Ungrafted classic-method Fortana, groovy Umbrian Sangiovese, and a favorite Australian in Houston

From the department of “in case you were concerned I’m not drinking well in Texas”…

It just goes to show the seemingly endless and encyclopedic breadth of Italian wine: until last week, I had never tasted a dry expression of the Fortana grape from Emilia. I had tasted a lot of sweet Fortana in Parma province: when vinified as amabile (sweet), the category is a classic pairing for Culatello di Zibello (and I believe the wine is also used to rinse the ham before it is aged). But last week I learned that dry Fortana is regularly produced in Ferrara province, where the sandy soils near the Adriatic allow growers to cultivate ungrafted (i.e., pre-phylloxera) vines.

Winemaker Mirco Mariotti was in town with his importer Ernest Ifkovitz of Portovino and his classic-method Fortana was nothing short of utterly delicious. I believe it lands in the U.S. with by-the-glass pricing. And Mirco’s website, I’m happy to report, is meticulously translated into English. Bravo, Mirco!

I can’t find any web presence for the winery or wines of Marco Merli, who told me that he is a resolute natural winemaker when I met him last week with Ernest and their Texas distributor Rootstock (also absent from the internets).

When I asked him about why he chose the path of natural winemaking over the shmate business (an Umbrian mainstay industry), he told me that he was inspired by the enologist he initially hired to help him make wines from family-owned vineyards.

“I disagreed with basically everything he did to the wines,” he said, “and so I decided to make them myself.”

Marco’s wines have sparked the attention of natural wine observers in Italy in recent years and rightly so: this monovarietal wine was lip-smackingly good, with that juicy red stone fruit character and zinging acidity that define great Sangiovese. I really loved it.

I was so glad to meet Marco and Mirco and taste these wonderful and soulful wines. For both winemakers, it was a first-time visit to Texas and they both seemed a little bit overwhelmed by the experience. But it’s so great to see courageous importers like Ernest bringing small-scale, thoughtful, and genuine winemakers to our state, where the two big distributors continue to expand their role as the Slugworths of wine.

I’m overjoyed that venerated Italian wine authority Alfonso Cevola, the Dallas-based Import Wine Director at Southern Glazer’s (America’s largest distributor), was wrong when he predicted in January of last year “the demise of the mid-size distributor… They have the lifespan of a tse-tse fly,” he wrote.

Gauging from its track record and the growing number of their wines I’m seeing in the Austin and Houston markets, it would seem that my friends at Rootstock are doing just dandy.

In other news, I was delighted to find this moderately priced bottle of 2015 Tyrrell’s last night at one of Houston’s best wine bars, Camerata.

We were all curious to see if the new wine director there, Chris Poldoian, could maintain the verve and continuity of his predecessor’s program. And I am happy to report that this artisanal-focused list continues to keep us drinking well.

For those who aren’t familiar with Tyrrell’s Hunter Valley Sémillon, it’s one of those classic examples of what Jancis Robinson famously called “Australia’s gift to the wine world.” It was salty and rich on the palate with reserved layers of nuttiness and dry fruit that I believe will only continue to emerge as this long-lived wine ages. Great wine! And great to see it in the Houston market.

I’ll be taking a short break from the blog this week as I head to Italy for the Corriere della Sera’s Cucina Blog Awards ceremony in Milan on Saturday. I’m happy to report that my blog has been nominated in the “best wine and spirits” category and I’m psyched to see all my friends in the world’s fashion capital (and one of my favorite cities). Wish me luck and wish me speed! I’ll see you on the other side…

Parzen family activism in Trump America: here’s to 7 years of Obamacare, the law of the land

Last month, after our congressman John Culberson refused to hold a town meeting and opted instead to speak to the Village Republican Women’s Group at the Lakeside Country Club in Houston, Tracie P (right) attended a protest outside the venue. I took care of our daughters, ages 3 and 5, that day.

On Friday evening, the Parzen family and the Levy-Kelly family — the whole Houston mispucha — raised a glass of organically farmed Prosecco col fondo to celebrate the seventh anniversary of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Seven years and one day after he signed the bill into law, a Republican president and a Republican-controlled congress were unable to “repeal and replace” as they had promised. And President Trump failed to deliver on one of his signature campaign promises.

At the end of the day, a few hours before we toasted with our Glera-filled glasses, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan declared, “Obamacare is the law of the land.”

