Count Alberto Tasca joins me for dinner at Roma in Houston this Thursday.

With no small amount of envy, I grabbed the above photo from the Tasca d’Almerita Facebook this morning.

After six months and counting cloistered at home, I have to concede that a little bit of Mediterranean would do a body (including my own) some good!

This Thursday, we’ll enjoy the flavors of the Mediterranean when we host Count Alberto Tasca at our weekly virtual wine dinner at Roma (one of my clients here in Houston).

Click here for the menu, wines, and reservation details.

Alberto and I had dinner last year when I was asked to present his and other leading Italian wineries at the Grandi Marchi tasting here.

I was keen to hear his thoughts on the positive and negative impacts of organic viticulture in Europe. And I found his insights into lutte raisonnée or lotta integrata (what we sometimes call integrated) farming practices as compelling as they were fascinating.

There’s an important different between “sustainable” and “integrated” farming. Technically speaking, “sustainable farming” doesn’t mean making a better product for the consumer. The term actually refers to making food and wine products that have less impact on the environment. The best way forward, in Alberto’s view, is somewhere in the middle between sustainable and organic (the core idea of integrated farming). I know it’s going to be an interesting conversation this Thursday.

If you’re in Houston and have never attended one of our weekly events, I highly recommend it: 3-course dinner for 2 including 3 bottles of wine for $119. It’s a pretty nifty deal. But more importantly, these events have become a wonderful escape for our guests and Tracie and me. We look forward to it each week. I hope you can join us. It’s become our moveable immobile feast.

Support local businesses (including my own) by eating great food, drinking great wine, and having dinner with a Sicilian count!

“Like a war zone.” Houston spared. Orange pummeled but no deaths. Lake Charles “worst hurricane ever.”

Tracie’s parents are safe but rattled after Hurricane Laura, a nearly category 5 storm, made landfall early this morning just east of where they sheltered in place in Orange, Texas on the Texas-Louisiana border.

My sister-in-law and her family and Tracie’s aunt and uncle all evacuated Orange County, Texas yesterday before the storm came. But my in-laws had to stay behind with Tracie’s 99-year-old grandmother.

I’m happy to report that everyone is safe this morning.

In her early-morning text to me, my mother-in-law wrote that “it’s like a war zone.”

Here in Houston, our city officials were still telling us to prepare for the worst as late as yesterday afternoon. But the storm continued to shift eastward. Remarkably, we didn’t even have rain here. As the television meteorologists say, we were on “the cleans side” of the hurricane.

Yesterday morning, news reports were projecting “unsurvivable storm surge” in Galveston about 50 miles south of where we live. But Hurricane Laura made landfall in Cameron, Louisiana, 32 miles southeast of where my in-laws live (roughly 130 miles from where we live).

On the news this morning, a middle-aged woman who had decided to ride out the storm in Lake Charles, Louisiana, said it was the “worst hurricane” she had ever experienced.

Hundreds of thousands of people are without power across the region this morning. It will take weeks before some of them have electricity again (many unfamiliar with hurricanes don’t realize that this is one of the most dangerous and life-threatening aspects of extreme weather events like this).

Texas governor Greg Abbott said this morning that no deaths have been reported in Texas. He ascribed the zero-fatality rate to the fact that the state provided hotel rooms to nearly everyone who had no place to go once evacuated.

We’re all feeling very fortunate this morning. We are praying for our sisters and brothers in southwest Louisiana just across the state line. They are going to need our help and support for weeks to come. Heartfelt thanks to everyone who called and wrote to check in on us. We have been extremely lucky. Had Laura made landfall here, a much more populated area, the devastation could have been a lot worse.

Hunkering down for Hurricane Laura. Parzen family update.

Above: the view from our front yard facing south toward the Gulf of Mexico where Hurricane Laura is currently a category 3 storm. The coast lies about 50 miles due south from where we live in southwest Houston.

At one point, it looked like Hurricane Laura (currently a category 3 event in the Gulf of Mexico) might make landfall in Galveston just south of Houston where we live. But over the last day or so the projections have moved it to the east.

That’s good news for our city. We’re expecting to have high winds and heavy rainfall typical of a tropical storm. Flash flooding is expected. But we’ll be outside the storm’s cone.

