At Kistler “setting the tone” for greatness…

“Maniacal.” That was the word that sprung to mind during a walk through Kistler Vineyards’ main farm and winemaking facility in Sebastopol last week.

Maniacal farming practices. Maniacal vinification protocols.

Winemaker Jason Kesner (above) chuckled in agreement when a wine blogger shared the thought with him. The vineyards he oversees are among the most (literally) manicured you’ll ever find — each bunch coddled to perfection, each cluster pampered until it realizes its full potential.

When we headed inside the winery proper, he showed me the temperature-controlled tanks used for fermenting the winery’s Pinot Noir.

After the grapes arrive during harvest, he told me, a 24-hour crew manually monitors temperatures in the vats in at least four places. Temperatures inside the vessel, he explained, vary from top to bottom. And while most winemakers, even the best ones, would perform a classic however quasi-robotic punching down of the must and skins, his team manages the cap in accordance with each tank’s particular and ever-changing thermal profile. No one’s sitting a home checking on the temperature of the vat with a smart phone app, hitting a button to warm or cool the tank, and then going back to sleep. No, at Kistler each tank is watched over with meticulous precision — exactness that echoes throughout the winemaking process.

Note how the barriques are perfectly aligned, Jason suggested when we visited one of the four Chardonnay fermentation rooms.

“It sets the tone for everything we do,” he told me.

The aesthetic touch may seem like affectation to some. But when it comes to the clarity of fruit and the elegance and balance of the wines, the taster realizes that Jason’s perjinkities are the product of the deep-reaching thoughtfulness and nuanced soul that he and the owners of this iconic estate summon to deliver these spectacular wines.

All of Kistler’s Chardonnay vineyards are planted to the “Wente” clone (as opposed to the Burgundian “Dijon” clones). The concept of the winery has never changed since its inception. The clone is always the same. The farming practices are uniform (and uniformly maniacal). The winemaking approach is unvaried. As a result, each bottling is reflection of the place — of the terroir — where those grapes are grown.

I’ve written before about how an inexperienced taster, clouded by peer pressure, didn’t have the palate or tasting chops to understand what makes these wines great.

Generous friends and colleagues have treated me to bottles of Kistler over the last two decades and I’ve come to appreciate, greatly, the compelling wines Jason and his team produce. When I visited last week, I wasn’t surprised to discover the ethos and ethic that make them a supreme expression of Californian viticulture.

Thank you, Jason, for one of the most extraordinary winery visits of my career. And thank you, Katie, for the fantastic tasting!

Californians keep all the good wine for themselves! Wouldn’t you? Slow Wine Guide 2020 dispatch.

One of the things that has become abundantly clear to me after three years of working on the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California is that the Californians keep all the good wine for themselves.

Well, that’s only half true: they keep the good stuff for themselves and their friends.

So many of the top wines, I’ve discovered — from the super collectible to the cool kids — are sold predominantly via the estates’ mailing lists and on premise (to restaurants).

Looking back over the years, it occurs to me now that one of the reasons California wine was so unfashionable among enohipsters was that it was hard to find the more soulful stuff. Even during my youth in my hometown of San Diego, the wine shelves were mostly stacked with the classic oaky, extracted, and supercharged goods. You know, the Schafers and the Caymus and the Silver Oaks etc. I’m not saying that those wines are “bad.” But they don’t fit the more youthful, woke (as it were) approach to wine. You had to look a little bit harder to find the vino buono. After taking the time to dig deeper, I’ve been blown away by the quality of the wine I’ve tasted and how much it aligns with the progressive wine lover’s palate.

Later today I’ll be visiting my all-time favorite Napa wine grower. And I have never seen their wines in a wine shop — never ever. And I go to a LOT of wine shops.

Yesterday I met and tasted with Mark Pisoni at his family’s Pisoni Ranch in the Santa Lucia Highlands. That’s a shot of their farm above. And the Lucia Pinot Noir he tasted me on was spectacular (and an amazing value, btw). But it’s sold, he told me, primarily through their mailing list and to restaurants.

The Californians aren’t keeping all the wine to themselves (and for their friends) because they are covetous. They are simply faced by too much demand for their labels.

I’ve been on the road this week in northern Californian wine country tasting with winemakers and grape growers for the 2020 edition of the Slow Wine guide. I’ve already had some amazing visits and have more today and tomorrow. I’ll share my notes soonest.

