How virtual wine dinners saved our restaurant in Houston.

Image by the Corkscrew Concierge, a regular attendee at Roma’s virtual wine dinners.

Like many independent concept restaurants across the U.S., the barely four-year-old Roma in Houston was eager to shift to virtual events as soon as the shutdowns began to be enforced across Texas in the early days of the growing pandemic.

At the time, prospects for the restaurant’s survival were dim. As for tens of thousands of American restaurateurs (and for hundreds of thousands across the world), business had ground to a halt. Regulars, mostly middle-aged professionals, were reluctant even to order take-out in those early days of the health crisis. And for a “neighborhood,” “date night,” and “special occasion” restaurant like Roma, the world of plastic containers and utensils was as distant as Mars. The expression curbside available, now a workaday locution in the American restaurant lexicon, was as exotic as H.G. Wells’ “Martian herbs and trees.”

When the owner was approached by an energetic supplier/sales rep (a salesperson for a locally based importer and distributor), he gladly accepted her offer to organize a virtual wine dinner and tasting. Her idea — as brilliant as it was simple — was to have a winery representative in Italy on the other line, as it were, while the guests tasted through a three-bottle flight of wine paired with regional dishes. Yes, it would be 2:30 in the morning for the estate ambassador, but the sacrifice of a little sleep was well compensated by the potential sales and brand building — especially considering how business had declined precipitously in the early days of the new normal.

The initial virtual gatherings were unsurprisingly (at least in retrospect) clumsy. Zoom links that didn’t work. Guests who didn’t know how to mute their microphones and the subsequent TMI intimacy. Seafood dishes that were cold and rubbery by the time the guests opened their containers at home.

But the turning point came when the featured guest, the enologist son of a legacy Italian winemaker, began to insult the restaurateur over the pairings — in Italian. It didn’t occur to the dim-witted nimrod (excuse the pleonasm, merited in this case) that one of the guests, who happened to work as the restaurant’s media manager, was fluent in Italian.

The disconnect issue was only compounded when another microcephalic brand ambassador joked to the guests that the proprietary name of one of the estate’s wines could be loosely translated as “end of the world.” Appropriate, he quipped, for the times (despite the fact that he was employed by the estate, he didn’t realize the name was actually a reference to the nec plus ultra of Homer’s Odyssey).

And that’s when it dawned on Roma’s owner: the dinner’s “content” was being driven by the supplier rep and the brand ambassadors on the other side of the Atlantic; and the brand ambassadors, often export directors with poor English skills, were treating the events as if they were “supplier meetings,” as they are called in the trade, educational affairs where the brand ambassadors share insights with sales reps from regional distributors.

It was mid-July and the restaurant was still struggling, literally teetering on the brink of failure, when the owner made a radical shift: he would only host virtual wine events, he decided, with “principals” from the wineries, the winemaker or an immediate family member, and the featured guests had to speak English well. He also brought on a moderator, a wine professional with experience in public-facing wine education and public speaking, a veteran events organizer.

And that was what turned out to be the key: instead of letting commercial interests shape the events, his team would choose the wines, the pairings, and — most importantly — the winemakers who would represent the wines. The idea was to deliver a media “product” that was as entertaining and engaging as it was delicious.

He also made sure to keep the cost moderate. By negotiating aggressively with the distributors, whom he approached as opposed to them reaching out to him, he made sure the price per person remained palatable. What he found was that distributors were so keen to “move boxes,” as they say in the trade, that there was ample flexibility in pricing, “sampling,” and other strategies to offset the wine cost.

Almost as if by magic, the attendance at the dinners grew rapidly from 10-20 guests to 40, 50, and 60. By the fall even though the events were held on a weekly basis, he was regularly fielding 70-80 diners every Thursday evening. By the time the restaurant hosted its last event of 2020, it counted 90+ guests including some of the city’s leading wine mavens.

The secret, says the owner, is that he gives the guests what they want and not what the distributors want. And dulcis in fundo, the distributor reps aren’t complaining (anymore) either.

I’ll be joined by three other leading Italian-focused food and wine professionals a week from Friday as we discuss the mechanics of running a successful virtual tasting event for a webinar hosted by the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central. See this link for registration details. All are welcome.

Houstonians & Southeast Texans: please join us for the socially distanced 2021 MLK Day parade in Orange, Texas.

Image via WhiteHouse.gov (Creative Commons license).

