Coat of many colors: myriad shades of natural wine in southern California.

Above: the excellent selection at Vino Carta in San Diego isn’t exclusively natural. It mingles the classic and iconic of European wine with the more crunchy stuff.

A trip to southern California has been a real stroll down memory lane.

It has made for remembrances not of a time before the time we live in now. But stretching back to the time when a native California and lapsed New Yorker headed back to their home state in search of a new beginning. The year was 2007 and Alice Feiring had yet to publish her watershed tome The Battle for Wine and Love: Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization.

Back then, “natural wine” was a locution bandied about jealously by just a handful of wine importers and distributors. It was still a club to which you were admitted or excluded. With no official or widely accepted definition, it was an ideal, a Platonic one at that, a world view, a loosely circumscript attitude object toward winemaking and wine consumption.

Above: the Wine Country in Long Beach recently added a “Natural Wine Center” and now has a natural wine-focused buyer.

Today, nearly a decade and a half later, natural wine is indelibly woven into the fabric of the southern California viticultural landscape. And it’s blessedly no longer ghettoized within the wine industry’s sometimes heartless hegemony.

Back in 2007 as the financial crisis loomed and the forever warriors soldiered onward, it would have been inconceivable to think that a place like Vino Carta could exist in the wine dessert once known as San Diego.

When a wine trade observer commented on the shop and wine bar’s novelty in a city where jammy oaky Zinfandel once drove the vinous discourse, owner Patrick Ballow nodded in agreement. It was a still bold move to open a natural-focused retail and by-the-glass program in San Diego in 2016. But today, as the city begins to open up again, Patrick’s business is vibrant and engaged with its community.

Above: Lou Amdur opened his groundbreaking Lou wine bar in Hollywood in 2005, long before the expression “natural wine” graced the lips of the proletariat. Today, his wine shop in Los Feliz is a hallowed outpost for the natural wine traveler.

Where Vino Carta bemingles its natural and classic wine selections, the Wine Country in Long Beach (an amazing store and deserving of our attention in so many important ways) now has its own “Natural Wine Center” and natural wine-focused buyer. Would we have been able to imagine such a conjugation in the now fuzzy and distant 2007?

Of course, no natural wine tour of southern California would be complete without at least a one-night stand (or better a three-dog night) at Lou, the southland’s earliest outpost of natural wine. Where else in the world can you walk up to a wine shop’s pandemic-era kiosk and be handsomely rewarded by a cornucopia of wines after asking for something white, oxidative, and perhaps macerated?

In the mind of said traveler, the exclusively natural Lou seemed to close the circle: an entirely natural selection, a co-mingled natural selection, and a sui generis natural selection.

A coat of many colors to warm a weary but newly heartened wine journeyperson on a cool and overcast day in otherwise sunny southern California.

Pete Wells gets the Tex but not the Mex. What the American intelligentsia gets wrong about Texans, our culture, and how and what we eat.

Even some of the most informed food writers don’t realize that what they call “fajitas,” the cornerstone of Tex-Mex cuisine, has its origins in Mexico’s discada cooking culture. That’s the carne asada plate, yesterday, at my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, Taqueria El Sole de Mexico #2.

“Tex-Mex is probably the least respected of America’s regional cuisines,” wrote venerated Times food and restaurant critic Pete Wells in the paper this week. “In part this is because, like some Texas politicians, it doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny once it leaves the state.”

His uninformed, puerile mockery reminded me of something one of my close California family members said to me contemptuously after I had moved to Texas to be with Tracie.

“How can you live there,” they asked, “with all those awful people?”

I wonder how many Texan politicians Mr. Wells or my relative can name beyond Ted C. Maybe Ken P.? Beto, of course. But without resorting to a Google search, can they name one Black politician from Texas? Beyond Ted C. and maybe Julian C., do they know the name of any other Brown Texas politician?

And that’s what Wells and my relative all get wrong about Texans and our culture.

