Wine culture takes Middle America by storm…

Above: the mélange of Venetian glass at Brandani’s in Missouri City was as brackish as it was playful and delightful. I loved it and I loved the restaurant.

I have to be totally and brutally honest.

When my editor at the Houston Press asked me to see if I could find any undiscovered wine country in Houston’s suburbs, I headed out to Middle America with the same preconceived notions that any average self-respecting American wine pro would harbor: there is no wine culture or true fine wine life outside our country’s major urban commercial centers.

But what I found was a vibrant, however unnoticed, community of people who love good wine and food, who appreciate good wine service, and who are looking to expand their wine knowledge and experience by adventuring beyond the stereotypes and common places of American wine enthusiasms.

Above: owner and wine director Kevin Rios of Veritas Steak and Seafood told me that his interest is turning from “big, bold” California to Italian and Spanish. Music to my ears!

On my last visit, at a small unassuming wine bar, Off the Vine Bistro, in a strip mall in Missouri City, Texas last night, I was blown away by wine director Manish Asthana’s selection of white wines, including a super groovy natural Arneis.

That’s Manish (below, right) with his wife Namita, who runs the “farm-to-table” menu. He’s an oil-and-gas dude and they’ve lived and raised their children in this southwest suburb of Houston for 22 years.

He told me that of all the places they’ve lived over their lifetime (mostly in Europe but also in Asia and their native India), they decided to make their home in the Houston area because they really loved it here.

There may be hope for (wine) America yet!

Click here for my post today for the Houston Press.

Wine trade in particular might be surprised by how ambitious some of these places are despite their location far beyond Houston’s inner urban loop.

Spirit of the Confederacy still stands in Houston, a dispatch from a Jewish son-in-law of Southeast Texas

Could there be a more apt allegory for America’s damaged psyche than a dark-as-the-thick-of-night, hundred-mile-wide shadow that will literally slice the nation in half today at midday?

The breathtaking (and scream-inducing) path of totality carved by today’s eclipse will stretch from coast-to-coast spreading (or reflecting?) our umbra at 1,800 miles per hour.

(Read Annie Dillard’s classic 1982 essay “Total Eclipse” where she recounts the transcendental experience of viewing the 1979 total solar eclipse in Washington State.)

On Saturday, just a week after torch-bearing white supremacists and Nazis marched in Charlottesville, killing a young woman and garnering the approval of the President of the United States of America (who noted that many of the racist activists were “fine people”), the Houston chapter of Black Lives Matter held a rally calling for the dismantling of “the Spirit of the Confederacy” sculpture in Sam Houston Park in the city’s downtown.

That’s the monument, above, photographed early Sunday morning.

My wife Tracie and I have attended Black Lives Matter rallies here in Houston in the past. We even took our children to one of the marches.

But in the wake of the violence in Virginia, we decided it was too dangerous to attend Saturday’s gathering. Luckily, no one was hurt. According to a report by my colleague Meagan Flynn at the Houston Press, only a handful of Confederate-flag-bearing counter protesters were on hand.

The Spirit of the Confederacy monument by Italian sculptor Luigi Amateis (aka Louis Amateis, an immigrant to the U.S.) was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the first decade of the last century, when Jim Crow was the law of the land in Southeast Texas.

Like countless similar memorials erected between 1895 and World War I to “serve as testimony to the Daughters’ aggressive agenda to vindicate the Confederacy,” the installation in Houston was “part of a campaign to paint the Southern cause in the Civil War as just and slavery as a benevolent institution,” wrote University of North Carolina history professor Karen Cox last week (Washington Post).
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Barcelona, thoughts and prayers for our sisters and brothers

It seemed that even before the news about the Barcelona tragedy broke in the U.S. yesterday, I began seeing a stream of “marked safe” posts on Facebook. There are so many of my friends who live or are vacationing in Spain this summer: social media remind us how easily and senselessly terrorism can affect people we care about, even when they are far away. And they remind us that we are all connected — no matter where we live or travel, no matter the color of our skin or our religion — by our shared humanity.

When one of my close friends from high school (she’s vacationing there) and the brother of one of my best friends (he’s a genetic scientist there) marked themselves safe, sweet tears of relief were made all the more salty by those that fell in the anguish of a world wayworn with anxiety.

