Taste with Chianti Classico pioneer Francesco Ricasoli and me next Thursday at Roma’s virtual wine dinner in Houston.

Next Thursday, August 6, I’ll be presenting a virtual wine dinner and guided tasting with Chianti Classico producer Francesco Ricasoli (above).

The event is part of an ongoing weekly series hosted by Roma in Houston (one of my clients). Check out this Houston Chronicle write-up on the dinners, which appeared yesterday on the paper’s website.

Last night, our featured guest was my good friend Paolo Cantele who joined from Lecce, Puglia. Francesco will be joining from his offices at Brolio Castle in the heart of Chianti Classico.

I first met Francesco more than a decade ago when I was searching for a letter written by his ancestor, the “Iron Baron” Bettino Ricasoli, united Italy’s second prime minister and the architect of the Tuscan wine renaissance in the second half of the 19th century.

The celebrated letter in question included Baron Ricasoli’s historic “recipe” for Chianti Classico (more on that later; there are a lot of misconceptions about what he actually wrote). But more importantly, his reflections on Sangiovese firmly established the variety as the quintessential Tuscan red grape. In more ways than one, it created the model — the marriage of Tuscan soil and grape — for Sangiovese wines like Brunello di Montalcino, among others. And today, as the new wave of Chianti Classico comes into focus, Francesco has continued his family’s legacy as Tuscan viticultural pioneers with his groundbreaking work on Chiantigiana subsoils and cru designations.

Francesco and I have stayed in touch over the years and I had the great fortune of meeting and tasting with him in January during my last trip to Italy before the pandemic. He is one of Italy’s most fascinating winemakers imho and his work is as compelling as his wines are delicious.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to be presenting him and his wines next week here in Houston. I hope you can join us.

Next week, I’ll share the story of the letter (which has now been republished), its legacy, and my fascination with it.

As wine, food, and lifestyle writer Emma Balter wrote for the Houston Chronicle this week, these virtual dinners are a lifeline for the restaurant and all the families it helps to support, including my own. The events are a lot of fun and provide a much needed respite from the pressures and stress of life in the U.S. right now. Thank you for your continued support. Click here for a preview of next week’s dinner.

Racism, yesterday and today, in the Italian wine industry.

Above: Lake Garda as seen from Desenzano, Lombardy (image via Adobe Stock).

In 2008, not long after Barack Obama had been elected as the 44th President of the United States, one of Italy’s highest-profile wine guides televised its annual wine awards gala on national television.

During the course of the broadcast, one of the presenters mused that the newly elected U.S. president’s favorite wine must be Brunello or Nero d’Avola. Translated literally, the former means brownish while the latter could be rendered as black [grape] from [the town of] Avola.

It was around the same time that Italy’s prime minister told reporters that he liked Obama because he was “young, handsome, and tanned.”

Can you imagine the outcry if an Italian winemaker or wine writer were to make similar comments today? What would happen if a public figure from France were to speculate that Obama’s favorite wine must be Pinot Noir (black Pinot)?

Above: a screenshot taken from the landing page of a prominent Italian winemaker’s website. It’s a modified stock photo to which the designer added the text on the protest sign.

Over the last few months, I’ve heard from a number of American wine writers and wine professionals who have expressed concerns about racism in the Italian wine trade. One of them sent me the link to the website of a high-profile Italian winemaker.

The screenshot above comes from the landing page. The image was created using a rights-free stock photo to which the designer added the text on the cardboard sign the woman is holding (in the original photo, the text read: “the future is female”).

“Is this winemaker a racist?” he asked me.

Honestly, I don’t have an answer. But it’s clear that they are tone-deaf to what’s happening across the world today in terms of anti-racist reckoning.

As Americans passionate about Italian wine, we often tend to buy into the superficial and sometimes feigned progressive attitudes of Italian winemakers. Who can forget the notorious case in 2013 when a celebrated Italian natural wine producer posted repulsive and egregiously racist comments about Italy’s then minister of integration? (Few recall the blowback against American wine professionals who publicly declared that they wouldn’t sell said winemaker’s wines anymore and against American wine writers who wrote about the affaire.)