(In all fairness to Mr. Wells, he has famously, although perhaps disingenuously, written that he “likes” Texans.)

No English is spoke at my favorite Tex-Mex place, where “fajitas” are the number-one menu entry. You can also order a burrito smothered in queso. It’s as Tex-Mex as you can get.

I would have never said this to my relative (and luckily neither they nor their spouse read my blog!) but I would have liked to ask them: beyond all the “awful” White people you think you know from Texas, what about the Brown and Black people? Are they awful, too?

And that’s where the American intelligentsia gets it dead wrong.

Yes, there are a lot of “awful” White people in Texas who have disenfranchised Black and Brown people for generations. And those same awful White people continue to suppress the voice of Black and Brown people at the voting box and they continue — less successfully in recent years — to segregate Texans. But that’s because those awful White people are still in power, as anyone who reads the Times surely knows.

And here’s where the Tex-Mex analogy comes into play. The only Tex-Mex that Wells knows is the “White Tex-Mex” of big box players like Chuy’s and Pappasitos and the faux Tex-Mex that New Yorkers eat. He gets the Tex but he doesn’t get the Mex.

Tex-Mex didn’t originate in European cookery. It’s actually Brown-people cuisine that has been contaminated by White gastronomic traditions.

Case in point: fajitas.

Even Wells will agree that the griddle-fired, intensely seasoned meats are the cornerstone of Tex-Mex cuisine. And he shouldn’t be surprised to learn that their origin lies in the discada cooking of the Mexican — not Texan — countryside.

Earlier this month, I interviewed Chef Luis Jiménez de S. whose cloud kitchen brand Bell Pepper Fajitas is debuting in Houston in a few weeks (I was writing a press release for his PR firm). His group is based in Del Rio on the Tex-Mex border. But Chef Luis had joined our call from Mexico where he lives and cooks — you guessed it — Tex-Mex!

We spoke at length about the origins of Tex-Mex and how it is a reflection of classic Mexican cuisine. He was keen to talk about its farming-community and family-friendly character, two elements that inform his menus for Bell Pepper Fajitas and his other immensely popular concept, Amacate.

I remembered our conversation as I dug into my carne asada yesterday at Taqueria El Sol de Mexico #2, which is located in a Tex-Mex row in a Spanish-speaking Houston neighborhood not far from our house. There are roughly 20 similar restaurants along a mile-long stretch of road. I haven’t visited them all but based on my past experiences, fajitas and queso — another pillar of the Tex-Mex canon — are on the menu at most of them.

I took a look around. There were no Texas politicians there (I know where Ted C. eats in Houston btw but that’s another story for another time). There were no awful White people there either. There were no White people there at all.

Just a bunch of Texans enjoying lunch on a beautiful spring day in Houston, the ranchera music blasting away.

Do Bianchi Natural Italian wholesale and retail launches in California.

Above: Fabrizio Iuli’s wines are the centerpiece of the new book I’m repping in California.

Tracie and I couldn’t be more thrilled to announce our newest venture: Do Bianchi Natural Italian wholesale and retail wine sales in my home state of California.

The idea for the new business was actually born many moons ago.

After I became an adjunct instructor at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Roero, Piedmont in 2016, I began making a yearly pilgrimage to the Iuli farm in nearby Monferrato. Years earlier in New York, our mutual friend (and one of my best friends) Franciacorta winemaker Giovanni Arcari had introduced me to Summer Wolff, Fabrizio Iuli’s life and business partner. And so it was only natural that I would occasionally find myself at their dinner table.

To call it a mere “dinner table” is a misnomer: their home is more like a between-the-wars salon where Italian winemakers and intellectuals gather for passionate confabulationes and tastings.

Above: I received my first pallet of wine from Hootananny a few weeks ago at my warehouse in California.

Last year, while we were all locked down on both sides of the Atlantic, Summer reached out to me and asked me if I’d like to represent her new Connecticut-based importing company Hootananny in California.

