Whoa California wine! Skyline Ridge, Santa Cruz Mountains…

What a revelation for me to tour and taste through Skyline Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains yesterday!

So much of California wine is known for its manicured character. But up on the ridge that looks down to the east on Silicon Valley and to the west out to the Pacific Ocean (about 15 miles away), the landscape is wild and untamed.

It blew me away to find such robust mountain viticulture here. It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.

It was also really interesting to see the San Andreas fault here and learn how the collision of the tectonic plates brought ancient marine bed to the surface.

I’m spending the next few days between Sonoma and Napa working on a new project that I am really exited about. It’s a little too early to reveal it yet but stay tuned.

Thanks to everyone who tasted with me and showed me around yesterday. There is a soulfulness to the place and the people here and it definitely comes through in the wines.

That’s all I have time for today. Now it’s time to hit the road again, taste, and tread through some more vineyards…

California wine on my mind: a study in two extremes…

Last week, over the course of 24 hours on the ground in Southern California (my dolce natio loco), it felt like I spanned the extremes of viticulture there.

On Tuesday evening, I tasted some of the extraordinary Santa Barbara-grown wines of Scott Sampler, a show business veteran who has been buying and bottling fruit since the 2012 vintage there under the Central Coast Group Project label.

On Wednesday afternoon, I toured vineyards in Valley Center (not far from where I grew up in San Diego) with winemaker and grape grower Chris Broomell whose family has been farming there for five generations.

Chris’ family started growing grapes, he said, in the era after the Second World War when ongoing drought made viticulture more lucrative.

Scott abandoned a robust career in entertainment to become a full-time winemaker.

Chris vinifies delicious, moreish, and highly affordable monovarietal wines for his family’s Triple B Ranches winery. I especially loved his gorgeous Vermentino.

Scott employs extended maceration times to make brilliant, jaw-droppingly beautiful expressions of Rhône Valley grape varieties that cost more than I can afford and sell out as soon as he releases them. I was blown away by his 2013 Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah blend below and its ballerino’s balance despite its muscular alcohol.

Meeting and tasting with both winemakers was an exhilarating and eye-opening experience for me. In part because they each represent distinct and powerful voices in the new wave of California winemaking and in part because they share a vision of transparency in winemaking. And by transparency, I mean clarity and sincerity of fruit in their wines.

Chris and I talked a lot about the historic disconnect between California grape growers and winemakers. California is a great place to grow fine wine grapes, he explained (and we all know this to be true), but until the current generation, Californian winemakers have focused more on their work in the cellar than in the vineyards. When he returned from a year working in vineyards and wineries in Australia early on in his career, he said, he was nonplussed by the way California winemakers interpreted the fruit delivered to their cellar doors by local farmers.

Similarly, Scott seems to belong to a growing number of California winemakers who see their role as custodians or guardians of their fruit. He works with growers who deliver superb grapes to his cellar door and like Renaissance master Pietro Bembo meticulously transcribing the idiograph Italian poems of Petrarch, he appears (at least to me) more as a protector and defender of the berries than their interpreter or manipulator.

Both winemakers have looked abroad for inspiration. And both are making delicious and — in my view — thought-provoking wines, both for their historical perspective and their wholesome deliciousness.

And both of them have me thinking big thoughts. I’ll have a lot more California on my mind this month and the months to follow. Thanks fo reading and stay tuned…

Is being Mexican in Trump America a zero-sum game?

chicano-park-san-diegoOver the span of one week, conversations with two friends of mine, both of them middle-aged and middle-class American women of Mexican heritage, revealed a dichotomy in attitudes about Latinos living in the U.S. in the Trump era.

In Houston, the Texan of the two told me that she and her family are deeply concerned about how the president-elect’s immigration policies are going to affect them and the wider network of their community.

If Trump makes good on his pledge to deport 11 million Latinos from the U.S. and, in particular, if he revokes Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, her extended family will surely be affected.

No one knows for certain what Trump will actually do but it’s highly likely that his newly implemented immigration policies will literally rip her family apart.

In North County San Diego, the Californian of the two told me she hopes that Trump acts on his vow to expel “undocumented” Latinos living in the U.S.

“Not another Mexican should ever be allowed into this country,” she said (verbatim).

