Let’s be honest: Texas restaurants haven’t really been enforcing the mask mandate. Abbott’s decision to lift the requirement, while reckless, won’t make a difference.

Image via Adobe Stock.

Let’s be clear: when Texas governor Abbott issued a mask order last summer, it didn’t require all Texans to wear masks in public; it required Texas businesses to require that their customers wore masks while frequenting their places of business.

And let’s be honest: Texas restaurants, which have been allowed to offer some capacity of dine-in service for the better part of the last 12 months, have done little to enforce the mask mandate. And most restaurateurs have only cursorily observed the capacity limitations.

But then again, what could have restaurateurs actually done to enforce the mandate? While most are not reckless, people who have frequented restaurants over the last 12 months generally didn’t recognize the importance and urgency of wearing a mask. If they were hanging out in restaurants, they clearly didn’t put much stock in donning a mask for the safety of others. And after all, even with the mask mandate in place, you still needed to take the mask off to eat and drink.

Beyond the Quixotic challenges of enforcing mask mandates and dining capacity restrictions, the restaurants still open are mostly just trying to survive. When you’ve poured your life’s savings and work into a restaurant and you’re barely getting by, what are you supposed to do when someone enters your business without a mask and proceeds to order a $200 bottle of wine?

Our family decided early on not to frequent restaurants (although we support restaurants by doing take-out orders at least a couple of times a week). But I have spent time in dining rooms on more than one occasion over the last year. No one at our house is going hungry and we have little to complain about, all things considered. But the scarcity of work has forced me to take every copywriting job I can get. And sometimes, those gigs require my physical presence, whether to sample the food or take a photo of a chef or restaurant interior.

The bottomline is that restaurants in Texas have done little to enforce or even observe the business mask mandate. Even those restaurateurs who recognize the wisdom of mask wearing and social distancing have had little choice but to accept the fact that guests often refuse to wear masks. Nearly every occasion that I have spent time in a restaurant, masks were overwhelmingly “optional.” And I’m only relating my experience in Houston, a major metropolitan area. When we’ve traveled outside of Houston to visit family, we’ve seen restaurants packed with maskless guests as if there were no pandemic at all.

I believe that Abbott’s decision to lift the mask requirement is as reckless as it is myopic. But that’s not going to change what’s been happening in Texas restaurants over the last 12 months.

Houston wine community mourns the loss of one of its own. Remembering Thomas Moësse.

The Houston wine community mourns the loss of one of its most beloved members this week, sommelier Thomas Moësse. He passed away earlier this month in New York City where he had been living for the last few years.

Thomas was a world traveler, polyglot, and a top wine wine professional, equally admired by his peers and his guests alike.

Born in the United Kingdom, Thomas moved to Houston as a teenager but spent his summers in the Loire Valley where his family had roots and where he first learned to love wine. After attending college in New York, he returned to Texas and began working in Houston restaurants. His wine appreciation ultimately led to multiple certifications as a professional sommelier and wine educator.

In 2018 he returned to New York and the following year he became the wine director at one of America’s most celebrated Italian restaurants, Felidia in Manhattan, where he oversaw one of the city’s best wine lists and led seminars and tastings for its who’s-who list of guests.

Before moving to the east coast, he was the wine director and one of the founders of Vinology, the popular wine bar and wine shop in city’s West University district. He was also the wine director at one of city’s temples of Italian gastronomy, Divino, a long-time favorite destination for food and wine lovers.

I knew Thomas well and had the wonderful opportunity to taste with him in Houston and in Italy on many occasions. He was one of the best tasters I’ve ever shared a bottle with. And his passion, devotion to his craft, and knowledge of wine were were world class — an inspiration for all around him, including me.

He was also a man full of joy for life, for great food and wine, for great music, and — most importantly — for his friends. He was always ready to lend a hand at tastings and events, always ready to speak on a panel or offer advice and share his insights and dining recommendations.

