Your Italian wine is organic but what about your vinegar?

A new category on the blog: de aceto.

Above: a popular brand of organic-certified red wine vinegar in Italy. The designation “biologico” on the label denotes “organic” in Italian.

Over the course of my three trips to Italy this year (so far), it seemed that organic wine vinegars kept popping up at every meal. One of the most popular brands, at least in Piedmont where I was teaching, was this Ki Group red wine vinegar, above.

(I’m not a fan of the commercial “balsamic” vinegars that generally find their way to even some of the best restaurants in Italy. They are mostly made from wine vinegar that’s been aromatized with real or concentrated balsamic or even caramel. The balsamic vinegar trade, sadly, is one of Italy’s most under-regulated imho.)

According to the product profile, the Ki Group vinegar is organic certified and made from Italian grapes. Otherwise, there’s little information about how it’s made beyond the ingredients listed on the company’s website — “wine, antioxidant: sulfur dioxide.”

One can only wonder what went into the wine besides grapes and there’s no information as to whether or not it was inoculated. There’s also no indication of how the vinegar was inoculated (all commercial and nearly all small-scale production vinegar is inoculated with a live “mother” yeast).

The best vinegars I’ve ever tasted were those produced by Joško Sirk in Collio (Friuli). There’s no mention on Sirk’s site of organic growing practices as far as I can find. It only mentions the high-quality of the fruit used to vinify the base wines.

I’ve also tasted wonderful homemade vinegars that have been fermented by trattoria owners in Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces (Emilia) where home and in-house production is widely found and where vinegar culture is widespread and heartfelt.

But I’ve never heard an oste (countryside restaurateur) say that her/his vinegars are organic. Most of them will tell you that they make their vinegars using their guests’ leftover wine (whatever that might be) and a mother yeast they’ve been cradling for years.

We consume a lot of vinegar at home (because we eat a lot of leafy greens), mostly organic vinegars that we buy from Whole Foods. Like the Ki Group vinegar I tasted repeatedly in Italy, they are good but nothing out of the ordinary. Honestly, I don’t taste much difference between the commercial high-volume vinegars we get our favorite local supermarket chain and the more expensive organic-certified bottlings we get from Whole Foods. And as in the case of the Ki Group vinegar, there’s not much info available regarding the growing and production practices. But we buy them nonetheless (being the vinegar suckers that we are).

I know you have organic wine in your glass. But what about the vinegar you use to dress your salad and pickle your vegetables?

For the record, the restaurant where I used that vinegar to dress my salad doesn’t make any distinction on its list between organically farmed wines and conventionally farmed ones. But it serves organic certified vinegar. Salad for thought…

Not a “racist bone” in his body? Trump supporters: stop the charade already!

You don’t like the tweets but you like the policy.

You don’t like the menacing language but you like the direction the country’s going.

He’s a straight shooter who tells it like it but sometimes the message comes out wrong.

“There’s not a racist bone in his body” but the media spins it to sound racist.

Remember when a white supremacist threatened Tracie and me and told us to “get the f*ck across the border” because we didn’t like a newly constructed Confederate memorial in Tracie’s home town (on MLK Dr. no less)?

Sound familiar?

Even some Republicans are starting to get nervous about Donald Trump’s language.

You know why? Because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue that he’s not a racist.

And there’s a reason for that (in case you haven’t noticed): he is a racist, a “white grievance” politician who’s based his entire political career on stoking the flames of racial division and violence — from the invocation of “Mexican rapists” to the chants of “send her back.”

Many to the left of Donald Trump (and perhaps some of his supporters) remember the famous lines from Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech: a time comes when silence is betrayal

Few know that King didn’t pen the aphorism. In fact, as he acknowledges in the speech, he borrows it from the platform of an antiwar group known as the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, the largest religiously based antiwar organization at the time.

In the lines that followed the now iconic truism, they wrote:

    Both the exercise of faith and the expression of the democratic privilege oblige us to make our voices heard. For while we speak as members of religious communities, we also speak as American citizens. Responsible expressions of disagreement and dissent is the lifeblood of democracy, and we speak out of loyalty that refuses to condone in silence a national policy that is leading our world toward disaster.

