Italy, here I come! Heading back to teach at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont.

The news is still sinking in.

It was just a few short weeks ago that it didn’t seem possible: quarantine requirements for vaccinated U.S. travelers have now been lifted and the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont has just booked my flights for three weeks of seminars beginning mid-July.

After nearly 18 months since my last trip to my spiritual homeland — the country, people, and places that have shaped my academic and professional careers — I’m finally going back to Italy!

That’s a photo (above) of the university’s main campus in the village of Pollenzo, the site of a castle and former farm once owned by the Italian royal family. There is also an excavated Roman arena and settlement there. It’s pretty cool to check out.

As I have for the last five years, except for 2020, I’ll be teaching wine and food communication to students in the graduate program there. The overarching theme of my seminars this year is going to be “organic vs. optimized content,” a conundrum that seems to flummox so many young people who are trying to carve their paths in wine and food media today.

We’ll also be doing case studies about the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements and their impact on food and wine writing (it’s incredible to think about all that’s happened over the last year and half!). We’ll also be doing an overview of wine and food writing history and we’ll take a look at how content creators became even more creative during the pandemic, making use of technology in unexpected and surprisingly useful ways that continue to affect how we talk about and perceive wine and food.

I hope to get to spend some time away from campus during my weekends. But I’ll be spending most of my time between Pollenzo where the teaching happens and the small, nearby city of Bra where I’ll be staying.

If you happen to be in Roero or Langa the last two weeks of July or the first week of August, please let me know and let’s taste! I’m super serious about that. There will be many servings of vitello tonnato that I need to share! Seriously, hit me up. That’s the vitello tonnato (below) at Local, Slow Food’s excellent shop and casual restaurant in downtown Bra.

Wish me luck, wish me speed!

Italy, my love, the alma mater that has nourished and inspired me for a lifetime, here I come… back.

The world’s first sommelier was a woman.

The goddess Hebe as portrayed by the 19th-century Franco-German painter Louis Fischer (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons). In paintings and sculptures from that era, she is often seen serving wine to her father Zeus, who appears in the form of an eagle.

Bacchus is the ancient figure that most point to when they speak of the “god of wine.”

But when we dig a little bit deeper, we find that the first deity associated with wine and — more significantly — wine service was Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera.

I was reminded of Hebe when I was browsing recently through the “Barbarous Odes” of Giosuè Carducci, the 19th-century Italian poet and first Italian Nobel laureate.

(The odes were written in Italian using ancient Greek meter. That’s why Carducci ironically called them “barbarous”: they would sound outlandish or “foreign” to the ancient Greeks if they could hear them. Prosody in Carducci was a focus during my graduate student years.)

In his ode “Ideale” (“Ideal”), Hebe and the ambrosia she pours are an allegory for the revival of classical learning of his time.

Inspired by the image of the proto-sommelier, who poured wine for the gods, I have translated the first four stanzas here.

Happy Friday and happy reading!

Oh Hebe, wrap me in the aroma of ambrosia flowing from your cup and make me drunk with the ancient knowledge! Renew me in your soft glow!


an excerpt

As the serene aroma of ambrosia
Wraps itself around me, flowing from your cup,
Oh Hebe, with the gait of a goddess,
You glide by smiling all the while.

Neither the shadow of time nor the icy
Cures are what I feel on my head. I feel,
Oh Hebe, the serene Hellenic
Life flow through my veins.

And the ruined days, fallen from the slope
Of the sorrowful time, have arisen anew.
Oh Hebe, they are yearnful to
Be renewed in your soft glow.

And the new years gladly pull
My face out of the fog.
Oh Hebe, your rising, trembling,
Ruby splendor greets them!

A southeast Texas wine list that needs to be on your radar at Davis St. in Houston.

Last Friday, Tracie and I had our first big night on the H-Town since our 10-year anniversary celebration in January 2020. We were joined by some of our best friends in Houston: a couple we have known through wine since before the lockdowns began and another couple to whom we’ve become close through the weekly virtual dinners I led during the lockdowns. It was an incredible experience to sit down finally with them over a proper meal. That’s something, I believe, a lot of us are experiencing these days.

