Verdicchio of a lesser god? Let Lugana have its day in the sun!

Above: Turbiana vines on Zenato’s Sansonina estate in Peschiera del Garda.

If given a quarter for every time they’ve recently heard the line did you know that Lugana is actually made from Verdicchio?, Italian-focused American wine professionals would all be wealthy today.

In the light of this “recent” discovery, many would be surprised to learn that the genetic kinship between Verdicchio and Trebbiano di Lugana, otherwise known as Turbiana, the primary grape used in Lugana production, was actually identified nearly 30 years ago.

And they might also keen to learn that leading Italian ampelographer Ian D’Agata has not so recently proposed that Turbiana, however related to Verdicchio and Trebbiano di Soave (another genetic family member), should be considered its own, distinct biotype.

Over the last couple of years, Lugana has become fashionable among the American wine glitterati, in part thanks to laudable efforts by the Lugana consortium to raise awareness of the wines. But those who have spent any significant time in Brescia province already knew that it has always been the still white wine of choice for those who inhabit the lands that stretch from the banks of Lake Garda to the Oglio river in the west, a tributary of the Po.

Yesterday, I published “Is Trebbiano di Lugana (Turbiana) the same grape as Verdicchio? Or is it a distinct biotype?” on the Zenato-Sansonina blog, where I take a look at D’Agata’s call to reconsider Turbiana’s genetic legacy. It’s a small and perhaps insignificant detail in a much bigger viticultural picture. But it’s also an example of how we are ill-served by pigeonholing Italian grape varieties within a strict (and restrictive) genetic hierarchy.

Verdicchio = Turbiana, the status quo syllogism goes; Verdicchio is used to produced some of the greatest white wines in the world (that much we should all agree on); therefore Turbiana must be capable of producing some of the greatest white wines in the world.

Given some of the extraordinary bottlings of Turbiana I’ve tasted over the last decade, I concur that Turbiana can deliver spectacular white wines with depth, nuance, and rich minerality (the savory character is particularly popular among au courant enohipsters).

But I would argue that it’s not the genetic kinship that creates Lugana’s potential to impress on a world stage. The best Verdicchio grows in predominantly sandstone soils in central Italian mountains that overlook or are in close proximity to the Adriatic. Turbiana, on the other hand, is cultivated in clay- and morainic-rich soils that lie — literally — on the mostly flat southern banks of Lake Garda. On my palate, the wines couldn’t be more distinct from one another, especially when you compare Lugana and Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, the former with a more savory character, the latter with a more fruit-driven flavor profile.

The toponym Lugana comes from the Latin lucus meaning a wood, grove, or thicket of trees sacred to a deity. The Romans considered modern-day Lugana and neighboring Valpolicella to be magical places where vineyards and olive groves flourished thanks to the great “protector,” Lake Garda. The knew that the immense body of water, Italy’s largest lake, made Lugana a viticulturally unique growing area, in part because of the temperate maritime influence, in part because of the distinctive morainic and clay subsoils.

There may be a solid genetic link between the two varieties. And as D’Agata, notes, “clearly, further studies are needed.” But the growing conditions are so different from one another and the wines so distinct from one another that I believe it’s time to stop calling Lugana a Verdicchio of a lesser god and let it have its day in the sun.

Looking for natural wine in all the wrong places: NASA Liquor, I love you!

Parzen family doesn’t visit the Johnson Space Center as much as we used to. After nearly six years of living in this Gulf Coast town, Georgia and Lila Jane (ages 7 and 6) are more interested these days in Houston’s natural science museum with its awe-inspiring dinosaurs, the city’s excellent zoo, and its superb art museums (mostly the Museum of Fine Arts and the spellbinding Menil Collection).

But the hullabaloo marking the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing this month (an expedition where Houston — Space City — played a major role as home to Mission Control) re-ignited the girls interest in astronauts (the “real astronauts” as they used to call them).

Grocery and wine shopping was also on the agenda last Saturday. But the heavy summer traffic prompted this mission’s commander to avoid the city’s congested inner solar system. The grocery shopping would be no problem in Clear Lake where the Space Center is located.

But the wine? That was another question. Down in that part of greater Houston, there are no progressive wine shops. At least, that’s what the enonaut thought.

A Google Maps search revealed a number of wine shops and liquor stores. But none showed much promise until the flight navigation directed him to NASA Liquor on East NASA Parkway, a stretch of road populated seemingly by strip malls, smoke and vape shops, faded Mexican restaurants, and military-industrial-complex chains.

Scrolling through the otherwise pedestrian establishment’s Google business page photos, the pilot discovered a smattering of classic European and forward-looking American wines among the shop’s offering.

