Happy Juneteenth! A holiday long observed in Houston and now federally recognized.

Image via congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s Twitter.

Happy Juneteenth!

It’s a wonderful feeling to know that our nation has made a long-overdue step in the right direction. Yesterday, President Biden signed S. 475 into law, “the ‘Juneteenth National Independence Day Act,’ which designates Juneteenth National Independence Day as a legal public holiday.”

While many of our fellow Americans are just becoming aware of Juneteenth for the first time, the holiday has been celebrated here in Houston for generations. It was in nearby Galveston that Juneteenth had its origins. Before the end of the 19th century, it was already being observed each year in Houston proper.

In her recently published collection of essays about Texas, On Juneteenth (Liveright, May 2021), Harvard Law School professor Annette Gordon-Reed recounts her memories of celebrating the holiday when she was growing up in segregated Conroe, a city about an hour north of where we live today.

Houston congresswomen Lizzie Fletcher (who represents the district where we live), left, and Sheila Jackson Lee, center, announced the Juneteenth National Independence Act on Juneteenth 2020 in Houston (image via Fletcher’s Facebook).

The bill was first introduced by Houston congresswoman and legacy civil rights activist Sheila Jackson Lee in February of this year. It was co-sponsored by Houston congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher, who represents the district where we live.

Fletcher was first elected to congress in 2018 in the blue wave that delivered the House to the Democrats. She was the first progressive to be elected in our district in a generation. Her seat was once held by George H.W. Bush back when Houston was still one of the most deeply segregated cities in the country.

Tracie and I will be celebrating by going out to dinner with good friends and taking the girls to some of the gatherings planned for tomorrow at the historic Emancipation Park (which also played a role in the early Juneteenth celebrations).

There couldn’t be a better day to be in Houston! Happy Juneteenth!

My new wine director gig in Houston! Taste with me at Roma, Weds. June 2 (free tasting).

One of the most remarkable experiences of my career in wine took shape during the 2020 lockdowns. For more than 52 weeks, with just a few breaks, I led virtual wine dinners every Thursday night for Roma restaurant in Houston. Those events were what kept the restaurant financially afloat — and what kept food on all of our tables — during the seemingly unending challenges of the pandemic.

But something else happened as well, something truly magical. Through these digital gatherings on Zoom, we created a community of Italian food and wine lovers who found comfort in our shared culinary passion as the world outside seemed to be falling apart — literally. By the summer of 2020, we regularly had 80-90 guests attending virtually each week. The friendship and culinary camaraderie we shared was something that I’ll never ever forget. It showed, once again, how food and wine can transcend their roles as nutritional and aesthetic pleasures.

When the lockdowns began in March 2020, I had worked as a media manager for Roma for more than two years, running the restaurant’s website and social media. But the restaurant’s founder, my good friend and Houston restaurant veteran Shanon Scott, had never even considered me working on the wine list with him. His thought was, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But then, after he had watched me lead more than 50 or so of these events, which also included an Italian winemaker joining us from Italy at 2:30 in the morning, I approached Shanon about me helping out with the program. By May of this year, we had agreed that I would become the restaurant’s wine director as of June 1.

On Tuesday of last week, we debuted our new list and program. And by Saturday night, there was a bottle of wine on every table — something that had never happened before at Roma. Our goal is to make the restaurant the leading Texas destination for Italian wine by 2021’s end.

Tomorrow night, I’ll be hosting a free (yes, free!) Amarone tasting at the restaurant at 6 p.m. (Wednesday, June 20). And then I’ll be pouring and chatting tableside with guests throughout the night. Please join me!

Just shoot me an email at jeremy [at] romahouston.com if you’d like to attend the event. Thank you for your support. I hope to see you tomorrow or at one of the many wine tastings and dinners — in-person and virtual — that we have planned for coming months.

Pete Wells gets the Tex but not the Mex. What the American intelligentsia gets wrong about Texans, our culture, and how and what we eat.

Even some of the most informed food writers don’t realize that what they call “fajitas,” the cornerstone of Tex-Mex cuisine, has its origins in Mexico’s discada cooking culture. That’s the carne asada plate, yesterday, at my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, Taqueria El Sole de Mexico #2.

“Tex-Mex is probably the least respected of America’s regional cuisines,” wrote venerated Times food and restaurant critic Pete Wells in the paper this week. “In part this is because, like some Texas politicians, it doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny once it leaves the state.”

His uninformed, puerile mockery reminded me of something one of my close California family members said to me contemptuously after I had moved to Texas to be with Tracie.

“How can you live there,” they asked, “with all those awful people?”

I wonder how many Texan politicians Mr. Wells or my relative can name beyond Ted C. Maybe Ken P.? Beto, of course. But without resorting to a Google search, can they name one Black politician from Texas? Beyond Ted C. and maybe Julian C., do they know the name of any other Brown Texas politician?

And that’s what Wells and my relative all get wrong about Texans and our culture.

(In all fairness to Mr. Wells, he has famously, although perhaps disingenuously, written that he “likes” Texans.)

No English is spoke at my favorite Tex-Mex place, where “fajitas” are the number-one menu entry. You can also order a burrito smothered in queso. It’s as Tex-Mex as you can get.

I would have never said this to my relative (and luckily neither they nor their spouse read my blog!) but I would have liked to ask them: beyond all the “awful” White people you think you know from Texas, what about the Brown and Black people? Are they awful, too?

And that’s where the American intelligentsia gets it dead wrong.

Yes, there are a lot of “awful” White people in Texas who have disenfranchised Black and Brown people for generations. And those same awful White people continue to suppress the voice of Black and Brown people at the voting box and they continue — less successfully in recent years — to segregate Texans. But that’s because those awful White people are still in power, as anyone who reads the Times surely knows.

And here’s where the Tex-Mex analogy comes into play. The only Tex-Mex that Wells knows is the “White Tex-Mex” of big box players like Chuy’s and Pappasitos and the faux Tex-Mex that New Yorkers eat. He gets the Tex but he doesn’t get the Mex.

Tex-Mex didn’t originate in European cookery. It’s actually Brown-people cuisine that has been contaminated by White gastronomic traditions.

Case in point: fajitas.

Even Wells will agree that the griddle-fired, intensely seasoned meats are the cornerstone of Tex-Mex cuisine. And he shouldn’t be surprised to learn that their origin lies in the discada cooking of the Mexican — not Texan — countryside.

Earlier this month, I interviewed Chef Luis Jiménez de S. whose cloud kitchen brand Bell Pepper Fajitas is debuting in Houston in a few weeks (I was writing a press release for his PR firm). His group is based in Del Rio on the Tex-Mex border. But Chef Luis had joined our call from Mexico where he lives and cooks — you guessed it — Tex-Mex!

We spoke at length about the origins of Tex-Mex and how it is a reflection of classic Mexican cuisine. He was keen to talk about its farming-community and family-friendly character, two elements that inform his menus for Bell Pepper Fajitas and his other immensely popular concept, Amacate.

I remembered our conversation as I dug into my carne asada yesterday at Taqueria El Sol de Mexico #2, which is located in a Tex-Mex row in a Spanish-speaking Houston neighborhood not far from our house. There are roughly 20 similar restaurants along a mile-long stretch of road. I haven’t visited them all but based on my past experiences, fajitas and queso — another pillar of the Tex-Mex canon — are on the menu at most of them.

I took a look around. There were no Texas politicians there (I know where Ted C. eats in Houston btw but that’s another story for another time). There were no awful White people there either. There were no White people there at all.

Just a bunch of Texans enjoying lunch on a beautiful spring day in Houston, the ranchera music blasting away.

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.