Have to hit the road again now but need to give a shout out to El Molino Central in Boyes Hot Springs, Sonoma County (where I stay at my best-kept-secret hotel).

That’s their Oaxacan zucchine flower quesadilla below. One of the best things I’ve eaten this year. Thanks again to John Lockwood of Enfield Wine for the recommendation!

A voice from Trump’s America: “Our Country Needs God’s Way.” Rev. Branch’s letter to the White House

My wife Tracie grew up in Orange, Texas, a Gulf Coast town that lies in the ruby-red heart of Trump’s America. The president enjoys nearly unmitigated support from the white community there. Her parents live there and we visit regularly.

That’s Tracie’s father below, Rev. Randall Branch, a Methodist Pastor, celebrating Easter in his church with our daughters.

Last week, following the El Paso and Dayton shootings, he sent the following letter to the White House. He also posted it on his church’s blog and Facebook. It speaks for itself and I am glad to share it here (as per his encouragement in the post’s post-script).

Our Country Needs God’s Way.

I have been praying about the shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Asking for God to be with those who have been thrust into a time of grief, healing and perhaps hopelessness. My prayer is that God heal them in every way needed, physically and mentally. My prayers are also for all those who are afflicted with hatred, bigotry and racism, that they too may be healed and come to know the loving grace that God pours out upon all people.

For all of us who know Jesus Christ as our savior I pray that in all we do and all we say we are an example of who Christ wants us to be and not who our flesh sometimes calls us to be. You know that “loving your neighbor is all inclusive and never exclusive!”

I am not making a political statement when I say that it was good to hear President Trump denounce all forms of hatred and bigotry. I do wish however that he had gone a step further in that statement and made sure that those who thrive on hatred, racism and bigotry would know that he is not their friend and wants nothing to do with their movements or way of thinking. I believe that step further would also lead to a kinder more thoughtful way of saying things in the future that would/could not be interpreted by people that are looking for an excuse to cause harm to others through word or deed.

If you need some Biblical support one of many scriptures we should be living by is Colossians 3:1-17. They speak about our world today and about how we are, as Christians, to live our lives.

Got that off my chest but maybe I need to send a letter just like this to the White House. Hmmm! I wonder if He would read it.

Have a blessed day in Jesus Christ…for He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Pastor Randy

PS. please feel free to copy and share if you would like to..maybe even come to a house of worship like the one below.

A Barbera d’Asti that fired on all cylinders and an all-American pairing…

It’s become a cliché for American sommeliers and wine pundits to talk about Barbera’s role as a “pizza wine” in our country.

But predictably does have its merits and a Sunday pairing of the Maraja 2015 Barbera d’Asti Masche with some of our favorite pies was by no means a cliché négatif (photography buffs will appreciate the paronomasia).

Italians generally pair beer and/or sparkling soft drinks with their pizza. And if they reach for wine instead, it’s usually something bubbly. The fattiness and acidity of the mozzarella, the wisdom goes, needs something effervescent to aid in digestion (the metabolic challenge of pizza is one of the reasons that Italians mostly avoid eating pizza at lunchtime but that’s another story).

Only in America, where the great misunderstanding otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean gives rise to our gastronomic exceptionalism, do gourmets and enohipsters view still red wine as a excellent match for pizza. How many times have you heard the lesser informed members of our society point to Chianti as a “pizza wine”? Chianti! (But that’s another story as well.)

On Sunday, our all-American family found itself with another red-white-and-blue couple who’ve recently expanded their brood with a beautiful, precious baby girl. And the Maraja was the bottle we reached for when we ordered pizzas creative and traditional.

Man, this wine had it all: buoyant red and berry fruit, minerality and a hint dusty earth (hallmarks of Astigiano-raised Barbera), the classic electric acidity that the variety is known for, and higher-than-expected-alcohol that was kept wonderfully in check by the sum of its parts. It just fired on all cylinders like a finely-tuned 1968 hardtop Mustang Fastback. What a gorgeous lip-smacking wine!

One of the things that has fascinated me the most over the course of my bilingual career is how wines and foods are often “applied” by Anglophones in ways that their Italophone counterparts didn’t imagine and/or intend.

Sometimes we get it right, sometimes wrong. But on Sunday, we, Americans, nailed it.

