Hurricane Ida relief resources.

Relief Gang is at the top of everyone’s list of locally based Hurricane Ida relief resources (image via the Houston Chronicle).

“Hurricane Ida, one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the U.S.,” wrote the editors of the Houston Chronicle yesterday,

    barreled through Louisiana on Sunday, sixteen years to the day that Katrina hit in 2005. Ida brought 150 mph winds — even stronger than Katrina’s — and storm surges as high as 16 feet. More than 1 million homes and businesses lost power. Two people had been confirmed dead Monday evening, though authorities expect that number to grow.
    Louisiana was already reeling from Hurricane Laura last year, a reminder that, in addition to our shared culture, food, music and affinity for football, Texas and Louisiana are united by cursed geography. We are bonded by the deep anxiety that comes with living in this Gulf Coast cauldron where Mother Nature ladles out hurricanes like boiling bowls of gumbo.

Click here for the Chronicle list of locally based Hurricane Ida relief resources. When you give to one of these organizations, your donation is converted swiftly into items that people need right away — water, food, bedding, hygiene products, etc.

Early images from Italy’s vintage 2021. Chardonnay harvest in Franciacorta.

These images arrived last night from Franciacorta where my friends began harvesting Chardonnay grapes for the production of classic method sparkling wines on Saturday.

Those are grapes from the Arcari + Danesi flagship vineyard on Montorfano (Mount Orfano) in the southern part of the appellation. Photos by Arianna Vianelli, the winery’s media manager.

Grapes for sparkling wine, like those in the photos above and below, are generally the first to be picked in any given harvest. Arcari + Danesi is actually one of the latest to pick in their appellation because they like to go for a more ripe style than many of their neighbors.

Yields are going to be reduced this year because of the many intense weather events that took shape between the spring and through the summer. But the quality of fruit, says my bromance Giovanni Arcari, is promising. He and his business partner Nico, Franciacorta’s golden hand, plan to make less but high-quality wine nonetheless in this challenging vintage.

If you’re interested in tasting Giovanni and Nico’s wines, I’ll be pouring the 2016 Franciacorta Dosaggio Zero next week in Southern California and the following week in Northern California. It’s just one of the wines that’s part of my 2Bianchi.com wholesale portfolio. Seriously hit me up if you’d like to taste. I also need restaurant recommendations!

We also have the 2015 Dosaggio Zero on my list at Roma restaurant here in Houston. It’s made from the same vineyard in the photos.

I’ll be pouring at the restaurant tomorrow evening here in Texas for our Tuesday night FREE tasting. And then I’ll also be moderating our weekly virtual wine dinner, this week on Wednesday, not our usual Thursday.

On Thursday we’re hosting our first in-person dinner with a winemaker from Brunello. It’s sold out but let me know if you’d like to be added to the wait list.

Wishing a buona vendemmia to all our friends and colleagues in Italy. It’s been a rough year for them, on too many levels. But harvest is always a time for hope and for better things to come!

Avocados, once a darling of Italy’s foodie scene, now stigmatized. And not for the reason you may suspect.

aguacateTraveling to Italy after a more than 18-month hiatus was like a trip to the future. Even though you could follow news and trends through social and mainstream media from afar, there were bound to be evolving mores that even the eagle-eyed Italophile would miss.

And by mores, I don’t just mean the normative conventions and attitudes embodying the fundamental moral values of a particular society (Oxford English Dictionary). I also intend the behavioral and physiological (as opposed to morphological) characteristics of a group… of the same kind living in a particular habitat. (Also via the OED. The former is the more common locution.)

Looking back through my travelog entries, the first mention of tasting avocado in Europe took shape not in Italy but in Greece. The island of Santorini in 2011, to be exact, 10 years ago. It was at a beach resort where chilled shredded crab was served atop a creamy dollop of avocado fruit that had been redistributed in the fruit’s exocarp.

In the years that followed, the avocado would begin to make intermittent appearances in my gastronomic expeditions, usually as an exotic fruit served in a savory context. Those fruits came mostly from Israel. And even though many of my Italian friends and colleagues had come to know the culinary pleasures of the aguacate through their travels in the Americas, they generally had not yet gained complete facility in the art of ripening the mesocarp.

