Passito di Pantelleria by Basile, one of the best I’ve ever tasted…

Tasting this superb bottle of Passito di Pantelleria “Prescelto” 2008 by Cantina Basile the other night, the expression “sticky wine” came to mind.

But not because the wine was sticky. The opposite was true: it was so lithe in the glass that it drank more like a classic white wine in terms of its texture. The alcohol and acidity were so well balanced that its sweetness never felt overwhelming or pervasive on the palate.

The other thing that really impressed me about this truly extraordinary wine was its spectrum of primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas and flavors (I know, I know… I don’t like those terms either and they sometimes mean different things for different people. But it’s really the best way to describe this remarkable wine).

As the Italians like to say, you felt like you were chewing the fruit, dried fruit, and almonds in this wine. It really blew me away. And it was made all the more special and memorable by our gracious hosts and the delicious meal they prepared for Tracie, me, and our girls.

What a wine!

In other news…

It’s been a busy week of seminars with my students in the Master’s of Wine program at the Slow Food University in Pollenzo (Piedmont).

It’s my third year here as an adjunct and I love the interaction with students and the high level of discussion and dialogue.

Lisa Perrotti-Brown’s post on “The Big Parkerization Lie,” published earlier this week on Wine Advocate, couldn’t have been more timely or relevant as we’ve discuss books by Lawrence Osborne, Eric Asimov, and Alice Feiring.

It’s incredible to think that more than 10 years after Alice’s book, the debate over Parker’s influence and impact still marches on.

The students really surprised me with the insights and experiences they shared. A really great group this year. But then again, each class of students seems to have its own unique take on the world of “wine communication” (one of the subjects I teach).

The other really fun thing this week has been watching our daughters as they discover the sights, sounds, and flavors of Italy.

They’ve both been really adventurous about trying new foods (although the snails didn’t go over so well last night!) and they’ve both been making a college effort to speak a little Italian.

It’s a dream come true for Tracie and me. We’ve been having so much fun and tomorrow I’ll take them to the beach for the weekend.

Living in Italy was such a profound experience for Tracie and me. It shaped the arc of our lives as adults and it’s how we ultimately met. It fills me with joyous wonder to think of how it will shape theirs…

For our vines have tender grapes: our daughters discover the vineyards in Italy

Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.
Song of Solomon 2:15

Tracie and our girls have been with me in Italy for the last five days.

It’s been really wonderful to have them here. I’m teaching at the Slow Food University in Piedmont this week and next. They’re on vacation.

The food has been great and they’ve been having a blast. But the most rewarding thing has been watching our girls — ages 4 and 6 — explore a vineyard.

That’s Giovanni above, the most generous friend you could want and a brilliant grape grower and winemaker in Franciacorta (where we stopped on our way to campus). And that’s Lila Jane, our youngest, in his arms. She spent the better part of an afternoon with her sister Georgia picking flowers and chasing butterflies in his vineyard.

And that’s Tracie, showing Georgia and Lila an old wine press outside the winery at the Castello di Verduno. We had such a magical visit there, enjoying the garden and the view at the Real Castello.

“How do grapes turn into wine?” asked Georgia.

How do you explain a miracle to a child?

One of the words Tracie’s taught them is vigna. It’s been a fantastic trip so far and I know many discoveries and adventures await them.

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.

Italian bacon and eggs: Italy’s obsession with American food (no, this isn’t a joke)

Above: when I first started coming to Italy 30 years ago, bacon was still called pancetta. Now it’s called “bacon” in Italian.

Tracie and I landed in Italy yesterday with our daughters, ages 4 and 6. It’s their first real trip to Europe (since our oldest doesn’t have any recollection of our visits here when she was just one year old; and our youngest only made it here previously in utero).

When we told them about our summer trip this spring, they were concerned — gastronomically speaking.

“Daddy, daddy, we can’t go to Italy!” they protested vehemently. “They won’t have the things we like to eat there!”

“They have LOTS of good things to eat in Italy!” Tracie and I laughed and smiled.

“Do they have pizza in Italy?”

“Yes, of course they do,” I told them. “In fact, the Italians invented pizza! They have the best pizza in the world.”

They seemed genuinely impressed by this historical tidbit but then came the culinary litmus test that would determine their willingness to join their parents in the Garden of Europe:

“But daddy, do they have bacon in Italy?”

Above: bacon and eggs is now commonly found on menus in northern Italy.

It must have been seven or so years ago when my Italian bromance Giovanni took me out for (truly excellent) hamburgers and I noticed that the cured pork belly was cut and smoked not like traditional Italian pancetta but like American bacon.

