Drink a bottle of Barolo with Giuseppe Vaira and me this Thursday in Houston.

Photo by Ilkka Sirén.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to be moderating a virtual wine dinner this Thursday with my good friend Giuseppe Vajra (above), legacy winemaker at G.D. Vajra in Barolo and one of the most soulful Langa growers I know.

Giuseppe will be joining me for our weekly event at Roma restaurant, my client, here in Houston.

I first tasted at Vajra back in 2010 and then later had the opportunity to work with Giuseppe here in Texas. Over the years, Tracie and I have enjoyed the wines immensely and I’ve featured his wines on restaurant lists I’ve managed. We have more than a few vintages of his Bricco delle Viole in our cellar. The family’s Riesling is another age-worthy stand-out among many others in the line up.

As every wine professional knows these days, this is a time for creativity. Roma owner Shanon Scott and I have been working with our suppliers to keep the price of these dinners low while still being able to offer our guests a unique and truly compelling experience. As if tasting with winemaker like Giuseppe weren’t enough, we were able to obtain his 2016 Barolo Albe specially for this event. But the price will be the same as always: $119 sends you home with dinner for two and three (yes, three!) bottles of wine including Giuseppe’s Barolo.

Click here for the menu and the other wines. (The Vajra Dolcetto is my 87-year-old mother’s all-time favorite red wine, btw.)

We expect this event to sell out quickly: please let me know if you’d like me to hold you a spot (click here to email me).

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.

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, we eat apples and honey as a symbol of the sweet year ahead we hope G-d will grant us.

May you and yours be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good and sweet new year.

From Chabad.org:

Let us turn our heads heavenward and, while thanking Him for sparing so much human life, beseech G-d to restore health and well-being to those who are suffering!

Let us ask G-d for a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year for the entire universe! Our High Holiday prayers, we are taught, have an extraordinary effect on the year ahead – let’s seize the opportunity!

Let us make firm, tangible resolutions to better ourselves and increase our mitzvot, in both our interpersonal and our G-d-and-us relationships.

And let us all simply shower one another with blessings!

Thanks for being here. I’ll see you next week. Happy new year…

What are biodynamic wines? Taste virtually with one of Italy’s leading biodynamic grape growers this Thursday in Houston.

You’re probably wondering why I’m posting a picture of a dog with a basket full of flowers on my blog today.

Yes, it’s true that Tracie, the girls, and I are dog lovers and we count a Chihuahua and a Chihuahua mix as family members (Paco and RooRoo, respectively).

But it’s actually the flowers that make the image compelling.

This week at the weekly virtual wine dinner I host for my client Roma restaurant in Houston, we’ll be welcoming Emilio Fidora of the Fidora winery in Veneto.

Founded in 1974, Fidora claims to be the Veneto region’s first organic certified winery. And it was also one of the first estates there to convert to biodynamic farming.

But one of the things that I find so exceptional about Emilio (a super cool dude who lives in Padua where I studied for many years) is that he actually makes his biodynamic preparations himself. That’s his dog in the image above and those are some of the flowers he grows for the preparations.

For those not familiar with biodynamic preparations, they are powders made from flowers and herbs. They are then mixed with cow dung, which in turn is used to fill cow horns. Those horns are then buried and once the desired microbiome (bacteria and fungi) has been achieved, the horns are unearthed. Their contents are mixed with water and then sprayed across the vineyards to help bolster the “humus” or life force (some would call it the biodiversity) of the soil.

On Thursday night, we’ll be tasting three of Emilio’s wines paired with Chef Angelo Cuppone’s food. And Emilio will be walking our guests through the history and impact of biodynamics on grape farming and winemaking.

One of the things I’m most interested to ask him is the spiritual aspects of biodynamics. In America, many fine wine grape growers have embraced biodynamics but they tend to omit the historic movement’s quasi-religious character. In Europe, in my experience, winemakers seem more attuned to the metaphysical elements of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, one of the first and most widely hailed agronomists to champion biodynamics.

As always, it’s going to make for fascinating conversation. If you’ve never attended, I know you’ll enjoy our simpatico group of regulars.

See the menu and reservation details here ($119 per couple for three courses and three bottles of wine!). And please feel free to email me here if you’d like me to hold you a spot.

On deck for next week: Barolo producer Giuseppe Vaira from G.D. Vajra.

Black Lives Matter over newly built neo-Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas.

