Barcelona, thoughts and prayers for our sisters and brothers

It seemed that even before the news about the Barcelona tragedy broke in the U.S. yesterday, I began seeing a stream of “marked safe” posts on Facebook. There are so many of my friends who live or are vacationing in Spain this summer: social media remind us how easily and senselessly terrorism can affect people we care about, even when they are far away. And they remind us that we are all connected — no matter where we live or travel, no matter the color of our skin or our religion — by our shared humanity.

When one of my close friends from high school (she’s vacationing there) and the brother of one of my best friends (he’s a genetic scientist there) marked themselves safe, sweet tears of relief were made all the more salty by those that fell in the anguish of a world wayworn with anxiety.

Today, the Parzen family’s thoughts and prayer go out to our sisters and brothers in Barcelona.

Roya and Tyler, I thank G-d you are safe…

Image via Wikipedia.

Mazel tov, Andres Blanco! The new “Best Sommelier in Texas”!

Above: Andres Blanco (center) revels in his new title as the “best sommelier in Texas” after winning the coveted Texsom Best Sommelier competition (photo by my bandmate and food editor for the Houston Press Gwendolyn Knapp).

The wine business has never been more competitive in Texas and the title of “best sommelier” in the state couldn’t have gone to a better man than Andres Blanco, general manager and floor sommelier at one of my favorite Houston restaurants, Caracol. (Today, the event is called the Texsom Best Sommelier competition but until two years ago, it was known as the “Best Sommelier in Texas” competition; it now includes states contiguous to Texas.)

When I interviewed Andres yesterday by phone (for my write-up for the Houston Press today), he mentioned that he is the first Mexican-born candidate to win the competition.

That says a lot about the ever evolving wine and restaurant scene in this rapidly expanding urban landscape, the fastest growing and most diverse city in the U.S. today. (Don’t believe me? Just ask the Los Angeles Times).

Mazel tov, Andres! The award and title couldn’t have gone to a more talented Houstonian.

Please click here for my post and interview with Andres for Houston Press.

Andres’ win — the second year in a row that the title has gone to a Houstonian — and our chat were bright spots in an otherwise on-edge, weepy day for us here at the Parzen household. In the light of the other events that took place over the weekend and Donald Trump’s embrace of the white supremacist and anti-Semitic movements in our country, it’s been pretty tough to get back to “business as usual.”

For all of you who voted for and continue to support Donald Trump: was the “disruption,” as you like to call it, worth it? The stock market is soaring and you foresee lower taxes and fewer government regulations impeding you from doing business. That’s good for you. And to that I say: fair enough (however much I disagree with Trump’s attitudes and policies).

But was it worth these last six months of chaotic, unmoored governance, and the lack of leadership in the face of racism and anti-Semitism? Last week he promised “fire and fury” in Asia and this week he’s saying that Nazi flags and anti-Semitic epithets are okay when people are “defending their heritage.” Even if you promised us all the money in the world, it wouldn’t be okay at our house… It will never be okay at our house… ever… For us to teach our children otherwise would be wholly and absolutely immoral.

“I will not be part of the silence on Facebook about this atrocity. It effects my family.” When anti-Semitism hits home in Southeast Texas…

Tracie’s uncle Terry Johnson, Tracie’s mother’s brother and my uncle by marriage, published the following post yesterday on his Facebook. Terry, Tracie, and nearly the entire Johnson family grew up in the city of Orange on the Texas-Louisiana border in Southeast Texas. That’s Terry, below, in the very last row, at our wedding in January 2010 in La Jolla, California where I grew up. And that’s the extended Johnson family surrounding Tracie and me, including Reverend Randy Branch, Tracie’s father, who officiated (to Tracie’s left, standing behind her mother Jane née Johnson).

Terry wrote the post after he read the post I published yesterday, “‘Jew will not replace us’: looking to Dante for the origin of anti-Semitic hate speech.”

