City of Houston declares June 2 “Italian National Day.”

Above from left, Italian Consul General Federico Ciattaglia, Italian MP for North and Central America Fuscia Nissoli, and Houston Councilwoman Mary Nan Huffman.

At yesterday’s celebration of Italian Republic Day (June 2), the City of Houston proclaimed the day “Italian National Day” in the city. The proclamation was delivered on behalf of Mayor Sylvester Turner by Houston Councilwoman Mary Nan Huffman.

Hosted at the beautiful Cohen House on the campus of Rice University, the event included addresses by Ciattaglia, Nissoli, and Huffman, as well as a performance of “Fratelli d’Italia” (“Brothers of Italy”), the Italian national anthem, followed by the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Members of the Italian Air Force, stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, were also in attendance.

In one bittersweet note during the festivities, Italian Consul General Federico Ciattaglia shared the news that his mandate will end this fall and that he will be leaving Houston.

Please consider giving to Unicef’s Ukraine child refugee fund. This link takes you straight to the donation page.

We won’t forget Uvalde. Now is the time for action. Please vote, mobilize, speak out, donate, support, and believe that change is possible.

Houston’s light rail seemed the wisest way to get to downtown for Friday’s Black Lives Matter Houston, Fiel, Moms Demand Action rally for gun sense and protest of the National Rifle Association’s trade show.

On the train siting one row ahead of me were a woman and a man — she in her late 60s, he in his 70s. There ages became apparent over the course of their conversation. They were long-time acquaintances, Houston natives who happened to run into each other on the way to the event. Children, grandchildren, retirement, and milestone birthdays were among their topics for catching up.

It was also evident that they were both heading to the rally. At one point, the woman mentioned to the man that this was her first experience in activism. To this he responded that he had protested only one another time in his life… during the Vietnam war.

These first timers weren’t sure where they needed to get off the train. That’s when their fellow rider spoke up and assured them that Main Street Square was the right stop.

After I spent about an hour and a half at the main protest, I headed over to the protests across the street from the convention center where the NRA was holding the first day of its trade show. The two Houstonians who rode the light rail with me were already leaving. The sun was hot and they had arrived without water or a good hydration plan.

I hope they’ll come back the next time. Maybe with some extra water, sun screen, and some snacks this time (top provisions for activists).

Tracie and I have been protesting with Moms Demand Action for years now. We’ve also block-walked for candidates that support expanded gun restrictions. We were part of a historic wave of activists who flipped our historically GOP-controlled district after decades of a Republican rule that dates back to Bush senior who was once our district’s congressperson.

The only way we are going to affect change in our nation’s and state’s gun laws is by voting and raising voter awareness. We have already been active in the Beto campaign and you can bet that we will be out there block-walking for him as the campaign ratchets up.

People, if you care about reducing gun violence in our country, now is the time for action: please vote, mobilize, speak out, donate, support, and believe that change is possible. It may not come during this political cycle. But as a famous winemaker once said, sometimes the battles most important to fight are the ones you know you are going to lose.

If you live in Southeast Texas, please reach out to us to find out how to get involved. It’s going to be a long hot summer and we’ll bring the water, sunscreen, and snacks (for real).

Please don’t forget Uvalde. Please don’t forget Buffalo. Please don’t forget Pittsburgh. Please don’t forget Columbia. Please don’t forget the 1979 Cleveland School shooting, which happened in San Diego where I grew up (I was 12 at the time). The list goes on and on and on and on…

Tracie and I will be out there at the next rally for gun sense in this country. We hope you’ll join us.

Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Addio Roma. You really broke my heart.

Please consider giving to Unicef’s Ukraine child refugee fund. This link takes you straight to the donation page. G-d bless our Ukrainian sisters and brothers. Thank you.

Above: in November of last year, I presented a sold-out dinner at Roma in Houston featuring the wines of Alicia Lini (standing).

