Lambrusco New Year’s: my recommendations in the LA Times

podere saliceto isabellaAbove: winemaker Gian Paolo Isabella of Podere Il Saliceto in Modena province in June of 2015 when Chef Steve Samson and I visited and tasted with him. His Lambrusco is one of the wines I recommended in an Los Angeles Times piece published this weekend. A super nice guy, he used to be a professional kickboxer. He developed an interest in wine, he told me, touring the world for his sport. I liked the wines a lot.

One of the gifts tucked in my Christmas stocking this year was a Los Angeles Times feature on my good friend Steve Samson, chef and owner of Sotto in Los Angeles where I serve as wine director: “Chef Steve Samson shares a New Year’s Eve tradition: tortellini” by the paper’s restaurant critic and wine writer S. Irene Virbila.

Tortellini is a classic New Year’s dish in Bologna (in the region of Emilia-Romagna) where Steve spent summers as a kid.

The article is paired with my Lambrusco recommendations: “Looking to drink something a bit different this New Year’s? Pour a fizzy Lambrusco.”

Chef Steve is planning to open an Emilia-themed restaurant and Lambrusco garden later this year to be called RossoBlu. I will be authoring the wine list there as well.

He and I visited the region in June of this year for some “research and development” (read: some mighty eating and drinking).

I’ve spent a lot of time in Emilia over the years and I still have a lot of really close friends there. It was such a thrill for me to see the piece in the Times.

Tanti auguri di buon anno! Happy new year, everyone!

Christmas SONG 2015: “Christmas Comes Just Once A Year” by the Parzen Family Singers

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Thank you for all your support here on the blog in 2015.

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas
and a Happy and Healthy New Year!

somewhere a wise rabbi once said:
“it is the dream of every Jewish songwriter
to write a great Christmas song…”

Download or stream the Parzen Family Singers 2015 Christmas Song here (FREE)!

parzen christmas card 2015

My hipster guide to sparkling wines and getting laid in Houston

terry theise“It always makes me very happy to learn that my wines helped someone to get laid,” said importer Terry Theise when I bumped into him at the excellent Ribelle in Boston a few weeks ago.

That’s Terry (above, left) with my friend Adam Japko (with whom I’ll be leading a Design and Wine trip to Italy next year).

Terry was responding to my telling him about how Tracie P and I drank and enjoyed so many of his “grower Champagnes” during our early courtship.

Even in Austin, Texas, where we lived at the time and where wines generally cost a little more than in other major markets across the U.S., we could afford them (they fall in the $40-60 price range in our state) and they were always delicious.

That evening in New England, he tasted Adam and me on a sekt rosé from Spätburgunder by Messmer (below). It’s what what Tracie P and I — now married with children — will be drinking on Christmas day with our family in southeast Texas.

And it’s also one of my top picks for sparkling wines for the holidays for the Houston Press in my HIPSTER’S GUIDE TO SPARKLING WINE [and getting laid] IN HOUSTON.

The list includes recommendations from some of our city’s leading wine professionals. You might be surprised by some of their picks (most of them recommended Italian wines!). But it also gives a good indication of the savvy that shapes the fine wine scene here.

Sparkle on you crazy diamonds and please don’t serve your bubbles in flutes! Happy holidays!

best champagne houston price

Texas high school football, just like in the movies

west orange stark football championshipOur daughters (and their dad) got a crash course in Texas high school football yesterday when we attended the Class 4A Division II state championship, where Tracie P’s alma mater, the West Orange Stark Mustangs (14-1), beat the Celina (pronounced sah-LEE-nah) Bobcats (15-0) at Houston’s NRG stadium (where the pros play) 22-3.

That’s Georgia P (age 4), above, in the arms of her cousin Lesli (who lives in Los Angeles).

Everything you’ve ever heard about the high school football phenomenon in Texas? It’s true.

There were roughly 25 members of the Branch-Johnson side of our family in attendance, mostly from West Orange (where Tracie grew up a block away from campus) but also from Austin and Houston (and even one from California).

