MLK billboard appears over Confederate memorial throughout Black History Month. Thanks to everyone who made it possible.

Thanks to the generosity of everyone who contributed to our GoFundMe campaign, not only did our Martin Luther King billboard appear over the newly erected Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas on Martin Luther King Day this year, but it continues to appear and has appeared for the entirety of African American History Month (February).

Our goal was to buy one month of advertising space, starting a few days before the MLK holiday (January 20, this year), to coincide with our protest of the site that day. But ultimately we raised enough money to cover two months, making it possible to keep it up throughout February and beyond.

In late 2017, two Orange residents — Granvel Block and Hank Van Slyke — first began displaying the Confederate flag over their newly built Graeco-Roman atrium on Martin Luther King Dr. in Orange, where half the population is black and where there is a nasty legacy of Jim Crow and racial violence. And that’s when Tracie and I began organizing our protests at the site. Tracie grew up there and we spend a lot of time there with our children. (You can read about our campaign here on our Repurpose Memorial website.)

One of our donors this year was the Southern Poverty Law Center. Please check out the center’s Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy website and awareness program.

Tracie and I aren’t giving up this fight — not now, not ever.

It appears that at least one of the site’s organizers is launching a new campaign to intimidate us. It’s not their first and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

The people who conceived and built the site claim to be members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a secretive society of cowards who hide behind cosplay pageantry, all the while insinuating their racist iconography into public discourse.

They have brought a stain on their community with their “Memorial of the Wind,” as they call it (perhaps a better name would be the “Memorial of the Breaking Wind”!). And they lack the moral backbone to engage with their fellow citizens in meaningful dialog about the damage they have done to their city’s reputation and standing in the eyes of fellow Texans and Americans.

Bring it on, Granvel! Bring it on, Hank! We’re not going away and we will continue to remind you and your kind that such conspicuous displays of hateful iconography are socially unacceptable.

Thanks to everyone who made the billboard possible this year.

The Confederate flag is a symbol of hate. Don’t believe me? Ask your black friends.

Coronavirus unleashes panic across northern Italy.

Above: an illustration released today at noon (Italian time) by the Italian health ministry — 213 cases reported, 99 persons being treated at a hospital, 23 cases in need of intensive care, 91 persons in home isolation.

According to a report published this morning by the Italian national daily La Repubblica, a sixth person has died in Italy’s novel coronavirus outbreak.

The latest victim, report the editors, was a man in his 80s in Milan. All of those who have died from the virus have been more than 80 years old, they write.

You can see a map of areas where contagion has been reported here.

City streets are deserted and grocery store shelves emptied across northern Italy, where panic has gripped citizens in Piedmont, Lombardy, Trentino, and Veneto. In the southern Italian region of Puglia, officials are asking returning residents who work in the north to report their status upon their arrival there.

Italy’s emergency telephone number, 112 (similar to 911 in the U.S.), has been overwhelmed by callers who are seeking information about the outbreak.

At least 10 towns in Lombardy, where the outbreak is concentrated, are on lockdown, according to the most recent report by the New York Times.

Museums, schools, and churches are closed and all public gatherings have been postponed through Sunday, March 1.

Anecdotally, I’m hearing that lines at supermarkets are long and vital products are scarce. Nearly everyone who dares to go out wears a surgical mask (despite the fact that it doesn’t reduce your risk of being infected).

So far, I haven’t heard of any impact on the wine trade. But with industry fairs around the corner (Prowein next month and Vinitaly in April), some are concerned that the outbreak will impede attendance.

Italy’s winemakers dodged a bullet on February 14 when the U.S. government announced it wouldn’t be expanding wine tariffs to include Italian products. But many fear that the recent and rapidly evolving health crisis will ultimately have a negative effect on domestic sales. Today’s steep drop in global financial markets will certainly be viewed as an indicator of consumer confidence.

I’ll keep posting updates as more information becomes available.

If you’ve never been to Jimmy’s Food Store in Dallas, you don’t know what you’re missing…

Last night I was Paolo Cantele’s wing-man as he led a guided tasting and dinner featuring his family’s wines at the amazing Jimmy’s Food Store in Dallas, a national culinary treasure and a great resource for Italian and Italian-American gastronomy in the U.S.

