At home highlight wines 2020: California, French, Italian.

Beyond Eric Asimov’s excellent Times column “The Pour,” some of the paper’s most compelling wine writing has been delivered recently via the Gray Lady’s “Wealth Matters” rubric.

“Stuck at Home, People Are Splurging on Wine and Spirits” (December 18, 2020) by Paul Sullivan informed us that in 2020

    Sales of wines, for instance, dipped in the first quarter, before the pandemic. But they are now selling at a brisk rate, making up for the slower months… And sales of premium wines during the post-pandemic period have grown more than other categories.

The trend has been driven, at least in part, by the fact that

    [people are] not traveling and not going out to dinner. Instead, they’re looking to buy something that will make yet another dinner at home more interesting. And because they’re not paying the markups that bars and restaurants usually charge, they can afford higher quality bottles.

Not only do these (partly anecdotal) observations align with what wine sales agents from across the country have been telling me (one rep told me that his company’s retail program grew so significantly that it bested its 2019 sales last year), but they also dovetail with our personal experience: because we stopped going out to dinner (completely in our case), we were able to spend more on our retail consumption.

Here are some of the wines that we enjoyed in 2020 “despite,” as Weird Al put it, “things.”

Robert Foley 2018 Chardonnay

Yes, we loved this Napa Valley Chardonnay. The fruit was classically new world bright but balanced by vibrant acidity and wonderful freshness. I’d never had anything white from Foley but the reasonable pricing for this mid-level Chardonnay kept bringing me back.

Dominque Lafon 2018 Bourgogne Blanc

I was curious about this “second label” by Dominique Lafon after reading up on him in the course of my work for the Boulder Burgundy Festival where he was the virtually featured winemaker this year. It’s not cheap but this wine was spectacular, a great value for those who want to dip their toes into Burgundian greatness. One of my favorite wines of the year.

Vignai da Duline 2018 Friulano

Classic, focused, elegant, and genuine. Vignai da Duline is one of those estates that all the cool kids — from the classicists to the enohipsters — in Italy love. And with good reason. We’d never had the monovarietal Friulano and both Tracie and I were blown away by the depth and beauty of this stunning wine. Highly recommended and another great value for a premium wine.

Faury 2018 Saint Joseph Blanc and Rouge

I was drawn to this producer because of the rarity of white wine from Saint Joseph. Both of these wines, each under $40, were nothing short of spectacular. Kermit Lynch has always had a knack for sourcing under-appreciated wines that land at reasonable prices and both of these wines delivered 1,000 percent.

Pertinace 2016 Barbaresco

Pound for pound, Pertinace is the greatest value in Barbaresco today imho. After I tasted this wine for a virtual wine dinner I led, I bought a case and we drank it for all of our holidays. What a wine and what a value! This is one of those wines that I’ll remember for the rest of my days. No joke. I have my suspicions as to why this cooperative is not more popular in the U.S. and that’s fine with me. My recommendation: run don’t walk.

Oddero 2016 Barolo

I’ve followed Oddero for more than 15 years now and I’m always blown away by the wines’ consistency over time. A perennial classic that always lands with reasonable pricing. I believe that’s because the Oddero family has always remained true to their original vision: old school, traditional winemaking with immense focus and elegance. We opened this with Pietro for a virtual wine tasting I led and it was magical to share the experience with other like-minded tasters.

Mastroberardino 2016 Taurasi Radici

Another magical experience, tasted with Piero Mastroberardino for a virtual wine tasting I led. I have such a deep connection to this wine: back when I first started tasting and collecting, it was one of the few wines I could afford to lay down (anyone else remember the extraordinary 1995 vintage for this wine?). Tasting with Piero is always such a compelling experience and this wine was extraordinary the night we shared it virtually with the host restaurant’s guests. What a wine! And what a fantastic value, another one I’ll be cellaring from the year of the pandemic.

Happy new year, everyone. I hope this finds you and loved ones all healthy and safe. Thanks for being here and thanks for all your support in 2020. Looking forward to brighter times and more great wine in 2021.

Southeast Texans: please join us for the socially distanced MLK Day Parade in Orange, Texas on January 18, 2021.

The last MLK Day parade was held in Orange in January 2018. We will be reviving that beloved and long-standing tradition next month.

Please join my family on January 18, 2021 as we take part in the Martin Luther King Day Parade in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up.

We’ll be meeting at Solomon Johnson Park at 10 a.m. and marching over to the Heritage House Museum.

My co-organizer MaQuettia Ledet (founder of Impact Orange) and I have been working closely with the City of Orange to ensure that we can march safely.