Today, the Parzen family’s thoughts and prayer go out to our sisters and brothers in Barcelona.

Roya and Tyler, I thank G-d you are safe…

Image via Wikipedia.

Mazel tov, Andres Blanco! The new “Best Sommelier in Texas”!

Above: Andres Blanco (center) revels in his new title as the “best sommelier in Texas” after winning the coveted Texsom Best Sommelier competition (photo by my bandmate and food editor for the Houston Press Gwendolyn Knapp).

The wine business has never been more competitive in Texas and the title of “best sommelier” in the state couldn’t have gone to a better man than Andres Blanco, general manager and floor sommelier at one of my favorite Houston restaurants, Caracol. (Today, the event is called the Texsom Best Sommelier competition but until two years ago, it was known as the “Best Sommelier in Texas” competition; it now includes states contiguous to Texas.)

When I interviewed Andres yesterday by phone (for my write-up for the Houston Press today), he mentioned that he is the first Mexican-born candidate to win the competition.

That says a lot about the ever evolving wine and restaurant scene in this rapidly expanding urban landscape, the fastest growing and most diverse city in the U.S. today. (Don’t believe me? Just ask the Los Angeles Times).

Mazel tov, Andres! The award and title couldn’t have gone to a more talented Houstonian.

Please click here for my post and interview with Andres for Houston Press.

Andres’ win — the second year in a row that the title has gone to a Houstonian — and our chat were bright spots in an otherwise on-edge, weepy day for us here at the Parzen household. In the light of the other events that took place over the weekend and Donald Trump’s embrace of the white supremacist and anti-Semitic movements in our country, it’s been pretty tough to get back to “business as usual.”

For all of you who voted for and continue to support Donald Trump: was the “disruption,” as you like to call it, worth it? The stock market is soaring and you foresee lower taxes and fewer government regulations impeding you from doing business. That’s good for you. And to that I say: fair enough (however much I disagree with Trump’s attitudes and policies).

But was it worth these last six months of chaotic, unmoored governance, and the lack of leadership in the face of racism and anti-Semitism? Last week he promised “fire and fury” in Asia and this week he’s saying that Nazi flags and anti-Semitic epithets are okay when people are “defending their heritage.” Even if you promised us all the money in the world, it wouldn’t be okay at our house… It will never be okay at our house… ever… For us to teach our children otherwise would be wholly and absolutely immoral.

“I will not be part of the silence on Facebook about this atrocity. It effects my family.” When anti-Semitism hits home in Southeast Texas…

Tracie’s uncle Terry Johnson, Tracie’s mother’s brother and my uncle by marriage, published the following post yesterday on his Facebook. Terry, Tracie, and nearly the entire Johnson family grew up in the city of Orange on the Texas-Louisiana border in Southeast Texas. That’s Terry, below, in the very last row, at our wedding in January 2010 in La Jolla, California where I grew up. And that’s the extended Johnson family surrounding Tracie and me, including Reverend Randy Branch, Tracie’s father, who officiated (to Tracie’s left, standing behind her mother Jane née Johnson).

Terry wrote the post after he read the post I published yesterday, “‘Jew will not replace us’: looking to Dante for the origin of anti-Semitic hate speech.”

The Washington Post reported today that a “White Lives Matter” event scheduled for September 11 on the Texas A&M campus (a two-hour drive from where we live in Houston) has been cancelled by the university. In a statement, the event’s would-be organizer described it as “Today Charlottesville Tomorrow Texas A&M.”

Thank you, Terry. I love you, too. Thank you for your words of solidarity and thank you for the way your family has embraced me so lovingly.

I am sharing this because I want to stand up against that despicable event in Charlottesville.

Jeremy Parzen is MY nephew. He married my beautiful niece Tracie Parzen. W[est] O[orange]-S[tark High School] Class of ’94. Jeremy is an extremely learned scholar. He grew up in beautiful La Jolla, CA. Many in the Johnson family went out to La Jolla for their wedding. It was an experience that my family will forever remember. We created family memories that we will always have. He is Jewish. He is very well-known for writing several blogs. He is one of the best fathers, to my two beautiful, great-nieces. Georgia Ann Parzen (named after our beloved mother RIP 😥) and Lila Jane (as in Jane Branch [Tracie’s mother] from the mere rock-throw proximity on Smith St. by Mustang Dan R. Hooks Stadium).