Sit tibi terra levis Thoma. You will be sorely missed by your friends and community here in Texas. Our small world of wine won’t be the same without you.

Click here to learn how you can support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

How to open a wine shop during a pandemic. Video interview with James Oliver of Vesper Wine.

Above: Vesper Wine owners and founders Aisha Savage-Shirley and James Oliver.

Late last week, I had the good fortune to get on a Zoom call (below) with James Oliver (above) who opened Houston’s newest wine shop, Vesper Wine, earlier this year.

Licensed as a winery, Vesper Wine is located in a part of Houston that some might call a “wine desert.” The status as a grape-to-wine transformer allows the business to considerable leeway in how it stocks and delivers its wines to customers across the state (wineries in Texas essentially exist outside the three-tier system and the state’s notoriously restrictive and anti-competitive regulation of the wine industry).

Working beyond the city’s inner loop (where most of Houston’s wine culture is concentrated), the new shop serves an under-served and wine-thirsty community eager for high-quality wine and high-caliber wine education.

Anchored around highly focused wine pedagogy combined with finely honed social media strategies, the store’s business model has proved an unmitigated success at a time when consumers have pivoted toward retail. As wine lovers go out to eat less often and increasingly want to create a high-end dining experience at home, wine merchants like Vesper Wine have become the focal point of the new wine normal. And James, who has that “people person” demeanor that you need to succeed in the wine trade, is providing his clients with consumer-friendly and tech-savvy wine knowledge that enhances their enjoyment — a sine qua non of the New Wine.

Check out the Vesper Wine site and the shop’s Instagram.

And watch the video below to learn how James managed to open a super successful wine shop in the middle of a pandemic that has gripped our city for more than half a year.

Thanks for being here. I know you’ll enjoy our chat as much as I did.

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).

Count Alberto Tasca joins me for dinner at Roma in Houston this Thursday.

With no small amount of envy, I grabbed the above photo from the Tasca d’Almerita Facebook this morning.

After six months and counting cloistered at home, I have to concede that a little bit of Mediterranean would do a body (including my own) some good!

This Thursday, we’ll enjoy the flavors of the Mediterranean when we host Count Alberto Tasca at our weekly virtual wine dinner at Roma (one of my clients here in Houston).

Click here for the menu, wines, and reservation details.

Alberto and I had dinner last year when I was asked to present his and other leading Italian wineries at the Grandi Marchi tasting here.

I was keen to hear his thoughts on the positive and negative impacts of organic viticulture in Europe. And I found his insights into lutte raisonnée or lotta integrata (what we sometimes call integrated) farming practices as compelling as they were fascinating.

There’s an important different between “sustainable” and “integrated” farming. Technically speaking, “sustainable farming” doesn’t mean making a better product for the consumer. The term actually refers to making food and wine products that have less impact on the environment. The best way forward, in Alberto’s view, is somewhere in the middle between sustainable and organic (the core idea of integrated farming). I know it’s going to be an interesting conversation this Thursday.

If you’re in Houston and have never attended one of our weekly events, I highly recommend it: 3-course dinner for 2 including 3 bottles of wine for $119. It’s a pretty nifty deal. But more importantly, these events have become a wonderful escape for our guests and Tracie and me. We look forward to it each week. I hope you can join us. It’s become our moveable immobile feast.

Support local businesses (including my own) by eating great food, drinking great wine, and having dinner with a Sicilian count!

A virtual dinner with one of my Italian wine heroes: Brian Larky, industry pioneer and apotheosis of all that’s great about the wine trade.

Please read “California Wildfires and the Wine Community – What You Need to Know,” Beck Hopkins’ post from last week. We are praying for all of our sisters and brothers in my home state.

And here in Houston, we are all holding our breath as we wait for Hurricane Laura to develop. See updates on the excellent Space City Weather blog. Hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

On Thursday, August 27, one of my all-time wine heroes, Brian Larky (above), will be joining me for the weekly virtual wine dinner that I host for Roma here in Houston.