But it’s terrible news for my in-laws who live in Orange, Texas, right on the Louisiana border. At one point last night, landfall was projected to happen in Orange. The cone has moved slightly east but Orange is still in the storm’s cross hairs.

As of 8:50 a.m., Laura is expected to be a category 4 hurricane when it makes landfall along the Texas-Louisiana border around midnight tonight.

Traice’s parents, Jane and Randy, will be sheltering in place this evening at Tracie’s grandmother’s house. Tracie’s “memaw” is 99 years old and suffered a stroke earlier this year. She’s at home with 24-hour care but can’t travel.

We’ll be following the storm’s progress carefully and checking in regularly with family in Orange.

In the meantime, we’ve been hunkering down and securing everything in our yard (so that the wind doesn’t turn patio furniture and our daughter’s playscape etc. into “missiles”). We have plenty of water, food, and batteries. We even have a transistor radio and my truck and Tra’s minivan are all gassed up.

We’ll be praying for our family in Orange and all of our friends across southeast Texas. We’re expecting Houston to be hard hit as well but we’re particularly concerned about Orange.

Thanks to everyone who’s written and called to check in. The thoughts and wishes mean the world to us. We need them right now.

For updates on the storm, see the excellent Space City Weather blog.

A virtual dinner with one of my Italian wine heroes: Brian Larky, industry pioneer and apotheosis of all that’s great about the wine trade.

Please read “California Wildfires and the Wine Community – What You Need to Know,” Beck Hopkins’ post from last week. We are praying for all of our sisters and brothers in my home state.

And here in Houston, we are all holding our breath as we wait for Hurricane Laura to develop. See updates on the excellent Space City Weather blog. Hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

On Thursday, August 27, one of my all-time wine heroes, Brian Larky (above), will be joining me for the weekly virtual wine dinner that I host for Roma here in Houston.

Brian created a new model for Italian wine imports here in the U.S. when he launched his Napa-based company Dalla Terra three decades ago. Since that time, countless wines selected by him have become Italian wine standbys and favorites across our country.

On Thursday, he and I will be pouring and discussing three of those, including the Selvapiana Chianti Rufina, one of our family’s go-to red wines.

In many ways, Brian is the “Steve Jobs” of our industry. For many of the wineries he works with, he has created a “market” where previously there was none. Like Jobs, he introduced American wine lovers to wines they didn’t know they “needed.”

He’s also a winemaker (a Franciacorta alumnus with an enology degree from UC Davis), a brilliant speaker (we’ve presented seminars together in the past), a wonderful dinner companion (I speak from personal experience!), and the apotheosis of everything that’s good about the wine business.

I hope you can join us. Stay tuned for details. And feel free to email me if you’d like me to save you a spot.

As our daughters make their way through the pandemic summer, music is their balm.

Something really magical happened last Sunday at our house.

I was in our home studio, tracking vocals on a new song I was working on (below), when Georgia, age 8, asked if she could sit in on the session. I hooked her up with a pair of headphones and once I was done with my first take, she said, “hey, daddy, I hear a part in my brain. Can I try recording it?”

Next thing I knew, she was laying down her own vocals on the track. A part and arrangement that she came up with herself.

It may not seem like much. But those familiar with the recording arts will recognize what a big step that is in a young person’s evolution as a musician and performer. It was awesome. Check out the track below.

The pandemic summer has been tough on the girls. We and they recognize how fortunate we all are. Tracie and I both worked from home before the crisis took shape and even though I’ve lost a lot of my clients, we still have enough work to keep us afloat.

But the girls still pine for visits with their Texas grandparents, a cancelled trip to California to see their grandmother there, playdates with their friends and Texas cousins, summer afternoons spent at our community pool, Saturday mornings at the bagel place.

They feel their parents’ stress as we fret about money and wonder if even the slightest cough or sneeze is the first symptom of something potentially debilitating or deadly. They sense our sadness and worry as family members, friends, and colleagues have fallen ill with the virus.

It’s a lot for a newly turned 7-year-old and a soon-to-be 9-year-old to absorb.

Their resilience and their positive attitude have been an inspiration to Tracie and me. Their strength is the reason we don’t give up hope, especially on those sleepless nights when we wonder how we’re going to pay the bills, how we are going to guide them through remote learning and keep up with our own work this fall, how and even when we’re going to get to the other side of this national nightmare.

