Shitting good. That’s what I love about natural wine.

From the department of “good morning, Sunshine!”…

Many, many moons ago, a doctoral candidate in Italian accompanied a group of visiting professors to a favorite Chinese restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. He was the only American in the group of eight or so scholars who had come from Italy to attend a conference.

When they all took their places at the round table, with a lazy Susan at its center, beer and tea were promptly ordered. But before the food order was placed, something remarkable happened.

A professor from Bologna, an older gentleman, asked whether or not wine would be served. When he learned that the establishment didn’t have any wine, he stood up and declared plaintively: “If there is no wine to be had, I cannot eat here.”

“What are you saying?” cried the chair of the Italian department, who had organized the gathering.

“If there’s no wine,” the professor from Bolgona explained matter-of-factly, “I prefer not to dine. I don’t eat unless I can have wine with my meal. Otherwise, I don’t digest well.”

The chair turned to the doctoral candidate and asked him to find a bottle of wine — as soon as humanly possible.

Those were the days before the Google (yes, it was that long ago). But somehow, the future Ph.D. tracked down a bottle of Pinot Grigio.

And all was right again.

Those were also the days before “natural wine.” And the wine proffered was hardly what the enohipsters of today would find remotely acceptable. But it was wine. And that it was wine was all that mattered.

That episode springs to mind often these days, although the name of the professor from Bologna is long forgotten.

For many young Americans who travel to Italy for the first time, the fact that Italians consider wine to be a vital metabolic component is often a revelation.

That notion was on my mind last night as I enjoyed a bottle of the reasonably priced I Pentri 2014 Fiano last night at Light Years, Houston’s most radical natural wine bar.

The oxidation and slightly cooked character on this wine would have been called out as a flaw by many wine purists. But its ripe white fruit and rich minerality on the mouth were delicious nonetheless. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Even though there’s no agreed-on definition of what natural wine is or isn’t, many would call this a natural wine: it’s organically farmed, it’s spontaneously fermented using wild yeast, and its low-intervention winemaking style makes it a compelling, even if technically flawed, expression of place.

But none of that mattered last night.

What matters to me most about wine is how it makes you feel the next day. And in my experience, the natural wines are the ones that make me feel best.

Let it suffice to say that all was right again this morning.

Have a great weekend, everyone. Drink some natural wine. You and your colon will thank me.


How to cook a porterhouse (upright): why I stand my steak on the T-bone

A tide of Texas jokes followed the posting of the above photo on Monday night.

“Texas carpaccio?” jibed one from the safety of California.

“That looks like an upside-down state of Texas!” opined another from the towers of Brooklyn.

Alas, if only my coastal friends would come and see what a culturally rich, wonderfully diverse, and left-tilting city we have here in Houston! Maybe the Texas jokes would subside then.

One of my best friends in Italy, Renato, a professional chef, taught me to cook my fiorentina like that.

Before you sear it on either side, you cook it upright to let the bone heat through. By doing so, you can still finish it blood-rare without undercooking the meat. The technique also makes the steak even more juicy and flavorful by releasing the flavor in the marrow — again, without overcooking the al sangue steak.

As comrade Howard likes to say, one man’s meat is another man’s Parzen. Ain’t that a beautiful piece of beef? We can all agree on that.

I hope your Memorial Day was swell!

Her first Kistler (was delicious)…

Update: niece Emilee should be able to come home from the hospital today. She has a long road to recovery ahead of her. But we’re just glad that she’s going to get there. Thanks for all the wishes. They really mean a lot to our family.

In the late 1990s and throughout the early 2000s, when American enohipsters were vociferously shunning “California Chard” and “Napa Valley Cab,” there were standouts among their objets of derision.

One of those was Kistler Chardonnay. Even for those who had never tasted it, it represented the apotheosis of the “oaky buttery Chard” that had become their rallying cry.

I’m sorry to say that I was one of them. But I’m happy to report that I’ve seen the light in the meantime.

Last week, Tracie and I opened a bottle of 2016 Kistler Chardonnay Sonoma Mountain that had been graciously and generously given to us by our good friend Paolo — an unabashed lover of California Chardonnay.