They are a beautiful family that is targeted in the hearts of these ilk of humanity White Supremacists. It hurts in their hearts to see.
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“Jew will not replace us”: looking to Dante for the origin of anti-Semitic hate speech

Like 65,844,954 of my fellow Americans, I was sickened and horrified by the citronella torch-bearing white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville this weekend waving Nazi and Confederate flags and chanting — among other despicable hate speech — “Jew will not replace us.”

I had never heard the expression before. And so I turned to the internets where a calibrated Google search revealed that it seems not to have appeared in mainstream media before Saturday of last week.

By now most Americans — regardless of their political, ideological, and spiritual leanings — are aware that Jews have been historically targeted by European and American white supremacists. In the minds of certain racists, Jews have corrupted the purity of European and Anglo blood and intellectual thought over the centuries.

In 1938, after Mussolini and Italy’s fascist régime adopted Hitler’s race laws, the Italian government began to publish La difesa della razza (In defense of [our] race), a journal intended to bolster the standing of the Aryan race (to which the Italian supposedly belonged in Hitler’s Europe).

On the cover of each issue, the editors transcribed a quote from Dante’s Comedy, lines 80-81 from the fifth canto of the Paradiso, where Beatrice (Dante’s spiritual guide) encourages the peoples of Europe:

uomini siate, e non pecore matte,
sì che ‘l giudeo di voi tra voi non rida

be men, not maddened sheep, lest the Jew
there in your midst make mock of you

Not surprisingly, the lines were taken out of context. And it’s worth reading Beatrice’s entire exhortation, which she delivers as she guides the pilgrim Dante to spiritual redemption.

Be more grave, Christians, in your endeavors.
Do not resemble feathers in the wind, nor think
all waters have the power to wash you clean.

You have the Testaments, both New and Old,
and the shepherd of the Church to guide you.
Let these suffice for your salvation.

If wicked greed should call you elsewhere,
be men, not maddened sheep, lest the Jew
there in your midst make mock of you.

Be not like the lamb that leaves
its mother’s milk and, silly and wanton,
pretends to battle with itself in play.

Just as I [Dante] am writing, thus did Beatrice speak.

For Dante, the demise of European culture was owed to Christians’ abandonment of the Word of G-d. He saw the growing secular influence of the Holy Roman Empire — as opposed the Church — as the greatest threat to human salvation.

When read in context, Dante’s reference to the Jews should be interpreted as don’t allow the spiritually anchored among you to deride you for your spiritual ambivalence.

Unfortunately (for them), the editors of La difesa della razza weren’t the greatest Dante scholars. Had they read the text they were quoting more carefully, they would have realized that, in fact, Dante was encouraging his readers to turn to G-d for guidance in times of moral and ethical crises. Don’t mindlessly follow G-dless ideology. Don’t be small-brained sheep who lack the moral guide that G-d gave us with his Word — his Testaments, New and Old. Let Christ be your shepherd, he tells his Christian readers.

Whether or not you voted for Donald Trump, whether or not you call yourself a Christian or a Jew, it’s time for all Americans to condemn the Nazi and Confederate symbols and hate speech employed by the white supremacists in Charlottesville over the weekend.

There are too many among us — Christians and Jews — who have tolerated the rise of white nationalism in this country with the excuse that it was a necessary evil in achieving Donald Trump’s victory. No matter where you stand on the issue, white nationalism played a significant role in his election — there’s no denying that, folks.

Someday, when my semi-Semitic children are old enough to read the newspaper and their white mother and their Jewish father have to explain to them that there are people in our country who want to expel Jews from their communities, I will point to the Word:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien… you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19).

I never thought in a million years that my children would have to experience anti-Semitism (as I did growing up). But it’s come to this. And this can and will not stand in the Parzen family.

Image via Alessandro Robecchi’s blog. Translation via the Princeton Dante Project.

California wine, I was wrong about you. I’m sorry…

The bunches in the photo above are from the Stolpman winery’s Angeli vineyard, where the family grows one of its top wines, the Ballard Canyon AVA Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County). I captured that image on Tuesday of this week as I walked through the Stolpman family’s organic, dry-farmed vineyard, where sustainable farming (including sustainable employment practices) is central to this historic winery’s mission and vision.