The Washington Post reported today that a “White Lives Matter” event scheduled for September 11 on the Texas A&M campus (a two-hour drive from where we live in Houston) has been cancelled by the university. In a statement, the event’s would-be organizer described it as “Today Charlottesville Tomorrow Texas A&M.”

Thank you, Terry. I love you, too. Thank you for your words of solidarity and thank you for the way your family has embraced me so lovingly.

I am sharing this because I want to stand up against that despicable event in Charlottesville.

Jeremy Parzen is MY nephew. He married my beautiful niece Tracie Parzen. W[est] O[orange]-S[tark High School] Class of ’94. Jeremy is an extremely learned scholar. He grew up in beautiful La Jolla, CA. Many in the Johnson family went out to La Jolla for their wedding. It was an experience that my family will forever remember. We created family memories that we will always have. He is Jewish. He is very well-known for writing several blogs. He is one of the best fathers, to my two beautiful, great-nieces. Georgia Ann Parzen (named after our beloved mother RIP 😥) and Lila Jane (as in Jane Branch [Tracie’s mother] from the mere rock-throw proximity on Smith St. by Mustang Dan R. Hooks Stadium).

They are a beautiful family that is targeted in the hearts of these ilk of humanity White Supremacists. It hurts in their hearts to see.
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“Jew will not replace us”: looking to Dante for the origin of anti-Semitic hate speech

Like 65,844,954 of my fellow Americans, I was sickened and horrified by the citronella torch-bearing white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville this weekend waving Nazi and Confederate flags and chanting — among other despicable hate speech — “Jew will not replace us.”

I had never heard the expression before. And so I turned to the internets where a calibrated Google search revealed that it seems not to have appeared in mainstream media before Saturday of last week.

By now most Americans — regardless of their political, ideological, and spiritual leanings — are aware that Jews have been historically targeted by European and American white supremacists. In the minds of certain racists, Jews have corrupted the purity of European and Anglo blood and intellectual thought over the centuries.

In 1938, after Mussolini and Italy’s fascist régime adopted Hitler’s race laws, the Italian government began to publish La difesa della razza (In defense of [our] race), a journal intended to bolster the standing of the Aryan race (to which the Italian supposedly belonged in Hitler’s Europe).

On the cover of each issue, the editors transcribed a quote from Dante’s Comedy, lines 80-81 from the fifth canto of the Paradiso, where Beatrice (Dante’s spiritual guide) encourages the peoples of Europe:

uomini siate, e non pecore matte,
sì che ‘l giudeo di voi tra voi non rida

be men, not maddened sheep, lest the Jew
there in your midst make mock of you

Not surprisingly, the lines were taken out of context. And it’s worth reading Beatrice’s entire exhortation, which she delivers as she guides the pilgrim Dante to spiritual redemption.

Be more grave, Christians, in your endeavors.
Do not resemble feathers in the wind, nor think
all waters have the power to wash you clean.

You have the Testaments, both New and Old,
and the shepherd of the Church to guide you.
Let these suffice for your salvation.

If wicked greed should call you elsewhere,
be men, not maddened sheep, lest the Jew
there in your midst make mock of you.

Be not like the lamb that leaves
its mother’s milk and, silly and wanton,
pretends to battle with itself in play.

Just as I [Dante] am writing, thus did Beatrice speak.

For Dante, the demise of European culture was owed to Christians’ abandonment of the Word of G-d. He saw the growing secular influence of the Holy Roman Empire — as opposed the Church — as the greatest threat to human salvation.

When read in context, Dante’s reference to the Jews should be interpreted as don’t allow the spiritually anchored among you to deride you for your spiritual ambivalence.

Unfortunately (for them), the editors of La difesa della razza weren’t the greatest Dante scholars. Had they read the text they were quoting more carefully, they would have realized that, in fact, Dante was encouraging his readers to turn to G-d for guidance in times of moral and ethical crises. Don’t mindlessly follow G-dless ideology. Don’t be small-brained sheep who lack the moral guide that G-d gave us with his Word — his Testaments, New and Old. Let Christ be your shepherd, he tells his Christian readers.

