La Jolla, California: our summer 2017 vacation and my 50th birthday celebration

It’s 8 a.m. Monday morning, July 24, and I am back in the saddle and back at my desk after nearly three weeks on the road between teaching in Italy and vacationing with my family in La Jolla, California, where I grew up. Here are some scenes from our vacation (images and notes from my last Italian sojourn forthcoming).

There were so many highlights from our summer vacation this year. But I’ll never forget that magical moment of finally being strapped in aboard a plane bound for California. The folks at Southwest were super nice and everyone was super cool about our car seats on the plane (I can’t say that every airline is like that!).

Here’s the view that awaited us on the other side. That’s the La Jolla Children’s Pool (beach), where I used to swim as a kid.

The Children’s pool has been taken over by the seals in recent years. So I took the girls nearly every morning to search for shells at the nearby La Jolla Cove, where the seals also hang out but still leave enough room for humans.

On Friday, July 14, we celebrated my 50th birthday (!!!) with an all-star hometown show at La Jolla’s sole rock club, Beaumont’s.
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Houston, we have a Lambrusco tasting: on Tues. July 25, I’ll be leading a seminar @ Vinology

For years now, there has been talk of a Lambrusco renaissance in the U.S. And while there have been many valiant attempts to hip Americans to what Lambrusco really is and why it is so great, it’s only in recent years that a confluence of factors — ranging from a new and growing wave of independent importers and distributors in the U.S. to Americans’ expanding and incessant thirst to (re)discover Italian viticulture — has made Lambrusco’s risorgimento possible.

I’m proud to say that I’ve made my own modest contribution to the Lambrusco revival: our wine list at the newly opened Rossoblu in Los Angeles (one of my clients) already has one of the largest (if not the largest) selection of Lambrusco in the country, including a robust rotating and evolving by-the-glass program.

In the light of the new age of Lambrusco, I asked my good friend Thomas Moësse if I could host a Lambrusco tasting and seminar at the excellent Vinology wine bar and shop in Houston where he authors the wine list. It’s one of my favorite wine retailers and wine programs in the city.

“Lambrusco, Karl Marx, and a Proletarian Wine for a Capitalist Age”
Seminar and Tasting with Jeremy Parzen
Tuesday, July 25, 6:30 p.m.
Vinology (Houston)

PLEASE REGISTER BY SENDING ME AN EMAIL HERE.

You have to RSVP by emailing me. The venue won’t be taking reservations. There are a limited number of seats so please contact me soonest to ensure availability.

Vinology
2314 Bissonnet St.
@ Greenbriar Dr.
West University
Houston TX 77005
(832) 849-1687
Google map

Domenico Clerico, pioneer of modern Barolo and later defender of tradition, dies at 67

Today Barolo mourns the loss of one of its greatest grape growers and winemakers, Domenico Clerico, 67, who died yesterday in his home in Monforte d’Alba. According to reports published in mainstream Italian media, the cause was cancer.

Clerico was among the pioneers who reshaped the Barolo landscape when, in the 1980s, he began aging his wines in barriques — new wood, small French oak casks as opposed to the traditional large-format botti made with Slavonian oak.

Not only did his wines appeal to a newly emerged generation of monied American wine enthusiasts, but they also set a new standard for high-quality collectible wines from Italy. At the peak of his “modernist” period in the 1990s, his widely coveted labels fetched previously unprecedented sums for Italian wines at New York’s top Italian restaurants and retailers.

Although most American collectors will remember him as a visionary of the new wave of Barolo producers, he was also one of the first grape growers there to embrace organic growing practices. Even at the height of his popularity among top America wine buyers and critics, he always pointed to his obsessive approach to grape farming — not his winemaking style — as the secret behind his wines’ extraordinary aromatic character and nuanced flavors.

Many among the current generation of Piedmont winemakers and vignerons looked to him as role model and inspiration for their own work in the vineyard.

“A master and a great man,” posted Barbera d’Asti winemaker Gianluca Morino on his Facebook yesterday (translation mine).

“Thank you for everything, Domenico. We grew up with your Arte,” wrote Morino, referring to Clerico’s groundbreaking blend of barrique-aged Nebbiolo and Barbera “Arte” (art), first released in the 1980s and considered to be one of the first “Super-Piedmont” wines.

No matter where he will be remembered in the modernist vs. traditionalist spectrum, there is no doubt that Clerico produced some of the world’s greatest and most memorable wines over the last three decades.

