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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A southeast Texas wine list that needs to be on your radar at Davis St. in Houston.

Last Friday, Tracie and I had our first big night on the H-Town since our 10-year anniversary celebration in January 2020. We were joined by some of our best friends in Houston: a couple we have known through wine since before the lockdowns began and another couple to whom we’ve become close through the weekly virtual dinners I led during the lockdowns. It was an incredible experience to sit down finally with them over a proper meal. That’s something, I believe, a lot of us are experiencing these days.

Not only was it wonderful to connect with great friends, old and new, over a long, relaxed, and decadent dinner. But it was also fantastic to explore the incredible menu and amazing wine program at Davis St. at Hermann Park on the edge of Houston’s museum district (which, I recently learned, is only surpassed in scope and breadth by New York City’s — no joke).

Chef Mark Holley’s menu is focused on seafood and Gulf Coast cookery with contemporary flourishes. The materia prima alone would be worth the price of admission. But it’s his creative approach to haute Louisiana cuisine that really takes it over the top. That’s the Thai-style Gulf red snapper in the image above. Nothing short of phenomenal.

But the biggest and even happier discovery was the excellent wine program there. We started out with a selection from an ample offering of Champagnes, headed to Burgundy for some Bourgogne Blanc and then to Willamette for some richer-style but still judiciously restrained Chardonnay. But the real showstopper was a 2008 Sagrantino by Antonelli. I was so stoked to find that wine on the list and it wowed all of us. For the last wine (there were six of us, after all!), I asked wine director Kevin Jackson to choose for us. He soon reappeared with a bottle of Elio Altare Langhe Nebbiolo (2018, if I’m not mistaken, the brio had eclipsed the note taking by that point!). The pairing with our seafood mains was spot on — Nebbiolo and classic Louisiana cooking. We loved and highly recommend it.

This is Americana cooking at its best imho. Come out to visit us in Houston and I’ll make us a reservation… And wine people, you need to get Kevin Jackson and his wine program on your radar.

In other news…

I’m in Southern California this week, working and visiting a best friend who’s facing some major health challenges right now.

That’s a photo taken from the Las Flores Canyon vista point at Camp Pendleton yesterday.

Please say a prayer for my friend. They have a long road ahead. I know they’re going to make it. But it’s going to take all of our support for them to get there. They will. I know it, they will. But it’s not going to be easy.

Thanks for being here and thanks for the support and solidarity.

On wine and good health in the pandemic circa 1348 (my Georgetown Humanities Initiative lecture).

Above: Sandro Botticelli’s “Banquet in the Pine Forest” (1482-83), the third painting in his series “The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti,” a depiction of the eight novella of the fifth day in Boccaccio’s Decameron (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

When esteemed wine educator Karen MacNeil upbraided me last year for writing about a wine and its effect on my metabolism, it only reminded me of what a soulless wine writer she is. And her pungent words came to mind this week when I delivered a virtual lecture on wine as an expression of Western culture for the Georgetown University Humanities Initiative.

One of the topics covered in my talk was wine as portrayed in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. For those unfamiliar with the work (one of the pillars of the Western canon), the backdrop of the 100 tales told by the young Florentine nobles is the Black Death (Plague) of the mid-14th century. The pandemic reached his city around 1348.

In the introduction to the collection of novellas, Boccaccio describes wine consumption habits of Florentine citizens during the health crisis, their excesses and their moderation, and the role that wine plays in achieving good health.

In the work’s afterword, he returns to the subject of wine and moderate consumption.

“Like everything else,” he writes, “these stories, such as they are, may be harmful or helpful, depending on the listener.”

    Who does not know that wine is a very fine thing for the healthy… but that is harmful for people suffering from a fever? Shall we say it is bad because it does harm to those who are feverish? Who does not know that fire is extremely useful, in fact downright necessary for [hu]mankind? Shall we say it is bad because it burns down houses and villages and cities?

(The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn, Norton, New York, 2013.)

As evidenced in the passage above, Boccaccio and his contemporaries believed that wine, like fire, was “downright necessary” for humankind.

In Medieval Europe, wine was prized for its ability to balance the “hot” and “cold” of foods and dishes. “Hot” wines were ideally served with “cold” foods and inversely, “cold” wines were best paired with “hot” dishes. These were not gradations of temperature, spiciness, or alcohol content, but rather indicators of humoral composition.