Those are rigatoni with (housemade) sausage alla vodka. Legacy owner Paul Di Carlo did the cooking himself last night and the sauce was spot on, with just the right tang you achieve when you deglaze the tomato with the spirit. This was straight out of 1989 and full-on delicious.

Not only is Jimmy’s a fantastic old school Italian deli (like the “pork stores” in Brooklyn) but it’s also the best Italian wine shop in the state. Paul really knows Italian wine. Spectacular selection.

Jimmy’s has a special place in my heart because it was there, 11 years ago, that Paolo and I did our first event together. I was working for a supplier rep at the time and Paolo was one of my first ride-withs in Texas after I moved here to be with Tracie P. It was really neat for us to relive that moment.

A few years ago, Paul renamed his wine room. No explanation needed. If you have worked in Italian wine in this century (and/or the last), you know why this image is so special.

Paolo and I are headed to Tulsa today where we’ll be hosting an event at Vintage Wine Bar (at 5:30). Please join us! I’m SO PSYCHED to finally make it to Tulsa, a city I’ve wanted to visit for a long, long time. I know it’s going to be a great time.

1988 Aglianico del Taburno from Veronelli’s cellar blew us away last night (and Chambers St. now ships to non-ship states)

Above: just look at the color of that wine! We expected it to be light or even brown in color, with little flavor. But it drank beautifully last night.

When Chambers Street Wines did a recent offering of onesies from the famed Veronelli Collection, I thought I would read the shop’s e-blast just for fun (it’s one of the best wine shop newsletters out there imho, with great and often funny writing, and lots of juicy info). But when I saw a 1988 Aglianico del Taburno from Cantina del Taburno, it tugged at my heartstrings. And frankly, it was just too much to resist.

Luigi Veronelli was one of the greatest food and wine writers of the 20th-century, a pioneering editor and publisher of guide books, recipe books, and long-form gastronomic prose. And he was also one of the century’s most prolific (ante litteram) influencers. Many Italian wines we consider benchmarks and icons today were anointed as such by Veronelli over the course of his more than 40-year career in publishing. (Few remember that Veronelli’s “breakout” book was his best-selling I Cocktails published in 1971, a mixology recipe book; fewer still will remember that his 1957 edition of the Marquis de Sade’s Historiettes, Contes et Fabliaux was banned by Italian authorities at the time, marking an early financial disaster for him).

I never got to meet Veronelli before he died in 2004. But his writings and work as a publisher have shaped my own career in food and wine media. And I was deeply disappointed when I couldn’t attend any of the tastings of lots from his wine cellar when the wines began to be auctioned off a few years ago.

The fact that the bottle in question was from his own library made the purchase even more tantalizing and so I bit.

When we opened the wine last night, we expected it to be near dead. Often with wines like these, they offer a very brief moment of flavor when they are opened but then quickly fade away. My friends and I imagined it would be light in color or even brown. We also figured it would be cloudy with sediment (I had stood the wine upright for two days before opening in hopes of reducing the cloudiness and/or excessive amount of solids that you often find in wines this old).

But to our immense surprise and delight, the wine was very much alive, with delicious fruit and nice acidity. In the end, we didn’t even reach for our backup bottle of young Aglianico as we ate tagliatelle with lamb ragù and lasagne alla bolognese at our favorite Houston BYOB.

What a great wine!

It reminded me how every bottle you open, young or old, is always a gamble, but when it pays off, the results can be exhilarating, as was certainly the case last night.

The other good news about this bottle is that wine shops like Chambers Street Wines have now found a work-around that allows them to ship to restrictive “non-ship” states like Texas. This bottle, along with a mixed case of other bottles I ordered, found its way to me via a third-party shipper. The bottomline is this: as long as the wine is not shipped directly from an out-of-state retailer, it’s totally legal to ship wine to Texas. It just has to be purchased by the recipient before it shipped and then handed off to a courier who doesn’t sell the wine itself.

Arcane and backwards but such is the world we live in. It’s great news for people like me who want access to retail offerings from specialty shops like Chambers, one of my favorite in the country.

So little time and so much to tell. I’ve got to hit the road with my buddy Paolo Cantele: we’re heading to Dallas for a dinner tonight, Tulsa tomorrow for another tasting, and the Boulder for the last tasting of our road trip. See details here if you’d like to join. Thanks to everyone from the Houston wine community who came out to our super fun event at Vinology. That was awesome. Thank you!