Not only was it wonderful to connect with great friends, old and new, over a long, relaxed, and decadent dinner. But it was also fantastic to explore the incredible menu and amazing wine program at Davis St. at Hermann Park on the edge of Houston’s museum district (which, I recently learned, is only surpassed in scope and breadth by New York City’s — no joke).

Chef Mark Holley’s menu is focused on seafood and Gulf Coast cookery with contemporary flourishes. The materia prima alone would be worth the price of admission. But it’s his creative approach to haute Louisiana cuisine that really takes it over the top. That’s the Thai-style Gulf red snapper in the image above. Nothing short of phenomenal.

But the biggest and even happier discovery was the excellent wine program there. We started out with a selection from an ample offering of Champagnes, headed to Burgundy for some Bourgogne Blanc and then to Willamette for some richer-style but still judiciously restrained Chardonnay. But the real showstopper was a 2008 Sagrantino by Antonelli. I was so stoked to find that wine on the list and it wowed all of us. For the last wine (there were six of us, after all!), I asked wine director Kevin Jackson to choose for us. He soon reappeared with a bottle of Elio Altare Langhe Nebbiolo (2018, if I’m not mistaken, the brio had eclipsed the note taking by that point!). The pairing with our seafood mains was spot on — Nebbiolo and classic Louisiana cooking. We loved and highly recommend it.

This is Americana cooking at its best imho. Come out to visit us in Houston and I’ll make us a reservation… And wine people, you need to get Kevin Jackson and his wine program on your radar.

In other news…

I’m in Southern California this week, working and visiting a best friend who’s facing some major health challenges right now.

That’s a photo taken from the Las Flores Canyon vista point at Camp Pendleton yesterday.

Please say a prayer for my friend. They have a long road ahead. I know they’re going to make it. But it’s going to take all of our support for them to get there. They will. I know it, they will. But it’s not going to be easy.

Thanks for being here and thanks for the support and solidarity.

Happy Juneteenth! A holiday long observed in Houston and now federally recognized.

Image via congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s Twitter.

Happy Juneteenth!

It’s a wonderful feeling to know that our nation has made a long-overdue step in the right direction. Yesterday, President Biden signed S. 475 into law, “the ‘Juneteenth National Independence Day Act,’ which designates Juneteenth National Independence Day as a legal public holiday.”

While many of our fellow Americans are just becoming aware of Juneteenth for the first time, the holiday has been celebrated here in Houston for generations. It was in nearby Galveston that Juneteenth had its origins. Before the end of the 19th century, it was already being observed each year in Houston proper.

In her recently published collection of essays about Texas, On Juneteenth (Liveright, May 2021), Harvard Law School professor Annette Gordon-Reed recounts her memories of celebrating the holiday when she was growing up in segregated Conroe, a city about an hour north of where we live today.

Houston congresswomen Lizzie Fletcher (who represents the district where we live), left, and Sheila Jackson Lee, center, announced the Juneteenth National Independence Act on Juneteenth 2020 in Houston (image via Fletcher’s Facebook).

The bill was first introduced by Houston congresswoman and legacy civil rights activist Sheila Jackson Lee in February of this year. It was co-sponsored by Houston congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher, who represents the district where we live.

Fletcher was first elected to congress in 2018 in the blue wave that delivered the House to the Democrats. She was the first progressive to be elected in our district in a generation. Her seat was once held by George H.W. Bush back when Houston was still one of the most deeply segregated cities in the country.

Tracie and I will be celebrating by going out to dinner with good friends and taking the girls to some of the gatherings planned for tomorrow at the historic Emancipation Park (which also played a role in the early Juneteenth celebrations).

There couldn’t be a better day to be in Houston! Happy Juneteenth!

Dosaggio zero, pas dosé, brut nature: some of the wine world’s most misunderstood terms.