Brian created a new model for Italian wine imports here in the U.S. when he launched his Napa-based company Dalla Terra three decades ago. Since that time, countless wines selected by him have become Italian wine standbys and favorites across our country.

On Thursday, he and I will be pouring and discussing three of those, including the Selvapiana Chianti Rufina, one of our family’s go-to red wines.

In many ways, Brian is the “Steve Jobs” of our industry. For many of the wineries he works with, he has created a “market” where previously there was none. Like Jobs, he introduced American wine lovers to wines they didn’t know they “needed.”

He’s also a winemaker (a Franciacorta alumnus with an enology degree from UC Davis), a brilliant speaker (we’ve presented seminars together in the past), a wonderful dinner companion (I speak from personal experience!), and the apotheosis of everything that’s good about the wine business.

I hope you can join us. Stay tuned for details. And feel free to email me if you’d like me to save you a spot.

Luigi Coppo, one of the coolest Piedmont winemakers I know, joins us this week in Houston (and heartfelt thanks to everyone who took part in the Ricasoli event).

We don’t drink a ton of red wine at our house. We mostly pour lean, fresh or oxidative, white wines, especially during the warm Houston summer.

But earlier this year, when I brought home a bottle of my friend Luigi Coppo’s Barbera d’Asti L’Avvocata, Tracie completely freaked over it (meaning, she LOVED it).

Barbera is generally known for its high levels of acidity and this wine is no exception. But Luigi’s deft hand as winemaker delivers extraordinary balance in this single-vineyard designate that still lands at a more than affordable price. It’s one of our favorite reds of 2020.

Luigi (above), who’s become a good friend over the last few years, will be joining us this week for the weekly virtual wine dinner I present at Roma restaurant here in our adoptive southeast Texas city.

I knew his dad back in the day when he used to come into one of the restaurants where I used to work back in the day. The family’s flagship cru Barbera d’Asti is one of the Barbera trinity of all-time greats imho (Braida and Scarpa make my other two favorites).

Because I’ve spent so much time in Piedmont in recent years teaching at Slow Food U., Luigi and I have had the opportunity to hang and taste on multiple occasions. We were even planning to write some songs together (before the pandemic took shape).

He’s one of the coolest people I know in Monferrato wine and I’m super stoked to be hosting him this week.

Click here for menu, wines, and details.

I also have to give a shout-out this morning to Francesco Ricasoli, who was featured last week, and to everyone who joined the call. We had more than 70 people on the Zoom and it was one of the most memorable in the series.

The news from the world outside these days is just bad, bad, and worse. And so many of us, like our family, are sheltering in place and isolating — alone, together — in a collective effort to stop the spread of COVID. It’s nothing short of depressing, especially when we think of the countless people in our state and country who are suffering right now.

But our Thursday night supper club has become a retreat, a respite, and a salve for the constant din of dreary headlines, soundbites, and tweets.

Francesco, thanks for helping make last week’s “gathering” one of the most magical so far. And thanks to all of our guests: it wouldn’t be possible without you.

If you’re in Houston this week, I hope you can join us. You won’t regret it (AND CHEF ANGELO IS MAKING VITELLO TONNATO FOR THIS ONE!).

Thanks for your support.

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).

Why most Americans don’t care about wine tariffs.

Above: a European winemaker hosts a tasting of his wines in Colorado in late February, 2020.

“Tariff threats return,” read one of the wine retailer email newsletters that reached my inbox over the last week. “Our business could totally get blown up by a trade Death Star.”

“[My business partner] and I have spent 19 years building our business,” reported another, “and it could get wiped out in one blow. For better or worse, we’ve tied our love of European wine to the life of our shop. We have 25 employees, many with families; we pay their health insurance; we pay a boatload of taxes. [Our shop] is a micro business, but there are many thousands of employees and owners around the country who will be similarly affected — to say nothing of how this will impact our wine loving customers.”