It’s with deep sadness that I share the news: Roma, the Houston restaurant where I ran the website, e-letter, and social media for nearly five years; where I helped the owner rebrand his business; where I ran weekly virtual wine dinners during the lockdowns; and where I wrote the wine list since May of last year, is no longer my client.

The reason? The new chef, Kevin Bryant, doesn’t believe my marketing skills are up to snuff. Evidently he and his wife are marketing geniuses. Five years down the drain. Just like that. All because of a pig-headed chef who thinks that chicken liver mousse passes for a bona fide topping on crostini toscani.

It was clear from the start that he wanted me out and he wanted his wife in. She’s a high-powered publicist with a who’s who of leading Houston restaurateurs in her portfolio. At least that’s what she and her husband think.

Honestly, I wasn’t really interested in working with a chef who believes “steak tartare” is an Italian dish. (All the previous chefs I worked with there were Italian and had cooked and trained in Italy.)

The thing I’ll miss is the incredible community we built through the weekly virtual wine dinners I ran for nearly two years. It’s hard to believe now but we must have presented roughly 100 Zoom events, often with an Italian winemaker participating on the other side of the Atlantic. It was one of the most compelling and rewarding experiences in my career in wine. So many of my now ex-guests have told me that those events were what kept them sane during isolation. It was a virtual supper club where people forged connections and friendships. I’ll never forget the night that a prominent Houston doctor, the wife of a noted Houston wine blogger, began helping people get vaccine appointments in the early days of availability.

No regrets, coyote. The restaurant business is always full of drama and microcephalic players like “the Kevin,” our family’s apt nickname for him. And this wasn’t my first rodeo, as we say in Texas.

Addio Roma. You really broke my heart.

A Coravin experiment: comparing newly opened Villa Sandi Prosecco with the same wines “accessed” two weeks prior. Just one of the tastings at Taste of Italy in Houston (March 13-14).

The new Coravin sparkling wine closure system came to my attention late last year at the Boulder Burgundy Festival (disclosure: I’ve been a media consultant to the festival for more than 10 years).

As soon as our group tasted top-line Champagnes that had been accessed three and four weeks prior, it was clear that this new closure would be a game-changing for sparkling wine programs at restaurants and wine bars.

Sparkling wine, arguably more than any other category, needs to stay fresh and vibrant in by-the-glass programs. And it can be a huge headache for a beverage director who’s trying to manage costs when sparkling wine loses its verve after just one day/night of service.

The fitness of the accessed wines was so impressive that it immediately hit me: why not try a similar experiment with Prosecco?

And what better occasion than the Taste of Italy trade fair and festival in Houston where my friend (and former client) Flavio Geretto would be presenting the Villa Sandi Houston Sommelier Competition?

Villa Sandi’s wines are known for their extreme freshness and shelf life. Their reputation is owed in great part to a one-tank system of sparkling wine production developed by their winemaker Stefano Gava (one of the most brilliant figures working in Prosecco today imho). The idea was born when the winery started shipping its wines across the world. They needed, the owner realized, to extend the shelf life so that the wines would still be fresh on the nose and the palate when they reached far-flung destinations.

On Sunday, March 13, when candidates in the Villa Sandi Houston Sommelier Competition take a break for lunch, Flavio and I will be pouring the above bottles — accessed on Sunday, March 27, two weeks prior to the event — side by side with bottles of the same wine opened the same day.

What better way to test the Coravin closure than with a wine whose signature is freshness and extended shelf life?

In the video below, I documented the opening and sealing of the bottles (thanks to Georgia Parzen for her handy camerawork btw!).

Registration for the competition and the festival, including trade and consumer seminars and tastings, is now open. Please visit the fair’s website for details etc.

The competition is open to all active sommeliers, from anywhere in the world. The first prize includes a $750 stipend and all-paid trip to Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine trade fair (back on this year!) next month. I highly encourage you to compete.

Thanks for checking it out and thanks for the support! And here’s to Villa Sandi for their sponsorship of the festival!