Knowing that he loved the category, I had bought a couple of my favorite expressions of California Chardonnay to share with him while he was here in Houston visiting and working. He returned the favor with the above bottle after he heard me mention that Tra had never tasted Kistler before (that’s the kind of wonderful friend that he is).

This wine is still very early in its evolution. The notes of oak in the nose and mouth, however elegant, aren’t yet entirely integrated into the wine. But on the palate, the lithe wine’s mouthwatering fruit and savory character — stone fruit, dried and ripe, with hints of wild herbs — were already brilliant and rich. It was one of the best wines we’ve drunk at home this year and we both loved it. My only lament is that it could have used some more bottle age before we cracked it open.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned after more than 20 years working in and writing about wine, it’s that it takes years and years of tasting (and tasting different styles) to develop your “palate,” as they call it.

It also takes equally long to dispel and dispense with your prejudices and preconceptions.

Kistler, I’m sorry I doubted you. And I’m so glad I’ve come around. My wife’s first Kistler was delicious!

A miracle saved our Emilee from a terrible car crash. G-d bless her. We love her so much.

On Tuesday morning, our 21-year-old niece Emilee — Tracie’s sister’s daughter — was in a terrible car accident on Farm-to-Market Road 1135 in Orangefield, Texas, not far from Orange and West Orange where Tracie grew up.

A dump truck full of used kitchen grease ran a stop sign and collided with Emilee’s Hyundai Elantra (in the photo above).

It’s a miracle she survived.

As soon as Tracie’s mom called to let her know what had happened, I went and got the girls out of school and we headed to the Beaumont hospital where she had been taken. At that point, no one was sure she would make it. By the time we made it over the Sam Houston Ship Channel Bridge, all we knew was that she was going into surgery to stop internal bleeding.

Her mom, who works as a nurse at that same Beaumont hospital, described her injuries late last night on her Facebook:

“She had a perforated bowel which required surgical intervention, a fractured radius, clavicle, and orbital bone, along with multiple Lumbar fractures. Thankfully, no surgery will be needed for her back, but she will have to wear a brace for 12 long weeks with no driving.”

She was still in the ICU when we drove back to Houston yesterday afternoon. They should be moving her to a regular hospital room today.

Tracie has been very close to Emilee her whole life.

After Emilee enrolled at University of Houston a few years ago, she began spending a lot of nights at our house. She was already very close with both of our girls.

That’s Emilee, above, with Georgia at Easter this year.

It’s a miracle she’s alive. G-d bless Emilee and her family. We love her and them so much. We have so much to be grateful for. More than words can say…

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
Then push away the unimaginable.

Two California Chardonnays that really wowed me this week (an ongoing apostasy)

There was another time in our lives when the binomial California Chardonnay was anathema to us.

I deeply regret it now: California Chardonnay, like Napa Vally Cab[ernet Sauvignon], was a byword for everything that we didn’t like in wine. Even without tasting such a wine, we just knew that it was oaky and buttery, with ramped up alcohol and yeasted flavors.

Attribute it to youth: I was in my 30s back then, living in New York, and we wouldn’t have been caught dead with a glass of then loathsome “Chard” (as it was called) in hand.

I use the royal we here because my (now unforgivable) attitudes toward Californian interpretations of the Burgundian white were shared nearly unanimously by my peers. We didn’t even trust the newly coined “unoaked Chardonnays” that began to appear in the aughts of our lives. Surely, we were confident, they had been tricked out by their Dr. Frankenstein creators using unnatural enzymes and inauspiciously administered yeast and synthetic additives we couldn’t even named if we tried.

Looking back on it all now, there’s really no excuse.

But enough with my apostasy! I’ve already renounced my creed and screed about California wine (California wine, I was wrong about you. I’m sorry…).

I continued my rehabilitation last week with the two bottles above.

Paolo, one of my best friends, was in town from Puglia. He’s always been an unabashed lover of Californian Chardonnay. I wanted to share a couple of my recent favorites with him and so I splurged on two expressions of California Chardonnay that I can hardly afford.