It’s just one of the vineyards I’ve visited over the last three months this year, between Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast, Russian River, Santa Cruz Mountains, and San Pasqual Valley.

I tasted the 2014 release from the Stolpman family’s Angeli vineyard back in June and it was utterly delicious.

California wine, I was wrong about you. Really wrong. And I’m really sorry about that. I am your native son: please forgive me.

When the publishers of Slow Food guides, magazines, and books asked me to be the co-ordinating editor of their new guide to the wines of California (to be released in early 2018), I wasn’t sure that we would find enough wineries and wines to fill the pages of the book.

Over the last three months, I’ve tasted hundreds of wines with my fellow editors and toured throughout California wine country — from San Diego where I grew up to Sonoma Coast where I discovered one of my home state’s most beautiful and otherworldly landscapes. Along the way, I found that not only does California produce some of the best wine in the world today but it is also home to a well-established and expanding movement of sustainable farms. And many of those farms and families span generations, like Volker Eisele, one of my favorite finds, in the heart of the Napa Valley, a farm where organic practices have been employed since its inception.

That’s a top growing site for Pinot Noir owned by the Domaine de la Côte in the photo above (taken Tuesday of this week). Check out the altitude reading in my compass screenshot below.

Lompoc in Santa Barbara County, where Domaine de la Côte grows its grapes, was another one of the eye-opening discoveries for me. When I woke up on Wednesday morning in Solvang, about 30 minutes inland from Lompoc, it was so cold that I had to wear a jacket when I went out for a Danish. Fog covered the valley. It was August 8. Today, August 10, the high is predicted to be in the low 80s and the low in the mid-50s. Could you think of better conditions (diurnal shifts) for ripening wine fine grapes? In Lompoc they’re beginning to pick their Pinot Noir this week.

In California wine country, they love to use the expression as the crow flies when talking about distance in the lay of the land (as opposed to as a human drives). I certainly have a lot of crow to eat: like so many europhile wine writers of my generation, I have been sweepingly dismissive of California wine in my nearly 20 years on the job.

California wine is hot weather wine. California wine is overly oaky, overly concentrated, jammy and overly alcoholic. California wine is about winemaking and not about grape growing. California wine was conceived historically as an exercise in marketing and has little connection to the land and the people who farm it.

All of those chestnuts are true. But they are also countless farmers, wineries, and winemakers that counter those stereotypes. And many of those farms are managed by multiple generations of the same family.

California, thank you for your grapes, thank you for your wines. Thank you for welcoming me back. I could even kiss a Sunset pig, California, now that I’m home.

Glen Campbell, he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother…

One of the most vivid memories from my childhood in San Diego, CA is my cello teacher showing me an autographed headshot of Glen Campbell. The year was 1975 and I was eight years old. And she had performed the night before in the orchestra with his band on the San Diego date of his tour.

I had no idea who he was or why the photograph was so important to her. It was the same year that Rhinestone Cowboy came out.

Decades later, when I started working in recording studios in Los Angeles, I heard lots of the veteran players talk fondly and reverently about what an inspiring player he was.

“Probably the best flat-picking [guitar] player that ever lived” was what so many of them said. The baritone guitar solo on “Wichita Lineman” is such a great example of his extraordinary playing and deeply soulful musicianship.

I happened to be on my way to LA yesterday (driving in from Santa Barbara wine country) when I learned that he had finally succumbed to his illness. It was in LA that he reshaped pop music in so many ways and on so many levels, whether working as session player or by showing the world how cool country could be.

I never met him. But between the many guitar solos and songs of his that have played such a big role in my musical and emotional life, the news hit me like a brick. It felt and feels like I had lost a best friend.

The image is still so clear in mind: the autographed picture that my teacher was so proud of. I had no idea what it meant or what it would come to mean to me…

Here’s one of my favorite songs by him. It’s what I’m listening to on a sunny but otherwise blue day in LA.

Image via Lawren’s Flickr.

Lambrusco, what the fuss?