In the time since, “bacon” — as it is now called in Italian — has become ubiquitous in northern Italy.

Above: a hamburger I ate last month in Franciacorta. Note the bacon.

Italians love LOVE hamburgers. They love them so much that they don’t use butcher scraps to form the patties. They use the highest quality beef they can find. And beyond the myriad fast food restaurants that now sadly dot the northern Italian countryside, the omni-present amburgheria (hamburger house) never uses the hydrogenated-oil buns that we adore in America. Instead, they use artisanal buns.

I’ve had some of the best hamburgers of my life in Italy in recent years. And that’s coming from an all-American, huge bacon-cheeseburger fan.

Bacon and scrambled eggs are also immensely popular now in northern Italy. Two years ago, I snapped the above photo of the dish in a run-of-the-mill trattoria in downtown Milan, ordered at lunch à la carte.

Above: bacon fries with Pecorino sauce (no joke) at the same amburgheria in Franciacorta.

Giovanni is graciously hosting our family this month at his place in Franciacorta. And being the generous and thoughtful friend that he is, he went grocery shopping for us before we arrived. The bacon in the top photo is awaiting our girls in his fridge as they slumber.

Back at home, we spend SO MUCH money on high-quality, wholesome bacon. Here in Italy, even when they cut the bacon from top hogs, the price is still very reasonable.

Leave it to the Italians to “misunderstand” American cuisine and make it all the better along the way. My only worry is: will our children ever want American bacon again?

We arrived safely and soundly yesterday afternoon in Milan and made our way to Franciacorta before the heavy rain began to fall. The girls have already spotted their first bunnies outside of Giovanni’s apartment and they loved the fresh fruit that Giovanni’s mom had prepared for them. Aside from a lost bag (mine, thank goodness, not Tracie’s with all the girls’ things), we’re already having a great time. Thanks for reading and buon weekend a tutti!

My Italy, although speech does not aid those mortal wounds: the Italian Republic’s populist tide

Above: the Euganean Hills where the Italian poet Francis Petrarch (1304-1374) spent his last years transcribing his life’s work.

“My Italy, although speech does not aid those mortal wounds of which in your lovely body I see so many, I wish at least my sighs to be such as Tiber and Arno hope for, and Po where I now sit sorrowful and sad” (translation by Robert Durling).

The above passage, the opening of the most famous of Francis Petrarch’s political poems in Italian, came to mind last week when I read the news that Italy would have a new governing coalition formed by racists and nationalists.

The news also made me think of my dissertation advisor, the Italian poet Luigi Ballerini, whom I recently saw in Milan where he was born in 1940. His earliest memories, he has often told me, are of Nazi soldiers retreating from the city atop their tanks, bare-chested in the heart of winter. Luigi never knew his father, who was killed by fascists on a Greek island.

Today, Matteo Salvini — an avowed racist, nationalist, and Euroskeptic (not to mention a confidant of Steve Bannon, who now resides in Rome) — has come to power in Italy (see this Fox news account of one of Salvini’s campaign rallies from earlier this year).

The Italian papers reported yesterday and the English news media is just beginning to file its reports on Salvini’s freshly forged alliance with Viktor Orbán, the hardline anti-immigrant and openly anti-Semitic prime minister of Hungary. Together, they plan to re-write the EU’s rules on immigration — Salvini and Orbán’s shared cause célèbre.

Before he cleaned up his act and tried to affect an air of respectability, Salvini was renowned in Italy for his overtly racist rhetoric. In 2009, he proposed (as a joke, he later claimed) that foreigners riding the subway in Milan be forced to wear stars on their clothing to denote their immigration status.

Even when I’m Italy teaching for an Italian university, I’m technically an extracomunitario, an alien. Will he require that I wear a star when I take the train?

Tomorrow, I’ll head off again to Italy for another two weeks of teaching at a university there. This time, I’m taking my wife and our two young daughters with me. We took our oldest daughter to visit the country when she was just a baby. She has no memories of our time there. So this trip, which we’ve been planning and talking about for weeks, is their “first trip to Italy.”

It makes me think of my first trip to Italy, in 1987 when I studied the history of Italian language at the University of Padua. I’ll never forget meeting and interacting with other foreign students from the Middle East and Africa then. I can only imagine, with dread, how they perceive Italy’s current political climate. I can hardly fathom their concern for their children’s futures.