Walmart USA: it’s time to stop denying we have a white supremacist problem #HateWillNotDefineUs

The Walmart in El Paso where the mass shooting took place this weekend is just like the Walmart in our Houston neighborhood. You’ll find every gradation of humanity there: brown, black, white, Asian, Jew, Muslim, Christian…

We don’t live on the U.S.-Mexico border like our sisters and brothers in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. But we do live in the fourth-largest city in America, the country’s most diverse, home to one of its largest ports and transit hubs, where Spanish, Yiddish (yes, I hear Yiddish every week in our neighborhood), Arabic, Vietnamese, Chinese, and countless African, European, and Asian tongues all mingle together every day.

And the Walmart in our southwest corner of Houston, where I bought our daughters their first bicycles and where we shop occasionally, is just like that Walmart in El Paso where a white supremacist murdered and maimed innocents on Saturday morning.

I thought twice about taking the girls to our Walmart yesterday, Sunday, when we needed to get a replacement tube for one of their bikes.

After El Paso, there’s no longer any denying that our nation has a white supremacist problem. Over the last 12 months, white supremacists have killed black people, brown people, and Jews in our country.

In the course of our activism, Tracie and I have seen white supremacy up close and personal: it’s scary and ugly and dangerous. And tragically, it’s very much alive, thriving, and growing in our country.

It’s time for everyone — from politicians in the White House and the Texas capitol to the woman and man on the street, from religious leaders to civic leaders and activists — to call it out for what it is. Honestly, it was time a long time ago. Innocent people are dying at the hands of white supremacists and we must rise up against them.

The first step is to recognize this expanding, horrific problem. The second step is to stand up and speak out: we will not tolerate white supremacy in our communities, churches and synagogues, schools, and place like our Walmarts — where we all gather for back-to-school shopping on a late summer Saturday morning.

Our family’s thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this weekend’s shootings and their families. And our hearts and minds are filled with resolve to combat white supremacy wherever it lurks in our country.

#HateWillNotDefineUs

“The Day After Yesterday (Emilee’s Song)” by Parzen Family Signers featuring Lila Jane Parzen

Too many blessings to count this week at Parzen Family.

Niece Emilee will be celebrating her 22nd birthday next week. Her recovery, after a really serious car accident back in May, is going great. And she’s still on track to graduate from UH on schedule.

And here in our corner of Houston yesterday, Lila Jane successfully underwent eye surgery to correct a muscle in her eyes. Just a few hours after her surgery, she was up and about in the house, enjoying ice cream and her dogs. She’s been super brave through the whole experience.

The girls had asked me to write a song about cousin Emilee and so we came up with “The Day After Yesterday” based on a malapropism that Georgia used to be fond of. Lila Jane recorded her vocal track like a pro, in just two takes and one overdub.

The first single from their forthcoming December 2019 album on the Terrible Kids Music label, here’s Parzen Family Singers with “Day After Yesterday (Emilee’s Song).”

Thanks for listening everyone. Have a great weekend.

“Day After Yesterday (Emilee’s Song)”
by Georgia Parzen (BMI) and Jeremy Parzen (BMI)
performed by Parzen Family Singers
featuring Lila Jane Parzen on vocals

It was the day after yesterday
That we heard the news
Someone precious in our lives
We weren’t prepared to lose

But then we heard the best word
That she wasn’t all alone
It was the day after yesterday
We heard she’d be coming home, it was the

Day after yesterday
When all the clouds had covered up the sun
She was the one

So when you put your babies down
To sleep this starry night, remember
Day after yesterday you need to hold them tight

She is only twenty-one
So beautiful, so young
And there are still so many songs
Just waiting to be sung

And so we drove all through the night
To be right by her side
And we cried and thanked the lord
When we learned she’d be alright, it was the

Day after yesterday
When all the clouds had covered up the sun
We came undone

So when you tuck those babies in
Remember what I say
Day after yesterday
Can be taken away

Day after yesterday
Tell the ones you love
You need them so

So when you put your babies down
To sleep this starry night, remember
Day after yesterday you need to hold them tight

Greenwashing, Instagram food waste, food porn health risks: issues that matter to millennials at Slow Food U.

Above: the Slow Food U. campus was once a country residence belonging to King Vittorio Emanuele II, united Italy’s first ruler until his death in 1878.

Grading exams is rarely a task that professors look forward to. But when it comes to reading term papers by graduate students in my food and wine communications seminars at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences, the engagé topics and theses reveal some of the issues that matter most to these millennials, many of whom will become food and wine professionals.