Above: the Montorfano (Mt. Orfano) vineyard where Arcari + Danesi grows Chardonnay for their Franciacorta Dosaggio Zero, a wine that they make using their “solo uva” (“just grapes”) method.

Despite the extreme quality, the immense value, and the uniqueness of the wines within the spectrum of sparkling viticulture, Franciacorta remains one of the fine wine world’s most misunderstood and improperly categorized wines.

Such malignment can be attributed in part, at least in my view, to how the wines have been marketed outside of Italy. In the 2010s, just as many young U.S. wine professionals were looking out for the soulful, family farmer-driven, and thoughtful wines of Italy’s new wave, the Franciacorta powers-that-be continued to pound the luxury/premium pavement. And pound they did until they pound their Franciacorta into the ground.

There is still a of confusion in the wine world about what the term dosaggio zero means.

That’s not to say that Franciacorta isn’t producing world-class wines: Ca’ del Bosco, Bellavista (and family), Ricci Curbastro, Barone Pizzini, and Monte Rosso among other iconic brands continue to ship great wines to North America. But young people can’t afford and have little interest in drinking them.

(I owe all of the above a thanks for the two years I served as the consortium ambassador in the U.S.)

That disconnect has been breached over the last decade or so by just a handful of small-scale producers who grow their own grapes and age their wines themselves.

One of those winemakers is Arcari + Danesi, led by my close friends Giovanni Arcari and Nico Danesi. Depending on the generosity of the vintage, they make about 22,000 bottles of their Franciacorta Dosaggio Zero each year.

The wine is produced using mostly Chardonnay grapes that they grow in their terraced vineyard atop Montorfano (Mt. Orfano), one of the highest growing sites in the appellation. The soils are compact and morainic in nature, meaning they are composed of small stones (about 10 centimeters wide, give or take) with a robust presence of iron.

Tracie, the girls, and I visited Giovanni and Nico’s vineyard in 2018. As Tracie would say, if I were a grape, I would want to grow there.

But they also add a small amount of Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) to this wine. Chardonnay is the hegemonic variety of Franciacorta and many producers have shied away from fickle Pinot Blanc, choosing instead to make 100 percent Chardonnay wines. But Giovanni and Nico still value the gentle aromatic character the grape imparts to the wine, giving it a “lift” (as the young sommeliers say) that many others lack.

The wine is a dosaggio zero, otherwise known in wine parlance as pas dosé or brut nature. Some believe that this designation means that no sweetener is added to the wine. What it really means is that no sweetener is added before bottling and that the total residual sugar in the bottled wine is less than 3 grams per liter. But even when no dosage (sweetener) is added at the end of vinification (a common practice in Champagne and beyond), a sweetener is still used. It’s essential to the process.

Like all producers of classic method (Champagne method) sparkling wine — from Champagne to Napa and beyond — Giovanni and Nico use a sweetener to provoke the wine’s second fermentation in bottle — the tirage (French) or tiraggio (Italian). (The classic recipe used in Champagne calls for 24 grams of sugar — yes, 24 grams! — per liter.) But unlike the overwhelming majority of classic method producers, they don’t use a sweetener made from cane or beet sugar. Instead, they use reserved grape must from the same vineyard where the Chardonnay is grown. In other words, when they harvest the fruit, they set aside and freeze some of the grape must (newly pressed juice) and freeze it until they are ready to provoke the wine’s second fermentation. They call their tirage protocol the “solo uva” or “just grapes” method.

I can’t wait to get back to Italy next month to teach in Piedmont at Slow Food U. But the first stop will be Mt. Orfano! That’s me and Lila Jane at Arcari + Danesi in 2018.

The winemakers believe that by using reserved grape must instead of refined cane or beet sugar, they can avoid the oxidative character that you find in wines from certain Champagne and Franciacorta houses. You know that wonderful “yeasty,” “brioche” aroma you get in Bollinger (our favorite Champagne, btw)? Giovanni and Nico will tell you that it’s created by the oxidated sugar in the wine.