Throughout the pandemic, summer music has been their balm. A place and space where they can feel free to express themselves as they fill our home with sound and joy.

From their “pandemic flash mob street concerts” to their remote piano lessons and our jam sessions, they’ve been nothing less than amazing.

I created the slideshow below (set to the new song) so that we’ll remember these long hot Houston summer days — the pandemic summer.

Thanks for listening and letting us share our blessings.

Protest Song (We Will Survive)
by Parzen Family Singers

People are yelling and running around
Starting to look like a battleground
And I just heard there’s trouble in town
Someone just said they’re burning it down

It’s just another of life’s mysteries
All of this chaos and monstrosity

Don’t tell me we got nothing to lose
So we’re hitting the streets and the avenues
Marching to the beat of a different drum
While old white men are calling us scum

Protests politicians pandemic in addition
Lightning thunder hurricanes’ll put me under
Portland Washington New York Tommy Gun
Feels like the whole world’s coming undone

We’re still alive
We will survive
Into the eyes
Of the Storm

Maybe it’s one of life’s sad ironies
Some people call it the human disease

Leftists Marxists Communists are on your list
Racists fascists supremacists and man they’re pissed
Borders hoarders new world orders
Anarchists and pacifists and oh-my-lorders

Sometimes it’s feels like there’s no end in sight
Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s day or night

Black brown yellow red all the colors round your head
Man child running wild what was that I heard you said
White man has a plan to be born again
That’s why I am running from the ku klux klan

A new book from Montalcino is going to change the way you think of Brunello.

Grape grower, winemaker, and author Stefano Cinelli Colombini.

In 1550, another Tuscan writer made (art) history when he wrote The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.

Not only did Giorgio Vasari single-handedly invent “art history” with his book, but he also opened a window on to a previously cloistered world: the lives of the people who were changing the meaning of art and the way we, even today, perceive works of art and the role they play in culture and human experience.

It’s important to remember that artists and artisans were considered second-class citizens at the time. They served their aristocratic patrons. But with Vasari’s work, they came to vivid three-dimensional life on the page for the first time.

In many ways, Vasari also created (or at least opened the path for) the “celebrity artist” by giving us gossipy, juicy details about their personal histories and intrigues. The parallels with modern-day food and wine writing and the rise of celebrity chefs, celebrity sommeliers, and celebrity winemakers are myriad.

I’ve teased legacy Montalcino winemaker Stefano Cinelli Colombini that the title of his wonderful book Brunello, ritratti a memoria (Brunello, Portraits from Memory, Fattoria dei Barbi Edizioni, Montalcino, February, 2020) should have been The Lives of the Most Excellent Brunello Growers and Winemakers. Currently available in Italian (see link), it’s a roman d’aventure that brings to life the people who made Brunello di Montalcino what it is today.

I know that when Anglophone wine insiders pick up the translation I’m working on, they’ll skip directly to the handful of household and tableside names we know here in the U.S. But those who want something deeper than workaday hagiography will find that Brunello’s arc is a synecdoche for post-war Italy and the heroic women and men who built it and who came before it. I believe that even the most savvy among the Brunellisti will be surprised and thrilled by Stefano’s Melvillian pastiche of characters, their sacrifice, ingenuity, and achievement.

With acute clarity, Stefano’s work shows that the history of Montalcino is an epoch story of tragedy, resilience, and ultimate triumph.

My translation will be published by Fattoria dei Barbi Edizioni this fall. Stay tuned for previews.

Taste bradyseism (yes, bradyseism) with me and Alessio Inama this Thursday in Houston.

Image via the Inama Facebook.

One of the cool things about doing wine dinners in Houston, the world’s petroleum capital, is that there will always be an abundance of geologists among the guests. And these women and men LOVE to talk about rocks and soil!

This Thursday, I’ll be leading a virtual wine dinner with a bunch of rock-friendly folks and the current generation of one our favorite wineries, Inama. And so it’s only natural that geology will be part of the conversation. The event is hosted by my client Roma, a local go-to Italian.

Among the wines we’ll be pouring is the Inama “Bradisismo.” The word is akin to the English bradyseism, menaing a “slow vertical movements of the earth’s crust, caused by volcanic action” (Geological Nomenclature, ed. A.A.G. Schieferdecker, 1959). It comes from the Greek βραδύς meaning slow and σεισμός, movement.

