Microaggression and my Houston apologia

houston hermann park conservatoryAbove: my family at the Hermann Park Conservancy in Houston last year, not long after we moved here from Austin.

12,000+ views, 2,000+ Facebook shares, and 28 comments later, it’s still going strong… When I published it a week ago Sunday, I never imagined that my post “You’re from Houston? I’m so sorry” would have generated such a response.

When she shared it on her Facebook on Thursday, Houstonia magazine managing editor Katharine Shilcutt (and one of my editors there) wrote: “it’s always heartwarming to see non-natives become Houston apologists.”

Katharine, a Houston native, is a friend and one of the writers and editors I admire most on the food scene here. It was a thrill to discover that she enjoyed the post enough to share it with her legions of followers.

And today, the post was featured on the Houston Chronicle “Opportunity Urbanist” blog.

Honestly, I never intended the post as a panegyric.
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Visit and taste Asolo with me: the “jewel” of the Veneto

asolo italyAbove: the beauty of Asolo, the “jewel” of the Veneto, is ineffable. You must visit this tiny hamlet to grasp its significance in western aesthetics.

“Asolo, the beautiful place I used to dream about so often in the old days, till at last I saw it again and the dreams stopped.”

These are the words of the great Victorian poet Robert Browning, who nursed a lifelong and instatiable obsession with the hilltop hamlet of Asolo in Treviso province, an hour’s drive from Venice.

Not only did he set a number of his works there, but he also dreamed of recreating “Pippa’s tower” there (from one of his most famous poems, “Pippa Passes”) so that he “could see Venice every day” (on clear days, you can see the bell tower of St. Mark’s with the naked eye).

Click here to read an account of his daily life there. It’s an amazing dispatch.

Browning is just one of the iconic figures of western letters and fine arts who have made Asolo their home since Caterina Cornaro, the Venetian-born queen of Cyprus first brought her court there in the fifteenth century.

Gabriele D’Annunzio, Eleonora Duse, Dame Freya Stark (who died there in her home in 1993)… These are just a handful of names of the countless titans of western culture who have lived there.

So it was only natural that when my good friend Adam Japko asked me to curate the food and wine component of his Design and Wine Italy 2016 Tour that I would make Asolo — the “jewel of the Veneto” and the “pearl of Treviso” — the centerpiece of our itinerary.

After all, the many works there by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio and 18th-century sculptor Antonio Canova (who was born there) make it the ideal destination for a marriage of design and enogastronomy.

bean landrace italyAbove: a soup at the Locanda Baggio in Asolo, made with a bean landrace known locally as “gialèt,” a climbing bean, and topped with Treviso radicchio.

On the day of our guided tour of Asolo, we’ll be having lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in Italy, Locanda Baggio, and we’ll be drinking one of my favorite wines, Bele Casel’s Prosecco Col Fondo by my friend and client Luca Ferraro, who will be on hand to talk about organic farming practices in Asolo viticulture.

It’s just one of the stops that I’ve created for the tour (view the full itinerary here).

But there’s a lot more than my wine and food: the design component of the tour is being curated by “Antiques Diva” Toma Haines, who regularly leads design and antiques trips to Italy and beyond.

Adam, a publisher of interior design magazines, Toma, and I will all be on the trip, which opens in Venice.

Registration closes on December 1 and is already filling up. So please have a look. I hope to see you next spring in Italy!

design and wine full

An Italian wine cellar grows in Austin at Italic

best pizza austin texasAbove: the soppressata and taleggio pizza at Italic, Austin’s latest Italian entry.

Tuesday found me in Austin where I finally got to eat at Italic, the latest Italian-concept to open there and just one of the seemingly countless new Italians to open or to launch before year’s end.

The wine director Master Sommelier Craig Collins is a good friend from our years in the River City. He started my party off with a bottle of Lambrusco di Sorbara and expertly sliced prosciutto, a thoughtful pairing and a lovely gesture (especially because, and I just have to say this one more time, the prosciutto was sliced perfectly).

