How Etna counters preconceived notions about fine wine.

Above: Mt. Etna, an active volcano. Note the spontaneous vegetation around the crater (image via Adobe Stock).

“Last week’s eruptions were really spectacular,” said Etna grape grower Roberto Muccifuori yesterday. “But what people don’t realize that they were just a handful of the many eruptions that happen each year.”

The recent seismic events, he noted, got a lot of attention because they were particularly dramatic. (Disclosure: I was interviewing him for his importer, one of my clients. See the post and interview here, including his notes on the 2021 vintage. Roberto works for the Terrazze dell’Etna winery there.)

“The immediate impact of the eruptions is that it scatters ashes” across the appellation, he explained. And that makes the soil remarkably fertile because “the ashes distribute abundant nutrients in the soils ”

The resulting fecundity helps to keep the vines healthy, he told me.

“There aren’t studies to back this up,” he said, “but most believe that the excellent health of the plants helps to prevent vine disease.”

As a result, growers don’t need to use fungicides as liberally as their counterparts in other appellations.

His observations brought to mind something that the noted Italian consultant Maurizio Gily once told me about his experience on Etna.

“The earth is so fertile there that it is teeming with vegetation,” he said as he remarked on how atypical that was for a fine wine appellation.

As I was chatting with Roberto yesterday, it occurred to me: most of the great appellations of the world are known for their nutrient-poor soil. In a time before the current international renaissance in fine wine, growers generally and historically planted grapes in places where other crops can’t easily be grown. When vines are nutrient- and water-challenged, they attain more vigor and produce richer-tasting fruit.

The Piedmont usage of the word bricco is a great example of this. Today, many wine professionals know the term as site-specific designation reserved for top wines. It actually means crag, in other words “a steep or precipitous rugged rock” (Oxford English Dictionary). In literature from that era, Piedmontese writers refer to bricchi (pl.) as barren, depressing hilltops where nothing can be grown. A far cry from the delicious Bric dël Fiasc we drink thanks to Paolo Scavino today!

Similarly, if you talk to the older folks in Proseccoland, they’ll tell you that before the Prosecco boom of the 1980s, Glera grapes were planted only where the soils were too nutrient-challenged to grow other crops. Today, Prosecco is one of the richest appellations in the world. But back in the 1960s, as Italy was experiencing its first post-war boom, people fled the region because of the agriculturally hostile landscape. Cartizze didn’t become a “cru” designation for Prosecco because its soils are magical. It became a top spot for growing Prosecco because you can’t grow anything else there.

Soldera (first) and Gaja (later) famously planted their Montalcino vineyards, to cite another example, in one of the most nutrient-poor areas of the appellation. The families who were already farming grapes there knew full well that other crops weren’t viable on their land.

Etna counters this model by virtue of the fact that its soils are incredibly fertile, something that Maurizio Gily was alluding to in his observations from his time on the ground there. We have all tasted astounding wines from Etna, with incredible depth, complexity, and nuance.

Frank Cornelissen once told me that the reason why he planted on Etna was because he couldn’t find anywhere else in Europe where the soils hadn’t been compromised by chemically based commercial farming. But could it be that the wines of Etna are so compelling in part because they challenge our preconceived notions of where the world’s greatest fine wines can be raised?

Help feed hungry winter weather-affected Houstonians: give to the Houston Food Bank.

A number of friends from across the U.S. and Italy have written asking us how they can help us during the ongoing extreme weather, electric grid failure, and now water shortage in Houston.

My recommendation is to give to the Houston Food Bank. I’ve done a lot of events with them over the years and they do an amazing job. Right now, people simply don’t have enough food to eat: between the electric and cold temperature crises this week, people haven’t been able to get out of their freezing homes to shop for food and now we are facing food shortages because of shipping challenges (it’s an accumulation of things, including icy weather, gas shortages, and electric outages).

Here’s a New York Times list of resources for helping to feed people across Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.

The Houston Food Bank will get food and water into people’s hands right away (they were open again as of yesterday, at least according to social media posts).

Tracie, the girls, and I have had power for the last two days and our water pressure is just starting to come back. And we’re praying for no busted pipes but so far so good. We could all use a hot shower but we managed to make through. Not everyone has been so fortunate.

Thanks for all the notes, wishes, thoughts, and prayers. Our children, ages seven and nine, have now lived through Hurricane Harvey, Tropical Storm Imelda, the global coronavirus pandemic, and now a human-made crisis.