Late last week, RepurposeMemorial.com posted its latest billboard across from the newly built neo-Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up.

Today, we are happy to report, “Black Lives Matter” looks down on the site from across the road.

Tracie and I launched RepurposeMemorial.com in January, 2018 (we began protesting the site in November 2017 after the neo-Confederates began displaying their flags there for the first time). Since that time, we have repeatedly asked the Sons of Confederate Veterans (the neo-Confederate and outwardly racist group behind the memorial) to enter into dialog with us about how the memorial could be repurposed (not torn down) to reflect community values in a city where nearly half the residents are black and where there is a sordid legacy of racist violence.

So far, the Sons have responded with threats of violence and trolling.

The billboard was made possible through our ongoing GoFundMe campaign. Thanks to the generosity of donors, we were able to secure the billboard for six months. This is the second billboard we’ve published since we inked our latest contract.

We hope to raise enough money to renew the contract by the time it expires in January, 2021 (right before Martin Luther King Day).

The “Confederate Memorial of the Wind” stands on Martin Luther King Dr., one of the city’s main arteries. Construction on the site began in 2015 and the neo-Confederates began displaying their flags there in late 2017 (not long after the notorious neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate march in Charlottesville, Virginia).

The response to the new billboard has been overwhelmingly positive.

Heartfelt thanks to Orange native designer Ashley Evans for creating the artwork and to Beaumont-based photographer Pete Churton for the photo above.

And thank you to everyone who contributed to our campaign: none of this would be possible without you!

Tony Vallone, Italian-American culinary pioneer, dies at 75.

Above: Tony Vallone at his landmark Houston restaurant Tony’s in 2013.

Tony Vallone, an Italian-American culinary pioneer and owner of one America’s most renowned restaurants, has died this week. He suffered from “health complications” said his wife, Donna Vallone. He was 75.

Vallone’s landmark restaurant Tony’s in Houston was a place where presidents, sentators, oil executives, and socialites entertained for more than five decades. See this Houston Chronicle obituary where society reporter Amber Elliot lists just a handful of the politicians, business leaders, and celebrities who dined regularly at the restaurant.

Myriad remembrances have been published since news of his passing stunned the Houston food community yesterday. Countless more will surely be posted in coming days.

Few will remember, however, that beyond his role as chef and host to America’s glitterati for more than a half century, Tony was an insatiable gastronome and gourmet, an authority on Italian and American cuisine, and a generous soul who mentored a generation of food and wine professionals. He simply loved to talk about food — especially Italian cookery — with anyone who shared his boundless passion for gastronomy.

Above: Baron Enrico “Ricky” di Portanova (left), a Houston socialite, with Tony (center) and baseball great Bob Aspromonte in an undated photo (circa 1980).

I worked for nearly eight years as a media consultant for Tony’s restaurant group and spent many mornings with him bantering over the minutia of Italian cuisine and drinking espresso.

In the 1970s, after the legendary Houston developer Gerald Hines had recognized Tony’s immense talent and helped him launch the second Tony’s (the first stood where the Macy’s in Hines’ Galleria shopping mall is now located), Tony began traveling regularly to Italy where he dined and researched Italian regional cuisine.

From the finer points of ragù alla bolognese to the wild fennel fronds needed to make a proper pasta con le sarde (the classic Sicilian spaghetti with fresh sardines), no nuance of Italian gastronomy escaped Tony, a true culinary titan of his times.

His recipe for cannoli was based on his experiences eating the dessert in Piana degli Albanesi in Sicily, a small village in Sicily where he had traveled expressly to uncover the secrets behind the iconic dish. Today, in the (pre-pandemic) world of global travel and Instagram, that may not seem impressive to some. But when you consider that Tony made the trek in the late 1970s, it’s clear that he was an unrivaled culinary pioneer and gastronomic adventurer of the era.

Italian food writer and restaurant critic John Mariani often cited Tony as a leading restaurateur of the “FedEx” generation. Tony famously recollected how he would source his calamari from bait shops in the early days of Tony’s because no fish monger in Houston would carry them. But in the 1980s, when international couriers made it possible to obtain fresh buffalo’s milk mozzarella from Campania and line-caught Mediterranean sea bass, Tony was literally one of the first in America to offer his guests such delicacies. Today, food like that may seem commonplace to WholeFoods devotees. But when Ronald Reagan was president and Houston was enjoying its second wave as one of the world’s must-visit destinations for the well heeled, Tony was an unrivaled trailblazer of fine dining.