His list there is fantastic, with a focus on indigenous grape varieties and a balanced selection of northern, central, and southern. That alone was enough to make me a fan: It’s great to see southern wines well represented at restaurants like this, where the marketing target is generation Z. I love to think about how current UT students might wash down their pizza with Aglianico instead of the predictable and unavoidable stainless-steel Merlot from Tuscany that you see so often by-the-glass in pseudo-Italians today.

But thing that really blew me away about his program wasn’t the current offering but the wines that weren’t on the list.

Before we sat down, Craig gave our party a tour of his 1,000+ reserve cellar, chock full with Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Aglianico that he’s aging. He has laid down a serious allocation of 2010 wines and he plans to start opening them a few years from now.

“I’m going to do 2010 Produttori del Barbaresco [classic] Barbaresco by-the-glass,” he told us, “just because I want people to experienced what aged Nebbiolo tastes like.”

Beyond New York, it’s rare that you find programs where directors are cellaring wines like these.

So for me, the thought that someone like Craig is holding back these wines in a youth-oriented market like Austin gives me confidence that a new generation of Italian wine lovers will emerge there.

And that’s good news for all of us, across the board, from Italian winemakers and purveyors of Italian wines to Italian wine consumers.

Italic is a big restaurant located in the heart of downtown Austin on 6th street not far from music row. When I moved there in 2008, no one could imagine such an ambitious Italian restaurant and wine list in one of our nation’s party-hardy epicenters. Today, this sleek joint packs ’em in and plies them with pasta, pizza pies, and Frappato.

Bring it on, Craig! I love your program. Chapeau bas, my friend! It’s great to know that an Italian cellar grows in Austin.

italians austin texasAbove: a little Texas hospitality outside Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, where they still deliver the righteous country jams.

After dinner, I just had to take my clients, Giovanni (above, left) and Francesco Minetti (right) to Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, one of me and Tracie P’s favorites honky tonks from our years in Austin.

That’s Tracie Lynn (above, center), one of the Live Music Capital of the World’s standbys. She and a super smoking band delivered a bitchin’ set of country standards.

Super fun night and after her last set (yes, we stayed to close the place), she meet-and-greeted fans outside the club in classic country fashion.

When she learned that it was Giovanni and Francesco’s first time in Texas, she insisted on gifting them CDs!

The guys had a blast (as did I) and afterward, I couldn’t help but say to them, adding a double-shot of irony for the road: “visting Texas? I’m so sorry…”

Assoenologi predicts that Italy will surpass France in volume with 2015 vintage as the group’s longtime director Martelli steps down

nebbiolo harvest 2015Above: Nebbiolo grapes in Barolo township (photo taken August 22, 2015).

With an increase of 10 per cent over last year’s harvest, Italy is expected to surpass France in the volume of wine produced in the 2015 vintage.

According to a report published by Assoenologi, the association of Italian wine technicians, Italy will produce up to 47 million hectoliters of wine with the 2015 crop, slightly more than in France where industry observers predict total production of 46.5 million hectoliters, a roughly 1 per cent drop with respect to last year’s total volume for French winemakers.

Some Italian regions will have a substantive increase in volume of wine produced this year, like Puglia, where 25 per cent growth is expected despite some zones that were affected by heavy rains late in the growing season.

In Sardinia and Lombardy, experts predict that yields will be roughly the same as last year while Tuscany is the only region to see a drop in volume (-5 per cent).

Click here for the Assoenologi graphic depicting the 2015 fine wine grape crop in Italy.

In terms of quality, “it’s impossible to make predictions that apply to all zones and microzones from Valtellina [Lombardy] to Etna [Sicily] because the effects of the climate are too varied,” according to Assoenologi president Riccardo Cotarella who was quoted earlier this month in a blog post by Corriere della Sera wine writer Luciano Ferraro (translation mine).

“It was the hottest July in centuries,” with an average of 3.5° C. above normal temperatures according to the Assoenologi report, which cites data compiled by Italy’s National Research Center.

Even though the authors call the 2015 vegetative cycle “ideal,” they note that temperatures in June and July were extremely high and in some cases “burning [hot].”

Emergency irrigation was crucial in maintaining the health of the vines in some zones, they write. But the warm, dry summer also reduced vine disease.

Final data will not be available, notes Cotarella, until harvest is completed in November.

