Passover narrative: a story of refugees and immigrants

The Passover. The very name of the holiday implies movement.

The text it comes from, the Book of Exodus, tells the story of Hebrew refugees who migrate from Egypt to Israel as they flee persecution and bondage.

It’s a powerful narrative remembered and celebrated by Jews every year across the world. Even for secular Jews like me, the holiday and the retelling of the story have deep meaning.

That’s my maternal grandfather Maurice “Poppa” Bailie above (center left, with tie) with my great-uncle Ted Eder (center right, without tie). Both were children of immigrants who fled economic and religious persecution in Europe in the early 20th century.

When he arrived in this country, my Poppa and his family were seen as undesirables and potentially dangerous: impoverished Jews from countries where Bolshevism and Zionism were on the rise, unwanted immigrants who would take jobs away from Americans. After landing in New York at Ellis Island, they were shipped off to the midwest by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

In South Bend, Indiana, my great-grandparents scrimped and saved up to buy a small grocery store. When they ultimately achieved financial security, their children flourished and thrived. It’s a story not dissimilar from that told in Barry Levinson’s 1990 film “Avalon” (my paternal grandmother owned a “Radio-Television Mart” like the one owned by the characters in the movie). They went to college, they opened businesses, they saved money and speculated on the stock market.

They were the children of refugees. And my parents were the grandchildren of refugees. And I am the great-grandchild of refugees. And our children are the great-great-grandchildren of refugees.

In every Passover Seder (the symbolic meal and narrative that retell the story of the Passover), the Seder leader encourages the guests to see themselves as active participants in the story with the following exhortation: “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.”

The Seder’s invitation to the guests “to break the fourth wall” (and become themselves characters in the narrative) is based on a passage from Leviticus (19:33-34):

    And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying…
    When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him.
    The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your G-d.

Click here for Christian Bible versions of the same passage.

Our children are still too young to wrap their minds around its meaning. But as he leads the Seder tomorrow night, my older brother will remind them that they, too, were personally delivered from Egypt and from persecution by G-d. And every year, I’ll tell them the story again and again and again… until they can tell the story themselves.

Chag sameach, everyone! Happy Passover and happy Easter!

From West Sonoma Coast to Greece, Valpolicella, and Vienna in a day…

When I finally got home to sit down to dinner with Tracie last night around half past eight, it felt like I had traveled around the (wine) world and back.

In the afternoon, I attended a superb guided tasting of 12 jaw-dropping wines from the West Sonoma Coast Vintners association.

The brightest and the best of Houston’s wine scene were all seated at the standing-room-only event.

And the speakers, each of them leading winemakers from this aspiring American appellation (they are currently petitioning for the creation of their own designation), delivered a fantastic overview of the would-be AVA’s sub-zones, macro-climates, soil types, and winemaking styles. It was followed by a walk-around tasting of labels from eight different wineries, including 40+ wines.

Wow, what a great event! And it was amazing to finally hear Ted Lemon of Littorai speak. His wines are as compelling as the thoughtfulness and brilliance that go into his winemaking.

Gros Ventre (above) was a highlight for me as well. Great wines and great to chat with winemaker and grower Chris Pittenger.

I was wholly impressed by the caliber of the event and the tenor of the conversation and tasting.

Thank you for coming to Texas, West Sonoma Coast Vintners!

By late afternoon, I was seated with one of the coolest people in the Italian wine world today, Tony Apostolakos, U.S. sales director for Masi in Valpolicella.

We had sat down together to taste through a flight of Masi’s current releases.

But that wasn’t going to happen before we enjoyed a glass of Assyrtiko and Moschofilero at Helen, Houston’s celebrated Greek-modern restaurant where wine director Evan Turner runs one of the top two Greek wine programs in the country (the other imho is Molyvos in New York).

I really love the breadth and range of Masi’s wines but it was the 2009 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Campolongo di Torbe (above) that really sang to me. What a fantastic wine and what a great tasting — each one of these bottles a gem.

Thanks, Tony, for coming back to Houston!

