Why I’m not changing my plans to visit Italy in two weeks…

According to the Italian health ministry’s daily update, there are now 528 cases of novel coronavirus in the country as of today, with 128 more than yesterday. You can see today’s update here, including the regional breakdown.

Above: a photo of the Grand Canal in Venice from a few years ago. All public gatherings have been banned there this week.

“Flights arrive to Milan with just a smattering of passengers, including one this week from Paris with 30 people spread out over more than 150 seats. Venetian tour guides and resort town hoteliers speak about rafts of cancellations.”

The quote above comes today from an article in the Washington Post, “Italy’s economy was scary enough. Then came coronavirus.”

One of the people interviewed for the piece is Marco Calaon, president of the Colli Euganei wine growers association. He lives in Vo’ (Padua province), on the west side of the Euganean Hills (Colli Euganei), one of the 11 or so (I can’t verify exactly how many) northern Italian towns that are currently on lockdown because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. (It’s about an hour drive west from Venice.)

When I read his name this morning, it really hit home. Padua is where I first studied and lived in Italy and I know the Euganean Hills well. Petrarch, the medieval poet I studied for my doctorate, spent the last years of his life in the Euganean Hills.

Here’s what a friend and colleague of mine from the Colli Euganei wrote on her Facebook earlier this week, an “open letter” to Veneto region president Luca Zaia (translation mine).

    Mr. Preeeeeeeeesident Luca Zaia. Ok! We get it! We are officially scared. Weak. But enough is enough already. I’m still going to vote for you but you’ve got to cut it out. Start giving us serious information. Don’t pull a Silvio [Berlusconi] on us. Give us concrete information. Don’t just tell us that the people who have died are either old or sick with something else. Tell us how the living are doing. “Contagion”? Enough with the fancy words. How are those people doing? It’s no big deal to stay at home for a little while. Sure, there’ll be less traffic in the streets. We’ll eat our fruits and veggies. We’ll try to be as healthy as possible. But the air we’re breathing isn’t exactly clean. Give us the truth please. The real truth. Common sense truth. In the end, they’re going to tell us that this was just a normal case of the flu, but just a bit stronger. That’s all they need to do to scare a couple of dumb little nobodies like us.

Man, it just broke my heart this morning to think of my friend and how the health crisis is upending her life.

A lot of people have been asking me if I plan to cancel my trip to Italy in a few weeks. The answer is no, no way. Since the outbreak and ensuing panic have begun, I’ve heard and read some of the most outlandish things about the illness and its origins. I’m no health specialist or doctor, by no means. But here’s what I believe about the novel coronavirus.

– You are still more likely to come down with the common flu than you are to get the novel coronavirus.
– As for the common flu, the people at the greatest risk of dying from the novel coronavirus are the elderly or people already affected by a respiratory illness.
– Nearly everyone who has died from the the novel coronavirus in Italy has been 80 years old or older (there was one man who was 69 at the time of his passing).
– We all need to be vigilant in not spreading the novel coronavirus because we need to protect the elderly and the infirm.
– The panic about the novel coronavirus is disrupting life and work more than the novel coronavirus itself.
– Surgical masks don’t stop you from getting the novel coronavirus (they stop you from spreading it).

Yes, I’ll be heading to Italy in two weeks, just as planned. I’ll be sure to wash my hands more frequently, for a minimum of 20 seconds with plenty of soap. I’ll make sure I don’t touch my face without washing my hands first. I’ll make a point of staying as healthy as possible to build up my immune system (no late nights, no partying, making sure I get enough sleep, eating right, and getting enough exercise etc.). And most importantly, when I get back, I’ll make sure I avoid contact with any family or friends who are elderly or infirm for at least two weeks.

Click here for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations on how to avoid getting the novel coronavirus and how to avoid spreading it.

Supermarket shelves emptied in Milan, Salone del Mobile postponed: will Vinitaly fall victim to coronavirus scare? VINITALY DATES CONFIRMED BY VERONAFIERE

Above: empty shelves at an Esselunga supermarket in downtown Milan yesterday. “We are asking our customers to limit their purchases solely to daily needs,” write the authors of a post on the retail chain’s website (photo by Laura Menichelli).


UPDATE 11:10 a.m. February 26, 2020


See Sole 24 Ore post here.


According to the latest update from Italy’s health ministry (published today at noon, Italian time), 374 persons in Italy have been infected with the novel coronavirus. Of these, 12 persons have died and 1 person [a Chinese tourist who is believed to be the first case in Italy] has recovered.

(According to the most recent update by the Italian mainstream media, the number of officially reported cases is now 378.)

There have been 52 new cases reported since yesterday (56 according to the most recent update).

There are currently 116 patients showing symptoms, 36 in intensive care, and 209 in home isolation.

