How sommeliers are keeping guests (and themselves) safe as dine-in service resumes in Houston.

Please check out my post today for the Houston Press on how sommeliers are keeping guests and themselves safe as dine-in service resumes in our city.

It’s a challenging time to be a restaurant worker, even if you are a wine director overseeing a world-class cellar.

Texas is one of the first states to allow restaurants to reopen. As all of the wine professionals I spoke to noted, there is no model for how to execute wine service safely. And neither the state or federal government have provided adequate guidance.

A mere 11 days have passed since our state’s governor superseded local orders to isolate, wear masks, and keep restaurants and other businesses closed. There are anecdotal reports of numerous restaurateurs not following social distancing protocols. But everyone I talked to for this piece is taking it extremely seriously. I was surprised by what some of them told me (including those who didn’t end up in the post).

Thanks for checking it out and please stay safe.

Texas restaurants reopen today and it scares me to hell.

Image via Adobe Stock.

“Let me just say that it is my hope that with the measures that are being put in place that our numbers will not spike… That is my hope.”

Those are the words of our city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, speaking at a news conference Monday, April 27 following Texas governor Greg Abbott’s announcement that the state would “reopen” today, May 1.

Mayor Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (our city manager) had planned to keep Houston’s “Stay Home/Work Safe” order in place and they had just announced that masks would be mandatory when Abbott decided to supersede all local measures to combat the spread of the deadly virus.

It was the latest volley in Abbott’s ongoing war on local authority in our state. Since coming into office, he has lobbied assiduously to punish cities like Houston and Austin for their status as sanctuary cities and for their progressive policies on reproductive rights.

This week, he took it a step further: now he’s playing with life and death.

In just a few hours, scores of restaurants across Houston will begin opening their doors for “dine-in” service. Abbott has ordered that they can only operate at 25 percent capacity. But beyond that, he’s given no guidance on how restaurateurs can keep their staff and customers safe and how they can curb COVID-19’s spread.

Some in our city are looking to Georgia’s example. The state’s governor, Brian Kemp, issued these guidelines for reopening restaurants last week (Georgia’s restaurants were allowed to reopen on Monday).

But with no official norms or regulations in place, Houston’s restaurant managers are on their own in terms of how they operate and what safety measures they adopt.*

In other words, it’s the wild west when it comes to culinary hygiene. Concerned (however courageous) restaurant-goers have no way of knowing with confidence what safety protocols restaurants owners have put into place, if any.

I understand the economic logic behind reopening. And I recognize that Texas has “flattened the curve.” But on the same day that “Texas reports most deaths in a day from COVID-19” (a story that appears on the landing page of the Houston Chronicle this morning), wouldn’t it be prudent to provide businesses like restaurants — where proper hygiene is always essential for safety — with more robust guidance?

Just like the families of countless wine professionals across our state, ours is struggling to make ends meet in the time of the pandemic. It’s my hope that we’ll all be able to get back to work as soon as possible. But without the proper guidance, Abbot’s order is a genuine gastronomic “go to Hell” to Houston and Austin where local authorities have fought to keep restrictions in place.

Texas reopens today and I am scared as hell for dishwashers, prep cooks, line cooks, waitstaff, sommeliers, and the customers they will serve.

This isn’t political. It’s just common sense.

I encourage you to watch Mayor Turner’s news conference. His remarks moved me to tears when I watched them in real time. He and Judge Hidalgo are true American heroes.

*”‘Reopened services’ shall consist of the following,” wrote Abbott in his decree, listing which businesses could reopen today, including dining establishments: “Dine-in restaurant services, for restaurants that operate at up to 25 percent of the total listed occupancy of the restaurant…”

He specifies that the order only applies to restaurants “that have less than 51 percent of their gross receipts from the sale of alcoholic beverages” and he also prohibits valet parking except for “except for vehicles with placards or plates for disabled parking.”

But there is no mention of masks, gloves, hand-washing, or testing, for example.

In all fairness to our heartless governor, he does offer an overarching recommendation that reopened businesses “should implement social distancing… and practice good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation.” But it’s just advice, not an order. “Individuals are encouraged to wear appropriate face coverings,” he writes, “but no jurisdiction can impose a civil or criminal penalty for failure to wear a face covering.”

Live with Nicolis Amarone today, MS Steven McDonald on what’s next, and a great podcast from Columbia Journalism School

“It was like 2018 all over again,” said Master Sommelier Steven McDonald (above) when I spoke to him recently for the last in my series of posts for the Houston Press on how the Houston wine community is coping with the ongoing health crisis. He was referring to the moment the Court of Master Sommeliers revoked his newly awarded Master Sommelier title after it discovered irregularities in the testing process (answers had been leaked to another candidate; Steven later re-tested and was awarded the coveted pin).

