10 Things You Need to Know about Champagne and Prosecco (and Everything in Between)

best-champagne-tasting-new-yorkI really loved Eric Asimov’s Champagne “cheat sheet” this year for the New York Times. Check it out. The glossary is great, too.

Like so many things in the new Trump America, the sparkling wine options for New Year’s Eve this year in Houston seem to have been reduced to a zero-sum game: either you drink Champagne and spend a buttload of money to sit courtside; or you drink Prosecco and sit in the nose-bleed seats where you figure you might as well have stayed at home and watched the game on your own big-screen TV.

And like so many other things in the new Trump America, the bogus Champagne vs. Prosecco dichotomy is a bunch of bullshit meant to keep you believing that aged, bigoted, overweight, rich white people who can’t spell are going to save you from the wretched life you live…

Click here to read my sparkling wine tips and recommendations for the Houston Press.

Happy holidays from the Parzen Family!


When a sommelier refuses to pour you a wine (go the winery): Poderi Colla, my top estate visit 2016

best-italian-pinot-noirIt had to have been 2003 when someone graciously offered to take me to dinner at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. At the time Per Se wasn’t online yet and Ducasse was New York City’s only three-Michelin-star restaurant (remember all those articles about whether or not Michelin-style restaurants would take hold in the city?). Even though the restaurant had been open for 3 years, it was still one of the sexiest and most difficult reservations to obtain. Henry Kissinger was in the dining room the night we ate there.

We were seated in the back, near the restroom, not that that mattered. It was a beautiful restaurant and there literally wasn’t a bad seat in the house.

I had been asked by the host to select the wine and when I spied the 1996 Poderi Colla Barolo Dardi Le Rose on the list for great price (around $130 if I remember correctly), I couldn’t resist ordering it.

barolo-soil-typesThe sommelier took my order but then returned to inform me that she wouldn’t be opening the wine for me.

“It’s too young,” she said, “and it isn’t drinking well. We’ve selected a different bottle for you instead.”

She had picked a new-barrique-aged Barbera d’Asti instead. It wasn’t the time or the place to make a fuss (in part because I was someone’s guest). And so, in the spirit of not interrupting the brio of the evening (we could hear Kissinger’s voice booming from the main dining room) and to go with the flow, I bit my tongue (an apt expression!) and didn’t say a thing.

best-italian-red-wineOne of my early mentors, the Italian wine maven Charles Scicolone, had first told me about Poderi Colla and the legacy of Beppe Colla, his brothers, and his family’s legacy as winemakers.

You don’t me to recount that story here. Many before me have written ably of Beppe Colla’s herculean contribution to the evolution of the Piedmont wine trade and the many benchmarks that he has set over the arc of a career well spent and a life well lived.

See, for example, Charles’ excellent post from earlier this year here. And see this wonderfully informed winery profile by British wine merchant John Hattersley.

What I will tell you is that until you tread the gorgeous vineyards of this farm and breathe in the salubrious air atop the estate’s Bricco del Drago (“Dragon’s Hill,” in the first photo above), you only know half the story of this magical estate and its enchanting wines.

beppe-collaWhen I visited in the spring, Tino Colla talked at length about organic farming and why his family doesn’t farm organically. It’s all about creating balance in the vineyards, he explained (just look at the flowers growing between the rows in the Bricco del Drago above!).

He laughed as he told our group about a recent visitor from California who was obsessed with organically farmed produce. When she was served an estate-grown peach at the end of a lunch at the estate, he said, she was horrified to find a worm on the piece of fruit. When he tried to explain to her that the worm was a sign of a healthy farm and the absence of pesticides, she wasn’t having it — figuratively and literally.

As he shared his bemusement over her misconceptions about organic growing practices, I remembered the disconnect (literal and figurative) between that first bottle of Colla and me. Looking back, I wonder: was the wine not ready for me or was I not ready for the wine in the sommelier’s opinion?

I hope that that sommelier someday makes it to Poderi Colla. Then she’ll realize that the people who make these wines make them to share with people who want to learn what Langhe wines really are.

I must have visited 20 wineries over the last 12 months and 9 trips to Italy in 2016. Poderi Colla was a visit of a lifetime. The luncheon, the eye-opening tasting, the winemaking museum, and the breath-taking hike through the vineyards. I can’t recommend the estate and the wines highly enough.


When Donald Trump partied with Richard Nixon (at Tony’s in Houston)

Incredible to read this story in the Times after hearing my friend and client Tony Vallone tell it over dinner. I’ve tasted those cannelloni. They are delicious…

nixon-trump-houstonHOUSTON — They still talk about the Saturday night here 27 years ago when Donald J. Trump partied with former President Richard M. Nixon.

