Houston mourns the loss of beloved Italian wine professional Joseph Kemble

Above: Jospeh Kemble in Cervia (Ravenna), Italy (photo via Joseph’s Facebook).

Today the Houston wine community mourns the loss of one of its most beloved members, Joseph Kemble, longtime Italian wine buyer for Spec’s retail operations and distribution.

According to numerous posts by his friends on Facebook, he died yesterday after a long bout with cirrhosis. He was 48 years old and would have celebrated his 49th birthday next month.

Joseph was a larger-than-life figure in the Italian wine world: as the Italian buyer for one of the largest retail chains in the country, with more than 150 locations across Texas, he oversaw one of the biggest Italian wine programs in the U.S.

He traveled regularly in Italy, tasting wines and visiting with winemakers. And he reveled in his Texan persona, so adored by Italian and American wine professionals alike. Many of them knew and referred to him affectionately as “Grappa Joe.”

His career in Italian wine mirrored and aligned nearly seamlessly with the Italian wine renaissance that took shape over the last 20 years. The son of a noted Houston hair stylist, he started working at Spec’s as a sales person and ultimately became one of its most influential buyers, developing an Italian wine program at a time when Texans had little interest in the category.

Over the last 10 years, as demographics and opportunity reshaped the Houston wine scene, his unbridled passion for Italian wine proved visionary. Today the city is home to one of the country’s most vibrant markets for Italian wine, a “must” destination for Italian winemakers and traveling Italian wine professionals. As a retailer and distributor of Italian fine wine, Joseph played an outsized role in making Houston into one of the most important Italian wine epicenters in north America.

An affable and colorful ambassador of his state, Joseph would don a classic oversized western-style belt buckle when he attended Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine trade fair in Verona. Although few of his Italian colleagues perceived his distinctive Texas twang, he was the embodiment of the Texan character that many of them knew from the movies.

Across his Facebook timeline yesterday and today, friends and colleagues have been posting heartfelt tributes and remembrances.

Sit tibi terra levis Iosephe. You will be sorely missed by your community on both sides of the Atlantic.

Prosecco seminar and Bastille Day/birthday bash music this week and next in Houston

Back when I was living in New York City and playing with Les Sans Culottes and Nous Non Plus, we ALWAYS had a gig on my birthday, July 14 — Bastille Day.

It was only natural: as the city’s leading faux French rock bands, we were always in demand for the holiday, which is annually celebrated there with élan.

Sometimes we would play two gigs on the same day, usually at the Orchard St. Bastille Day festival during the day and then later that night at a club like the now defunct Brownies where the above picture was snapped in the pre-digital days.

This year, I’ll be playing on my birthday with our new 70s and 80s cover band BioDynamic here in Houston at Mongoose vs. Cobra where house mixologist Patrick Abalos will be serving a special cocktail list of French- and Bastille Day-themed drinks.

I’ll be breaking out one of my French-band-era costumes for the occasion and my famous Fred Buscaglione mustache.

Please dress as your favorite French revolutionary or cultural icon (Roland Barthes?) and join us! Details below.

And on Wednesday of next week, I’ll be co-presenting a Prosecco seminar with my friend and colleague Flavio Geretto of Villa Sandi (whom I’ve been doing some work for this year).

A Prosecco favorite son and a winemaker in his own right, Flavio is one of the greatest experts on Prosecco I’ve ever met. He’s also a lovely guy and we’ve had a blast traveling and pouring together this year. Please join us! RSVP to my email below.

70s and 80s covers
@ Mongoose vs. Cobra
Sunday, July 14
4-8 p.m.
1011 McGowen St.
(713) 650-6872
Google map

Prosecco Seminar
with Flavio Geretto of Villa Sandi
and Jeremy Parzen
@ Vinology
Wednesday, July 17
6:30 p.m.
RSVP @ jparzen@gmail.com
2314 Bissonnet St.
(832) 849-1687
Google map

Prosecco DOCG named UNESCO World Heritage Site

Above: a photograph taken in the hills of Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene during the 2018 harvest (via the Villa Sandi Facebook).

