My first virtual wine dinner was a disaster (and a lot of fun).

Yesterday evening, a Houston-based wine professional and his wife attended their first-ever virtual wine dinner.

Registered guests were asked to pick up their food and bottles curbside between 5-7 p.m. And the event was to begin at 7:30. So far so good.

After plastic bags were discarded and the to-go boxes and bottles were wiped down with sanitizer, hands were washed, the food was plated, and the bottles were opened and poured.

A mix-up with the Zoom link triggered frantic scrambling to get all the participants the correct credentials. By the time it was all sorted out and nearly everyone was online, many — including said wife — had already begun to eat the food because it was just too tempting with all the victuals laid out before them.

The hosts of the event were clearly flustered by the technical snafu and spent the first 10 minutes apologizing as the guests continued to trickle in. And just as one of the couples logged on, their chihuahuas had an outright conniption and erupted into a burst of barking, huffing, and snarling. They — the humans, not the chihuahuas — had neglected to mute their microphone.

But when the first masterfully Berkel-cut slice of Prosciutto di Parma was wrapped around an oozing chunk of burrata and a glasses of Malvasia Puntinata were first drawn to the participants’ lips, the frustrations and craving appetites all melted away like the thin layer of snow that occasionally falls across tropical southeast Texas in winter.

The foibles of Zoom users and the drawbacks of virtual events like these have been widely parsed in the mainstream media. We’re all learning, warts and all, how to connect in the new world where social distancing is the byword to live by. And although Tracie and I have already taken part in countless Zoom sessions for work and private socializing, we’d never been participants in an end-user-focused event like this — with couples we’d never met before.

And we had a blast.

Tracie wore lipstick at dinner (something that doesn’t happen regularly these days). I shaved and donned a nice shirt (as opposed to my regular two-day stubble and ratty around-the-house t-shirt). We got out some of our better dishes and stemware and set our table properly. Even our daughters, ages 6 and 8, seemed to get a sense that last night’s dinner was special (and highly unusual for them, they went to bed straight away after their own dinner without protest — a miracle!). Our chihuahuas were another story all together.

All in all and despite the mishaps, it was a breath of fresh air that disrupted the monotony and monochromy of self-isolation dining. We laughed, we pigged out, we drank a little too much, and we even made some new friends. In the era before the health crisis, I used to attend dinners like this — in person — at least twice a month. It was great to get a taste of what life used to be like. And the experience reminded me of the important role that food and wine play in creating community.

Last night’s dinner was the second virtual wine tasting event I took part in yesterday. Earlier in the day, I tasted some great Lugana with my buddy Gianpaolo Giacobbo via Instagram live stories — I was here in Houston and he in Montebelluna (Treviso province, Veneto). At the end of our chat, we even busted out our dueling telecasters and played an eight-bar blues (below).

It will take years before life in food and wine finds its footing in the new ordinary. I’m looking forward to that day. But in the meantime, I’m reminded of the great line by George Harrison:

The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows

Arrive without traveling! Stay safe and thanks for being here and supporting Italian wine.

Taste Ca’ dei Frati Lugana with me and Giampi on Instagram live @EthicaWines today at 11 a.m. CST/12 p.m. EST. Please join us!

Above: I visited and tasted at the Ca’ dei Frati winery in January on my last trip to Italy.

Today at 11 a.m. CST/12 p.m. EST I’ll be chatting live with my good friend Gianpaolo Giacobbo on the @EthicaWines Instagram about one of my favorite Veneto winery, Ca’ dei Frati, producer of Lugana.

I’ve been drinking the wines for years with my friends in Franciacorta (one of my buddies is a consulting enologist there) and they’re great.

I’m stoked that they’ll be coming to a town near you soon thanks to the folks at Ethica.

And I’m super geeked to chat with Gianpaolo. We even have big surprise in store for you! I know people are going to like it. Ready, Giampi? Psyched to connect! 

Hope you can join us… Thanks for being here and there.

A red wine for my wife thanks to Luigi Coppo’s L’Avvocata.

Like a lot of American wine professionals, we drink mostly white wine at home. Unless we are having meat for a main course or aged cheeses for dessert, its fresh-style white wine we crave.

In recent years, my wife Tracie has stopped drinking red wine altogether, unless it’s something really special or something with some “age on it” as we say in the trade. That’s partly owed to the fact that red wine doesn’t always agree with her. At our house, wine is an essential part of our dinner and the wines we choose are always those that align with our metabolic rhythms. (I believe that one of the most important things we overlook in wine tasting and writing is how does the wine make you feel, during and after the meal? That’s another story for another post.)