By the time I swung by one of my favorite wine shops, Vinology around the corner from Helen, to pick up a bottle of 2016 Zahel Orangetraube Orange T from Vienna on my way home, it just felt like I had been around the globe — from the edge of the western wine world to its heart and back… all in a workaday’s dawn-to-dark in my city on the bayou.

Italian Swiss Colony v. Italian Vineyard Co. circa 1910: would we be drinking Napa Valley Barbera instead of Cab today?

“Italian immigrants made sure Barbera had a home in California,” wrote José Vouillamoz in Wine Grapes (Ecco 2012).

“It has proved more popular than the noble Nebbiolo in [the state] with older vines in the Sierra Foothills proving particularly successful. The variety [also] benefited from the Cal-Ital vogue.”

In 2008, California growers had “more than 17,300 acres/7,000” planted to Barbera according to the ampelographer.

These notes from Vouillamoz’s Barbera entry recently came into sharper focus when I stumbled on a text that left me scratching my head and wondering: had Prohibition not disrupted the immense and immensely lucrative popularity of Californian Barbera in the early 1900s, would we be drinking Napa Valley Barbera instead of Napa Valley Cab today?

In the course of my research for a new blogging project I’m working on, “An American in Barbera,” I came across a 1910 petition submitted to the California Supreme Court, asking for an injunction in trademark litigation between Italian Swiss Colony (the plaintiff) and Italian Vineyard Co. (the defendant).

The latter was infringing on the former’s trademark, according to the complaint. Italian Swiss Colony was hoping to stop Italian Vineyard Co. from labeling its wines with the trademark “tipo” indicating the type or category of wine. And here’s where it gets really interesting.

Among the “types” of wine that the two estates were growing and bottling at the time (for more than 10 years at least, according to the document), “the defendant has been manufacturing wines having characteristics similar to those of other Italian wines, to wit [sic], those known as ‘Barbera,’ ‘Puglia,’ and ‘Gragnano’ — and has branded and marked them as ‘Tipo Barbera,’ ‘Tipo Puglia,’ and ‘Tipo Gragnano,’ in order to indicate that its said wines were respectively, of the type of the said Italian wines.”

Wow… and WOW!

There is a lot of juicy information (excuse the pun) loaded in this passage. It gives us glimpse of how Californian and Italian wines were marketed and perceived at the time (at least 10 years before Prohibition was implemented in 1920) and it also offers an indication of Barbera’s stature among the great grape varieties of the world at the turn of the century.

I wrote about my discovery today in a post for the Barbera d’Asti growers association collaborative writing project: My Name Is Barbera.

Please check it out. You might be surprised by my findings.

And please stay tuned: just wait until I publish my post on the origins of the ampelonym and piss everyone off!

Joking aside, I’ve really been enjoying the series, which will continue through early 2019.

Thanks for reading!

Image via My Name Is Barbera.

Wines for Passover and Easter: forget the “sweet vs. dry” dialectic and go for ripeness

It’s that time of year again when people begin wondering and asking about wine pairings for Easter and Passover.

The two holidays overlap this year, with Erev Pesach (the first night of the Passover) falling on Good Friday. But even though lamb can be the one common denominator for Easter brunch or lunch and the Passover Seder, the traditional foods for the two holidays don’t have much in common.

At my in-laws’ place, for example, spiral ham is the star of the Easter meal. At my brothers’ Passover Seder, my mother’s brisket (like the one above) will be the main attraction.

Across the internets (and across the years that consumers in America have become more wine savvy), I see countless wine writers recommending “dry” and “bone dry” wines for things like gefilte fish (traditionally served by Ashkenazi Jews on Passover even though, like the brisket, it has nothing to do with the Passover story or the symbolic meal).

Historically, my forbears drank sweet wines with their Passover meal. That’s partly because sweet wines were much more popular in my grandparents’ day. And it’s also because of a cultural continuity with the Austro-Hungarian food hegemony of Mitteleuropa. Can you imagine someone in Vienna or Berlin serving a dry wine with their gefilte fish (quenelles de brochet) in the first decade of the 20th century (when my great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S.)?

