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!

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.