A Super Tuscan Super Hero: taste virtually with Cinzia Merli and me this Thursday in Houston.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome Cinzia Merli (above, center), the owner of Le Macchiole in Bolgheri for this week’s virtual winemaker dinner at Roma restaurant in Houston where I run the wine program.

Cinzia, producer of some of Tuscany’s most highly rated and expensive wines, is a true Super Tuscan Super Hero.

In the late 1990s, her family owned a humble tavola calda, cafeteria-style restaurant in Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast. Like many Tuscan restaurateurs at the time, they made their own wine to sell to their guests. And when the Super Tuscan craze of that decade began to take shape, it was only natural that she and her husband would want to throw their hat into the ring. The couple bought land, planted vineyards, hired a top consulting enologist, and began making wine.

To their surprise, their first releases were met with critical and commercial success. The future looked bright.

But then tragedy struck: Cinzia’s still young husband passed away unexpectedly, leaving her a single mother and signatory to the loans they had procured as they expanded their production.

In an era where male chauvinism still dominated the wine world, most of her neighbors expected her to close the winery.

Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and set out to build her brand in Italy and beyond. And the rest is history. Fast forward to 2022: her current release Messorio sells for around $250 a bottle (retail).

I first met Cinzia in 2007 when her star was ascendant. I visited her winery the following year. She is simply one of the loveliest persons I’ve ever met in the wine industry and her wines are phenomenal.

I want to let her tell the whole story tomorrow night. So I’ll stop here.

But I hope you can join us as we taste her Bolgheri Rosso, a blend of international grape varieties, including her celebrated Merlot. Along the way, we are going to talk about the macchia mediterranea, the “maquis” or shrubland biome that makes the wines of Le Macchiole (named after the macchia) so special.

If ever there were a virtual winemaker dinner not to miss, this is it, folks. I hope to see you there.

And on a technical note, this is the last virtual winemaker dinner we’ll be doing for a while. Yesterday, we hosted our first in-person (private) wine dinner for the Houston chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina. And next week, we’ll be relaunching our free pre-dinner wine tastings. On March 17, we’ll be hosting our first in-person winemaker dinner since late last year (details forthcoming).

Thank you for your support. And thank you for loving Italian wines as much as I do!

REGISTRATION OPEN: Taste of Italy, BBQ & Chianti, Houston Sommelier Competition 3/13-14.

Above: the winners of the Houston Sommelier Competition in 2019, the first and only year of the event to date. At the time, it was known as the Houston Awesomm Sommelier Competition and was only open to Houston-based wine professionals. It’s now open to anyone who would like to compete (except for full-fledged members of the Court of Sommeliers).

Registration for the Taste of Italy, March 13-14 in Houston, the largest food and wine trade fair in the U.S. devoted exclusively to Italian products, is now open!

Click here to register for seminars, tastings, and grand tasting.

This year’s gathering includes: the Houston Sommelier Competition; a seminar on sustainable wine from Umbria with Steven McDonald MS and writer Dale Robertson (open to trade); a seminar on pairing Texas BBQ with Chianti (open to trade and consumers) featuring pit master Ara Malekian, Italian wine expert Tom Dobson (Spec’s), and food writer Eric Sandler (CultureMap); and the grand tasting all day on Monday, March 14 at the Hilton Houston Post Oak.

The winner of the Houston Sommelier Competition will receive a $750 stipend and a fully sponsored trip to Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine trade fair in Verona. The runner up will receive a stipend of $750. The second runner up will receive $500.

This year’s testing is open to any and all sommeliers, from anywhere in the world, except for full-fledged members of the Court of Sommeliers.

The Texas Wine School will also be offering to waive course fees for two candidates beyond the runners up. These awards will be made on the basis of testing results, the candidates’ resumés, and financial need.

Texas BBQ and Chianti is the one seminar open to consumers. It’s the fair’s most popular event and will sell out quickly. Be sure to register to ensure availability.

All the seminars will be moderated by me.