But by late 2018, the avocado seemed to have firmly established itself in the Italian canon coquinario.

I’ll never forget sitting down to lunch at a Michelin-style restaurant on Lake Garda, the guest of a top Garda winemaker, and being served a salmon tartare arranged on a bed of perfectly ripened and diced avocado.

“Do you like avocado?” asked said winemaker entirely clueless to the fact that I grew up in Southern California where avocados literally grow in your backyard and where the assemblage of Mexican and California nouvelle cuisines could hardly exist with out its sine qua non love for the fruit.

It struck me that she was convinced (although not the brightest tool in the shed) that she was turning me on to something I probably had never tasted.

But by the time I finally got back to Italy in July 2021, after an absence of more than a year and half, avocados had all but been banned from the Italian überhipster foodie’s diet. Surprised by this lacuna, I asked my Italian friends where the once ubiquitous ahuacatl had absconded.

Indignant at the query, they answered by questioning my devotion to environmental causes. Didn’t I care about the deforestation of the Amazon? Didn’t I care about the planet? They wouldn’t be caught dead eating an avocado, they told me.

A little bit of digging led to my discovery of a series of articles that appeared toward the end of 2020.

“Do you know how much forest you just ate? It’s time to reflect and do something about it,” was the title of one such piece published by the Huffington Post (Italy).

“If we continue to serve products that are not ‘farm to table,’ like avocados,” it reads (translation mine), “we are endangering the monarch butterfly. Avocado groves are widely to blame for deforestation in Central America and they are putting water reserves at risk.”

“Avocado mania is endangering the beautiful monarch butterfly,” reads another.

“‘Made in Europe’ avocados have a smaller impact on the environment than those imported from other continents. But they are straining water resources in southern Portugal and Spain,” reads yet another.

The question of the environmental impact of “avocado mania” isn’t new. A number of foodie-focused blog posts, including this one by a prominent Italian food blog, from 2016 and 2017 questioned the sustainability of “avocado toast” (toast di avocado, the Italian locution).

But the proverbial drop that made the glass overflow seems to be the media attention devoted to “avocado mania” in late 2020.

Over the more than three decades that I’ve been traveling to Italy, I’ve always been impressed by Italians’ sense that environmental responsibility is a civic duty — something I rarely see in the U.S. I’ll never forget the impossible-to-miss battery recycling bins that dotted corners of residential neighborhoods during my first visits to the country in the late 1980s. I’ll never forget the way a friend’s 70-year-old parent recycled cardboard milk cartons as trash receptacles. Ne’er a plastic bag sullied their kitchen.

It’s hard to imagine a Texan or Californian world without avocados. From the chunky guacamole of my native San Diego or the creamy guacamole of my adoptive Houston, the avocado is at the center of our family’s dietary universe. But the avocado mania of my Italian comrades is now passé. And maybe, well actually, most definitely, that’s a good thing.

Image via Shelli Friedberg’s Flickr (Creative Commons).

As Italy prepares for harvest, climate change is on everyone’s minds.

Above: if you were in Piedmont, Italy or Southeast Texas, you might think that was a rice field or a crawfish farm. In fact, it’s a flooded vineyard. A heat wave, massive rains, and severe hailstorms dominated the three weeks I was in northern Italy during the second half of July and the first week of August.

Climate change is always a sticky subject to cover when you’re a wine professional leading a guided tasting in Houston. It’s nothing less than inevitable that there will be some oil and gas professionals among the tasters. And especially when it comes to the older (and monied) petroleum crowd, some of those guests will reliably grumble, however amicably, when the topic comes up.

As a rule, I always begin my spiel by saying, we may not agree on its causes, but if you ask a grape grower, even the most conservative grape grower (and grape farmers tend to land on the conservative side, like most farmers), they will invariably tell you that they have observed clearcut shifts in climate over the last 30-40 years and beyond.

To this I always add: Whether or not it’s caused by human activity is a question for another time and place. But there’s no denying that it’s happening. Just ask any grape grower and they will tell you that 1) they harvest their crop much earlier than their grandparents did; and 2) extreme weather events, like violent rainstorms and intense hailstorms, are more frequent and more harmful than they were for past generations.

