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!

Parzen family COVID-19 update: isolated and vigilant as Houston sets new daily records for cases and deaths.

Tracie and I would like to share our heartfelt thanks with everyone who’s sent us messages to make sure that we are okay. She, Georgia, Lila Jane, and I are all healthy and safe, hunkered down in our southwest Houston home.

We only go out to exercise, take walks, and pickup groceries curbside. We are extremely fortunate to live in a residential neighborhood where it’s easy to social distance when we are outside. And both Tracie and I work from home.

Yesterday, we learned that another member of our extended family here in the Houston area has COVID-19. That makes three persons in our family who now have the virus. We are praying for their speedy recovery.

Houston continues to set daily records of numbers of contagions and deaths. There are reports, some of them verified by mainstream media, that refrigerated trailers have been brought in to serve as morgues at local hospitals.

Tragically, Texas governor Greg Abbot continues to refuse to allow our locally elected officials to order the two-week lockdown that they have proposed. At least one Houston-area county is now openly defying his mandatory mask order.

So many people in our community — and our country — are suffering and dying right now. All we can do is to continue to isolate and minimize our exposure as best as we can.

Please stay home if you can. Please wear a mask if you go out in public. Please continue to support those who have no choice but to work outside the home.

Thank you again for all the notes and messages. They mean a lot.

Alicia Lini joins me Thursday, July 16 for a virtual wine dinner at ROMA in Houston.

I’m thrilled to announce that Alicia Lini (above), one of my best friends in the wine business and producer of some of my favorite Lambruscos, will be joining me for a virtual wine dinner on Thursday, July 16 at ROMA here in Houston.

Alicia and I first met more than a decade ago while I was working in the wine trade in New York. The launch of her brand was my first major campaign as a media consultant and its success shaped my career for the decade to come.

A few years ago, Alicia asked me to give her hand promoting her brand again here in the U.S. and it’s been another immensely rewarding experience — especially because of our friendship.

Next Thursday, she’ll be joining me for an ongoing series of virtual wine dinners I’ve been leading for ROMA, where I’ve been running media for owner Shanon Scott for a few years now.

These events have taken on a truly magical feel: they are a world unto themselves, where everyone can cast away the worries, pressures, and stress of what’s happening around our families.

They sell out regularly and we have capped them at 25 couples and/or individuals so that everyone can be onscreen throughout.

Chef Angelo Cuppone and Shanon are working on the menu as I write this and I’ll share as soon we publish it on the restaurant’s website and social media.

Alicia and I have shared so many unforgettable moments over the course of our time working together. Here’s the story of how she and I ended up in a green room with Pattie Boyd, the woman who inspired some of the greatest love songs of all time.

Houston wine and food friends: please join us next Thursday for what is sure to be a great evening of Lambursco and classic Emilian cuisine (email or PM me if you want me to hold a spot for you).

Thank you for your support and solidarity. Tracie, the girls, and I are still hunkered down, healthy and safe in our house in southwest Houston. But our city and state continue to report record numbers of daily contagions and hospitalizations. And members of our extended family continue to battle the virus. COVID-19 is real. We are seeing it firsthand. Please where a mask when you go out and stay home if you can. Support those who have no other choice but to work outside their homes. G-d bless America. G-d bless us all.

Parzen family update: Houston in crisis but we are healthy and safe.

It happened to our sisters and brothers in Italy. It happened to our fellow Americans in New York. And now it’s happening here in Houston where we live.

COVID-19 is overwhelming our city’s health care system, Houston-area hospitals are already beyond capacity and they are expecting an even greater surge early next week. People are suffering and dying all around us, including many in our family’s social circles.

Thankfully, our governor has finally come to his senses — how could he not at this point? — and has made masks mandatory for nearly all Texans while in public. The order was long overdue: in late April, his executive order made it impossible for local government officials to issue their own public mask requirements. But we are just grateful that it’s here.

Tracie, the girls, and I are in isolation and we are all healthy and safe. And everyone in our immediate Texas family is also healthy and safe.

We have been extremely fortunate and will remain vigilant.

Thank you to everyone who’s written to us to check in. Those messages really mean the world to us.

G-d bless Houston, G-d bless Texas, G-d bless America, and may G-d bless all Their children across the earth.

