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.

Vinous aromas of yesteryear: Italy’s 2013 vintage reminds many of a pre-climate change era

grape pomace grappa marc

Above: That’s Hawk Wakawaka, one of my favorite people on the wine blogging scene. She’s dwarfed (and she’s not a short person) by a hill of grape pomace at the Nonino distillery in Udine province in Friuli.

Borrowing a line from my wife, Tracie P, who couldn’t have said it more brilliantly, grappa is the ultimate expression of the grape.

In other words, the grape’s very last gasp is its distillation into a spirit.

When I visited the Nonino distillery in Udine province a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that pomace brandy is also the ultimate expression of the vintage.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of Italian distillers, the Noninos only distill once a year — during harvest.

As Elisabetta explained to the group of writers with whom I was traveling, one of her parents’ great innovations was that they were the first to work directly with growers to ensure the freshness of the pomace that arrived at the distillery and to distill as quickly as possible in order to retain that freshness.

The Noninos — one of the great Italian success stories of the 1990s and one of the most recognizable “made-in-Italy” brands — need no introduction or endorsement from me. In Italy and abroad, their products are considered benchmarks for the category. And they essentially created the category when they launched their distinctive bottles and monovarietal grapps in the early 1980s. And they are largely responsible for grappa mania in the U.S. in the 1990s.

I always have a blast and learn something new when I visit with them. And I know my wife will forgive me for the huge crush that I have on matriarch Giannola. She — one of the most glamorous women in Italian viticulture and a genius marketer — always has me on the edge of my seat with her tales of Marcello Mastroianni kneeling before her in a theater in Rome in the 1960s.

But the thing that I couldn’t get out of my head as we visited over a day and a half was what one of their vineyard managers, Denis Cociancig, said to me when toured their famous Picolit and Fragolino vineyards (where they grow their own grapes destined to become Nonino monovarietal grappas).

“The vinous aromas that are coming out of the cellars” across Friuli, he said, reminded him “of the harvests of another era.”

The “aromas of the courtyard,” as he put it, “are like the ones I remember from my childhood.”

nonino sisters

Above: It’s not a stretch to say that the Noninos are the nuttiest people I’ve ever met in the wine and food trade. Those are sisters, from left, Elisabetta, Cristina, and Antonella Nonino, with Cristina’s husband Tony. They are always so sweet and energetic. Every time I visit, I learn something new…

Across Italy, yields are lower than they have been in recent years but that “courtyard aroma” has returned.

And he wasn’t the only grower/winemaker who told me that. In the Veneto and Tuscany, I heard cellar masters say exactly the same thing.

And you could smell it everywhere we went. It’s a brilliant aroma of fresh, young wine that literally seduces you.

Most attribute those aromas to the fact that the vintage was a “classic” one: the late spring rains and cooler temperatures made for a more balanced vegetative cycle and pushed back harvest by roughly two weeks. More than one grower noted that she/he hadn’t harvested this late since the 1980s, an era before climate change — whatever its cause — delivered a nearly uninterrupted string of warm, bountiful crops.

Like their winemaking counterparts, the Noninos are expecting to produce less this year but they are thrilled by the quality of the materia prima that arrived at their distillery with this harvest.

When we began to see the 2013 wines in the market, it will be interesting to taste them and remember the aromas of my recent trip. And when I sip a Nonino grappa from Fragolino (my personal favorite) after dinner, I’ll remember that visit to the Nonino vineyards where the yields were low but offset by the rewards of the “courtyard aromas of yesteryear.”

In unrelated news…

One of the winners of the prestigious Nonino prize for the arts and sciences in 2013, physicist Peter Higgs, also became a Nobel laureate this year.

Those crazy Noninos: I don’t know how they do it, but they always seem to be one step ahead of the rest of us.

98.9% natural? Either you is or either you ain’t

natural wine controversy

When I saw this claim, “98.9% natural,” on a bottle of baby liquid bath soap, I couldn’t help but think of the 1955 single by one of my favorite R&B singers Big Joe Turner: “Lipstick, Powder, and Paint” written by Jesse Stone, who also wrote “Shake Rattle & Roll” (also recorded for the first time by Big Joe Turner).

The song is about a transgender person: lipstick, powder, and paint/either you is or either you ain’t.

It’s kind of like being pregnant: you can’t be a little bit pregnant.

I think that one of the reasons why the expression natural wine stirs such controversy and can evoke such vitriol is how the precious word natural is so often abused in marketing today.

Continue reading

Parzen family expansion update mommy & baby p 2013 doing great

pregnant belly

Yesterday, we had our 35-week sonogram and our doctor is really pleased with how things are going. Mommy and baby, I am thrilled to report, are both doing well.

Technically, we have five weeks to go, although everyone (including mommy) believes that Baby P 2013 will arrive early (partly because second births generally come early; “your body already knows what to do,” said the doctor yesterday).