I grew up in Southern California and called it my home until I was 30 years old.

Now 49 years old, I’ve lived in Texas since 2008.

According to the most recent data on demographics in the two states that I could find (notably here and here), roughly 40 percent of the people living in both states are Latinos. And in California, there are currently more Latinos than Whites. In Texas, the number of Latinos is expected to surpass the number of Whites by the end of this decade.

When I was a child, my caretaker was a Mexican woman (who is still a close friend of my family). I learned to speak Spanish fluently by the time I was 13 years old (long before I learned to speak Italian). My classes were filled with Mexican kids during my years of high school (La Jolla High) and college (U.C.L.A.).

When Trump announced his bid for the presidency in 2015, he said that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” (Read the text of his June 2015 address here.)

Aside from my decade in New York and my years as a student in Italy, I’ve lived almost 40 years in states where Spanish is spoken regularly as a second language and where Mexicans and Whites live, work, study, and raise families side-by-side (as the demographics reveal, Texas and California are very similar in this regard). Gauging from my own personal experience, Trump’s remarks (in his opening bid to become the U.S. president) are as far from the truth as they are deeply offensive.

As a contributor to the Washington Post wrote about a month before the general election, “anyone… sold on the idea that Trump’s comments have simply been misunderstood or taken out of contest seems unable to grasp is that the act of declaring an entire group prone to illegal activity is about as close to a textbook example of bigotry and xenophobia as possible.”

In January when Trump takes office, we’ll see how he intends to implement his often repeated campaign pledge. Some states, like California, are already taking steps to protect their residents from Trump’s bigoted and xenophobic approach to immigration reform.

In the meantime, countless people who reside in our country are living in fear of what will come next.

It was only two generations ago that my family immigrated to the U.S. when my grandparents’ families fled religious persecution and economic subjugation in what are now Russia and Poland. All of my ancestors were Jews and nearly all of them were poor, disenfranchised, and “undocumented” migrants. According to our family mythology, my paternal grandmother came from a family of bootleggers. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know that she was born into abject poverty. As the tide of history in Eastern Europe has shown, her family’s migration probably saved their lives and their biological legacy. My children are her great-grandchildren.

Trump claims to be a Christian and the majority of Whites who elected him identify as Christians (including Evangelicals’ nearly unmitigated support).

I often wonder how my White-Christian friends are sleeping the days, now that Trump is poised to become the leader of our nation.

I know for a fact that a lot of my Mexican-Christian friends have been losing a lot of sleep.

mexican-park-barrio-logan-san-diegoImages of Chicano Park in San Diego where I grew up via Peyri Herrera’s Flickr. See also the Wiki entry for Chicano Park.

Goodbye California (a poem)

toes in the sandGoodbye California, goodbye beach, goodbye pool. 
Goodbye fish tacos, goodbye nigiri and sashimi, too.
Goodbye ocean, goodbye seal, seagull, and pelican.
Goodbye to some of our favorite things American.

parzen poolThank you San Diego, La Jolla, and thank you sweet friends.
Thanks for a week of paradise we wished would never end.
Thank you dear mother and thank you big brother.
Sister-in-law, niece, better family there is no other.

jeremy parzen wine blogBless you daughters and bless you wife.
Thank you for sharing the place where I came to life.
Sun, water, sand, and good things to eat.
This vacation will be a tough one to beat.

Thank you Sherman-Parzens, Yelenoskys, Battle-Ericksons, Georges, and Krylows for making this such a special week for the Texas Parzens in California!

And thank you, mom, for making this trip possible and for the great week at your apartment… What a wonderful experience for us. We’ll never forget it.

Suffer from Jewish Boy Stomach? Eat at Moruno in Los Angeles (and thanks to Sotto team and guests)

david rosoff restaurant los angelesEvery time Sotto brings me to Los Angeles to work on our wine list, general manager Christine Veys and I try to break away to check out one of the new restaurants on LA’s vibrant food scene.

On Tuesday evening, after tasting roughly 30 wines with 6 different sales reps, we headed to my friend David Rosoff’s newly opened Moruno in the West Hollywood Farmer’s Market (a haunt of my youth).

That’s the absolutely delicious albacore tuna conserva in the photo above.