When I saw Luigi last month in Milan, where he is living permanently now, he told me that he doesn’t recognize the Italy of his adolescence, a time when economic prosperity and liberal attitudes locked arms to create a culture of hope, tolerance, and humanism there.

Machiavelli famously closed The Prince with these lines from the same poem by Petrarch:

“If only you would show some sign of piety, then virtue against rage will take up arms, and battle will be short, for all that ancient valor in the Italian heart is not dead” (translation by Mark Musa).

Hope still shines in the distant future, dimmed and diminished but still flickering. Let us pray that the not-so ancient valor in the Italian heart is not dead.

Nature doesn’t refine sugar. But refined sugar goes into your sparkling wine.

Earlier this month, a group of leading Italian wine writers sat down to taste a flight of nine wines, spanning 10 years, with my friends Nico Danesi, Andrea Rudelli, and Giovanni Arcari. Beyond their own wines (Arcari e Danesi, SoloUva, and Vezzoli Giuseppe, a 2008-2018 retrospective), the three Franciacorta growers and producers also included current-release wines from three marquee Franciacorta estates, covered in foil, to be tasted blind that evening.

The idea behind the tasting and selection of wines was to highlight the differences between wines made using the classic method and wines made using what the three 40-something franciacortini call the SoloUva (SOH-loh-OO-vah) method or Just Grapes method.

The classic method is analogous to the Champagne method (the fundamental difference is that only wines grown and vinified in Champagne can be rightly called “Champagne method” or méthode champenoise wines).

A “base” wine or wines are produced as still wine or wines (non-sparkling). A sweetener and yeast are added to the wine (or blended wines) to provoke a second fermentation (the tirage). The wine is sealed in bottle. The CO2 resulting from the pressurized second fermentation gives the wine its fizziness. The wine is then allowed to age “on its lees” (i.e., the dead yeast, a solid that results from fermentation). At the appropriate time, the wine is “disgorged” of its solids. It’s topped off with a sweetener if desired (the so-called liqueur d’expédition or dosage). And the wine is resealed and labeled for release.

(The above description of the classic method is a simplified one. For one of the best overviews of classic method winemaking, see the introduction to Tom Stevenson’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine or the entry for “sparkling wine” in the Oxford Companion to Wine.)

The difference between the classic method and the SoloUva method (developed by my friends) is that the classic method calls for refined sugar to be added for the tirage and dosage (topping off) while the SoloUva method calls for reserved grape must to be used as the agent for the second fermentation and the topping off of the wines.

Among the wines that Nico, Andrea, and Giovanni selected from their own cellar for the tasting, there was a dichotomy: two of their wines had been produced using the classic method; the three “blind” wines from other producers were also made using the classic method; and the remaining seven wines were made using the SoloUva method.

As they tasted through the 12 wines before them, the Italian writers immediately noted the blaring difference between the two categories: the classic method wines had distinctive aromas of “brioche,” “yeast” (a canonical descriptor, however misleading), “toast” etc.; the SoloUva method wines had “fresh” fruit aromas.

The discussion that followed (on picking times, phenolic ripeness, and different approaches to sparkling wine production) was as interesting as it was provocative. But it was plainly clear to all present that the oxidative style of classic method wines was starkly contrasted by the fresh and ripe fruit style of the SoloUva method wines.

Nico, Andrea, and Giovanni are not the first to employ reserved grape must as a sweetener in sparkling wine production. But they may be the first to propose such a method as a “purer” expression of their appellation.

Why add exogenous (as opposed to autogenous) cane sugar from Brazil when you can use grape sugar from the very same appellation? they asked their interlocutors.

When they call into question the wisdom of centuries of classic method wines from France, they may be veering from the enological into the ontological. But over the course of the gathering, Nico changed the nature of the conversation when he pointed out that refined sugar doesn’t occur in nature. Only humankind produces refined sugar, he noted, and refined sugar is partly to blame for many of contemporary society’s health challenges.

Nearly all sparkling wine is produced with the addition of refined sugar (and not just classic method wines; Charmat, Martinotti, and even some ancestral method wines are made using refined sugar). Wines labeled dosage zero, brut nature, and pas dosé are also made with the addition of refined sugar (some may be surprised to learn this).

Only history will reveal whether or not Nico, Andrea, and Giovanni’s wines will represent a new era of sparkling wine production. I like their wines a lot. But take my opinion with a grain of salt spoonful of sugar because I am biased by our friendship. What I can tell you for certain is that their wines don’t contain anything that nature didn’t give them.