Part of the problem — the disconnect — is the language barrier. But the overarching issue, in my view, is that we tend to consider the wine without taking a broader look at the culture that produced it. Viticulture, after all, is also a reflection of culture.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the overwhelming majority — and let me just repeat that — the overwhelming majority of Italian winemakers I know personally is on the right side of the racism and anti-racism dialectic. They, like us, are reckoning with their personal and national attitudes on race as they, like us, continue to evolve as anti-racists.

But sadly, if we dig a little bit deeper and scratch below the surface, we often discover that the wines we love are raised by people whose attitudes on race may diverge significantly from our own. And of course, there are also racists among us who continue to embrace those wines and the winemakers who produce them.

Over the last few weeks, a number of prominent natural wine advocates have distanced themselves from a young and outwardly progressive winemaker whose family has been implicated in a human exploitation investigation. Everyone I’ve spoken to in that region of Italy tells me that most people “on the ground” suspected that the family engaged in questionable employment policies. But in their own statement on the ongoing inquiry, the young winemaker and family member insinuates that they themself had no knowledge of any wrongdoing.

Where does the answer lie? Those are the hard questions we need to be asking.

In the 1920s, when the American poet Langston Hughes visited Italy for the first time with his friend Romeo, the townsfolk of Desenszano offered him vino neroblack wine.

“Later that night,” wrote Hughes in his autobiography, “Romeo explained to me that never in Desenzano, so far as he knew, had there been a Negro before, so naturally everybody wanted to look at me at close hand, and touch me, and treat me to a glass of vino nero. Romeo said they were all his friends, but hardly would the whole theater have rushed into the street between reels had it not been for me, a Negro, being with him.”

Can you imagine how a black wine lover would feel today if something similar happened to them? Can you imagine how a black woman feels when they land on the website of Italian winemaker and see an image like the one above?

Let me just say it once more, those are the hard questions we need to be asking if we want to be anti-racists in wine — and life.

Help us raise an MLK billboard overlooking the newly built Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up.

Above: the new billboard we are planning to raise across from the newly constructed Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up. It will look down on the site from across the road. Click here to read Dr. King’s speech where the quote appears.

In case you haven’t heard about our ongoing efforts to repurpose the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ newly built memorial — including the Confederate flag — in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up, here’s the link to the story NowThis Politics published about our campaign a few years ago.

The memorial stands on Martin Luther King Dr. in a community where half the population is black and where there is a sordid and ongoing legacy of racial violence against black people that stretches back to Jim Crow and the Civil War.

We’ve had to put our protest plans on hold because of the health crisis in Southeast Texas. But we are just a few hundred dollars away from our $5,500 GoFundMe goal to raise our new billboard across from the memorial for the next six months — through MLK Day 2021.

The U.S. Marines and Navy have banned the display of the Confederate flag. NASCAR has banned it. And most recently, the U.S. Secretary of Defense has banned it from all U.S. military installations. Cities across the country are removing statues and monuments.

Even Mitch McConnell has said he didn’t “have any problem” with renaming [military] bases for “people who didn’t rebel against the country.” Isn’t that something?

Just this week, the U.S. House of Representatives cast an “overwhelming” and bipartisan vote to remove Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol.

Isn’t it time that black mothers and fathers should have the right to drive their children to school along MLK Dr., one of the city’s main arteries, without such an affront to their dignity?

Last month, after NASCAR banned the symbol of hate, the Sons of Confederate Veterans flew it over a race in Talladega, towing it with a plane.

They are racist cowards and it’s time for them to repurpose their site in Orange to reflect the community and community values — not their bizarre and puerile cosplay fantasies.

Please consider giving to or sharing our campaign. Every donation, no matter how small, makes a difference. Every click counts. We’re so close to our goal.

Thank you for your support and solidarity.

Wine shop workers are essential workers too. They need and deserve our support.

Above: Riccardo Guerrieri hands off a curbside delivery at Vinology in Houston.

Many Americans will scoff at the thought that wine shop workers are “essential” workers.

But they might also be surprised to learn that most states have designated liquor stores as essential businesses — and that includes wine shops.

In Houston where we live, like elsewhere in our nation, health officials have openly shared their reasoning behind the decision to allow the retail sale of alcohol during mandatory lockdown: “to avoid a spike in residents flooding hospitals with symptoms of alcohol withdrawal,” according to the Houston Chronicle, the city’s paper of record.

