsch at 60 Degrees Mastercrafted, also here in Houston.

I would have never expected to taste such minerality from Santa Maria let alone see a bottling of Melon. A truly original wine that knocked me out with its freshness and varietal expression. Vanessa’s serving it by the glass at the swank restaurant where she manages a great list.

monteverro super tuscanAnother highlight of the week was taking part in my first Google hangout tasting with young French winemaker Matthieu Taunay who works with Michel Rolland to make the newest arrival in the crowded scene of French-grape wines in Tuscany, Monteverro.

I can’t say that the wines are “my speed.” But it’s always fascinating to interact with a top-flight winemaker like Matthieu and it was compelling to hear him speak about sophisticated temperature-control technology that allows him to provoke spontaneous fermentation during vinification.

About 40 minutes south of Bolgheri, Suvereto, where these wines are raised, is as-of-yet uncharted territory in the expansion of this category. It will be interesting to see where these high-priced wines land among the Super Tuscan set.

And the Google hangout was a great way to taste with Matthieu. The PR firm sent out the wines and then set up the hangout. I was one of six wine writers on the call and it proved to be a fantastic medium for tasting and interacting in realtime. I really enjoyed it.

peperoni pizza recipe homemadeTracie P made us wholewheat pepperoni pizza this week. It was delicious.

lila janeAnd dulcis in fundo, it seems that Lila Jane could start walking any day now.

L’shanah tovah, yall! Erev Yom Kippur is tonight. I’ll see you on Monday. Thanks for being here…

Chianti Classico’s gallo nero (black rooster), a brief history

SONY DSCHave you ever wondered where the gallo nero or black rooster, the symbol of Chianti Classico, came from?

Today I posted a brief history of its origins for one of my new clients and a winery that I adore, La Porta di Vertine in Chianti Classico.

The post was inspired by recent changes in labeling requirements in the appellation.

But as soon as I started digging into the origins of the iconic rooster, I just couldn’t help myself (and I realized that the origin story is not readily available in English).

Please here for the post.

And check out the wines: they are super.

Thanks for reading…

Image via Jens Gyldenkærne Clausen’s Flickr.

Hirsch & Parr to bring In Pursuit of Balance to Houston in early 2015

jasmine hirsch best pinot noirIt was really fun to sit down with Sonoma Coast producer Jasmine Hirsch yesterday at 60 Degrees Mastercrafted in Houston where she led a guided tasting of her wines for collectors.

In my view, hers is one of the most dynamic voices in American wine today.

She revealed to me that she and Raj Parr are bringing the controversial In Pursuit of Balance festival to Houston next year. It’s another sign that Houston is becoming one of the leading wine destinations in the U.S.

The festival and the new stop on its tour are the topics for my post today for the Houston Press.

The difference between how Italians & Americans view wine: poop

From the department of “reductive reasoning” (winemakers will get the joke)…

dario cecchini tuscan butcherAbove: pork salumi, rendered lard, and beef steaks in the meat case at Dario Cecchini’s famous butcher shop in Panzano in the heart of Chianti Classico. No Italian in their right mind would eat rendered lard without a glass of wine.

A lacuna in Eric Asimov’s brilliant article last week in the Times, “A Guide to Drinking Wine at Home,” reminded me of a hilarious anecdote from my time as a grad student in Italian at U.C.L.A.

Every year, when professors from Italy would visit for this or that conference, we would ferry them to dinner in LA’s downtown Asian-American neighborhood (often at ABC Seafood).

On the occasion of an Italian Futurism conference, I remember well, my dissertation advisor and I shuttled a small group of top scholars to one our favorite restaurants there. None of them had ever been to California and they were all excited about the feast that awaited them.

Please order for us, they implored, and we were happy to oblige.

And then, one of them, a professor from Bologna, asked, what wine will be drinking?

When we explained that the traditional accompaniment to most Asian cuisine was hot tea and that the only alcoholic option was beer, said professor (who shall remain nameless) stood up and proclaimed, I cannot eat dinner without wine!

As the Italian department’s de facto factotum (excuse the pun), I was enlisted to source a bottle of vino (and you can imagine the swill I delivered from a downtown LA liquor store).

Said professor was satisfied with the quality of the plonk and the dinner proceeded without further international incident.

Many years later, as I became a self-aware gourmet, it occurred to me that the episode illustrates a fundamental difference in how Americans and Italians perceive wine’s role at the dinner table.

Italians, like many current-generation Americans, view wine “as an ordinary part of their meals, like salt or bread,” as Eric wrote of the new American wine lover.

But they also see it as an elemental digestive aid, a mealtime component that will help them metabolize their food (in other words, ahem, as a tonic that will help them take a good shit the next day).

Some say that the Puritanical origins of proto-American culture continue to this day to make us squeamish about poop.

Italians generally espouse an antipodal attitude about defecation. Just the other day, for example, an Italian friend and colleague — a male in his forties like me — described his upcoming colonoscopy in great detail. And the conversation was part of a longer discourse on colitis and other gastroenteritis caused by eating heavy foods while selling wine to restaurateurs here in the U.S.

The bottom line (I can’t help myself, sorry) is that Italians enjoy an enlightened disposition in regard to digestion. After all, the earliest mention of the bidet in print is ascribed to an Italian. Although the French were the ones to popularize it with the rise of modern plumbing, the bidet is one of the Italians’ great gifts to humankind, on par with Marconi’s radio (at least in my view).

So please read Eric’s excellent article. His offers great advice for American wine lovers today on how to buy, collect, and drink wine. I highly recommend it to you.

But the next time you drink wine at dinner, please think about how the wine makes you feel the next day and how it helps you to digest your food.

The ultimate tasting note, nearly any Italian will tell you, is how you evacuate…