(It’s important to remember that people like my grandparents actually didn’t drink wine on a regular basis. But they had to serve wine during the Passover because the Seder meal isn’t complete with out it.)

Similarly, my wife’s family served and drank sweet wines (when/if they opened wine) at holiday meals. Sweet wine is still very popular in Texas and across the south. And so when we share holiday meal on the Louisiana border where my wife Tracie grew up, I always bring along some German Riesling and the occasional Quarts de Chaume.

The above wines work gloriously with the salty-sweet spiral ham. And frankly, they work great with gefilte fish, too!

This year I won’t be bringing too much sweet wine to the table (although I will bring some). Instead, I’ve decided to abandon the “sweet vs. dry” dialectic and embrace a totally different approach: the number-one criterion for my wine selection will be ripeness. And when I say ripeness, I mean the sweetness of bright ripe fruit flavors in the wine and not the sweetness obtained from residual sugar in wines like German-style Riesling and from the topping off of sparkling wines like Champagne and Prosecco, for example.

And while European wines aren’t excluded from my shopping list, it’s the new world ripeness that I’m looking for. Right now, my top pick for both tables is the Qupé Chardonnay Y-Block from Santa Barbara County. We currently have the 2015 in our market here in Texas: the wine is showing great right now (despite being last year’s release) and the price is perfect for the occasion ($15-20 depending on the market/state you live in).

Whether white or red (and I’m still working on my red pick), ripe fruit character works well across the spectrum of flavors at the Jewish and Christian holidays. And the sweet fruit in the wines works wonderfully with the saltiness of the gefilte fish and the spiral ham (my mouth is watering right now thinking of both!).

It’s important to remember that all wine has residual sugar in it. Even a bottle of Barbaresco, for example, has about two grams of sugar per liter of wine. That sugar doesn’t come from a topping off (a dosage or liqueur d’expédition). That sugar comes from the natural sugar in the grape itself.

Similarly, even a “bone dry” pas dosé or zero dosage Champagne or Franciacorta, for example, can have and probably does have up to three grams of residual sugar. It’s extremely rare to find sparkling wine that doesn’t have any residual sugar at all. And there’s a reason for that: you wouldn’t want to drink it otherwise.

My advice for this year’s selection is abandon the “sweet vs. dry” false narrative and look for ripeness of fruit that will harmonize with the food and have an appeal for a wider range of wine lovers (and not just connoisseurs who think dry is better).

That’s what I’m shooting for this year. We’ll see how it works out!

Looking for Kosher wine for your Seder? Check out this piece on “kosher-for-Passover” wines I wrote last year for the Houston Press.

Their Love Is Here To Stay

From the department of “some people want to fill the world with silly love songs”…

Their Love Is Here To Stay

A girl who grew up in southeast Texas
A boy from California
She was born on the Louisiana border
He grew up somewhere outside of LA

Storms may blow
Sand and stone may crumble
Their love is here to stay

Folks back home they say she’s crazy
To love a spirit such as he
She’s been a around the world that lady
The only one who knows her mind is she

Storms may blow
Sand and stone may crumble
Their love is here to stay

The water’s surely rising
But they are not afraid

The cold may howl
The night may call from the shadows
But their love is here to stay

It’s been nearly 10 years since I first came to Texas to be with Tracie. “Their love is here to stay…” I love you, piccina!

Slow Wine Guide to add Oregon in 2019 (writing gigs available)

Above: Kelly Mariani (right), whose family owns Scribe in Sonoma, and Antonio Balassone, who works with the winery as well. They were among the estates presenting their wines in San Francisco at the Slow Wine Guide tasting. Both are grads of the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont.

It filled me with immense pride to present and taste California wines at the Slow Wine Guide tasting in San Francisco earlier this month.