Please stay safe, no matter where you are.

Parzen family update from Houston.

On Friday, local media here in Houston reported that ICU capacity had already hit 100 percent and health officials are expecting an “‘unsustainable surge capacity’ of intensive care beds by July 6 [Monday].”

Also on Friday, the governor of Texas ordered all bars in the state to close, restaurants to reduce capacity, and hospitals to stop performing elective surgery.

The bottomline is that Houston has become one of the world’s pandemic epicenters. At least one health expert, a locally based international authority on infectious disease, has said that Houston may become the “worst affected city in America.”

(For those wanting to understand how we got here, I highly recommend this New York Times “Daily” podcast featuring the paper’s Texas bureau chief, Manny Fernandez. As he says and the end of the interview, it really comes down to “world view.”)

Tracie, the girls, and I are safe and healthy. And everyone in our immediate Texas family is also safe and healthy. Even as things started opening up here at the beginning of May, we have remained vigilant and have been very careful about avoiding exposure.

We are very fortunate to live in a residential neighborhood where we can walk and exercise while maintaining social distancing. We do all our grocery shopping using curbside pick up.

Tracie and I really appreciate the concern and the thoughts and wishes from our friends. Thank you for that. It means a lot to us. We have been very lucky throughout the crisis and we will continue to stay safe. Heartfelt thanks for all the messages we have received.

A pandemic-era wine sales strategy that works at Roma in Houston.

best italian houstonIn the wake of yesterday’s post (“The age of arrogance is over. Winemakers, please check your hubris at the (virtual) door!”), a lot of people have asked me about the restaurant that had organized the virtual wine dinner.

It’s a “trattoria inspired” independent venue called Roma in Rice Village, the Houston neighborhood where Rice University is located. I help out with its online presence.

Owner Shanon Scott is a Houston restaurant trade veteran and one of our community’s most beloved restaurateurs. A former maître d’ at some of the city’s highest-profile Italian dining destinations, he opened his own place in a classic Houston-style bungalow about three and half years ago. He’s also become a good friend of ours over the years. I love working with him and share his passion for great Italian cuisine.

Every week, he hosts a virtual wine dinner: guests (mostly couples) pick up their food and three bottles of wine between 5-7 p.m. each Thursday and then settle in around a computer or smart phone with a Zoom link. Most Thursdays, a winemaker or winery ambassador from Italy dials in as well and leads the participants through the wines. I serve as event moderator.

The campaign has been highly successful for both Roma and the distributor Shanon’s partnered with, Impero Wine Distributors, a Florida-based importer with wholesale operations scattered across the U.S.

pasta with tuna and capersThe man in the back of the house, Angelo Cuppone, is a classically trained chef from Pesaro (the Marches, Italy) and his cooking style is classic. My favorite dishes there are the lasagne and the carbonara but our 11-year-old cousin (whose family lives down the street) is partial to the grilled octopus. All the prosciutto they serve is sliced on a Berkel — another huge plus in our book. The restaurant is one of our extended Houston family’s go-tos.

For those who have never worked in the food service industry, it may be hard to fathom what a challenging time this is for food and wine professionals. Landlords don’t stop charging rents even when pandemics force lockdowns and catastrophic loss of business. And restaurant workers — from dishwashers to back waiters to line cooks to servers — have rents to pay and kids to feed even when an epidemic forces restaurateurs to entirely reimagine their business models.

Scores of Houston restaurants have permanently shuttered their doors in recent weeks. Bernie’s Burger Bus, for example, an immensely popular independent Houston hamburger chain (the kitchen was housed in a yellow school bus), had just begun an expansion when the virus arrived. No one in our community could believe that such a successful model could fall victim to COVID-19. But it did.

Similarly, the wine trade has been decimated by the fallout. Last week, Southern Glazer’s, one of our nation’s largest wholesalers, laid off most of its sales force according to anecdotal reports. I recently contacted its Houston sales office to help out a restaurant owner friend in Orange, Texas (where Tracie grew up). He wanted to set up an account with company to service his new wine program. The sales rep I spoke to told me that he is the sole agent taking orders for Southeast Texas. I can’t imagine that Southern Glazer’s will share the exact number of fired workers but the fact that there’s just one rep for such a huge swath of Texas is an indication that it’s currently working with a skeleton crew.