Hang me in the Tulsa County Stars (taste with me there on Thursday)

I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Maybe it’s because Steinbeck made such a big impression on me when I read him as a kid.

Maybe it’s because I loved the musical “Oklahoma” when I was growing up.

Maybe it’s the Merle Haggard in me. I don’t know.

Or maybe its ’cause I want you to hang me in the Tulsa County stars, meet me where I land if I slip and fall too far.

See the lyrics to John Moreland’s awesome song here (and see the video below; he is supercool and he’s from Tulsa, of course).

I’ll be heading to Tulsa with my buddy Paolo Cantele, one of my best friends, this Thursday.

If you happen to be in the city that I’ve dreamt about all these years, please join us at Vintage Wine Bar where we’ll be leading an informal tasting and hanging out.

We’ll also be pouring in Houston tonight and Boulder on Saturday. Details follow. Hope to see you on the road (again)! Thanks for being here and there.

Vinology (Houston)
Tuesday, February 18
6:30 p.m.

Vintage Wine Bar (Tulsa)
Thursday, February 20
5:30 p.m.

Boulder Wine Merchant (Boulder)
Saturday, February 22
5:30 p.m.

Photo via TexasBackRoads’ Flickr (Creative Commons).

Italian wine spared (at least for now), French, German, and Spanish wine still dogged by U.S. tariffs

In case you hadn’t already heard the news, there was good and bad: late Friday, the U.S. Trade Representative announced that 25 percent tariffs would remain in place for French, German, and Spanish still wines and that no new duties would be imposed on wines from European countries other than those already included in the current round of the U.S.-European Union trade war.

This was great news for Italian winemakers and grape growers.

U.S. wine importers and EU countries, including Italy, had also been bracing for potential 100 percent tariffs, a move that would have been devastating for European viticulture and its presence in the U.S.

Current U.S. policy should remain unchanged (at least in theory) for the next 180 days when the U.S. administration will review and decide whether to lift or expand the tariffs.

Winemakers in Italy breathed a sigh of relief as counterparts in France, Germany, and Spain began to hunker down for another six months of “tariff pain.”

For more detailed analysis and background, see this superb article by my friend Mitch Frank for Wine Spectator (possibly the earliest reporting on the U.S. announcement from a mainstream masthead). Mitch is a former political reporter and so it’s not surprising that his writing is spot-on here.

See also this excellent piece in Bloomberg, “Italy Escapes Higher U.S. Tariffs on Some Products” where the reporter details of behind-the-scenes efforts by Italian politicians to lobby U.S. officials.

Lastly, see this pay-wall op-ed by legacy importer Harmon Skurnik for the Washington Post, “Trump’s 100 percent tariffs could mean no more European Wines” (an earlier title, subsequently edited, was “Trump’s 100 percent tariffs could mean your Champagne is toast”).

Posted on the eve of the decision (and now out-dated), it offers solid insight into the ripple effect of the tariffs and how they ultimately do more to hurt American interests than to bolster them.

Houston AweSomm Sommelier competition now open to wine professionals across Texas. Top prize $1,200 (and bragging rights).

I’m pleased to share the following info regarding the 2nd annual Houston AweSomm Sommelier Competition, which is now open to wine professionals across Texas, including Advanced Sommeliers.

AweSomm is a Houston-based study group founded by my good friend and colleague Jaime De Leon, Adult Beverage Sales Manager for Kroger Houston Division, one of the coolest people working in my adoptive city’s wine scene. Top prize is $1,200 (and bragging rights). Runners-up receive $300.

If you’re working in the Texas wine community, I highly encourage you to apply. Only good can come of it.

On March 29-30, AweSomm will be hosting the second annual Houston AweSomm Sommelier Competition in association with the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas and its 6th annual Taste of Italy Houston festival and trade show.

Click here to apply. Details follow below.