Not only did I grow up and go to school there. I also ran a wine program in Los Angeles for eight years. And before 2020, I spent three years working as a senior editor for the Slow Wine guide to California. We agreed it was an organic (excuse the pun) fit.

But more than anything else, it just felt “right.” I have always loved Fabrizio’s wines and the whole spirit and ethos that surround their farm and their way of life.

Above: La Jolla, California where I grew up. It’s been great to spend more time there with my family and friends.

Of course, Iuli is just one of the farms in Summer’s superb book. You can browse her entire portfolio here.

Other personal highlights include Arcari + Danesi (my friend Giovanni and Nico’s winery in Franciacorta), Le Due Terre in Friuli (an icon), Aurora in the Marches (a favorite of mine), Vignale di Cecilia (by my friend Paolo Brunello, an Euganean estate you need to know), and many other family-run farms that align with the natural wine movement. And there’s more to come.

Currently, I don’t have a ton of wine available in California but I am doing tasting appointments and dropping off samples next week in San Diego and Los Angeles. In May, I’ll be visiting the Bay Area and northern California wine country.

Please feel free to reach out if you’d like to taste with me or receive samples. And in a few months, I’ll begin doing retail offerings as well (similar to my wine club from many years ago).

Above: my new logo! “Do Bianchi” (pronounced DOH BEE’AHN-kee) means “two white wines” in Venetian dialect. I used it as a pseudonym many years ago, inspired by the legend that Mark Twain’s name meant “two whiskeys.” If you walk into a tavern in Venice (or nearly anywhere in Veneto) and ask for “do bianchi,” the barkeep will pour you two glasses of white wine.

Thanks for your support and solidarity. The new project is not the only big news from the Parzen family this season and it’s not the only way we are supporting our family. After nearly 10 years as a stay-at-home mom who ran a custom cookie business from our home and sold skincare products, Tracie (left, in her official photo!) is now back to work full-time as a realtor. She’s working for one of Houston’s old line firms, Greenwood King (see her page on their site here). She’s already made a big sale and has her first listing after just a month. It’s fantastic and she is amazing. Moving to Houston? Tracie’s the realtor you need to know! And I have some more super big news that I won’t be able to share until early June. It’s Houston-centric and I know it’s going to be really exciting. Stay tuned and thanks for being here.

The once and future king of Brunello: Gianni Maccari.

Look at the color of Gianni Maccari’s Brunello. That’s the hue of classic Sangiovese.

When my client Ethica Wines sent me to Italy a year ago in January, their Brunello producer Ridolfi wasn’t even on my radar.

Montalcino is where I first became interested in wine (while I was a grad student in Italy in the late 80s) thanks to one of the town’s leading sommeliers at the time. It’s the appellation I know possibly better than any other because of my extended time on the ground there and my work for some of the DOCG’s top players. But I had never even heard of newcomer Ridolfi when I saw the estate on my itinerary.

After the mandatory tour of the estate’s onsite vineyards and the winemaking facility, I finally got to sit down with winemaker Gianni Maccari and taste through his first vintages for the winery (which is owned by Giuseppe Peretti, an Italian entrepreneur who bought the estate in 2011).

Honestly — and this was a lacuna — I didn’t know that Gianni had quietly made some of Brunello’s most coveted wines from the 1990s. I don’t want to name the winery here (because it’s not my place to name names) but if you worked in the New York/Italian wine industry in the early 2000s like I did, there was one Brunello, and a very famous 1994 Brunello that was reclassified as a Rosso di Montalcino, that everyone was talking about. And I mean everyone. That winery’s 2001 Brunello would go on to be one of the appellation’s most collected wines of all time.

Little did I know that Gianni had been responsible for the day-to-day winemaking for those bottlings.