Governor Abbott, you can blame this on windmills, you can blame it on Democrats, but there’s no doubt about this: it happened on your watch, man. People across Texas have died because of your administration’s ineptitude, negligence, and sheer callousness (spurred and cheered on by a Republican-dominated state government). Why is it that the buck never stops with you? I love living in Texas, I love being a Texan, I love raising our children in Texas. We deserve better from our elected officials.

Parzen family update from Houston: power, heat, and phones finally back. We are cold but okay.

Parzen family update: we have been without power, heat, phones, or water for the last 24 hours. Temperatures were in the 10s last night. Power, cell. service, and heat just came back on about an hour ago. No water yet. Last night was brutal but we all slept together in the girls room (with the dogs and every last blanket in the house). Not sure how long we’ll have power today but we have it for the moment (people are getting power back only to lose it again, at least that’s what we’re seeing on social media). NEIGHBORS: we have water and food and heat for anyone who needs or wants to warm up while we still have power. Thanks to everyone for all the messages, thoughts, and wishes. Texas needs the prayers! And thanks to everyone who is waiting on emails and work from me. I’ll be in touch soonest. Hoping everyone is safe, healthy, and warm. And big shouts-out to the girls who been real troopers throughout their umpteenth natural disaster. 

Houston wine community mourns the loss of one of its own. Remembering Thomas Moësse.

The Houston wine community mourns the loss of one of its most beloved members this week, sommelier Thomas Moësse. He passed away earlier this month in New York City where he had been living for the last few years.

Thomas was a world traveler, polyglot, and a top wine wine professional, equally admired by his peers and his guests alike.

Born in the United Kingdom, Thomas moved to Houston as a teenager but spent his summers in the Loire Valley where his family had roots and where he first learned to love wine. After attending college in New York, he returned to Texas and began working in Houston restaurants. His wine appreciation ultimately led to multiple certifications as a professional sommelier and wine educator.

In 2018 he returned to New York and the following year he became the wine director at one of America’s most celebrated Italian restaurants, Felidia in Manhattan, where he oversaw one of the city’s best wine lists and led seminars and tastings for its who’s-who list of guests.

Before moving to the east coast, he was the wine director and one of the founders of Vinology, the popular wine bar and wine shop in city’s West University district. He was also the wine director at one of city’s temples of Italian gastronomy, Divino, a long-time favorite destination for food and wine lovers.

I knew Thomas well and had the wonderful opportunity to taste with him in Houston and in Italy on many occasions. He was one of the best tasters I’ve ever shared a bottle with. And his passion, devotion to his craft, and knowledge of wine were were world class — an inspiration for all around him, including me.

He was also a man full of joy for life, for great food and wine, for great music, and — most importantly — for his friends. He was always ready to lend a hand at tastings and events, always ready to speak on a panel or offer advice and share his insights and dining recommendations.

Sit tibi terra levis Thoma. You will be sorely missed by your friends and community here in Texas. Our small world of wine won’t be the same without you.

Click here to learn how you can support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The Pope’s vino: Vatican will produce estate-grown wine. Vineyards to be planted this spring.

Above: the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo in Castel Gandolfo township outside of Rome (image via Adobe Stock).

According to a post published Friday by the Italian wine industry news portal WineNews.it, the Vatican will plant two hectares to vine this spring on its Castel Gandolfo estate outside Rome, the Pope’s official summer residence.

Although the grape varieties remain unknown, the project will be overseen by top Italian enologist Riccardo Cotarella, one of Italy’s most prolific winemakers and one of the country’s earliest “flying winemakers.”

This is the first time that the Vatican will grow grapes on one of its estates for the production of its own wine, write the authors of the report. The wine won’t be available for sale, they note, but it will be used for sacramental purposes and will be given as gifts.

Imagine a world without restaurants: an Italian filmmaker did just that.

Above, from left: Scannabue’s co-owner and chef Paolo Fantini and co-owner and front-of-the-house Gianluigi Desana (image via the Scannabue Facebook).

In a brilliant video shared on social media last week, a pair of Torinese restaurateurs imagine a world where restaurants are just a figment of the past.

In the short film directed by Stefano Cravero and produced by chef Paolo Fantini and Gianluigi Desana, owners of Scannabue Caffè, Restaurant, e Gastronomia, a museum docent (with lanyard and all, played wonderfully by Italian actor Francesca Bracchino) leads a group of Italian and foreign tourists on a tour of the “restaurant museum.”