There comes a time when silence is betrayal. And the time is now to stand up and speak out.

When our nation’s president menaces sitting members of congress with vexations that echo racist tropes like “go back to Africa” and “go back to Mexico,” the time is now to honor our obligation to make our voices heard.

Those who stand idly by, prisoners of political expedience and their lack of moral fortitude, will have to face their own reckoning with morality.

For those who condone Trump’s vituperation, the time is now to admit that they, too, are racists to the bone.

Aglianico and sushi made for magic last night in Houston

Learn how to pronounce Aglianico in Neapolitan and in Italian here.

Something remarkable happened last night after Tracie and I sat down for a splurge sushi dinner at Kata Robata, one of Houston’s premier Japanese restaurants.

Seated at the (cocktail) bar, we had just ordered a bottle of Graci Etna Rosato, a rosé from Nerello grapes grown on the high-lying slopes of the Sicilian volcano, by one of our favorite producers (a classic). The same bartender who had taken our order approached us with another glass of rosé in hand.

“Hey,” he said, “if you like that wine, you might like this one, too.”

It was the Rogito rosé from Aglianico by storied Aglianico del Vulture producer Cantine del Notaio (rogito — ROH-gee-toh — means public decree in archaic Italian; all the names of the labels by Cantine del Notaio are plucked from ancient legalese; the name of the winery means the notary’s cellars; a notaio was a term used for what we would call lawyers today).

Tracie had never had the wine and she loved its bright fruit and freshness. So our bartender, Mohammed Rahman, graciously offered to switch our bottle order to a by-the-glass order instead. It turned out that he is also the wine director at this super high-profile Houston dining destination (and a lovely guy).

The wine worked brilliantly with our meal, including the fatty tuna and Japanese scallops that we ordered. The whole experience was fantabulously delicious.

But the thing that struck me was the ease and grace with which Italian wines have insinuated themselves into an unlikely program. The last time Tra and I visited Kata Robata, one of our Houston special-occasion spots, we were lucky to find an affordable Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc.

Mo, as Mohammed introduced himself, is a big fan of Italian wine and his list is peppered with some of my favorite value-driven wines from the peninsula and its islands: Winkl by Terlan, Falanghina by I Pentri, not to mention a solid Assyrtiko (from Santorini, Greece) by-the-glass and Hanzell Chardonnay (from California) by-the-bottle.

It’s rare that you find so much affordable drinkability at a place that also sells current-vintage Château Margaux (750ml) for $1,400. Mo told us that he tries to offer a robust selection of wines like the above for budget-challenged food and wine people like us and him.

Chapeau bas, Mo! We LOVED YOUR list. Thanks for taking such great care of us last night.

A mother of all sandwiches (and updates from New York and Houston)

A bunch of folks commented yesterday on the above photo posted on my social media.

I’m really into sandwiches (it that’s not already abundantly apparent).

Yesterday’s was uncured ham, Colby-Jack cheese, red leaf lettuce, sliced tomato, thinly sliced red onion, generously slathered Mexican-style mayonnaise (with lime juice), stacker pickle, French’s mustard (also generously doused), lightly sprinkled kosher salt, and freshly cracked Cambodian pepper (that my older brother gave us, one of our current obsessions). It was all layered on slightly toasted Italian country bread from Whole Foods.

No wine pairing because I rarely drink at lunch, sorry.

I’m glad that social media friends enjoyed it as much as I did!

In other news…

Today finds me in New York City, literally for 24 hours and a couple of meetings with a favorite client.

Last night he treated me to a spritz at Bar 54 atop the Hyatt Centric Hotel Times Square. That’s the view looking south. I highly recommend it.

It’s always strange to be back in the city where I spent my 30s, especially when I’m here solely for business and not connecting with friends.

But, hey, it’s nice work if you can get it! I ain’t complaining.

In other other news…

Thanks, everyone, for all the sweet birthday wishes over the weekend!