Please join us as we celebrate the life, teachings, and legacy of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Orange, Texas.

Social distancing and masks will be required. Please feel free to share this post and thank you for your support. Tracie and I hope to see you a week from Monday in Orange where she grew up.

MLK DAY PARADE
ORANGE, TEXAS

Monday, January 18, 2021
10 a.m.

Start: Solomon Johnson Park (Google map)
End: Heritage House (Google map)

Organizers Impact Orange and Repurpose Memorial are requiring marchers to wear masks and socially distance. They’ll be asking people to form groups of no more than 10 persons, ideally from the same household, and will coordinate the timing of each group’s start time so that they can socially distance from other groups. They will also have free masks to distribute.

There will be no speeches or gathering at the end of the march. Marchers will simply disassemble at the end point.

Our heartfelt thanks goes out to the City of Orange for their help in making this possible.

Heartfelt thanks also to everyone who donated to our GoFundMe campaign to raise money for our special events insurance policy. We raised more than our $500 goal. The extra money will go to masks, bottled water, and hand sanitizer to distribute at the march. The campaign is still active if you’d like to contribute.

At home highlight wines 2020: California, French, Italian.

Beyond Eric Asimov’s excellent Times column “The Pour,” some of the paper’s most compelling wine writing has been delivered recently via the Gray Lady’s “Wealth Matters” rubric.

“Stuck at Home, People Are Splurging on Wine and Spirits” (December 18, 2020) by Paul Sullivan informed us that in 2020

    Sales of wines, for instance, dipped in the first quarter, before the pandemic. But they are now selling at a brisk rate, making up for the slower months… And sales of premium wines during the post-pandemic period have grown more than other categories.

The trend has been driven, at least in part, by the fact that

    [people are] not traveling and not going out to dinner. Instead, they’re looking to buy something that will make yet another dinner at home more interesting. And because they’re not paying the markups that bars and restaurants usually charge, they can afford higher quality bottles.

Not only do these (partly anecdotal) observations align with what wine sales agents from across the country have been telling me (one rep told me that his company’s retail program grew so significantly that it bested its 2019 sales last year), but they also dovetail with our personal experience: because we stopped going out to dinner (completely in our case), we were able to spend more on our retail consumption.

Here are some of the wines that we enjoyed in 2020 “despite,” as Weird Al put it, “things.”

Robert Foley 2018 Chardonnay

Yes, we loved this Napa Valley Chardonnay. The fruit was classically new world bright but balanced by vibrant acidity and wonderful freshness. I’d never had anything white from Foley but the reasonable pricing for this mid-level Chardonnay kept bringing me back.

Dominque Lafon 2018 Bourgogne Blanc

I was curious about this “second label” by Dominique Lafon after reading up on him in the course of my work for the Boulder Burgundy Festival where he was the virtually featured winemaker this year. It’s not cheap but this wine was spectacular, a great value for those who want to dip their toes into Burgundian greatness. One of my favorite wines of the year.

Vignai da Duline 2018 Friulano

Classic, focused, elegant, and genuine. Vignai da Duline is one of those estates that all the cool kids — from the classicists to the enohipsters — in Italy love. And with good reason. We’d never had the monovarietal Friulano and both Tracie and I were blown away by the depth and beauty of this stunning wine. Highly recommended and another great value for a premium wine.

Faury 2018 Saint Joseph Blanc and Rouge

I was drawn to this producer because of the rarity of white wine from Saint Joseph. Both of these wines, each under $40, were nothing short of spectacular. Kermit Lynch has always had a knack for sourcing under-appreciated wines that land at reasonable prices and both of these wines delivered 1,000 percent.

Pertinace 2016 Barbaresco

Pound for pound, Pertinace is the greatest value in Barbaresco today imho. After I tasted this wine for a virtual wine dinner I led, I bought a case and we drank it for all of our holidays. What a wine and what a value! This is one of those wines that I’ll remember for the rest of my days. No joke. I have my suspicions as to why this cooperative is not more popular in the U.S. and that’s fine with me. My recommendation: run don’t walk.

Oddero 2016 Barolo

I’ve followed Oddero for more than 15 years now and I’m always blown away by the wines’ consistency over time. A perennial classic that always lands with reasonable pricing. I believe that’s because the Oddero family has always remained true to their original vision: old school, traditional winemaking with immense focus and elegance. We opened this with Pietro for a virtual wine tasting I led and it was magical to share the experience with other like-minded tasters.