Here on my blog, I began posting our family’s vehement opposition to then putative Republican candidate Donald Trump back in June of last year. Since that time, I’ve begun posting regularly about his bigoted, hate-filled campaign platform and his racist policies and attitudes since taking office in January of this year.

Since the inauguration, my wife Tracie P (above, right) has become a devoted activist: she organizes monthly meetings of her women’s political activism group in our home and she has repeatedly visited the office of our representative in congress, John Culberson, a rank-and-file Republican, not to mention the offices of Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn.

On Saturday, I took our daughters, ages 3 and 5, for the day and Tracie attended Culberson’s long overdue town hall here in Houston.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Houston’s paper of record: “police estimated about 500 people stood in a line [for the town hall] that snaked around the building when the room reached its capacity of 700. Some of those refused admittance were frustrated, shouting, ‘Let us in! Let us in!'”

Parzen family activism will not cease until our government abandons its racist, inhumane, un-Christian, un-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and un-American pursuit of its religious-based travel bans, useless walls on our borders, Russophilia, lower taxes for the wealthy, dismantling of regulation to benefit big business at the cost of everyday Americans, and undermining of the Affordable Care Act — the latter, a policy that actually helps the economically challenged white people who delivered Trump to power.

And Tracie and I will continue to teach our children that the Laws of Moses and the Word of Jesus Christ teach us to love, respect, and aid our fellow humans in time of need regardless of color, religion, ethnicity, or creed.

Earlier this month, Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa notoriously tweeted: “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

My parents were “somebody else’s babies,” children of immigrants. I was the child of “somebody else’s babies” and my children are the grandchildren of “somebody else’s babies.”

Evidently, my children’s ethnicity doesn’t align with Republican ideals and values. And the Parzen family is not going to stand for that.

Clos Cibonne 2015 Tibouren: what a great vintage for this wine!

Randall Grahm first poured me Clos Cibonne Côtes de Provence Tibouren when we visited over lunch six years ago in LA. He had picked it up at a southland wine shop while he was working the market. And he seemed to take as much delight in drinking the wine as he did turning me on to it.

Since that time, it’s become (when available in our market) one of the standbys and favorites at our dinner table. It usually lands in Texas when the hype around rosé wines begins to rev up each year.

We enjoy every vintage but this year, with the current release 2015, this wine has what the Italians call the marcia in più, that extra gear in the gearbox.

The fruit in this bottle last night was so vibrant, so transparent and pure, that it just seemed to sing in the glass. What a wine and what a great vintage!

Over the years, we’ve come to know and love the classic, elegant oxidative style of this cask-aged rosé. But in this year’s release, the fruit really jumps out — especially on the palate.

My recommendation: run don’t walk to your favorite wine shop and buy all you can.

So much to tell today and so little time. Thanks for being here this week and buon weekend, ya’ll!

Thoughts and prayers for our sisters and brothers in London…

I was trading emails with the London-based editor of a book I translated yesterday when the news of the attack broke and she went dark. I don’t believe she was anywhere near Westminster and I trust that she’s okay. But I still haven’t heard back from her.

Our thoughts and prayers go out today for our sisters and brothers in London…

Image via Hernán Piñera’s Flickr (Creative Commons).

A Slow Wine call to action: support earthquake-affected wines from Marche, Umbria, and Abruzzo by buying them in your hometown

The following is my post this week for the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UniSG) blog. I’ll be teaching (English-language) seminars for the Master’s in Wine Culture and Master’s in Food Culture programs there in July and November of this year.

If you ever traveled to the Italian regions of Marche (Marches), Umbria, or Abruzzo, you know that part of their charm is how underdeveloped they are.

Especially when compared with the once pristine wine growing areas of the north, for example, where industrial expansion has radically reshaped the landscape over the last three decades, these regions look very much as they did in the post-Second World War era. And in many zones, some would say that they resemble a 19th-century Italy and a time before the country’s meteoric industrialization under Fascism.

If you’re not Italian, you may not know that the Marche, Umbria, and Abruzzo are favorite destinations for the country’s enonauts: wine lovers who enjoy leisurely drives and winery visits there, mini-vacations that nearly always culminate with the purchase of bottles at the wineries themselves.

It’s a long-standing tradition among Italians and in recent years, as wine appreciation has expanded among young people (thanks in part to the renewed interest in wine education there), it has become more and more common to see young couples and families enjoy leisure time there.