I’ve done countless tastings with them where we compared their pre-solo uva method wines with their current style. And we’ve even added famous Champagne houses to the flights when comparing the wines. Over and over again, you get a freshness in the solo uva wines that you don’t find in traditional Champagne and other classic method wines.

That’s not to say that one is better than the other. I love them both and no one is taking away our beloved Bollinger! (I even once wrote and recorded a song about Bollinger.) But I do find myself more readily reaching for Arcari + Danesi wines when I’m sitting down to dinner. Bollinger is reserved especially for pairings with caviar, oysters, risotto alla parmigiana, and even potato chips — extra salty foods that work well with that style of wine. Arcari + Danesi is a wine we drink throughout dinner, including pairings with a wide variety of flavors and textures.

As an Algerian critical theorist once said, vive la différance!

Houstonians, if you want to taste this wine, it’s now on our wine list at Roma in Rice Village where I became the wine director earlier this month. And Californians, the wine is coming to my Do Bianchi wholesale/retail program next month. Hit me up! Thanks for checking it out.

Natural wine curious? Taste with Alice Feiring & me this Thursday (virtual event at Roma).

I couldn’t be more thrilled to share the news that Alice Feiring, the world’s leading advocate for and expert on natural wines, will be joining our weekly virtual wine dinner at Roma in Houston where I manage the wine program.

The cost is $119 per couple and sends you home with three bottles of wine and a vegetarian menu that outgoing chef Angelo Cuppone has created especially for the dinner. Click here for details and menu.

Alice started a bona fide revolution when she published her first book, The Battle for Wine and Love: How I Saved the World from Parkerization, in 2008. Since that time, she has published a number of titles devoted to natural wine, not to mention her many Times pieces — including her wonderful “Modern Love” columns — and bylines for leading mastheads like The World of Fine Wine and others.

Alice is also one of my best friends in the wine trade, a mentor and a role model for my own career. I’m super geeked to be hosting her for this event and there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be one to remember!

Houston wine people, I hope you can join for this one. Thanks for the support. From the natural wine curious to the natural wine veterans, this is one not to miss.

Dolomite sunrise, a prayer for a friend…

La Jolla, Tuesday, June 8, 2021.

How many sunsets have we watched together over that same horizon?
How many berakoth have we parsed before we reached 13?
How many gigs have we spun, you on skins, me on strings?
How many repasts in confraternity, how many 750s in convivium?
How many nights in Chandler’s America and Shakespeare’s Italy?
How many sunrises have we watched together over that same horizon?

Do you remember the 3 a.m. panino dunked in the Belluno périphérique?
Do you remember the 11 a.m. glass offered by the Alpini?
Do you remember the collation we shared in the Carson jail?
Do you remember the heifer we carved under the W-burg bridge?
Do you remember the Moscato d’Astis, the Brunellos, the grappas?
Do you remember the Dolomite sunrise we watched in Agordo?

From the edge of the sea to the foot of the mountain,
From the depths of desolation to the peak of our delight,
I remember them all — each and every one.  

“The allocation game is out of control.” Opinion by Brett Zimmerman, Boulder Burgundy Festival founder.

“The social challenges of the last 24 months have prompted many in the greater wine community to advocate for more inclusion and equity in our industry. But with prices like this, some purveyors of fine wine seem to be moving in exactly the opposite direction.”

Please read “the allocation game is out of control,” a post by my friend and client Brett Zimmerman.

The best Italian party last night at Eataly Dallas.

Above: My seminar yesterday on Pecorino Toscano at Eataly, Dallas. That’s the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce director, Alessia Paolicchi, left, addressing our group at the market and restaurant’s first in-person “Scuola” event since early 2020.

Nearly all shared my sentiment that we were attending a truly extraordinary event yesterday evening at Eataly in Dallas.