“Just think,” she says to her tour group, “they used to all sit around the same table and share the bread in the middle!”

“That’s disgusting!” blurts out one of the Italians in the group.

“Yes, I know,” commiserates the docent as she notes that “we need to remember: that was more than a year ago!”

There’s even a quip about American dining.

Above: a screenshot from the short film.

After one of the tourists asks the docent whether or not there were restaurants in other parts of the world like America, she doesn’t miss a beat before answering: “Oh, yes, they had restaurants in America as well. But let’s just say they were ‘faster.'”

The cortometraggio has really touched a nerve in Italy.

As of this posting, the video had been shared more than 400 times on Facebook. And it’s been featured in the Italian mainstream media.

The rituals of dining and gastrocentric socializing are key to the Italian identity. So many of my Italian friends have told me about how restaurant closures have weighed on their souls (not to mention winemaker friends who previously depended on independent restaurants like Scannabue for much of their sales).

You don’t need to understand Italian to follow along (although it’s even more funny if you can pick up on some of the nuance of Bracchino’s delivery).

Watch the video here.

The hilarious yet poignant video came to my attention via one of my favorite food and wine blogs, Sapori del Piemonte, edited by one of the most talented people in the trade and a great friend, Filippo Larganà.

Let’s be honest about the 2017 vintage in northern Italy: a breathtakingly candid dispatch from a Barolo icon.

Above: Barolo Castle, photo taken January 17, 2020, on my last trip to Italy before the pandemic shut down global travel.

In an era when truth and fact seem to have become relative terms, it was remarkable to read the breathtakingly candid assessment of the 2017 vintage in Barolo circulated last week by legacy grower and winemaker Alberto Cordero, the current generation of the historic Cordero di Montezemolo winery in La Morra (disclosure: I contribute to his importer’s blog).

An “intense frost… hit not only Piedmont but practically all of Europe,” in April of that year, he wrote, “causing extensive damage in every wine-growing area from Tuscany upwards [northward]. One of the largest and most devastating frosts ever recorded.”

He includes in his a report a photograph showing one of the affected vineyards on his family’s historic estate.

In its entire history, he writes, his family had never seen “damage so huge from spring frosts.”

His notes hardly jibe with the notes issued by the Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba, Langhe, and Dogliani consortium.

“The 2017 vintage growing year will be remembered,” wrote the authors of the report, “for its hot climate, and in particular sparse rainfall.”

There was “some frost damage,” they added, “though in the Langhe only the bottoms of the valleys and cooler slopes were affected.”

Alternate facts?

Italian wine trade observers generally concur that the 2017 vintage represents a climatic anomaly, even for a decade when climate change delivered a string of extraordinarily extreme weather events.

Above: 2017 Barolo in cask at the Cordero di Montezemolo winery.

“2017 – Hail, Frost & Heat…,” wrote Antonio Galloni on Vinous: “Whereas 2016 was an extraordinarily benign year, pretty much anything that could happen did happen in 2017.”

The editors of Jancis Robinson’s site have called the vintage “fairly dismal.”

“The 2017 vintage for Piedmont was difficult, to say the least,” wrote the editors of WineSearcher.com.

In November 2017, shortly after harvest had been completed, one of the consortium’s most prominent and politically active members wrote that the Piedmontese hadn’t seen such an extreme frost in half a century (I don’t want to name the winemaker, whose report still appears on their blog, for the sake of not pitting them against the growers and bottlers assocation).

Many years ago, I had the remarkable opportunity to ask one of Piedmont most celebrated growers about their impressions of Langhe vintages stretching back to the 1950s (again, for the sake of comity, I don’t want to name names).

They talked about how market concerns have often compromised vintage assessments. This was especially true, they said, in the 1970s and 80s, before the time of global warming, when Piedmont vignaioli were lucky to have one great vintage per decade, let alone a string of good if not exceptional harvests (a trend that began in the 1990s).

It wasn’t so long ago that a celebrated Langhe cooperative created a stir when it reclassified its 2006 cru-designate wines. The vintage was called “promising” at the time. But the release of the wines coincided with the peak of the financial crisis. The episode, controversial in some quarters, was the inverse of what typically happens: the bottler talked down the vintage because they wanted to justify the decrease in price.

Traditionally, February is the month when Italian wine pundits begin publishing their vintage notes for the year’s releases. And we should start seeing the 2017s from Langhe in the U.S. by May or so.