  • 20 sommeliers from across Texas will be invited to compete for the title of Houston AweSomm Sommelier Competition “Best Sommelier.”
  • All Texas-based sommeliers are eligible (except for Master Sommeliers), including those who have achieved their “Advanced” status in the Court of Master Sommeliers.
  • All competitors will be required to take a theory, service, and blind tasting exam.
  • Once the theory exam is completed, the 10 candidates with the top scores will be seated for the service and blind tasting exams.
  • Testing will take place at the Hilton Post Oak on Sunday, March 29. The winner and 2 runners up will be announced at the Taste of Italy festival Monday, March 30.
  • The winner will receive a $1,200 scholarship to apply to future studies; 2 runners up will receive $300 scholarships; all 10 finalists will be eligible for Italy-America Chamber sponsored trips to Italian wine country.

Italian wineries not immune to “tariff pain” while French wine sales “plummet”

“[Bordeaux] exports plummeted 46 percent in value and 24 percent in volume in November [2019] alone,” according to an excellent free-for-all post by Suzanne Mustacich published on the Wine Spectator website on Monday.

The French are feeling the “tariff pain,” she wrote, “with reports of falling exports and winery bankruptcies.”

French winemakers have been subject to a 25 percent tariff since October of last year. Newly available fourth quarter financial sales numbers reveal that November and December were especially challenging for EU producers in general and for the French in particular.

“‘In six months, the American market will be dead for us,’ said Bernard Farges, president of the leading Bordeaux trade group CIVB,” reports Mustacich.

Although Italy hasn’t yet been subject to the new round of U.S. tariffs, Italian wine producers are also feeling the effects of the trade war.

According to figures published last week by Wine Monitor, the Italian wine industry’s subscription-based “market watch” association, “Italy experienced a drop of 7 percent in sales [in November and December of 2019] with respect to the previous year, with a 12 percent drop for still wines.”

“EU producers continue to tread water,” write the authors of the report, “with France seeing its sales of still wine drop by 36 percent and Spain experiencing a 9 percent drop in the last two months” of 2019. At the same time, “sales of New World wines are soaring, with a 40 percent increase for New Zealand and a 53 percent increase for Chile.”

(The data were reported by Italpress, an Italian news agency. Translation mine.)

Across the U.S. wine trade and wine-focused media this week, rumors have circulated that the U.S. Trade Representative will be making an announcement on tariffs on Monday, February 17. But reports of a pending policy statement haven’t been verified — at least not to my knowledge.

According to a statement issued by the U.S. Wine Trade Alliance, an activist Facebook group formed in December 2019 in response to U.S. tariffs, “the only people getting hurt [by U.S. wine tariffs] are American business owners and consumers.”

That is due partly to the fact that “75-85% of the selling price of a bottle of wine is profit or taxes taken by American entities,” say Harry Root, founder of the group, and Ben Aneff, a member of the National Association of Wine Retailers (NAWR).

The Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans needs to be on your radar (“the universe in a cup of gumbo”).

Yesterday in New Orleans, the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas (IACC) officially launched its new partnership with the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. Italian Consul General Federico Ciattaglia (from the Italian Consulate in Houston), IACC president Brando Ballerini, and IACC director Alessia Paolicchi were joined by museum founder Liz Williams and president Brent Rosen for a ribbon cutting ceremony and reception.

While the event celebrated the opening of the IACC’s new outpost in New Orleans, it also marked the beginning of its expansion into greater Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. With new territory to cover, the IACC has also changed its name to “Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central.”

As a long-time media consultant for the IACC, I couldn’t be more thrilled, in part because I’ve always wanted to spend more time in New Orleans, one of the country’s most culinarily compelling cities.

But I’m also eager to do more work with Liz, a noted food historian and author, one of the most talented food writers working in the U.S. today imho.

She and I have appeared on panels together at the IACC’s annual Taste of Italy festival. I’ve been wholly impressed by her encyclopedic knowledge of American gastronomy. But I had never visited her extraordinary museum, which also includes the Museum of the American Cocktail and a newly added kitchen and events space.

If you’re into American foodways, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum needs to be on your radar. I can’t recommend it highly enough. (Check out the photo album I posted this morning on the IACC Facebook with images from the event.)

On Tuesday, March 31, the IACC and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum will be co-presenting the first Taste of Italy New Orleans festival. The chamber has held the event in Houston for the last five years and I’ve been the gathering’s emcee for the last three years. I’ll be emceeing in New Orleans as well this year and Liz and I will both be appearing on seminar panels.

The Houston event is scheduled for Monday, March 30. See details for both here.