After a small group of food writers and enthusiasts joined a Prosciutto di Parma and Pecorino Toscano seminar in the venue’s first in-person “Scuola” (cooking school) event since the lockdowns began early last year, we all headed up stairs to Terra restaurant where we were joined by roughly 100 of the city’s leading Italian and Italophile citizens. It was a genuine who’s-who of the culinary community there, including Italian chefs, entrepreneurs, locally based writers and influencers, and food and wine trade members.

Chefs Alfio Longo and Andrea Rodella, both Dallas-based Italians, were joined by Terra’s executive chef Michael Lawson for what was surely the most sumptuous meal any of us had enjoyed in public for more than a year. They did a truly bang up job.

I have to give the warmest shout-out to the staff at Eataly Dallas for their professionalism, verve, and dedication in presenting a fantastic dinner for such a large group. I certainly wasn’t the only one who noted how remarkable it was to be at such a great event — with such a wonderful crowd — after such a long time.

And dulcis in fundo, as I was window shopping on the floor of the retail space, I ran into one of my ex-students from the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences grad program (I hope to be heading back there soon, btw). It was such a treat for me to catch up with him and learn that he’s thriving in the world of Italian food and wine.

I couldn’t have been more thrilled to be part of Eataly’s first in-person gatherings. And I couldn’t be more proud to have presented the seminar and dinner alongside some of our state’s top Italian food and wine-focused professionals. Great job, guys, all around!

Italian parliament poised to approve bill that would create an “Italian organic” brand and “organic districts.”

Above: over the last decade, organically branded food shops, like this ice cream shop and café, have flourished across Italy.

In late May, the Italian senate approved a sweeping bill that would create a new “Italian organic” brand, officially recognized “organic districts,” and sweeping subsidies for research, development, and monitoring of organic farming practices. The bill would also integrate the organic farming supply chain through government oversight.

The legislation, which is widely expected to be approved by the Italian chamber of deputies, was adopted with one vote in opposition and one abstention.

One point of contention was a brief and arguably vague line in the proposed legislation that would elevate the status of biodynamic agriculture, “putting it on a par with” organic agriculture.

Biodynamic farming’s embrace of spirituality and mysticism, say critics, including Italian senator for life Elena Cattaneo, who delivered an impassioned speech on the senate floor before the vote, make it a discipline not based on science.

Cattaneo, the only senator to vote against the legislation, lobbied unsuccessfully to amend the line about biodynamic agriculture. Her failed efforts were called a “resounding defeat” by the mainstream Italian media. In her address to her colleagues, Cattaneo, known for her groundbreaking work in stem cell research, called organic farming a “niche sector,” noting that it represents a small fraction of Italy’s farmland. She also pointed out that it would provide subsidies to fallow pastures where no food is produced.

The bill, she said, “offers no guarantee of greater health benefits or greater nutritional value” for Italian citizens.

In 2019, when the bill was first debated in the Italian parliament, Cattaneo called organic farming “a beautiful but impossible fairytale.” She and nearly 400 other Italian scientists signed an open letter to the Italian parliament in which they opposed the then nascent legislation.

“In order to justify pricing often double [that of conventionally farmed products],” she said at the time,

    we have been told that organic farming is the only way to save the world and help us to live longer and better. It’s an illusion. There is no scientific proof to confirm this. In fact, the opposite is true: analysis reveals that organic products are not qualitatively better and that large-scale organic farming is unsustainable inasmuch as it produces up to 50 percent less when it comes to top agricultural products. Large-scale organic farming would require twice as much land. In order to convert the world to organic farming, we would have to use hundreds of millions of hectares of currently fallow land, including forests and prairies.

Supporters of the bill see it as part of a wider EU initiative, known as “Farm to Fork,” to safeguard natural resources, to protect the environment, and to create a more robust organic farming supply chain across member states.

“We are extremely pleased that the senate has approved the bill,” said Maria Grazia Mammuccini, president of FedBio, a trade association that has lobbied aggressively for the creation of the “Italian organic” brand. “We have been waiting for this for more than 15 years. This much awaited legislation is finally moving forward.”