The humors of the drinker, and the place and time of consumption, also came into play.

“Once the nature of a given wine was determined,” writes Medieval scholar Allen J. Grieco, “it still remained necessary for a consumer to respect at least four other conditions.”

    First of all it was necessary to know the humoral constitution of the persons who was going to drink the wine. Secondly, it was important to determine what food was going to be eaten with it. Thirdly, it was necessary to take into account the time of the year in which the wine was to be drunk and finally, it was also important to consider the geographical location in which the wine was to be consumed.

(“Medieval and Renaissance Wines: Taste, Dietary Theory, and How to Choose the ‘Right’ Wine [14th-16th centuries],” by Allen J. Grieco, Mediaevalia, vol. 30, 2009, The Center of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Binghamton University, The State University of New York.)

Boccaccio’s belief that wine was necessary for humankind is widely reflected in the 15-century treatise “On Right Pleasure and Good Health” by Renaissance writer Bartolomeo Sacchi “Il Platina” (see Platina. On Right Pleasure and Good Health, a critical edition and translation of De honesta voluptate et valetudine by Mary Ella Milham, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, Tempe, 1998).

Pairing the right wine with the right food (and at the right time and in the right place) was one of the keys, he writes throughout the work, to good metabolism and healthy living — echoes of Boccaccio.

Today, wine scribblers like MacNeil embrace only aesthetic, hedonistic, and commercial values in their reviews and “educational” materials. Nearly universally, they fall short of embracing the human and humanistic currency of wine. They ask only how is this wine made?, how does this wine taste? and what’s its commercial value? without ever addressing the role that wine may play in metabolism and more generally in achieving balanced, good health. They write of lifestyle while ignoring life and living itself.

I can’t imagine a more soulless wine culture. With so many wonderful examples of wine writing over the ages where wine is viewed as vital to human experience, it’s a wonder that the current generation of wine mediators have failed us so grossly.

Maybe if MacNeil and her followers would drink a more human wine, they wouldn’t have such a prickly stick up their arses.

Drink a bottle of Barolo with Giuseppe Vaira and me this Thursday in Houston.

Photo by Ilkka Sirén.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to be moderating a virtual wine dinner this Thursday with my good friend Giuseppe Vajra (above), legacy winemaker at G.D. Vajra in Barolo and one of the most soulful Langa growers I know.

Giuseppe will be joining me for our weekly event at Roma restaurant, my client, here in Houston.

I first tasted at Vajra back in 2010 and then later had the opportunity to work with Giuseppe here in Texas. Over the years, Tracie and I have enjoyed the wines immensely and I’ve featured his wines on restaurant lists I’ve managed. We have more than a few vintages of his Bricco delle Viole in our cellar. The family’s Riesling is another age-worthy stand-out among many others in the line up.

As every wine professional knows these days, this is a time for creativity. Roma owner Shanon Scott and I have been working with our suppliers to keep the price of these dinners low while still being able to offer our guests a unique and truly compelling experience. As if tasting with winemaker like Giuseppe weren’t enough, we were able to obtain his 2016 Barolo Albe specially for this event. But the price will be the same as always: $119 sends you home with dinner for two and three (yes, three!) bottles of wine including Giuseppe’s Barolo.

Click here for the menu and the other wines. (The Vajra Dolcetto is my 87-year-old mother’s all-time favorite red wine, btw.)

We expect this event to sell out quickly: please let me know if you’d like me to hold you a spot (click here to email me).

Join Paolo Cantele and me this Thursday for a virtual wine dinner in Houston.

Georgia was about nine months old the first time we took her to Italy. That’s her with Paolo at the Cantele winery outside Lecce.

Paolo Cantele isn’t just one of my best friends in Italy.

He’s one of my best friends, period.

A “road warrior” like me, he and I went on what would turn out to be our last road trip of the year back in February, not long before our countries — his and mine — began to shut down.

We’ve traveled across Italy and the U.S. together, we’ve eaten in some of the best restaurants in the world together, we’ve discussed literature and film (our friendship began with his most amazing story about meeting Ninetto Davoli!), we share a love of music and culture.