“It was like your whole world was falling apart,” he said. “I feel like I’m living it all over again right now.”

Until late March, Steven was running what many consider to be one of the best wine programs in the U.S. Today, he and the team he managed are all unemployed.

Steven’s a friend: our kids attend the same elementary school and we often bump into each at our favorite neighborhood breakfast place. And he’s one of the wine professionals in our community I admire most. An immensely talented sommelier and an accomplished songwriter and performer, he’s trying to figure out what’s next.

Check out the post here.

In other news…

I’ll be doing a live Instagram story today with Angelo Nicolis from Valpolicella. I tasted with Angelo and his family back in January during my last trip to Italy, including the 2010 Ambrosan (what a wine!) which we will also be opening today.

Valpolicella is such poorly understood appellation in the U.S. I feel a deep connect to the wines because of my many years living, studying, and working in Veneto during my grad student days. I’m really geeked to talk shop with Angelo (who’s a super cool guy, btw, and speaks great English).

Check it out today at 11 a.m. CST/12 p.m. EST on the Ethica Wines Instagram @EthicaWines. I’ve really been enjoying my work with Ethica. Great people and great wines. And these stories have been a lot of fun. Help support Italian wine and Italian winemakers and growers by joining us. I hope to see you then.

In other other news…

Last week I did an interview with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism candidate Emily Pisacreta on how the health crisis will impact the availability of Italian foods and wines in the U.S. (her professor is my good friend Ben Shapiro).

Check out her podcast here.

The Italian wine and food industries were already deeply impacted by the trade wars, tariffs, and the threat of more tariffs when the pandemic forced governments across the world to shut down their economies. It was a “perfect storm” for many in the trade.

Check out her podcast: it’s really compelling to hear her interview with Marco Forti from the Pecorino Toscano Consortium.

Dulcis in fundo…

A lot of people asked me about my Earth Day greeting yesterday: non unius terrae sed totius naturae interpretes sumus.

The line comes from Pliny: “we must contemplate/study not just one [place on] earth but all of nature [to have a deeper understanding of it].” It seemed fitting for the moment.

Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Please share: Southern Smoke (Houston) offering restaurant worker relief nationwide (Houston Press interview with wine director Matthew Pridgen)

Until I reached out to Underbelly Hospitality wine director Matthew Pridgen (above) for an interview published today by the Houston Press, I wasn’t aware that the group’s non-profit Southern Smoke is offering financial aid not just to Houston-area residents but also to restaurant workers across the U.S.

“So far we’ve donated over $670,000 to 354 people to date since the COVID crisis has started,” he told me. “Obviously there’s still a lot more. They’re processing them as fast as they to try to get money to people. Once people are approved, it’s a really quick turn-around. The check is in the mail immediately. It’s been a big help to a lot of people. We’re able to help outside of Houston. It’s nationwide. It’s not relegated to strictly Houston.”

Southern Smoke is currently accepting applications from people in need: click here to apply. And they have 30 staff members processing applications.

“Once people are approved,” he said, “it’s a really quick turn-around. The check is in the mail immediately. It’s been a big help to a lot of people.”

Please share with anyone who needs the support right now.

The interview is part of a series of posts devoted to the Houston wine community and how it is coping with the ongoing health crisis (for the record, I’m putting these together pro bono).

Thanks for sharing.

And happy Earth Day: non unius terrae sed totius naturae interpretes sumus.

Food aid for Houston sommeliers and restaurant workers thanks to Master Sommelier June Rodil and her partners.

In the second in a series of Houston Press posts on how the local wine community is coping with the ongoing health crisis, this morning I published this interview with Master Sommelier June Rodil (above), a partner in one of the city’s top restaurant groups.

She’s one of just a handful of wine professionals in Houston (and the U.S. for that matter) who still have a job. And she and her team are giving back: the group’s “community box,” with roughly three days’ worth of food, is available to anyone who needs it every Saturday at 2 p.m. at Rosie Cannonball at 1620 Westheimer (at Kuester St.). The partners prepare and distribute 100 boxes each week. Rodil recommends lining up at 1:30 p.m. to ensure availability. “No questions asked,” she said. “We just don’t want anyone to go hungry.”

That’s not all she and her partners are doing for our community. And she also shared some good advice for out-of-work sommeliers. Check out the post here.

For those who wish to support our local food and wine community through a donation, I recommend the Houston-based Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund.

