Great taste: Sip Trip with Jeff Porter and Antica Casa Scarpa come to Houston in November

On Tuesday, November 5, top sommelier Jeff Porter (above, right), one of the world’s most beloved wine pros (and native Texan), will be coming to Houston for a Sip Trip seminar and tasting at Goodnight Charlie’s.

Click here for details.

He’ll be pouring and talking about wines from his Sip Trip TV series.

I’ll be away that day but I can assure you that this a not-to-miss tasting and it’s always amazing to interact with Jeff and glean his insights into Italian wine.

And then on Thursday, November 7, I’ll be co-presenting a tasting of Antica Casa Scarpa at Vinology with Scarpa winery director Riikka Sukula, one of the coolest people working in Monferrato and Langa today imho.

We’ll be tasting Barbera from Scarpa’s top crus and I can’t imagine there won’t be a Barbaresco in there somewhere (and I’m trying to get us a bottle of the 1996 Barbera d’Asti La Bogliona that I tasted with her earlier this year… amazing wine…).

Please join us! Info follows and thank you!

@ Vinology
Thursday, November 7
7:00 p.m.
2314 Bissonnet St.
(832) 849-1687
Google map

Top image via Jeff’s Facebook.

When do you pick? Honest answers and fantastic wines from Alice Paillard and her family’s estate Bruno Paillard

Honestly, I never really understood why I loved the wines of Bruno Paillard so much until I started to study sparkling wine seriously.

Sparkling wine is so widely and deeply misunderstood in my view.

We’ve been taught to serve it at the wrong temperature (too cold). We’ve been taught to serve it in the wrong vessels (flutes are too narrow). We tend to guzzle it down on festive occasions (without taking time out to taste it properly). And the biggest issue, in my experience, is that we don’t have proper knowledge about how sparkling wine is made.

When sparkling winemakers from Europe talk about the moment they decide to pick their grapes, they don’t speak of brix levels.

Instead they talk about alcohol content. And in the case of European sparkling winemakers, they talk about “degrees” of alcohol, which correspond to alcohol percentages in American wine parlance.

I was reminded of this when I had the wonderful opportunity to sit next to Alice Paillard, Bruno’s daughter, the other night at a dinner here in Houston. I rarely go to media lunches and dinners anymore but I could pass up the chance to interact (and grill) one of my all-time favorite sparkling producers.

The average American bubbles lover won’t be surprised to learn that most Champagne producers pick their grapes at “9 degrees” alcohol, in other words, with a potential alcohol content of 9 percent.

With that in mind, they will probably be surprised to learn is that most Champagnes on the wine store shelf clock in around 11 percent alcohol. How does the winemaker achieve those missing two degrees? It’s by the addition of refined cane or sometimes beet sugar. But it’s not during the dosage that those degrees of alcohol are created. That comes at the end when the winemaker chooses to sweeten the wine. It’s during the tirage — the provocation of the second fermentation — that those missing two degrees are made up for.

I hate to break it to Champagne lovers but Champagne can have a lot of added sugar in it. That’s not a bad thing. But it’s a real thing.

Alice told me that she shoots for 10.5 degrees when she harvests. That means that she doesn’t need to add as much sugar to achieve the desired alcohol level of the final product. It also means that she picks grapes that are slightly — although significantly — riper than many of her peers’. And that means that the wines are riper in style and less oxidative in character

(A lot of folks find it hard to believe that the “toasty,” “yeasty,” and “brioche” notes in Champagne are owed not to lees aging but to oxidation of sugar. I’m sorry to break the news to the wine education establishment but it’s true. Just ask a sparkling wine grower. But that’s another story for another time.)

Alice talked a lot about how historically, climatic challenges, even before the era of climate change, compelled Champagne producers to make wines with “ingenuity,” as she put it. When you were faced with capricious weather, she explained, you had to come up with creative solutions like cross-vintage cuvées (blends), for example. You also had to contend with vintages where you were lucky to achieve 9 percent alcohol at harvest (because of the cold). Today, the problem is inverse: with rising temperatures, the grapes can become too ripe.

