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…

Modern vs. traditional pecorino: a cheese shop grows in Brooklyn at Pair

chung park pair cheese bar brooklynOne of the more interesting conversations I had while in New York last week was with veteran cheese monger, Chung Park (above), who recently opened a new cheese bar on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn called Pair (no site but you can find details on his Yelp).

We were tasting my client La Porta di Vertine’s Chianti Classico — a wine that falls squarely on the traditional side of the modern vs. traditional spectrum.

Even though he says he’s new to wine tasting, Chung is one of those naturally gifted tasters who — at least in the flight of roughly six wines we tasted together — doesn’t get caught up in painful self-awareness or affectation.

As we tasted together, we talked about the clichéd differences in the wine world between old school and new. And he said something that was as entirely unexpected as it was wholly brilliant.

In the cheese world, he noted, you don’t really have this divide.

After all, he pointed out, “there are many differences in how pecorino is made. It can be aged in straw. It can be buried and aged in the ground. The rind can be rubbed with wine [solids]. But all of these traditions stretch back literally thousands of years.”

“There is no ‘modern vs. traditional’ pecorino,” he said wryly.

oma cheese vontrappAs we munched on some Latium pecorino and Von Trapp cow’s milk oma (yes, the Von Trapp family) paired with our Sangiovese, I reveled in the notion of a world without an old world vs. new world dialectic.

In the last four decades, wine tastes and winemaking philosophies have oscillated radically and often with breakneck speed.

The cheese world, it seems, is free from yoke of post-post-modern critical and commercial subjugation. I’m sure the truth is more nuanced than my reductive take on it. But wouldn’t it be nice if the wine world had glossed over and glided through the era of modernization?

I really liked Chung and his cheese bar a lot. Brilliant guy, great palate.

I’ll be rooting for his new place, Pair.

More New York stories to come. Stay tuned…

Wine glasses that sing and sexual chemistry in wine pairing coupling for V-Day

pizza champagne pornAbove: a little soft gooey porn to get your Valentine’s Day weekend started off on the right slurp.

First of all: happy Valentine’s Day weekend, everyone!

I had a lot of fun with my post today for the Boulder Wine Merchant: “Sexual chemistry matters: Valentine’s Day wine couplings.”

This year, put some sexual chemistry into your V-Day wine pairing.

glass harp michael andrews composer musicianAbove: while in LA this week, I got to play a glass harp.

Secondly, check out the video below of my friend Mike Andrews’ glass harp (you know Mike’s music from his career as a film composer and music producer; his break-out score was the sound track to the 2001 film Donnie Darko).

Mike is a collector of vintage instruments and it’s always a wonderful experience to visit his studio in Glendale.

But listening to him play and then getting to play his glass harp, the latest addition to his collection, was truly magical. We paired it with a bottle of Cirelli Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Anfora that I swiped from Sotto (wine directors get to do that, btw).

Happy Valentine’s Day weekend, everyone! Squeeze and hold your loved one tight tomorrow. And remember what a blessing it is to live in this world, to love, and to be loved.

The new Texas wine scene is exploding. In fact, there is life beyond “Napa Cab.”

perfectly sliced prosciutto

Above: Prosciutto at the newly opened Camerata wine bar in Houston. FINALLY someone who can slice prosciutto correctly!

“It’s hard to complain these days,” wrote Austin wine collector and restaurateur Steven Dilley the other day in an email.

It seems like yesterday that many of us would moan and gripe about the wines we couldn’t get here in Texas.

But today, it’s as if a new sun has risen over the Lone Star State.

Master Sommelier candidate David Keck’s Camerata in Houston is my new favorite wine destination in the state. It’s a true wine salon where all the local wine hip folks are hanging out (it’s the place where I saw not just one but two copies of Wine Grapes being passed around).

And by day, it’s home to the newly formed Houston Sommelier Association (I wrote about the new group for the Houston Press here).

Super cool joint…

clos roche blanche austin

Above: Clos Roche Blanche by the glass on our friend Mark Sayre’s list at Trio at the Four Seasons in Austin. Hell yeah!

Back here in Austin, Tracie P and I had our first night out since the arrival of Lila Jane (now four weeks old; thanks again nanna and pawpaw!).

