Happy Juneteenth! A holiday long observed in Houston and now federally recognized.

Image via congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s Twitter.

Happy Juneteenth!

It’s a wonderful feeling to know that our nation has made a long-overdue step in the right direction. Yesterday, President Biden signed S. 475 into law, “the ‘Juneteenth National Independence Day Act,’ which designates Juneteenth National Independence Day as a legal public holiday.”

While many of our fellow Americans are just becoming aware of Juneteenth for the first time, the holiday has been celebrated here in Houston for generations. It was in nearby Galveston that Juneteenth had its origins. Before the end of the 19th century, it was already being observed each year in Houston proper.

In her recently published collection of essays about Texas, On Juneteenth (Liveright, May 2021), Harvard Law School professor Annette Gordon-Reed recounts her memories of celebrating the holiday when she was growing up in segregated Conroe, a city about an hour north of where we live today.

Houston congresswomen Lizzie Fletcher (who represents the district where we live), left, and Sheila Jackson Lee, center, announced the Juneteenth National Independence Act on Juneteenth 2020 in Houston (image via Fletcher’s Facebook).

The bill was first introduced by Houston congresswoman and legacy civil rights activist Sheila Jackson Lee in February of this year. It was co-sponsored by Houston congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher, who represents the district where we live.

Fletcher was first elected to congress in 2018 in the blue wave that delivered the House to the Democrats. She was the first progressive to be elected in our district in a generation. Her seat was once held by George H.W. Bush back when Houston was still one of the most deeply segregated cities in the country.

Tracie and I will be celebrating by going out to dinner with good friends and taking the girls to some of the gatherings planned for tomorrow at the historic Emancipation Park (which also played a role in the early Juneteenth celebrations).

There couldn’t be a better day to be in Houston! Happy Juneteenth!

Dosaggio zero, pas dosé, brut nature: some of the wine world’s most misunderstood terms.

Above: the Montorfano (Mt. Orfano) vineyard where Arcari + Danesi grows Chardonnay for their Franciacorta Dosaggio Zero, a wine that they make using their “solo uva” (“just grapes”) method.

Despite the extreme quality, the immense value, and the uniqueness of the wines within the spectrum of sparkling viticulture, Franciacorta remains one of the fine wine world’s most misunderstood and improperly categorized wines.

Such malignment can be attributed in part, at least in my view, to how the wines have been marketed outside of Italy. In the 2010s, just as many young U.S. wine professionals were looking out for the soulful, family farmer-driven, and thoughtful wines of Italy’s new wave, the Franciacorta powers-that-be continued to pound the luxury/premium pavement. And pound they did until they pound their Franciacorta into the ground.

There is still a of confusion in the wine world about what the term dosaggio zero means.

That’s not to say that Franciacorta isn’t producing world-class wines: Ca’ del Bosco, Bellavista (and family), Ricci Curbastro, Barone Pizzini, and Monte Rosso among other iconic brands continue to ship great wines to North America. But young people can’t afford and have little interest in drinking them.

(I owe all of the above a thanks for the two years I served as the consortium ambassador in the U.S.)

That disconnect has been breached over the last decade or so by just a handful of small-scale producers who grow their own grapes and age their wines themselves.

One of those winemakers is Arcari + Danesi, led by my close friends Giovanni Arcari and Nico Danesi. Depending on the generosity of the vintage, they make about 22,000 bottles of their Franciacorta Dosaggio Zero each year.

The wine is produced using mostly Chardonnay grapes that they grow in their terraced vineyard atop Montorfano (Mt. Orfano), one of the highest growing sites in the appellation. The soils are compact and morainic in nature, meaning they are composed of small stones (about 10 centimeters wide, give or take) with a robust presence of iron.

Tracie, the girls, and I visited Giovanni and Nico’s vineyard in 2018. As Tracie would say, if I were a grape, I would want to grow there.

But they also add a small amount of Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) to this wine. Chardonnay is the hegemonic variety of Franciacorta and many producers have shied away from fickle Pinot Blanc, choosing instead to make 100 percent Chardonnay wines. But Giovanni and Nico still value the gentle aromatic character the grape imparts to the wine, giving it a “lift” (as the young sommeliers say) that many others lack.

The wine is a dosaggio zero, otherwise known in wine parlance as pas dosé or brut nature. Some believe that this designation means that no sweetener is added to the wine. What it really means is that no sweetener is added before bottling and that the total residual sugar in the bottled wine is less than 3 grams per liter. But even when no dosage (sweetener) is added at the end of vinification (a common practice in Champagne and beyond), a sweetener is still used. It’s essential to the process.