I tasted the 2010 Stony Hill (a current library release for the estate) for the first time earlier this year. Chardonnay’s primary flavors here have evolved into a nuanced spectrum of rich fruit and gentle nutty flavors. I can’t think of a better example of elegance and balance in California. What a wine!

This is Napa Valley Chardonnay at its best imho.

The 2015 Ceritas Santa Cruz Mountains Trout Gulch had been on my radar for a few years now, since I tasted it for the first time while working on the first edition of the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California.

Arguably a more au courant interpretation of Chardonnay, this wine has only gotten better with age, with its minerality and tropical fruit coming into fine focus with hints of spearmint and sage.

Even though both wines strain my personal budget, they both represent extreme value for their quality and collectibility.

California Chardonnay, I hope you’ve begun to forgive me. But I fear not: though the road through Purgatory may be steep, my penance is ever so sweet…

What a groovy week in wine in Texas!

Paolo Cantele and I will be pouring his family’s wines tonight at Vinology in Houston from 6-8 p.m. Please come out and taste with us!

It felt like the world of groovy wine had descended on Texas this week.

That was the scene on Wednesday, above, at the Rootstock portfolio tasting preview at Light Years, Houston’s newest all-natural wine bar.

Rootstock, a mid-sized importer and champion of natural wine, had coordinated their events and the incoming winemakers with the Wild World Natural wine festival, which is happening this weekend in Austin. Alice Feiring is the featured speaker and I’ve even heard that natural wine maven and mensch Lou Amdur will be there (I’m so bummed I can’t be there but I have to be in Houston this weekend for a food festival I”m presenting and a blow-out music and wine party we’re hosting at our house tomorrow; message me if you want to come and need details).

That’s Hank Beckmeyer of Clarine Farm, left, with Rootstock rep Dustin Popken.

Hank is good friend but I’m also one his biggest fan boys — a lover of the wine and the man. Such a cool dude and such great wines. Dustin’s also a good friend from our Austin days.

After I hit the Light Years event, where my buddy and natural wine pro Steven Dilley was literally slinging his now legendary Bufalina pizzas (with a line that stretched literally around the block), I headed over to Nancy’s Hustle where owner and wine director Sean Jensen was pouring some equally groovy natural wine.

Nancy’s Hustle is such a great example of what’s happening here in Texas: soulful, thoughtful food paired with equally meaningful wines. I was blown away by the enthusiasm and table-side knowledge of the servers. Man, this place was killing it on Wednesday night and the vibe was just right.

Earlier in the day, I had presented a master class on Moscato d’Asti at the swank Pappas Bros. Steakhouse downtown.

That’s me in the photo with a whole lotta Moscato d’Asti right there. It was a super cool event.

Shit, even Eric Asimov wrote a story about the renaissance of Texas winemaking in this week’s Times.

It’s just felt like one of those weeks when the wine stars have aligned seamlessly over my adoptive state.

Come see me and Paolo tonight at Vinology, come to our house party tomorrow, or come out and see me at the Houston Pasta Festival on Sunday where I’m emceeing! Wherever you are this weekend, DRINK GOOD WINE AND EAT GOOD FOOD! And ROCK ON!

When is white wine too young? Deconstructing (in the true sense of the word) Massican…

Jacques Derrida’s 1967 book Of Grammatology is considered by many to be an early manifesto of deconstruction (in the literary, critical sense of the word).

By the 1980s, his notion of différance would become a battle cry for a generation of critical theorists.

For them deconstruction didn’t mean taking a work of literature apart and breaking it down into its essential components (a popular but erroneous definition of the term). Instead, it meant looking at the ever widening gap between the author’s intention and the reader’s perception.

The concept (described hastily and imcompletely here, it’s important to note) came to mind when I tasted my friend Dan Petroski’s Massican 2018 Hyde.

Where, what, and how is the différance between the winemaker’s intent and the drinker’s sensation? I wondered. How do time, place, and movement impact our enjoyment of a given wine?