In a tweet posted early Sunday morning (EST), UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) announced that the hills of Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene have been officially “inscribed on” the World Heritage list, a coveted designation that adds the Prosecco DOCG appellation to an exclusive club of sites recognized for their cultural uniqueness, beauty, and significance.

The following statement appeared yesterday on the UNESCO website:

    Le Colline del Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene (Italy) — Located in north-eastern Italy, the site includes part of the vinegrowing landscape of the Prosecco wine production area. The landscape is characterized by “hogback” hills, ciglioni – small plots of vines on narrow grassy terraces – forests, small villages and farmland. For centuries, this rugged terrain has been shaped and adapted by man. Since the 17th century, the use of ciglioni has created a particular chequerboard landscape consisting of rows of vines parallel and vertical to the slopes. In the 19th century, the bellussera technique of training the vines contributed to the aesthetic characteristics of the landscape.

With 55 sites included in the list as of 2019, Italy has more designations than any other country in the world (see the complete list on the Italian Wikipedia here). Other sites include the archeological excavation at Pompei in Campania and the viticultural landscape of Langhe-Roero and Monferrato in Piedmont.

The hills of Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene were considered but not included in the list during last year’s meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Committee. They are now the eighth site to receive the designation in Italy’s Veneto region.

J. Brix Chardonnay from Santa Barbara Calaveras County blew me away and other great wines (and guitars)

That’s Chris Broomell above, co-owner Vesper Vineyards in north county San Diego, one of the most compelling winemakers working in the state imho.

Writing on the fly I am this long holiday weekend in San Diego where I’ve been tasting with winemakers like Chris for the Slow Wine Guide 2020 (and playing some guitar).

I’m always impressed by the way he talks about his wines and the nascent revolution in San Diego viticulture. The fruit has always been here, he points out. But the hegemonic winemaking style never reflected — never translated — the quality that San Diego can produce.

But the wine I can’t stop thinking about is the J. Brix Santa Barbara Calaveras County Chardonnay I tasted this week.

I had tasted Emily and Jody Towe’s wines on many occasions over the years and have always enjoyed them immensely (I had them on my list at the now defunct Sotto in Los Angeles where I ran the wine program for nearly eight years).

But this wine really takes it over the top in terms of the depth and nuance. It opens with primary Chardonnay flavors (tropical fruit and banana) but then unfolds its layers-upon-layers of savory herbs, minerality, and ripe and dried stone fruit.

I can’t wait to taste Tracie on this wine. She is going to flip out (I’m planning smuggle a couple of bottles back to Texas where they are still illegal).

Another wine that surprised me with its depth was this Syrah by Chris’ wife and partner Alysha Stehly, another winemaker to watch imho. I’ll be visiting and tasting with her tomorrow before I head back to Houston.

I’ve only been here a few days but have tasted some truly spectacular wines — all of which land with affordable pricing btw.

But the biggest treat of my sojourn was getting to sit in with the magical Dave Gleason (below).

He’s a true virtuoso of the Telecaster. I’m nowhere in his league but he generously lets me sit in with his band when I’m in town.

We played blues and country yesterday out at the Grand Ole BBQ Flinn Springs in El Cajon (where, btw, the Texas-style brisket was completely legit, melt-in-your-mouth liquid delicious).

Dave is a Doug Sahm of our generation, a musical polymath and one of the sweetest people you could ever meet.

Tonight I’ll be playing the whole evening with one of his bands, the Born Fighters, at Beaumont’s in La Jolla (where I grew up). All the stars from the La Jolla music scene are coming out for this one.

If you’re in town, we’ll take the stage around 9 and play until midnight or so. Beaumont’s is pretty rowdy and things can get a little out of hand there. So come ready to rock!

Bastille Day-Birthday Bash July 14 at Mongoose vs. Cobra in Houston

Our new band has a new name (BioDynamic) and a gig on my birthday: Sunday, July 14 at Mongoose vs. Cobra in Houston’s Midtown!

Please come and rock out with me and the family!

70s and 80s covers
@ Mongoose vs. Cobra
Sunday, July 14
4-8 p.m.
1011 McGowen St.
Houston TX 77002
(713) 650-6872
Google map

Top image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The best vitello tonnato ever…

Vitello tonnato is one of my gastronomic obsessions.

