Dagan Ministero’s room where it happened. Revisiting Terroir SF, a natural wine icon.

De naturali vinorum historia…

My mind teemed with memories as the doors swung open and let me into Terroir Natural Wine Bar on Folsom in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood like an old western gunslingers’ saloon.

The time Tracie and I watched one of the owners chase down a thief who stole two bottles in front of our very eyes. They got the bottles back.

The time my band was playing Café du Nord and we turned Joachim Cooder onto Muscadet. He was our drummer at the time and he loved it.

The countless times that the soldiers of the new wine, the natural wine, gathered there to banter, debate, and deliberate over the new language and new world that they were simultaneously discovering and forging.

It would be hard to overestimate the role that Terroir in San Francisco played in the nascent natural wine movement. Like its counterpart in New York, The Ten Bells, it was pioneer, progenitor, and in a certain sense an ante litteram avatar of the new natural wine culture.

Looking back to 2007 when Terroir opened, when people were just beginning to wrap their minds around natural wine, it’s clear that the venue and its cast of characters — including some of the wine world’s proto-bloggers, and you know whom I’m talking about — populated an early outpost of natural wine’s fourth estate.

At the time, no one beyond a small circle of the intelligentsia had even heard the pairing of “natural” and “wine.”

It’s incredible to think that a word that we once uttered audaciously as a challenge to the wine firmament is now part of the workaday parlance of broader viti-culture and commerce. Terroir was the setting — the context — for the text. Although the words had been uttered however sparingly before that time, Terroir was at once locus and locution for some of its earliest enunciations.

But Terroir didn’t just provide the proscenium for some of natural wine’s proto-dialectic.

It was also a super fun bar to hang out in and a wondrous meta (in the ancient Roman sense) for the wine-curious. Vinyl spun on the jukebox as eno-hipsters streamed in and out. And the wines… oh the wines! There was always something macerated and/or oxidative (back then it wasn’t so easy to find those wines). And the conversation was as high-pitched as it was catholic (with a small c).

And even though one of the things that made it sexy was the slight sense of danger that you always felt there, owed in part to the hyper-urban environment where it is located, it was also a safe and welcoming space for those who wanted to expand their wine knowledge and experience.

Today, as the natural wine world has revealed its sharpest elbows, Terroir was a place where even a wine neophyte like a drummer in a faux French rock band could hang out and let it all hang out.

I was so fortunate to get to sit down with my old friend Dagan Ministero, Terroir owner and founder, last week for what I can only describe as a pseudo-séance.

We talked at length about the many luminaries of natural wine who have sat in his chairs over the years. We parsed the evolution of the language of natural wine in the 14 years that have passed since I first sat there. And we tasted… we tasted and tasted and tasted… just like the old days.

Revisiting after so many years and after the lockdowns, this space still had the same mystical, magical effect on me that it did when I first visited in 2008 (my band was still extremely active then and SF was one of our top cities in terms of our draw). And the wines were funky, cloudy, and great…

Chapeau bas to Dagan who has remained one of America’s essential hosts, soothsayers, and sorcerers. Natural wine — and wine in general — could more humans like him.

Italians can’t come to the U.S. So we’re bringing them to you via Zoom. Taste with me in Houston next week.

best lambruscoDespite our hopes that Italian winemakers would be able to join us in the U.S. this fall, Europeans are still banned from coming to the U.S. by the Biden administration. They can come here if they quarantine in certain countries for two weeks before arriving. But they can’t come directly from the EU.

When I was in Italy teaching at Slow Food U. in August, my Italian counterparts were optimistically expecting the ban to be lifted. Slow Wine had its tour planned for the U.S. in October, editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio told me over dinner at his house. Villa Sandi’s export director Flavio Geretto, another good friend, was gearing up for the Gambero Rosso tastings also scheduled for October (he was even planning on bringing his son to attend a concert in Houston!).

Italian winemakers had hoped to boost sales with in situ visits during the last and historically most lucrative quarter of the calendar year (“OND” or Octobero-November-December, as it is known in the trade). But all plans and hopes have been dashed by the continued prohibition.

And that’s why we’re bringing the Italians to you.

Next Wednesday in Houston, I’ll be hosting a hybrid virtual/in-person wine dinner with one of my dearest and closest friends, Alicia Lini. She will be joining our group of guests in the dining room at Roma restaurant, where I write the wine list, via Zoom. And other guests will be also be joining via Zoom from their own dining rooms (they will pick up the food and wine beforehand).

For those interested in attending, see the menu and details here. Roma’s kitchen is doing a wonderful seafood — yes, seafood! — menu to pair with Alicia’s white, rosé, and red Lambrusco. It’s going to be super fun. I hope you can join us. Thanks for your support and buon weekend.

Tacos El Gordo in San Diego, how is it possible that I didn’t know you? I’m late to the party but I got here as quick as I could!

It’s hard to believe that Tacos El Gordo in San Diego wasn’t on my radar before last week. But thankfully, that culinary lacuna has been remedied.