Dan graciously and generously sent me a flight of his new releases to taste at home and Tracie and I opened two of them the other night.

The 2018 Hyde, a 100 percent single-vineyard Chardonnay sourced from vines that are more than a quarter of a century old, was laser-focused in its brilliant mouth-watering white and stone and tropical fruit flavors. But its racy acidity and intense minerality made me think that it still hasn’t come into full focus yet. Was this the winemaker’s intent? Or was it just my perception? There’s no doubt in my mind that this wine will age gorgeously (for the price, it’s an extreme bargain for collectors). I loved this complex and compelling bottling but it felt like it’s going to need some time in the cellar.

The 2018 Annia, the other wine we opened that night, is Dan’s flagship wine, a classic Friulian-style blend made from California fruit. Historically, it’s the label that put Massican on the map (I can still remember the first time I tasted it a decade ago). Here the balance was impeccable: white flowers and stone fruit (ripe peach and ) danced against the moreish texture. This wine is drinking so beautifully right now, another immense value for white wine lovers like me and Tracie.

Both wines were great. But we definitely enjoyed the Annia more than the Hyde the other night, even though the Hyde presumably lies higher in the Massican hierarchy.

Once Tra and I taste the other two wines, Dan and I will trade emails and share notes, I’m sure.

But in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the différance.

Dan, thanks again for sharing these wonderful wines with us!

Ronchi di Cialla 1998 Schioppettino and King Ranch Chicken (plus Houston music and tastings update)

On Saturday night, Tracie made a couple of my favorite dishes from her repertoire: King Ranch Chicken, a Tex-Mex classic, and fried okra fritters, a staple of her southeast Texas upbringing.

And Aunt Joanne and uncle Marty, who joined us for dinner, generously shared a bottle of 1998 Schioppettino, a library release from Ronchi di Cialla, Friuli’s legacy champion of native grape varieties and one of the region’s most soulful wineries.

The more-than-20-year-old wine was fresh and vibrant, with robust ripe berry flavors and a gentle touch of minerality and earth. Its sweet fruit made for a wonderful pairing with the casserole.

King Ranch Chicken is an ultimate Texas comfort food. For Tracie, it evokes memories of growing up on the Gulf Coast. For me, it conjures the aromas and flavors of the first meals she cooked for me when we were dating more than 10 years ago.

It’s not as spicy as you might think. And the surprisingly rich fruit of the wine and restrained alcohol sang beautifully against the creamy texture and richness of the food. We all loved it.

But before the casserole was served, Tracie also treated us to those okra fritters, which we paired with a Trebbiano d’Abruzzo from Cirelli (one of our house wines).

“Why do I like to fry stuff so much?” Tra asked our chihuahuas who huddled at her feet hoping for a morsel to be dropped.

The worst of last week’s rain had passed and it was a fine evening. All is well at the Parzens’.

In other tasting and music news…

I’ll be hosting, moderating, and leading a bunch of fun food and wine and music events this week and next.

Moscato d’Asti DOCG
Guided Tasting & Seminar
at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse (downtown)
Wednesday, May 15

There’s just a few seats left for this Wednesday morning tasting where some of Moscato d’Asti best and brightest will be pouring. Click here to reserve.

Paolo Cantele
in-store tasting
at Vinology
Friday, May 17

Paolo and I will be literally taking over the bar at Vinology on Friday night. Paolo is one of my best friends and we have worked together for 10 years. It should be a super fun evening.

Blow-out Party
and Potluck
live music and wine
Chez Parzen
Saturday, May 18

On Saturday afternoon/evening, Parzen family is hosting one of its house parties and Paolo is providing the wines. Everyone is invited — and yes, I mean everyone. If you have my phone number or we are friends on social media, just hit me up and I will send you details.

Houston Pasta Festival
Bayou City Event Center
Sunday, May 19

Click here to register for this Sunday afternoon festival (1 p.m. – 4 p.m.). I’ll be emceeing. Come hungry! There will be wine and Peroni beer, too.