I was also unaware that Gianni had also been one of the last disciples of Giulio Gambelli, the humble but widely celebrated blender of Sangiovese who had a hand in some of Tuscany’s greatest wines of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

“Giulio tastes what others do not,” said one of Brunello’s most famous growers when Gambelli passed in 2012. “There’s no one like him.”

(Google “Giulio Gambelli” and you’ll see what an impact he had on Italian wine over the years.)

As I tasted the wines with him, I had no idea of Gianni’s connection to Gambelli and his own legacy as one of Montalcino’s most deft hands. I just knew that I was sitting with the winemaker for one of my client’s estates.

But Gianni didn’t have to say much: his wines spoke for themselves.

I was completely floored with how good these wines were. Across the board, they delivered classic Sangiovese color (always first and telling indication of the Brunello producer’s approach); great acidity and freshness that countered the wine’s powerful tannin; a lithe and nimble character that gave the wines lift in harmony with the rich body; and brilliant clarity of fruit, perhaps reluctant at this early moment in the wines’ evolution but surely destined for greatness.

But the most important element — the thing that makes these truly great expressions of Montalcino Sangiovese in my view — was the notes of sottobosco or underbrush/vegetation. Those flavors, which evoke the Montalcino countryside with its mix of woods and vine, are the hallmark of Brunello greatness. They shouldn’t eclipse the wine’s fruit, savory flavors, or minerality. But if ever there were an example of terroir in wine, this is one: in my experience, it’s what makes Brunello Sangiovese so unique and compelling.

If it’s not already abundantly apparent, I’ve been obsessed with the wines since I first tasted them over a year ago in Montalcino (on my last trip to Italy). So you can imagine my joy when I received a bottle in an Ethica Wines care package.

After letting the wine rest for a week, we opened the bottle with some collector friends on Sunday. It was wonderful to watch our friend Bill marvel at the color of this wine — the true color of Sangiovese! He was also surprised by its buoyant character. It was so different from what he was expecting, he said.

This is one of the true Brunello greats, I told him, by the once and future king of Montalcino: Gianni Maccari.

Italian wine world mourns loss of Barolo pioneer Pio Boffa.

Image via the Pio Cesare Instagram.

This week, the world of Italian wine mourns the loss of Pio Boffa (above), the fourth generation to lead the historic Pio Cesare winery in Langa, producer of top Barolo and Chardonnay.

See Robert Camuto excellent obituary for Wine Spectator, “Pio Boffa, Piedmont Wine Patriarch, Dies of COVID-19.”

See also this wonderful tribute by wine writer Monica Larner.

“It takes a great man to show support for a next generation of enthusiasts,” she wrote. “He was one of those men. He will be missed.”

“For roughly four decades, he was a central figure of Italian wine,” wrote the editors of Gambero Rosso. “He wrote some of the most important pages of its history.”

Together with a small group of determined Langa winemakers, Pio was among the first to travel extensively in the U.S. as he sold his labels and educated trade members and consumers about Nebbiolo and the wines of Piedmont. Today, Barolo is widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest wines. Back in the 1980s and 90s when he started coming to the U.S., it was a total unknown in most fine wine circles. He helped to change that by visiting not just New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. A visionary for what Barolo could become in this country, he also made a point of visiting then secondary markets like Texas, for example.

His uncanny sense of the U.S. fine wine scene also led him to offer some of his wines at prices that made then even more appealing to restaurateurs — the exact opposite of what some of his peers did. If Barolo is widely known and consumed in the U.S. today, it is in great part thanks to his Herculean efforts combined with his larger-than-life personality.

I had the great fortune to interact with Pio on a number of occasions when I was writing for his then U.S. importer. Even though our conversations were supposed to be “all business” (he was a very busy man, after all), his flair and verve in speaking about his wines were as thrilling as the wines themselves. I always came away from our talks and tastings feeling like my Barolo knowledge had been exponentially expanded. I most recently tasted his wines when I presented the winery together with his daughter Federica at the Grandi Marchi tasting in Houston in 2018. A great family of great wine professionals.

