On wine and good health in the pandemic circa 1348 (my Georgetown Humanities Initiative lecture).

Above: Sandro Botticelli’s “Banquet in the Pine Forest” (1482-83), the third painting in his series “The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti,” a depiction of the eight novella of the fifth day in Boccaccio’s Decameron (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

When esteemed wine educator Karen MacNeil upbraided me last year for writing about a wine and its effect on my metabolism, it only reminded me of what a soulless wine writer she is. And her pungent words came to mind this week when I delivered a virtual lecture on wine as an expression of Western culture for the Georgetown University Humanities Initiative.

One of the topics covered in my talk was wine as portrayed in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. For those unfamiliar with the work (one of the pillars of the Western canon), the backdrop of the 100 tales told by the young Florentine nobles is the Black Death (Plague) of the mid-14th century. The pandemic reached his city around 1348.

In the introduction to the collection of novellas, Boccaccio describes wine consumption habits of Florentine citizens during the health crisis, their excesses and their moderation, and the role that wine plays in achieving good health.

In the work’s afterword, he returns to the subject of wine and moderate consumption.

“Like everything else,” he writes, “these stories, such as they are, may be harmful or helpful, depending on the listener.”

    Who does not know that wine is a very fine thing for the healthy… but that is harmful for people suffering from a fever? Shall we say it is bad because it does harm to those who are feverish? Who does not know that fire is extremely useful, in fact downright necessary for [hu]mankind? Shall we say it is bad because it burns down houses and villages and cities?

(The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn, Norton, New York, 2013.)

As evidenced in the passage above, Boccaccio and his contemporaries believed that wine, like fire, was “downright necessary” for humankind.

In Medieval Europe, wine was prized for its ability to balance the “hot” and “cold” of foods and dishes. “Hot” wines were ideally served with “cold” foods and inversely, “cold” wines were best paired with “hot” dishes. These were not gradations of temperature, spiciness, or alcohol content, but rather indicators of humoral composition.

The humors of the drinker, and the place and time of consumption, also came into play.

“Once the nature of a given wine was determined,” writes Medieval scholar Allen J. Grieco, “it still remained necessary for a consumer to respect at least four other conditions.”

    First of all it was necessary to know the humoral constitution of the persons who was going to drink the wine. Secondly, it was important to determine what food was going to be eaten with it. Thirdly, it was necessary to take into account the time of the year in which the wine was to be drunk and finally, it was also important to consider the geographical location in which the wine was to be consumed.

(“Medieval and Renaissance Wines: Taste, Dietary Theory, and How to Choose the ‘Right’ Wine [14th-16th centuries],” by Allen J. Grieco, Mediaevalia, vol. 30, 2009, The Center of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Binghamton University, The State University of New York.)

Boccaccio’s belief that wine was necessary for humankind is widely reflected in the 15-century treatise “On Right Pleasure and Good Health” by Renaissance writer Bartolomeo Sacchi “Il Platina” (see Platina. On Right Pleasure and Good Health, a critical edition and translation of De honesta voluptate et valetudine by Mary Ella Milham, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, Tempe, 1998).

Pairing the right wine with the right food (and at the right time and in the right place) was one of the keys, he writes throughout the work, to good metabolism and healthy living — echoes of Boccaccio.

Today, wine scribblers like MacNeil embrace only aesthetic, hedonistic, and commercial values in their reviews and “educational” materials. Nearly universally, they fall short of embracing the human and humanistic currency of wine. They ask only how is this wine made?, how does this wine taste? and what’s its commercial value? without ever addressing the role that wine may play in metabolism and more generally in achieving balanced, good health. They write of lifestyle while ignoring life and living itself.

I can’t imagine a more soulless wine culture. With so many wonderful examples of wine writing over the ages where wine is viewed as vital to human experience, it’s a wonder that the current generation of wine mediators have failed us so grossly.

Maybe if MacNeil and her followers would drink a more human wine, they wouldn’t have such a prickly stick up their arses.

Shanah tovah (שנה טובה). May your new year be filled with sweetness…

Shanah tovah u’metuka. May you have a good and sweet year ahead.

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, we eat apples and honey as a symbol of the sweet year ahead we hope G-d will grant us.

May you and yours be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good and sweet new year.

From Chabad.org:

Let us turn our heads heavenward and, while thanking Him for sparing so much human life, beseech G-d to restore health and well-being to those who are suffering!

Let us ask G-d for a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year for the entire universe! Our High Holiday prayers, we are taught, have an extraordinary effect on the year ahead – let’s seize the opportunity!

Let us make firm, tangible resolutions to better ourselves and increase our mitzvot, in both our interpersonal and our G-d-and-us relationships.

And let us all simply shower one another with blessings!

Thanks for being here. I’ll see you next week. Happy new year…

Parzen family update from Houston.

On Friday, local media here in Houston reported that ICU capacity had already hit 100 percent and health officials are expecting an “‘unsustainable surge capacity’ of intensive care beds by July 6 [Monday].”

Also on Friday, the governor of Texas ordered all bars in the state to close, restaurants to reduce capacity, and hospitals to stop performing elective surgery.

The bottomline is that Houston has become one of the world’s pandemic epicenters. At least one health expert, a locally based international authority on infectious disease, has said that Houston may become the “worst affected city in America.”

(For those wanting to understand how we got here, I highly recommend this New York Times “Daily” podcast featuring the paper’s Texas bureau chief, Manny Fernandez. As he says and the end of the interview, it really comes down to “world view.”)

Tracie, the girls, and I are safe and healthy. And everyone in our immediate Texas family is also safe and healthy. Even as things started opening up here at the beginning of May, we have remained vigilant and have been very careful about avoiding exposure.

We are very fortunate to live in a residential neighborhood where we can walk and exercise while maintaining social distancing. We do all our grocery shopping using curbside pick up.

Tracie and I really appreciate the concern and the thoughts and wishes from our friends. Thank you for that. It means a lot to us. We have been very lucky throughout the crisis and we will continue to stay safe. Heartfelt thanks for all the messages we have received.

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.