In a quote reposted on Clerico’s American importer’s web site, leading Italian wine critic and authority Antonio Galloni wrote that “few producers’ wines have given me as much pleasure over the years as those of Domenico Clerico.”

My wife Tracie P and I had the great fortune to dine with Domenico last July in Piedmont. Over the course of our meal, he spoke openly about his decision to abandon small-cask aging and to return to the traditional botti instead. As we tasted some of his top single-vineyard designated wines from the 2000s, he insisted however that their greatness — and man, they were great! — was owed to the quality of the fruit rather than the modernist approach of the winemaker.

A man known for his colorful character and trailblazing work in setting new benchmarks for Italian wine, it was clear to both me and Tracie that it was substance, not style, that had defined the career and life of one of the world’s greatest winemakers.

Sit tibi terra levis Dominice.

Rock with me this Friday, July 14 in San Diego: my 50th birthday concert in La Jolla

After nearly 50 years on this planet, I’m allowed to take a little vacation, right?

Tomorrow Tracie P and I will be taking our girls to La Jolla, California where I grew up and where I will be performing a set of music with one of my old and beloved bands, The Grapes, on Friday night.

We’ll be playing mostly classic country-Americana songs as we celebrate my 50th birthday. And there are a bunch of great bands playing that night as well, including a lot of guys I grew up with and a lot of friends who are coming down to sit in. It should be quite the show.

Beaumont’s is a pretty rowdy club so come prepared to dance (and drink) your ass off.

The Grapes are Jeremy “the Jar” Parzen, John Yelenosky, and Jon Erickson. T-Bone and other special guests will be sitting in on drums this time around.

The Grapes
Friday, July 14
(my 50th birthday bash)
Doors open at 8 p.m.

Beaumont’s
5662 La Jolla Blvd.
La Jolla CA 92037
Google map

And if you happen to be in San Diego on Saturday, July 15, we’ll be pouring some Nebbiolo from my cellar that night at Jaynes Gastropub. All the spots at the community table are already spoken for but if you stop by, I’ll fill your glass with some groovy Barbaresco (no joke… but be sure to reserve a table).

Tracie P will be there, too, on both Friday and Saturday nights. I’m taking the next few weeks off from the blog to enjoy my time off. See you in late July! Thanks for being here and have a great summer.

Arcari + Danesi 2011 Franciacorta Extra Brut 100 percent Pinot Noir disgorged May 2015

Just had to share a tasting note for this wine by my bromance Giovanni Arcari and his partner, another one of my best friends in Italy, Nico Danesi.

Giovanni and I were still a little blurry on Sunday after an epic day partying lakeside near Salò on Lake Garda the day before. But a late-morning start didn’t stop us from a quick visit to Giovanni and Nico’s cellar in Coccaglio (on the southern border of the Franciacorta appellation, below).

Giovanni generously hooked me up with a bottle of their 2011 Franciacorta Extra Brut for me to take to dinner on my last night in Italy. I was heading to Milan to meet one of my best friends from my University of Padua days, Stefano Spigariol, who’s also celebrating a milestone birthday this weekend. Our mutual friend Gavino Falchi, a Milan based architect and designer, was in charge of the menu.

The wine was made from 100 percent Pinot Noir grapes and was disgorged in May 2015.

Gavino was worried that the wine wouldn’t have the weight to stand up to the richly flavored Guinea hen that he had braised with porcini essence, olives, and nutmeg (note the vintage Richard Ginori plate he brought to serve this superb dish, below).

But, man, the chewy ripe red fruit character of the wine sang with the earthiness and fattiness of the fowl. We were all blown away by how the delicate fruit notes on the nose were transformed into such robust flavor in the mouth. And all the while, the wine’s freshness hadn’t been diminished a bit by the more than 24 months that had passed since being disgorged.

Giovanni and Nico have shared so many memorable bottles of their wine with me and my friends. But this was one of the most remarkable in terms of its glowing, brilliant fruit character. What a wine!

I’m so proud to count Giovanni and Nico among my closest friends: I’ve been giving them a hand this year marketing their wines in the U.S. and they should be coming to Texas by the fall.

I’m also blessed to have found such a great friend in Stefano so many years ago (nearly 30!). He and I share so many interests in literature, music, and critical theory. And our discussions with Gavino are always lively and thought-provoking as we enjoy Gavino’s superb homey cooking.

