One of the best meals I had in Italy this year was at Caminetto d’Oro in Bologna. Francesca Gori is a sommelier to watch!

Whenever people ask for recommendations on where to eat in Bologna, my answer is always the same: there’s great food in Bologna but the best expressions of true Emilia cuisine are found in the countryside.

I stand by my position on this issue.

But I’d like to amend it: I enjoyed a bunch of great meals this year in Emilia but one of the best — one of the best meals I had in Italy this year — was at Caminetto d’Oro in downtown Bologna.

Those are the tagliatelle al ragù, above. (In Bologna they’re not called tagliatelle alla bolognese; they’re just called tagliatelle al ragù).

One of my best friends and clients, Paolo Cantele, and I had carved out time for a “working dinner,” so to speak. And he suggested we go there.

I’d actually been there once before, many years ago, with my dissertation advisor and the leading food studies scholar in Italy today, Massimo Montanari. But that was back in the days when I parsed hendecasyllables for a living and only gave a second thought to salumi and giardiniera (above).

I can’t think of a friend in Bologna (and I have many) who would opt to take you out to a restaurant for dinner instead of inviting you to her/his home for tagliatelle fatte in casa (and at the risk of sounding sexist and chauvinist, I have to point out that it’s always tagliatelle fatte dalla mamma).

But, man, the meal at the Caminetto d’Oro (the golden fireplace) was phenomenally good. And the white tablecloth setting didn’t detract one bit from the experience.

But the thing that really took it over the top for me personally was the wine list.

And here’s where the experts will disagree: most would contend that the true Emilian meal is paired exclusively with Lambrusco. And I mostly agree with that supposition.

But when sommelier Francesca Gori appeared with a bottle of Vigne di San Lorenzo macerated Albana (above), I thought I had died and gone to heaven. We opened a number of bottles that night (including a 2012 Bartolo Mascarello, thank you, Paolo!). But the stars of the meal where the Albana and Vigne di San Lorenzo’s stunning Sangiovese (one of the most original and most enjoyable wines I tasted this year in Italy).

Man, why is no one bringing these wines to the U.S. yet? Importers, please get on it!

Francesca also runs the wine and beverage program at storied restaurant’s newish wine bar next door, Twinside.

If I lived in Bologna, I’d be there every night (and Saturday nights in the main dining room).

What a great restaurant and what a great evening in Bologna! Francesca, thank you so much for sharing so many groovy wines.

And of course, no evening in Bologna is complete without a stroll sotto i portici, a walk under the porticoes, one of the city’s defining architectonic features.

When in Bologna, check it out. I highly recommend it (but be sure to reserve, especially for the main dining room).

Cascina Baricchi Barbaresco 2001: man, what a wine!

From the department of “inner light”…

The mosaic of Italian wine is never-ending.

Just when you think you’ve wrapped your mind around all the classics (even after more than 20 years in the trade), another stunning wine seems to pop up out of nowhere as if to remind you that Italy is a fount of endless joy and pleasure.

To borrow a lyric from George Harrison, “The farther one travels/The less one knows/The less one really knows…”

Those lines dances through my brain a few weeks ago when my Italian bromance Giovanni poured me a glass of 2001 Barbaresco by Cascina Baricchi (above).

A bottle or two of the farm’s Timorasso had come my way (thank you, Chambers Street Wines). But this gem from the land of Nebbiolo had eluded my palate… until then.

Man, what a wine! Old school as it gets but with elegance, purity, and none of the rough edges that the old-line prophets of submerged cap once inscribed in their wines (I’m thinking of Roagna, for example, one of my all-time favorites, before Luca started making the wines).

It was no surprise to read, on the farm’s website, that its Barbaresco is raised (mostly) in large-format “un-toasted” cask. And it was equally unsurprising to learn that the winemaker views its wines as an expression of “Langa… the sensations, warmth, wildness, and class that only these wines, from these areas, can convey.”