I’ve been working as a consultant with the Italy-American Chamber of Commerce since the second year of the fair. It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career: connecting Italian food and wine producers with trade professionals in my adoptive hometown and state.

For many years now, our office of the chamber (South Central) has been rated the number one office in all of North America (sorry, New York!). I’m really proud of the great work we do.

I hope you can join us! Thanks for checking it out and thanks for loving Italian food and wine!

We weren’t the only ones drinking Giuseppe Vaira’s excellent Barolo last night. One of his best vintages of Albe to date.

Please consider donating to our GoFundMe campaign to raise an MLK billboard overlooking the neo-Confederate memorial in the southeast Texas town where Tracie grew up. We plan to have the artwork up in time for MLK Day 2022. And if we can raise enough money, it will remain in place throughout Black History Month. Thank you.

There are certain nights when work doesn’t feel like, well… “work.”

Yesterday evening was one of those times. Last night, Giuseppe Vaira, legacy grower and winemaker at G.D. Vajra in Barolo, joined Roma restaurant guests and me for a tasting of his excellent 2017 Barolo Albe.

It’s a wine that his family has been making for roughly two decades and it’s always been a go-to wine for me, whether as a wine lover or a wine director looking for an approachable but still classic Barolo that even guests with little Nebbiolo experience will love.

But last night’s 2017 was a cut above. It had a depth of flavor that was only matched by its balance and grace. Maybe it was just our mood at our last virtual wine dinner of the year. Maybe it was just that the stars were perfectly aligned.

Or maybe it’s just that this wine, as Giuseppe so beautifully put it, has grown up like the vines that were planted many years ago to produce it. In his view, it was the age of the vines combined with the uniqueness of the vintage that brought the wine into crystal clear focus.

Or maybe, just maybe… it was because we weren’t the only ones drinking it. While we were chatting and tasting over a Zoom call (at 2:30 in the morning for Giuseppe!), one of America’s most famous sports figures was enjoying it at the restaurant. I dunno… there was just something in the air!

My heartfelt thanks goes out to Giuseppe for joining us so early in the morning. It was a truly magical event and a fantastic way to close out our year in wine. Thanks to all our guests at the restaurant who have supported the virtual events over the last two years. We have every intention of bringing you more and more virtual content. Stay tuned and happy new year!

Help us raise an MLK billboard over the neo-Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up.

In 1969, the Houston-based art collectors and civil rights activists Dominique and John de Menil purchased the third “multiple” of “Broken Obelisk” (above), a sculpture by 20th-century American artist Barnett Newman. They planned to donate it to the city of Houston where it was to be displayed at City Hall. But when the city of Houston learned that the couple planned to dedicate the work to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated by a White Supremacist the previous year, the city refused the gift. Rebuffed by the city government, they decided to install the sculpture on the grounds of the Rothko Chapel, designed by artist Mark Rothko and completed in what is now Houston’s museum district in 1971.

(Read about the legacy of this work in Houston here. Warning: the link contains graphic images of vandalism by White Supremacists.)

Our daughters, ages 8 and 10, have visited the site many times over the years. It’s always a magical visit for our family, although our girls are still too young to understand the sculpture’s historical and present-day significance.

Given the history of racist violence in southeast Texas, where Tracie was born and where we have lived for the last nine years, it was devastating to learn that White Supremacists planned to build a neo-Confederate memorial along Interstate 10 in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up and where we spend a lot of time with our children.

In 2017, despite Herculean efforts by the Orange city government to stop them, the Sons of Confederate Veterans completed the “Memorial of the Wind,” featuring Lost Cause battle flags, including the Confederate flag — now a neo-Confederate flag.

The following year, Tracie and I began protesting the site regularly. And we also began raising money to display an MLK billboard across the road.

(Our efforts are documented on our site, RepurposeMemorial.com.)

Because of health concerns, we won’t be organizing a protest on MLK Day 2022, Monday, January 17. But we will be raising a billboard. And if we can raise enough funds, it will stay in place throughout Black History Month (February).