As the 2015 harvest comes to a close, Giuseppe Martelli, who has led the body for 37 years, has announced that he will step down as Assoenologi director.

As the editors of the Luciano Pignataro Wine Blog wrote today, his retirement represents “the end of an era.”

Born in Novara province and an enologist and biologist by training, Martelli has led Assoenologi since 1978.

In a statement by the association published on the Luciano Pignataro Wine Blog, no reference is made to his reason for stepping down.

Earlier this year, Martelli’s nomination was confirmed for a second three-year tenure of Italy’s National Committee on Wine Appellations. He has been a member of the committee since 1984.

“You’re from Houston? I’m so sorry.”

georgia and tracie parzenAbove: my wife Tracie (left) and our oldest daughter Georgia P at Hermann Park Conservancy in the heart of Houston not long after we moved to the city from Austin last year.

On Friday night, I was at Terroir, the natural wine bar in San Francisco. It’s one of my favorite wine destinations in the country and I go there every chance I get. In part, because I love the wine selection and the vibe of the place. In part, because one of my best friends from my New York days, Bill R., is one of the managers there and I love hanging out with him.

He introduced me to some of his regular guests and friends as my colleagues and I sat there for the better part of the evening tasting whatever wines he proffered.

No fewer than three times, when I made the acquaintance of fellow revelers and they asked me where I was from, their response came in the form of a question and feigned sympathy.

“You’re from Houston?” they asked as if on cue. “I’m so sorry.”

Ever since I moved to Texas in 2008 and especially since I moved to Houston in 2014, this happens a lot, nearly everywhere I travel.

I’m not really sure how people expect me or any Houstonian, for that matter, to react. Do they imagine I’ll thank them for their earnest concern? Do they not realize that they are, in fact, mocking me?

But what troubles me even more is their inability to grasp the intrinsic racist subtext of their sardonic manner.

If I were from, say, rural Mexico or north Africa, where our fellow humans have faced extreme socioeconomic challenges for generations, would they say, “You’re from Chiapas? I’m so sorry,” or “You’re from Benghazi? I’m so sorry.”

Can you imagine how offensive that would be?

And beyond the morally reprehensible tone of their sarcasm, do they not perceive how rude they are being?

In a social setting like a natural wine bar, where the guests ostensibly share an affinity for a style of wine that reflects progressive attitudes, how can I respond without escalating the tension that has been created?

I could answer by thanking them for feeling sorry for me and telling them that my life in Houston really sucks and that the only reason why I live there is because I my financial situation is so challenging that I accept my bitter fate of residing in America’s fourth largest city.

I could tell them that my ugly shrew of a wife forces me and our two bratty, cosmetically challenged, ingrate children to live there because she takes pleasure in our suffering.

I could reveal that despite my higher education and my career as a writer in the wine trade, I inhabit an intellectually and gastronomically inferior urban environment because I masochistically enjoy denying myself aesthetic and sensorial fulfillment.

But all three of these options would require dissimulation and when they realized I was lying, what kind of first impression would that make?

It’s true that Texas and Texans are often considered by their fellow Americans as having backward social attitudes and attenuated cultural self-awareness.

It is also true that Texas governor Greg Abbott recently deployed the Texas State Guard to ensure that the U.S. government wasn’t using the military training operation known as Jade Helm 15 to take Texans’ firearms away from them.

Texans often propagate the very same mythologies that make them and their state so unsavory to the palates of their compatriots.

But this is no excuse for the microaggression that comes in the form of their “I’m so sorry.”

And in today’s American society, where there is a heightened awareness of social politesse and racial and social sensitivity, their microaggresions are no more acceptable or tolerable than the outright racist attitudes they might expect of my fellow Houstonians.

I don’t tell them that, of course. To do so would be a proverbial conversation stopper.

I simply say, “no, please don’t be sorry. I love living in Houston. It’s a great place to live and I have a great life there. It’s actually not that place that you might imagine it to be. In fact, it’s one of the country’s most ethnically diverse and progressive cities. My children go to school with kids from all over the world. And the wine and food scene there is great, too.”

That usually ends the conversation anyway. Most people seem entirely nonplussed that my view of my own life is contrary to what they perceive my life to be. And in my experience, no panegyric will convince them otherwise.