The move by cities, counties, and states across the country is part of a larger wave of legislators and administrators relaxing restrictions on alcohol sales during the ongoing pandemic.

In Texas, for example, our otherwise microcephalic governor has allowed restaurants to sell alcohol, including wine, directly to customers. Before the health crisis, this would have been unthinkable in a state with some of America’s most restrictive laws regulating the sale of alcohol (geared to appease the powerful wholesaler lobby, a classic case of Republican hypocrisy where all-American fair competition is stifled by government overreach).

So, yes, wine shop workers, just like the importers and distributors that supply the products they sell, are essential. They are also mothers, fathers, spouses, partners, and caretakers for the elderly and disabled, human beings with mortgages, rent, and health insurance premiums to pay and kids to feed.

And we can and should support them by patronizing the businesses where they are employed.

Since the pandemic and lockdowns began, our family has continued to buy wine regularly, although our budget is much tighter these days and our price ceiling has lowered significantly.

Because of disruptions in the supply chain, I’ve come to rely even more heavily on my local wine merchants for the selection we bring home.

At Vinology in Houston, for example, my friend Riccardo Guerrieri selects all the wines I purchase. I give him a price ceiling and general notes on what Tracie and I want to drink. And he’s done an incredible job of surprising and delighting us with his picks. Because he knows our palates so well, he’s also been finding us great deals on wines he knows we’ll like (he’s literally batting a thousand right now).

At the Houston Wine Merchant, on the other hand, another retailer I rely on for sourcing wine, the staff has been keeping the online inventory up-to-date with meticulous precision. This allows me to browse the “shelves” as if I were visiting the shop in person. And more importantly, when I can’t find the exact wine I want, the portal’s filters make it possible to narrow my searches. As a result, we’ve discovered producers we don’t commonly reach for.

One positive thing about the new normal in wine sales is that all of my favorite retailers are doing curbside delivery, thus ensuring my safety and their own.

Every time someone from Vinology or Houston Wine Merchant emerges from the shop and puts a case of wine in the back seat of my F150, I remember that they are front-line, essential workers. And they need and deserve our support.

You can also support wine retailers, wine-focused restaurateurs, wine distributors and importers by leaving a comment on the U.S. Trade Representative website expressing your concern that expanded and increased tariffs on European wines will have an outsized impact on small businesses in the U.S. at a time when they are already facing enormous challenges owed to the ongoing pandemic. Use the U.S. Wine Trade Alliance portal to streamline the process. The deadline for comment is July 26.

Why most Americans don’t care about wine tariffs.

Above: a European winemaker hosts a tasting of his wines in Colorado in late February, 2020.

“Tariff threats return,” read one of the wine retailer email newsletters that reached my inbox over the last week. “Our business could totally get blown up by a trade Death Star.”

“[My business partner] and I have spent 19 years building our business,” reported another, “and it could get wiped out in one blow. For better or worse, we’ve tied our love of European wine to the life of our shop. We have 25 employees, many with families; we pay their health insurance; we pay a boatload of taxes. [Our shop] is a micro business, but there are many thousands of employees and owners around the country who will be similarly affected — to say nothing of how this will impact our wine loving customers.”

Across the U.S., wine retailers are mobilizing their customer base and trade networks in an effort to raise awareness of how potentially increased and expanded tariffs on European wines could — literally — decimate their ranks.

Most of the roughly 20 or so similarly conative messages received over the past few weeks weeks point to a portal recently created by the U.S. Wine Trade Alliance (USWTA), an advocacy group formed by European wine-focused small businesses. It streamlines the process whereby the user, whether trade member or consumer, can comment on the U.S. Trade Representative site and express their concerns regarding the tariffs currently under consideration. The deadline for comment is July 26. The decision on whether or not to remove, expand, and/or increase the duties will be announced on August 12.

With so much energy being poured into this campaign by understandably qualmish wine merchants, it’s hard to imagine that the U.S. government won’t take note of the existential threat posed by the potential tariffs and their resulting dismay.

But tradesfolk in our country’s major cities often forget that they remain a minority in our nation.