Like all producers of classic method (Champagne method) sparkling wine — from Champagne to Napa and beyond — Giovanni and Nico use a sweetener to provoke the wine’s second fermentation in bottle — the tirage (French) or tiraggio (Italian). (The classic recipe used in Champagne calls for 24 grams of sugar — yes, 24 grams! — per liter.) But unlike the overwhelming majority of classic method producers, they don’t use a sweetener made from cane or beet sugar. Instead, they use reserved grape must from the same vineyard where the Chardonnay is grown. In other words, when they harvest the fruit, they set aside and freeze some of the grape must (newly pressed juice) and freeze it until they are ready to provoke the wine’s second fermentation. They call their tirage protocol the “solo uva” or “just grapes” method.

I can’t wait to get back to Italy next month to teach in Piedmont at Slow Food U. But the first stop will be Mt. Orfano! That’s me and Lila Jane at Arcari + Danesi in 2018.

The winemakers believe that by using reserved grape must instead of refined cane or beet sugar, they can avoid the oxidative character that you find in wines from certain Champagne and Franciacorta houses. You know that wonderful “yeasty,” “brioche” aroma you get in Bollinger (our favorite Champagne, btw)? Giovanni and Nico will tell you that it’s created by the oxidated sugar in the wine.

I’ve done countless tastings with them where we compared their pre-solo uva method wines with their current style. And we’ve even added famous Champagne houses to the flights when comparing the wines. Over and over again, you get a freshness in the solo uva wines that you don’t find in traditional Champagne and other classic method wines.

That’s not to say that one is better than the other. I love them both and no one is taking away our beloved Bollinger! (I even once wrote and recorded a song about Bollinger.) But I do find myself more readily reaching for Arcari + Danesi wines when I’m sitting down to dinner. Bollinger is reserved especially for pairings with caviar, oysters, risotto alla parmigiana, and even potato chips — extra salty foods that work well with that style of wine. Arcari + Danesi is a wine we drink throughout dinner, including pairings with a wide variety of flavors and textures.

As an Algerian critical theorist once said, vive la différance!

Houstonians, if you want to taste this wine, it’s now on our wine list at Roma in Rice Village where I became the wine director earlier this month. And Californians, the wine is coming to my Do Bianchi wholesale/retail program next month. Hit me up! Thanks for checking it out.

Natural wine curious? Taste with Alice Feiring & me this Thursday (virtual event at Roma).

I couldn’t be more thrilled to share the news that Alice Feiring, the world’s leading advocate for and expert on natural wines, will be joining our weekly virtual wine dinner at Roma in Houston where I manage the wine program.

The cost is $119 per couple and sends you home with three bottles of wine and a vegetarian menu that outgoing chef Angelo Cuppone has created especially for the dinner. Click here for details and menu.

Alice started a bona fide revolution when she published her first book, The Battle for Wine and Love: How I Saved the World from Parkerization, in 2008. Since that time, she has published a number of titles devoted to natural wine, not to mention her many Times pieces — including her wonderful “Modern Love” columns — and bylines for leading mastheads like The World of Fine Wine and others.

Alice is also one of my best friends in the wine trade, a mentor and a role model for my own career. I’m super geeked to be hosting her for this event and there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be one to remember!

Houston wine people, I hope you can join for this one. Thanks for the support. From the natural wine curious to the natural wine veterans, this is one not to miss.

Dolomite sunrise, a prayer for a friend…

La Jolla, Tuesday, June 8, 2021.

How many sunsets have we watched together over that same horizon?
How many berakoth have we parsed before we reached 13?
How many gigs have we spun, you on skins, me on strings?
How many repasts in confraternity, how many 750s in convivium?
How many nights in Chandler’s America and Shakespeare’s Italy?
How many sunrises have we watched together over that same horizon?

Do you remember the 3 a.m. panino dunked in the Belluno périphérique?
Do you remember the 11 a.m. glass offered by the Alpini?
Do you remember the collation we shared in the Carson jail?
Do you remember the heifer we carved under the W-burg bridge?
Do you remember the Moscato d’Astis, the Brunellos, the grappas?
Do you remember the Dolomite sunrise we watched in Agordo?

From the edge of the sea to the foot of the mountain,
From the depths of desolation to the peak of our delight,
I remember them all — each and every one.  

“The allocation game is out of control.” Opinion by Brett Zimmerman, Boulder Burgundy Festival founder.

“The social challenges of the last 24 months have prompted many in the greater wine community to advocate for more inclusion and equity in our industry. But with prices like this, some purveyors of fine wine seem to be moving in exactly the opposite direction.”

Please read “the allocation game is out of control,” a post by my friend and client Brett Zimmerman.

The best Italian party last night at Eataly Dallas.

Above: My seminar yesterday on Pecorino Toscano at Eataly, Dallas. That’s the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce director, Alessia Paolicchi, left, addressing our group at the market and restaurant’s first in-person “Scuola” event since early 2020.