Of course, not everyone acts this way when they learn I’m from Houston. Some people say things like, “I’ve heard great things about Houston” or “how do you like living there?” or they just say, “cool.”

But as someone who grew up in Southern California, lived in Europe on and off for ten years, and lived in New York City for ten years consecutively, being on the receiving end of this pungent microaggression has been eye-opening for me.

It’s been amazing to see how people size me up drawing their impression solely from the knowledge that “I’m from Houston.”

If only they could take a stroll with me and my family in the Hermann Park Conservancy to visit its Japanese garden or zoo, to see the collection of fossils in the Natural Science Museum there… They’d probably say something like “you don’t look Houstonian at all!”

Taste with me, travel with me in September, October, and beyond…

Writing on the fly this morning from the road in California but I wanted to share some upcoming dates and news…

jeremy parzen canteleIn Houston, I’ll be hanging out on Monday, September 21, at everyone’s favorite wine bar Camerata for a happy hour hosted by my new client from Piedmont, Tenuta Carretta.

My friend Giovanni Minetti is a walking encyclopedia of all things Langa. He was the president of the Barolo and Barbaresco consortium from 2001 to 2007 and he is the sweetest and most interesting guy. I encourage all the Houston wine folks to come hang with us.

On Tuesday, September 29, I’ll be attending a Piedmont wine dinner hosted by Houston Chronicle wine writer Dale Robertson and my friend and client Tony Vallone at Tony’s Ciao Bello.

Dale is the sports writer for Houston’s paper of record and he is the super coolest dude. Tony goes all out for these dinners and he’s digging deep into his cellar for some older Nebbiolo to pour that night (the pours are generous). It should be a fun night.

From October 22-25, I’ll be attending and blogging from the Boulder Burgundy Festival, where I’ll be moderating the Seminar: “A tour of Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru” with Jean-Charles le Bault de la Morinière (Bonneau du Martray), Ray Isle, and Paul Wasserman.

Pretty cool, right? The Boulder Burgundy Festival is such a great value and all the people are so chill. I love working with the organizer Master Sommelier Brett Zimmerman and I LOVE hanging out in Boulder. Tracie P will be with me, too.

A lot of cool stuff and wine tasting going on this year but the coolest news is that…

In May 2016, I’ll be one of the guides on Adam Japko’s “Design and Wine Italy” tour, a week-long trip through the Veneto including stops in Venice (and Venissa), Asolo, Valpolicella, Verona, and a lot more groovy sights and tastings.

Adam and I became friends a few years ago through wine blogging and last year he invited me to lead a wine tasting for 300+ persons at his Design Bloggers Conference in Atlanta.

He and I connect whenever our schedules align (mostly in NYC) and I was thrilled when he asked me to be part of this trip. My task has been that of curating the wine content for the group. It’s been a dream job for me.

Check out the snazzy itinerary here.

The deadline for reserving is December 1 and the spots are already filling up after just a morning of open registration.

This should be a spectacular experience and I’ll be posting more on the wine content as the date approaches.

That’s all I have time for today as I head from LA to SF for dinner at A16. And then tomorrow to La Jolla to celebrate my mom’s birthday. Buon weekend, everyone!

Sauvignon scandal: leading Friulian agronomist Giovanni Bigot speaks out

On Sunday, Italian wine writer Carlo Macchi, editor of WineSurf.it, published the following interview with Giovanni Bigot, an agronomist and winery consultant who has been working in Friuli since 1998 (translation mine). In 2004, he began working on experimental techniques for the cultivation of Sauvignon Blanc in Friuli. He’s widely considered by his peers to be one of the foremost experts on Sauvignon Blanc grown there.

The interview comes in the wake of a scandal that exploded in Friuli on Friday of last week after Italian anti-adulteration officials raided seventeen wineries and the laboratory of Ramon Persello, a consultant who is accused of using prohibited additives in the vinification of Friulian Sauvignon Blanc.