Mastroberardino 2016 Taurasi Radici

Another magical experience, tasted with Piero Mastroberardino for a virtual wine tasting I led. I have such a deep connection to this wine: back when I first started tasting and collecting, it was one of the few wines I could afford to lay down (anyone else remember the extraordinary 1995 vintage for this wine?). Tasting with Piero is always such a compelling experience and this wine was extraordinary the night we shared it virtually with the host restaurant’s guests. What a wine! And what a fantastic value, another one I’ll be cellaring from the year of the pandemic.

Happy new year, everyone. I hope this finds you and loved ones all healthy and safe. Thanks for being here and thanks for all your support in 2020. Looking forward to brighter times and more great wine in 2021.

Rest in peace, Ginny. We can’t imagine a world without you.

It was with great sadness that Tracie and I learned last night of Ginny Kalmbach’s passing.

From the early 1980s through 2013, Ginny owned the legendary Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon in Austin, Texas.

It was Tracie’s favorite honky tonk when she was going to school at University of Texas in the late 1990s.

And when Tracie moved back from Italy in 2008, she rented an apartment not far from the club, in part so she wouldn’t have to travel far to get there (no joke, that’s how much she loved the place).

By the time Tracie and I met, Ginny was Tracie’s customer: Tracie was a rep for at the time and she asked for the club to be added to her “route,” as we say in the trade.

Ginny’s was one of the first places Tracie took me when I began visiting her in Austin. And it would become the backdrop for our courtship.

It’s hard to convey what a magical place Ginny’s was in those years. The club was a slice of a vanishing Americana where people of all stripes and from all walks of life gathered to hear genuine country music performed by devoted artists.

We saw SO many amazing shows there.

That’s Ginny, right, with her daughters in 2010 when we usually spent one or two evenings a week at the club.

“Ginny, we can’t imagine a world without you.”

I wrote those words back in 2010. Today, I can’t help but be reminded of the lines from Gram Parsons’ song “Brass Buttons”:

And the sun comes up without her
It just doesn’t know she’s gone

That’s Ginny, below, holding Georgia when she was about six months old.

Rest in peace, Ginny. The world won’t be the same without you.

Southeast Texans: please join us for the socially distanced MLK Day Parade in Orange, Texas on January 18, 2021.

The last MLK Day parade was held in Orange in January 2018. We will be reviving that beloved and long-standing tradition next month.

Please join my family on January 18, 2021 as we take part in the Martin Luther King Day Parade in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up.

We’ll be meeting at Solomon Johnson Park at 10 a.m. and marching over to the Heritage House Museum.

My co-organizer MaQuettia Ledet (founder of Impact Orange) and I have been working closely with the City of Orange to ensure that we can march safely.

We’re going to be requiring marchers to wear masks and socially distance. We’ll be asking people to form groups of no more than 10 persons, ideally from the same household, and then we’ll coordinate the timing of each group’s start time so that they can socially distance from other groups. We will also have free masks to distribute.

There will be no speeches or gathering at the end of the march. We’ll simply disassemble at the end point.

My heartfelt thanks goes out to the City of Orange for their help in making this possible (they have been awesome to deal with).

Heartfelt thanks also to everyone who donated to our GoFundMe campaign to raise money for our special events insurance policy. We raised more than our $500 goal. The extra money will go to masks, bottled water, and hand sanitizer to distribute at the march. The campaign is still active if you’d like to contribute.

I can’t speak to the reason why the MLK march hasn’t been held for the last three years in Orange. It was once a beloved and long-standing tradition. Next month, it will be renewed.

That’s a photo of Solomon Johnson below (it comes from the Portal to Texas History via the Heritage House Museum in Orange). The park where the march will begin is named after him.

According to the Orange Leader, the city’s paper of record:

    Solomon Johnson was an Orange native who served as president of the Civic Betterment League for 22 years and was referred to as the “bronze mayor” for several years. As “bronze mayor” he attended city council meetings to represent his people in the community even though he was not allowed to vote. He also lead delegates to the Texas Negro Chamber of Commerce and the National Negro Business League. It was during his time as president, the first black police officer was hired. At that time, the officer was only allowed to arrest black offenders.

On January 18, 2021, as we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, we will also honor the many civil rights activists from Orange who have fought for justice and equity over the years. I hope you can join us. (See this Orange Leader article to learn more about some of those community leaders.)