The venue’s facade (above) didn’t raise expectations. In fact, the crew wondered why on earth were they making a stop at an anonymous strip mall where the pavement was as steaming hot at the waning off-beige color of the stucco walls. The bullet-proof glass that protected the cashier made the outing feel even more far-fetched.

Undaunted, Parzen family made the return journey with a bottle of skin-contact Minimus 2017 Willamette Valley Pinot Gris Antiquum Farm in tow. With its ripe cherry and berry fruit flavors, vibrant acidity and restrained alcohol, it was throughly enjoyed by the pilot and his commanding officer as they watched the third episode of “Chasing the Moon,” a documentary about the moon landing by America Experience on PBS.

It just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover or a wine shop by its shingle, especially when you’re looking for natural wine in all the wrong places.

A couple of Sicilians that wowed and an eggplant alla parmigiana to live and die for

Last night found me a guest at Houston’s ROMA, an Italian restaurant I consult with through the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas (headquartered here in the Bayou City, one of my biggest clients).

The occasion was a Sicilian wine dinner that owner Shanon Scott (one of the nicest dudes in the business btw) was hosting for regulars.

I’ll admit that I was a little bit skeptical when I saw the vintage on the Caruso e Minini Inzolia. Honestly, I didn’t know the winery and 2015 seemed on the older side for this grape variety, usually bottled and consumed in its youth.

But man, beyond a rich golden hue, otherwise a tell-tale sign, this wine didn’t have a note of oxidation on it (there’s no mention of maceration on the winery’s website so I’m guessing the color was owed to the wine’s middle age). It was fresh on the nose, with classic quasi-aromatic stone fruit and vibrant ripe stone fruit in the mouth. I loved it.

The main course braciole were accompanied by one of my favorite Sicily wines, a Nero d’Avola by Marabino from Noto (does anyone remember the famous scenes from Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” set in Noto?).

As always, this wine was simply electric, with that verve and vibrancy that you find in passionate growers like these guys (the hyper-site-specific notes on their website are Melvillian in character!).

It slightly and deliciously unripe dark fruit was buoyed by the electrons that pulsed elegantly throughout. I’ve been following Marabino for a number of years now and have always been impressed by the value and quality it delivers. And this is simply one of their entry-tier wines. The top wines are even more compelling.

Also have to give a soulfelt shout-out to chef Angelo Cuppone for his super melanzane alla parmigiana, sautéed eggplant layered and baked with tomato sauce and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, one of the few pan-Italian dishes that you can find throughout the peninsula and its islands (one of these days, when I win the lottery and can focus on my writing, I hope to produce a tome on the origins of this unique confluence of northern and southern Italian foodways, the origins of which might surprise many).

Chef Angelo is a friend and a comrade and as much as I swoon over his carbonara and classic lasagne (Bolognese, is there any other?), he really shines at these regional wine dinners. His eggplant had a wonderful balance, a marcia in più, an extra gear in the motor as the Italians like to say. Really great stuff. At the end of the night, I begged like a pup for a doggy bag to take home to Tracie.

Thank you, Shanon, for making me part of it! Great evening, great food, and superb wines.

Your Italian wine is organic but what about your vinegar?

A new category on the blog: de aceto.

Above: a popular brand of organic-certified red wine vinegar in Italy. The designation “biologico” on the label denotes “organic” in Italian.

Over the course of my three trips to Italy this year (so far), it seemed that organic wine vinegars kept popping up at every meal. One of the most popular brands, at least in Piedmont where I was teaching, was this Ki Group red wine vinegar, above.

(I’m not a fan of the commercial “balsamic” vinegars that generally find their way to even some of the best restaurants in Italy. They are mostly made from wine vinegar that’s been aromatized with real or concentrated balsamic or even caramel. The balsamic vinegar trade, sadly, is one of Italy’s most under-regulated imho.)

According to the product profile, the Ki Group vinegar is organic certified and made from Italian grapes. Otherwise, there’s little information about how it’s made beyond the ingredients listed on the company’s website — “wine, antioxidant: sulfur dioxide.”

One can only wonder what went into the wine besides grapes and there’s no information as to whether or not it was inoculated. There’s also no indication of how the vinegar was inoculated (all commercial and nearly all small-scale production vinegar is inoculated with a live “mother” yeast).

The best vinegars I’ve ever tasted were those produced by Joško Sirk in Collio (Friuli). There’s no mention on Sirk’s site of organic growing practices as far as I can find. It only mentions the high-quality of the fruit used to vinify the base wines.

I’ve also tasted wonderful homemade vinegars that have been fermented by trattoria owners in Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces (Emilia) where home and in-house production is widely found and where vinegar culture is widespread and heartfelt.

But I’ve never heard an oste (countryside restaurateur) say that her/his vinegars are organic. Most of them will tell you that they make their vinegars using their guests’ leftover wine (whatever that might be) and a mother yeast they’ve been cradling for years.