After all, some of Italy’s most beautiful countryside is found in these three regions, the restaurants are relatively inexpensive (and the food is delicious), and the wine affordable. And there’s just something extra special about bringing home wines from one of these trips and enjoying it at home.

But today winemakers and their families in central and central Adriatic Italy are facing one of the biggest crises in a generation.

The bottomline: in the wake of the severe seismic activity that began there last August and a second wave that took place in October, the number of tourists visiting those three regions has fallen drastically. The drop is due in part to the fact that infrastructure has been heavily damaged there and some favorite tourist spots are inaccessible. But it’s also due to would-be tourists reluctance to visit areas that have been plagued by seismic activity.

As my UniSG colleague Fabio Giavedoni, co-editor of the Slow Wine guide, pointed out in a post yesterday on the Slow Wine blog, the number of visitors to the Museum at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi (in the heart of Umbria, above), for example, has fallen by 70 percent.

As a result, people simply aren’t buying wines at the wineries. Aside from a few instances were tanks were damaged, the winemakers themselves haven’t suffered any major damage. After all, the wineries are nearly all located in the countryside, away from the hilltop villages where the damage was worst. But the fall in regional tourism has deeply impacted their direct sales.

As Fabio encourages us in his post, one way that we can support winemakers from this region is by buying their wines in the cities and towns where we normally reside.

I hope you will join, Fabio, me and my wife Tracie P in opening bottles of Pecorino, Passerina, Verdicchio, Sagrantino, Trebbiano Spoletino, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, and Montepulciano (just to name some of the great wines from Central Italy) in coming months as we celebrate the wines and show our solidarity for the winemakers and their families.

Thanks for reading (and drinking Central Italian grapes).

Image via Wikipedia.

What is dosage? Getting it right tomorrow @KeeperColl #SommChat

When my friend Diane Dixon wrote me the other day inviting me to take part in one of her excellent Twitter chats #SommChat, she asked me what I’d like to focus on for the online event. My answer was dosage and the often misunderstood (and maligned) role that sugar plays in the production of sparkling wine.

Over the last two years, I’ve traveled all over the country talking about and tasting sparkling wine with people from every walk of the wine trade. In the arc of that time, I’ve never quite been able to wrap my mind around why there is so much confusion when it comes to how fizzy wines get their sparkle.

We spend an inordinate amount of time poring over the crus of Barbaresco or Beaune, their soil types and their topography, for example. But when it comes to the range of effervescent wines made throughout the world using the ancestral, Martinotti, and classic methods, I’ve found that we tend to gloss over the details of what has made sparkling wine one of the most profound expressions of viticulture today.

Tomorrow at noon EST, Diane and I will be leading a chat about dosage, tirage, liqueur d’expédition etc. Please join us @KeeperColl #SommChat.

There is no one who does more to foster the Texas wine and food scene than Diane, whose Austin-based Keeper Collection community produces a series of popular events each year with a focus on young sommeliers and chefs. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of the conversation.

See you tomorrow on Twitter #SommChat!

A fantastic bottle of 2008 Barbaresco, a vintage that the Langhetti call their own

Partly to celebrate Tracie P hitting a sales milestone in her new career with Rodan + Fields and partly to commemorate the first set of original music by my new band at our first full rehearsal last night (more on that in coming weeks), we opened the above bottle of 2008 Barbaresco Ovello by Produttori del Barbaresco.

I bought the wine some years ago on release and it’s been sitting in my cellar in San Diego since that time (twice a year, I ship wines to Texas, weather permitting).

Tracie, my new band, and I were so floored by how good this bottle was that I reached out to my friend Luca Cravanzola, who works as an export manager for the cooperative winery, for a note on this excellent vintage.

Here’s what he had to say (translation mine)…

After a severe winter with abundant snowfall and a cool and rainy spring, the 2008 vintage began a little late with respect to the average [growing cycle] in previous years.

The warm temperatures at the peak of summer in July and August gave way to milder weather in September. But there was no excessive rainfall. You could even say, without reservation, that the end of the season was dry, which is ideal for Nebbiolo.

The harvest began on October 4, slightly later than usual given the “slow” growing cycle, which delivered excellent quality in the fruit.

Thanks to classic diurnal shifts in temperature during September and October here in Barbaresco, you could even go as far as to say that the ripening was nearly perfect.