I was reminded of this when I recently contacted the office of a top anti-tariff congressperson whose district lies just north of metropolitan Houston where I live. The area where he lives and dines (as I discovered) is one of greater Houston’s more affluent. But despite the extreme concentration of wealth in his neck of the woods (Houstonians will get the pun), there isn’t much in terms of haute cuisine in the community he represents beyond the quintessential high-end and highly predictable steak house franchises.

When I spoke to the owner and executive chef of the seemingly lone high-concept restaurant there (where, I learned, said representative frequently eats), the food professional told me that while he was aware of the tariff issue, it hasn’t affected his business at all.

How is that possible? I asked him.

His wine program does include a sizable allocation of expensive French wines. But those lots were purchased some time ago, he said, partly as an investment (a classic restaurant model). Like the guests he serves, he focuses primarily on top California wines.

And when he revealed his overarching approach to his restaurant group’s wine programs, the axiomatic delivery rolled off his palate so mellifluously that I can’t imagine it was his first time uttering the phrase.

“If it doesn’t have the grape name on the label,” he informed me, “they ain’t going to drink it.”

He was referring to pecunious Americans’ well-documented penchant and preference for “varietal wines,” bottlings sometimes even blended using different varieties but labeled with a single grape name, e.g., “Chardonnay,” “Merlot,” “Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir,” etc.

His aphorism rang true when I spoke to said representative’s office. The person on the other line seemed entirely unaware of the heightened interest in European wines that has taken shape in this country over the last two decades.

For the record, both the restaurateur and the government official with whom I spoke were exceedingly generous with their time and both were glad to lend a hand in connecting me with the persons I was trying to reach.

But the notion that the tariffs under consideration would disproportionately affect Americans without achieving the desired result was something that hadn’t previously or remotely crossed their minds.

Wine culture has grown enormously in the U.S. over the last 20 years or so. But for most Americans, it doesn’t really matter where that Pinot Grigio comes from. It might as well be from Australia or Texas, as long as the grape name is inscribed on the package.

Just think of how wine is sold in American airports (or should I say, try to remember the way wine used to be sold in airports). In these transport hubs, where Americans from all walks of life and of all stripes meet (however fleetingly), the sale of wine is primarily categorized, classified, and bartered using its designate ampelonym: what wines do you have by the glass? is commonly answered by Chard, Sauv Blanc, Cab, Syrah, Pinot, and Merlot.

Shortly before the pandemic redefined “living” in America, a European winemaker and I took a road trip that led us from Houston to Dallas to Tulsa to Boulder. We hosted well-attended wine tastings in each city we visited.

But what about all the places and people in between?

Until a majority of Americans dives into the nuanced and subtle differences between Nebbiolo from Langa and its varietal counterpart from upper Piedmont, the threat of wine tariffs will be as ephemeral to them as it is existential to us.

Please visit the USWTA portal and make your voice heard!

Parzen family COVID-19 update: isolated and vigilant as Houston sets new daily records for cases and deaths.

Tracie and I would like to share our heartfelt thanks with everyone who’s sent us messages to make sure that we are okay. She, Georgia, Lila Jane, and I are all healthy and safe, hunkered down in our southwest Houston home.

We only go out to exercise, take walks, and pickup groceries curbside. We are extremely fortunate to live in a residential neighborhood where it’s easy to social distance when we are outside. And both Tracie and I work from home.

Yesterday, we learned that another member of our extended family here in the Houston area has COVID-19. That makes three persons in our family who now have the virus. We are praying for their speedy recovery.

Houston continues to set daily records of numbers of contagions and deaths. There are reports, some of them verified by mainstream media, that refrigerated trailers have been brought in to serve as morgues at local hospitals.

Tragically, Texas governor Greg Abbot continues to refuse to allow our locally elected officials to order the two-week lockdown that they have proposed. At least one Houston-area county is now openly defying his mandatory mask order.

So many people in our community — and our country — are suffering and dying right now. All we can do is to continue to isolate and minimize our exposure as best as we can.

Please stay home if you can. Please wear a mask if you go out in public. Please continue to support those who have no choice but to work outside the home.

Thank you again for all the notes and messages. They mean a lot.

Letter to my daughters on my birthday.