According to the site, the estate is represented in the U.S. by Bliss Wines in Napa, an importer specialized in organically farmed and non-interventionist wines.

If you’ve never tasted Baricchi, look out for the wines. I know I’ll be snatching up every bottle I can lay my hands on.

Happy birthday sweet sweet Georgia! You are 7 years old!

Happy birthday sweet, sweet Georgia! You are seven years old today!

Last night, before we put you and your sister to bed, mommy and I remembered the day — the week — you were born. I can still see it all in my mind like it was yesterday.

Georgia, you are such a bright and joyful girl.

You love going to museums, whether the art museum, the dinosaur museum, or the real astronauts (your favorite).

You love reading and you love using fancy words and figures of speech (you have a way with words, I always tell you).

You love drawing and you love art projects.

You love your little dog Rusty (and he loves you, too).

You love going to school and you love playing violin. This week you earned another badge for another song you learned to play. Watching you enjoy music and play music has been such a joy for mommy and me.

And sweet, sweet Georgia Ann, you love your family.

Just the other day, mommy dropped one of her favorite mixing bowls and it broke into a thousand pieces.

“Oh no!” she cried, “I loved that bowl!”

You told her you would try to put it back together for her. But when she explained that it wouldn’t work, you still wanted to help.

“What can I do to make you feel better, mommy?” you asked. And that was all it took.

Georgia, we all love you so much — mommy, Lila Jane, and me. We’re so happy it’s your birthday and we are looking forward to celebrating with you today and this weekend when your grandparents and cousins will come in for your party.

Happy birthday, sweet girl. You bring so much joy into the world.

I love you…

Enough Champagne, green turtle, and truffles to go around: origins of the Champagne socialist

My research on the origins of the expression “Champagne socialist” led me this week to the man above, George Cary Eggleston, a Confederate memoirist and self-described “rebel” apologist.

It’s not clear whether or not he coined the expression. But he was among the first — if not the first — to use it in print.

The phrase appeared in his 1906 novel Blind Alleys, a parody of pseudo-intellectual society in America at the time.

“The Champagne socialist,” says one of the characters in the book, “wants everybody to be equal upon the higher plane that suits him, utterly ignoring the fact that there are not enough [C]hampagne, green turtle, and truffles to go round.”

After World War II, the expression evolved and acquired a slightly different meaning — the one we know today in the figure of the hypocritical elitist-socialist.

But in the first decade of the twentieth century, as the socialist movements in Europe and America were beginning to take shape, his character drew a distinction between the “beer socialist” and the “champagne [sic] socialist,” two equally misguided idealists in her view.

It makes for great reading, in part but no less because the author details some of the gastronomic mores of the day.

You can also read his account of his time as a Confederate soldier on The Atlantic website (his highly popular memoir was first published by the magazine in the late 19th century).

And you can read my holiday sparkling wine guide for Houston Press here. I had a lot of fun with it this morning and hope you enjoy it.

Happy sparkling shopping, everyone!

Image via Wikipedia.

Houston sommelier passes MS exam (again); Ian D’Agata and Jeff Porter in Houston tomorrow and Wednesday; wine and music this Sunday at Houston’s 13 Celsius

Beloved Houston sommelier Steven McDonald became a Master Sommelier for the second time last week.

That’s Steven (above), wine director for one of the city’s leading steakhouses, with his wife Adria in St. Louis where he retook the tasting exam after being stripped of his title in the wake of a cheating scandal (photo via Steven’s Facebook).

Steven wasn’t involved with the malfeasance in any way. But he was one of 23 erstwhile Master Sommeliers whose newly earned titles were “invalidated” by the Court of Master Sommeliers more than a month after the group’s coveted pins had been conferred.

Houston Chronicle wine columnist Dale Robertson reported the story here.