Here’s the breakdown of cases by region (according to the latest health ministry update:

Lombardy: 258 (18 new cases since yesterday).
Veneto: 71 (28 new cases).
Emilia-Romagna: 30 (4 new cases).
Piedmont: 3.
Latium: 3.
Sicily: 3.
Liguria: 2.
Tuscany: 2.
Marches: 1.
South Tyrol: 1.

The 12th person to succumb to the disease was a 69-year-old man from Lombardy. And four children, ages 10 and under, have been infected, although none of those cases appear to be serious (Repubblica).

Across Lombardy, where there is the highest concentration of cases, grocery store shelves have been emptied and the streets are deserted as many small cities remain on lockdown and all public gatherings have been put on hold.

Yesterday, the organizers of the Salone del Mobile in Milan, one of the world’s largest interior design shows, announced that they are postponing the April trade show until June.

The event was scheduled to begin on April 21 and the news has prompted fears in the Italian wine trade that Vinitaly, the industry’s annual gathering in Verona, currently scheduled to commence on April 19, will also be cancelled or postposed.

Coronavirus unleashes panic across northern Italy.

Above: an illustration released today at noon (Italian time) by the Italian health ministry — 213 cases reported, 99 persons being treated at a hospital, 23 cases in need of intensive care, 91 persons in home isolation.

According to a report published this morning by the Italian national daily La Repubblica, a sixth person has died in Italy’s novel coronavirus outbreak.

The latest victim, report the editors, was a man in his 80s in Milan. All of those who have died from the virus have been more than 80 years old, they write.

You can see a map of areas where contagion has been reported here.

City streets are deserted and grocery store shelves emptied across northern Italy, where panic has gripped citizens in Piedmont, Lombardy, Trentino, and Veneto. In the southern Italian region of Puglia, officials are asking returning residents who work in the north to report their status upon their arrival there.

Italy’s emergency telephone number, 112 (similar to 911 in the U.S.), has been overwhelmed by callers who are seeking information about the outbreak.

At least 10 towns in Lombardy, where the outbreak is concentrated, are on lockdown, according to the most recent report by the New York Times.

Museums, schools, and churches are closed and all public gatherings have been postponed through Sunday, March 1.

Anecdotally, I’m hearing that lines at supermarkets are long and vital products are scarce. Nearly everyone who dares to go out wears a surgical mask (despite the fact that it doesn’t reduce your risk of being infected).

So far, I haven’t heard of any impact on the wine trade. But with industry fairs around the corner (Prowein next month and Vinitaly in April), some are concerned that the outbreak will impede attendance.

Italy’s winemakers dodged a bullet on February 14 when the U.S. government announced it wouldn’t be expanding wine tariffs to include Italian products. But many fear that the recent and rapidly evolving health crisis will ultimately have a negative effect on domestic sales. Today’s steep drop in global financial markets will certainly be viewed as an indicator of consumer confidence.

I’ll keep posting updates as more information becomes available.

If you’ve never been to Jimmy’s Food Store in Dallas, you don’t know what you’re missing…

Last night I was Paolo Cantele’s wing-man as he led a guided tasting and dinner featuring his family’s wines at the amazing Jimmy’s Food Store in Dallas, a national culinary treasure and a great resource for Italian and Italian-American gastronomy in the U.S.

Those are rigatoni with (housemade) sausage alla vodka. Legacy owner Paul Di Carlo did the cooking himself last night and the sauce was spot on, with just the right tang you achieve when you deglaze the tomato with the spirit. This was straight out of 1989 and full-on delicious.

Not only is Jimmy’s a fantastic old school Italian deli (like the “pork stores” in Brooklyn) but it’s also the best Italian wine shop in the state. Paul really knows Italian wine. Spectacular selection.

Jimmy’s has a special place in my heart because it was there, 11 years ago, that Paolo and I did our first event together. I was working for a supplier rep at the time and Paolo was one of my first ride-withs in Texas after I moved here to be with Tracie P. It was really neat for us to relive that moment.

A few years ago, Paul renamed his wine room. No explanation needed. If you have worked in Italian wine in this century (and/or the last), you know why this image is so special.

Paolo and I are headed to Tulsa today where we’ll be hosting an event at Vintage Wine Bar (at 5:30). Please join us! I’m SO PSYCHED to finally make it to Tulsa, a city I’ve wanted to visit for a long, long time. I know it’s going to be a great time.

1988 Aglianico del Taburno from Veronelli’s cellar blew us away last night (and Chambers St. now ships to non-ship states)

Above: just look at the color of that wine! We expected it to be light or even brown in color, with little flavor. But it drank beautifully last night.

When Chambers Street Wines did a recent offering of onesies from the famed Veronelli Collection, I thought I would read the shop’s e-blast just for fun (it’s one of the best wine shop newsletters out there imho, with great and often funny writing, and lots of juicy info). But when I saw a 1988 Aglianico del Taburno from Cantina del Taburno, it tugged at my heartstrings. And frankly, it was just too much to resist.