Lila Jane and Georgia, thank you for my birthday wishes and a morning full of cards, hugs, and laughter! You two and your mother are the loves of my life!

Ever since you saw the animated movie “Hercules” a few weeks ago, you’ve been fascinated with Greek mythology. Inspired by all your questions about the gods of the ancient Greeks, your mother ordered us a National Geographic “ancient mythologies for children” book. When it arrived over the weekend, you literally couldn’t wait to dive in and learn more about the deities, demigods, and their stories.

At one point, you landed on the page that tells the story of Cronus, the leader of the Titans who swallowed his children. His story was accompanied by the famous painting by the late 18th-century Spanish artist Goya, “Saturn Devouring his Son” (Saturn is another name for Cronus.)

You were terrified! You were so scared by the gruesome image that I had to stay in your room that evening until both of you fell asleep. We agreed that we would talk about it in the morning and figure out why Cronus ate (!!!) his children.

The next morning we dusted off our dog-eared copy of the Dictionary of Classical Mythology and discovered that Cronus had actually swallowed his children whole (he didn’t rip them limb from limb as depicted in the painting). We also learned that all of them survived after the youngest, Zeus, vanquished his father.

What a relief! We were all glad to find that the story had a happy ending.

The world is such a scary place right now. In all of my 53 years, I have lived through some pretty frightening stuff but never anything like this. You, your mother, and I are all living through and navigating a time when none of us — not one of us — knows what to expect or what will happen next. But we are getting through it together.

The same way we used that book to shed light on the unknown, on something that made us scared, we are using knowledge and learning to guide our family ship across these uncharted waters.

You’ve both been extremely brave this year. And your mother and I are immensely proud of you for your grace. We’re also proud of you for empathy and the way you care for each other, your parents, and your friends.

When you finally fell asleep the other night, I remembered how scared I am — how scared we all are — right now. I know that I couldn’t make it through these troubled and troubling times if it weren’t for your love, for the light you cast into the world, for your music and for your laughter, for your tears, fears, and your hugs, hopes, and dreams.

Your mother and I have way too many blessings to count. But the greatest of those is you. I love you, we love you with all our hearts. Every birthday is a great one when we know that you are in and of this world.

“Any additional tariffs will basically put a nail in the coffin.” Act now to voice your concerns about European wine tariffs.

Image via Adobe Stock.

“Any additional tariffs will basically put a nail in the coffin,” said one of the nation’s top French wine buyers in a text late last week.

“I have known Americans who lost jobs as a direct result of tariffs,” he told me. “But [I] have yet to hear of any French wineries letting people go due to tariffs. [Because of] COVID yes, tariffs, no.”

As the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) considers new, expanded, and increased tariffs on European wines, U.S. wine importers, distributors, retailers and wine -focused restaurateurs face the prospect of even more layoffs. And if implemented, the new round of tariffs would come at a time when they are already under extreme strain due to the ongoing pandemic.

Last year, the USTR imposed 25 percent duties on French wine in response to the World Trade Organization ruling that the European Union had violated the terms of its agreement with the U.S. when it subsidized the production of the Airbus.

On August 12, the USTR will announce its decision to augment the current tariffs. These could include tariffs of up to 100 percent and they could be expanded to include Italian wines as well (currently, only wines from the Airbus partner countries are affected).

The 2019 tariffs (still in place) have already had a devastating effect on the U.S. wine trade.

They were intended to impact European wine growers. Whether or not they have achieved the desired outcome is debatable. But anecdotally it seems that they have caused minimal economic pain in European wine country.

The economic pain inflicted on U.S. small businesses, on the other hand, has been acute.

The U.S. Wine Trade Alliance (USWTA), a consortium of small business owners formed last year in response to the tariffs, argues that the USTR duties are more harmful to American small businesses than they are to European wine growers. And the harm they do is exacerbated and amplified by the fact that closures due to the current health crisis (with no end in sight) has practically decimated a generation of U.S. wine professionals.

The USTR is currently accepting public comments on potential new and expanded tariffs (see below). The deadline for comment is July 26.

See the of possible new, expanded, and increased tariffs here (Annex II).

You can find the USTR comment portal here.

Before you comment, please be sure to read the USWTA guidelines for commenting here.