And for more background, information on steps the Court has taken to rectify the situation, and updates on some of the candidates who didn’t pass the “reset” (as its called), see this excellent reporting by Seven Fifty Daily contributor Courtney Schiessl.

Tracie and I live in the same neighborhood as Steven and Adria. Our kids go to the same school. We eat breakfast at the same diner. They are among the nicest people we know in Houston’s wine community. A great family and great people, all around.

We couldn’t be happier for them that this stressful ordeal is now over.

In other Houston wine news…

Celebrity sommelier Jeff Porter and celebrated Italian ampelographer Ian D’Agata will be leading two days of seminars and tastings tomorrow and Wednesday at the Houstonian hotel and resort.

Click here for details and registration info.

Jeff tells me that all sessions are wait-listed but he encourages local wine professionals to sign-up regardless because spots will surely become available.

Ian’s book on the Native Wine Grapes of Italy (University of California Press 2014) has become required reading for Italian wine-focused tradespeople. I use the online version (Google Play) nearly every day.

It’s so cool that Jeff is bringing him to our city.

And in other other Houston wine and music news…

Houston-based journalist and author Gwendolyn Knapp (above, right) and I will be playing a set of her music as The GoAways this Sunday at one of the city’s favorite wine bars, 13 Celsius.

Weather permitting we’ll be do roughly 45 minutes of music in the venue’s beautiful courtyard (above) at 3 p.m. Two other bands are slated to play and it should be a great time and a great way to get together before year’s end.

I hope you can join us!

So much time and so little to say: I have so much material to post from my last trip to Italy, including some really juicy good stuff. Please stay tuned!

Champagne Socialist: if you visit Milan, go there! It’s my new favorite wine bar in Italy.

From the department of “non tutti i texani vengono per nuocere”…*

Thank you, Davide and Marco, for welcoming a tired Texan. It was a great way to end a tough but fruitful trip.

Thank you, Laura, for hipping me to my new favorite wine bar in Italy.

* I will share a glass of natural wine with anyone who can name the allusion in the quote above.

Dispatch from the land of Barbera, Moscato, and Brachetto

Anyone who’s ever been on an Italian wine industry media junket knows that the experience can be a bit of a schlepp. You generally have to board a bus at 9 a.m. and stay out all day, often until after dinner, visiting wineries, tasting wines, attending lectures and seminars, and eating way too much food.

It’s often exhausting but the upshot can be rewarding. When well organized, the trips allow you to taste a lot of wines that you might miss otherwise. And what’s even better is that you get to taste them side-by-side, mostly in single sessions for each category.

Last week, I spent three days getting on that bus at 9 a.m. And I’ve now tasted more Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Asti and from more producers than ever before. And even though I’d been on a Barbera d’Asti junket once before (eight years ago now), I also got to refresh my knowledge and tasting notes for Barbera d’Asti and the newly born Nizza appellation as well.

I haven’t been on a trip like this in a long time. But I was glad to be on this one: for the last year, I’ve been contributing to blogs sponsored by the Moscato d’Asti and Barbera d’Asti consortia.

One of the highlights was getting taste a lot of Moscato Secco. It’s one of the new designations from Moscato d’Asti and it’s coming to a town near you soon.

Brachetto Rosé, a dry wine, is another brand new designation I was eager to check out. And it was amazing, honestly, to taste 30 or so expressions of Brachetto side-by-side, including classic Brachetto, still Brachetto, and the new category.

Despite the long hours, the massive amounts of truffles we were forced to eat (see below), and the behemoth number of wines we were compelled to taste, it turned out to be a really fun experience. And that was especially because of the super cool people who were on the trip with me (above).

I’ve been working in this business for more than 10 years now. And I’m convinced, now more than ever, that it’s not the wines that make me keep coming back. It’s the people. It’s the community that makes it all worthwhile.

I have a ton of notes that I’ll share. And this week, I’m traveling through northern Italy tasting more wines and talking to producers in other appellations as well. In the meantime, please wish me speed and safety.