No excessive sugar or over ripening gave the fruit healthy acidity and rustic, nervy tannin.

This is definitely a vintage that needs to rest in the cellar before being enjoyed. But even in the mid- to long-term, it will reward the drinker.

A classic vintage that we Langhetti [the ethnonym preferred by residents of the Langhe Hills] really love!

Ciao Jeremy!

Although this wine has many years ahead of it (and I am blessed to have another 6 bottles in my cellar, more or less), it was already showing gorgeously last night, with electric acidity, subdued but still lip-smacking fruit, and tannins that were buoyed by the acidity and alcohol. What a great vintage for Barbaresco and what a great wine!

Thanks, Luca, for sharing your insights… I can see why you guys love this vintage so much.

Here’s a note that I recently wrote for a client on the difference between langhetto and langarolo.

The Roundup narrative: The most pernicious form of food and wine writing?

Yesterday, the New York Times reported the a most astonishing, although not surprising, statistic: “Over the last two decades, Monsanto has genetically re-engineered corn, soybeans and cotton so it is much easier to spray them with the weed killer [Roundup], and some 220 million pounds of glyphosate [the herbicide used in Roundup] were used in 2015 in the United States.”

Even more astonishing and even less surprising is that, according to the Times report, recently unsealed court documents “suggested that Monsanto had ghostwritten research that was later attributed to academics and indicated that a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency had worked to quash a review of Roundup’s main ingredient, glyphosate, that was to have been conducted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.”

The files in question came from “litigation brought by people who claim to have developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a result of exposure to glyphosate. The litigation was touched off by a determination made nearly two years ago by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, that glyphosate was a probable carcinogen, citing research linking it to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

As I’m preparing for my seminars later this year on food and wine writing for the University of Gastronomic Sciences’ Master’s in Food Culture and Master’s in Wine Culture, I continue to compile my list of the functions of food and wine writing. Beyond its alleged attempts to corrupt government-appointed officials in the U.S., Monsanto’s “academic ghost writing” possibly ranks (and reeks) as the most pernicious form of enogastronomic writing.

“Roundup is not a carcinogen,” said Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant in a high-profile interview in the U.S. last year with Public Radio. “It’s 40 years old, it’s been studied; virtually every year of its life it’s been under a review somewhere in the world by regulatory authorities. So Canada and Europe just finished. Europe finished their review last year and came back with glowing colors. The Canadians were the same and now we are going through a similar process in the U.S., so I’ve absolutely no concerns about the safety of the product.”

His claims don’t jive with the 2015 WHO report where the authors declare that glyphosate is “a probable carcinogen.”

Dissimulation and semiosis in enogastronomic writing and the Roundup narrative are just some of the topics I’ll be covering in my seminars.

Btw, I highly recommend this National Geographic story on glyphosate. Thanks for reading.

Image via Wikipedia.

The unlikely rise of pizza as an American favorite and Haccademia, a favorite pizzeria on Mt. Vesuvius

Last November, after my friend Marina Alaimo, a Neapolitan sommelier and publicist, took me for dinner at Haccademia, an excellent pizzeria on Mt. Vesuvius that she represents, she shared a short bio of pizzaiolo Aniello Falanga and a short history of his restaurant.

I was struck by what Aniello wrote at the end of the piece and I have translated it here.

“Without a doubt,” he notes, “pizza has covered a lot of ground. It’s gone from being a humble, inexpensive street food to becoming a symbol of good eating and hospitality throughout the world. This continues to amaze us. But it also inspires us.”

It’s remarkable to contemplate: in the arc of my own adolescence and adulthood, pizza in the U.S. has been transformed from the pedestrian New York slice and the post-soccer-practice weeknight meal for American parents who don’t feel like cooking to a fetishized and cultish sine qua non of haute Italian dining.

What mid-sized American city today doesn’t have a genuine Neapolitan wood-fired pizza oven crafted by a bona fide Neapolitan mason? By the time I arrived in Texas in 2008, the state already had classic Neapolitan ovens in San Antonio and Austin. Today, just eight years later, Neapolitan-style pizzerias and pizzaioli are practically ubiquitous.

When I was a kid growing up in San Diego, the pizzeria de rigueur was Pernicano’s, where a Venetian gondola graced venue’s nave and Mr. Pernicano manned an electric organ and serenaded the guests with pseudo-Italian classics. Today, from San Diego to New York, from Seattle to Miami, pizza-lovers ride on the wave and wake of the so-called “pizza wars” of the 2000s, when classic Neapolitan pizza ovens and handfuls of sawdust became the tanks and bullets for an army of self-determined pseudo-Neapolitan pizzaioli.