As Liz pointed out in her address yesterday, New Orleans is home to one of North America’s oldest and most vibrant Italian communities. Following Emancipation, she explained, Sicilian sugar cane workers were recruited to work at the plantations and sugar mills. Many of them laid down roots in their newfound home. It’s only natural that New Orleans cuisine would be deeply influenced by Italian gastronomy.

One of the things that I love the most about my newfound home here in Southeast Texas is how good the food is. My wife Tracie grew up on the Louisiana border where the food leans, understandably, toward the Cajun style. And Houston, in the years that followed Katrina, became home to many displaced New Orleans chefs. They have been a big part of Houston’s food and restaurant renaissance.

Before the event yesterday, I managed to carve out time for the “Gumbo Combo” at the extraordinary Heard Dat Kitchen, walking distance from the museum (see also this write-up here). Many folks won’t know that potato salad is a garnish for gumbo in this part of the world. And this gumbo, served with a small side of potato salad, was hands down the best I’ve ever had and I have had a lot of gumbo since moving to Texas 12 years ago and marrying a woman from Southeast Texas 10 years ago (sorry, uncle Tim; yours is great but this was the one).

A famous Italian physicist is believed to have once said that “the whole universe is in a glass of wine” (he probably didn’t really say it but the quote is ascribed to him).

As our country continues to struggle with its identity and its original sins, Tracie and I have been spending a lot of time reflecting on what it means to be an American today. Yesterday, on a gray day in New Orleans’ Central City, I realized that the whole of America is in a cup of gumbo on the corner of Felicity and Magnolia.

Impact of wine tariffs directly affecting small business across U.S.

Above: small businesses like Blue Streak Wines & Spirits in New York City are having trouble restocking European wines because of tariffs imposed last year says Rob Bralow, a wine buyer there.

“Not sure who else is feeling this,” wrote New York-based wine buyer Rob Bralow on Facebook yesterday. “But it’s now at the retail level where I’m having a hard time finding stock to put on my shelves in NYC. This is the third wine in the last two days that I was told stock is not expected in for at least a month if not more. Everything from France is in a holding pattern. I’m expecting many others European wines to begin to be hard to stock as well.”

He was referring to what has been called “a logjam of activity from Europe to the U.S.” caused by the 25 percent wine tariffs imposed by the U.S. starting in October of last year.

Orders from the U.S. have been on hold as importers fear that new and possibly higher tariffs will implemented while their “wine is on the water,” as they say in trade parlance. Importers are forced to pay the duty on the products they ship even if the orders are places before the duties are put into effect.

The New York retailer’s words were echoed in an article published yesterday in the business section of the Austin American-Statesman, “Trump threat could make it harder to get your favorite wine in Austin.”

But John Roenigk, the owner of the Austin Wine Merchant, a legacy wine retailer in the state’s capital, is also facing another issue: the increased price of wines, due to the October tariffs, is drastically impacting sales in his shop.

“The disappointment on the faces of our clients for these wines was palpable,” he told the reporter for the city’s paper of record. “Some bought the wines anyway. Some took less than they would have. Others declined altogether. We still have wine from this producer months later when the wines are normally sold out in advance of arrival.”

(Full disclosure: John Roenigk and Nat Davis, the other wine professional quoted in the Austin American-Statesman piece, are both good friends of mine.)

Anecdotally, I’m hearing reports from across the U.S. that distributors are seeing sharp drops in sales because of the price increase for French and Spanish wines, especially in the “by the glass” category (under $15 retail) where the higher pricing puts them out of reach for many restaurant wine programs.

The U.S. Trade Representative has given no clear indication of when the tariffs will be lifted or what it will take to resolve the U.S.-European Union trade war. But most industry observers expect the 25 percent tariffs to remain active until 2021. And there’s no guarantee that the tariffs won’t be increased or expanded to other countries like Italy, which has remained outside of the wine duties’ reach so far (although cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino have subject to 25 percent tariffs since October).

As the immediate impact of the tariffs is starting to come into sharp focus, many trade members speculate that the long-term affects of the trade war could be devastating for the U.S. wine trade. Many small businesses like those above won’t be able to weather the increased pricing and its fallout.

See this excellent post on the popular trade-focused wine blog SevenFifty, “How to Stay Informed About Tariffs and How to Take Action.”