Across the U.S., wine retailers are mobilizing their customer base and trade networks in an effort to raise awareness of how potentially increased and expanded tariffs on European wines could — literally — decimate their ranks.

Most of the roughly 20 or so similarly conative messages received over the past few weeks weeks point to a portal recently created by the U.S. Wine Trade Alliance (USWTA), an advocacy group formed by European wine-focused small businesses. It streamlines the process whereby the user, whether trade member or consumer, can comment on the U.S. Trade Representative site and express their concerns regarding the tariffs currently under consideration. The deadline for comment is July 26. The decision on whether or not to remove, expand, and/or increase the duties will be announced on August 12.

With so much energy being poured into this campaign by understandably qualmish wine merchants, it’s hard to imagine that the U.S. government won’t take note of the existential threat posed by the potential tariffs and their resulting dismay.

But tradesfolk in our country’s major cities often forget that they remain a minority in our nation.

I was reminded of this when I recently contacted the office of a top anti-tariff congressperson whose district lies just north of metropolitan Houston where I live. The area where he lives and dines (as I discovered) is one of greater Houston’s more affluent. But despite the extreme concentration of wealth in his neck of the woods (Houstonians will get the pun), there isn’t much in terms of haute cuisine in the community he represents beyond the quintessential high-end and highly predictable steak house franchises.

When I spoke to the owner and executive chef of the seemingly lone high-concept restaurant there (where, I learned, said representative frequently eats), the food professional told me that while he was aware of the tariff issue, it hasn’t affected his business at all.

How is that possible? I asked him.

His wine program does include a sizable allocation of expensive French wines. But those lots were purchased some time ago, he said, partly as an investment (a classic restaurant model). Like the guests he serves, he focuses primarily on top California wines.

And when he revealed his overarching approach to his restaurant group’s wine programs, the axiomatic delivery rolled off his palate so mellifluously that I can’t imagine it was his first time uttering the phrase.

“If it doesn’t have the grape name on the label,” he informed me, “they ain’t going to drink it.”

He was referring to pecunious Americans’ well-documented penchant and preference for “varietal wines,” bottlings sometimes even blended using different varieties but labeled with a single grape name, e.g., “Chardonnay,” “Merlot,” “Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir,” etc.

His aphorism rang true when I spoke to said representative’s office. The person on the other line seemed entirely unaware of the heightened interest in European wines that has taken shape in this country over the last two decades.

For the record, both the restaurateur and the government official with whom I spoke were exceedingly generous with their time and both were glad to lend a hand in connecting me with the persons I was trying to reach.

But the notion that the tariffs under consideration would disproportionately affect Americans without achieving the desired result was something that hadn’t previously or remotely crossed their minds.

Wine culture has grown enormously in the U.S. over the last 20 years or so. But for most Americans, it doesn’t really matter where that Pinot Grigio comes from. It might as well be from Australia or Texas, as long as the grape name is inscribed on the package.

Just think of how wine is sold in American airports (or should I say, try to remember the way wine used to be sold in airports). In these transport hubs, where Americans from all walks of life and of all stripes meet (however fleetingly), the sale of wine is primarily categorized, classified, and bartered using its designate ampelonym: what wines do you have by the glass? is commonly answered by Chard, Sauv Blanc, Cab, Syrah, Pinot, and Merlot.

Shortly before the pandemic redefined “living” in America, a European winemaker and I took a road trip that led us from Houston to Dallas to Tulsa to Boulder. We hosted well-attended wine tastings in each city we visited.

But what about all the places and people in between?

Until a majority of Americans dives into the nuanced and subtle differences between Nebbiolo from Langa and its varietal counterpart from upper Piedmont, the threat of wine tariffs will be as ephemeral to them as it is existential to us.

Please visit the USWTA portal and make your voice heard!