In part because of how good it is when done right. In part because it agrees with me metabolically. (Ascribe it to the famous “Jewish boy stomach” syndrome for those weened on tuna fish sandwiches and white fish salad.)

My latest trip to Italy included a convivial encounter with what — everyone at the table agreed — was probably the best vitello tonnato ever.

It came from a newish wine bar in the village of Barbaresco called Koki (Facebook; website).

My hosts, who had already experienced this apotheosis of vitello tonnato, had asked the owner/chef for a take-out vitello tonnato.

He instructed them to come to the venue just a few hours before the luncheon they were hosting. Not before, he said. And he also told them to bring their own dishes, which they did.

He plated it for them and sent them home with plastic-wrapped veal and sauce.

The Koki vitello tonnato was pinker than most. It resembled what the Italians call rosbif, a calque of the English roast beef, always served cold and generally dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice.

My hosts speculated that it had been cooked sous vide and then finished in a hot oven to make the edges well done.

The quality of the veal was spectacular, not surprising for Piedmont where bovine protein is a supreme victual.

But the thing that really took it over the top was the tuna sauce, which had a hint of eastern spice. My hosts speculated that it had been made with hazelnuts, an admissible and canonical ingredient, although sometimes omitted in my personal experience.

I never had a chance to visit Koki Wine Bar in person but it’s on my list for my next visit to Langa. I can’t recommend the vitello tonnato highly enough.

Last year I published this photography retrospective of some of my favorite expressions of vitello tonnato.

And I have to give a shout-out here to the vitello tonnato I ate, also on this last trip, at Local, the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences food shop and casual restaurant in downtown Bra (below). As you can see, there is barely any pink in the meat, typical of most recipes.

What did we drink with our vitello tonnato? A 1996 Barberesco Riserva was the highlight of the flight. But more on that later…

The wine world’s culture wars have left millennials behind

Above: students in the Master’s in Wine Culture and Master’s in Food Culture at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy.

More than any other, three posts captured and commanded the attention of wine trade members, observers, and enthusiasts this month.

Master of Wine Jancis Robinson’s “Naturally Divisive” on “natural vs. conventional” wine culture for the Financial Times (republished and available to all on her tasting note portal); Cathy Huyghe’s interview with natural wine advocate Alice Feiring, “Alice Feiring on Satire and Misogyny in the Wine Industry,” a response and reaction to a predictably misogynic parody of Alice’s work; and New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov’s “It’s Time to Rethink Wine Criticism” on the dismal state of winespeak today.

At the center of each of these pieces, one character looms ominous above all others: Robert Parker, Jr., the twentieth-century creator and disseminator of the hegemonic 100-point-scale score and tasting note model for wine criticism.

Jancis is the only one who doesn’t mention him by name but he’s in there. A genie in a bottle, he arrives via a pair of top-rated Bordeaux wines from the 1982 harvest — the same “near-mythical” vintage, as Jancis calls it, that launched his name, brand, and career as America’s most famous wine writer.

“His influence grew in the mid-1980s,” writes Eric for the Times, “particularly with his unconditional, flamboyant praise for the 1982 Bordeaux vintage…”

Parker more than any other writer, perhaps unjustly so, represents the realm of what has been inaptly called “conventional wine.” It’s a category that exists only inasmuch as it is the polar and polarizing opposite of “natural wine.”

“A very significant proportion of the wine establishment,” writes Jancis, “roll their eyes at the very mention of natural wine. On the other hand, there is no shortage of converts to natural wine who… will not sully their or their customers’ palates with wine they do not consider natural. They have a tendency to lecture the world on the iniquities of conventional wine.”

The terms of that dialectic were forged once and for all in 2008 when Alice published her now landmark book, The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization (Harcourt).
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Horse meat burgers? Yes, that’s right…

A lot of folks have asked about a photo of horse meat hamburgers (above) posted to my social media.

Yes, that’s ground horse meat, a delicacy that you can commonly find in the Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto.