All in all, between teaching all week at the university in Bra, a dreamy day of eating and drinking by the lake with my Franciacorta crew, and an excellent confabulatio spent with my Milanese comrades over Giovanni and Nico’s wine, it was a pretty swell trip.

And dulcis in fundo, Tracie P and the girls are coming to pick me up this afternoon at Bush airport back in Houston.

Thanks for being here and see you on the other side…

Partying with Tony on Lake Garda, catering by the AMAZING Gianni Briarava

I rarely indulge in what Tracie P and I call “day drinking.”

But yesterday, after my first morning dip into the chiare, fresche, e dolci acque (clear, fresh, and sweet waters) of Lake Garda, I couldn’t refuse the gin & tonic offered me by my lovely host Tony (see below) whom I’ve known almost as long as I’ve loved my Brescian bromance, Giovanni. It all went downhill from there.

A lot of Facebook folks have been asking me where I was partying on the lake yesterday: we were at Tony’s private rental house just outside the village of Salò, not far from the Palazzo Martinengo, where Mussolini’s secretary once ran the Italian Socialist Republic — the Fascist state established after the Armistice of Cassibile in 1943.

The catering was by the amazing Gianni Briarava, our friend and a Lake Garda legacy chef, winner of Michelin stars but now at the helm of the more toned-down Locanda del Benaco, a lakeside hotel and restaurant. I highly recommend it (it has a jaw-dropping 4.9-star rating on Google, btw; I can’t seem to find a website for the venue but that’s a good sign if you ask me).

Gianni is so rad: that’s his burrata with salt-cured anchovies and summer tomato. Let me tell you, folks, that was a game-changer dish on my palate.

Those are his battuto di fassona (Fassone [or Fassona] beef tartare) “meatballs.” Ridiculous, right?

Brittany oysters paired brilliantly with Pasini Lugana metodo classico (“Trebbiano with a small amount of Chardonnay,” said the consulting enologist, who happened to be on hand).

Locally harvested strawberries for dessert, among many other delights (I only wish I would have taken more photos, Gianni, but the party was too good!).

Tony, my friend, thanks for letting me tag along for your excellent birthday party. I can’t think of better way to get my own birthday week kicked off right. That gin & tonic was the best I ever had and I’m now heading home with the perfect tan…

See you on the other side…

The best school cafeteria? You’ll find it at Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences @UniSG

As much I as cherish my memories from my university days in California and Italy, I realize now that the cafeteria food really sucked back then.

The grub at the University of Padua was, hands down, a lot better than U.C.L.A.’s. And getting the small plastic cup of wine that was served with your meal on Via San Francesco — red or white, optional — was pretty nifty. But it was still a far cry from the daily bread offered up in the chow line at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont where I’m teaching this week.

Those are some of “Digital Age Food Writing” students yesterday, above. And the tray below was my own.

That’s tartrà on the right, a savory pudding made with eggs, onions, and herbs, a classic dish of Piedmontese country cooking.

And I know that my wife Tracie P will be glad to see that I got my daily allotment of freshly picked leafy greens! (Well, she already knows because we are constantly messaging each other throughout our days on either continent, but just the same a picture is worth a thousand words…)

Our one Russian classmate and I bonded over the beet soup that was also on the menu yesterday.

She remarked that it reminded her of the borscht that she ate as a kid. She was surprised to learn that it was one of my childhood standbys as well, a staple of Russian-Jewish immigrants like my grandparents (oops, did I just say immigrants?).

We are halfway through our culinary writing class and this afternoon, following our morning session on food blogging and social media trends, I’ll lead my first seminar on “Wine in Boccaccio’s Decameron.”

Pane per i miei denti, as they say in Italian! Something [bread] I can really sink my teeth into!

Every day this week, I’m doing back-to-back three-hour seminars with a one-hour break in between. It’s only Wednesday and I’m already fried but nothing could be more exhilarating for me than to find myself back on campus, the habitat where I feel most at home and fulfilled.

And as if I didn’t have a teaching load heavy enough, I’ll be playing a set of music tomorrow night at L’Alfieri on the edge of downtown Bra, a township that lives and breathes the Slow Food ethos. The restaurant/bar is run by a Belgian alumnus of the university who serves a international menu, including great Indian food, together with craft beers and natty wines. Come and join us if you happen to be in this neck of the woods!

