Killer trees and a long road to recovery in California wine country (Slow Wine California Guide now online)

Beyond the myriad hand-painted posters thanking first responders for their efforts during the October wildfires, there weren’t a lot of signs that Sonoma wine country had been devastated by a natural disaster when I visited last month.

But when winemaker Sam Coturri invited me to jump into one of his company’s off-road trucks and we headed “up the mountain,” it didn’t take long for us to come upon blackened areas and “killer trees,” like the one above.

State recovery crews, he told me, remove some of the most dangerous burned-out trees. But many property owners are left to clear out the precarious “snags” as they are known in wildfire terminology. The government team marks them for you. But you have to remove them yourself.

Burned out trees and acre upon acre marred by damaged fences and cattle guards were just some of the issues that Sam was dealing with the day we visited in early December.

“Fuel… all I see is fuel, all around us,” he kept saying as we toured his family’s property and the farm where he grew up. He pointed to the dry brush that could instantaneously turn into kindling. The Coturris nearly lost their estate and beloved home in the October fires.

Word of the southern California wildfires had just begun to hit social media as he and I met up that morning. And it was abundantly clear that he, his colleagues, and his family were freaked out by the news they were receiving via text and private messages.

“Up here they call the Santa Ana winds the Diablo Winds,” he explained, referring to the notoriously hot dry air that arrives from the east this time of year.

The weather conditions that day were eerily similar to the day the Tubbs Fire first broke out.

At a certain point, Sam’s wife called him while we were in the car together. You could hear the fear in her trembling voice as Sam helped to soothe her nerves with loving words.

It’s going to be a long road to recovery for the California wine trade — financially and emotionally. As Sam pointed out that day, winemakers won’t know whether or not their 2017 vintage will be affected by smoke taint for many months to come. They have to let the wine age before they can properly test it.

There are also many other challenges they are facing, including a drop in tourist dollars and a housing shortage, just to name a few.

I’ll be catching up with Sam for updates to post here in coming weeks.

In the meantime, please check out the Slow Wine Guide blog where we have begun to post producer profiles nearly every day (many of the profiles online have been written by Elaine Brown, David Lynch, or myself). Some of the featured wineries will be joining us for the Slow Wine U.S. Tour in late February and early March.

There’s no better way to help in their recovery than by buying and drinking California wine.

No, we won’t get the f— out of here! Scenes from MLK march and Confederate monument protest

Yesterday at 3:00 p.m. sharp, I stood at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and U.S. Interstate 10 with two black women in Orange, Texas. We were the first to gather at a protest of the recently erected Confederate monument there. We were the only ones who had arrived at that point.

A pick-up truck with two men in it pulled up to the light and rolled down the passenger’s window. The driver, a large white man with light facial hair and a baseball cap, motioned for me to approach the truck. He then asked me what we were doing there.

“We are protesting the Confederate monument,” I replied. “We feel it is offensive to the community. We would like for the site to be re-purposed.”

“Get the f— out of here,” he yelled at me menacingly. “Get the f— out of here,” he shouted again, raising his voice even louder with an extremely aggressive tone.

He rolled up the window as he stomped on the gas and sped away.

“You could count the number of negative responses to our protest on one hand,” said one of the event’s organizers, Louis Ackerman, president and co-founder of Southeast Texas Progressives.

It’s true: during the two hours we were there yesterday, the overwhelming number of people who drove by gave us the thumbs-up or waved in solidarity.

But that man’s reaction and face continue to sear in my mind.

That’s my wife Tracie in the photo directly above. Reverend Franklin Gans, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, is standing next to her. She went to high school in Orange with his daughter. He and Tracie’s father, Reverend Randy Branch, worked together for years at the Dupont oil refinery there.

Earlier in the day, our family had joined the NAACP for its annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march. Randy and Jane, my mother-in-law, joined us, as did aunt Ida and uncle Tim. And of course, our daughters Georgia and Lila Jane marched with us as well (we didn’t take them to the protest that afternoon, for obvious reasons).

The local ABC affiliate did a story on our protest. Please check it out here. Linda, who is featured in the segment, was one of the women standing with me on the corner when the man in the truck rolled down his window.

Our numbers are growing and we are not going to stop until we get that site re-purposed. Stay tuned for details and please message me if you want to help or join us in our campaign. Our next protest will take place in a few weeks.

And please read this excellent column published yesterday by Evangelical Christian and conservative essayist Michael Gerson, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush and a longtime Republican.

“Racism is not a single issue among many to be weighed equally with tax or trade policy,” he wrote on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. “Trump is at war with the central ideal of the Republic — a vision of strength through inclusion and equality that makes our country special and exceptional. The president is wrong — repeatedly and offensively wrong — on the centerpiece question of our history: Are there gradations in the image of God? The only acceptable, only American answer is ‘no.'”