Luigi Veronelli was one of the greatest food and wine writers of the 20th-century, a pioneering editor and publisher of guide books, recipe books, and long-form gastronomic prose. And he was also one of the century’s most prolific (ante litteram) influencers. Many Italian wines we consider benchmarks and icons today were anointed as such by Veronelli over the course of his more than 40-year career in publishing. (Few remember that Veronelli’s “breakout” book was his best-selling I Cocktails published in 1971, a mixology recipe book; fewer still will remember that his 1957 edition of the Marquis de Sade’s Historiettes, Contes et Fabliaux was banned by Italian authorities at the time, marking an early financial disaster for him).

I never got to meet Veronelli before he died in 2004. But his writings and work as a publisher have shaped my own career in food and wine media. And I was deeply disappointed when I couldn’t attend any of the tastings of lots from his wine cellar when the wines began to be auctioned off a few years ago.

The fact that the bottle in question was from his own library made the purchase even more tantalizing and so I bit.

When we opened the wine last night, we expected it to be near dead. Often with wines like these, they offer a very brief moment of flavor when they are opened but then quickly fade away. My friends and I imagined it would be light in color or even brown. We also figured it would be cloudy with sediment (I had stood the wine upright for two days before opening in hopes of reducing the cloudiness and/or excessive amount of solids that you often find in wines this old).

But to our immense surprise and delight, the wine was very much alive, with delicious fruit and nice acidity. In the end, we didn’t even reach for our backup bottle of young Aglianico as we ate tagliatelle with lamb ragù and lasagne alla bolognese at our favorite Houston BYOB.

What a great wine!

It reminded me how every bottle you open, young or old, is always a gamble, but when it pays off, the results can be exhilarating, as was certainly the case last night.

The other good news about this bottle is that wine shops like Chambers Street Wines have now found a work-around that allows them to ship to restrictive “non-ship” states like Texas. This bottle, along with a mixed case of other bottles I ordered, found its way to me via a third-party shipper. The bottomline is this: as long as the wine is not shipped directly from an out-of-state retailer, it’s totally legal to ship wine to Texas. It just has to be purchased by the recipient before it shipped and then handed off to a courier who doesn’t sell the wine itself.

Arcane and backwards but such is the world we live in. It’s great news for people like me who want access to retail offerings from specialty shops like Chambers, one of my favorite in the country.

So little time and so much to tell. I’ve got to hit the road with my buddy Paolo Cantele: we’re heading to Dallas for a dinner tonight, Tulsa tomorrow for another tasting, and the Boulder for the last tasting of our road trip. See details here if you’d like to join. Thanks to everyone from the Houston wine community who came out to our super fun event at Vinology. That was awesome. Thank you!

Hang me in the Tulsa County Stars (taste with me there on Thursday)

I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Maybe it’s because Steinbeck made such a big impression on me when I read him as a kid.

Maybe it’s because I loved the musical “Oklahoma” when I was growing up.

Maybe it’s the Merle Haggard in me. I don’t know.

Or maybe its ’cause I want you to hang me in the Tulsa County stars, meet me where I land if I slip and fall too far.

See the lyrics to John Moreland’s awesome song here (and see the video below; he is supercool and he’s from Tulsa, of course).

I’ll be heading to Tulsa with my buddy Paolo Cantele, one of my best friends, this Thursday.

If you happen to be in the city that I’ve dreamt about all these years, please join us at Vintage Wine Bar where we’ll be leading an informal tasting and hanging out.

We’ll also be pouring in Houston tonight and Boulder on Saturday. Details follow. Hope to see you on the road (again)! Thanks for being here and there.

Vinology (Houston)
Tuesday, February 18
6:30 p.m.

Vintage Wine Bar (Tulsa)
Thursday, February 20
5:30 p.m.

Boulder Wine Merchant (Boulder)
Saturday, February 22
5:30 p.m.

Photo via TexasBackRoads’ Flickr (Creative Commons).

Italian wine spared (at least for now), French, German, and Spanish wine still dogged by U.S. tariffs

In case you hadn’t already heard the news, there was good and bad: late Friday, the U.S. Trade Representative announced that 25 percent tariffs would remain in place for French, German, and Spanish still wines and that no new duties would be imposed on wines from European countries other than those already included in the current round of the U.S.-European Union trade war.

This was great news for Italian winemakers and grape growers.

U.S. wine importers and EU countries, including Italy, had also been bracing for potential 100 percent tariffs, a move that would have been devastating for European viticulture and its presence in the U.S.

Current U.S. policy should remain unchanged (at least in theory) for the next 180 days when the U.S. administration will review and decide whether to lift or expand the tariffs.