Heartfelt thanks to the Moscato d’Asti, Barbera d’Asti, and Brachetto d’Acqui producers for hosting me. I really learned a lot on this one. Thank you!

A thought-provoking and delicious Colli Orientali del Friuli white blend from Massican

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, American winemaker Dan Petroski, founder and owner of the California-based Massican winery, generously sent me a bottle of his latest label, Gaspare.

Named after the father of a schoolmate who nudged Dan toward his first winery job in Italy, it’s a 2016 blend of Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, and Chardonnay. But unlike Dan’s celebrated Friuli-inspired northern Californian whites, the fruit for this wine was grown in the Colli Orientali del Friuli by his friends Serena Palazzolo and Christian Patat whose Ronco del Gnemiz (Gnemiz Hill) winery is one of the most renowned in the appellation.

The wine is thoroughly delicious, richer in style than Serena and Christian’s signature wines, perhaps more reminiscent of Borgo del Tiglio in terms of body and weight than the lean, laser-focused monovarietal bottlings from Ronco del Genmiz. The aromatic character of the Tocai prevails while the Chardonnay seems to impart muscular elegance to this age-worthy (imho) bottle.

But the thing that really struck me about it was its trans-national character. And even more impressive, in my view, its “anxiety of influence,” to borrow Bloom’s phrase.

Here’s a critically acclaimed and admired American winemaker whose aesthetic has been shaped by his contact with Friulian white wines. Like a Dante emulating his guide Virgil, he has applied his experience in and passion for Italy using Friulian grape varieties grown in Californian soil. But now he’s come back to Italy, full circle, in a peripeteia that precedes a glorious reckoning, a resolution of sorts between that which inspires and the inspiration itself.

The Oedipal connotation is profound. In today’s world of new- and old-world contamination, where European winemakers react to and emulate American sensibilities and American winemakers (like Petroski) emulate and react to their European counterparts’ sensibilities, the Massican Colli Orientali del Friuli Bianco represents a sort of Jungian lysis. Or should I say autolysis?

Great stuff and thanks, Dan, for sharing it with Tracie and me (she loved it, too).

NEW ALBUM: “Their Love Is Here To Stay” by the Parzen Family Singers (FREE DOWNLOAD)

Happy holidays, everyone! We hope you enjoy the new album from the Parzen Family Singers, “Their Love Is Here to Stay”!

DOWNLOAD ALBUM FOR FREE HERE.

Or click here to listen on SoundCloud.

Many of the songs on this album were inspired by our girls, Lila Jane age 5 and Georgia almost 7. Over the course of the year, they challenged me to write songs about them and their lives.

The lead track, “Safety Song,” came about when Lila Jane asked me to compose a song about, well, “safety,” something we spend a lot of time talking about at our house.

Georgia makes an appearance on vocals on “Minivan,” another one they asked for (although now they are more excited about our F150 than our Odyssey).

“Sonny,” the album’s only instrumental, is about one of their stuffed animals.

Sonny the Cheetah makes another appearance in “We Are The Bunnaroos,” a song about their make-believe rock band (inspired by “Josie And The Pussycats” and [Paul Collins’] The Beat).

“(This Is Called The) Go Rusty,” a track about our new dog, was co-written by Lila Jane who performs vocals.

“Welcome To The S—hole” is self-explanatory (rock ‘n’ roll is one of the best antidotes to Trump and his racism brand).

“Taking A Bath” was another song challenge from the girls. We wrote it together as I strummed a guitar and they played in the tub. It’s my homage to Randy Newman.

“ABCs” is the album’s only cover, performed by Lila Jane.

“At The Museum” was inspired by our visits to Houston’s excellent Museum of Fine Arts. It’s testament to the old adage that you can write a song about anything under the sun. I’m really proud of the lyrics on this one (and all the while in the café/the milk is steaming/sipping cappuccinos and dreaming).