When I went to visit the restroom at halftime, an impromptu reunion of diaspora Mustangs alumni was taking place, with women and men and their families gleefully greeting each other and exchanging notes and hopes on the course of the game.

nrg stadium houstonOne thing that really impressed me about the experience was the fans’ ardent loyalty to the teams and the intensity of their cheer.

This was no mere social event or pageant intended to foster character among the young men on the field.

No, this was Texas football…

west orange stark football scoreThe other thing that impressed me was how nice and just downright polite everyone was.

That’s our daughter Lila Jane (2), above, btw.

As raucous as the crowd was, I didn’t hear or witness one tense exchange among the throng of people trying to reach their seats.

I ascribe the mood and air of sisterhood and brotherhood in part to the joy that Texans derive from the sporting experience.

But I also attribute it to Texans’ general attitude of friendliness and thoughtfulness when they gather.

This locus amoenus was a happy place where people — literally — from all walks of life came together to celebrate the fanfare and wholesome excitement of our state’s “national” pastime.

Congratulations to the Mustangs on a great season and a job well done!

Racial and religious profiling in Italy, the ugly truth about the world’s most beautiful country

From the department of “I hate to be a bummer the week before Christmas but”…

italy racisimThe photo above was published yesterday on social media by one of Italy’s leading wine professionals in a post that generated scores of comments, mostly authored by high-profile wine tradespeople who condemned and repudiated its sentiment.

Brown-colored signs like this one are part of Italy’s officially sanctioned cultural heritage system. They are used for historically significant sites like churches or works of art — the so-called segnaletica monumentale.

In this sign, posted to mark the township of Pontoglio (in Brescia province, in the region of Lombardy, not far from Milan, roughly 7,000 inhabitants according to its Wiki), the panel at the bottom reads as follows (translation mine):

“A Western-culture village with deep-rooted Christian traditions. Anyone who does not intend to respect local culture and traditions is invited to leave.”

I’ll let the reader infer whatever meaning she/her likes from this text.

But it’s abundantly clear that non-Westerners and non-Christians are not welcome in Pontoglio.

It’s an expression of life in Italy that many Americans don’t notice when they visit wine country there. But sadly, however extreme the sentiment that inspired this particular sign, cultural insensitivity like this is not uncommon there, especially in the north.

Pontoglio literally means bridge on the river Oglio. The Oglio river is one of the boundaries of the Franciacorta DOCG. The Franciacorta consortium has been one of my clients in 2015 and I travel there often.

I wonder how the residents of Pontoglio would feel about a Jewish-American wine blogger visiting their town…

I plan to find out next year when I return to Franciacorta and will report back.

But in the meantime, I wanted to write a note about the Facebook post because I applaud the Italian wine community for its repudiation of the racial and religious profiling that is becoming increasingly common and bold in Italy today.

It’s one of the ways that the wine community can and does make the world a better place.

I stand in absolute solidarity with the two wine professionals who posted this on their Facebooks.

Sorry to be a bummer the week before Christmas (which I will be celebrating in southeast Texas with my family). But I felt it was important to share this here today.

Creative Italian cookery is TRUE Italian cuisine: great dinner at Ribelle in Boston

NEWS FLASH: my vitello tonnato research continues this week with an entry on the Milanese version of the dish over on the Tenuta Carretta blog.

due latti latte robiolaThe funniest thing happened last week on my way to Boston to have dinner with a good friend and client of mine at Ribelle, one of the city’s super cool new wave restaurants, opened a few years ago.

After said friend/client emailed wine director Theresa Paopao his request to do a pasta tasting menu, she gently advised that the restaurant’s cooking was not traditional Italian.

She was happy to accommodate his request and our party, of course.

But “I just wanted to put this out there,” she wrote, “so that the only surprises are pleasant ones.”

When we sat down to eat and the first pasta arrived, I was reminded of what my friend and client Tony Vallone always says: for food to be authentically Italian, it must also be creative.

Those are the wholewheat canestri (baskets), above, with robiola due latti (sheep’s and cow’s milk) and sunchoke.

uni pastaIn my view, the excellent food at Ribelle had all the hallmarks of great Italian cuisine: wholesome, fresh ingredients; artisanal food products; al dente cooking times for the pasta; and the creativity and playfulness that sets contemporary Italian gastronomy apart from the rest on the world stage today.