While I was in Italy teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences during the last two weeks of July and the first week of August, it would have been challenging to find anyone who denied the devastating effects of climate change — or its causes. During the roughly 21 days I was in the country, there were a seemingly never ending heat wave; numerous hailstorms that literally destroyed cars across northern Italy; and concentrated bouts of rain that caused widespread flooding — even in areas, like Como township and lake, where flooding rarely if ever happens.

During my recent visit to Italy, my first in more than a year and a half, I took every opportunity I could to travel across wine country. Every day, it seemed, was punctuated by a major weather event that brought traffic to a standstill.

The hailstorms were so intense and the car damage so widespread that drivers on the freeway would pull over and vie for cover under overpasses. In the more than 30 years I’ve been traveling to Italy, I had never seen anything like it.

In the days that followed rainfall, the smell of sulfur being sprayed on the vines was often intense. There was one day when I abandoned my daily run because a grape grower warned me that the fumes could be harmful. (Farmers, even on certified organic farms, use sulfur to contain the spread of vine disease after intense humidity events like heavy rainfall.)

In Lombardy (northern Italy), where some grape farmers have already begun picking fruit for their classic method (sparkling) wines, the regional office of the Italian national farmers union, Coldiretti, has already predicted a 15 percent drop in production for the 2021 vintage. That estimate is surely a conservative one.

As Italy prepares for the general harvest to begin next month, climate change — whatever its causes — is on everyone’s mind.

Houston Chronicle features my new wine director gig at Roma.

Above: I was teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy last month when Houston Chronicle wine writer Dale Robertson called me up and said, “hey, I’m going to drive over from France and take you out to dinner… I want to write a story about your new gig at Roma” (photo by Marcello Marengo for the Università di Scienze Gastronomiche).

Tracie and I couldn’t have been more thrilled to see Houston Chronicle wine columnist Dale Roberton’s article about my new wine director gig in the paper (“Meet Jeremy Parzen, the new wine director at Roma in Rice Village,” August 10).

Our heartfelt thanks goes out to Dale and his editor: beyond the story of how I became the wine director at Roma restaurant, it also traces the arc of our romance, engagement, and family life here in Houston, a city that I’ve loved since I first moved to Texas to be with Tracie in 2008.

Even though I’ve run a wine program or two in the past (including Sotto in Los Angeles, where I served as wine director for nearly eight years), Roma owner Shanon had never considered having me help out with the list until I began hosting virtual wine dinners for the restaurant during the lockdowns (I’ve also been Roma’s media manager for more than three years).

It was in May of this year that we decided it was time for me to step up, roll up my sleeves, and do inventory — that odious chore of any wine director.

And from there, things just blossomed. Not only do I manage the list. But I also host wine tastings, in-person wine dinners, and virtual wine dinners where guests pick up the food and wine and then head home where we all connect on Zoom.

Honestly, we never imagined that the virtual events would continue after the lockdowns ended. But people really seem to enjoy them. And while we don’t have the 80-90 people that we used to host back in late 2020 and early 2021, we still get up to 40 guests on the calls. It’s been an immensely rewarding experience, both professionally and personally thanks to the many lasting friendships Tracie and I have forged through the Zoom meetings.

I was teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy last month when Dale called me up and said, “hey, I’m going to drive over from France and take you out to dinner… I want to write a story about your new gig at Roma.” He treated me to a fantastic dinner at La Piola in the town of Alba — the heart of Piedmont wine country, our shared “spiritual homeland,” as I like to call it. And it was there that he interviewed me for the piece.

The rest is history, as they say. Or should I say, our story.

Again, our heartfelt thanks goes out to Dale and his editor; to the amazing and wonderful Marcello Marengo who did the photography; to the director of the grad program where I teach, Michele Fino, who offered me the teaching gig more than six years ago and who orchestrated the photo shoot on the spur of the moment; to Shanon who has always believed in me and who lovingly gave me a shot “up at bat”; and to all our friends and family who have shared our myriad blessings during our seven years in Houston.