FULL DISCLOSURE: in 2011 and 2012 I led two separate Colli Orientali del Friuli Consortium-sponsored blogger trips to the appellation. Giovanni spoke to our groups both years as a representative of the consortium and as an expert on Friulian Sauvignon Blanc.

rosazzo abbeyAbove: a view from Rosazzo Abbey in the heart of Friulian wine country.

WineSurf: You work with some of the wineries that have been visited in recent day by [Italian] anti-adulteration authorities. Before we talk about the accusations, what exactly happened?

Giovanni Bigot: Someone motivated by envy pressed for the raids. Maybe because those wineries have Sauvignon [Blanc] that’s particularly interesting.

WS: It seems, in any case, that Ramon Persello is the focus of the whole affair. Do you know him?

GB: Yes, I know him.

WS: Have you worked together?

GB: Yes, we have. He’s an expert in bioclimatic design. My interaction with him was almost always related to bioclimatic design and climatology problems.

WS: Even though he works in climatology, there’s talk instead of Merlin the wizard’s magic potions.

GB: Yes, I’ve read that.

WS: In the light of this, do you think that it’s possible that Mr. X was selling substances to wineries A, B, and C to aromatize their wines?

GB: You see, I work and will continue to work with many different wineries to offer services aimed at the cultivation of Sauvignon [Blanc] but not just Sauvignon. Ultimately, the idea is to achieve different and distinct aromas from the wineries’ different vineyards. Distinct aromas that will create aromatic complexity in the final blend.

I said not just Sauvignon because at those very same wineries, different farming techniques have been created to obtain diversity and aromatic complexity. This diversity is found in the cellar and in the wines.

I couldn’t say how many analyses I’ve made of aroma precursors that correspond to those that we found in the grapes. But at the same time, what can I say? I’m the one who’s probably the most affected by the media attention. I’m the one who risks seeing his work wiped away because of these “potions.”

WS: If it’s true that “magic aromatic potions” are sold and bought, how to we determine if they are in the wines? Let me be more precise: If we know that thiol Y imparts the aroma of passion fruit, how do I figure out if it comes from the work in the vineyards or through particular legitimate vinification techniques or if it comes from the little bottle that I poured into the wine?

GB: From an analytic point of view, I really couldn’t tell you precisely how it’s done. But I’d like to clarify something regarding the sensorial point of view: In wine, there isn’t just one aroma but rather a set of aromas. The aromatic character of a wine is never defined by a single aroma. That’s why you’ll never have just passion fruit but rather pineapple, pink grapefruit, and other aromas side-by-side with passion fruit, for example. The aromas by themselves can only be perceived in hydroalcoholic solutions that you find in a laboratory.

WS: From what you’ve been able to learn, what did they find in Persello’s laboratory? Hydroalcoholic solutions?

GB: I really don’t know. I only know what I read in the newspaper.

WS: I know that you were at one of the wineries when the officials arrived. What were they looking for?

GB: [They were looking for] yeasts that had been used, additives, and in general, anything that you use in vinification and aging. They looked in the warehouse where the winemaking products are stored — the normal products you find at a winery. It’s possible that they found yeasts for Sauvignon. [A strain known as] X5, in particular, is one that is commonly used — and is allowed by law — because it’s more capable than most in translating thiols from [aroma] precursors to perceptible fraction.

WS: After the media dust settles and when and if guilty verdicts are handed down, who will suffer the greatest consequences?

GB: Consumer perceptions of the quality of Sauvignon from Friuli. People will forget that great efforts have been made for years in the vineyards. Small steps that fortunately will not be erased. It’s possible that when people taste their first Sauvignon with beautiful and well defined [aromatic] notes, they’ll say that this it’s “thanks to the potions.” In my view, this is simply not true. You need to take into account the great diversity of Sauvignon in Friuli.

WS: On the subject of diversity, since there are so many different types of Sauvignon in Friuli and since the wineries under investigation produce Sauvignon with such a wide range of character among them, is it possible that instead of one potion there are hundreds?

GB: I agree that there is so much diversity in Friulian Sauvignon that I can’t help but think that there is something that has helped to make them so similar. We’re not in New Zealand where, more or less, all the wines are marked by a note of asparagus. In Friuli, they produce Sauvignon that’s never marked by one single aroma.

WS: What will be the worst outcome if wineries are found to be guilty?