Dressed in tuxedos, they sang “Happy Birthday” to Texas royalty — former Gov. John B. Connally and his wife, Nellie, whose birthdays were a few days apart — as Nixon played the tune on a white baby grand piano. They dined at Tony’s, the “21” Club of Houston, and Nixon was so fond of the cannelloni pasta that he asked the owner, Tony Vallone, to write the recipe for him on a yellow legal pad. And when it was all over, Mr. Trump flew Nixon back to New York on his 727 private jet.

It happened one weekend in March 1989…

Click here to continue reading “When Donald Trump Partied with Richard Nixon,” from today’s New York Times…

10 wines for a Chrismukkah of a lifetime (when Christmas Eve and the first night of Chanukah fall are the same)

chanukah-hanukkah-christmas-eve-same-nightThis year on December 24, humankind will witness an epochal event of a lifetime (if you’re a millennial): The first night of Chanukah will fall on Christmas Eve. That’s only happened one other time in my lifetime (I belong to Generation X), in 1978. And it only happened one other time in the last 100 years, in 1940.

The first night of Chanukah has fallen on Christmas Day twice over the last 100 years, in 2005 and 1959. And Christmas and Chanukah (a historic festival and not a religious holiday for self-aware Jews) often overlap. But when the first night of the Jewish festival of lights aligns with the vigil for the birth of Jesus Christ, it just feels different — magical as if there were some type of confluence of cosmic forces. It can literally take a lifetime for the two to coincide (if you were born in the 80s).

The date for Christmas is determined by the Gregorian Calendar and the date for Chanukah, like all Jewish holidays and festivals, is determined by the Hebrew Calendar, a lunisolar calendar (based on the moon phase and the tropical calendar).

If you’re wondering how I figured this out, it was actually easy: I used HebCal.com.

Christmas and Chanukah aren’t historically related, even though they often overlap. Only in America is Chanukah associated with Christmas as a gift-giving occasion (a contamination of the Hallmark gift card military-industrial complex). In most countries, children may receive dreidels (dice with spindles) and coins for Chanukah. But gifts are not exchanged.

Sephardic Jews often make and serve donuts during Chanukah. That’s because donuts are fried in oil and oil is central to the Chanukah story: According to Jewish tradition, the amount of olive oil needed for one night during the rededication of the Second Temple (in Jerusalem in 165 BCE) miraculously lasted for eight nights.

Ashkenazi Jews serve potato latkes or potato pancakes, which are fried in oil. Many Texans will recognize potato pancakes as part of their own culinary tradition: Early German settlers in Texas, many of whom came here seeking religious freedom in the 19th century, also enjoyed potato pancakes.

And that’s why, in the spirit of coming together and sharing our rich cultural diversity in Trump America, my number one recommendation for wine this Chrismukkah (the bogus pop-culture intermingling of religious rituals) is German-speaking wine.

Click for for my 10 recommendations for the Houston market. Happy Chrismukkah, ya’ll! This only happens once in a lifetime (for most of us). So let’s make it a good one with a memorable bottle of wine!


Why is it called pepperoni pizza (when peppers [seemingly] have nothing to do with it)?

This just in: Vietti winemaker Luca Currado and my friend and client Tony Vallone will be presenting Luca’s family’s wines on January 18, 2017 at Tony’s in Houston. I’ll be there. Please join me. It’s going to be a night to remember, for sure.

best-pepperoni-pizzaNew York-style pizza and pepperoni pizza in particular are among my greatest guilty pleasures.

In the decade that I lived and played music in New York City, I came to learn all the best spots for late-night Manhattan slices as my band’s drummer and I lugged our gear back uptown from our downtown gigs. Oh man, who doesn’t relish a hot slice at 2 a.m. after a night of drinking flat beer and strumming a Telecaster???!!!

best-pepperoni-pizza-new-york-sliceToday, the question of pizza and the existential question of pepperoni or regular? play a new and outsized dialectical role in my life: our youngest daughter prefers “cheese” while our oldest waivers between her allegiances to pepperoni and cheese.

The joy, alone, in hearing the word pepperoni uttered by a child, with its trochaic mellifluence, is truly priceless, btw: peh-peh-ROOOOOOH-nee.

best-pizzeria-new-yorkMy parental pondering of pepperoni pizza led me recently to reflect on the origin of the nomenclature. After all, in Italian, peperoni denotes what we call bell peppers in English. If you ordered a pizza ai pep[p]eroni in Italy, they’d bring you a pizza with bell peppers and not with thinly sliced, slightly spicy sausage.

A Google search prompted by my curiosity led me to a lovely 2011 article by Julia Moskin for the New York Times (our president-elect’s favorite paper!), “Pepperoni: On Top.”

In it she writes:

What, exactly, is pepperoni? It is an air-dried spicy sausage with a few distinctive characteristics: it is fine-grained, lightly smoky, bright red and relatively soft. But one thing it is not: Italian.