All they need is grapes…

Here’s a song I wrote for them a few years ago (MP3).

Mother nature is yours and she is mine
And the tender grapes she grows on the vine
She gives us the earth, the sun, the sky
But it takes humankind to make the wine so fine

Our children, our times…

Yesterday, our family attended a fund raiser for our children’s public elementary school in Houston, Texas. The day before, less than an hour car’s ride to the south, children and adults lost their lives in yet another unspeakable tragedy.

When the right to bear arms bests children dying in our schools…

When the right to wave a flag bests the dignity of those it offends…

When the right to wealth bests the neediest among us…

When the right to succeed bests others’ deliverance from despair…

When race bests community, when creed bests Moses’ law and Jesus’ word…

When complacency bests opposition to injustice…

When indifference bests love…

Who are we?

Happy Mother’s Day, Tracie P! I love you, we love you…

When I landed in Frankfurt, Germany a week ago last Tuesday, I turned on my phone to discover that Georgia P, age 6, had fallen from a hammock at our family’s favorite park and broken her collar bone.

“Should I turn around and come back home?” I asked Tracie who was rubbing the sleep from her eyes when we spoke around midnight Texas time.

“No, no, no, she’ll be fine,” she said. “The doctor at the urgent care said to be sure to go to a orthopedic specialist but she’ll be fine.”

Later that day, they had already seen a pediatrician who said she wouldn’t have any trouble healing.

By Friday, Georgia was back at school and her kindergarten class welcomed her with a necklace and pendant. She was proud to show off the badges Tracie had ironed on to her sling.

Tracie P, happy Mother’s Day! I love you, we love you… Georgia and Lila Jane are so lucky to have you as a mother, so caring, loving, and attentive. And I am blessed to call you my wife.

We have built such a wonderful life for our girls and ourselves in our little corner of Houston. It never would have happened had we not fallen in love and decided to grow a family. I love you, we love you… Happy Mother’s Day!

“We must see racism for what it is.” Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King 50 years after his death.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., American civil rights leader and peace activist, was assassinated 50 years ago today in Memphis, Tennessee.

The following is an excerpt from his landmark speech “The Other America,” delivered less than three weeks before he was killed:

    There must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is. It is the nymph of an inferior people. It is the notion that one group has all of the knowledge, all of the insights, all of the purity, all of the work, all of the dignity. And another group is worthless, on a lower level of humanity, inferior. To put it in philosophical language, racism is not based on some empirical generalization which, after some studies, would come to conclusion that these people are behind because of environmental conditions. Racism is based on an ontological affirmation. It is the notion that the very being of a people is inferior.

I can’t think of a better way to honor Dr. King today than by re-reading and studying his writings and speeches. I recommend the speech above, one of the last he gave before his death.

Tracie and I wept last night as we streamed “King in the Wilderness,” a new documentary about the latter part of his career.

As we watched the film, one of the things that struck both of us was how whites would use Confederate flags to taunt Dr. King and the marchers he led. I can’t repost the image here but this photograph was shot during the 1966 March Against Freedom: a young shirtless boy plays “Dixie” as a young woman waves the Confederate flag and the marchers approach. You see the hecklers (in motion picture footage with audio) in the documentary. It’s a chilling sight.

Scroll through this archive of photographs from the same march and you’ll find similarly disturbing images of white Americans menacing their black sisters and brothers with Confederate flags.

Today, on the anniversary of his death, we celebrate the life and work of Dr. King. His contribution to the historic fight for civil and equal rights for all Americans is unrivaled. And his legacy only grows as it continues to inspire a new generation of Americans to stand up for what is right and just in our country.

On Saturday, April 7, Tracie and I will be protesting the Confederate Memorial of the Wind in Orange, Texas. It was erected a few years ago on Martin Luther King Dr. where the thoroughfare meets Interstate 10, one of the busiest traffic hubs in the county. See this flier, distributed by the owner to raise funds for its construction.

We are not asking for the site to be torn down. We are asking the organizers to repurpose the site to reflect the values of the community — nearly 50 percent black.

Please join us. We have space in both of our cars available for Houstonians who want to participate.

G-d bless Dr. King and his family. G-d bless America.

See also this op-ed, “How Dr. King Lived Is Why He Died,” published by Rev. Jesse Jackson, in today’s New York Times.

Image via the National Park Service Flickr (Creative Commons).

A world without Trump (exists)…

Yesterday, on Easter morning around 7:30 a.m., President Trump wished his Twitter followers a “HAPPY EASTER!” in all caps.