We consume a lot of vinegar at home (because we eat a lot of leafy greens), mostly organic vinegars that we buy from Whole Foods. Like the Ki Group vinegar I tasted repeatedly in Italy, they are good but nothing out of the ordinary. Honestly, I don’t taste much difference between the commercial high-volume vinegars we get our favorite local supermarket chain and the more expensive organic-certified bottlings we get from Whole Foods. And as in the case of the Ki Group vinegar, there’s not much info available regarding the growing and production practices. But we buy them nonetheless (being the vinegar suckers that we are).

I know you have organic wine in your glass. But what about the vinegar you use to dress your salad and pickle your vegetables?

For the record, the restaurant where I used that vinegar to dress my salad doesn’t make any distinction on its list between organically farmed wines and conventionally farmed ones. But it serves organic certified vinegar. Salad for thought…

Not a “racist bone” in his body? Trump supporters: stop the charade already!

You don’t like the tweets but you like the policy.

You don’t like the menacing language but you like the direction the country’s going.

He’s a straight shooter who tells it like it but sometimes the message comes out wrong.

“There’s not a racist bone in his body” but the media spins it to sound racist.

Remember when a white supremacist threatened Tracie and me and told us to “get the f*ck across the border” because we didn’t like a newly constructed Confederate memorial in Tracie’s home town (on MLK Dr. no less)?

Sound familiar?

Even some Republicans are starting to get nervous about Donald Trump’s language.

You know why? Because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue that he’s not a racist.

And there’s a reason for that (in case you haven’t noticed): he is a racist, a “white grievance” politician who’s based his entire political career on stoking the flames of racial division and violence — from the invocation of “Mexican rapists” to the chants of “send her back.”

Many to the left of Donald Trump (and perhaps some of his supporters) remember the famous lines from Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech: a time comes when silence is betrayal

Few know that King didn’t pen the aphorism. In fact, as he acknowledges in the speech, he borrows it from the platform of an antiwar group known as the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, the largest religiously based antiwar organization at the time.

In the lines that followed the now iconic truism, they wrote:

    Both the exercise of faith and the expression of the democratic privilege oblige us to make our voices heard. For while we speak as members of religious communities, we also speak as American citizens. Responsible expressions of disagreement and dissent is the lifeblood of democracy, and we speak out of loyalty that refuses to condone in silence a national policy that is leading our world toward disaster.

There comes a time when silence is betrayal. And the time is now to stand up and speak out.

When our nation’s president menaces sitting members of congress with vexations that echo racist tropes like “go back to Africa” and “go back to Mexico,” the time is now to honor our obligation to make our voices heard.

Those who stand idly by, prisoners of political expedience and their lack of moral fortitude, will have to face their own reckoning with morality.

For those who condone Trump’s vituperation, the time is now to admit that they, too, are racists to the bone.

Aglianico and sushi made for magic last night in Houston

Learn how to pronounce Aglianico in Neapolitan and in Italian here.

Something remarkable happened last night after Tracie and I sat down for a splurge sushi dinner at Kata Robata, one of Houston’s premier Japanese restaurants.

Seated at the (cocktail) bar, we had just ordered a bottle of Graci Etna Rosato, a rosé from Nerello grapes grown on the high-lying slopes of the Sicilian volcano, by one of our favorite producers (a classic). The same bartender who had taken our order approached us with another glass of rosé in hand.

“Hey,” he said, “if you like that wine, you might like this one, too.”

It was the Rogito rosé from Aglianico by storied Aglianico del Vulture producer Cantine del Notaio (rogito — ROH-gee-toh — means public decree in archaic Italian; all the names of the labels by Cantine del Notaio are plucked from ancient legalese; the name of the winery means the notary’s cellars; a notaio was a term used for what we would call lawyers today).

Tracie had never had the wine and she loved its bright fruit and freshness. So our bartender, Mohammed Rahman, graciously offered to switch our bottle order to a by-the-glass order instead. It turned out that he is also the wine director at this super high-profile Houston dining destination (and a lovely guy).

The wine worked brilliantly with our meal, including the fatty tuna and Japanese scallops that we ordered. The whole experience was fantabulously delicious.

But the thing that struck me was the ease and grace with which Italian wines have insinuated themselves into an unlikely program. The last time Tra and I visited Kata Robata, one of our Houston special-occasion spots, we were lucky to find an affordable Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc.

Mo, as Mohammed introduced himself, is a big fan of Italian wine and his list is peppered with some of my favorite value-driven wines from the peninsula and its islands: Winkl by Terlan, Falanghina by I Pentri, not to mention a solid Assyrtiko (from Santorini, Greece) by-the-glass and Hanzell Chardonnay (from California) by-the-bottle.