But the other night when I opened a bottle of my friend Luigi Coppo’s Barbera d’Asti L’Avvocata (shared with me by the generous folks at Folio Fine Wine Partners), Tracie asked me to pour her a second and even a third glass.

We were both surprised: wines made from Barbera are known for their high acidity and excessive acidity can often be a turn-off for Tracie. Of all the red wines we have in our home cellar, a Barbera d’Asti was the least likely candidate for a wine she would enjoy, we thought.

Although this classic fresh-style, bright, slightly underripe red fruit-driven expression of Barbera d’Asti delivered the acidity that we expected, its balance was so beautiful that it seemed to sing in the glass. I’ve tasted so much Barbera d’Asti over the last couple of years (because I’ve spent so much time teaching in Piedmont for the last four years), including some great ones.

But this one just seemed to have a marcia in più, as the Italians say, an extra gear in the motor. What a wonderful wine! And what a great pairing for the chicken breasts we sautéed and deglazed with white wine that night for ourselves and the girls. The apotheosis of what Barbera can and should be in my view.

I knew and tasted with Luigi’s father Paolo back in the day when I was living and working in the wine trade in New York. And over the last few years, thanks to my Piedmontese sojourns, Luigi (above in his family’s historic cave) has become a good friend.

It seems like a lifetime ago that he and I were sharing dinner in Manhattan, drinking the same wine, back in late February. We even talked about writing some songs together and possibly doing an event in Houston this year.

Man, we miss those times before the pandemic. But Luigi’s wine brought a lot of joy into our lives the other night. The next best thing besides having him here with us and getting to taste it together.

I highly recommend the man and the wine to you.

Check out this recent post by friend Michael Godel, one of the best tasters I know, on a visit to the Coppo winery in late 2019, including Michael’s always spot-on tastings notes.

And thanks again to Folio for hooking us up!

Grande Luigi! Salutami tanto tuo padre. Un abbraccione.

Letter from Italy: “Social distance must not become the distance of heart and hope” by Enrica Cavallo.

Over the weekend, the Italian government announced that it will slowly begin lifting restrictions on movement across the country. Family members who don’t reside together will now be allowed to visit one another (as long as they wear masks). But restaurants and cafés won’t be resume operation until early June. Today’s “letter from Italy” comes from Enrica Cavallo in Lecce, Puglia. She and her husband Enzo are both lawyers who also run a wine consulting business.

Hello Jeremy,

I’m a reader of you blog and a wine lover, too. I’m sure you already know that — since you are “at home” in Italy — April marks the beginning of the beautiful season: especially in the south of Italy, the weather gets better, the days get longer, the temperatures change from sparkling to mild and people go out…

Actually no, people here in Italy, like in the rest of the world, are not free to go out and move about because of the coronavirus.

Because of the virus, we are living a strange reality. All is suspended. We’ve put our lives on hold. Time is marked by everyone’s fears. We are submerged in a sea of uncertainties. The silence of the streets is compensated by the mountains of news (especially negative). And even those of us who are strong and can swim often are tired and rely on the current.

We don’t want to drown and so we cling like castaways to what brings a little light into the day.

A blooming flower because despite it all, you can’t stop spring from coming.
Continue reading

Italian wine “after COVID”: a new book on the challenges faced by Italian winemakers in the post-pandemic world.

Above: a photo taken (with a Blackberry) in Austin, Texas in 2008.

In 2008, one of the largest wine retail chains in Austin, Texas relegated its selection of Italian wines to an “Italy/Other” rack. The ad hoc category was a reflection of Italy’s station, so to speak, in the hierarchy of international wine at the time. With higher-profile space allocated to California and France, the chain’s sales team displayed its Italian offerings in one of the shop’s least prominent racks together with after-thought “esoteric” wines.

Since that time, so much has changed. Thanks to aggressive efforts by Italian winemakers and their U.S. importers and a wave of heightened interest, the category has become a major focus in wine retail in Texas and across the U.S.

In the A.C. (after COVID-19) world,* will the Italian wine industry be able to maintain its newly conferred status as a leading international category? Or will the challenges of doing business in the U.S. in the post-pandemic era erase more than a decade of robust growth?

The authors of a new “instant” book entitled Italian Wine Beyond COVID-19, Flavio Geretto (export director for leading Prosecco producer Villa Sandi) and Fabio Piccoli (founder and editor-in-chief of Wine Meridian), share their predictions for what the A.C. wine world will look like and how producers will need to adapt their marketing and sales strategies.