On Saturday, the girls, Tra, and I spent the day together doing fun stuff and cooking a fat dinner to be paired with a bottle of Nebbiolo.

And on Sunday, my new band BioDynamic played a Bastille Day gig in midtown Houston. I even revived Cal d’Hommage, my stage name from the good ol’ French band days (WAY back in the day).

It was a great birthday weekend and the wishes meant the world to me.

Gotta run now… wish me luck and wish me speed!

And btw, I still have a few spots open for the Prosecco seminar I’m leading with Flavio Geretto from Villa Sandi tomorrow at Vinology in Houston. HIT ME UP!

Houston mourns the loss of beloved Italian wine professional Joseph Kemble

Above: Jospeh Kemble in Cervia (Ravenna), Italy (photo via Joseph’s Facebook).

Today the Houston wine community mourns the loss of one of its most beloved members, Joseph Kemble, longtime Italian wine buyer for Spec’s retail operations and distribution.

According to numerous posts by his friends on Facebook, he died yesterday after a long bout with cirrhosis. He was 48 years old and would have celebrated his 49th birthday next month.

Joseph was a larger-than-life figure in the Italian wine world: as the Italian buyer for one of the largest retail chains in the country, with more than 150 locations across Texas, he oversaw one of the biggest Italian wine programs in the U.S.
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Prosecco seminar and Bastille Day/birthday bash music this week and next in Houston

Back when I was living in New York City and playing with Les Sans Culottes and Nous Non Plus, we ALWAYS had a gig on my birthday, July 14 — Bastille Day.

It was only natural: as the city’s leading faux French rock bands, we were always in demand for the holiday, which is annually celebrated there with élan.

Sometimes we would play two gigs on the same day, usually at the Orchard St. Bastille Day festival during the day and then later that night at a club like the now defunct Brownies where the above picture was snapped in the pre-digital days.
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Prosecco DOCG named UNESCO World Heritage Site

Above: a photograph taken in the hills of Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene during the 2018 harvest (via the Villa Sandi Facebook).

In a tweet posted early Sunday morning (EST), UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) announced that the hills of Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene have been officially “inscribed on” the World Heritage list, a coveted designation that adds the Prosecco DOCG appellation to an exclusive club of sites recognized for their cultural uniqueness, beauty, and significance.

The following statement appeared yesterday on the UNESCO website:

    Le Colline del Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene (Italy) — Located in north-eastern Italy, the site includes part of the vinegrowing landscape of the Prosecco wine production area. The landscape is characterized by “hogback” hills, ciglioni – small plots of vines on narrow grassy terraces – forests, small villages and farmland. For centuries, this rugged terrain has been shaped and adapted by man. Since the 17th century, the use of ciglioni has created a particular chequerboard landscape consisting of rows of vines parallel and vertical to the slopes. In the 19th century, the bellussera technique of training the vines contributed to the aesthetic characteristics of the landscape.

With 55 sites included in the list as of 2019, Italy has more designations than any other country in the world (see the complete list on the Italian Wikipedia here). Other sites include the archeological excavation at Pompei in Campania and the viticultural landscape of Langhe-Roero and Monferrato in Piedmont.

The hills of Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene were considered but not included in the list during last year’s meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Committee. They are now the eighth site to receive the designation in Italy’s Veneto region.

J. Brix Chardonnay from Santa Barbara Calaveras County blew me away and other great wines (and guitars)

That’s Chris Broomell above, co-owner Vesper Vineyards in north county San Diego, one of the most compelling winemakers working in the state imho.

Writing on the fly I am this long holiday weekend in San Diego where I’ve been tasting with winemakers like Chris for the Slow Wine Guide 2020 (and playing some guitar).

I’m always impressed by the way he talks about his wines and the nascent revolution in San Diego viticulture. The fruit has always been here, he points out. But the hegemonic winemaking style never reflected — never translated — the quality that San Diego can produce.

But the wine I can’t stop thinking about is the J. Brix Santa Barbara Calaveras County Chardonnay I tasted this week.