It’s rare that you find so much affordable drinkability at a place that also sells current-vintage Château Margaux (750ml) for $1,400. Mo told us that he tries to offer a robust selection of wines like the above for budget-challenged food and wine people like us and him.

Chapeau bas, Mo! We LOVED YOUR list. Thanks for taking such great care of us last night.

A mother of all sandwiches (and updates from New York and Houston)

A bunch of folks commented yesterday on the above photo posted on my social media.

I’m really into sandwiches (it that’s not already abundantly apparent).

Yesterday’s was uncured ham, Colby-Jack cheese, red leaf lettuce, sliced tomato, thinly sliced red onion, generously slathered Mexican-style mayonnaise (with lime juice), stacker pickle, French’s mustard (also generously doused), lightly sprinkled kosher salt, and freshly cracked Cambodian pepper (that my older brother gave us, one of our current obsessions). It was all layered on slightly toasted Italian country bread from Whole Foods.

No wine pairing because I rarely drink at lunch, sorry.

I’m glad that social media friends enjoyed it as much as I did!

In other news…

Today finds me in New York City, literally for 24 hours and a couple of meetings with a favorite client.

Last night he treated me to a spritz at Bar 54 atop the Hyatt Centric Hotel Times Square. That’s the view looking south. I highly recommend it.

It’s always strange to be back in the city where I spent my 30s, especially when I’m here solely for business and not connecting with friends.

But, hey, it’s nice work if you can get it! I ain’t complaining.

In other other news…

Thanks, everyone, for all the sweet birthday wishes over the weekend!

On Saturday, the girls, Tra, and I spent the day together doing fun stuff and cooking a fat dinner to be paired with a bottle of Nebbiolo.

And on Sunday, my new band BioDynamic played a Bastille Day gig in midtown Houston. I even revived Cal d’Hommage, my stage name from the good ol’ French band days (WAY back in the day).

It was a great birthday weekend and the wishes meant the world to me.

Gotta run now… wish me luck and wish me speed!

And btw, I still have a few spots open for the Prosecco seminar I’m leading with Flavio Geretto from Villa Sandi tomorrow at Vinology in Houston. HIT ME UP!

Houston mourns the loss of beloved Italian wine professional Joseph Kemble

Above: Jospeh Kemble in Cervia (Ravenna), Italy (photo via Joseph’s Facebook).

Today the Houston wine community mourns the loss of one of its most beloved members, Joseph Kemble, longtime Italian wine buyer for Spec’s retail operations and distribution.

According to numerous posts by his friends on Facebook, he died yesterday after a long bout with cirrhosis. He was 48 years old and would have celebrated his 49th birthday next month.

Joseph was a larger-than-life figure in the Italian wine world: as the Italian buyer for one of the largest retail chains in the country, with more than 150 locations across Texas, he oversaw one of the biggest Italian wine programs in the U.S.
Continue reading

Prosecco seminar and Bastille Day/birthday bash music this week and next in Houston

Back when I was living in New York City and playing with Les Sans Culottes and Nous Non Plus, we ALWAYS had a gig on my birthday, July 14 — Bastille Day.

It was only natural: as the city’s leading faux French rock bands, we were always in demand for the holiday, which is annually celebrated there with élan.

Sometimes we would play two gigs on the same day, usually at the Orchard St. Bastille Day festival during the day and then later that night at a club like the now defunct Brownies where the above picture was snapped in the pre-digital days.
Continue reading

Prosecco DOCG named UNESCO World Heritage Site

Above: a photograph taken in the hills of Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene during the 2018 harvest (via the Villa Sandi Facebook).

In a tweet posted early Sunday morning (EST), UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) announced that the hills of Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene have been officially “inscribed on” the World Heritage list, a coveted designation that adds the Prosecco DOCG appellation to an exclusive club of sites recognized for their cultural uniqueness, beauty, and significance.

The following statement appeared yesterday on the UNESCO website:

    Le Colline del Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene (Italy) — Located in north-eastern Italy, the site includes part of the vinegrowing landscape of the Prosecco wine production area. The landscape is characterized by “hogback” hills, ciglioni – small plots of vines on narrow grassy terraces – forests, small villages and farmland. For centuries, this rugged terrain has been shaped and adapted by man. Since the 17th century, the use of ciglioni has created a particular chequerboard landscape consisting of rows of vines parallel and vertical to the slopes. In the 19th century, the bellussera technique of training the vines contributed to the aesthetic characteristics of the landscape.

With 55 sites included in the list as of 2019, Italy has more designations than any other country in the world (see the complete list on the Italian Wikipedia here). Other sites include the archeological excavation at Pompei in Campania and the viticultural landscape of Langhe-Roero and Monferrato in Piedmont.

The hills of Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene were considered but not included in the list during last year’s meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Committee. They are now the eighth site to receive the designation in Italy’s Veneto region.