The menu is inspired by Spanish and Middle Eastern cookery and is delivered mostly in small plates and on skewers (as David put it, a moruno is “meat on a stick”).

We had a wide variety of dishes, including the roast butternut squash topped with cashews and sesame seeds, one of the guests’ and staff’s favorites, David said.

And of course, we sampled both the chicken and lamb morunos.

what is a morunoEverything was truly fantastic and it was great to see his energetic team working in the kitchen with such focused skill and decisive sense of mission.

But the thing that really blew me away about the experience was how good I felt the next day (sparing you the details, I’ll presume you know what I mean).

Whenever I travel for my work (and this year, I already have four trips to Italy and visits to New York, Miami, Santa Barbara, Boston, and LA under my belt), one of the greatest challenges I face is the combination of fatigue and distressed digestion (I’ll leave it at that).

best spanish wineEven though Christine and I really dug into our meal with gusto at Moruno, my “day after” was bright and sunny, as it were.

Maybe it was thanks to the superb Grenache Blanc by Cellar Frisach from southern Spain that made the difference. Zinging acidity in this hillside wine from the high lands, vibrant fruit and great balance, with restrained alcohol. I really dug it, especially at just $45 a bottle.

David, from one Jew to another, I LOVE your restaurant. The ultimate mark of a great meal is how you feel the next day and man, I woke up ready to go… as it were…

In other news…

My goodness, what a lovely night at Sotto last night where we launched our new wine list with a guided tasting of five new wines by-the-glass!

I can’t tell you how many times I lead tastings where guests show up only wanting to tell me about how they once visited Gaja.

Last night’s group was one of the best and most fun that I’ve ever tasted with: a very gracious ensemble of wine lovers who asked informed questions and shared thoughtful impressions of the wines. Thank you, everyone, for joining me.

And super heartfelt thanks to Christine for being such a great friend and colleague and for believing in my crazy reboot of our list (which I love).

And I also have to give a shout-out to my Texas family who surprised me by showing up at the tasting unannounced and staying for dinner. It was so fun to connect with them in LA and wonderful to know that I have family that supports me in what I do for a living. What a thrill for me to see Aunt Gladys enjoying my wine selections!

Now it’s time to get my butt back on a plane for Houston and some much needed downtime with Tra and the girls… Thanks for being here.

Microaggression and my Houston apologia

houston hermann park conservatoryAbove: my family at the Hermann Park Conservancy in Houston last year, not long after we moved here from Austin.

12,000+ views, 2,000+ Facebook shares, and 28 comments later, it’s still going strong… When I published it a week ago Sunday, I never imagined that my post “You’re from Houston? I’m so sorry” would have generated such a response.

When she shared it on her Facebook on Thursday, Houstonia magazine managing editor Katharine Shilcutt (and one of my editors there) wrote: “it’s always heartwarming to see non-natives become Houston apologists.”

Katharine, a Houston native, is a friend and one of the writers and editors I admire most on the food scene here. It was a thrill to discover that she enjoyed the post enough to share it with her legions of followers.

And today, the post was featured on the Houston Chronicle “Opportunity Urbanist” blog.

Honestly, I never intended the post as a panegyric.
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La Jolla won’t annoy ya… California, here we come!

la jolla california blacks beachThat’s Black’s Beach in the photo, above, one of California’s most famous nudist beaches — at least when I was growing up in La Jolla in the 1970 and 80s.

It’s also a great surf spot and when I was a kid, they used to take generators and beer kegs down there and put on some pretty rowdy rock shows (for real).

When you hang out at the Torrey Pines Glider Port above, you can often see the silhouettes of manta rays and dolphins swimming in the clear waters below.

In the distance, you can see one high-rise on the point. That’s the La Jolla Cove and the building is “939” on Coast Blvd., where my grandparents once lived and where my mother still lives to this day.

We’re heading there tomorrow for a long weekend with my family: our niece Amalia will be bat mitzvah on Saturday and we’ll be there for the services and party.

It’s a big occasion for our family for another reason. Most of our California family has never met Lila Jane, who just turned two. So it will be wonderful for them to get to know the Texas side of our family a little better.

As much as I love being a Texan, being married to a gorgeous and generously loving Texan, and raising our beautiful little Texans, Californian is still who and what I am.