An early flight to California had left me with some free time last Monday before our family’s Rosh Hashanah dinner. And although an attempted visit to the legendary and now Michelin-rated San Ysidro taquería Tuétano ended in failure (because it was Labor Day and the restaurant was closed), the taco fantasies of at least one lapsed Californian were fulfilled that day when the Google landed them at the amazing and totally packed Tacos El Gordo on Palm Ave. in an old converted Taco Bell in Chula Vista.

You’d be hard pressed — or should we say, hard rolled — to find an eatery that hews so closely to the tacquerìa model of the Ciudad or Tijuana, both cities where said traveler spent a lot of time as a youth.

Tempted by the brains tacos, said traveler opted instead for the venue’s flagship dish, tacos de adobada: corn tortillas laden with marinated pork that has been fired in a vertical broiler.

cabeza = head

tripa = tripe

buche = pork stomach

suadero = rose meat (so called because it is pinkish in color; see here and here)

sesos = brains

lengua = tongue

Like their counterparts in Mexico City and Tijuana, the chef at the adobada station is as colorful in their delivery as they are histrionic in their carving.

Everything was so tempting, including the loaded fries. But a first visit to this amazing restaurant called for the classic.

Tacos El Gordo opened in Baja California in the 1970s and launched its first location on the U.S. side of the border in the late 1990s.

I can’t believe I hadn’t found this place until now. But I got here as quick as I could and now there’s no turning back.

Hack alert: if you’re not ordering the adobada (which is clearly the restaurant’s most popular dish), you can skip the main (and very long) ordering line and use one of the specialized lines for fries and tacos with other fillings.

2010 Anas-cëtta and 2006 Carema Riserva. What we drank for Erev Rosh Hashanah.

When I spoke to my mom the day of Erev Rosh Hashanah on my way home to La Jolla from the San Diego airport on Monday, I asked her to pick a couple of bottles from the mini-cellar I keep at her house. She opens the wines for her friends when they visit and we enjoy them at family get-togethers.

For the new year this year, she picked a 2006 Carema Riserva from Produttori di Carema and a 2010 “Anas-Cëtta” (Nascetta) by Cogno. Not bad, right?

Back in 2010 when I led a group of bloggers on a tour of Monferrato and Langhe wineries, Walter Fissore of Cogno opened a 2001 Anas-Cëtta for us. It was one of his first vintages of the then newly revived Piedmontese white grape variety. Everyone on our trip was so impressed with the wine, including me, that I bought a six-pack of the 2010 when I got back stateside.

This wine, aged in my storage locker in San Diego for 10 years (!), was incredibly fresh, with rich vibrant fruit on the mouth. I was totally blown away by how good it was. We had opened another bottle this summer when Tracie, the girls, and I were visiting my mom. It was good but this bottle was better. It blows me away how a roughly $25 bottle of white wine can perform like this. Chapeau bas to Walter who had the vision to get behind this grape and make some truly outstanding wines. I really enjoyed this and it went great with the classic middle eastern spread my sister-in-law and brother dialed in for dinner.

As a rule I never — almost never — accept gifted wine when I’m touring Italian wine country. The winemakers nearly ALWAYS want to give you a bottle when you visit. If I took a bottle each time I tasted with a producer, I reckon, there’s no way I could take all the wine back home with me. But when then Produttori di Carema president Viviano Gassino offered this bottle of 2006 Carema Riserva, how could I say no?

Note the artist label and the Alpini Torino 84th convention sticker (the annual gathering of Italian Alpine soldiers where this mountain wine was served evidently). This wine was extraordinary, very youthful and powerful, with dark red underripe fruit and smooth but still evolving tannin. What a wine!

2006 is a maligned vintage in many ways. It is overshadowed by 2005, a vintage that American critics loved. And at the time of its release, at least one high-profile Langhe grower reclassified its crus because it feared that the fallout of the financial crisis was dampening sales of its higher-end wines. So many Nebbiolophile seem to have forgotten this wonderful vintage. Great wine.

As much as I was sorry to see these two bottles go, the pleasure of drinking them — with my mom and brother’s family no less — assuaged the heartbreak of saying goodbye. Isn’t that the fun of collecting wine?

Happy new year, everyone!

Shanah tovah (שנה טובה). May your new year be filled with sweetness…

Shanah tovah u’metuka. May you have a good and sweet year ahead.

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, we eat apples and honey as we hope for a sweet new year.

From Chabad.org:

Let us turn our heads heavenward and, while thanking Him for sparing so much human life, beseech G-d to restore health and well-being to those who are suffering!

Let us ask G-d for a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year for the entire universe! Our High Holiday prayers, we are taught, have an extraordinary effect on the year ahead – let’s seize the opportunity!

Let us make firm, tangible resolutions to better ourselves and increase our mitzvot, in both our interpersonal and our G-d-and-us relationships.

And let us all simply shower one another with blessings!

Happy new year, everyone.

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.