The only American answer is “no, we won’t get the f— out.”

Thanks for reading and thanks for your support and solidarity. Stay tuned.

“We must see racism for what it is.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over…”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

As Tracie and I were readying our signs for the NAACP Martin Luther King, Jr. Day March today in Orange, Texas where she grew up, I re-read the civil rights leader’s landmark speech “The Other America.”

The title alone, pregnant with meaning both historical and topical, was enough to make me leap from my chair.

And the following passage resonated like a kettledrum in America’s current cacophony of political discourse:

    There must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is. It is the nymph of an inferior people. It is the notion that one group has all of the knowledge, all of the insights, all of the purity, all of the work, all of the dignity. And another group is worthless, on a lower level of humanity, inferior. To put it in philosophical language, racism is not based on some empirical generalization which, after some studies, would come to conclusion that these people are behind because of environmental conditions. Racism is based on an ontological affirmation. It is the notion that the very being of a people is inferior.

50 years have passed since King was murdered at age 39. And today we will march to honor him and his legacy.

I highly recommend this New York Times article, published yesterday, on black Americans’ “frustration and disappointment about the direction of the country.”

I also encourage you to visit and browse the Stanford University Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute website. If you can’t march in solidarity today, please take time out to read one of his speeches.

Happy Martin Luther King Day! May G-d bless America, may G-d bless us all.

Image via the National Park Service Flickr (Creative Commons).

MLK MARCH and Confederate monument PROTEST Monday in Orange, Texas: please join us!

Please join Tracie and me on Monday, January 15 for the NAACP Martin Luther King, Jr. Day March in Orange, Texas.

We will be meeting at Solomon Johnson Park at the corner of 2nd St. and Turrett Ave. at 12:30 p.m. for line-up. March will begin at 1:00 p.m.

Following the March, Tracie and I will be organizing a protest at the Confederate memorial at the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. and Interstate-10 (northwest corner). We are tentatively planning to meet at 3 p.m. and will stay there until sunset.

Here’s my email address if you need more info and/or want to coordinate a ride to Orange for the march and protest.

Yesterday evening the president of Southeast Texas Progressives Louis Ackerman and I met with the local chapter of the NAACP in Orange. Among the action items on our agenda, we discussed our family’s ongoing efforts to repurpose the Confederate memorial being built in Orange by the Sons of Confederate Veterans Texas Division. I’m happy to report that its board gave us its blessing in continuing our fight.

I’ve been researching the origins of the monument and I’ve discovered that the story behind the site is much more complicated than meets the eye. I’ll be writing about the memorial in coming weeks as more pieces in the puzzle come into focus. Please stay tuned: I’m confident that many readers will be surprised by what I’ve found.

The bottom line: despite what many have written and what many believe, ORANGE RESIDENTS DO NOT WANT THIS MONUMENT AND THEY WANT IT REPURPOSED. That’s all I can reveal at the moment…


Top image via Wikipedia Creative Commons. Lower image courtesy of the NAACP Orange Branch 6211.

Bruno De Conciliis: “Wine and may the dance begin,” a poem (translation mine)

Wine is a game, a serious game, a joyful game,
a heroic game, an erotic game, wine is skittish, it’s
joyful, it’s sad, it’s solitary, it’s a sea, it’s a road,
it’s a destination, it’s silence, it’s entropy.


White wine is green, yellow, gold, sometimes orange,
red is ruby, purple, violet, sometimes black.

Wine is instinct, science, pure creativity, painting, music,
Johann Sebastian Bach and Mozart, John
Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix; how is it possible
to drink a baroque wine listening to Purple Haze?

Wine, an intense pleasure, a happy thought, sometimes
requires, sometimes suggests, an undisputed star
or distant tapestry that takes a backseat to conversation
or food, the little pleasures to share with a
friend or a lustful torrent that enchants the viewer,
wine is a friend to humankind and it can be its
worst enemy, wine is happiness, simple sharing or opulence,
comfort in solitude, glue of friendship, wine’s solitary
pleasure creates deep friendships or becomes the
energy of a clique born from happenstance.

Wine is study, knowledge, an immovable journey,
curiosity and sloth, overwhelming passion,
a cruel struggle, a sincere friend who knows the way
you need to go or invents one where there is none.

Memories that lead us to tenderness or move us to laugh,
to smile, to enjoy, enemy of regret and blame, maternal bosom
where you can nurse until becoming aware.

Wine is born from deep within the land, from people
who are bound to it by an umbilical cord
that hasn’t been voluntarily severed, from the uniqueness
of that land, from the specific variety,
from the culture and knowledge of those people, that people.

Wine is the experience of that land, that culture,
the history of a village.

Wine and may the dance begin.