One of the subjects that stood out was “greenwashing,” the black art of misrepresenting a product or producer as environmentally responsible. Wineries in particular have been the culprits of such dissimulation in the eyes of some of my students. The conviction and vehemence with which some of the students call out unscrupulous winemakers are impressive.

Food waste by Instagram users was another red thread that connects many of the essays. Instagram users, especially chefs, some of the wrote, have lost sight of nutritional value and sustainable practices when they create and then discard hardly edible dishes conceived expressly for the social media platform.

Food porn health risks also concern my students. A number of them pointed to the high fat content and low nutritional value of the foods commonly represented on social media. This trend, they point out, encourages and even promotes unhealthy eating habits among young people.

Natural wine’s grip on cultural hegemony was one of the topics that surprised me. The popularity of natural wine and natural winemakers and their uncanny ability — purposeful or incidental — to eclipse conventional wine and conventional winemakers is, evidently, a real concern among some of my students. It takes a lot of courage to speak out about the issue, especially on a campus where natural wine is taught like gospel.

All and all, the socially conscious, woke issues that my students grapple with align with overarching millennial trends.

As one of my former students put it, he wants to make the world a better place to eat. If these millennials have a say, we’ll all be the better for it.

Verdicchio of a lesser god? Let Lugana have its day in the sun!

Above: Turbiana vines on Zenato’s Sansonina estate in Peschiera del Garda.

If given a quarter for every time they’ve recently heard the line did you know that Lugana is actually made from Verdicchio?, Italian-focused American wine professionals would all be wealthy today.

In the light of this “recent” discovery, many would be surprised to learn that the genetic kinship between Verdicchio and Trebbiano di Lugana, otherwise known as Turbiana, the primary grape used in Lugana production, was actually identified nearly 30 years ago.

And they might also keen to learn that leading Italian ampelographer Ian D’Agata has not so recently proposed that Turbiana, however related to Verdicchio and Trebbiano di Soave (another genetic family member), should be considered its own, distinct biotype.

Over the last couple of years, Lugana has become fashionable among the American wine glitterati, in part thanks to laudable efforts by the Lugana consortium to raise awareness of the wines. But those who have spent any significant time in Brescia province already knew that it has always been the still white wine of choice for those who inhabit the lands that stretch from the banks of Lake Garda to the Oglio river in the west, a tributary of the Po.

Yesterday, I published “Is Trebbiano di Lugana (Turbiana) the same grape as Verdicchio? Or is it a distinct biotype?” on the Zenato-Sansonina blog, where I take a look at D’Agata’s call to reconsider Turbiana’s genetic legacy. It’s a small and perhaps insignificant detail in a much bigger viticultural picture. But it’s also an example of how we are ill-served by pigeonholing Italian grape varieties within a strict (and restrictive) genetic hierarchy.

Verdicchio = Turbiana, the status quo syllogism goes; Verdicchio is used to produced some of the greatest white wines in the world (that much we should all agree on); therefore Turbiana must be capable of producing some of the greatest white wines in the world.

Given some of the extraordinary bottlings of Turbiana I’ve tasted over the last decade, I concur that Turbiana can deliver spectacular white wines with depth, nuance, and rich minerality (the savory character is particularly popular among au courant enohipsters).

But I would argue that it’s not the genetic kinship that creates Lugana’s potential to impress on a world stage. The best Verdicchio grows in predominantly sandstone soils in central Italian mountains that overlook or are in close proximity to the Adriatic. Turbiana, on the other hand, is cultivated in clay- and morainic-rich soils that lie — literally — on the mostly flat southern banks of Lake Garda. On my palate, the wines couldn’t be more distinct from one another, especially when you compare Lugana and Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, the former with a more savory character, the latter with a more fruit-driven flavor profile.

The toponym Lugana comes from the Latin lucus meaning a wood, grove, or thicket of trees sacred to a deity. The Romans considered modern-day Lugana and neighboring Valpolicella to be magical places where vineyards and olive groves flourished thanks to the great “protector,” Lake Garda. The knew that the immense body of water, Italy’s largest lake, made Lugana a viticulturally unique growing area, in part because of the temperate maritime influence, in part because of the distinctive morainic and clay subsoils.

There may be a solid genetic link between the two varieties. And as D’Agata, notes, “clearly, further studies are needed.” But the growing conditions are so different from one another and the wines so distinct from one another that I believe it’s time to stop calling Lugana a Verdicchio of a lesser god and let it have its day in the sun.

Looking for natural wine in all the wrong places: NASA Liquor, I love you!