Those are the maccheroni, above, with nori goma and uni (my favorite dish of the evening, especially because the heat was appropriately intense).

You could easily have been served this dish on the Amalfi coast (I recently read, btw, that Campania is now the Italian region with the second highest number of Michelin stars).

agnolotti recipeA poet is someone who takes the elements of a language (a finite set of words and meanings) and combines them in a new and unique way.

In my view of the enogastronomic world, the same holds for great Italian cookery.

As untraditionally Italian as Ribelle may be, this is the true tradition of authentic Italian cuisine today in my view: imaginative combinations of classic and local ingredients that create new aromas and flavors.

Those are the agnolotti (otherwise, a traditional Piedmontese stuffed pasta), above, filled with boar and served with black trumpet mushrooms.

rigatoni seafoodThe rigatoni, above, with octopus and fennel, were another favorite of mine.

I was really impressed by the verve and flair of Ribelle’s cooking and I left the restaurant with a belly satiated and content — I loved the food that much.

Is Ribelle a traditional Italian restaurant? No.

Is it an authentic Italian restaurant? I’ll answer that question with a hearty and al dente “yes.”

“Sauvignon Connection”: analysis of wines reveals no signs of prohibited additives says defense attorney

It has been dubbed the “Sauvignon Connection” by the Italian news media (who use an English-language reference to the 1971 crime thriller starring Gene Hackman in their shorthand).

In September of 2015, 17 wineries were implicated in an Italian anti-adulteration investigation of the use of prohibited additives in the production of Sauvignon Blanc wines in northeastern Italy.

The “magic potions,” as they were called by investigators, posed no health risks, they said. But they allegedly gave the wines aromas considered atypical by many Italian wine trade observers and local growers and bottlers.

Among the wines confiscated for analysis by Italian officials, some have won top awards in international wine competitions and have received top ratings from leading Italian wine reviewers.

According to a statement last week by defense attorney Giuseppe Campeis who represents one of the central figures in the inquiry, “chemical” and “microbiological” analyses of sequestered wines have revealed no prohibited substances in the wine.

In reports circulated by Italian media outlets, Friulian investigator Antonio De Nicolo has countered that laboratory analysis of the wines is just one of the elements of his investigation of the alleged adulteration.

He has also claimed that efforts by the defense to delay the examination of the wines may have attenuated the presence of the alleged unauthorized additives.

The parties are scheduled to meet in court today. But trade observers note that the outcome of the inquiry may not be known for years.

sauvignon scandal connectionAbove: the Natisone river flows through the city of Cividale del Friuli not far from the office of the Consortium of Colli Orientali del Friuli Grape Growers and Winemakers (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

A sexy song for Tracie P and a new album from the Parzen Family Singers

Stream or download the whole album here for free!

Just enter “0” for the amount you want to pay or stream from your computer.

The Parzen Family Singers’ long-awaited album “Songs from Texas” is finally here! Nine new songs about their life in Texas and beyond, written and recorded in Austin and Houston between 2008-2015.

Songs from Texas (cover) thumbChristmas Comes Just Once a Year

The dream of every Jewish song-writer? To write a great Christmas song.

She Can Change My Whole Wide World

The world I travel but only Tracie P can change my whole wide world.

Georgia Ann

A love song for Georgia, who always gets mad when I go away for work but forgives me when I get back.

Lalala Lila Jane

This song was borne out of how much fun it is to say Lila’s name. It rocks out, just like her.

Lady (I want to make sweet love to you)

What can I say? My wife is hot! Don’t believe me? Watch the Youtube above.

Hey Joe

I wrote this for my bromance Giovanni for his 40th birthday. He’s a regular Casanova.


Dindo is one of my best friends in Italy. Knowing him makes me happy, just like this song (my good buddy Nathan Smith from Houston plays killer sax on this track).

Tracie B (Won’t you marry me)

I proposed marriage to Tracie P, then B, with this song, one of the first I wrote for her.

All We Need Is Grapes

The lyrics of this track actually have a deeper meaning than meets the ear.

Click here to download or stream.

Songs from Texas (liner notes) thumb