The phenomenon causes volcanic material (like the mixture of basalt with limestone in the image above) to rise to the surface. And it’s part of what gives the wines of the Soave appellation their unique mineral character.

I feel a deep connection to Soave and its wines because of the many years I spent living, studying, and working in Italy’s Veneto region in the northeast (where the Soave, Gambellara, and Valpolicella appellations are located).

Tracie and I are particularly fond of the Inama white wines. But when we drink the reds (like the Bardisismo we’ll be pouring on Thursday), I am reminded of how Veneto is one of the greatest places on earth to grow grapes like Carménère, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. These are not wines that were created “especially” for the U.S. market, although many enjoy them here. They are expressions of Bordeaux grapes that been part of Veneto’s enogastronomic culture since the years following the Second World War when this war-ravaged part of the country was rebuilt and replanted.

I’m super stoked to “sit down” virtually with Alessio Inama (below) who will be joining us via Zoom. I hope you can join us, too, for what is sure to be a great evening of eating and drinking (and not having to drive home!).

Chef Angelo is even making a bacalà mantecà (baccalà mantecato, creamed salt cod), one of my all-time favorites to pair with the Soave and gnocchi di Malga, the classic Alpine dumplings, to pair with the Carménère. What could be better than that?

I can’t wait! Check out the restaurant’s site for menu (not up yet as of this post but it will be there soon).

As Italy shows us, retail is future for wine sales.

The Angolo Divino wine shop in Ruvo di Puglia. “I am Vinarius,” the Association of Italian Wine Shops, reads the sign they are holding.

Retail sales of wine in Italy grew by 20 percent in June 2020 with respect to the same month in 2019. In July, they grew by 40 percent compared with the same month in the previous year.

These data come via Vinarius, the Association of Italian Wine Shops.

This growth in sales, wrote in an email Francesco Bonfio, president of the Association of Italian Wine Shop Professionals (AEPI), comes on the heels of a 50 percent drop in March (following Italy’s national shelter-in-place order) and a 30 percent drop in April.

La Capannina Più, Capri.

Francesco (a close friend of mine) ascribed the growth to the fact that Italian wine shop owners have embraced new sales models, including online sales and delivery services. He also noted that wines sales in supermarkets and big box outlets saw an initial boom in the period immediately following the lock down. But this trend was followed by a drop in wine retail revenue as independent and chain wine shops adapted to the new needs of the market.

The numbers from June and July are also a reflection of new consumption trends, as Francesco noted in his email. People in Italy, he wrote, have a “sort of subliminal apprehension” about dining in restaurants. He didn’t have any hard data on the number of people dining out. But he has observed anecdotally that Italians who frequently went out to eat before the pandemic now have rediscovered the joy of eating at home with friends and family.

Enoteca l’Etichetta, Bastia Umbra (Umbria).

These figures and observations came to mind yesterday when I spoke to a top sales manager for a top U.S. importer specialized in Italian wine. She told me that her company is working closely with their Italian partners to re-package their wines in order to make them more retail friendly.

With so many restaurants closing or doing significantly less business in the U.S., she said, her company is being forced to pivot toward retail.

Enoteca de Candia, Bari.

I’ve spoken to a number of retailers here in Texas and across the U.S. who tell me that their sales are booming right now, especially those who have shifted to online sales. My observations are anecdotal, of course, but I’m convinced that retail is where the potential for future growth lies right now. And in order to be part of this new wave, importers, distributors, retailers and the Italian wineries they work with need to focus on streamlining, repositioning, repackaging, and even rebranding products to work within this new paradigm.

As I wrote last month, wine shop workers are essential workers. They and the winemakers whose wines they sell need to work together to create new win-win opportunities as the wine trade continues to navigate the uncharted waters — the nec plus ultra — of wines sales in the time of the pandemic.

Enoteca Collovà, Capo d’Orlando (Sicily).

Thanks for reading. And thank you to Vinarius, AEPI, and my dear friend Francesco Bonfio for providing the data and images.

In the time of the pandemic, the three-tier system needs to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Above: a wine shop in California, a state where wineries have the option to work within the three-tier system or without. As a result, Californians can drink whatever their hearts desire. Here in Texas, it’s a lot better than it used to be, but the three-tier system still controls what wines we have access to.