In other news…

I’ll be hosting a live story with Andrea Farinetti, COO of Barolo producer Borgogno, today at 11 a.m. CST (12 p.m. EST) on the Ethica Wines Instagram (@EthicaWines). Andrea’s family has played a major role in reshaping Piedmontese viticulture over the last 15 years and I’m really eager to e-meet him and discuss how he and his family’s companies are facing the challenges of the current economic climate.

Please join us if you can.

Thanks for being here and thanks for supporting Italian wine by drinking it.

Dum vita spes.

A new series for Houston Press on how the local wine community is coping with health crisis.

Like its sisters and brothers across the country, the closely knit Houston wine community is reeling from widespread layoffs and furloughs. The impact has been nothing short of devastating. Many wine professionals live paycheck to paycheck and the sudden loss of income has left an entire generation of sommeliers without a means to support themselves. It’s really bad out there: people who yesterday were serving top-shelf wines are now standing in breadlines.

In an effort to raise awareness of our community’s needs and resources, I asked the editor of the Houston Press to let me launch a new series of posts devoted to how Houston-based wine professionals are coping with the crisis and what they are doing to support their colleagues.

The first post in the series, published today, features Advanced Sommelier Jaime De Leon (above, in a selfie he took for the piece). As the Beverage Director for the Kroger supermarket chain’s Houston division, he’s one of just a handful of wine professionals who are still employed in our city.

I wanted to post Jaime’s piece first because over the course of our conversation, he underlined the fact that Kroger — like H-E-B, the other major supermarket chain that serves our community — is hiring.

“Kroger is definitely welcoming anyone and everyone that’s willing to seek employment with the Kroger company,” he told me. “Feel free to apply. We are looking for help. It’s not a good time for the total industry and our economy but thank God there are still avenues that are still available for a way to make some money.”

Visit the Kroger careers page for job listings. There are many positions currently being offered, at multiple locations across the greater Houston area.

“I’ve extended the website Kroger jobs site to everyone,” he said. “And I’ve told them that they can use my name as a reference if they need it.”

I’ve already interviewed a number of our colleagues and I’m looking forward to sharing the posts as I edit them.

If you know a Houston wine professional in need, please encourage them to apply on the Kroger website. And please feel free to pass along my contact (jparzen@gmail.com) so I can get them in touch with Jaime.

And for the record, the Houston Press is also in need of support. I’m doing these posts pro bono.

In other news…

Today, I also want to give a shout-out to another Houston colleague, a sommelier who’s been using his time in isolation during the Stay Home-Work Safe order to produce a new enocentric podcast.

Chris Poldoian’s By the Glass is just two episodes in and I was honored to be a guest on his show. He produced it remotely: we spoke by phone using headphones as we recorded our voices and then he spliced the audio files together.

Chris (below) is a great guy and a beloved member of our community. I’m not a fan of my own voice but a listen might help to pass the hours of isolation. He was keen to hear about my experiences in Franciacorta and Lambrusco. I know Chris will appreciate the click.

According to media reports, we’re about two weeks from our peak here in Houston. Please stay safe and isolate. Staying at home saves lives.

Taste of Italy Houston festival postponed due to ongoing health crisis.

UPDATE (March 4, 2020): Vinitaly has been postponed until June. See details here.

As one of the organizers of this event, I am deeply sorry to have to share the following press release. See also this CultureMap coverage of the postponement.

March 2, 2020
Italy-America Chamber of Commerce
Houston, Texas

PRESS RELEASE: Taste of Italy Houston (March 29-30), Taste of Italy New Orleans (March 31), and Savor Italy Los Angeles (April 2) postponed.

As U.S. issues Italy travel advisory, IACC postpones food and wine festivals planned for Houston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles in March.

The Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central has officially postponed its food and wine festivals and trade fairs previously scheduled for March in Houston (March 29-30) and New Orleans (March 31). The Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West (Los Angeles) has also postponed the festivals’ sister event in Los Angeles previously scheduled for April 2.

The IACC has decided to reschedule the gatherings in the wake of news reports of U.S. carrier flight cancellations to and from northern Italy and the U.S. government’s newly announced screening policy for travelers arriving in the country from Italy.
Continue reading

Rock out with me, Tracie, and the girls this Sunday, December 29 at 13 Celsius wine bar

That’s one of my favorite photos from back in the day. Tracie and I had just met for the first time the month before (following a six-month e-mance). But I was in East Germany playing a gig with my band Nous Non Plus at a European Green Party retreat (no shit).