Barolo has lost one of its guiding lights. He will be sorely missed.

Sit tibi terra levis Pie.

Varying reports and striking images from last week’s spring freeze in Italy.

Above: Tenuta di Trinoro burns bucket-sized candles in its vineyards to mitigate frost damage after last week’s spring freeze. Images like this have been common in France over the last decade. They are becoming more common in Italy (image by @enea_barbieri_photo).

Inboxes teemed this morning with press releases from Italian wine-focused PR firms and growers consortia. Each had a different take on the impact of last week’s late spring freeze.

At the time of the extreme weather event, budding had begun across most of Italy. When frost occurs at this delicate stage in the vine’s cycle, it can arrest the plant’s fruit production. If the buds freeze, they won’t appear again until the following year. In some cases, growers lost up to 70 percent of their crop.

The Thurner firm in Florence, one of the country’s premier agencies, issued these stunning photos (above and below) from the Trinoro estate in Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia.

They show the bucket-sized candles that vineyard workers traditionally use to warm the plants during extreme cold. Images like these from France have not been uncommon in recent years. For northern and central Italian growers, on the other hand, the now more frequent occurrence of spring frost and efforts to mitigate the impact mark the second time in the last four years that they have had to face nature’s heartless caprice. The last late spring freeze came for them in 2017.

The Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani (the Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba, Langhe, and Dogliani growers association) took a different tack in their dispatch.

“Overall,” wrote the authors of their release, “it appears this early spring frost only affected a few vineyards and did not impact the whole production area — contrarily to what occurred in 2017, when late April frost affected more areas at all altitudes. After a first inspection, we do not believe the vintage will suffer from significant production drop due to recent freezing temperatures.”

They also point out that late-ripening (and late-budding) grape varieties like Nebbiolo were less affected by the extreme weather.

While northern Italian growers have remained mostly silent or have taken a euphemistic approach to the fallout (as above), Tuscan winemakers are reporting significant losses.

The Brunello di Montalcino consortium was among the first last week to issue a statement about the damage and efforts to contain it.

And earlier this week, the Col d’Orcia winery in Montalcino reported in a Facebook post that “budding was advanced” at the time of the frost. As a result, “the damage was extensive.”

All of this comes as nearly all of Italy remains in lockdown. With restaurants shuttered and wine tourism on hold, many wineries — especially small family-owned estates — are struggling to stay afloat. The recent extreme weather event is yet another challenge they must face.

A couple of wonderful new releases from Los Pilares in San Diego: skin-contact Falanghina and Assyrtiko co-ferment.

You can take the grape out of Italy but you can’t take Italy out of the grape.

The chiasmus flowed through my mind when Eric Van Drunen and Michael Christian poured me the first of their latest releases from the Los Pilares winery in San Diego, California last week.

The wonderful Los Pilares skin-contact Falanghina from their 2020 harvest — one of their best to date, they said — had all the hallmarks of great Falanghina: freshness, good acidity, and classic notes of citrus and minerality. On-the-skins fermentation gave the wine a creamy texture that made me crave for some grilled fish tacos (mahi mahi, if you don’t mind). But the thing that really impressed me was how clean and focused this wine was.

The fruit for this wine, like all their labels, comes from San Diego-county grown grapes, including vines on tribal lands. It was barely 13 years ago when people would still sneer when the seemingly oxymoronic expression “San Diego wine” was uttered. Eric and Michael seem to have put that old chestnut into the roaster for once and for all, as the metaphorizing goes.

The other wine that had my tongue on its toes was this excellent Assyrtiko-Mission-Barbera co-ferment.

Los Pilares grower Coleman Cooney has been experimenting with new grape varieties for years now and this is definitely one of his best efforts imho.