I’m lucky that I get to spend so much time there and thrilled to be taking the girls there at this time of year.

As Mel Tormé says in his wonderful operetta “California Suite,” La Jolla won’t annoy ya… (here’s the link to moment when the song “La Jolla” appears and the entire work — give it a listen! — is embedded below).

Tomorrow night we’ll all fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing on the Children’s Pool. And Friday morning we’ll take the girls to see the seals who sunbath on the sand there (Lila Jane, in particular, is really excited about that!).

Thanks for being here. I’ll see you next week.

In the meantime, SURF’S UP!

Is Luc Morlet the future of high-end California?

From the department of “nice work if you can get it”…

best foie gras recipeAbove: my friend and client Tony Vallone’s foie gras torchon with “pear cracklings,” crispy pear skins.

Last night found me a guest of my friend and client Tony Vallone at his flagship Tony’s for a wine dinner featuring the wines of Morlet Family Vineyards.

After reading up his California estate, I was impressed by the glowing praise and the across-the-board astronomic scores the wines have received from all sides of the wine writing establishment.

Robert Parker, Jr. has called him a “genius.” Honestly, that doesn’t really score a lot of points with me personally. But then when I saw that Antonio Galloni also wrote about Luc’s wines with superlatives like “off the charts” and scores to match, I began to inuit that Morlet has resonated broadly with the California wine intelligentsia.

I’d tasted a few of Luc Morlet’s wines previously at Tony’s but I had never tasted his top wines and I was very curious meet Luc and taste with him.

ma douceAbove: Luc’s Sonoma Coast Chardonnay Ma Douce illustrated his deft hand at barrel fermentation and barrel aging. He talked at length about the importance of not filtering. This isn’t a wine that I can afford but I thought it was gorgeous and enjoyed it immensely. Parker called a previous vintage “staggering.”

Luc, who was born and raised in Champagne, where his family continues to produce barrel-fermented wines, didn’t seem keen to talk about the fact that he is one of the premier cooperage brokers in California today. Understandably, he wanted to keep the focus on his wines and he wanted to connect with the well-heeled crowd that gathers at Tony’s for dinners like this.

But it’s abundantly clear that his experience in Europe and his expertise in cooperage has set a high new bar for the use of barriques in California, where, historically, winemakers have often favored oakiness in their wines.

Luc’s Sonoma Chardonnay Ma Douce and his Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Côteaux Nobles were both fantastic. And they perfectly illustrated how restrained, thoughtful use of oak can deliver wonderful balance and extreme elegance. I liked the wines a lot.

(Luc will be speaking about cooperage and pouring barrel samples today at the Houston Sommelier Association, btw. It should be a fascinating tasting and he’s a great speaker.)

crescent island duckAbove: Tony and his chef Kate McLean are geeked about the Crescent Island duck they’ve been serving at the restaurant. I loved its balance of gentle fattiness and earthy flavor. It was a great pairing for Luc’s Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Mon Chevalier.

In the short time I got to speak with Luc intimately, he was eager to talk to me about the Knights Valley AVA where he is growing Cabernet Sauvignon.

It lies in between Napa and Sonoma and the community there has resisted heavy investment in viticulture.

But there are a few growers who have planted to vine there and Luc is one of them.

It’s on the west side of Mt. Saint Helena, he explained, the highest peak in the area, and so it has the ideal elevation and temperature variation for the cultivation of Bordeaux grapes.

I liked the Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Mon Chevalier a lot but I think the wine will benefit from more bottle aging. Here the oak was evident and not yet entirely integrated into the wine, which is from Luc’s 2011 harvest. I hope I’ll have a chance to revisit it in a few years: with great acidity and earnest, classic Cabernet Sauvignon flavors, there’s no doubt this wine will represent yet another great effort from Luc’s cellar.

As he talked to me about Knights Valley, I became more and more convinced that Luc and his approach to winemaking could very well be the future of high-end wine in California.

Whether he’s raising wine in a little known appellation tucked between Napa and Sonoma or whether he’s illustrating the expert application of cask fermentation and aging, he seems always to be one step ahead of his contemporaries.