Nearly all shared my sentiment that we were attending a truly extraordinary event yesterday evening at Eataly in Dallas.

After a small group of food writers and enthusiasts joined a Prosciutto di Parma and Pecorino Toscano seminar in the venue’s first in-person “Scuola” (cooking school) event since the lockdowns began early last year, we all headed up stairs to Terra restaurant where we were joined by roughly 100 of the city’s leading Italian and Italophile citizens. It was a genuine who’s-who of the culinary community there, including Italian chefs, entrepreneurs, locally based writers and influencers, and food and wine trade members.

Chefs Alfio Longo and Andrea Rodella, both Dallas-based Italians, were joined by Terra’s executive chef Michael Lawson for what was surely the most sumptuous meal any of us had enjoyed in public for more than a year. They did a truly bang up job.

I have to give the warmest shout-out to the staff at Eataly Dallas for their professionalism, verve, and dedication in presenting a fantastic dinner for such a large group. I certainly wasn’t the only one who noted how remarkable it was to be at such a great event — with such a wonderful crowd — after such a long time.

And dulcis in fundo, as I was window shopping on the floor of the retail space, I ran into one of my ex-students from the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences grad program (I hope to be heading back there soon, btw). It was such a treat for me to catch up with him and learn that he’s thriving in the world of Italian food and wine.

I couldn’t have been more thrilled to be part of Eataly’s first in-person gatherings. And I couldn’t be more proud to have presented the seminar and dinner alongside some of our state’s top Italian food and wine-focused professionals. Great job, guys, all around!

Italian parliament poised to approve bill that would create an “Italian organic” brand and “organic districts.”

Above: over the last decade, organically branded food shops, like this ice cream shop and café, have flourished across Italy.

In late May, the Italian senate approved a sweeping bill that would create a new “Italian organic” brand, officially recognized “organic districts,” and sweeping subsidies for research, development, and monitoring of organic farming practices. The bill would also integrate the organic farming supply chain through government oversight.

The legislation, which is widely expected to be approved by the Italian chamber of deputies, was adopted with one vote in opposition and one abstention.

One point of contention was a brief and arguably vague line in the proposed legislation that would elevate the status of biodynamic agriculture, “putting it on a par with” organic agriculture.

Biodynamic farming’s embrace of spirituality and mysticism, say critics, including Italian senator for life Elena Cattaneo, who delivered an impassioned speech on the senate floor before the vote, make it a discipline not based on science.

Cattaneo, the only senator to vote against the legislation, lobbied unsuccessfully to amend the line about biodynamic agriculture. Her failed efforts were called a “resounding defeat” by the mainstream Italian media. In her address to her colleagues, Cattaneo, known for her groundbreaking work in stem cell research, called organic farming a “niche sector,” noting that it represents a small fraction of Italy’s farmland. She also pointed out that it would provide subsidies to fallow pastures where no food is produced.

The bill, she said, “offers no guarantee of greater health benefits or greater nutritional value” for Italian citizens.

In 2019, when the bill was first debated in the Italian parliament, Cattaneo called organic farming “a beautiful but impossible fairytale.” She and nearly 400 other Italian scientists signed an open letter to the Italian parliament in which they opposed the then nascent legislation.

“In order to justify pricing often double [that of conventionally farmed products],” she said at the time,

    we have been told that organic farming is the only way to save the world and help us to live longer and better. It’s an illusion. There is no scientific proof to confirm this. In fact, the opposite is true: analysis reveals that organic products are not qualitatively better and that large-scale organic farming is unsustainable inasmuch as it produces up to 50 percent less when it comes to top agricultural products. Large-scale organic farming would require twice as much land. In order to convert the world to organic farming, we would have to use hundreds of millions of hectares of currently fallow land, including forests and prairies.

Supporters of the bill see it as part of a wider EU initiative, known as “Farm to Fork,” to safeguard natural resources, to protect the environment, and to create a more robust organic farming supply chain across member states.

“We are extremely pleased that the senate has approved the bill,” said Maria Grazia Mammuccini, president of FedBio, a trade association that has lobbied aggressively for the creation of the “Italian organic” brand. “We have been waiting for this for more than 15 years. This much awaited legislation is finally moving forward.”

My new wine director gig in Houston! Taste with me at Roma, Weds. June 2 (free tasting).

One of the most remarkable experiences of my career in wine took shape during the 2020 lockdowns. For more than 52 weeks, with just a few breaks, I led virtual wine dinners every Thursday night for Roma restaurant in Houston. Those events were what kept the restaurant financially afloat — and what kept food on all of our tables — during the seemingly unending challenges of the pandemic.