Dany Le Rouge (yes, Dany himself!) was dancing with a beautiful girl dressed in red in the audience at that show.

The year was 2008 and things were finally looking up after an annus horribilis in New York the previous year (well, honestly, looking back on it all, it wasn’t so bad, except for the financial crisis).

We had just sold a song to the TV show Girls on HBO and one of the producers featured us on his playlist (that was huge!).

And this beautiful woman from Austin, Texas had just come into my life — changing it forever and for better.

Today, nearly 12 years later, I’m a dude in his 50s who plays 70s and 80s covers at funky downtown natural wine bars. Who would have thunk it?

This Sunday, our band BioDyanmic (I know, right?) will be playing two sets at one of my favorite wine hangs, 13 Celsius (which is actually in midtown, equally funky).

AND… the amazing Thomas Cokinos will be sharing lead vox duties with me. He is not only a super talented player but a super frontman frontperson. Really great.

Click here for the details but all you really need to know is that we will take the stage around 1 p.m. and that me, Tra, and the girls (yes, it’s kid-friendly) will be hanging out afterwards to see the other bands and to enjoy some great wine (at discounted prices; they do this crazy “Sunday Situation” discount program there). The small plates are also excellent (the girls love the charcuterie).

I hope you can join us to end 2019 in bellezza as they say in Italian.

Rock out with me in Houston: Hanukkah first night house party and Sunday Dec. 29 at 13 Celsius

Houston friends: I’ll be playing two shows with my 70s and 80s cover band BioDynamic later this month. Please come rock out with us!

On Sunday, December 22, Parzen Family will be hosting a blow-out house party and open mic, featuring kids from the Suzuki program at our school and anyone who wants to perform solo or sit in.

Kids will start playing around 1 p.m., followed by adults and our band (around 4 p.m.). At sundown, we’ll take a break to light candles and Tra will be making her legendary latkes.

If you already know where we live, just come whenever. And bring your favorite pot luck dish or bottle of wine (not necessary but welcomed).

If you don’t have our address, ping me. ALL ARE WELCOME!

And then on Sunday, December 29, we’ll be playing two sets at one of my favorite Houston wine bars, 13 Celsius in Midtown. It’s part of the their end-of-year celebration, “The 13th Hour.” Party starts at 1 p.m. and we take the stage at 2 p.m. There’s no cover and it’s family friendly. And of course, the wines will rock as well.

Click here for details and the complete lineup of Houston bands.

I hope that everyone is having a great holiday season and that you can join us for one of the shows/events.

And thanks to everyone who wished Georgia a happy birthday on social media.

Rock on and drink great wine! Hope to see you soon!

Walmart USA: it’s time to stop denying we have a white supremacist problem #HateWillNotDefineUs

The Walmart in El Paso where the mass shooting took place this weekend is just like the Walmart in our Houston neighborhood. You’ll find every gradation of humanity there: brown, black, white, Asian, Jew, Muslim, Christian…

We don’t live on the U.S.-Mexico border like our sisters and brothers in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. But we do live in the fourth-largest city in America, the country’s most diverse, home to one of its largest ports and transit hubs, where Spanish, Yiddish (yes, I hear Yiddish every week in our neighborhood), Arabic, Vietnamese, Chinese, and countless African, European, and Asian tongues all mingle together every day.

And the Walmart in our southwest corner of Houston, where I bought our daughters their first bicycles and where we shop occasionally, is just like that Walmart in El Paso where a white supremacist murdered and maimed innocents on Saturday morning.

I thought twice about taking the girls to our Walmart yesterday, Sunday, when we needed to get a replacement tube for one of their bikes.

After El Paso, there’s no longer any denying that our nation has a white supremacist problem. Over the last 12 months, white supremacists have killed black people, brown people, and Jews in our country.

In the course of our activism, Tracie and I have seen white supremacy up close and personal: it’s scary and ugly and dangerous. And tragically, it’s very much alive, thriving, and growing in our country.

It’s time for everyone — from politicians in the White House and the Texas capitol to the woman and man on the street, from religious leaders to civic leaders and activists — to call it out for what it is. Honestly, it was time a long time ago. Innocent people are dying at the hands of white supremacists and we must rise up against them.

The first step is to recognize this expanding, horrific problem. The second step is to stand up and speak out: we will not tolerate white supremacy in our communities, churches and synagogues, schools, and place like our Walmarts — where we all gather for back-to-school shopping on a late summer Saturday morning.

Our family’s thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this weekend’s shootings and their families. And our hearts and minds are filled with resolve to combat white supremacy wherever it lurks in our country.

#HateWillNotDefineUs