As the “new California” has begun to reshape the viticultural landscape there, Luc and his “old world” sensibilities align nearly seamlessly with the tastes of current-generation collectors and winemakers.

Very interesting wines. I just wish I could afford them!

Wine highlights from last week in California

jeremy parzen prosecco col fondoThanks to everyone who came out to my Bele Casel tastings in California! And special thanks to Jill at DomaineLA in Los Angeles and Jayne and Jon at Jaynes in San Diego for hosting.

Prosecco Colfòndo is always a great excuse to get together and reconnect. It was super fun to taste with you.

Of course, I tasted a lot of wines while out in California. Here are some of the highlights.

praesidium 1998 montepulciano abruzzo bestThe 1998 Praesidium Montepulciano d’Abruzzo was stunning, fresh and bright in the glass with evolved tannin. So glad to see these compelling wines in California.

gatti prosecco col fondoIt was also great to see that Carolina Gatti’s Prosecco Col Fondo is now available in my home state. There are now a handful of Col Fondo wines in the U.S. and the number continues to grow. Hers fall on the crunchier side of the category and I love them (she’s also the sweetest lady and very active on social media).

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How a bag of weed launched the biodynamic movement in California

robert kamen wine

Wax on, wax off. Yes, Robert Kamen (above) is the dude who wrote the iconic line. He’s also written numerous screenplays that have been made into Hollywood blockbusters.

Yawn. That’s the least interesting part of the story.

In my view of the world, what’s really fascinating about Robert is that he inadvertently and unwittingly financed California’s biodyanmic movement.

Robert comes to Texas every year to speak a wine dinner at the swank restaurant Tony’s in Houston, owned by my friend and client Tony Vallone.

He’ll be there next week, doing his song and dance for the petroleum crowd, but I’ll be in Italy doing a job for a client of mine (the event is already sold-out btw).

So I called him the other day and asked him about how, why, and when he decided to hire Phil Coturri — the father of California’s biodynamic movement — and if he had intended to play the role of the movement’s financier.

The story’s been told many times. Back in 1980, Robert sold his first screenplay and went up to Sonoma to party in celebration. A few weeks later, using the money from the script, he purchased the property that would ultimately become his Kamen Estate, now famous for its “mountain Cabernet” and a line of wines that commands respect among wine professionals who might otherwise write off yet another Northern Californian wine produced by a “Hollywood guy.”

But don’t use the binomial “Hollywood guy” around Robert. It really gets under his skin.

“Look at the wineries owned by ‘Hollywood guys,'” he said to me, obviously ticked off. “They planted vineyards. I planted a farm.”

“We don’t just grow grapes here. Six months of the year, Phil grows grapes. The other six months of the year, he grows cover crops.”

“When I hired Phil [in 1980],” said Robert, he wasn’t “thinking in terms of the future. I just didn’t want to do things that were deleterious to the property.”

At the time “Phil’s rap was so compelling. And it was just fortuitous because the organic movement was just picking up then.”

I asked if he saw himself as pioneer in organic and biodyanmic farming in the Northern California wine community.

Yes, he said, “but I’m not a proselytizer. I’m not a crusader.”

Today, he told me, the Kamen estate in Sonoma (replanted in 1996 after a fire destroyed the vineyards) is the model that Phil uses to show other grape growers who are interested in converting to organic and biodynamic farming.

His farm “was the laboratory” for the biodynamic movement. Today “it is the showcase,” said Robert.

So why, I asked, did he hire Phil in the first place?

“After I sold my first script and came up here, we partied all night long on the property” that he would buy a few weeks later.

“I wanted to meet the guy who grew the pot we smoked… because I wanted to buy more. It was that good. And that guy was Phil.”

I asked Robert if it was okay for me to post this information on my blog. He said, sure, go ahead.

I can’t post the words that he reserved for our president and the federal government’s attitude regarding the states’ legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana. But that’s another story.

And although it really has nothing to do with this story, I just have to share one last nugget.

When I asked Robert where Phil learned to grow grapes, here’s what he said.

“Phil’s a farmer — an Italian farmer. In 1974, he went to work his first harvest at Mayacamus. And the guy who taught him was named Joe Miami. I’m not making that up.”

When a Hollywood New York screenwriter tells you that he’s not making shit up, you KNOW it has to be true.