I’ve been drinking and following her wines now (at least those I can afford) for more than a decade and I’ve always found them to be pure, leaning gently toward ripeness, with clarity and focus.

In my view, the entry-tier Bruno Paillard Champagne is simply one of the best values and one of the best wines in the category.

I’m one of her biggest fans. And now, I know why.

Thank you, Alice, for coming to Texas! And thank you for a wonderful dinner and conversation!

Oakland is the hippest place in America to drink wine (and À Côté is my new favorite Bay Area list)

Last week, after attending the Slow Wine panel tastings in Willamette Valley and San Francisco (where me and the other editors taste the prize-nominated wines), I spent an evening wine bar hopping in Oakland — the hippest place in America imho to drink groovy wine.

Well, I really didn’t “hop” that much.

As soon as I sat down at the bar at Jeff Berlin’s wonderful À Côté, I felt like I was glued to my seat.

Have you ever read a wine list and thought to yourself, man, I just have to meet the person who wrote and runs this?

From the moment I started browsing, I just fell in love with the way he organizes the wines not by country but by “ancient region.” And I LOVED that he writes the titles of the sections in Latin.

His list (literally) spoke to me in ways that few programs do.

I told Jeff, whom I’d never met, that Balkan and Georgian are categories that I love exploring and he proceeded to pour one show-stopping wine after another as me and my buddy Billy munched out on the kitchen’s delicious food (we definitely had the munchies, so to speak).

Jeff has been at the restaurant for nearly 20 years and it’s amazing to see a veteran restaurateur and sommelier like him who’s never lost the spark, the verve, and the brilliance in running a program that expands the drinker’s experience. He definitely expanded mine.

That’s the last wine he poured for us that night, above, a wonderful coda to a great evening.

I did manage to make it over to the Punchdown natural wine bar later that night (we were ride-sharing). Jenny Eagleton, one of the brightest rising stars in the Oakland wine scene and my friend and colleague, poured us some fun stuff, too.

And before I hit À Côté, I met an old friend for a glass at the super cool Redfield Cider where the focus is — yes, you guessed it — on cider but there is a cool natural wine selection as well.

I had wanted to go to natural wine bar Ordinaire but it was closed because of the staff’s monthly field trip to wine country (how cool is that?). I’ve been before and it’s more like a salon than a wine bar in my experience. Really groovy.

Baygrape was also on my list but it’ll have to wait until next time.

I can’t think of another city in the U.S. where there is so much wholesome wine being poured so thoughtfully in a 20-minute ride-share radius, can you?

We’re paying for damages we didn’t cause: Italians feel wrongly punished in U.S. trade war.

Late yesterday, I had the chance to speak with Pecorino Toscano Consortium president Andrea Righini about the new U.S. tariffs on Italian cheese — part of the U.S. government’s ongoing trade war with the EU.

See my interview with him (for the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas) here.

Andrea was stressed, as you can imagine. He’d been on the phone all day with frantic consortium members trying to figure out how the punitive tariffs are going to affect their livelihood.

Over the course of our conversation, he pointed out that Italy has nothing to do with the illegal subsidies that prompted the U.S. “countermeasures” against EU countries. In fact, “France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom [are] the four countries responsible,” wrote the Office of the United States Trade Representative in a post on its website on Wednesday.

The whole affair was borne out of a “dispute with the European Union over illegal subsidies to Airbus.” But the only countries who profited from those subsidies were those listed above.

“We need to remember that these sanctions are the result of dealings that have nothing to do with Italy,” said Andrea. [If the tariffs were imposed] “the consortium would pay for damages it didn’t cause.”

He also talked at length about how the new import duties are going to affect the local economy in Tuscany, including Pecorino producers, their employees, and the shepherds that supply the milk. The surplus of unsold cheese and the drop in the price of sheep’s milk will be disastrous, he explained.

“All of these things are connected to one another,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of how much product you sell.”

American importers, retailers, and restaurateurs will also be affected. Last night I spoke to an Italian chef here in Houston who noted how the tariffs will impact his business: the food cost for his Cacio e Pepe — one of the most popular dishes on his menu — will also increase by 25 percent.