People in Italy and France began eating horse meat in the 1960s. As Europe was still rebuilding after World War II, it was an excellent and amply available source of protein for young people. Meat was scarce then. And horse meat was cheap.

Today, it’s not unusual for people to eat horse meat on special occasions, like the party my friends in Lombardy threw on Saturday night. They regularly visit a specialized “equine” butcher where they buy the meat ground or butchered into steaks.

We also ate air-dried, shredded horse meat, known as sfilacci (threads).

During my university days in Padua (Veneto), we used to go to horse meat restaurants in the country on Saturday nights. Nearly every dish — from the antipasti and primi to the secondi — were made using horse meat.

Horse meat is very lean and rich in flavor. The savory burgers, which we dressed like regular burgers, tasted almost like cooked salame.

We paired with a 1998 Bordeaux blend in magnum from Franciacorta. It was delicious.

Wait ’til the folks back in Texas hear about this!

Today is my last day teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences. All in all, it’s been a great experience. But I can’t wait to get home tomorrow to Houston, where I belong and where our precious daughters, our stinky Chihuahuas, and my beautiful wife Tracie are waiting for me. I miss them all so much. There’s no place like home. And I’m glad to have one. Wish me luck and wish me speed…

Rock out with me on Bastille Day (and my birthday) July 14 in Houston…

Above: my new band, still nameless, will be playing at Mongoose vs. Cobra in Houston on Sunday, July 14. Two sets from 5-7 p.m. That’s me with the Telecaster, stage left.

Back when my French band Nous Non Plus was touring and playing regularly in New York City, I used to have a gig on my birthday every year — sometimes two!

I was born on July 14, 1967, during the summer of love, on Bastille Day, the day the French revolutionaries, Les Sans Culottes, stormed the famous prison in Paris (the other French band I used to belong to was called Les Sans Culottes, loosely translated as those who don’t have pants).

To this day, my parents both tell the same story of the day I was born: “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, was playing on the radio the morning they drove to the hospital.

Nous Non Plus played its last live shows in 2013. And I still pine for those wonderful years of playing great music and making records with my bandmates, whom I’ll love until my dying day.

I’m super geeked to share the news that I’ll be playing a gig this year on my birthday at a Bastille Day celebration hosted by Mongoose vs. Cobra, one of Houston’s many super cool hipster beer gardens (in Midtown).

Our new band in Houston doesn’t have an official name yet. But we have two sets of great covers from the 70s and the 80s. It’s a super tight, rocking band and really fun.

So come out and rock with me on my birthday this year, July 14, 2019!

You can hear the Les Sans Culottes live version of the “Marseillaise” from our only live album here. And yes, that’s me playing guitar. That show was recorded at the Bowery Ballroom in lower Manhattan where we used to headline regularly. Thanks for listening!

Alba has a new progressive wine bar (FINALLY!): Petricore…

petrichor, n.

A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions. Also: an oily liquid mixture of organic compounds which collects in the ground and is believed to be responsible for this smell.

From the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition).

It’s been a long time coming but I’m happy to share the news that Alba — one of the world’s greatest wine capitals — finally has a progressive wine bar. FINALLY!

The joint is called Petricore Enoteca (as in petrichor).

It’s run by a lovely couple of wine professionals, Rebecca Ruatasio and Carmine Pessolani, whom I had the distinct pleasure to meet and taste with the other night.

The town of Alba lies smack-dab in the heart of Barolo and Barbaresco country and it receives a tide of wine lovers and tradesfolk each year.

But as surprising as it may be, it isn’t exactly the most welcoming destintation in Italy when it comes to people looking to connect with the more playful, experimental, and funky side of wine life.

A friend treated me there to a reclassified bottle of white Burgundy the other night. Think of that! Hipster Chardonnay in Alba! If I hadn’t tasted it myself, I still wouldn’t believe it.

Humans cannot live by Nebbiolo alone. And from what I’ve heard through the grapevines, Petricore has been a warmly welcomed addition to the Langa and Roero wine scene.

I can’t recommend it enough.

Just four more days of teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra. On Monday, my last night, Natale Baricchi and I will be playing a couple of acoustic sets at L’Alfieri here in town. Come on by!