In my view, Shanon and his Impero sales rep, Melania Spagnoli, are true heroes. The virtual wine dinner model they’ve created is “moving boxes” (wine tradespeak for selling wine) in a perilous time and it’s helping to feed a lot of families — including my own.

Food photos by Al Torres Photography.

Houston removes Confederate statues in time for Juneteenth.

By the time a Houston-based activist arrived on the scene yesterday, all that was left of a United Daughters of the Confederacy statue of Confederate commander Dick Dowling was a broken, jackhammered pedestal (above) and a desecrated dedication stone (below).

The Dowling statue was one of two monuments that were removed in Houston this week.

After gatherings at the site of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia turned violent in 2017, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner formed a commission to study the repurposing of the city’s Confederate monuments. Earlier that year, he had already announced that the name of Dowling St., the main artery of one of Houston’s historically black neighborhoods, would be changed to Emancipation Ave.

But after sweeping public outcry in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s announcement that the Lee statue in Richmond would be removed, mayor Turner decided that the time was right to remove these hateful and offensive tributes to the men who defended racist violence and genocide. (While mayor Turner was able to move forward with the removal this week, yesterday a judge barred Governor Northam from removing the Lee statue indefinitely.)

Today, Houston residents will be able to observe Emancipation Day — Juneteenth — without the long dark shadow of these monuments cast over their celebration.

Unfortunately, due to the ongoing global health crisis, there will be no public gathering today at Houston’s Emancipation Park (below).

The park, established by black business leaders who purchased the land in 1872, was the site of some of the earliest celebrations of Juneteenth.

Thanks to the heightened interest in the holiday this year, many Americans have learned for the first time that Juneteenth can trace its origins to Galveston and Houston, the last cities in America to receive news of the Confederacy’s demise and black Americans’ newfound liberation from bondage.

Given the current public discourse on racism in this country, Juneteenth observances have particular significance and urgency this year.

May we all take this day to reflect on how we can become better American ancestors.

Happy Juneteenth from the Parzen family in Houston, Texas.

Please consider donating to and/or sharing our GoFundMe campaign to repurpose a newly built Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up and where half the population is black.

Please join our protest of the Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas tomorrow. Please donate to our campaign to raise an MLK billboard across from the site.

Tracie and I were already planning tomorrow’s protest of the newly built Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas where she grew up when we were contacted a couple of young women, sisters, who live there. They wanted to organize their own protest, they told us, and they were asking for our help.

The flyer below was designed by the older of the two, a recent college grad on her way to medical school.

If two young people like them have the courage to stand up against racist iconography like the “Confederate Memorial of the Wind,” then I truly believe there’s hope for our cause.

They’ll be there with us tomorrow, from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m., as we protest Confederate flags planted along Martin Luther King, Dr. — one of the city’s main arteries — in 2017.
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G-d bless George Floyd and his family. May he give us the strength to “remain awake through a great revolution.”

Photo by Lorie Schaull (via Flickr Creative Commons).

Today, less than three miles from our home in Houston, Texas, George Floyd will be remembered by family, friends, and dignitaries at the Fountain of Praise Church.

Early this morning, Manny Fernandez, the New York Times Houston bureau chief, published this biography of Mr. Floyd. I highly recommend it.

I can’t stop thinking this morning about how George Floyd is a Christlike figure. Reading the story of his life, I learned that he had lost his way in his own desert before he decided to devote himself to helping others escape the chains of growing up poor and disenfranchised. Like Christ, he became a true martyr for social change when he was killed by those police officers. And his name, like that of Jesus, is today spoken by people across the world as a synecdoche for failed justice.

In June, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a commencement speech at Oberlin College in Ohio. The title was “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Dr. King’s words resonate as deeply today as they did on a June day 55 years ago:

    Let nobody give you the impression that the problem of racial injustice will work itself out. Let nobody give you the impression that only time will solve the problem. That is a myth, and it is a myth because time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I’m absolutely convinced that the people of ill will in our nation — the extreme rightists — the forces committed to negative ends — have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.” Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.

G-d bless George Floyd and his family. May G-d give us the strength to “stay awake.”