Ultimately, consumers will also feel the pinch. We grate a lot of cheese for pasta at our house and our daughters often eat Parmigiano Reggiano for a treat after dinner or after school.

Trade wars seem far-away… until they come to your town.

Click here for my interview with Andrea and be sure to enjoy your pasta with cheese this weekend.

Italian wine spared but top cheeses and other products from Italy fall victim to U.S. trade war

Iconic Italian cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino are just two of Italy’s most popular food products that will be impacted by 25 percent tariffs, the latest volley in the U.S. government’s trade wars.

In a statement released yesterday, the office of the United States Trade Representative announced a long list of “tariffs [that] will be applied to a range of imports from EU Member States.” The focus of American “countermeasures” is “France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom, the four countries responsible for the illegal subsidies” identified in a recent ruling by the World Trade Organization. But Italy, like other European Union members, is also “subject to additional import duties of 25 percent” on a wide range of food and wine products.

See the complete list of tariffs and products here.

As late as yesterday, there was growing concern among Italian winemakers that Italian wines would be included among the new tariffs. But Italian grape farmers were spared in this round of new import duties.

“The exclusion of Italian wine in the list of products that will be affected by tariffs lets us breathe a sigh of relief,” said Italian Wine Union president Ernesto Abbona in a statement issued via email. “And we’re thankful to [Italian] prime minister Giuseppe Conte, Italian diplomacy, and the efforts of the European Union Commission for that.”

Some of their European counterparts weren’t as fortunate. France, Germany, and Spain were included among those countries whose wines have been included in the new round of tariffs.

“Wine other than Tokay (not carbonated)” from those countries, “not over 14% alcohol, in containers not over 2 liters” are among the products that will be “subject to additional import duties of 25 percent” when the tariffs go into effect in a few weeks.

During an appearance with prime minister Conte yesterday in Rome, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was handed a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano by Italian comic actor and satirical journalist Alice Martinelli (see the clip here).

“It’s something that farmers make with the heart every day,” she can be heard saying (in English) in a video published by the Italian pseudo-news program “Le Iene.”

“We hope you can help us and take it to Trump,” she tells him in the video.

A few decades ago, Italian food products like Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino were found only in American speciality gourmet shops and were generally only available in major cities like New York and San Francisco. Today, they are ubiquitous across the country and are widely available even in rural parts of the country.

According to a report published over the weekend by Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy’s leading financial daily, exports of Parmgiano Reggiano to the U.S. grew by 26 percent in the first six months of 2019. Roughly five percent of the total production is shipped across the Atlantic, wrote the editors.

“It’s important to note the absence of [Italian] wine” among impacted products, said Ettore Prandini, president of Coldiretti, Italy’s agricultural trade association. In a statement issued by the organization, he noted that “we haven’t lost sight of the fact that the ‘nectar of Bacchus’ from France has been repeatedly threatened by the president of the United States Donald Trump.” It’s a “move that represents a de facto attempt to divide the European Union.”

Shanah tovah (שנה טובה). May your new year be filled with sweetness…

Shanah tovah u’metuka. May you have a good and sweet year ahead.

Like we do every year, Parzen family sliced apples and dipped them in honey this week to celebrate the sweetness in our lives and the year to come.

Georgia (below, left), age seven, will be turning eight in December. She’s really been enjoying her violin lessons and had her first solo recital on the big stage earlier this month. She decided not to do ballet this year and is doing karate instead! She’s also been working on her own compositions on violin and keyboard — something that fills her daddy’s heart with immense joy.

Lila Jane (right) turned six this summer and is having a great time in first grade. Her cello playing is really coming together in terms of her intonation and tone. She’s also experimenting with different melodies and has started to sound out chords on the keyboard. And this summer, she and I wrote and recorded a song for her cousin Emilee. I’ll never forget her putting on her headphones and tracking her vocals in our little studio — a memory I’ll cherish for a lifetime.

Both of them are bright, happy, and healthy little girls and we all have so much fun together.

Tracie has continued to grow her skin care business this year and her cookie business has also been humming along nicely. Between the girls and our two little crazy chihuahuas, she has her hands full. The girls and I (and our doggies) couldn’t be more blessed to have such a great and loving mommy, already ready to kiss a boo boo and share a “snuggie.” In January, she and I will be celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary!