A new Italian wine online resource, Alice Feiring’s dirty little secret, and Italy’s first blind sommelier

That’s Italian wine legend Giorgio Grai (above, right) with leading Italian wine retailer and former winemaker Francesco Bonfio, co-founder of the newly launched Association of Italian Wine Shop Professionals, known as AEPI (Associazione Enotecari Professionisti Italiani). They convened last month for the group’s first seminar for its members in the Colli Euganei (they are posing in front of Italian humanist Francis Petrarch’s house in Arquà Petrarca, in the heart of the appellation, where the poet spent his final years).

I wanted to bring their new site to your attention because it also includes a blog that Francesco and his colleagues intend to populate with Italian wine news and stories. For example, they just published a video interview with Gianni Bortolotti, farmer, gourmet, and food and wine connoisseur who was widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on enogastronomy in the Valle d’Aosta. The interview was published on the seventh anniversary of his passing.

They also recently posted a video interview with Mr. Grai (filmed on the occasion of his seminar for the group), one of Italy’s most renowned winemakers and blenders and one of the wine world’s most fascinating and colorful characters.

I’m looking forward to following their feed and I imagine you will find it as useful and interesting as I do.

(Full disclosure: Francesco is one of my best friends in Italy and I am a huge fan of both him and Mr. Grai. Image courtesy of AEPI.)

The other new wine (and Italian wine) resource I’m really excited about is Alice Feiring’s newly released book The Dirty Guide to Wine: Following Flavor from Ground to Glass (Countryman Press 2017).

Diversity in soil type and how it impacts the aroma and flavor profile of wines from around the world is arguably the most controversial and often the most exciting component of wine education and connoisseurship today. And this new entry by Alice, written with Master Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, is (to my knowledge) the first stand-alone work on the topic, digging deep(er) perhaps than any wine writer’s efforts before her.

I’ve only had a chance to leaf sift through the review copy sent to me by the publisher but it’s what I’ll be reading tonight on my flight to Europe on my way to lecture at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont next week. I can’t imagine I won’t be including it in my syllabus for the wine writing seminars I’ll be leading there later this year. And I’ll report back with my notes once I till my way through…

(Full disclosure: Alice is one of my dearest and most cherished friends, she’s the owner of New York City’s most famous toilet and bathtub, and she makes the best salad in Manhattan.)

And lastly, from the department of “all the news that’s fit to blog about,” I was catching up on my Feedly this week when I read that the Association of Italian Sommeliers (AIS) recently certified its first blind member, Antonio Tramacere, age 49, a resident of Lecce province in Puglia (that’s the Santa Croce Basilica in the historic center of Lecce above).

“Today, I’m a sommelier, finally,” said Tramacere in a press release issued by the association, “even though I was not able to complete the visual test [required] in the exam.”

“As Giacomo Tachis used to say, ‘our sense of smell is how the soul and our emotions see.’ This phrase is my North Star.”

(Image via CanteleUSA.com, a blog I run for my client Cantele.)

Wine in Boccaccio’s Decameron: one of the lecture series I’m delivering next week at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont

From the department of “those who drink and don’t drink again don’t know what drinking is”…

Above: “Bacchanal of the Andrians” by Titian (1490-1576) in the Prado Museum (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons). See this label entry on the Museo del Prado website. Click the image for higher resolution version.

“I strive to make the world a better place to eat in.”

That’s the closing line of one of the bios of one of my students at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo (Piedmont), where I will be delivering two lecture series next week for the Master’s programs.

The university was founded in 2004, the organic outgrowth of the historic Slow Food Movement.

I can still remember like it was yesterday: during my first year at university in Italy (Padua) in 1987, I made my first trip to Rome where I saw the mega-sized McDonald’s at the foot of the Spanish Steps (Trinità dei Monti), opened the previous year. To a 19-year-old wide-eyed kid in Italy for the first time, it seemed as incongruous as obscene, a non sequitur in its surroundings and an oxymoron in its cultural setting.

According to legend, the Slow Food movement was inspired, informed, and shaped by a desire to counter the fast-foodization of Italy. And the opening of the McDonald’s in Rome’s historic center became its battle cry. Today, some 30 years later, the Slow Food ethos continues to drive more than one generation’s desire to achieve culinary self-awareness and gastronomic sustainability. Strive to make the world a better place to eat in: it could very well be the Slow Food university’s motto.