(Disclosure: Flavio is a good friend of mine and I am a media consultant for Villa Sandi; Wine Meridian featured me in a 2018 interview.)

The book, written in Italian, can be purchased here. Proceeds go to the Italian hospital system.

The following are my notes. While some of the authors’ observations align with commonly embraced tenets for good business practices (like the need for diversification in sales channels), others genuinely surprised, impressed, and inspired me. Flavio and Fabio don’t have all the answers but the questions they raise are spot on. If you read Italian, I highly recommend ordering a PDF. Special thanks to the authors for sharing a review copy with me.

– Sales channels diversification will become a primary factor in determining which wineries succeed and fail. For too long, the authors write, wineries have focused on an overly limited number of outlets for their wines. And in some cases, companies have even “snubbed” certain sectors, like supermarkets and online retail platforms. Today, those choices have left countless producers highly vulnerable.

– Sustainability and organic farming, they predict, will increasingly become a focus for winemakers as consumer demand more transparency and clarity in terms of how producers present their wines. Authenticity and health concerns will become primary drivers of how wines are marketed and sold and how end users perceive them. This trend had already emerged over the last decade, they note, but now it will be “accelerated.” The nature of the COVID-19 crisis will heighten the demand “organic, biodynamic, natural, and sustainable” wines, they believe. Wineries who embrace these categories — and more importantly — those who are prepared and have the resources to market their wines as such will enjoy a significant advantage over those who don’t.

– There is an increased need for the government to regulate payment terms, they note, so as to ensure prompt transfer of funds. Chronic delays in payment, a systemic problem throughout the Italian business world, make wineries more vulnerable, especially in times of crisis. The authors cite the case of a major northern Italian winery group that faces bankruptcy because of unpaid, overdue invoices that it is now unlikely to collect. Italian legislators, they argue, should intervene to ensure that credit terms are respected, including government-imposed penalties for late payments.

– Restrictions on movement, and especially intercontinental travel, will make it extremely challenging for winery ambassadors to visit foreign markets. As a result, wineries will increasingly have to rely on agents already present in the market. The authors foresee the rise of ad hoc brand ambassadors. (Similarly, travel restrictions will lead to a rise in domestic tourism in Italy. The Italian wine industry needs to be bolster its hospitality programs in order to take advantage of a surge in Italian tourists with better education and a more highly trained work force.)

– Because of the new challenges of market work, especially when budgets are stretched thin, wineries will have to be more selective and demanding when designating a wine ambassador. As the authors note, wineries often delegate market work to employees — like winemakers — who have no sales experience. Sales skills, not technical knowledge, and robust training of sales staff will be one of the keys to reviving the industry.

– Remote tastings with buyers using video technology are less than ideal, they note, because the variables affecting the wine (temperature, humidity, bottle variation, etc.) are too complex to mitigate. Even tastings conducted with proper social distancing won’t suffice because the two actors — buyer and winery ambassador — still won’t be able to taste from the same bottle. The industry will need to devise new ways for interacting with buyers. The authors don’t have the answers for this seemingly insurmountable challenge.

*The acronym is borrowed from Thomas Friedman’s March 17, 2020 op-ed for the New York Times, “Our New Historical Divide: B.C. and A.C. — the World Before Corona and the World After.”

Live with Nicolis Amarone today, MS Steven McDonald on what’s next, and a great podcast from Columbia Journalism School

“It was like 2018 all over again,” said Master Sommelier Steven McDonald (above) when I spoke to him recently for the last in my series of posts for the Houston Press on how the Houston wine community is coping with the ongoing health crisis. He was referring to the moment the Court of Master Sommeliers revoked his newly awarded Master Sommelier title after it discovered irregularities in the testing process (answers had been leaked to another candidate; Steven later re-tested and was awarded the coveted pin).

“It was like your whole world was falling apart,” he said. “I feel like I’m living it all over again right now.”

Until late March, Steven was running what many consider to be one of the best wine programs in the U.S. Today, he and the team he managed are all unemployed.

Steven’s a friend: our kids attend the same elementary school and we often bump into each at our favorite neighborhood breakfast place. And he’s one of the wine professionals in our community I admire most. An immensely talented sommelier and an accomplished songwriter and performer, he’s trying to figure out what’s next.

Check out the post here.