Whether or not you voted for Donald Trump, whether or not you call yourself a Christian or a Jew, it’s time for all Americans to condemn the Nazi and Confederate symbols and hate speech employed by the white supremacists in Charlottesville over the weekend.

There are too many among us — Christians and Jews — who have tolerated the rise of white nationalism in this country with the excuse that it was a necessary evil in achieving Donald Trump’s victory. No matter where you stand on the issue, white nationalism played a significant role in his election — there’s no denying that, folks.

Someday, when my semi-Semitic children are old enough to read the newspaper and their white mother and their Jewish father have to explain to them that there are people in our country who want to expel Jews from their communities, I will point to the Word:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien… you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19).

I never thought in a million years that my children would have to experience anti-Semitism (as I did growing up). But it’s come to this. And this can and will not stand in the Parzen family.

Image via Alessandro Robecchi’s blog. Translation via the Princeton Dante Project.

California wine, I was wrong about you. I’m sorry…

The bunches in the photo above are from the Stolpman winery’s Angeli vineyard, where the family grows one of its top wines, the Ballard Canyon AVA Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County). I captured that image on Tuesday of this week as I walked through the Stolpman family’s organic, dry-farmed vineyard, where sustainable farming (including sustainable employment practices) is central to this historic winery’s mission and vision.

It’s just one of the vineyards I’ve visited over the last three months this year, between Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast, Russian River, Santa Cruz Mountains, and San Pasqual Valley.

I tasted the 2014 release from the Stolpman family’s Angeli vineyard back in June and it was utterly delicious.

California wine, I was wrong about you. Really wrong. And I’m really sorry about that. I am your native son: please forgive me.

When the publishers of Slow Food guides, magazines, and books asked me to be the co-ordinating editor of their new guide to the wines of California (to be released in early 2018), I wasn’t sure that we would find enough wineries and wines to fill the pages of the book.

Over the last three months, I’ve tasted hundreds of wines with my fellow editors and toured throughout California wine country — from San Diego where I grew up to Sonoma Coast where I discovered one of my home state’s most beautiful and otherworldly landscapes. Along the way, I found that not only does California produce some of the best wine in the world today but it is also home to a well-established and expanding movement of sustainable farms. And many of those farms and families span generations, like Volker Eisele, one of my favorite finds, in the heart of the Napa Valley, a farm where organic practices have been employed since its inception.

That’s a top growing site for Pinot Noir owned by the Domaine de la Côte in the photo above (taken Tuesday of this week). Check out the altitude reading in my compass screenshot below.

Lompoc in Santa Barbara County, where Domaine de la Côte grows its grapes, was another one of the eye-opening discoveries for me. When I woke up on Wednesday morning in Solvang, about 30 minutes inland from Lompoc, it was so cold that I had to wear a jacket when I went out for a Danish. Fog covered the valley. It was August 8. Today, August 10, the high is predicted to be in the low 80s and the low in the mid-50s. Could you think of better conditions (diurnal shifts) for ripening wine fine grapes? In Lompoc they’re beginning to pick their Pinot Noir this week.

In California wine country, they love to use the expression as the crow flies when talking about distance in the lay of the land (as opposed to as a human drives). I certainly have a lot of crow to eat: like so many europhile wine writers of my generation, I have been sweepingly dismissive of California wine in my nearly 20 years on the job.

California wine is hot weather wine. California wine is overly oaky, overly concentrated, jammy and overly alcoholic. California wine is about winemaking and not about grape growing. California wine was conceived historically as an exercise in marketing and has little connection to the land and the people who farm it.

All of those chestnuts are true. But they are also countless farmers, wineries, and winemakers that counter those stereotypes. And many of those farms are managed by multiple generations of the same family.

California, thank you for your grapes, thank you for your wines. Thank you for welcoming me back. I could even kiss a Sunset pig, California, now that I’m home.