The Mission, a California native that has been deservedly getting more and more attention in recent years (thank you, Bryan Harrington), seemed to give this wine the “lift” that young sommeliers look for these days. But it was the Santorini grape that imparted the rich saltiness in this wine. Eric and Michael served it cellar temperature: it was one of the moreish wines that you just can’t put down. Vibrant fruit, nice acidity, and best of all, fresh and extremely clean on the nose.

Both wines were 1,000 percent winners on my palate and in my book (sorry for the mixed metaphorizing).

It seem like only yesterday (the now prehistoric 2016 to be exact) that snootiness was still required when discussing the wines produced in “America’s finest city.”

Does anyone remember wine professional Allison Levine writing about a Los Pilares wine for the Napa Valley Register?

“I was told it was from San Diego,” she reported. “Yes, you heard me correctly — San Diego, the beach city at the bottom of California.”

In all fairness to Allison (and beach/bottom alliteration aside), she liked the wine, even though she relegated it to the dust bin of “natural wine,” always a non-starter for the Napa set. But her note still oozes with the disdain that northern Californian natives feel for their southern counterparts (sorry for the Google alert, Allison!).

I grew up in that “beach city at the bottom of California” and it was great to be back and taste some of my county’s most recent viticultural efforts. As the allegorizing goes, BOTTOMS UP!

“Frost even in Sardinia.” Reports of widespread damage as Italian winemakers assess impact from spring freeze.

Above and below: frost-damaged vines in Piedmont, Italy. Photos via Vinarius, the Italian Association of Wine Retailers.

“Even in Sardinia — just think of that! — even in Sardinia they had frost damage,” wrote president of the Italian Association of Wine Retailers Andrea Terraneo in a WhatsApp message yesterday.

As Italian wine grape growers assess the damage from last week’s late spring freeze, when temperatures from Tuscany northward dipped below 20° F., the prospects of a bountiful 2021 harvest grow even more dim.

See, for example, this Facebook album posted by Cantina Berritta in Dorgali, Sardinia where the winemaker reports that up to 70 percent of their grape crop was destroyed by the extreme cold.

Trentino-Alto Adige was the only northern Italian regions that seemed to have avoided widespread frost damage, he said.

“They are telling me that because budding was a little bit behind” with respect to other regions, he wrote, “only a few buds were frozen. But in warmer regions, where the vines had already begun to bud, the frost left its mark.”

In a heartfelt Facebook post addressed to winemakers, Andrea wrote that “it’s going to be up to retailers to explain to consumers just how challenging your work is.” He added: “if frost damage forces you to raise your prices, rest assured that we will be there to explain why to our customers.”

Late spring freeze adds to Italian winemakers’ woes.

Above: a farm in Montalcino burns hay to protect vineyards during a late spring freeze this week across central and northern Italy (image via the Brunello di Montalcino Consortium Facebook).

According to a widely disseminated blog post by the Brunello di Montalcino Consortium, temperatures in the appellation have dropped to nearly 15° F. this week. In order to protect their vineyards from frost damage, many growers have been burning hay to warm the vines (as in the photo above, published this week by the consortium).

This late spring freeze comes at a delicate time for winemakers across central Italy as well as the northern regions, where there have also been widespread reports of damage. Once the plants have begun to bud, an extreme freeze can arrest formation of the clusters.

According to mainstream media reports, this year’s freeze is the latest in a string of three consecutive vegetative cycles that have been affected by frost damage. But the latest extreme weather event appears to be the worst.

The freeze couldn’t have come at a worse time for winemakers. Nearly all of Italy is still on complete lockdown and restaurants and cafés remained closed except for take-away orders. To give you a sense of the restrictions for private citizens living in small towns, most are not allowed to travel beyond a five-kilometer radius from their homes. (Earlier this week, restaurateurs in Rome clashed with police as they protested the continued restrictions.)

“In the middle of the night,” wrote the editors of the Brunello Consortium’s social media, “producers banded together in an effort to keep the temperatures from dipping too low in the vineyards. This is an important period [for grape growing] because the vines are at the beginning of their vegetative [productive] phase.”