The seminar I’m the most excited about is my “Wine in Boccaccio” series of talks.

Wine plays a more important role in the Decameron than you might imagine. And in many ways, Boccaccio’s work represents a bridge that leads to the “new” wine culture of the Renaissance.

Of the “three crowns” of Italian literature in the Middle Ages, most point to (my beloved) Petrarch as the “first humanist.” Some even call his predecessor Dante a “proto-humanist.” But both Petrarch and Dante are wary of wine and reluctant to even discuss it.

It’s in Boccaccio’s work that enogastronomy is distilled (or rather fermented) into a new science, a new knowledge, and a new self-awareness absent in Dante and Petrarch. And wine in the Decameron sets the stage for a new and heightened interest in wine in the coming renewal of learning — the Renaissance. In many ways, Titian’s painting above would not have been possible without the Decameron and a new conception of what wine is and what role it plays in the human experience and condition.

Isn’t that painting above incredible? It depicts a Bacchanal on the island of Andros, where a river of wine flowed (click this link to read Philostratus’ description of the island [the link only works once in preview mode before you have to subscribe fyi]).

The lyrics of the music in the foreground are: qui boyt et ne reboyt il ne seet que boyre soit (those who drink and don’t drink again don’t know what drinking is).

The score and the painting were both composed at the height of the Renaissance at the court of Ferrara. The painter, composer, and courtiers were all intimately familiar with Boccaccio, whose works had been propelled to greater fame and fortune thanks to the advent of the printing press.

Next week, we will read and we will read again… and we might just taste some wine as well. I can’t wait…

Natural done right: Clos Saron rosé from Sierra Nevada Foothills, lip-smackingly delicious

With increasing audacity, more and more independent California winemakers are finding their way to the once enologically challenged state of Texas, where market demand for wholesome wines is increasingly fueled by unfettered access to information on the internets. Myriad wine buyers in my adoptive state have told me that they read about a given wine on a blog authored beyond our borders or they saw the wine in an email offering or post by a metropolitan wine monger on a coast other than the Gulf. And then they just have to have it.

I first read about the excellent wines of Clos Saron and winemaker Gideon Bienstock on my friend Alice Feiring’s blog (maybe you’ve heard of her, America’s leading advocate for natural wine?). And I was overjoyed to find that a few bottles recently landed on the shelves of my favorite Houston wine retailer.

There’s been so much talk in recent years about the pitfalls of “natural” wine, in other words, wine farmed without the use of chemicals; fermented solely with naturally occurring “ambient” yeast; and stabilized with as little winemaker intervention and sulfur as possible. The natural wine detractors are often right to point out that “natural” and even “organic” are labels sometimes (mis)used to market wines with defective character. They point out that the wines can be “mousy” or “cidery” and that they often show volatile acidity, that vinegar or nail polish smell that usually blows off when the wines are otherwise good. The natural wine label shouldn’t be an excuse for faulty winemaking, they assert.

Now is not the time, place, or space to enter into the labyrinth of semiosis that often accompanies these discussions. But the bottomline is that it’s never counterproductive to maintain a genuinely critical approach to tasting any wine. And as much as I may admire the winemaker for their devotion to her/his laudable mission of making wines without chemicals or additives, I don’t refrain from expressing my opinion as the quality of natural wine — or any wine, for that matter. I don’t like natural wines simply because they are labeled as such. And similarly, I don’t shun wines that don’t claim to be natural (the real issue, in my mind, isn’t whether or not wines are natural or not but rather whether or not we penalize wines that don’t claim to be natural).

I don’t know that winemaker Gideon claims his wines are natural, although I believe the trade generally considers him one of the leading natural winemakers in the U.S. today. I do know, now that I’ve tasted one of his wines for the first time, that his rosé (above) is one of the best wines I’ve tasted this year. It’s made mostly from Syrah with a balance of field blend of red and some white grapes grown in Lodi, he writes on his website.

This wine had the verve and electricity that you often find in the best natural wines. And its fresh ripe red fruit aromas only became more succulent and delicious in the mouth, with just enough savory character to give that yin-yang balance. Man, it didn’t take long for the Parzen-Levy mishpucha to drink it down last Friday evening: the best indication of how lip-smackingly good it was.

What a great wine and what a great night with our families… Natural wine done right and a family jamboree to boot!