I left my heart in Houston…

bush airport united terminalIt seems like it was just yesterday that I walked through this terminal with you on my shoulders.

“Look at all the people, daddy! Look at the airplane, daddy! Daddy, daddy, daddy, we’re going to blast off!”

In fact, it was earlier this week that your sister, mother, you, and I returned from our unforgettable trip to California together.

From the “school bus” that I rode from the parking lot to the pizza concession where we shared a slice (you cheese, me pepperoni), every footstep and every terminal announcement remind me that I won’t be seeing you for another fourteen days.

All the old folks tell me, “cherish these precious days with your little ones; they’ll be grown before you know it.”

I’ll be counting the days, the hours, and the minutes until I’m reunited with you, sweet girl.

Wish me luck, wish me speed. And keep my heart safe for me here in Houston because I simply can’t take it with me…

best beach in del mar california

Historic Barbaresco Tower and appellation viewing station now open to public

The landscape of Barbaresco is a viticultural text. The newly opened viewing station atop Barbaresco Tower is a tool for reading it.

torre tower barbaresco reopeningAbove: the new viewing station atop the historic Torre di Barbaresco, the iconic tower of Barbaresco village (image by Barbaresco producer Giovanna Rizzolio).

The view from atop the newly restored Barbaresco Tower “is spectacular,” writes leading Italian wine blogger Alessandro Morichetti in a post for Intravino this week.

“It gives you a 360° panorama and if you really want to look really cool when you visit, be sure to bring your Enogea map” (the meticulously detailed Barbaresco atlas by celebrated enocartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti).

He is referring to the fact that the now-open-to-the-public tower offers visitors an unparalleled tool for studying the viticultural landscape of one of the world’s greatest appellations and its highly coveted wines.

Visit Alessandro’s post for a breathtaking video on the restoration (in Italian).

Once a medieval fortification, the former ruin is now a destination for wine lovers and visitors to the UNESCO Heritage site known as the Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato.

It includes a tasting room, a wine cellar, a multi-media “history of Barbaresco” exhibit, and the viewing station (above), which is accessible via elevator.

It was opened to the public for the first time earlier this month.

As of the publication of this post, a Google search did not reveal hours and visiting information. Contact information for the offices of Barbaresco township, which manages the site, can be found here.

Image below via the Barbaresco township website.

tower barbaresco tasting room

Bat mitzvah wines and a gorgeous La Jolla sunset

ronco del gelso produttori di caremaToday I am a fountain pen…

Cousin Amalia (my niece, brother Tad’s daughter) sang her Torah portion and Haftarah brilliantly on Saturday at Temple Beth El in La Jolla (where I was bar mitzvah, too). And she gave a wonderful speech about commitment and faith.

It was really lovely to see her on the bimah with her parents (her mom Diane also sang a Torah portion!).

A lot of people asked me about the wines that we selected for the party that evening.

The white was the Bianco Latimis Isonzo del Friuli by Ronco del Gelso (in the Italian region of Friuli, for those who are not familiar with Italian geography, in northeastern Italy). It’s a blend of Friulano, Pinot Blanc, and Riesling Italico grapes. It showed beautifully on Saturday evening. Great freshness, nice fruit and acidity, and great value.

The red was Carema by Produttori di Carema cooperative. It’s made from 100 percent Nebbiolo grown in Italy’s western Alps in the region of Piedmont. Even though it has nice tannic structure, it was lithe in the glass on Saturday and again, its freshness and acidity made it pair wonderfully with the Neapolitan-style pizzas that were churned out of an onsite mobile pizza oven.

Great party and I’m so glad people enjoyed the wines.

Whenever I attend a Jewish event, I am invariably and inevitably asked what I think of Manischewitz “wines.” Most are disappointed when I tell them that it’s not exactly the most wholesome “grape product” that you can put into your body.

In southern California, where healthy eating and living are practically imperative, it’s easy to find organic produce, cage-free chicken, heirloom beef, and “housemade” ketchup.

But the nostalgia of Manischewitz is so powerful that it was served on Saturday for Kiddush after services only to be followed by organically farmed microlettuces later that evening.

I wrote about Manischewitz a few years ago here for the Houston Press (for those curious, you might be surprised by what goes into Manischewitz).

All in all, this has been wonderful trip and visit for me and the girls.

They’ve loved grandma’s house with its many treasures.

They’ve loved getting to know their cousins Amalia, Abner, Oscar, and Eli.

Everyone has been so welcoming and sweet and the girls have had a blast.

That’s Tracie P and Lila Jane, below, watching the sunset yesterday evening from grandma Judy’s apartment at Seal Rock (La Jolla Cove).

Sadly, our short family vacation comes to an end tomorrow. I’ll see you on Wednesday…

best place to watch sunset la jolla

La Jolla won’t annoy ya… California, here we come!

la jolla california blacks beachThat’s Black’s Beach in the photo, above, one of California’s most famous nudist beaches — at least when I was growing up in La Jolla in the 1970 and 80s.

It’s also a great surf spot and when I was a kid, they used to take generators and beer kegs down there and put on some pretty rowdy rock shows (for real).

When you hang out at the Torrey Pines Glider Port above, you can often see the silhouettes of manta rays and dolphins swimming in the clear waters below.

In the distance, you can see one high-rise on the point. That’s the La Jolla Cove and the building is “939” on Coast Blvd., where my grandparents once lived and where my mother still lives to this day.

We’re heading there tomorrow for a long weekend with my family: our niece Amalia will be bat mitzvah on Saturday and we’ll be there for the services and party.

It’s a big occasion for our family for another reason. Most of our California family has never met Lila Jane, who just turned two. So it will be wonderful for them to get to know the Texas side of our family a little better.

As much as I love being a Texan, being married to a gorgeous and generously loving Texan, and raising our beautiful little Texans, Californian is still who and what I am.

I’m lucky that I get to spend so much time there and thrilled to be taking the girls there at this time of year.

As Mel Tormé says in his wonderful operetta “California Suite,” La Jolla won’t annoy ya… (here’s the link to moment when the song “La Jolla” appears and the entire work — give it a listen! — is embedded below).

Tomorrow night we’ll all fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing on the Children’s Pool. And Friday morning we’ll take the girls to see the seals who sunbath on the sand there (Lila Jane, in particular, is really excited about that!).

Thanks for being here. I’ll see you next week.

In the meantime, SURF’S UP!

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!

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.).