I’ll never forget taking Paolo honky tonking in Austin for the first time. That’s Paolo at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon in 2010 (long before Dale Watson bought the place). We played chicken shit bingo — de rigueur!

In Oklahoma this year, we were even trolled together by a Trump supporter! No shit.

I just love the guy and we’ve had some truly unforgettable experiences together.

Paolo and I also work together: this Thursday he and I will be hosting a virtual wine dinner organized by one of my local clients, ROMA.

Owner Shanon Scott, chef Angelo Cuppone, and I have been doing these since late April and they’ve morphed into a de facto supper club. They are super fun and the regular crowd has developed a bonhomie that’s much needed in these days of attenuated socializing. Tracie and I look forward to them each week.

See the menu and details here. The couples price includes dinner for two and three bottles of wine. It’s a great deal and the week chef outdid himself with the perfect lineup for summer.

Please join us if you can: it’s a great way to support local businesses (including my own) and spend an evening with likeminded food and wine lovers. You won’t regret it.

Call (713) 664-7581 to reserve (these sell out fast so please be sure to snag your spot).

cognà (cugnà) my latest obsession, Piedmont’s cheese friend

One of the perks of teaching at a gastronomic sciences university in the heart of Piedmont wine country is that the food and wine aren’t bad.

Add to that mix the fact the town(ship) where the school is located is also home to the Slow Food movement and an acute interest in wholesome and traditional foodways. It’s a recipe for a whole lotta deliciousness.

After returning from a winery visit in La Morra (Barololand) yesterday following class, one professor settled into his favorite local dining spot, Ristorante Battaglino in Bra (the toponym Bra comes from the late Latin/Longobard braida meaning farm or countryside btw). Following a repast of tajarin with sausage ragù and a glass of Ferdinando Principiano 2014 Barolo, he leisurely nibbled at a selection of cheeses accompanied by crusty bread and cognà or cugnà in the local patois.

It’s a cheese friend that falls somewhere between jam and relish.

Made from freshly crushed grape must (the main ingredient) with the addition of other fruits like apple, pear, and quince (depending on the recipe), hazelnuts and walnuts, and figs (dried or fresh), it’s one of those if it grows with it it goes with it dancing partners for cheese and Nebbiolo (or Dolcetto as the case may be).

Said instructor is no stranger to the wonders of the triptych cheese-Nebbiolo-cognà. Unsurprisingly, he had enjoyed a similar confluence the prior evening, save for the fact that the enoic component was Dolcetto.

Wise and informed humans also report that cognà marries superbly with Piedmontese-style bollito misto as well.

Texas BBQ and Italian wine tasting and seminar, February 25 in Houston

In a time before Frankin Barbecue in Austin and Killen’s Barbecue in Houston, smoked meats were simply part of the everybody-everyday Texas culinary fabric and landscape.

“We don’t go out for bbq,” said Tracie, then my girlfriend, 10 years ago now.

“We eat [family friend] Melvin’s or Uncle Tim’s,” she explained.

When we shared news of our wedding plans, Melvin exclaimed (and this is not a joke, people): “how am I gonna get my smoker to La Jolla?”

Today, 10 years gone, Texas BBQ has conquered the world. Even in faraway Como, Italy, Houston Chronicle BBQ columnist J.C. “Chris” Reid found authentic Texas smoked meats.

On Monday, February 25, Chris will be presenting a tasting and seminar exploring the alchemy of pairing Texas BBQ with Italian wine (a heavenly match imho). The paper’s wine writer Dale Robertson will join him on the dais and I will be moderating the session.

We’ll also be joined by three of Houston’s leading pit masters, who will be sharing their secrets and their smoked meats with 80 lucky registrants.

This event will sell out quickly, folks, and registration has just opened.

Details follow below. I hope you can join us!

Btw, check out Chris’ thread here. He’s the world’s greatest living expert on Texas BBQ.

*****

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER FOR
“HOW TO PAIR TEXAS BBQ WITH ITALIAN WINE”
(Monday, February 25, 3:30 p.m.)

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER FOR
THE TASTE OF ITALY GRAND TASTING
(Monday, February 25
open to trade and media at 11 a.m.
open to public at 3 p.m.)