And dulcis in fundo, I want to thank Tracie for believing in all my crazy ideas and always being by my side… in thick and thin, for better and worse. I love you, piccina. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? I wouldn’t have made it without you. I love you.

Taste with me tonight, tomorrow, and Thursday at Roma in Houston!

Houston wine friends: I’m back in Texas and will be pouring at Roma in Rice Village TONIGHT (FREE tasting), TOMRROW (in-person wine dinner, including black truffles shaved tableside), and THURSDAY (for our weekly virtual wine dinner via Zoom).

Click here for details.

Please come on down or log on and say hello!

I’m looking forward to sharing tales from my Italy trip and opening some bottles of Italian wine with you!

Tonight, I pour at our free tasting at 6. And then I’ll be working the floor of the restaurant all night. Please come by and say hello! Thanks for the support.

Getting your covid test in Italy before returning to the U.S. Notes from both sides of the Atlantic.

The covid testing kiosk in the arrivals area at Malpensa airport in Milan.

As soon as friends and colleagues started to notice that I was heading back to Italy, I started to receive messages about covid travel protocols here in the U.S. and on the other side of the Atlantic.

Here’s what I can tell you about my recent experience during my July 18-August 6 trip (my first in more than eighteen months, a long stretch for someone who regularly makes six or more trips to his spiritual homeland each year).

Nota bene: this is not professional advice or official information on what is required. I highly recommend visiting the U.S. Rome embassy website’s covid page for authoritative information. I also recommend signing up for the embassy’s newsletter and reading their updates before and during your trip.

Before leaving in July, it wasn’t clear to me whether I just needed my CDC vaccine card (I’m fully vaccinated, for the record) or whether a covid negative test result was required as well. I used the United Airlines “travel center” to upload both a negative test result and my CDC card. The covid test had to be administered no sooner than 72 hours before my departure. I did mine the day before.

When I arrived at Malpensa airport in Milan, all non-EU passengers were asked to share the documentation with officials before we got to the passport control. As soon as I pulled my CDC card out of its case, he waved me on. He didn’t ask for identification nor did he examine my documentation. That was it. Next stop was the passport control and after an official stamped mine, I was on my way to the rental car pick up.

I got my pre-flight covid test at a drive-in (not drive-through) outpost not far from the airport.

Again, this is not official information or professional advice. Please look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel requirement page. Here’s what it says: “If you plan to travel internationally, you will need to get tested no more than 3 days before you travel by air into the United States (US) and show your negative result to the airline before you board your flight.”

It’s my understanding that even vaccinated travelers need to show a negative result. There are some exceptions. See the CDC site for details.

According to my UniSG students — I was teaching at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Piedmont — there was easy-access testing in Bra, the nearby city where most of the students and visiting professors like me stay. And from what I observed while in Italy, there are plenty of options for testing, although it seemed that you in many cases, you either had to call (which might be a problem for travelers who don’t speak Italian) or visit in person to get an appointment.

I was planning on staying at a hotel at the airport the night before my departure. It was easy to find multiple testing “drive-through” testing sites in the area where you could register online. I got my test at the one in the photo above. I had registered online a few days before and was able to print out all the required documents.

It wasn’t a “drive-through” in the American sense but rather a “drive-in” where you parked and someone came out to your car to administer the test. I waited for about 15 minutes before they brought me the result. The health professional who gave me the test had lived in the U.S. and he spoke English to me as soon as he saw my passport. He created a English-language version of my test results (which was super cool of him).

As soon as I arrived at the airport, I uploaded my result using the United Airlines app on my phone (via their Travel Center). I received a text about 10 minutes later informing me that it was approved. And that was it.

At the airport, there were at least two options for getting tested on the spot. One was in the arrivals area (the first photo in this post). The other was in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel (above).

I checked online to see available for the one located in the arrivals area. At roughly 7 a.m., it showed the first availability at 8:33 a.m. As I was walking by the kiosk, a young American asked, in English, what time they opened. 8:30 a.m., said the health professional who was preparing to open the testing spot.

I didn’t look at availability for the other testing center.

The Duomo in Milan on Friday, August 6, the day before I left Italy and returned the U.S.