About a year or so after I moved to Texas and had made friends in the wine business here, I ran into a couple of top wine professionals at the Austin airport (Tracie and I were living in in the state’s capital at the time).

“Where you guys heading?” I asked them.

“San Francisco,” they answered.

“Oh, cool! What’s going on in SF?” I inquired.

“We’re going there to study for our exam,” they said.

Why on earth, I wondered, would they have to fly to California to taste wine when they could simply have the wines shipped here? It turns out they couldn’t.

Both were candidates for the Court of Sommeliers pin and the reason they were traveling to the west coast, they explained, was because some of the wines they needed to taste (Burgundian, if I remember correctly) simply weren’t available in their home state. Not only could they not find them in the Texas three-tier system, they couldn’t have them shipped here because of the state’s highly restrictive and exclusionary shipping laws — a sine qua non element of the three-tier system in the state.

Nonplussed by the fact that the Texas government was practically forbidding them from accessing wines they needed to taste in order to further their careers (and as result, forcing them to travel out of state), I began reading up on and writing about the history of the three-tier system in Texas, the wholesale lobby that essentially wrote the laws making it illegal to enjoy certain wines here, and the people who have aggressively supported the status quo.

Last week I sat down to talk about the relevance of the three-tier system with one of the most brilliant people I know in the wine trade, Ron Prashker, MBA and attorney, startup guru, and owner of the Salcheto winery in Tuscany. On a previous webinar that I moderated (on a new startup that will help small wineries work in the U.S. outside of the three-tier system), Ron had shared some compelling insights regarding the current system for wine shipping and sales in our country. I was eager to dig deeper and he graciously accepted my invitation to chat. We even tasted one of his delicious wines together.

I hope you’ll find our conversation as interesting as I did. Thanks for watching.

Italian sisters and brothers, you are my heroes! This is what a life in wine can be like in the time of the pandemic.

My good friend Flavio Geretto, a top Italian wine professional, post this photo yesterday with the following caption: “Lunch and Prosecco blind tasting with the export team before the summer holiday break. During this difficult year we never stopped… and our aim is to continue in the same way!!!!”

Dinner was over, the kitchen was clean, and our daughters were in bed last night when Tracie and I turned on some music and sat down on the coach to catch up on news and social media.

One of the first images that appeared in my feed was the one above: my good friend Flavio Geretto (second from right) with the export team at the Villa Sandi winery in Valdobbiadene (I do media consulting for Flavio).

I turned to show it to Tracie.

“That’s what life in wine could be like,” I said, “if our country had the leadership and moral fiber to fight the virus. Italians are my heroes.”

Through their sheer resilience and deep sense of civic duty, the Italians have shown the world how we can learn to live with COVID.

Here in Texas where we “live,” our infection rates are high, countless people are suffering, and many are dying, and yet our state leaders continue to tie the hands of our local government despite our mayor and crisis manager’s pleas to let them lock our city down. It’s so plain to see: the Italians were quick to lock down their country once the scope of the pandemic became clear; they banded together — apart — to stop COVID’s spread; they wore their masks and maintained social distance; and now, across Italy, a normal life has resumed.

It’s a life where people can work and socialize without fear, as in the photo above of Flavio with his colleagues.

What the Italians have down is nothing short of heroic.

I’ll never forget texting with one of my single friends in northern Italy at the height of the health crisis there. He was holed up alone in his condo in the country end and we were extremely worried about his physical and mental health. He had no contact with anyone — anyone at all, not even his parents or sister — for weeks on end. Today, he goes out to lunch and dinner, sees his friends, and regularly receives tasters at his winery.

Wine professionals in America could be doing the same if it weren’t for the shortsightedness of our leaders and our utter lack of civic responsibility. We could be doing the same if our worldview didn’t boil down to why should I wear a mask to protect your health, why should I change my lifestyle so that others don’t suffer, why should I care that members of my community are dying at an alarming rate?

Where Tracie and I live, there’s no end to the crisis in sight. We are among the fortunate who work at home and have the means to live a decent life even while sheltering in place. But our community — our country — will never get back on track until our citizens embrace a sense of belonging and selflessness in the place of the egoism and myopia that continue to paralyze us.

Italians, you are heroes! How I envy you! How I weep and long for my America!