The Italy-Texas factor: How to pair Texas BBQ with Italian wine.
seminar and tasting
Monday, February 25

Presented by
Italy-American Chamber of Commerce Texas
and
Taste of Italy
trade fair and food festival
Hilton Post Oak
2001 Post Oak Blvd.
Houston TX 77056

Click for festival information and registration details.

Leading Texas BBQ expert J.C. Reid and veteran Houston wine writer Dale Robertson explore the magic and science of pairing classic Texas smoked meats with Italian grape varieties and wine styles. They will be joined by 3 top Houston pit masters who will share some of their smoking secrets as well as insights into matching their foods with wines from the Old Country.
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Texas BBQ and Lambrusco: the ultimate wine pairing (WARNING CONTAINS BRISKET AND BALSAMIC PORN)

From the department of “nice work if you can get it”…

Above: the sacred and profane, a slice of juicy Texas smoked brisket topped with 12-year aged Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Reggio Emilia (I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which is the profane and which the sacred).

Yesterday afternoon, I connected with Houston Chronicle bbq columnist J.C. “Chris” Reid and Houston restaurant legend Bill Floyd at Bill’s Jackson St. BBQ in downtown for some Lambrusco and smoked meats pairing research.

I’ve always been a big believer that Lambrusco is not only the best wine to pair with Texas bbq but that it should also be adopted as the state’s official wine.

Refreshing, served cold, low in alcohol, with more tannic character than people realize, sweet with residual sugar even when people call it “dry,” Lambrusco mirrors in more way than one the sweet tea that is traditionally served with smoked meats in Texas.

Yes, beer is also a traditional pairing for bbq. But most beer doesn’t have the sweetness that can work so well with the smoky and often spicy character of the food.

When my wife Tracie and I first attended church “feeds” hosted by my father-in-law’s congregation in Orange, Texas on the Louisiana border, I tasted sweet tea with homemade bbq (no one in Orange goes “out” for bbq, btw). And that’s when I started to look to Lambrusco as the ideal match.

Above: on Monday, March 5 in Houston, J.C. “Chris” Reid and I will be leading a seminar on bbq and Lambrusco pairing at the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Taste of Italy festival. Stay tuned for details on that.

The evolution of Texas bbq over the last 10 years is nothing short of incredible. When I first moved to Texas in 2008, the bbq revolution was just beginning to take shape. Today, you can find Texas bbq across the U.S. and even in Europe. And it’s not Kansas City, Carolina, or Memphis. It’s Texas bbq — religiously smoked, “low and slow” — that has proved to have such appeal across the world.

With its new international standing and profile, it’s only natural that we should start to look for the right wine to pair with this indigenous and truly unique gastronomic tradition.

On Monday, March 5 in Houston, Chris and I will be leading a seminar on bbq and Lambrusco pairing at the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Taste of Italy festival. Jackson St. will be one of the smokers providing the food pairings together with another couple of Houston standbys.

And Texas brisket and traditional balsamic vinegar you ask? I’ll also be moderating a panel that day on classic and creative applications of the sticky icky and utterly delicious stuff.

It’s nice work if you can get it, ain’t it? Stay tuned for details and hope to see you March 5 in Houston at Taste of Italy!

Partying with Tony on Lake Garda, catering by the AMAZING Gianni Briarava

I rarely indulge in what Tracie P and I call “day drinking.”

But yesterday, after my first morning dip into the chiare, fresche, e dolci acque (clear, fresh, and sweet waters) of Lake Garda, I couldn’t refuse the gin & tonic offered me by my lovely host Tony (see below) whom I’ve known almost as long as I’ve loved my Brescian bromance, Giovanni. It all went downhill from there.

A lot of Facebook folks have been asking me where I was partying on the lake yesterday: we were at Tony’s private rental house just outside the village of Salò, not far from the Palazzo Martinengo, where Mussolini’s secretary once ran the Italian Socialist Republic — the Fascist state established after the Armistice of Cassibile in 1943.

The catering was by the amazing Gianni Briarava, our friend and a Lake Garda legacy chef, winner of Michelin stars but now at the helm of the more toned-down Locanda del Benaco, a lakeside hotel and restaurant. I highly recommend it (it has a jaw-dropping 4.9-star rating on Google, btw; I can’t seem to find a website for the venue but that’s a good sign if you ask me).