Bruno De Conciliis
(translated from the Italian by Jeremy Parzen)

Bruno (below) and I will be leading a tasting of his wines at Sotto in Los Angeles on Thursday, January 25. Please join us. He’s one of the most fascinating grape growers and winemakers I’ve ever had the chance to taste with. And his wines are among the most compelling I’ve ever drawn to my lips. Stay tuned for details.

Protesting racist iconography in Southeast Texas: a recent effort and upcoming MLK march in Orange (TX)

Image courtesy of Southeast Texas Progressives.

On Wednesday of last week, my wife Tracie and I stood for two hours on the corner of Interstate 10 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. in Orange, Texas in protest of the Confederate memorial being built there by the Sons of Confederate Veterans Texas Division.

We organized the gathering together with Southeast Texas Progressives, an advocacy and activist group created by its founders so that they and we could have “a place to express our shared ideals and political views without fear of being insulted or mocked.”

Here’s the Facebook group. Feel free to join and/or PM and I’ll invite you to join.

Here’s the Facebook page. Please like us and share in solidarity.

Our four-person protest was covered by both the Beaumont Enterprise and the Orange Leader. (Beaumont, Orange, and Port Arthur form what is known as the Golden Triangle in Southeast Texas.)

To get an incomplete picture of how our activism was received online, I encourage you to read the comment thread on the Enterprise site.
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Jean-Luc Le Du Memorial: Thursday, January 4 @ City Winery (NYC)

The following info comes via the sommelier brain collective email list. The image comes via Yannick Benjamin’s Facebook.

I only had the opportunity to interact with wine industry legend Jean-Luc Le Du on a couple of occasions. He was the nicest guy and always seemed to have time to talk wine with anyone around him. I’ll never forget tasting Château Mouton Rothschild 1945 with him. It was one of the highlights of my decade in New York — the wine and the notes he shared.

Please check out this Wine Spectator profile and remembrance “Standing Up Next to a Mountain” by Bruce Sanderson to get a sense of Jean-Luc’s role in the New York and U.S. wine scene.

Iohannes Luca sit tibi terra levis.


Dear friends,

Jean-Luc Le Du was a rockstar in our lives. He lived with kindness, humility, and generosity, and it infected everyone he met. In commemoration of his death, there will be a memorial this Thursday, January 4th, from 4-6:30pm, at City Winery to celebrate his life . There will be much reminiscing, a live band, and of course, toasts in his honor.

We encourage you all to bring a bottle of wine to share with your friends. Below is a flyer with additional information regarding the event and please feel free to share with your friends and social media. We hope to see you there.

Date: Thursday, January 4th
Time: 4:00pm-6:30pm
Where: City Winery, 155 Varick St.

Yannick Benjamin
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Parzen Family Christmas Letter 2017

One of the most remarkable things about 2017 was that it snowed in Houston this year! That hadn’t happened since 2009. We were living in Austin then, we weren’t yet married, and neither of our girls had been born.

I happened to be in Los Angeles that day but when I spoke to Georgia (in the photo above) the wonder in her voice belonged to a girl whose wish had come true: to see the snow, a desire she’s been talking about for a few years now (especially after we watched the movie “Frozen”).

Georgia turned 6 a few days after the snow fell. She’s been enjoying her first year of kindergarten at a music magnet school and she loves her violin teacher (we love her, too). But her great obsession in 2017 has been the musical “Hamilton.”

She’s always been a big fan of musical theater (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?). But there’s something special about her determination to learn every line in the show, to master every nuance of delivery, and to perfect the cadence and intonation of her performance. As the year comes to a close, it seems that she’s memorized nearly the entire score.

Lila Jane turned 4 this summer and her favorite form of artistic expression is dance. That’s her (center) at her mid-season dance recital earlier this month.

She’ll spend hours upon hours in our living room performing her personally choreographed ballets. But she’s equally devoted to her painting and to doing puzzles (something she has an impressive knack for). She’s also begun to develop her motor skills. She and Georgia got their first bicycles this season and I can’t image it’s going to be long before her training wheels come off.
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10 biggest stories to watch in Italian wine in 2018 (#1 might surprise you)

When I first moved to Texas nine years ago, it was common to see Italy grouped with “other” in wine shops (the Foucauldian implications were evident, at least to me). Today, it’s rare that Italy doesn’t have its own, distinct space on the retail floor.

10. The expanding Balkanization of importing and distributing.

Over the last two years, more and more blue chip and marquee-name Italian wineries have abandoned national distribution opting instead for a state-by-state strategy. None of the biggest players in Italian wine imports wield the power they did 10 years ago when the field of wines and importers was much smaller. California, with its extremely liberal importing and distributing regulation, sets the bar for this trend. It simply doesn’t make sense anymore to rely on the three-tier system with its inherent markups and bureaucratic obstacles.