For a few moments during yesterday’s sonogram, you could see the baby’s face and her hair. The most amazing feeling in the world to see our new baby girl! :)

baby face sonogram

Confessions of a Natural wine addict (all is fair in love)

“A writer takes his pen and writes the words again/all is fair in love.”
—Stevie Wonder

dettori bianco

Above: Four of six bottles of Dettori 2010 Romangia Bianco have been fizzy and slightly sweet.

Dettori Romangia Bianco, a skin-contact wine from Sardinia made from 100% Vermentino grapes, is one of our all-time favorite wines.

Tracie P and I have a mini-vertical of the wine in our cellar and we buy a case of every new vintage to put down each year.

That’s just one of the reasons that I was so thrilled to see the wine finally make it to the Texas market (until now, I’ve bought the wine in California where I keep my cellar).

But the number-one reason was that we love drinking it.

dettori back label

Above: The Dettori back label with a note on the winery’s approach to vinfication. Click image for high-resolution version.

I can’t imagine that anyone, even the greatest Natural wine skeptic or detractor, would deny that Dettori’s wines are Natural wines.

As Alessandro Dettori writes on the back of each bottle, the only ingredients are grapes and sulfur. And no enzymes or additives (he calls them adjuvants) are used in vinification.

In my experience, the wines can be radically different from vintage to vintage. But their intense tannic component seems to keep the wines relatively stable although never homogenous.

dettori vineyard

Above: Alessandro Dettori in his “oldest vineyard.” I’ve never been to the winery but my friend Georgios Hadjistylianou graciously let me use these photos from his recent visit there. Here’s the photo album. Thanks again Georgios!

I won’t conceal my disappointment when four (so far) of six bottles turned out to be fizzy and slightly sweet.

When the importer came through town and tasted the wine with me earlier this month, the 2010 seemed to align with my previous experience. It was tannic and rich, very youthful in its evolution. I couldn’t wait to buy some.

And when my local wine merchant told me he was holding the last six bottles for me, I hurried to the shop to pick them up.

But I’m sad to report that somewhere along the way — probably due to the extreme and often capricious Texas heat — the wine underwent a secondary fermentation in bottle.

dettori cellar

Above: Cement vats at Dettori.

As Tracie P noted, they taste like vino paesano, the “country wine” that is often sold in demijohns in proletarian Italian wine shops. It’s fresh and bright, the alcohol and tannin are tame, the acidity is zinging, and the gentle spritz makes it even more food-friendly.

I’m a wine professional and am well aware that a flawed or corked bottle here and there are variables in the vinous equation. But four out of six bottles and counting could be grounds to ask for my money back.

But, no, I would never do that.

I’m a Natural wine addict and if nature — including the moody temperatures of my adoptive state — has delivered the wine in this condition, it’s my bitter sweet pill to swallow.

“We are artisans of the earth,” writes Alessandro on the back of his bottles. The wines are “what they have to be and not what you want them to be.”

We’ve been drinking the flawed but wholesome wine as an apertif and pairing it with early summer pesto and pasta al pomodoro. Not as cheap as a vino paesano but equally enjoyable.

It’s a wine that reminds us that all is fair in nature and in love…

“The shield of the Alps between us and the Teutonic rage”

dolomite alps treviso

That’s the view, above, that greets us every morning when we leave our apartment at the Villa Marcello Marinelli in Cison di Valmarino (province of Treviso).

In the shadow of such rich natural beauty, I can’t help but be reminded of the following lines from Canzone 128 of Petrarch’s songbook, Italia mia, ben che’l parlar sia indarno a le piaghe mortali (My Italy, although speech does not aid those immortal wounds):

    Ben provide Natura al nostro stato,
    quando de l’Alpi schermo
    pose fra noi et la tedesca rabbia;
    ma ‘l desir cieco, e ‘ncontr’al suo ben fermo,
    s’è poi tanto ingegnato,
    ch’al corpo sano à procurato scabbia.

    Nature provided well for our safety when she put the shield of the Alps between us and the Teutonic rage; but our blind desire, strong against our own good, has contrived to make this healthy body sick.

    (Translation by Robert Durling.)

dolomite alps

We’ve been having a great time here at the villa and the band has begun to arrive (we’ll be performing on Friday and Saturday nights).

But my old and very good friend Renato Dal Piva, the villa’s manager, and I have also had some heavy heart-to-heart chats about what it’s like to live and work in Italy these days.

Yesterday, The New York Times reported that “Unemployment in Euro Zone Reaches a Record 12%” (in October 2012, the paper reported that “Unemployment in Euro Zone at Record High” [at 11.4 percent]).

Petrarch’s verses were composed in the mid-fourteenth century. They scan as though they, too, were written yesterday…

For our vines have tender grapes…

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE! :)

For lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of singing has come,
And the voice of the turtledove
Is heard in our land.

The fig tree puts forth her green figs,
And the vines with the tender grapes
Give a good smell.
Rise up, my love, my fair one,
And come away!

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
In the secret places of the cliff,
Let me see your face,
Let me hear your voice;
For your voice is sweet,
And your face is lovely.”

Catch us the foxes,
The little foxes that spoil the vines,
For our vines have tender grapes.

Song of Solomon