Glen Campbell, he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother…

One of the most vivid memories from my childhood in San Diego, CA is my cello teacher showing me an autographed headshot of Glen Campbell. The year was 1975 and I was eight years old. And she had performed the night before in the orchestra with his band on the San Diego date of his tour.

I had no idea who he was or why the photograph was so important to her. It was the same year that Rhinestone Cowboy came out.

Decades later, when I started working in recording studios in Los Angeles, I heard lots of the veteran players talk fondly and reverently about what an inspiring player he was.

“Probably the best flat-picking [guitar] player that ever lived” was what so many of them said. The baritone guitar solo on “Wichita Lineman” is such a great example of his extraordinary playing and deeply soulful musicianship.

I happened to be on my way to LA yesterday (driving in from Santa Barbara wine country) when I learned that he had finally succumbed to his illness. It was in LA that he reshaped pop music in so many ways and on so many levels, whether working as session player or by showing the world how cool country could be.

I never met him. But between the many guitar solos and songs of his that have played such a big role in my musical and emotional life, the news hit me like a brick. It felt and feels like I had lost a best friend.

The image is still so clear in mind: the autographed picture that my teacher was so proud of. I had no idea what it meant or what it would come to mean to me…

Here’s one of my favorite songs by him. It’s what I’m listening to on a sunny but otherwise blue day in LA.

Image via Lawren’s Flickr.

Lambrusco, what the fuss?

Ever since we began working on the wine list at Rossoblu in Los Angeles, where I co-author the program, I’ve been fermenting my thoughts on how to explain to Italian wine lovers what Lambrusco really is. Between blog posts and a seminar I led the other day here in Houston, I felt like I’m getting closer to cracking the nut otherwise known as “the Lambrusco paradox.” And then, this morning at 6:01 a.m., this happened (below)…

Join me Tuesday evening, August 8 at Rossoblu where I’ll be leading my first Lambrusco tasting for the restaurant. Click here for details.

Emilia’s Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano are counted among the world’s most renowned and most coveted foods. And they are also one of the world’s greatest examples of terroir, the unique confluence of soil and climate that delivers expression of place. No matter how hard they try (and try they do!), no one beyond the southern banks of the Po River can reproduce the delicate, sweet character of Parma’s Prosciutto and the distinct crumbly texture and gently piquant flavor of Parmigiano Reggiano.

But when they reach for a wine to pair with these delicacies, the Emilians reach for one wine and one wine alone: Lambrusco. That’s partly because no wine pairs better with those noble foods than Lambrusco, made from the humble Lambrusco grape, which is grown side-by-side with the pigs and the cows that give the Emilians the materia prima for their unrivaled gastronomy.

But there’s another and perhaps more important reason why the Emilians so jealously and so zealously reach for their Lambrusco. Just like the Emilian people, whose joyful passion for good living is rivaled only by their appetite for great food, there is perhaps no wine more joyous than Lambrusco. After all, wouldn’t you be as happy if you were constantly surrounded by pigs and cows, Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano?

The key to understanding the Lambrusco paradox — the world’s most noble food served canonically with its most humble wine — is wrapping your mind around the fact that Lambrusco is wine but it’s not fine wine. It’s not meant to be nuanced or structured. It’s not intended to be enjoyed for any refined nature. With its broad, bold strokes of aroma and flavor, it was conceived to express the expansive joy and happiness that the Emilians — arguably the world’s most sensually minded people — feel every day when they awake surrounded by their ham and cheese.

Ask the Emilians and they will invariably tell you that no, it’s not Sangiovese, Aglianico, or Nebbiolo that pair best with their beloved foods. It’s always and only Lambrusco, absolutely and undeniably the ideal match for their cuisine and the perfect antidote to all that is ostentatious and officious in life.

Pass the Lambrusco please, hold the fuss.