Watching Slow Wine senior editor Fabio Giavedoni taste with the eight winemakers who poured that day, I couldn’t help but think about how the tasting — part of the first Slow Wine tour to include California — represented a remarkable “old world/new world” cross-cultural moment. Fabio, who wasn’t involved in the California section of the book, is no slouch as a taster. It was amazing to watch his puckish grin appear as he tasted through the flight of California. The seasoned Italian wine writer, a Decanter magazine judge whose sharp Friulian cadence always reminds me one of the characters in Pasolini’s “Canterbury Tales,” was hooked!

The 2018 Slow Wine Guide was the first edition to include California: you can find a list of the estates that presented their wines during the tour here and you can read nearly all of the entries online here on the Slow Wine blog (not all of the profiles have been published but in time they will all be available online). The print edition will soon be available through mainstream channels as well.

As a native Californian and the coordinating editor of the first-ever California section, I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Above: Slow Wine editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio (left) and Littorai’s associate winemaker Dan Estrin at the San Francisco event. What stunning wines!

I’m even more thrilled to announce that the 2019 edition of the guide will also include Oregon. We’re still in the process of finalizing details but the coordinating editor is in place and we are already working on dates for our Oregon tastings and visits.

In what I hope is equally exciting news, I am also looking for field contributors for the California guide. The work doesn’t pay much but it’s a great way for aspiring wine writers to break into print media.

If you live in or around California wine country (south to north) and you’re interested in applying for a spot, please shoot me an email with your resumé. We’ll be asking our field contributors to begin making visits in late May.

The compensation is meager but — I can tell you from personal experience — it’s a super fun and rewarding gig.

I’m looking forward to hearing from applicants: Evviva la California!

Forget the American Pinot Grigio: please pass the Vermentino instead!

Tracie and I both really enjoyed this Vermentino (above) from Troon Vineyard in Oregon.

My longtime friend Craig Camp, the estate’s general manager, had sent me a flight of the property’s wine in exchange for some consulting I did for him.

From San Diego county to southern Oregon, I’ve tasted some great wines made from Vermentino over the last 12 months. And this bottle got me thinking: where American Pinot Grigio has nearly always struck me as uninspired, west coast Vermentino can really deliver in terms of varietal expression, food-friendly drinkability, and approachable cost (according to WineSearcher this wine should retail for around $15).

Historically, American viticulture has always been driven by winemakers’ desire of the Other (apologies for the post-modern speak). The patricians who founded Napa Valley drank Bordeaux and Burgundy like their British counterparts. And so they planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay even though those may not have been the ideal varieties to grow there.

The same could be said of the American Pinot Grigio mania of the 2000s.

Francis Ford Coppola doesn’t grow Pinot Grigio in California because it’s the ideal grape to grow there. He grows it because he and his company think that’s what Americans want to drink (they blend it with Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc according to the winery’s website).

As Tracie and I happily polished off Craig’s Vermentino over the course of two nights (it was still super fresh on night two, btw), I couldn’t help but think: could Vermentino be the white grape that California and Oregon winemakers have been waiting for?

The wine had a wonderful buoyant character thanks to its zippy acidity and a classic citrus note, typical of Vermentino when handled properly. I remembered a Vermentino I had tasted with a San Diego grower last year and how proud he was of its continuity with Vermentino farmed in Sardinia. That one was delicious and affordable, too.

Vermentino: it’s the new — or at least it should be the new — Pinot Grigio!

In other news…

A lot of folks asked me about the below photo, which I shared yesterday on my Instagram.

That cast-iron skillet belonged to Tracie’s maternal grandmother, Georgia Ann, our oldest daughter’s namesake.

She faced severe economic challenges over the course of her lifetime yet she raised a large brood of happy and healthy Texans. And by all accounts, she could cook like nobody’s business.

We use that pan nearly every day at our house, from frying bacon in the morning to pan-fired chicken, pork chops, and steaks at night. It’s so well-seasoned that you barely need to salt the meat. And man, I’ve never had a better grilled cheese sandwich than the ones I’ve turned out with that pan.

Last night’s blackened chicken was the easiest thing to make: I simply salted the split breasts and added them to the pan without any fat after I had let the skillet heat properly over low heat; aside from turning the meat, I didn’t have to do anything else. It made for a great pairing with the Vermentino.