GB: If it turns out that some wineries are guilty, we will definitely lose some of our market share. Let me say one thing: Although I don’t know for certain, I believe and hope that there won’t be any guilty sentences. For example, I’m certain that among the fifteen [Friulian] wineries [named in the investigation], there are some that Persello has never even visited. [Translator’s note: of the seventeen wineries implicated, fifteen are Friulian; the remaining two are not.]

WS: Have they accused you of anything?

GB: No, they haven’t (editor’s note: he begins to laugh). I’m the one that should accuse someone of something since my work as a vineyard manager is being misconstrued by the media. I’m not concerned, in any case. The work I’ve done is still there.

Friulian winemaker Roberto Snidarcig responds to allegations that prohibited additives were used in his wines

The following statement by Friulian winemaker Roberto Snidarcig, owner of the Tiare winery, was published today by IlFriuli.it (translation mine).

It comes in response to a report (published yesterday) that his winery, along with sixteen others, has been implicated in an investigation of alleged use of prohibited additives.

In reference to the news that appeared today in the media, and, in particular, relative to the alleged use of aroma enhancers in Sauvignon [Blanc], we would like to make clear that we have nothing to do with this whole affair, which is gravely damaging our reputation. Yesterday, seventeen wineries were visited by authorities, including ours. They confiscated ambient yeasts obtained from the best grapes from our 2015 harvest. We have already made a formal request that they be released.

We have faith in the justice system and we are calmly waiting for this affair to be cleared up quickly. It is gravely penalizing not just our winery but all of Friulian viticulture. And it is frustrating years of work and commitment. We have already hired the Ponti law firm to take every possible action to safeguard our good name and brand.

Roberto Snidarcig

Sauvignon Blanc scandal explodes in Friuli as authorities investigate alleged use of prohibited additives

friuli sauvignon blanc scandalAbove: a vineyard in Rosazzo in Udine province, Friuli.

Read Friulian winemaker Roberto Snidarcig’s response here (posted 4:10 p.m.).

Read an interview with Friulian Sauvignon Blanc expert Giovanni Bigot here (posted 9/15/15).

According to a report published yesterday by Il Piccolo (a regional Italian daily newspaper based in Trieste), winery consultant Ramon Persello, age 39, has been accused by Italian authorities of using prohibited additives in the vinification of Sauvignon Blanc in the Collio and Colli Orientali appellations of Friuli.

Seventeen wineries have been implicated in the investigation, including some of Friuli’s most acclaimed estates. One of the producers named in the report was awarded the “best Sauvignon [Blanc] in Italy” prize at the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon (International Sauvignon Blanc Competition) held in Friuli in May of this year. Another brought home the top prize at the same competition in 2014 held in France.

Authorities believe, writes the author of the report, that Persello was adding a “magic potion” to the wines. An expert in bioclimatic design known for his abilities as a chemist, Persello — the “Archimedes of wine” — was adulterating the wines with an “elixir” that allegedly contained additives unauthorized by appellation regulations. An official quoted in the report said that while they suspect Persello of using prohibited additives, they do not believe his “secret” recipe to be harmful to wine drinkers.

The author speculates that he was reported to Italian anti-adulteration investigators by Friulian winemakers who envied the accolades lavished on his clients.

Persello’s laboratory was searched by Italian officials on Saturday, September 5. And yesterday, September 10, they began seizing wines for analysis at the wineries named in the investigation.

The fact that seizures occurred on the day of the opening of the twenty-first annual Friuli DOC festival was purely coincidental, said authorities. They had to act swiftly, said an official quoted in the report, because “word had spread” that an investigation was underway and it was feared that their efforts would be thwarted if they did not act immediately.

In an op-ed on the growing scandal published today on the popular Italian wine blog Intravino, Andrea Gori, a regular contributor to the blog and a highly regarded sommelier, notes that one of the wineries implicated in the investigation was recently named “best up-and-coming winery” by the editors of the Gambero Rosso Italian wine guide. The authors of the guide, he observes, used descriptors like “elder, mint, and passion fruit” to describe said winemaker’s Sauvignon Blanc, and they praised the wine for its “varietal” character.