Xochi is my new favorite restaurant in Houston

Last night, thanks to cousins Dana and Neil (who graciously treated us to dinner), Tracie P and I finally made it over to Chef Hugo Ortega’s new(ish) restaurant in downtown Houston, Xochi, his homage and ode to the cuisine of Oaxaca.

His seafood restaurant Caracol was my previous favorite restaurant in Houston (such a brilliant place, btw). Xochi is my new one!

That’s the queso de cincho, above, topped with a “trio of insects” (fried worms, ants, and grasshoppers) and accompanied by chicharrones (fried pork skins).

Infladita de Conejo — rabbit, black tortilla, raisins, almonds, tomato, and refried beans.

Speaking to our server, he told me that he was so eager to work there that he told the managers he would take a dish-washing position just to get his foot in the door. You can tell by the warm vibe of the restaurant that Ortega’s staff is as inspired by him as they are by what he is doing in the kitchen. And it shows in the quality of the food and the caliber of the service.

Robalo (sea bass crudo) — aguachile verde (green chile water), cilantro, parsley, lime, orange, avocado, serrano, corn, red onion, cucumber, and plantain tostada.

I also really liked wine director and general manager Sean Beck’s smart, value-driven wine list. The Brooks 2016 Pinot Noir Rosé from Oregon was such a perfect pairing that worked gorgeously throughout the meal, even as a refreshing counterpoint to my chicken mole. Sean should win an award for “best Mexican cuisine wine program.”

Accolades aside, hearing him speak in such glowing tones about his many trips to Oaxaca, you can tell that his passion for the restaurant and its menu are reward enough.

But the best part of the meal…

…was having a night out with my beautiful wife.

Thank you, Dana and Neil, for such a lovely and unforgettable evening. And thank you, Sean and staff, for such seamless, warm, and thoughtful service.

Xochi is a true original: a meal there is a voyage to Oaxaca and a reflection of the best of Houston and its peoples.

Ever tasted Coteaux Champenois? New Houston restaurant offers 5, ridiculously low pricing sweetens deal…

Above: some of the labels that Shawn Virene pulled for his VIP debut party last night at Houston’s soon-to-open À Bouzy. Bollinger Grande Année? Now that’s my kind of wine, especially when priced so aggressively (check out “Bollinger,” a song that I wrote and recorded with my band Nous Non Plus here; that’s how much I love it).

Petroleum crowd, rejoice!

Not only is Houston now home to what may be the largest Champagne program in the country, with a 1.25 markup (!!!) applied to sparkling wines and a 1.5 markup for an ample gathering of heavy-hitting Californian and European lots, it is also the host city for biggest collection of still wines from Champagne, the elusive and coveted Coteaux Champenois.

For context, we turn to the Oxford Companion to Wine: “For every one bottle of still white [wine] produced in Champagne,” write the editors, “perhaps 20 of still red … are produced (in a good vintage), and 16,000 bottles of sparkling.”

In other words, still wine in Champagne represents less than .002 percent of the appellation’s entire production — and that’s in a good vintage.

I’ve only ever tasted one in my whole career as a wine writer.

Yesterday, I sat down with the author of the new list, one of Houston’s most respected and beloved wine pros, Shawn Virene, who is launching his new restaurant À Bouzy this week.

Check out my preview of his extraordinary program here, my post today for the Houston Press.

Shawn told me that the average price of a bottle of Champagne will be $50. And all the sparkling wines, even the hardest to source, will be available at the 1.25 markup.

As he was working on his cellar, he said, he contacted nearly every Champagne house that he could think of. And most responded gleefully, he reported.

It makes perfect sense: Champagne, a “luxury brand,” has been one of the appellations hardest hit by the world recession over the last decade. And many Champagne producers have been looking for a shots-in-the-arm like this — in one of the world’s hottest destinations for premium wine to boot.

Check out my preview here. I can’t wait to get there and check out the food: Shawn said Champagne-friendliness was the key element in crafting the restaurant’s menu.