Sacred and profane: a subversive Barolo pairing so wrong that it could only be right

Like the legend of the phoenix / All ends with beginnings.

Single-vineyard designate Barolo and steak tacos piled high with spicy guacamole and pico de gallo…

I almost feel guilty writing the above sentence and I apologize in advance to the Borgogno winery.

Night before last, Tracie was craving steak. And so I picked up a couple of New York strips (yes, we eat those in Texas, although rib-eye is our state’s official cut) and some fingerling potatoes.

And since a bottle of 2012 Barolo Liste had fallen out of a Slow Wine van as it left the building a few weeks ago (one of the perks of my gig with the Italy-American Chamber of Commerce), we figured it would be a fun way to kick off a quiet evening at home (dinner was followed by a screening of the new Star Wars episode.

The wine and pan-fired steaks were delicious. We drank half the bottle, knowing all the while that we would enjoy a glass of this superb single-vineyard expression of Nebbiolo for the next two, three, and even four nights (one of the wonders of large-cask aged Barolo).

Yesterday evening (night two), I diced the leftover steak for tacos. After the ziplock bagged meat has sat in the fridge over night, I love the way it becomes desiccated and tender. And I relish its aroma and texture once its been reheated — a teenage San Diego memory of late-night burritos de carne asada (a midnight run to Roberto’s, anyone?).

One of the many great things about living in Texas is that there is ready availability of freshly made guacamole and pico de gallo. After I gently heated the flour tortillas stuffed with beef, already sprinkled generously with shredded cheese, I generously add a dollop of each of the toppings.

By the time we sat down for dinner, the wine had evolved dramatically from the night before and its fruit was really beginning to show. But everything about this subversive — transgressive, I should say — pairing was wrong: the citrus and heat of the toppings were antithetical to the wine. Fortunately for me, the superb acidity in this old-school-style wine seemed to giddily rise to the occasion. It was one of the most satisfying meals of the month (so far… it ain’t over yet!).

What a great wine and — if I do say so myself — what a great pairing despite its unorthodox nature. It just all came together in an unexpected way.

Opening and pairing any bottle of wine is always a gamble, a roll of the dice. And last night Lady Luck seemed to smile on me.

In other news…

I recently discovered this excellent integrated Google map to the Barolo crus on Antonio Galloni’s Vinous portal. It has a wonderful overlay that guides the user through the implicit hierarchy of the single-vineyard designations (Liste, for example, is in the second-to-best tier (“outstanding”). You don’t need to be a subscriber to access (I love Vinous, btw, and highly recommend doing the subscription).

Buon weekend a tutti! Have a great weekend, ya’ll!

Just call it freakin’ Tocai already! (Thank you Il Carpino and Franco Sosol!)

From the department of “it’s hard to be Slow when you’re traveling twice the speed of sound”…

The world of Italian wine moves so fast these days that we often forget that the mosaic of Italy’s vinous treasure is as endless as it is wondrous.

I was reminded of this eternal truth last week at the Slow Wine Guide tasting in San Francisco when I tasted a wine from an estate that I’d never heard of before: the Sosol family’s Il Carpino farm in Collio (Friuli).

The wines were stunning, especially the Tocai (above). And I was thrilled to see that they label called it Tocai and not Friulano. That’s actually not surprising. In 2007 a ruling from the EU made it illegal to write Tocai on wines that were sold outside Italy (the decision was the result of Hungary’s complaint Italian Tocai created market confusion with Hungarian Tokaj). But as long as the wines are sold with Italy’s borders, it’s legal to label it Tocai (and the Sosol family openly calls it Tocai on their website).

Some years ago, one of the great pioneers of Friuli’s macerated wine movement, Radikon, began labeling their Tocai as Jakot, a hypercorrective anagram of Tocai (the j in Jakot is a reflection of the vowel’s quantity — long vs. short, in Latin grammar [yes, j is actually a vowel] — and the k is a sensational rendering of the c; both hypercorrections allude to Latin rendering of the Hungarian Cyrillic).