Winemakers in Italy breathed a sigh of relief as counterparts in France, Germany, and Spain began to hunker down for another six months of “tariff pain.”

For more detailed analysis and background, see this superb article by my friend Mitch Frank for Wine Spectator (possibly the earliest reporting on the U.S. announcement from a mainstream masthead). Mitch is a former political reporter and so it’s not surprising that his writing is spot-on here.

See also this excellent piece in Bloomberg, “Italy Escapes Higher U.S. Tariffs on Some Products” where the reporter details of behind-the-scenes efforts by Italian politicians to lobby U.S. officials.

Lastly, see this pay-wall op-ed by legacy importer Harmon Skurnik for the Washington Post, “Trump’s 100 percent tariffs could mean no more European Wines” (an earlier title, subsequently edited, was “Trump’s 100 percent tariffs could mean your Champagne is toast”).

Posted on the eve of the decision (and now out-dated), it offers solid insight into the ripple effect of the tariffs and how they ultimately do more to hurt American interests than to bolster them.

Houston AweSomm Sommelier competition now open to wine professionals across Texas. Top prize $1,200 (and bragging rights).

I’m pleased to share the following info regarding the 2nd annual Houston AweSomm Sommelier Competition, which is now open to wine professionals across Texas, including Advanced Sommeliers.

AweSomm is a Houston-based study group founded by my good friend and colleague Jaime De Leon, Adult Beverage Sales Manager for Kroger Houston Division, one of the coolest people working in my adoptive city’s wine scene. Top prize is $1,200 (and bragging rights). Runners-up receive $300.

If you’re working in the Texas wine community, I highly encourage you to apply. Only good can come of it.

On March 29-30, AweSomm will be hosting the second annual Houston AweSomm Sommelier Competition in association with the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas and its 6th annual Taste of Italy Houston festival and trade show.

Click here to apply. Details follow below.

  • 20 sommeliers from across Texas will be invited to compete for the title of Houston AweSomm Sommelier Competition “Best Sommelier.”
  • All Texas-based sommeliers are eligible (except for Master Sommeliers), including those who have achieved their “Advanced” status in the Court of Master Sommeliers.
  • All competitors will be required to take a theory, service, and blind tasting exam.
  • Once the theory exam is completed, the 10 candidates with the top scores will be seated for the service and blind tasting exams.
  • Testing will take place at the Hilton Post Oak on Sunday, March 29. The winner and 2 runners up will be announced at the Taste of Italy festival Monday, March 30.
  • The winner will receive a $1,200 scholarship to apply to future studies; 2 runners up will receive $300 scholarships; all 10 finalists will be eligible for Italy-America Chamber sponsored trips to Italian wine country.

Italian wineries not immune to “tariff pain” while French wine sales “plummet”

“[Bordeaux] exports plummeted 46 percent in value and 24 percent in volume in November [2019] alone,” according to an excellent free-for-all post by Suzanne Mustacich published on the Wine Spectator website on Monday.

The French are feeling the “tariff pain,” she wrote, “with reports of falling exports and winery bankruptcies.”

French winemakers have been subject to a 25 percent tariff since October of last year. Newly available fourth quarter financial sales numbers reveal that November and December were especially challenging for EU producers in general and for the French in particular.

“‘In six months, the American market will be dead for us,’ said Bernard Farges, president of the leading Bordeaux trade group CIVB,” reports Mustacich.

Although Italy hasn’t yet been subject to the new round of U.S. tariffs, Italian wine producers are also feeling the effects of the trade war.

According to figures published last week by Wine Monitor, the Italian wine industry’s subscription-based “market watch” association, “Italy experienced a drop of 7 percent in sales [in November and December of 2019] with respect to the previous year, with a 12 percent drop for still wines.”

“EU producers continue to tread water,” write the authors of the report, “with France seeing its sales of still wine drop by 36 percent and Spain experiencing a 9 percent drop in the last two months” of 2019. At the same time, “sales of New World wines are soaring, with a 40 percent increase for New Zealand and a 53 percent increase for Chile.”

(The data were reported by Italpress, an Italian news agency. Translation mine.)

Across the U.S. wine trade and wine-focused media this week, rumors have circulated that the U.S. Trade Representative will be making an announcement on tariffs on Monday, February 17. But reports of a pending policy statement haven’t been verified — at least not to my knowledge.

According to a statement issued by the U.S. Wine Trade Alliance, an activist Facebook group formed in December 2019 in response to U.S. tariffs, “the only people getting hurt [by U.S. wine tariffs] are American business owners and consumers.”

That is due partly to the fact that “75-85% of the selling price of a bottle of wine is profit or taxes taken by American entities,” say Harry Root, founder of the group, and Ben Aneff, a member of the National Association of Wine Retailers (NAWR).