The title track, “Their Love Is Here To Stay,” was written after white supremacists sent an anonymous defamatory letter about me to Tracie’s 97-year-old grandmother “memaw” (the folks back home/they say she’s crazy/to love a spirit such as he/she’s been around the world that lady/nobody knows her mind but she).

Thanks for downloading and listening (any proceeds from pay-what-you-want sales will go to our efforts to repurpose the newly constructed Confederate memorial in Tracie’s hometown, Orange, Texas).

We hope you enjoy the music as much as we did making it…

Happy Thanksgiving and happy holidays, everyone!

Is wine a work of art? The Minimus 2017 Pinot Gris from Oregon was one of the most artful wines I’ve ever tasted

Please join me tonight (Friday, Nov. 16) at Sud Italia on University Blvd. in Houston (Google map) for an evening of great Italian wine and conversation. I’ll be pouring wine for guests all evening.

The greatest works of art and literature are those which are conscious of being works of art and literature, texts that are self-aware of being texts, so to speak.

Without diving headfirst and recklessly into a discussion of “experiential” versus “experimental” poetics, suffice it to say that there are two types of “art” in the [post-]post-modern world: those which merely entertain us and those which expand their genre by forging new ground, as they entertain us all the while.

This dichotomy can be traced back to antiquity, of course. But in modern times, the “art vs. entertainment” dialectic was best summed up by Umberto Eco in his (in)famous 1985 essay “‘Casablanca’: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage.”

“According to traditional standards in aesthetics,” he wrote, “‘Casablanca’ is not a work of art… [I]f the films of Dreyer, Eisenstein, or Antonioni are works of art, ‘Casablanca’ represents a very modest aesthetic achievement.”

A lot of Casablanca fans will be surprised to hear that. But as Eco illustrates (and despite being a diehard ‘Casablanca’ fan, I agree with him), Casablanca is a great film but it’s not a work of art. In other words, it’s not a film that’s conscious of being a film. It’s just a great film.

Late-night graduate-days debates over the intersection and divergence in art and entertainment — fueled by pungent cigarettes and acrid coffee — came to mind as we drank the Minimus 2017 Pinot Gris from Oregon the other night.

Where so many skin-contact and natural-intentioned wines can tend to be monochromatic in their aromas and flavors, this wine delivered gorgeous varietal expressiveness, with brilliant fruit (ripe peach and apricot), elegant acidity, and artful weight, body, and texture. In a word, I loved it.

But I was also struck by the fact that, like many of the Craft Wine Co. wines, it’s a one-off, one of the many bottlings they do just once — when the confluence of growing conditions and availability of fruit gave the winemaker the unique opportunity to make. No, there won’t be a 2018 bottling and that’s simply because the winemaker has already moved on to his next aesthetic adventure (well, honestly, I don’t know that for sure but it’s my understanding that each of their wines is intended to be an entirely singular viticultural expression, a sui generis bottling).

The packaging and meticulously compiled metatext (see the image above) also struck me as remarkable and remarkably thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Like a text that’s left the hands of its author and has gone on to become its own living and breathing objet d’art, this wine seemed to have a life that came into being only after the moment of its issuance. At the risk of sounding unintentionally macabre, I’ll borrow Barthes’ equally infamous declaration that “the author winemaker is dead…” In other words, this wine, so mindful and self-aware of being a wine, had taken on a life of its own once it left the confines of the cellar where it was born and found its way to me in Houston.

(For the record, the man who made this wine is alive and well; meaning here is figurative, of course, not literal.)

Is winemaking an intellectual pursuit? I believe that no, it’s not. Is it an aesthetic expression of its winemaker? I believe it is… but not when she/he seals the wine with a cork or screw cap. It becomes poetical the moment a wine lover pulls that cork or twists that screw cap.

And the other night, the Minimus 2017 Pinot Gris was pure poetry…

Buon weekend, everyone! Have a great weekend and drink something delicious!