The sardonic workaround reflected Italian growers’ frustration at being forced to rename some thing they view as part of their (agri)cultural heritage.

I’ve never seen Il Carpino in the U.S. and I have no idea who imports or is looking at importing them. But whoever it is, they’ll be taking my money soon! Run don’t walk for these wines.

Another highlight for me at the tasting last week was Pievalta’s 2012 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Riserva San Paolo. I used to do some writing for the Barone Pizzini group, which includes the Pievalta estate. That’s BP COO Silvano Brescianini in the photo above. I’ve followed the wines since the earliest vintages and I really believe this year’s release and next year’s, from the 2013 harvest, are really going to put the little-biodynamic-estate-that-could on the map for good. Great wines.

Speaking of the 2013 harvest, I was also stoked to taste the new release of G.D. Vajra’s Barolo Bricco delle Viole. What a vintage for this wine!

That’s Vajra’s international ambassador Giuseppe (right, in the photo above) with my colleague from Rossoblu in LA (where I write the wine list), Skylar Hughes. I’ve followed these wines for nearly two decades now and I’ve watched Giuseppe grow into his role as the face of the winery over the last eight years since I first met him. It’s been remarkable to see and I know the 2013 vintage is going to be a legacy harvest for him and his family.

There were so many great wines at this year’s event (which had a different lineup in every city). La Mesma, Zidarich, Pino, Amalia… and many more.

Later this week, I’ll post notes from the California wineries who participated and the release of the new Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California (I’m the coordinating editor of the guide). Stay tuned and thanks for being here.

Josetta Saffirio 2013 Barolo already showing nicely (and pairs great with Tex-Mex)

Lunchtime at a bustling Houston-area Tex-Mex restaurant isn’t exactly the ideal place to taste Barolo.

But that’s where the Josetta Saffirio sales team was on Friday last week when I had a free hour to meet.

The venue was dimly lit and extremely crowded and loud when I sat down with young Marco Serra, the winery’s new “supplier rep,” as we call them in the trade. The aroma of sizzling chicken fajitas and hard-shell tacos filled with unctuous ground beef wafted through the air, adding, layer by layer, to the joint’s patina.

But where there is Nebbiolo to taste, professionals like me and Marco always seem to rise to the occasion.

Despite some challenges growers faced that year, the 2013 harvest in Langa (where Barolo and Barbaresco are made) is expected to be a classic crop, with good acidity and great aging potential. Many of the wines I’ve tasted so far are still “tight,” parsimonious with their fruit, with tannin that continues to eclipse the brighter flavors the wines will ultimately develop over time. But the 2013 Josetta Saffirio Barolo was already showing nicely, with some of the fruit flavor emerging against the winery’s signature earthiness and savory character.

I ascribe the early drinkability in part to fact that the wine had been open all morning. But it’s also owed to the winery’s style. In my experience, its wines tend to land on the approachable side of the modern vs. traditional dialectic. But they also remain faithful to the umami flavors that east-side Barolo (grown in ancient Serravallian — not Helvetian — soils, the latter being the term that too many Barolisti still erroneously use when referring to the pedological classification. (If you don’t believe me, look it up.)

The Saffirio 2013 Barolo may not be a wine for the ages but it will reward the drinker (and perhaps most importantly, the impatient restaurant drinker) with good balance, lovely fruit, classic earthiness, and a more than reasonable price.

Dulcis in fundo, Marco, who is in his first post-grad year in the work force, is an ex-student of mine from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, where he studied “wine writing in the digital era” with me. That’s Marco below (and be sure to check out his blog posts about the trip, his first time ever in the U.S.).

Nothing could fill me with more pride than to know that he is gainfully employed and doing a great job.

And nothing could fill me with more wondrous joy than to think of this young, bright, and talented dude, on his first trip to America to sell wine. It’s the beginning of what will surely be a long and rich adventure in the wine trade.

Marco, thanks for coming to Texas and bringing great wine with you!