Ever since we began working on the wine list at Rossoblu in Los Angeles, where I co-author the program, I’ve been fermenting my thoughts on how to explain to Italian wine lovers what Lambrusco really is. Between blog posts and a seminar I led the other day here in Houston, I felt like I’m getting closer to cracking the nut otherwise known as “the Lambrusco paradox.” And then, this morning at 6:01 a.m., this happened (below)…

Join me Tuesday evening, August 8 at Rossoblu where I’ll be leading my first Lambrusco tasting for the restaurant. Click here for details.

Emilia’s Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano are counted among the world’s most renowned and most coveted foods. And they are also one of the world’s greatest examples of terroir, the unique confluence of soil and climate that delivers expression of place. No matter how hard they try (and try they do!), no one beyond the southern banks of the Po River can reproduce the delicate, sweet character of Parma’s Prosciutto and the distinct crumbly texture and gently piquant flavor of Parmigiano Reggiano.

But when they reach for a wine to pair with these delicacies, the Emilians reach for one wine and one wine alone: Lambrusco. That’s partly because no wine pairs better with those noble foods than Lambrusco, made from the humble Lambrusco grape, which is grown side-by-side with the pigs and the cows that give the Emilians the materia prima for their unrivaled gastronomy.

But there’s another and perhaps more important reason why the Emilians so jealously and so zealously reach for their Lambrusco. Just like the Emilian people, whose joyful passion for good living is rivaled only by their appetite for great food, there is perhaps no wine more joyous than Lambrusco. After all, wouldn’t you be as happy if you were constantly surrounded by pigs and cows, Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano?

The key to understanding the Lambrusco paradox — the world’s most noble food served canonically with its most humble wine — is wrapping your mind around the fact that Lambrusco is wine but it’s not fine wine. It’s not meant to be nuanced or structured. It’s not intended to be enjoyed for any refined nature. With its broad, bold strokes of aroma and flavor, it was conceived to express the expansive joy and happiness that the Emilians — arguably the world’s most sensually minded people — feel every day when they awake surrounded by their ham and cheese.

Ask the Emilians and they will invariably tell you that no, it’s not Sangiovese, Aglianico, or Nebbiolo that pair best with their beloved foods. It’s always and only Lambrusco, absolutely and undeniably the ideal match for their cuisine and the perfect antidote to all that is ostentatious and officious in life.

Pass the Lambrusco please, hold the fuss.

Xochi is my new favorite restaurant in Houston

Last night, thanks to cousins Dana and Neil (who graciously treated us to dinner), Tracie P and I finally made it over to Chef Hugo Ortega’s new(ish) restaurant in downtown Houston, Xochi, his homage and ode to the cuisine of Oaxaca.

His seafood restaurant Caracol was my previous favorite restaurant in Houston (such a brilliant place, btw). Xochi is my new one!

That’s the queso de cincho, above, topped with a “trio of insects” (fried worms, ants, and grasshoppers) and accompanied by chicharrones (fried pork skins).

Infladita de Conejo — rabbit, black tortilla, raisins, almonds, tomato, and refried beans.

Speaking to our server, he told me that he was so eager to work there that he told the managers he would take a dish-washing position just to get his foot in the door. You can tell by the warm vibe of the restaurant that Ortega’s staff is as inspired by him as they are by what he is doing in the kitchen. And it shows in the quality of the food and the caliber of the service.

Robalo (sea bass crudo) — aguachile verde (green chile water), cilantro, parsley, lime, orange, avocado, serrano, corn, red onion, cucumber, and plantain tostada.

I also really liked wine director and general manager Sean Beck’s smart, value-driven wine list. The Brooks 2016 Pinot Noir Rosé from Oregon was such a perfect pairing that worked gorgeously throughout the meal, even as a refreshing counterpoint to my chicken mole. Sean should win an award for “best Mexican cuisine wine program.”

Accolades aside, hearing him speak in such glowing tones about his many trips to Oaxaca, you can tell that his passion for the restaurant and its menu are reward enough.

But the best part of the meal…

…was having a night out with my beautiful wife.

Thank you, Dana and Neil, for such a lovely and unforgettable evening. And thank you, Sean and staff, for such seamless, warm, and thoughtful service.

Xochi is a true original: a meal there is a voyage to Oaxaca and a reflection of the best of Houston and its peoples.