In other news…

I’ll be doing a live Instagram story today with Angelo Nicolis from Valpolicella. I tasted with Angelo and his family back in January during my last trip to Italy, including the 2010 Ambrosan (what a wine!) which we will also be opening today.

Valpolicella is such poorly understood appellation in the U.S. I feel a deep connect to the wines because of my many years living, studying, and working in Veneto during my grad student days. I’m really geeked to talk shop with Angelo (who’s a super cool guy, btw, and speaks great English).

Check it out today at 11 a.m. CST/12 p.m. EST on the Ethica Wines Instagram @EthicaWines. I’ve really been enjoying my work with Ethica. Great people and great wines. And these stories have been a lot of fun. Help support Italian wine and Italian winemakers and growers by joining us. I hope to see you then.

In other other news…

Last week I did an interview with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism candidate Emily Pisacreta on how the health crisis will impact the availability of Italian foods and wines in the U.S. (her professor is my good friend Ben Shapiro).

Check out her podcast here.

The Italian wine and food industries were already deeply impacted by the trade wars, tariffs, and the threat of more tariffs when the pandemic forced governments across the world to shut down their economies. It was a “perfect storm” for many in the trade.

Check out her podcast: it’s really compelling to hear her interview with Marco Forti from the Pecorino Toscano Consortium.

Dulcis in fundo…

A lot of people asked me about my Earth Day greeting yesterday: non unius terrae sed totius naturae interpretes sumus.

The line comes from Pliny: “we must contemplate/study not just one [place on] earth but all of nature [to have a deeper understanding of it].” It seemed fitting for the moment.

Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Please share: Southern Smoke (Houston) offering restaurant worker relief nationwide (Houston Press interview with wine director Matthew Pridgen)

Until I reached out to Underbelly Hospitality wine director Matthew Pridgen (above) for an interview published today by the Houston Press, I wasn’t aware that the group’s non-profit Southern Smoke is offering financial aid not just to Houston-area residents but also to restaurant workers across the U.S.

“So far we’ve donated over $670,000 to 354 people to date since the COVID crisis has started,” he told me. “Obviously there’s still a lot more. They’re processing them as fast as they to try to get money to people. Once people are approved, it’s a really quick turn-around. The check is in the mail immediately. It’s been a big help to a lot of people. We’re able to help outside of Houston. It’s nationwide. It’s not relegated to strictly Houston.”

Southern Smoke is currently accepting applications from people in need: click here to apply. And they have 30 staff members processing applications.

“Once people are approved,” he said, “it’s a really quick turn-around. The check is in the mail immediately. It’s been a big help to a lot of people.”

Please share with anyone who needs the support right now.

The interview is part of a series of posts devoted to the Houston wine community and how it is coping with the ongoing health crisis (for the record, I’m putting these together pro bono).

Thanks for sharing.

And happy Earth Day: non unius terrae sed totius naturae interpretes sumus.

“I would order 365 bottles each year.” Mario Soldati on Giacosa Roero Arneis.

In the fall of 1975, during his third trip across Italy tasting and researching material for his celebrated television series, “Vino al Vino,” pioneering food and wine writer Mario Soldati happened upon a relatively unknown “producer and ager of wines” in the village of Neive.

The winemaker in this case was Bruno Giacosa, today considered to be one of the greatest producers of Barolo and Barbaresco of all time.

But many will be surprised to learn that the wine that Soldati was most excited about wasn’t a Barbaresco Santo Stefano or Asili, nor a Barolo Falletto Vigna Le Rocche. Instead, it was Giacosa’s Arneis.

When a bottle of 2018 Giacosa Roero Arneis found its way to our dinner table the other night (thanks to my generous friends at Folio Fine Wine Partners), I was reminded of Soldati’s notes from his notes from the trip (originally published in Italy by Mondadori in 1977).

The following is an excerpted translation. I hope you enjoy it as much as Tracie and I enjoyed the wine.


I don’t remember how it happened one early morning. But as soon as we arrived at the Albergo Reale, I discovered that in Neive, a village that lies between Asti and Alba, winemaker Bruno Giacosa, “producer and ager of wines,” had recently begun to make Arnèis [sic]…

In this moment, as I write, I have a bottle of Arnèis before me, many months now after my visit. It somehow reminds me of the magical surprise that I felt when I first walked up the stairs to the first floor of the small country house where Bruno Giacosa lives, vinifies, and ages his wines. I saw that bottle, all by itself, on a long marble table…

[It was] the 1974 Arnèis, 12 percent alcohol.