His encyclopedic knowledge of Italian and world cuisine was nothing short of spectacular. And his hunger for culinary exploration never waned. I remember his unbridled joy when he finally sourced a rare Italian heirloom legume, a broad bean distinctive for its nearly black coloring. The dish he was working on at the time wouldn’t be complete without it, he said.

When a friend texted me to let me know of his passing yesterday, my mind overflowed with warm memories of Tony, our conversations, and spellbinding meals that Tracie and I shared at his table.

The greatest lesson that he ever taught me about Italian food was as simple as it was profound.

“For Italian food to be truly authentic,” he told me, “it has to be creative.”

That philosophy — that ethos — pervaded all of Tony’s cooking. He’ll be sorely missed. But he and his food will never be forgotten.

Sit tibi terra levis Iosephe.

“Fire and Wine: Boccaccio and the end of ampelophobia” Oct. 16, a virtual tasting available across the U.S.

Dante only mentions wine once in the 100 cantos of his poem the Commedia.

Petrarch never mentions wine in his Italian songbook, the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Fragments of Vernacular Things) even as he rails against ubiquitous alcoholism and gluttonous cardinals thirsty for (French) wine in his Latin writings.

But with Boccaccio, their successor to the Italian literary crown, wine suddenly emerges as a diegetic and extra-diegetic element central to mimesis. In the Florentine writer’s Decameron, wine not only plays a key narrative role but also transcends its alimentary value and becomes a quasi-epistemological device.

On Friday, October 16, I’ll be leading a virtual tasting where I’ll share some of my research into Boccaccio’s unique textual relationship with wine and discuss how he vanquished his predecessors’ ampelophobia.

I promise it won’t be as boring as it sounds! And even more importantly, the event is open to anyone who lives in a state where Chambers St. Wines can ship.

The tasting, organized by Italian poet Luigi Ballerini, Lacanian psychoanalyst Paola Mieli, and New York gallerist Robert Simon, benefits Animal Zone International.

Click here for details (deeply discounted early-bird tickets available as of this posting). I would love for you to join us.

And for Houstonians and Texans at large, here are some other tastings that should be on your radar…

Sommelier Riccardo Guerrieri and the good folks at Vinology wine bar and shop in Houston have mounted a savory “week-long exhibition of skin-contact wines,” September 28-October 5. Visit their site for forthcoming details. The event will feature discounted macerated white wines and accompanying videos. Give me some skin! Tracie and I are HUGE skin-contact enthusiasts!

On Thursday, September 24, Court of Sommeliers members Jack Mason and Steven McDonald will be leading a superb virtual wine tasting to benefit She Has Hope, “a Houston-based human trafficking response initiative operating programs for vulnerable girls and women in Asia and Africa.” It’s always an amazing experience to taste with these dudes.

There is still time to sign up for virtual tastings with Italian wine and food producers September 21-22 at the Taste of Italy virtual trade fair organized by the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central. Click here for participating producers and appointment portal. All trade members and wine and food-focused media active in Texas (Austin, Dallas, San Antonio included) are eligible to take part. Free wine and food delivered to your doorstep? It’s a no brainer, if you ask me.

Lastly, I continue to lead virtual wine dinners every Thursday night for my restaurant client here in Houston Roma. Each week, we host an Italian winemaker and the cost is $119 for 3 bottles of wine and dinner for two. See the restaurant’s website for weekly details and click here if you’d like me to add you to our distribution list.

Thanks for reading, speaking, tasting, and supporting Italian wine! Italian winemakers and the wine and food professionals who rely on them need our support more than ever!

What is a “Super Tuscan” and where did the term come from? The answer might surprise you.

Above: vineyards in Maremma along the Tuscan coast where “Super Tuscans” are produced (image via the Wilson Daniels website).

The more closely you look at a word, wrote the early 20th-century aphorist and poet Karl Kraus, the more distantly it looks back at you.

This couldn’t be more true when it comes to the meaning and origin of the expression “Super Tuscan.”

Historically, the named was used unofficially to denote high-quality Tuscan wines that were classified as vino da tavola (table wine) because they didn’t qualify to be included among the “designations of controlled origin” (DOC). Ostensibly, the reason they didn’t qualify was because they used Bordeaux grape varieties that weren’t recognized by the Italian DOC (appellation) system at the time.