“Purely an Italian-American creation, like chicken Parmesan,” said John Mariani, a food writer and historian who has just published a book with the modest title: “How Italian Food Conquered the World.” “Peperoni” is the Italian word for large peppers, as in bell peppers, and there is no Italian salami called by that name, though some salamis from Calabria and Apulia are similarly spicy and flushed red with dried chilies. The first reference to pepperoni in print is from 1919, Mr. Mariani said, the period when pizzerias and Italian butcher shops began to flourish here.

Evidently, the sausage name is a corruption of the Italian peperoncino, as in the little peppers used to impart heat and color to the salami.

pizza-and-champagne-wine-pairingDigging a little deeper into my philological neuroses, I discovered that the earliest known printed reference to pep[p]eroni sausage actually dates back to 1888 (the year Nietzsche began to lose his mind) in the Times of London.

This early mention of pepperoni in a list of types of dried sausage leads me to believe that pepperoni might not be an Italian-American invention but rather a food product that is Italo-Britannic in origin (something that is highly plausible).

But I found an even more significant and telling mention in the United States government Yearbook of Agriculture for 1894 (published by the U.S. Government Printing Office), a mention that appears some 25 years before Mariani’s editio princeps.

The author of the entry for sausage wrote the following:

A mealtime and snacktime favorite of millions of Americans, sausages include a wide assortment of seasoned and processed meat products… Some sausages are dried during processing. Dried sausages like pepperoni, thuringer, and dry salmi are quite firm, very flavorful, and normally do not need to be refrigerated.

Herein lies the rub, as it were. Pizza, as we knew it in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s before the pseudo-Neapolitan pizza craze of the 2000s, probably emerged during the “Me” era (that’s the 1970s for you millennials). We think of pizza as an ancient food form. And it is. But the pizza of the 1960s probably didn’t resemble the pizzas pictured in this post, for example. It was the rise of canned tomatoes and processed cheese in the post-war boom of the 1960s that probably made pizza as-we-knew-it possible in the decades that followed.

The passage from the 1894 yearbook reveals that pepperoni sausage was already popular (at snacktimes and mealtimes) in the U.S. by the dawn of the 19th century, long before the great waves of Italian immigration began to take shape in north America. And its popularity was probably owed in some measure to the fact that it didn’t require refrigeration.

Ding! Ding! Ding! That’s probably why it became such a popular pizza topping: it was easy and inexpensive to store.

Regardless of its origins and its linguistic and cultural disconnect, pepperoni pizza is one of America’s great gifts to the world imho. There’s just nothing like a late-night slice after a gig and there’s nothing like the smile on a child’s face as she contemplates: cheese or pepperoni?

Why isn’t someone importing this Greco di Tufo by Bambinuto? Wild Irpinia is an unmined treasure of delicious wines.

bambinuto-greco-tufoLast week, I wrote about what an incredible experience it was for me to tour Irpinia in early November with Daniela Mastroberardino, who really turned me on to what makes the wines from this otherworldly locus so special. The landscape shots, alone, were worth the price of admission.

Another one of the revelations from that November trip was tasting Marilena Bambinuto’s Greco di Tufo, above.

There are so many great expressions of Greco di Tufo out there but Marilena’s have what the Italians call a marcia in più, an extra “high” gear.

Beautiful focus and purity in this wine, with a gorgeous balance of acidity, alcohol, and fruit and mineral flavors that really danced in my mouth as we tasted the wines paired with her butcher’s sausage and boiled potatoes.

best-artisanal-sausageGreco di Tufo can be such a richly flavored wine and, at least in my experience, certain winemakers will go for a ripe style or an intensely mineral style of the wine. But Marilena’s really hit a sexy harmony of all the elements in this appellation, with a classic but fresh and electric interpretation of this incredible appellation.

It may not mean much to the casual wine lover but a stroll through her organically farmed vineyards (see the grassy rows below) revealed a lot about why the wine has such a magic buoyancy to it.

Why is no one bringing this in to the U.S.? It’s made by a small, family-run and owned estate. It’s organically farmed and only native yeasts are used in fermentation. The wines are a pure and purely delicious expression of the appellation. And Marilena, her family, and her wines couldn’t be a more authentic expression of wild Irpinia.

I owe this discovery to my friend and colleague Marina Alaimo, a writer, blogger, and sommelier based in Naples. Anyone who follows Italian wine, and especially southern Italian wine, knows Marina from social media (if you don’t, friend her here). And she graciously organized my visit that day (and a lot more that I will write about in an upcoming post).

Thank you again, Marina, for such a thoughtful choice of winery for me to visit and taste on my first trip to Irpinia. And thank you, Marilena, for the time and the wine. I can’t wait for someone to bring your wines to America.