After we enjoyed a glass of Clos Roche Blanche at the Four Seasons (a wine that Alice turned me on to many years ago now, enabling my interest in and passion for Natural wine), we headed over to the newly opened Arro, where not just one but two Master Sommeliers — Craig Collins and Devon Broglie — write the list and work the floor.

I knew roughly half of the lots on the all French list but would have gladly tasted/opened anything: when you see such intelligence in a wine list, your trust level makes it easy to be led blindly. And that’s what we did.

saint damien cotes rhone

Above: Slightly chilled Grenache paired with roast chicken and steak frites was just right.

The wine I’m still thinking about this morning was the Saint Damien Côtes du Rhône. But Craig, who was working the floor last night, tasted us on so many great things.

There’s never been such a focused and brilliant list in Austin. It’s a list that makes a statement.

And along with Steven Dilley’s list at Bufalina (which we also loved), Craig and Devon’s program stands apart for its ability to thrill the finely tuned connoisseur and neophyte enthusiast alike.

chef drew andrew curren

Above: Arro’s chef Andrew (Drew) Curren’s roast chicken was spot on last night.

Isn’t that what a wine list should do? Shouldn’t it forge a level of trust that it takes you outside of your comfort zone? That’s what it did for us and I just couldn’t resist a second glass of the Grenache.

When I moved here nearly five years ago to be with Tracie P, it seemed next to impossible to find a wine list that we could really dig into like the lists we’re seeing today.

Nearly every fine dining restaurant was dominated by “Napa Cab” (I still shudder every time someone says “Cab”) and Chardonnay, with the occasional Malbec thrown in the mix.

Mark Sayre at Trio at the Four Seasons in Austin still jokes about how I called him and “interviewed” him about his wine list when I was looking for a special place to take Tracie P for a romantic evening. At the time, Mark’s list and the list at Vino Vino (today, my client) were the only places Tracie P and I would drink wine in Austin. (Mark, a Master Sommelier candidate, is also writing the list at the excellent and überhip Lenoir, which we love as well, btw).

Today, there is just so much more groovy wine available to restaurant buyers and the new wave of Master Sommelier and Society of Wine Educators candidates has upped the performance level considerably (Scott Ota, also of Arro, recently won the “best sommelier in Texas” title at Texsom, the annual Texas sommelier conference).

None of this was even on the horizon when I first got here.

As Devon wrote to me the other day in a tweet, “we’ve come a long way, baby!”

David, Devon, Craig, Mark, Scott, Steven… We’re with you all the way…

Pork chops with braised fennel (recipe) and 2005 Vodopivec Vitovska

I’m adding a new category to the blog today: de arte copulandi vinorum…

Photos by Tracie P.

1 bulb fennel, washed and trimmed
2 cloves garlic, peeled
extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock
2 porter house pork chops, about ½ inch thick

Slice the fennel vertically into rounds about ¼ inch thick.

In a wide sauté pan, heat 3 tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. When smoke begins to rise from the pan, add 1 clove garlic. When the garlic has begun to brown, add the fennel rounds, sprinkle with salt, and brown on both sides.

Deglaze with ½ cup white wine. When the alcohol has evaporated, add ½ cup chicken stock and simmer over low heat until the cooking liquids have reduced by half. Transfer the fennel to a mixing bowl, discard the garlic, filter the sauce using a fine strainer, and add the sauce to the bowl. Reserve.

Preheat oven to 200° F.

Gently season the pork chops with salt on both sides.

Add 3 tbsp. olive oil to the same pan used to braise the fennel and brown the remaining garlic clove over high heat. Add the pork chops and brown on both sides (n.b.: it’s important to brown the pork quickly over high heat; they don’t need to cook through).

Once browned on both sides, transfer the pork chops to an oven-ready dish and cover with aluminum foil; transfer to the pre-heated oven.

In the meantime, add the remaining wine to the pan over medium heat. When the alcohol has evaporated, add the remaining stock, the reserved fennel and its sauce, and reduce to desired consistency. Remove the fennel from the pan and reserve and then filter the sauce using a fine strainer (n.b.: in the time that it takes you to reduce the sauce, the pork chops will have cooked through).

Arrange the pork chops on a serving dish and then top with the braised fennel and sauce.

The tannin of the skin-contact, amphora-aged Vitovska was ideal with the fatty, juicy chops and its nutty fruit flavors the perfect complement to the sweetness and tang of the fennel.

Buon weekend, yall!