Please give to our GoFundMe here.

The City of Orange tried unsuccessfully to block the construction of the memorial, which lies on private property owned by the Sons. But they did manage to limit the height of the flagpoles so they can’t be seen from the freeway. It sits on MLK Dr., one of the town’s major arteries. For the people who have to drive by it every day, it is a reminder of the racist violence that has plagued the city since Reconstruction and beyond.

Our hopes that the site will be repurposed are dim. But we are committed to reminding the community, half of which is black, that the conspicuous public display of racist paraphernalia is unacceptable today. As a famous winemaker once said, sometimes the battles you know you will lose are the most important ones to wage. We will never abandon our efforts.

In recent weeks, I have been inspired by the words of critical theorist and activist bell hooks, who passed away this month.

In her 1994 essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” she wrote that “the moment we choose to love, we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love, we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”

Tracie and I continue to love Orange, Texas and the people who live there. They are our people and we know that love will ultimately triumph there.

In the meantime, we hope you will consider giving to our campaign. And if you cannot give, please share the link with your community.

Click here to donate.

May G-d bless Orange, Texas. May G-d bless the neo-Confederates. May G-d bless us all. Thank you for your support and solidarity.

Italians can’t come to the U.S. So we’re bringing them to you via Zoom. Taste with me in Houston next week.

best lambruscoDespite our hopes that Italian winemakers would be able to join us in the U.S. this fall, Europeans are still banned from coming to the U.S. by the Biden administration. They can come here if they quarantine in certain countries for two weeks before arriving. But they can’t come directly from the EU.

When I was in Italy teaching at Slow Food U. in August, my Italian counterparts were optimistically expecting the ban to be lifted. Slow Wine had its tour planned for the U.S. in October, editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio told me over dinner at his house. Villa Sandi’s export director Flavio Geretto, another good friend, was gearing up for the Gambero Rosso tastings also scheduled for October (he was even planning on bringing his son to attend a concert in Houston!).

Italian winemakers had hoped to boost sales with in situ visits during the last and historically most lucrative quarter of the calendar year (“OND” or Octobero-November-December, as it is known in the trade). But all plans and hopes have been dashed by the continued prohibition.

And that’s why we’re bringing the Italians to you.

Next Wednesday in Houston, I’ll be hosting a hybrid virtual/in-person wine dinner with one of my dearest and closest friends, Alicia Lini. She will be joining our group of guests in the dining room at Roma restaurant, where I write the wine list, via Zoom. And other guests will be also be joining via Zoom from their own dining rooms (they will pick up the food and wine beforehand).

For those interested in attending, see the menu and details here. Roma’s kitchen is doing a wonderful seafood — yes, seafood! — menu to pair with Alicia’s white, rosé, and red Lambrusco. It’s going to be super fun. I hope you can join us. Thanks for your support and buon weekend.

Hurricane Ida relief resources.

Relief Gang is at the top of everyone’s list of locally based Hurricane Ida relief resources (image via the Houston Chronicle).

“Hurricane Ida, one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the U.S.,” wrote the editors of the Houston Chronicle yesterday,

    barreled through Louisiana on Sunday, sixteen years to the day that Katrina hit in 2005. Ida brought 150 mph winds — even stronger than Katrina’s — and storm surges as high as 16 feet. More than 1 million homes and businesses lost power. Two people had been confirmed dead Monday evening, though authorities expect that number to grow.
    Louisiana was already reeling from Hurricane Laura last year, a reminder that, in addition to our shared culture, food, music and affinity for football, Texas and Louisiana are united by cursed geography. We are bonded by the deep anxiety that comes with living in this Gulf Coast cauldron where Mother Nature ladles out hurricanes like boiling bowls of gumbo.

Click here for the Chronicle list of locally based Hurricane Ida relief resources. When you give to one of these organizations, your donation is converted swiftly into items that people need right away — water, food, bedding, hygiene products, etc.