The earliest mention of a Super Tuscan (wine) I’ve been able to find in Google Books is in a 1987 tasting note in America Wine Society News. It references a Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon blend “that cannot be considered a true Chianti.” You can’t read the entire passage on Google but it’s likely that the writer was referring to Tignanello, the famous blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon that Antinori first produced as a “table wine” with the 1975 vintage.

There are, however, antecedents beyond the wine world.

In his 1972 monograph, The Fascist Experience Italian Society and Culture, 1922-1945, Edward R. Tannenbaum calls Italian writer Curzio Malaparte a “super Tuscan publicist.”

And in 1915, in Howard’s Blue Book: The Only Index-catalogue of the Paint, Oil, and Varnish Industry, there is mention of a “Super Tuscan Red” paint, possibly a reference to the distinctive light red color we call “Sienna Red” today.

Most Italian wine trade observers agree that Tignanello (produced in Chiantigiana) and Sassicaia (produced in Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast) are the earliest examples of wines that were commonly referred to as Super Tuscans. Sassicaia was available in the U.S. in the early 1970s. According to the winery that produces it, San Guido, the 1968 vintage of Sassicaia was the first to ship to the U.S. (thus predating the arrival and advent of Tignanello).

But no one knows for sure who first used or coined the term in the context of wine.

By the late 2000s, it had become fashionable in the alternative U.S. wine media to denigrate the Super Tuscans — the “aia wines,” as some of us called them — as bottlings created specially for the American market. The wines were excessively “oaked,” writers moaned, overly concentrated (“extracted”), and jammy like the “fruit bombs” that Napa-loving Americans preferred.

But cum granus salis, the claim wasn’t entirely true. In 1989 when I visited Montalcino for the first time, sommeliers there were eager to pour Sassicaia and Ornellaia side-by-side with Brunello (another wine that had yet to make its name on this side of the Atlantic). Looking back on it now, there’s no doubt in my mind that these wine professionals were extremely proud of the wines and considered them some of the best expressions of Italian viticulture at the time. And many of the wines, especially from the top tier, were and are still today elegant, restrained, and impeccably balanced. They may be “oaked” but they are not necessarily “oaky.”

Other Tuscan winemakers would try to reproduce the historic Super Tuscans model — some successfully and some not so much. But the legacy of the aforementioned wines was firmly and undeniably established by the late 1990s when Italian wine would begin trending upward in the U.S.

On Thursday night here in Houston, I’ll be co-hosting a guided wine tasting and dinner with a genuine Super Tuscan, Federica Mascheroni Stianti (below, left, with her mother Giovannella Stianti Mascheroni, another Super Tuscan woman) at Roma restaurant (my client). We’ll be tasting her family’s Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico together with one of their more recent entries, the Prelius Cabernet Sauvignon raised in Grosseto province in Maremma along the Tuscan coast.

Their Cabernet Sauvignon is aged in large cask — not the small French barriques commonly used for the historic Super Tuscan wines. Restrained and lithe on the palate, with classic varietal expression, it’s not “oaky” or “jammy” or “overly extracted.” Is it a Super Tuscan?

As another Super Tuscan, Dante, once wrote, nomina sunt consequentia rerum.

I hope you can join us this week to taste it and join in the conversation!

Here’s the menu and reservation details.

Wine for voter enfranchisement in Texas: Vines for Votes raises money for Texas ACLU.

Above: Texas congressional district 36. Source: House.gov.

That’s a map of Texas congressional district 36. It stretches from Orange, Texas on the Louisiana border where Tracie grew up all the way to Clear Lake, Texas, where the Johnson Space Center is located south of Houston, roughly 85 miles away as the crow flies from Tracie’s hometown.

The population of Orange is more than 30 percent black.

The population of Clear Lake is roughly 4 percent black.

And this is a classic example of Texas gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement.

Thanks to its convoluted layout, Texas congressional district 36 has an overwhelming white ruby red Republican majority that essentially eclipses the black and democratic vote in places like Orange where most of its black residents live.

In June, Tracie and I met with Democratic candidate Rashad Lewis who’s running against the Republican incumbent for the 36th district Brian Babin.

As you might imagine, Lewis advocates for repurposing the district’s neo-Confederate memorials. Babin opposes their repurposing.