Beyond adding a comment to the USTR portal, here are some of things you can do to support the USWTA campaign as we await the USTR decision:

– become a USWTA member here (by filling out the form, you will be added to the mailing list);
– follow the USWTA Instagram and Twitter and please join the Facebook group;
– share, retweet, and repost USWTA media, and encourage your employees, colleagues, and peers to do the same.

Alicia Lini joins me Thursday, July 16 for a virtual wine dinner at ROMA in Houston.

I’m thrilled to announce that Alicia Lini (above), one of my best friends in the wine business and producer of some of my favorite Lambruscos, will be joining me for a virtual wine dinner on Thursday, July 16 at ROMA here in Houston.

Alicia and I first met more than a decade ago while I was working in the wine trade in New York. The launch of her brand was my first major campaign as a media consultant and its success shaped my career for the decade to come.

A few years ago, Alicia asked me to give her hand promoting her brand again here in the U.S. and it’s been another immensely rewarding experience — especially because of our friendship.

Next Thursday, she’ll be joining me for an ongoing series of virtual wine dinners I’ve been leading for ROMA, where I’ve been running media for owner Shanon Scott for a few years now.

These events have taken on a truly magical feel: they are a world unto themselves, where everyone can cast away the worries, pressures, and stress of what’s happening around our families.

They sell out regularly and we have capped them at 25 couples and/or individuals so that everyone can be onscreen throughout.

Chef Angelo Cuppone and Shanon are working on the menu as I write this and I’ll share as soon we publish it on the restaurant’s website and social media.

Alicia and I have shared so many unforgettable moments over the course of our time working together. Here’s the story of how she and I ended up in a green room with Pattie Boyd, the woman who inspired some of the greatest love songs of all time.

Houston wine and food friends: please join us next Thursday for what is sure to be a great evening of Lambursco and classic Emilian cuisine (email or PM me if you want me to hold a spot for you).

Thank you for your support and solidarity. Tracie, the girls, and I are still hunkered down, healthy and safe in our house in southwest Houston. But our city and state continue to report record numbers of daily contagions and hospitalizations. And members of our extended family continue to battle the virus. COVID-19 is real. We are seeing it firsthand. Please where a mask when you go out and stay home if you can. Support those who have no other choice but to work outside their homes. G-d bless America. G-d bless us all.

Wine professionals: please follow the U.S. Wine Trade Alliance as we gear up to fight new tariffs!

Parzen family COVID-19 update: our nuclear family is healthy, safe, and isolated in Houston. Unfortunately, some of our extended family members are now ill and we are praying for their speedy recovery. Many of our friends in Southeast Texas have also been infected. But Tracie, the girls, and I are hunkered down at our house and we’re all healthy. Please keep all affected Americans in your thoughts and prayers. Please wear a mask and stay home if you can. Support those who have no other choice but to work outside the home.

Yesterday a Houston-based wine blogger had the great fortune to sit in on a Zoom call organized by the U.S. Wine Trade Alliance (USWTA). It was humbling to share the time and conversation with some of the greatest wine professionals active in our country today.

On the call, USWTA president Ben Aneff described the group’s efforts to lobby the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) on the issue of existing and potentially increased and expand tariffs on European wines.

Currently, the USTR is considering a new round of tariffs. And it is hosting a comment portal on its site where Americans can express their concerns about how current and new tariffs do and will affect their livelihoods.

Read about it in the USWTA newsletter here, including the timetable for comments and the decision-making process.

Ben and his team are currently working on a new online portal that will help guide wine trade members and consumers across the U.S. as they post their comments on the USTR site. Please stay tuned for that.

As Ben mentioned on the call, the U.S. wine trade wasn’t prepared for the first round of tariffs that were imposed last year. But the newly founded USWTA is now aggressively using all resources available to make the wine industry’s voices heard in Washington. And it needs all of our support.

As we wait for the new USWTA portal to come online, please:

– become a USWTA member here (by filling out the form, you will be added to the mailing list);
– read the USWTA guidelines for commenting on the USTR site (extremely important);
– please follow the USWTA Instagram and Twitter and please join the Facebook group;
– share, retweet, and repost USWTA media, and encourage your employees, colleagues, and peers to do the same.