If you don’t speak English, I highly recommend checking with the front desk or concierge at your hotel. From what I observed, there was no shortage of options. And I imagine that many hospitality professionals can point you English-friendly testing spots.

Traveling, especially right now, can be stressful when you don’t speak the home country’s language. From what I saw and heard from other travelers, there were myriad options. Getting a test was relatively easy for everyone I spoke to.

Get vaccinated, wear a mask, and travel safe!

At the Slow Food University, the meglio gioventù. A last dispatch from Piedmont.

Above: some of the 2021 wine communications and food communications students in the graduate program at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy.

Things are a little different here in Pollenzo in Piedmont, Italy, where I’ve been a communications instructor in the graduate program for the last six years. Of course, they didn’t bring me over last year for reasons that we all know all too well.

This year, for the first time since I began teaching here in 2016, in-person attendance is no longer required and many of my 30+ students follow from home. The photo above was snapped yesterday in one of the largest classrooms on campus: the extra space allows the students to distance if they prefer.

Masks are mandatory for the staff like me. I wear mine religiously. The students, nearly all of them fully vaccinated as far as I know, generally do not wear them. (I’m fully vaccinated as well, for the record.) After teaching for nearly three weeks with mask on, I have even more respect for teachers in the U.S. and everywhere: in ways I didn’t expect, it’s extremely challenging to lecture for three hours straight with a mask on. Luckily, every classroom is outfitted with a microphone and a public address system that mitigates the need for volume.

Despite all the new-normals of campus life, the experience has reminded me of why we do this in the first place: the students and their journey in discovering and exploring what they want to do when they grow up. For all the homesickness and the hassles of being away from Houston for such a long stretch, the immense reward is the bright light that appears in their eyes as their curiosity is sparked and sometimes satiated.

I wish that everyone could have been in the classroom when my wine communications students and I re-watched some of our wine industry colleagues’ powerful Instagram videos from 2020 calling for social changes in our trade. It was our last hour of class together (although they also attend my food communications lectures).

The discussion that followed not only gave me hope that our work will make the world a better place to eat, as one of my students put it during my first year teaching here in Roero. It also filled me with joy to remember that the students always seem to have an innate sense that compels them to infuse their professional lives with activism — whether combatting climate change, food inequality, or discrimination.

Like Pasolini’s Casarsans, they are the meglio gioventù — the best of youth. And they are what makes this whole crazy world of food and wine all worthwhile.

Your part has ended in light
and I have no darkness in me
to hold your shadow.

Pier Paolo Pasolini
1954

A unicorn (yes, we found one) and impossibly delicate baby cuttlefish at Nalin in mainland Venice.

When Giovanni and I sat down at Trattoria Nalin in mainland Venice on Saturday at around 1:30 p.m., we basically just said please start bringing us crudo and please bring us the wine list.

The super professional staff at this historic seafood destination did just that. But at the end of the crudo flight, the owner offered also us an unusual and entirely unexpected delicacy: flash-grilled baby cuttlefish that only appear for a brief window during this time of year. They are called seppioline di porto or harbor baby cuttlefish because these little cephalopods tend to gravitate toward the banks of the port.

They were impossibly delicate and when you bit into them you were rewarded with a “pop” of their ink. It was undeniably the best thing I’ve eaten this year.

And of course it was only natural, after we ordered a couple of dream whites — a 2013 Friulano by Borgo del Tiglio and a 1999 Pinot Blanc from Vigne di Zamò (see below) — that the gracious and generous owner would reach deep into his cellar for a 1995 Radikon white blend.

Now, if that isn’t a unicorn, then I don’t know what is, folks!

Like a pre-CBS-era Fender amp, Radikon’s pre-maceration-era wines are intensely coveted among Friulian wine lovers. This wine was incredibly fresh, with only gentle notes of nutty oxidation and rich notes of dried stone fruit in the mouth. We lingered for at least an hour over this wine and it never lost its vibrant and very much “alive” character. The decade is young but this wine is going to set a high standard to follow! What an incredible wine.

Here are some snaps of the other things we ate and drank. The cuttlefish julienne and the langoustine (scampi) were highlights among the spectacular crudo lineup. The Pinot Blanc paired magically with the oysters.
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