A few days ago, a group of wine professionals in New York, including two prominent Texans, launched a campaign to raise money for the Texas ACLU fight for voter enfranchisement in Texas.

It’s called Vines for Votes and if you are reading this, you probably know at least a couple of its members.

Using its website, you can donate directly to Vines for Votes and you can offer wines for auction (proceeds will go to Texas ACLU). And of course, you can also give directly to the ACLU or Texas ACLU.

Wasn’t it Baldo Cappellano who quixotically said “there are some battles in life that you know you will lose and these are sometimes the ones most worth fighting”?

Words to live by in our book of life. Thanks for reading.

Texas wine, food, media professionals: please join me for virtual tastings with Italian producers September 21-22.

Some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done has been for the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central. Previously covering just Texas but now also Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma (hence “south central”), the Houston-headquartered IACC is ranked number one among chambers in North America and number eight throughout the world.

Sorry, New York!

The IACC has achieved that status in part by mounting truly compelling events with top wine and food producers from Italy, leading wine and food professionals here in Texas, and high-profile journalists and tastemakers from across the U.S.

In March, the IACC would have presented the sixth annual Taste of Italy trade fair, the largest wine and food gathering in the U.S. devoted exclusively to Italian products and producers. I’m a consultant and emcee for the event. Last year, we hosted more than 100 producers and 500+ attendees.

This year, we’ve moved the event online: on Monday and Tuesday, September 21-22 wine and food professionals across the state of Texas will have the opportunity to attend one-on-one virtual tastings with producers in Italy via Google Meet.

And here’s the even cooler part: once you schedule your tasting appointments, the wines and food products will be delivered to your home or office. It’s that simple.

The other cool thing is that the IACC has partnered with a super groovy new platform called GrapeIn to coordinate the tastings (more on GrapeIn forthcoming).

If you are a wine and food professional or a culinary-focused social media user active in Texas, click here to see a list of participating wine and food producers. Click on the producers you’d like to taste with, indicate the time slot, and the IACC will take care of the rest.

This 100 percent virtual event represents an extraordinary opportunity to connect in real-time with Italian producers as you taste their products.

Please join me in just a few weeks as we explore some great Italian wines and foods. Ping me if you need more info or guidance. But it’s all pretty straightforward.

Austin, San Antonio, Dallas: I’m talking to you, too!

Oh and that photo at the top of this post? I took that in our kitchen. It gives you an idea of what these tastings will look and feel like.

I hope you can join me! Thanks for supporting Italian wine and food and the people who make them (in the comfort of your own home)!

Cloudbursts, wind, extreme weather cause massive vineyard damage in Italy.

Above: weather-damaged Pinot Blanc grapes in Franciacorta at the Arcari + Danesi winery. “We’ve lost 30 percent of our harvest due to extreme weather,” said grower Giovanni Arcari in text message this morning.

Cloudbursts, high winds, and other extreme weather events caused widespread vineyard and property damage and even loss of life across Italy over the weekend.

In one tragic case, two children were killed when a tree, toppled by wind gusts, fell on their campsite along the Tuscan coast on Saturday.

Last weekend’s weather events came on the heels of a series of severe storms that have vexed Italian winemakers and farmers throughout the month of August.

According to mainstream media reports, an intense storm that struck Valpolicella (Verona province, Veneto) on Sunday, August 23 caused an estimated €6 million in vineyard damage.

Over the weekend, Verona province experienced more extreme weather. The video below, posted on the Veneto-based journal Il Dolomiti YouTube, is dated Saturday, August 28, 2020:

In a blog post published yesterday on its website, Coldiretti (Italy’s national agricultural confederation) wrote that:

    A crazy August has been marked by nearly 10 storms each day throughout the [Italian] peninsula, including torrential rain, tornados, cloudbursts, and hailstorms of anomalous proportions…
    In just a few seconds, many farms have lost an entire year of production. But there is also structural damage to fields that won’t be able to produce crops for a long time…
    We are faced with the obvious consequences of climate change. In Italy, the exception has become the rule as weather events are undergoing a tropicalization. This can be seen in the high frequency of violent storms, seasonal shifts, brief but intense rainstorms, rapid changes in weather from sunny skies to inclement weather, [and] remarkable temperature shifts that compromise crops in the field.

Over the last decade, extreme weather events have more than €14 billion in agricultural damage in Italy according to authors of the post.