Gianni is so rad: that’s his burrata with salt-cured anchovies and summer tomato. Let me tell you, folks, that was a game-changer dish on my palate.

Those are his battuto di fassona (Fassone [or Fassona] beef tartare) “meatballs.” Ridiculous, right?

Brittany oysters paired brilliantly with Pasini Lugana metodo classico (“Trebbiano with a small amount of Chardonnay,” said the consulting enologist, who happened to be on hand).

Locally harvested strawberries for dessert, among many other delights (I only wish I would have taken more photos, Gianni, but the party was too good!).

Tony, my friend, thanks for letting me tag along for your excellent birthday party. I can’t think of better way to get my own birthday week kicked off right. That gin & tonic was the best I ever had and I’m now heading home with the perfect tan…

See you on the other side…

Here’s the rub: a best wine to pair with Texas bbq imho

bbq lamb chops barbecueFrom what I’ve been told, I ruffled more than a few feathers with my post from last month on the incongruous nature of pairing big bold (Californian-style) red wine and Texas bbq.

It seems that I had transgressed an absolute held dear by many a Texan: if the pairing is to be wine, it must be a high-alcohol, low-acidity, oaky, concentrated, “fruit bomb” red wine, a style described this week by Master of Wine and widely read wine expert and journalist Jancis Robinson as “California’s late-20th-century love affair with alcohol, oak, sweetness and mass.”

It’s important to keep in mind that “Texas” bbq is unique in the panorama of American bbq because its foundation is smoked meats (mostly beef and primarily brisket) that have been seasoned with dry rub.

In “Memphis” bbq, for example, sweet and tangy vinegar-based sauce is used instead to baste and flavor pork during smoking. In my view, it’s nearly impossible to pair wine with this style of bbq because the sweetness and acidity in the basting sauce, which is often applied liberally after the meat is cooked, overwhelm nearly any wine (in Texas bbq, sauce is an afterthought if applied at all). It’s similar to the oxymoronic pairing of chocolate and red wine, however popular it may be.

jurancon grapes french wineI recently returned to the same Houston bbq joint where I offended my comrades, Roegel’s BBQ, for a mandate with a (male) food writer friend.

The 2013 Jurançon Sec by Bru-Baché (made from Gros Manseng in the French Pyrénées, above) was the wine I brought.

In my view and on my palate, this is the style of wine that pairs best with Texas bbq, where the intense smokiness of the meats dominates the flavors.

The rich white and stone fruit and gentle citrus character of this wine, its freshness despite a slightly oxidative note, and — most importantly — its low alcohol at 12.5 percent, make it ideal for pairing with dry rub bbq.

It may be counterintuitive for some but the greatest pairings are based not on resemblance but rather contrast.

Consider how deliciously lemon juice tastes works in fish prepared à la meunière where the fat of the butter and the lean acidity of the citrus accentuate the flavor the fish.

Where the savory flavors and earthiness of my beloved Nebbiolo would be eclipsed by smoky Texas bbq, the Jurançcon delivers brilliantly — just like the lemon in the meunière.

roegels bbq houstonAnd here’s the rub (excuse the pun!). The greatest incongruence lies in the fact that many of my fellow Texans insist on matching higher-end red wines with bbq. I’ve seen this countless times.

Not only are the wines technically mismatched, but they are also misaligned from a socio-economic perspective.

As bbq authority J.C. Reid (a good friend) wrote in a recent column for the Houston Chronicle, “an ice, cold Lone Star Beer paired with great Texas barbecue is a Houston tradition for a reason: they just go together from both a flavor and a cultural point of view.”

When people cross into the “final frontier,” as Reid has called it, of pairing wine and bbq, they tend to reach for extremes, like the $50 bottle of 15.6 percent alcohol Syrah that someone poured me during my previous meal at the bbq joint. There is nothing delicate about Texas bbq and people tend to love a show-stopping “wow” factor when pairing with wine.

At under $20 a bottle, even the Jurançon could be considered extravagant. But since it’s become the Parzen family’s house wine for the summer of 2015 (hence the dinosaur and apple wedges in the photo above), it seemed just the right choice for my bbq experience the other night. It was perfect…