Parzen family doesn’t visit the Johnson Space Center as much as we used to. After nearly six years of living in this Gulf Coast town, Georgia and Lila Jane (ages 7 and 6) are more interested these days in Houston’s natural science museum with its awe-inspiring dinosaurs, the city’s excellent zoo, and its superb art museums (mostly the Museum of Fine Arts and the spellbinding Menil Collection).

But the hullabaloo marking the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing this month (an expedition where Houston — Space City — played a major role as home to Mission Control) re-ignited the girls interest in astronauts (the “real astronauts” as they used to call them).

Grocery and wine shopping was also on the agenda last Saturday. But the heavy summer traffic prompted this mission’s commander to avoid the city’s congested inner solar system. The grocery shopping would be no problem in Clear Lake where the Space Center is located.

But the wine? That was another question. Down in that part of greater Houston, there are no progressive wine shops. At least, that’s what the enonaut thought.

A Google Maps search revealed a number of wine shops and liquor stores. But none showed much promise until the flight navigation directed him to NASA Liquor on East NASA Parkway, a stretch of road populated seemingly by strip malls, smoke and vape shops, faded Mexican restaurants, and military-industrial-complex chains.

Scrolling through the otherwise pedestrian establishment’s Google business page photos, the pilot discovered a smattering of classic European and forward-looking American wines among the shop’s offering.

The venue’s facade (above) didn’t raise expectations. In fact, the crew wondered why on earth were they making a stop at an anonymous strip mall where the pavement was as steaming hot at the waning off-beige color of the stucco walls. The bullet-proof glass that protected the cashier made the outing feel even more far-fetched.

Undaunted, Parzen family made the return journey with a bottle of skin-contact Minimus 2017 Willamette Valley Pinot Gris Antiquum Farm in tow. With its ripe cherry and berry fruit flavors, vibrant acidity and restrained alcohol, it was throughly enjoyed by the pilot and his commanding officer as they watched the third episode of “Chasing the Moon,” a documentary about the moon landing by America Experience on PBS.

It just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover or a wine shop by its shingle, especially when you’re looking for natural wine in all the wrong places.

A couple of Sicilians that wowed and an eggplant alla parmigiana to live and die for

Last night found me a guest at Houston’s ROMA, an Italian restaurant I consult with through the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas (headquartered here in the Bayou City, one of my biggest clients).

The occasion was a Sicilian wine dinner that owner Shanon Scott (one of the nicest dudes in the business btw) was hosting for regulars.

I’ll admit that I was a little bit skeptical when I saw the vintage on the Caruso e Minini Inzolia. Honestly, I didn’t know the winery and 2015 seemed on the older side for this grape variety, usually bottled and consumed in its youth.

But man, beyond a rich golden hue, otherwise a tell-tale sign, this wine didn’t have a note of oxidation on it (there’s no mention of maceration on the winery’s website so I’m guessing the color was owed to the wine’s middle age). It was fresh on the nose, with classic quasi-aromatic stone fruit and vibrant ripe stone fruit in the mouth. I loved it.

The main course braciole were accompanied by one of my favorite Sicily wines, a Nero d’Avola by Marabino from Noto (does anyone remember the famous scenes from Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” set in Noto?).

As always, this wine was simply electric, with that verve and vibrancy that you find in passionate growers like these guys (the hyper-site-specific notes on their website are Melvillian in character!).

It slightly and deliciously unripe dark fruit was buoyed by the electrons that pulsed elegantly throughout. I’ve been following Marabino for a number of years now and have always been impressed by the value and quality it delivers. And this is simply one of their entry-tier wines. The top wines are even more compelling.

Also have to give a soulfelt shout-out to chef Angelo Cuppone for his super melanzane alla parmigiana, sautéed eggplant layered and baked with tomato sauce and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, one of the few pan-Italian dishes that you can find throughout the peninsula and its islands (one of these days, when I win the lottery and can focus on my writing, I hope to produce a tome on the origins of this unique confluence of northern and southern Italian foodways, the origins of which might surprise many).

Chef Angelo is a friend and a comrade and as much as I swoon over his carbonara and classic lasagne (Bolognese, is there any other?), he really shines at these regional wine dinners. His eggplant had a wonderful balance, a marcia in più, an extra gear in the motor as the Italians like to say. Really great stuff. At the end of the night, I begged like a pup for a doggy bag to take home to Tracie.

Thank you, Shanon, for making me part of it! Great evening, great food, and superb wines.