Some of the wines will be good, others very good, and some even exceptional. These days, it’s rare that a winery releases wines it doesn’t like (and given the technology available to those who choose to use it, it’s challenging to make bad wine).

In the case of the Langhe 2017 releases, there will just be less wine. As a famous Tuscan grower once noted, there are no bad vintages; there are just vintages when we make less wine.

It’s inspiring to read the brutally honest words of a grower like Alberto. Maybe it’s because he has a longer-term perspective that allows him to see this anomalous vintage as just one piece in a much larger puzzle.

Or maybe it’s because he knows that honesty is a key element in authenticity. This is especially true at a time when nearly everything in the world’s “constitution of knowledge” has come into question.

I applaud Alberto (who’s a really nice and extremely thoughtful guy, btw) for the candor and the earnestness. His report kind of reminds me of a “rare menu that tells the truth.” Please pass the orange beef.

As Italy lifts dine-in restrictions, restaurant owners (and winemakers) see glimmer of hope.

Above: a classic Italian trattoria in Florence (image via Adobe Stock).

“Let me call you later,” wrote an Italian winemaker in a text message around 1:30 p.m. Italian time today. “I’m eating lunch in a restaurant for the first time since dining rooms were closed three months ago.”

In all but five Italian regions, restaurants were allowed to open again today, Monday, February 1. In some cases, like Lombardy in Northern Italy where said winemaker lives, dine-in service has been prohibited (intermittently depending on the city and/or province) for the last there months and beyond. And take-away service was only allowed until 6 p.m.

Restaurateurs and café owners will still be required to close their dining rooms at 6 p.m. nightly, although they will be able to continue take-away until 10 p.m. and home delivery service is allowed 24 hours a day where available.

The re-openings are welcome news to restaurant owners, winemakers and grape growers, and brewers alike. Especially in the case of small-scale wineries, independent regional restaurants are a primary outlet for sales. The lifting of restrictions will undoubtedly lead to a much-needed boost in orders. Restrictions on tasting rooms and independent wine shops, some of which are still in place, have also slowed recovery for winemakers.

With most of Italy now under “yellow zone” restrictions,

– customers can consume food and beverages inside from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m.;
– take-away food and beverages may be sold from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m.;
– restaurants may still fulfill take-away orders from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.;
– but beverage take-away from cafés (without restaurant service) and wine shops is prohibited after 6 p.m;
– delivery service is allowed 24 hours a day.

“I walked into the restaurant,” said the winemaker, who was seated in a dining room together with the family of his business partner, “and I told them to make me whatever they wanted. Anything. I just wanted to sit down and enjoy my meal without thinking about anything else.”

Wine bottle “product photography” using only natural light (even an amateur like me can do it).

Credit owed where credit is due: I developed my approach to naturally lit wine bottle product photography using this educational video by photographer Karl Taylor.

After a business partner of mine recently asked me lend a hand in creating wine bottle photographs for a new website they are launching, I set about watching instructional videos on how images like that are created.

With the skill set of an amateur photographer (emphasis on amateur), some low-cost tools of the trade, and my iPhone 11 Pro Max, I was able to shoot the bottles successfully without the use of professional lighting.

That’s my rig, above, in our kitchen dining room. See the video in the link for how it works.

The white poster board (purchased from a local arts supply store) was ideal for creating my “light box.” But the key to getting the “clean” shots was a used Lastolite 33″ Tri-Grip Diffuser that I picked up curbside from a local camera and photograph shop. You can see the diffuser to the right.

Another key element was eliminating any light from behind the camera. I did that by covering the window in our kitchen door with a blanket.

As per the video, I changed the aperture on my iPhone camera and used my Apple Watch to trigger the shot (that made a huge difference in the final product). In the video, Taylor uses a professional-grade trigger. I found that my Apple Watch, “paired” with my phone, worked great for this.

As Taylor writes in his blog post: “No studio lights? No problem!”

One last crucial element was creating the right “table” for the shots. I did that using a smaller piece of poster board (luckily my library, the possession I’m most proud of, offered an ample selection of books for setting up my rig and mounting the table).

Ever since online platforms and digital media became a sine qua non tool for wine marketing and sales, bottle photography has been one of the field’s greatest challenges for wine professionals. The lack of professional training (as in my case) and the high cost of professional lighting and the skills needed to implement said lighting have been seemingly insurmountable obstacles in my quest to obtain clean, professional-looking “product” photography. Until now… I hope others will find this post helpful.

Be sure to check out Taylor’s blog post and video.