Mazel tov, Shawn, for making our city an even more compelling wine destination!

In other news…

Thanks to everyone who commented on, liked, and shared my post yesterday on the meaning of the name Scaramucci. Thanks especially to the all the people who found my blog for the first time as they were searching for the signification of the surname.

It was on the verge of going viral until he got canned. O well (sigh)! No chaos here!

Scaramucci and the meaning of the name? Machiavelli has the answer.

From the department of “nomen est omen”…

Above: the celebrated 17th-century Italian actor Tiberio Fiorilli as Scaramouche (or Scaramuccia), the commedia dell’arte character that he popularized during his tenure at the Comédie-Italienne (image via the Wiki Creative Commons).

Like many of my fellow Americans, I’ve been dismayed by the ongoing degradation of civil discourse in our country, which most recently found its apotheosis in the figure of Anthony Scaramucci. Whatever your political viewpoint, there’s no denying that his embrace of vulgarity and profanity in mainstream media is yet another sign of the times and an indicator of the decline of politesse in politics.

But I have also been dismayed by the many pejorative and degrading stereotypes of Italian-Americans and Italians that have been employed by mainstream media in describing Scaramucci’s regrettable but sadly unavoidable — given the tenor and timbre politics today — approach to American politics and policy.

Yesterday, for example, I heard a commentator compare him to Joe Pesci’s character in My Cousin Vinny, the 1992 microagression against the progeny of Italian immigrants.

I’ve also heard a number of journalists make allusions to the lyrics of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” — Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango — where the band purposefully employs (literal) gibberish as literary nonsense.

Like the French calque scaramouche, the family name Scaramucci comes from the Italian scaramuccia, which means and is akin to the English skirmish (both terms probably come from the Frankish or Longobardic skirmjan).

The surname is still commonly found in Italy, mostly in Tuscany and the Marches. And even in the wake of the recent seismic activity in Italy, Palazzo Scaramucci — a trace of the noble Scaramucci family that once thrived there — still reportedly stands in Norcia.

When I looked up scaramuccia in the Treccani encyclopedia (Italy’s Britannica), I wasn’t surprised to find that an early example of its usage is ascribed to Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy, where the historian reflects on Roman models of conquest and governance with an eye to politics and warfare in his own time.

He offers the definition of scaramuccia in his chapter on “what esteem artillery should be held by armies at the present time, and whether the opinion universally held in its regard is sound.”

“It is an accepted maxim,” writes the author of The Prince, “that against a heavy massed attack, artillery is powerless. For this reason the defending of towns against the fury of ultramontane [northern nations’] attacks has not been successful… [But] against the assaults of Italians they have been highly successful, for the latter do not attack en masse but in detachments, a form of attack for which … the best name is skirmishing [skirmishes, scaramucce, the plural of scaramuccia].”

(Translation by Leslie Walker, revised 1970, Penguin.)

Artillery was the cutting-edge weaponry in Machiavelli’s era. To offer some context, firearms like the arquebus, an early form of the long gun, were first introduced into combat in Machiavelli’s time. How wars were fought was a major concern to him and his contemporaries.

In the century after Machiavelli, scaramuccia would enter the public consciousness with the rise of Tiberio Fiorilli’s role as Scaramuccia in the Comédie-Italienne.

According to the Britannica, Scaramuccia was a “stock character of the Italian theatrical form known as the commedia dell’arte; an unscrupulous and unreliable servant. His affinity for intrigue often landed him in difficult situations, yet he always managed to extricate himself, usually leaving an innocent bystander as his victim.”*

To borrow a phrase dear to Dante, it would seem that nomina sunt consequentia rerum.

* From the Britannica: “Scaramouche was originally a variation of the commedia character Capitano, a braggart soldier. The role was closely associated with the Italian actor Tiberio Fiorillo (1608–94), who played without a mask. He transformed the military role to that of a comic servant, usually an indigent gentleman’s valet. His costume was black breeches, jacket, cloak, and beret.”