My new band Problem Child
at Mongoose Versus Cobra
Sunday, May 26

We’ll actually be debuting the new band at the party but our first real show will be at the Mongoose Versus Cobra anniversary/Memorial Day party. We’ll be the first band to take the stage, at 6 p.m. Come drink craft beer, munch out at the food trucks that will be there for the occasion, and rock out with me.

Parzen family safe after heavy rains and severe flooding in Houston

Just a quick post this morning to let everyone know that the Parzen family is safe and dry after heavy rains and severe flooding here in Houston.

Thunderstorms are predicted for today and possibly tomorrow. The ground is saturated, including rainfall from earlier this week. And the bayous are teeming.

But so far, we are still high and dry in our corner of the city. I wish I could say the same for all our neighbors.

The girls and I checked up on our flooding/hurricane preparedness supplies yesterday afternoon. We have plenty of water, food, batteries, and a full tank of gas in the truck (I’m so glad that I got my F150!).

The power went out very briefly, a few times last night, when the lightening struck close to our house. But thankfully we have power.

Rusty, whom we believe was abandoned or separated from his family during Hurricane Harvey, is completely freaked out. He clearly feels the safest place in the house is the girls’ room. He slept with Lila Jane all night (she was so happy about that!). Poor little Rusty! We can only wonder how he made it through Harvey.

School is cancelled today and we’ll be staying in and off the roads.

Stay safe, everyone! G-d bless…

The bastardization of Tuscan cuisine (test your Tuscan cookery knowledge)

Above: this dish is a classic of Tuscan cuisine. A bottle of juicy Sangiovese for anyone who can tell me what it is (see answer below; image via the Taverna dei Barbi Facebook).

Try the following experiment.

Ask any well-informed Italian or pseudo-Italian food and wine professional to name the classic standbys of Tuscan cuisine.

You’ll undoubtedly get an answer that sounds something like the following.

bruschetta (hopefully pronounced correctly), crostini, pappa al pomodoro, ribollita, pappardelle with wild boar sauce, fiorentina (butchered from a Chianina, no doubt), and of course, the ubiquitous tagliata — a grilled strip steak accompanied dutifully by arugula topped with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and balsamic vinegar.

You had me at Parmigiano Reggiano and balsamic vinegar!

What about scottiglia, peposo, or cibreo?

You won’t find any of those dishes mentioned in the “Tuscan Cuisine” sub-section of the Wikipedia entry for Italian cuisine.

You will find, however, “Forentine steak” and “minestrone” (mentioned as the foundation of ribollita). Parrina and Sassicaia are also listed side-by-side as top wines from Tuscany. Who can tell me where the Parrina DOC lies without cheating?

Today, I wanted to draw attention to a wonderful post by my friend and client Stefano Cinelli Colombini, owner and winemaker at the legacy Brunello estate Fattoria dei Barbi where the family also runs a restaurant — the Taverna dei Barbi. Many of the recipes on the menu there are culled from a cookery book scribed by his great-grandmother. I wager that few Italian-focused food and wine professionals would recognize some of the traditional dishes (I’d love to be proved wrong!).

“Is Tuscan cuisine just bruschetta and tagliata?” he asks as he points out that a bruschetta topped with diced tomatoes has nothing to do with Tuscan cookery. Nor does a tagliata served with arugula, Parmigiano Reggiano (from Emilia), and faux balsamic vinegar (I’ll reserve my harangue on the criminality of so-called balsamic vinegar for another day).

In his post, which I highly recommend to you, he offers a troubadourish plazer of genuinely Tuscan victuals.

The Tuscans are among the world’s masters of food and wine tourism. And they deftly offer my countryfellows what they want. Any American who has visited the region will boast of the unforgettable night when they paired Sangiovese and a blood-rare steak. But few will revel in the memory of a gosling’s neck stuffed with ground pork, bread crumbs, anchovies, and garlic (the dish above is actually a stuffed duck’s neck, currently served at the Taverna).

There’s so much more under the Tuscan sun for us to discover. It’s a crime that we don’t make the effort to see beyond the Olive Garden version of true Tuscan cuisine.