9. The growth of self-importing.

More and more Italian wineries are investing in their own importing and distribution channels. In Texas, for example, a major northern Italian estate (with little history or market presence in the state) set-up its own importing and distributing company this year and from what the owner has told me, the company is looking to expand its reach to California and other states as well. High-profile Italian estates have also invested in existing companies in recent years. This trend will only continue to flourish.

8. Robust tribalization among big distributors.

As the big distributors have watched their empire dwindle as more and more small importer-distributors pop up across the U.S., they have doubled down on their efforts to muscle their smaller competitors through aggressive marketing and sometimes unfair market practices. Increasingly, I’ve seen wine buyers wooed with gifts and liberal expense accounts. It’s reminiscent of the “good old days” (as some would call them) when reps entered accounts with wads of cash to distribute. And it’s as scary as hell.

7. The importer vanity label.

Among their efforts to curb small-business mid-sized importers and distributors, the fat cats have increasingly turned to vanity labels — created out of nothing but ink, paper, glue, glass, and wine. They obtain large quantities of wine from commercial producers, concoct a back story and marketing campaign, and then sell the wines at a high markup. It’s a brilliant business model, no doubt. But it negates the very thing that makes Italian wine so cool: its small-scale familial approach to viticulture. Slap some Tuscan sun on to a bottle of Montepulciano farmed in Molise and pass out the cigars.

6. Multi-national corporations’ land grab.

One of the biggest stories of 2016 was the sale of Piedmont heritage producer Vietti to the American owners of the Kum and Go convenience store chain. One of the biggest Italian wine stories of 2017 was the release of what may be the highest-priced Italian wine ever. A growing number of Italians fear that it’s only a matter of time before many of the best Italian estates are bought-up by multi-national corporations. Sadly, the unstoppable march of capitalist progress is, well, unstoppable.

5. Sicily is the coolest kid on the block.

As a wine buyer and an Italian wine trade observer, I’ve been seeing more and more value-driven, high-quality wines coming from the island. Investment in Sicilian wine, from Etna to Vittoria, is only growing and Sicilians have become increasingly savvy about marketing their wines in the U.S. It seems like every day, I taste something great from a new Sicilian winery. And it’s not just limited to cool-kid estates. Last year, I was thrilled to see Monica Larner (who’s doing wondrous things for Italian wine, btw) devote so much ink to heritage winery Feudo Montoni and its show-stopping wines. This year, Ian D’Agata wrote the following for Vinous: “Feudo Montoni is one of Italy’s best but still relatively little known estates.” Yes! Keep the great wine (and great wine writing) coming…

4. Sparkling wine.

The unbridled success of Prosecco in the 1990s has spawned a wave of sparkling wine production in Italy. From Sicily to Gambellara, it seems that everyone wants to get in on the sparkling wine gravy train — with mixed results. There’s no doubt that sparkling wine is the fastest growing category in wine across the world and we are only going to see more bubbles and more investment in Italian bubbles marketing here in the U.S.

3. Natural wine.

The ongoing debate over what is and what is not natural wine remind me of the countless hours we used to spend in graduate seminars discussing the definition of post-post-modernism. Sometimes it took up so much time that we hardly devoted our attention to the works of literature we were supposed to be studying. There’s no doubt that natural wine has established itself firmly as a market and marketing category in the minds of U.S. consumers — especially among young ones. In bon appétite, wine writers Belle Cushing and Marissa A. Ross called natural wine “2017’s Drink of the Year.” One of their criteria for selecting a bottle of natural wine was “It’s Fine to Just Pick the Coolest Looking Label.” Yes, it’s come to that. But it can only be a good thing in my view: the newer wave of natural wine enthusiasts only continues their predecessors’ efforts to champion small-scale farming and wholesomeness. That’s a positive, at least where I come from.

2. Asti Secco.

The first wave tsunami of Asti Secco is beginning to hit American shores. It’s going to give Prosecco a run for the money. The category didn’t make landfall in time to insinuate itself fully into holiday sparkling wine sales in the U.S. market. But Prosecco growers are going to be carefully watching developments in 2018. There’s a lot of money and marketing savvy behind the brands that are pushing this newly created Italian wine. Hold on to your seats… it’s coming to a Target near you!

1. The delayed issuance of CMO marketing subsidies.

Although hardly noticed by the American wine trade, the biggest story in Italian wine in 2017 was Italy’s failure to renew its CMO subsidies. More widely known by its Italian acronym OCM, the EU’s Common Market Organisation includes programs to protect and promote heritage viticulture and sustainable farming practices. But it also provides funds for the marketing European wines abroad. In the fall 2017, France and Spain received their new round of foreign marketing subsidies without a hitch. Italy did not: the EU delayed the issuance of monies earmarked for the country until February of 2018. From what I’ve been able to find out, the delay is owed to the fact that Italy wasn’t able to spend all of the funds allocated for 2017.

Thanks for reading and thanks for drinking Italian wine in 2017, 2018, and beyond…