Me? I’ve had an extremely rewarding but exhausting year professionally. I wish I didn’t have to travel so much for my work but I’m not complaining. We made some real progress on our financial goals this year and I still manage to find time to write and record music and play out occasionally with my cover band. I even wrote a critical essay about a young Italian poet whose work I translated (poetry is something I have missed a lot since I turned to wine).

Happy, happy new year, everyone. May your year ahead be a sweet one.

Heath Porter, a sommelier’s sommelier and one of the smartest, nicest, and funniest people in the trade

That’s my friend and one of the American wine professionals I admire most, Heath Porter (above), at the Château de Bagnols in Beaujolais.

I’ve only met and tasted with Heath on two occasions over the last decade. But we’ve stayed in close touch via social media. He’s always eager to help a fellow wine person out and the feeling is mutual.

A few weeks ago, he was gracious enough to let me interview him for the My Name Is Barbera blog.

I was so impressed by what he had to say and how he said it that I felt compelled to share it here.

Even on the digital page, his words convey his encyclopedic knowledge of wine, his knack for humor (something every sommelier should have), and his warmth as a human being. Re-reading the piece, I just got this feeling that he knows we’re all in this together.

(Yes, I have a crush on the guy. A grape crush.)

When I first got started in this business more than 20 years ago, most Americans had never even heard the word sommelier. Today, the celebrity sommelier circuit has become so expansive that even its kerfuffles make the news.

Heath is a sommelier’s sommelier, the type we could use a lot more of these days: education, conviviality, and humanity are what drives his career.

Check out his new wine tour gig, Heathen Wine Tours (if I had the dough, I’d hop right on to that bandwagon). And check out what he had to say about Barbera and you’ll see why I admire the guy — and what he does — so much.

Chapeau bas, Heath! Thanks again for taking time out for Barbera (and me).

Slow Food celebrates 10 years of the Slow Wine Guide (and U.S. Slow Wine tour dates 2020)

Above: winemaker Dan Petroski pours for Slow Wine editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio at last year’s Slow Wine tasting in San Francisco.

On Saturday, October 12, at their annual walk-around tasting in Montecatini (Tuscany), the editors of Slow Wine will be presenting the 10th edition of the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of Italy.

The event marks a milestone for the Slow Food movement and the many women and men who have worked assiduously to put the guide together for a decade now. But it also represents a landmark moment for wine writing in Italy.

Before the guide was first published in Italy in 2010, guides devoted to the country’s viticulture focused primarily on scores and tasting notes — a model borrowed from the U.S. Until the appearance of the first edition, Italy lacked a publication that gave voice to the growers and winemakers themselves. And for the vast majority of Italian wine writers and editors at the time, soil and viticulture were a mere afterthought.

“Quality” is just one of the elements that Slow Wine addresses, wrote Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini in the preface to the first edition of the guide. “It also focuses on the people who make them and how they are produced, the vineyards and the soils, their naturality and the farming practices employed, the grape varieties and the winemakers’ growing methods, and the wines’ future sustainability.”

Ten years after its initial printing, Slow Wine has firmly established itself as a leading resource for wine lovers and wine professionals who want to tap into the ethos of the wines and the stories behind them. It has become the guide for those who seek out wines and wineries that align with their own values — enogastronomic and otherwise.

This year, Slow Wine will also be publishing the third edition of its guide to the wines of California and the second edition of its guide to the wines of Oregon (I’m the coordinating editor for both). And perhaps the biggest news is that a Slow Wine guide to the wines of New York State is also in the works (a team based in New York City is putting it together).

Congratulations to editors-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio and Fabio Giavedoni on their accomplishment! They’ve been there since day one and it’s thanks primarily to their efforts that this labor amoris continues to thrive.

The North American editions of the guide (in English) will be presented early next year at the Slow Wine tastings to be held across the country. Cities and dates follow below.