Christmas Songs: “Why Can’t It Be Christmas Every Day Of The Year?” by Lila Jane and Georgia

“Christmas Songs” week continues today with the Parzen Family Singers holiday ditty from last year, “Why Can’t It Be Christmas Every Day Of The Year?” sung by Lila Jane and Georgia.

That’s a photo of the sisters, below, from earlier this year when the weather was still warm enough for them to perform their “pandemic flash mob” concerts on the street outside our house.

They go to a music magnet elementary school. Across our neighborhood, at the same time each week, kids from their music program would set up and play songs from their Suzuki Method books for neighbors. It was a program organized by Lila Jane’s awesome cello teacher, who’s also our good friend.

The health crisis has been so tough on kids, our own girls included. But music has been such a great balm for them: They both take piano lessons, Georgia plays violin and guitar, and Lila Jane plays cello. And on many weekends, we jam together, write songs, and I teach them about the recording arts (something I enjoy immensely).

All the photos in the video above are from last year. It was wonderful to revisit them and to remember what life was like at our house before the pandemic. It’s still going to take a while but it will be like that again…

I hope that their song and video can bring a little bit of sunshine into your lives today. Thanks for listening. And Merry Christmas from the Parzen Family!

Christmas Songs: “(General, Please) Keep My Baby Safe This Christmas Eve”

“Christmas Songs” week continues on the blog today with a Christmas song I wrote together with my Nous Non Plus bandmates in 2011. At the time, Tracie and I were still living in Austin where we wrote, performed, and produced our album “Freudian Slip” (a track from that record recently appeared in “Emily in Paris”).

Austin music legend David Garza helped us produce the album and played on nearly all of the tracks. Another Austin great, Kyle Thompson, played drums.

The song was inspired by a Southern Californian blogger who called herself “Marines Girl.” Tracie and I followed her as she wrote about what it was like to be married to someone who was stationed overseas.

My loyal and ever-ready bandmates, always ready to embrace my crazy ideas, lovingly helped me flesh out my original idea for the song. It’s one of the few English-language tracks we ever recorded and David plays an amazing guitar solo on it.

I’ll never forget the moment we played it for our record company: They were like, “you wrote a sad Christmas song?” Needless to say, they refused to release it.

But it’s one of my all-time favorites from our catalog and I loved writing, performing, and recording it.

Those are lead singers Céline and Jean-Luc with David in the photo below (at EAR studio where we did most of the live tracking).

Here’s a short clip of us rehearsing with David and Kyle in our living room in Austin. Most of the band was stayed with us while we were making the album and we did some of the tracking in my home studio. It was one of those really great times in our lives. Tracie and I were still newlyweds and we were just beginning to try to start a family…

And here are some random images from Nous Non Plus over the years.

I sure miss those times but it’s also wonderful to listen to these songs. It’s like each one captures a moment, a memory, and a feeling that could have only happened at that particular place and time.

Thanks for letting me share it with you here. And I hope you like the track. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Christmas Songs: “Nothing Good Rhymes with Santa Klaus”

From the department of “you can talk about your Donald Trumps and Rush Limbaughs”…

Like every songwriter who happens to be a nice Jewish boy from a nice Jewish family (read: my mother’s other sons are both lawyers), it’s always been a lifelong dream of mine to write a great Christmas song.

In keeping with the holiday spirit this year (and with the knowledge that so many of you are stuck at home chained to a computer screen and thus might be more open to some hokey Christmas jingle divertissement than in a normal year), today I’m sharing one of my favorite roasted chestnuts, “Nothing Good Rhymes with Santa Klaus,” a song I wrote, performed, and recorded with our friend and writer extraordinaire Gwendolyn Knapp in Houston in 2018.

December 2018, you ask? It feels like a lifetime since we wrote the lines:

I read the Sunday Papers about the world’s faux pas
You can talk about your Donald Trumps and your Rush Limbaughs
When you’re eating at your drunk in-laws
Talkin’ ’bout the war on Santa Klaus

Please note that the plural of faux pas is pronounced foe paws.

That’s me and Gwendolyn, below, playing a gig as The Go Aways (iTunes link for our one album released) in the time before the time of the pandemic and what a good time it was.

Thanks for being here, thanks for listening (and for helping to make my childhood dream come true), and most importantly, MERRY CHRISTMAS YA’LL!

More good Christmas music (well, I guess “good” is a relative term) is on its way!