An hour and a half later, the President tweeted “NO MORE DACA DEAL!” also in all caps.

Another two hours would pass before he, his wife, and one of his daughters attended church for Easter services.

I wasn’t the only one who noted the jarring juxtaposition and incongruity between the occasion and the sentiment.

Is this what my Christian sisters and brothers hoped for when they voted for him? Is this how George W. Bush, Richard Nixon, or Mitt Romney would have acted on one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar?

I ask the same of my Jewish sisters and brothers who support Trump. Sunday was the second day of the Passover, a remembrance of how we were all once immigrants in Egypt. Can any one of them say that their forbears — immediate or ancient — were not immigrants?

Tracie, our daughters, and I spent the Passover holiday with my brothers, their families, and our mother in San Diego. That was the view from my mom’s house above.

It was nice to be in a place like (mostly) liberal California where the majority opposes Trump, his willful degradation of civic discourse, and his continued efforts to use the children of immigrants — the DACA dreamers — as a political bargaining chip. Where I grew up in Southern California, it’s mostly socially awkward to speak favorably about Trump and his policies and dehumanization of immigrants. Mostly…

People call California a liberal bubble. I was reminded of this when one of my detractors recently wrote the following on my blog: “You dont know a godam thing about the south u bathroom swapping western bitch!!” [sic, sic, and sic]

But it’s actually not a bubble. In fact, one of my best friends from my childhood in San Diego, with whom I’m still very close, is an adamant and vehemently vocal Trump supporter. And so is one of my immediate family members, although not as loudly so.

My California family lives along the coast. But head inland and you’ll find plenty of Trump supporters. Similarly, you’ll find a predominance of liberals in blue-state Houston where we live. But move outside the urban area — north, east, south, or west — and you will find the political attitudes inverted.

As much as I enjoyed being home with my family and being in a place where we were mostly shielded from politics and political discussions, I also realized that California is not a world without Trump. That world exists in the future and in my mind. It exists in my hopes and dreams. But it is not a real world or real place. Yet…

In the meantime, Tracie and I will continue to teach our children that Easter and the Passover are holidays meant to make us reflect on our shared humanity — regardless of religion, ethnicity, or geography. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ and G-d’s redemption of the Jews in ancient Egypt remind us that we are all emigrants and immigrants, traveling between the physical and the spiritual. Between the real world and the one that awaits us.

Passover narrative: a story of refugees and immigrants

The Passover. The very name of the holiday implies movement.

The text it comes from, the Book of Exodus, tells the story of Hebrew refugees who migrate from Egypt to Israel as they flee persecution and bondage.

It’s a powerful narrative remembered and celebrated by Jews every year across the world. Even for secular Jews like me, the holiday and the retelling of the story have deep meaning.

That’s my maternal grandfather Maurice “Poppa” Bailie above (center left, with tie) with my great-uncle Ted Eder (center right, without tie). Both were children of immigrants who fled economic and religious persecution in Europe in the early 20th century.

When he arrived in this country, my Poppa and his family were seen as undesirables and potentially dangerous: impoverished Jews from countries where Bolshevism and Zionism were on the rise, unwanted immigrants who would take jobs away from Americans. After landing in New York at Ellis Island, they were shipped off to the midwest by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

In South Bend, Indiana, my great-grandparents scrimped and saved up to buy a small grocery store. When they ultimately achieved financial security, their children flourished and thrived. It’s a story not dissimilar from that told in Barry Levinson’s 1990 film “Avalon” (my paternal grandmother owned a “Radio-Television Mart” like the one owned by the characters in the movie). They went to college, they opened businesses, they saved money and speculated on the stock market.

They were the children of refugees. And my parents were the grandchildren of refugees. And I am the great-grandchild of refugees. And our children are the great-great-grandchildren of refugees.

In every Passover Seder (the symbolic meal and narrative that retell the story of the Passover), the Seder leader encourages the guests to see themselves as active participants in the story with the following exhortation: “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.”

The Seder’s invitation to the guests “to break the fourth wall” (and become themselves characters in the narrative) is based on a passage from Leviticus (19:33-34):

    And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying…
    When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him.
    The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your G-d.

Click here for Christian Bible versions of the same passage.

Our children are still too young to wrap their minds around its meaning. But as he leads the Seder tomorrow night, my older brother will remind them that they, too, were personally delivered from Egypt and from persecution by G-d. And every year, I’ll tell them the story again and again and again… until they can tell the story themselves.

Chag sameach, everyone! Happy Passover and happy Easter!