I had tasted Emily and Jody Towe’s wines on many occasions over the years and have always enjoyed them immensely (I had them on my list at the now defunct Sotto in Los Angeles where I ran the wine program for nearly eight years).

But this wine really takes it over the top in terms of the depth and nuance. It opens with primary Chardonnay flavors (tropical fruit and banana) but then unfolds its layers-upon-layers of savory herbs, minerality, and ripe and dried stone fruit.

I can’t wait to taste Tracie on this wine. She is going to flip out (I’m planning smuggle a couple of bottles back to Texas where they are still illegal).

Another wine that surprised me with its depth was this Syrah by Chris’ wife and partner Alysha Stehly, another winemaker to watch imho. I’ll be visiting and tasting with her tomorrow before I head back to Houston.

I’ve only been here a few days but have tasted some truly spectacular wines — all of which land with affordable pricing btw.

But the biggest treat of my sojourn was getting to sit in with the magical Dave Gleason (below).

He’s a true virtuoso of the Telecaster. I’m nowhere in his league but he generously lets me sit in with his band when I’m in town.

We played blues and country yesterday out at the Grand Ole BBQ Flinn Springs in El Cajon (where, btw, the Texas-style brisket was completely legit, melt-in-your-mouth liquid delicious).

Dave is a Doug Sahm of our generation, a musical polymath and one of the sweetest people you could ever meet.

Tonight I’ll be playing the whole evening with one of his bands, the Born Fighters, at Beaumont’s in La Jolla (where I grew up). All the stars from the La Jolla music scene are coming out for this one.

If you’re in town, we’ll take the stage around 9 and play until midnight or so. Beaumont’s is pretty rowdy and things can get a little out of hand there. So come ready to rock!

Bastille Day-Birthday Bash July 14 at Mongoose vs. Cobra in Houston

Our new band has a new name (BioDynamic) and a gig on my birthday: Sunday, July 14 at Mongoose vs. Cobra in Houston’s Midtown!

Please come and rock out with me and the family!

70s and 80s covers
@ Mongoose vs. Cobra
Sunday, July 14
4-8 p.m.
1011 McGowen St.
Houston TX 77002
(713) 650-6872
Google map

Top image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The best vitello tonnato ever…

Vitello tonnato is one of my gastronomic obsessions.

In part because of how good it is when done right. In part because it agrees with me metabolically. (Ascribe it to the famous “Jewish boy stomach” syndrome for those weened on tuna fish sandwiches and white fish salad.)

My latest trip to Italy included a convivial encounter with what — everyone at the table agreed — was probably the best vitello tonnato ever.

It came from a newish wine bar in the village of Barbaresco called Koki (Facebook; website).

My hosts, who had already experienced this apotheosis of vitello tonnato, had asked the owner/chef for a take-out vitello tonnato.

He instructed them to come to the venue just a few hours before the luncheon they were hosting. Not before, he said. And he also told them to bring their own dishes, which they did.

He plated it for them and sent them home with plastic-wrapped veal and sauce.

The Koki vitello tonnato was pinker than most. It resembled what the Italians call rosbif, a calque of the English roast beef, always served cold and generally dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice.

My hosts speculated that it had been cooked sous vide and then finished in a hot oven to make the edges well done.

The quality of the veal was spectacular, not surprising for Piedmont where bovine protein is a supreme victual.

But the thing that really took it over the top was the tuna sauce, which had a hint of eastern spice. My hosts speculated that it had been made with hazelnuts, an admissible and canonical ingredient, although sometimes omitted in my personal experience.

I never had a chance to visit Koki Wine Bar in person but it’s on my list for my next visit to Langa. I can’t recommend the vitello tonnato highly enough.

Last year I published this photography retrospective of some of my favorite expressions of vitello tonnato.

And I have to give a shout-out here to the vitello tonnato I ate, also on this last trip, at Local, the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences food shop and casual restaurant in downtown Bra (below). As you can see, there is barely any pink in the meat, typical of most recipes.

What did we drink with our vitello tonnato? A 1996 Barberesco Riserva was the highlight of the flight. But more on that later…