But something else happened as well, something truly magical. Through these digital gatherings on Zoom, we created a community of Italian food and wine lovers who found comfort in our shared culinary passion as the world outside seemed to be falling apart — literally. By the summer of 2020, we regularly had 80-90 guests attending virtually each week. The friendship and culinary camaraderie we shared was something that I’ll never ever forget. It showed, once again, how food and wine can transcend their roles as nutritional and aesthetic pleasures.

When the lockdowns began in March 2020, I had worked as a media manager for Roma for more than two years, running the restaurant’s website and social media. But the restaurant’s founder, my good friend and Houston restaurant veteran Shanon Scott, had never even considered me working on the wine list with him. His thought was, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But then, after he had watched me lead more than 50 or so of these events, which also included an Italian winemaker joining us from Italy at 2:30 in the morning, I approached Shanon about me helping out with the program. By May of this year, we had agreed that I would become the restaurant’s wine director as of June 1.

On Tuesday of last week, we debuted our new list and program. And by Saturday night, there was a bottle of wine on every table — something that had never happened before at Roma. Our goal is to make the restaurant the leading Texas destination for Italian wine by 2021’s end.

Tomorrow night, I’ll be hosting a free (yes, free!) Amarone tasting at the restaurant at 6 p.m. (Wednesday, June 20). And then I’ll be pouring and chatting tableside with guests throughout the night. Please join me!

Just shoot me an email at jeremy [at] romahouston.com if you’d like to attend the event. Thank you for your support. I hope to see you tomorrow or at one of the many wine tastings and dinners — in-person and virtual — that we have planned for coming months.

Local Source, a new Texas wine distributor, tries to bring back “relationship selling.” They’re counting people, not just beans. And they’re hiring.

As the U.S. begins to open up again, times couldn’t be more exciting for the wine industry. People — trade members and consumers alike — are all eager to taste after more than a year of lockdown.

I recently spoke to a veteran of the Texas wine business, David Verheyen (above), who’s just launched a new wine distribution company here in Houston, Local Source.

David has worked in the highest levels of the Texas wine establishment. But now he’s trying to shake things up with his new company where the focus is on “relationship selling.”

As he notes in our excerpted conversation below, the big wine companies — fueled by even more consolidation during the pandemic — have given up on the “romance” of wine.

He’s trying to bring it back. And he’s not just counting beans. He’s counting people, too.

If you’re wondering why he’s standing in front of a couple of muscle cars in the image above, that’s because one his partners also stores his vintage car collection in their Houston warehouse.

Here’s what he had to say when we spoke recently by phone.

Local Source is currently hiring. See their website for contact info.

Excerpts from a recent conversation with Local Source co-founder David Verheyen, a 30-year-plus veteran of the Texas wine trade:

[My business partner and I] both come from background of working for really large corporations. So we wanted to focus on building something with a family feel and a local feel to it.

We don’t want our customers to feel like they have a number crammed down their throat from someone in New York, Miami, Atlanta, or San Francisco. We’re not the ones saying, “hey, we need to make this number.” We wanted to be about the wine and the family behind the wine — the farmer.

And that’s why we call it “Local Source.” Our people are from here. We’re not bringing in people from Las Vegas to come in and sell Champagne. We’re doing it ourselves.

We are also in importer. And we’re taking that piece of the equation out of it for our customers.

We’re looking for a more adventurous drinker when it comes to Champagne, Savoie, parts of the Rhône Valley, and parts of Southern Burgundy. We don’t want to be the “big company.” We don’t want to get in the away. We’re not built for that. We don’t want to play in that park. We are big believers in traditional European styles. And we’re also trying to build up our Italian portfolio.

Unfortunately, the days of relationship selling are over. That’s because of the technology. The big companies feel like they can dictate what the customer will buy. I started selling wine in 1989 in Texas. I never lost some feeling of the romanticism in this business. And I don’t want my employees to lose sight of that.

Taste with me virtually this Friday in Long Beach, in-person next Wednesday in Houston (free).

It’s been nothing short of exhilarating to begin doing in-person tastings again.

I’m really excited to announce that I’ll be doing an in-person tasting at Roma restaurant in Houston next Wednesday, June 2 at 6 p.m. CST.

As I’m getting out more and more, including a now sold-out Pecorino Toscano tasting I’m leading and a dinner I’m co-presenting at Eataly in Dallas next Thursday, June 3, virtual events are still happening: this Friday, May 28 at 5 p.m. PST, I’ll be co-presenting a virtual Lambrusco tasting in Long Beach with Alicia Lini of Lini 910 (my friend and longtime client) and Samantha Dugan, one of the top sparkling wine experts working in the U.S. today.

If you’d like to join either event, please just shoot an email by clicking here (unfortunately, the Eataly events are completely filled at this point).

And there are a ton in-person events on the horizon. Thank you for the support.

Special thanks to the Passionate Foodie for the image from a few years ago in Boston.