One thing we don’t have here in the U.S. is genuine Vesuvian tomatoes, like those in the photo above. The Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio or Vesuvian pendulum cherry tomato can only be found on the slope of the volcano, where it is grown in the volcanic subsoils of 18 townships (piennolo is Neapolitan dialect for pendulum, a name derived from the unique shape of the nightshades; click this link for the pronunciation on YouTube). The Vesuvian pendulum remains the gold red standard for its unmistakable balance of sweetness and acidity. It’s one of the world’s greatest examples and expressions of the concept of terroir.

Here are some photos from our superb dinner that night with a group of her friends at Haccademia, which I highly recommend to you.

A sampling of the herbs that Aniello grows and uses in his kitchen.

The Pizza Margherita, the litmus test for any pizzeria and pizzaiolo.

Why hasn’t the Neapolitan tradition of fried macaroni caught on yet in the U.S.? Take note American pizzaioli and please make this the next big thing!

I visited Naples in November of last year when butternut squash was in season, hence Aniello’s “seasonal pizza.”

You’re hard-pressed to find a leafy green in Piedmont, Lombardy, or Veneto in November. But during Campania’s winter, escarole is a godsend for those who suffer from Jewish boy stomach.

Are Italian winemakers not welcome in Trump America?

From the department of “this is Trump America, damnit! Isn’t American wine great enough for you?”

Above: Border Field State Park in the very southwestern corner of the United States about 15 miles south of San Diego. I visited the U.S.-Mexico border there in late February.

Many Italian winemakers are anxious about Trump America. And when I write that, I’m not referring to the platform of hate, bigotry, xenophobia, protectionism, isolationism, and populism white nationalism that delivered him to the White House (they’re nervous about all of the above as well).

Since President Trump’s inauguration, I’ve been asked countless times by my Italian clients, colleagues, and counterparts whether or not I believe that the president’s trade wars are going to affect tariffs on Italian wines.

And in more recent weeks, as the build-up to Trump’s new immigration policies have come into focus, I’ve received a growing number of inquiries about immigration controls at international airports in the U.S. where flights from Europe land.

Last week, a rock band from Pesaro, Italy was refused entry into the U.S. even those the musicians seemed to have all their paperwork in order. The group Soviet Soviet was on its way to play the South by Southwest music, film, and media festival in Austin, Texas. But they were turned back at the Seattle airport after being handcuffed and detained.

Read the account of their misadventure on NPR.

I played in a rock band for many years and am well versed in the paperwork that you need to complete when you perform abroad. My group used to travel regularly from New York City to Canada to perform and, like Soviet Soviet, we were required to present documentation that we were not crossing a border in search of employment or compensation for our performances.

In all my years playing music professionally, I have never heard of a band being turned away for an issue like this.

The story was brought to my attention by an Italian wine colleague concerned about an upcoming trip to the States to show her family’s wines.

Perhaps more ominous was the detainment of good friend and colleague of mine last week at a U.S. airport where international flights land from Europe. Let’s just call him “Federico” for privacy’s sake.

Federico is a highly successful Italian wine professional who travels to the U.S. and Asia frequently. When he landed in the U.S. last week, he was told that his passport had been reported stolen by the Italian government (even though his passport was in his possession and he had not reported it missing). Immigration officials confiscated his wallet and his cellphone and detained him in a holding cell for more than six hours without any explanation.

In my nearly 20 years of working in Italian wine, I have never heard of such a thing happening. I have heard of people being sent to “secondary inspection” because there was an issue with paperwork or confusion about the purpose of their trip. But I’ve never heard of anyone being detained or having her/his cellphone confiscated.

It’s not exactly what I would call the “welcome to America” experience.

It’s too early to say whether or not a new and perhaps more aggressive culture has emerged among the immigration agents who control us when we land at international airports. But these two episodes from last week don’t bode well for Italian winemakers traveling to our country. It’s my sincere hope that they were out-of-the-ordinary instances where miscommunication led to misfortune.

Maybe, like the Trump supporter below who blocked my entry into an ecumenical parking place outside the gym yesterday in Houston, the immigration agents last week were simply having a bad day in Trump America. Let’s hope so…