Intensely aromatic, but with extreme garb. Not fruity but a floral, pleasantly bitter note, reminiscent of geranium. It reappears on the palate and immediately impresses me. The floral bouquet naturally reminds me of Gradnik’s Pinot Girigio from Collio or Ghersi’s Vermentino. But this wine has a big advantage: lower alcohol. It’s a big advantage because you can drink more of it and you can drink it more often, and not just with appetizers.

It’s a wine you never tire of. If I could, of the 7,500 bottles he makes, I would order 365 bottles each year. My wife and my son agree with me.

Mario Soldati

Excerpted from the chapter “Nelle Provincie di Cuneo, Asti, e Alessandria” (“Terzo Viaggio. Autunno 1975), Vino al Vino, Mondadori, 1977. Translation mine.

Loving, missing, and drinking my friends a world apart…

Had the trade fairs not been cancelled, had international flights not been suspended, had there not been a nationwide lockdown in Italy and then in the U.S., had there not been a global pandemic that has brought the entire world to its knees… an already weary American wine professional would have been in Franciacorta this last weekend, missing his family and home in Texas but comforted by a rich friendship that stretches back more than a decade.

Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine trade fair, was supposed to start yesterday, April 19. Like their counterparts from across the world and Italy, a legion of American wine trade members would have made their way to Verona late last week — me included.

Italians’ legendary warmth and hospitality are hard to understand until you’ve been their fortunate guest. And this lonesome Italonaut has been blessed by the generosity of gracious hosts across the peninsula. But there is none that rivals the reception a solitary American journey has experienced when visiting his comrades in Franciacorta.

Last week, knowing that he would have been otherwise enjoying the company and support of his fellows, the urge to drink their wine — a surrogate for their magnanimity — overcame this American enoscrivener.

Unable to embrace them in the flesh, denied the sound of their laughter, forbidden the fruits of their toil, and prohibited the bounty that graces their tables, he tracked down the next best thing: their 2015 Franciacorta Dosaggio Zero, made from Chardonnay and a small amount of Pinot Blanc, with a second fermentation provoked by the must of berries from those very same vineyards that lie in the shadow of Lake Iseo, and vinified without the addition of any crystallized cane from the lands beyond their Longobard frontier.

The vibrant tropical fruit flavors of this wine rolled off his tongue as he and his family sat down for their Saturday night repast, its minerality leaving a sensation of purity and elegance as he drank it down with his wife’s homemade buns and hamburger patties. Even better yet did it taste to him when he picked up his guitar and strummed a few chords as he drank the last drops, not a libation left for the gods.

Giovanni Arcari and Nico Danesi, I can never repay you for the camaraderie, the friendship, the succor, and the solidarity in all things that you have shared with me. We would have all been together on Saturday night, seated around a table, a guitar within arm’s reach and a wedge of Bagòss, a heel of bread, and a bottle of wine always nearby.

On Saturday night we were a world apart yet you were with me on the bayou’s edge — in heart, in spirit, and in wine.

I love you, I miss you, and for a moment my heart was genuinely lifted by your vinous magic this weekend. I can’t wait until I can embrace you again.

Letter from Italy: “Issues in our hospitality industry that need to be addressed as we rebuild” by Francesco Bonfio.

Today’s letter from Italy come from my good friend and one of the wine professionals I admire most, Francesco Bonfio, founder of the Italian Association of Wine Shop Professionals. He lives in the historic center of Siena. He shared the above photo of the Piazza del Campo where the city’s famous Palio is run twice each year.

Jeremy, I don’t need to tell you how terrifyingly painful it is to see Piazza del Campo without a single human being in it. I don’t need to tell you how frustrating it is that it’s highly likely that the people of Siena won’t be able to attend the two traditional runnings of the Palio on July 2 and August 16. They’ll be missing their main reason for living. The last time that it happened was because of the Second World War. It wasn’t run again until August 16, 1945 with Il Drago as the winner. Since that time, it’s never been suspended or cancelled.

Instead, I’d like to take advantage of your offer to share a letter from Italy by addressing the Italians who follow your blog. I know there are many of them out there.

Jeremy, I don’t know if you are familiar with the Italian saying, quando sei martello batti, quando sei incudine statti (when you are a hammer, strike your fill; when you are an anvil, hold you still). I believe it comes from the world of gambling. It means that when luck is on your side, you need to make the most of it by pushing yourself as far as you can. When, vice versa, you are in a moment of difficulty, you need to hunker down and stay put because the more you get worked up, the more damage you’ll do.

Right now, Italians are an anvil.
Continue reading