San Francisco: February 17
Seattle: February 18
Denver: February 20
New York: February 24
Boston: February 25

From Barolo to the bayou, climate change is reshaping our lives (all our yesterdays for a single tomorrow)

Above: a vineyard in the Barolo appellation where warmer temperatures and more intense weather events have reshaped viticulture — uncannily, for the better.

It seemed like yesterday — well, actually it was ten days ago or so — that an octogenarian winemaker was telling me how climate change has reshaped his vineyards in Piedmont in ways he never imagined possible.

As we walked down the dirt road that forms the crest of his two top growing sites, he explained to me that his most prized grapes used to not ripen properly on one side of the hill. Today, he said, they ripen perfectly.

He then shrugged his shoulders and grimaced tragicomically: “It’s because of climate change,” he said plaintively. “It’s been great for our winery,” where he has worked for more than five decades, “but not for the earth.”

It brought to mind a conversation with one of Barolo’s highest-profile growers, from nearly 20 years ago when a newly-turned-30 writer was just getting his career in wine started.

“The greenhouse effect is making me a very rich man,” he bellowed using one of the early euphemisms for global warming. He was referring to a string of Piedmont vintages, beginning in 1995, when regularly warmer temperatures began to deliver more consistent and balanced ripening. A generation ago, the Piedmontese were lucky if they got one good vintage in a decade. That was true through the 60s, 70s, and 80s. But in the mid-90s, it began to change.

That same winemaker might be crying today. Early this month, a number of Barolo producers were affected by a severe hailstorm that caused extensive damage. The Barolisti were extremely tight-lipped about the episode during my visit last week but some told me, off the record, that they had never seen hail like that. It was rice-shaped, they said, and it sliced right through the skins of the grapes.

The way climate change — global warming or the green house effect, depending on your generation — is reshaping the vineyards of Europe and even California is no news to anyone in the wine trade. Italian winemakers have been talking about it for two decades now.

Just this week, the New York Times published an article on climate change and its impact on wine growing: “The Future of Wine: Very, Very Dry.”

And earlier this year, the paper’s editors published “‘Disgusting to Say, but It’s the Truth’: German Winemakers See Boon in Climate Change.”

It is disgusting to say, isn’t it? But the humble words by a self-aware grower during my recent visit in Piedmont rang in my ears as our children and I hunkered down for the third round of major flooding this year in Houston, the city where we’ve lived for more than five years.

Our oldest is seven going on eight. She and her younger sister, age six, have already lived through two of the wettest storms in U.S. history. See this Wikipedia list for Overall wettest in the contiguous United States. Harvey is number one. Imelda is number five.

Leaders from around the world are meeting today at the United Nations to discuss climate change and the challenges of combatting it.

They surely (or hopefully) realize, as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in her breathtaking New Yorker article “The Sixth Extinction” in 2009 (2009, people!), climate change isn’t something we can turn on and off like a light switch. There’s no way to replace the melted ice in the Antarctic or reverse the acidification of the oceans.

I’ve been fortunate to benefit from trends in Italian wine over the last two decades. But, to borrow a line from Kris Kristofferson, I’d trade all of my yesterdays, for a single tomorrow…

Parzen family ok, not directly affected by Imelda, but it’s a mess down here.

That’s what the radar looked like yesterday at around 1:30 p.m. when we were seeing some of the heaviest rain here in Houston. That blue dot is where we live in southwest Houston.

Our neighborhood was extremely lucky and we didn’t get any major flooding. But it’s a mess down here in Houston today.

Tracie is actually away at a convention this week and I’m home alone with the girls. We are all fine and so is everyone from our school.

The Levys here in Houston (my cousins) and Tracie’s parents and her sister’s family are fine as well.

Some of the worst flooding and damage happened between Houston and Orange, Texas (on the Louisiana border where Tracie’s family lives).

Interstate 10 connects Houston and Orange: it’s closed today on the east side of Houston because of barges, possibly carrying dangerous chemicals, that have been lodged underneath a bridge that spans one of Houston’s major rivers.

The good news is we are all fine and our neighborhood is relatively clear today. School is closed and we’ll stay close to home and the girls are getting a “TV” morning while I work (they are super stoked about that).

Please stay safe and thanks to everyone from who checked in to make sure we were okay. It really means a lot to me.