To quote a Joni Mitchell song, I could drink a pallet of Bambinuto!


Is being Mexican in Trump America a zero-sum game?

chicano-park-san-diegoOver the span of one week, conversations with two friends of mine, both of them middle-aged and middle-class American women of Mexican heritage, revealed a dichotomy in attitudes about Latinos living in the U.S. in the Trump era.

In Houston, the Texan of the two told me that she and her family are deeply concerned about how the president-elect’s immigration policies are going to affect them and the wider network of their community.

If Trump makes good on his pledge to deport 11 million Latinos from the U.S. and, in particular, if he revokes Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, her extended family will surely be affected.

No one knows for certain what Trump will actually do but it’s highly likely that his newly implemented immigration policies will literally rip her family apart.

In North County San Diego, the Californian of the two told me she hopes that Trump acts on his vow to expel “undocumented” Latinos living in the U.S.

“Not another Mexican should ever be allowed into this country,” she said (verbatim).

I grew up in Southern California and called it my home until I was 30 years old.

Now 49 years old, I’ve lived in Texas since 2008.

According to the most recent data on demographics in the two states that I could find (notably here and here), roughly 40 percent of the people living in both states are Latinos. And in California, there are currently more Latinos than Whites. In Texas, the number of Latinos is expected to surpass the number of Whites by the end of this decade.

When I was a child, my caretaker was a Mexican woman (who is still a close friend of my family). I learned to speak Spanish fluently by the time I was 13 years old (long before I learned to speak Italian). My classes were filled with Mexican kids during my years of high school (La Jolla High) and college (U.C.L.A.).

When Trump announced his bid for the presidency in 2015, he said that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” (Read the text of his June 2015 address here.)

Aside from my decade in New York and my years as a student in Italy, I’ve lived almost 40 years in states where Spanish is spoken regularly as a second language and where Mexicans and Whites live, work, study, and raise families side-by-side (as the demographics reveal, Texas and California are very similar in this regard). Gauging from my own personal experience, Trump’s remarks (in his opening bid to become the U.S. president) are as far from the truth as they are deeply offensive.

As a contributor to the Washington Post wrote about a month before the general election, “anyone… sold on the idea that Trump’s comments have simply been misunderstood or taken out of contest seems unable to grasp is that the act of declaring an entire group prone to illegal activity is about as close to a textbook example of bigotry and xenophobia as possible.”

In January when Trump takes office, we’ll see how he intends to implement his often repeated campaign pledge. Some states, like California, are already taking steps to protect their residents from Trump’s bigoted and xenophobic approach to immigration reform.

In the meantime, countless people who reside in our country are living in fear of what will come next.

It was only two generations ago that my family immigrated to the U.S. when my grandparents’ families fled religious persecution and economic subjugation in what are now Russia and Poland. All of my ancestors were Jews and nearly all of them were poor, disenfranchised, and “undocumented” migrants. According to our family mythology, my paternal grandmother came from a family of bootleggers. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know that she was born into abject poverty. As the tide of history in Eastern Europe has shown, her family’s migration probably saved their lives and their biological legacy. My children are her great-grandchildren.

Trump claims to be a Christian and the majority of Whites who elected him identify as Christians (including Evangelicals’ nearly unmitigated support).

I often wonder how my White-Christian friends are sleeping the days, now that Trump is poised to become the leader of our nation.

I know for a fact that a lot of my Mexican-Christian friends have been losing a lot of sleep.

mexican-park-barrio-logan-san-diegoImages of Chicano Park in San Diego where I grew up via Peyri Herrera’s Flickr. See also the Wiki entry for Chicano Park.

Happy birthday Georgia Ann Parzen! You are the greatest birthday gift of all…

georgia-drummerHappy birthday, sweet Georgia P!

Your fifth birthday is actually on Monday but your birthday celebration begins today and your birthday party tomorrow — with your pink party favors and pink birthday cake that mommy is making for you — is sure to be a smash!

We have a whole bunch of presents lined up for you and your grandparents and your aunts, uncles, and cousins will bring more with them tomorrow for your birthday celebration.

But like every year when your birthday rolls around, I can’t help but think to myself that you are the greatest gift of all.

Your sweetness, yours sassiness, your empathy, your humor, your bright bright smile, your kisses and hugs, your love of music and singing, your love of drums, your love of rock ‘n’ roll, your love of Broadway musicals (like father like daughter!), your love of rhymes, your love of books… You have shared with us a joy I never knew could exist until you came into our lives.

All the birthday gifts in the world and a million more would never be enough to repay you for the blessings you have brought into my life and all that you have taught me about being a father.

And by the way, it is SO MUCH FUN to be your dad.

I love you. Happy fifth birthday, sweet girl!