We’re going to be requiring marchers to wear masks and socially distance. We’ll be asking people to form groups of no more than 10 persons, ideally from the same household, and then we’ll coordinate the timing of each group’s start time so that they can socially distance from other groups. We will also have free masks to distribute.

There will be no speeches or gathering at the end of the march. We’ll simply disassemble at the end point.

My heartfelt thanks goes out to the City of Orange for their help in making this possible (they have been awesome to deal with).

Heartfelt thanks also to everyone who donated to our GoFundMe campaign to raise money for our special events insurance policy. We raised more than our $500 goal. The extra money will go to masks, bottled water, and hand sanitizer to distribute at the march. The campaign is still active if you’d like to contribute.

I can’t speak to the reason why the MLK march hasn’t been held for the last three years in Orange. It was once a beloved and long-standing tradition. Next month, it will be renewed.

That’s a photo of Solomon Johnson below (it comes from the Portal to Texas History via the Heritage House Museum in Orange). The park where the march will begin is named after him.

According to the Orange Leader, the city’s paper of record:

    Solomon Johnson was an Orange native who served as president of the Civic Betterment League for 22 years and was referred to as the “bronze mayor” for several years. As “bronze mayor” he attended city council meetings to represent his people in the community even though he was not allowed to vote. He also lead delegates to the Texas Negro Chamber of Commerce and the National Negro Business League. It was during his time as president, the first black police officer was hired. At that time, the officer was only allowed to arrest black offenders.

On January 18, 2021, as we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, we will also honor the many civil rights activists from Orange who have fought for justice and equity over the years. I hope you can join us. (See this Orange Leader article to learn more about some of those community leaders.)

Please help us raise just $150 for MLK parade 2021 in Orange, Texas.

Please donate to our GoFundMe here. Just $150 to go until we reach our goal! Thank you for your support!

Tracie and I have joined forces with our friend MaQuettia Ledet, founder of Impact Orange, to organize the 2021 Martin Luther King Day parade in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up.

On MLK Day 2021 (January 18), at 10 a.m., marchers will walk from Solomon Johnson Park  to the steps of the Heritage House Museum in Orange.

All marchers will be asked to wear face masks and to social distance. At the end of the route, the marchers will be asked to disassemble. There will be no speeches or presentations at the end of the parade.

All necessary permissions have been obtained from the City of Orange and the Orange Mayor’s office. And the Orange Heritage House Museum has agreed to let marchers disassemble in front of the museum.

This fundraiser will pay for the special events insurance policy, which covers the marchers and the City of Orange. The insurance is the only element not yet in place.

The historic MLK Day Parade, a beloved Orange tradition, has not been held since 2018 (that’s a photo above from the 2018 parade).

Repurpose Memorial, our ongoing campaign to repurpose the neo-Confederate memorial in Orange, and Impact Orange are pleased to revive this cherished event and to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thank you for your support. We hope you will be able to join us as we celebrate the life and work of Dr. King.

Please donate to our GoFundMe here.

“The time is always right to do right.”

—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
From “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”
June, 1965

Read the speech in its entirety here.

Another great new wine bar in the midwest.

Please consider giving to our GoFundMe to raise funds for the MLK Day 2021 parade in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up and where we’ve been protesting a newly constructed neo-Confederate monument since 2017. Thank you for your support.

Giving a heartfelt shout-out today to Sunday Vinyl, the new Denver wine bar by the Boulder-based Frasca restaurant group.

I had the opportunity to visit early this year before the pandemic lockdowns while on a business/fun road trip with Paolo Cantele, one of my best friends.

That’s the venue’s signature turntable, above. Pretty friggin’ cool, right?

The folks at the Frasca group just know how to do it right.

That’s the lobster pasta, above, at their (newish) Tavernetta restaurant, adjacent to the wine bar.
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The best wine bar I visited this year was in Tulsa.

Please consider giving to our GoFundMe to raise funds for the MLK Day 2021 parade in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up and where we’ve been protesting a newly constructed neo-Confederate monument since 2017. Thank you for your support!

Normally at this time of year, I’d be leafing through my photographs and notes from the last 12 months and picking out favorite shots from my top visits, tastings, and meals.

As far as 2020 is concerned, the pickings are slim but not without some wonderful memories.

In late February, Paolo Cantele, one of my best friends in the business, and I made our last road trip for the entire year to promote his family’s wines. We started in Houston with a great event at Vinology. Next was Dallas with a sold-out dinner at the legendary Jimmy’s. And since we were on our way to Boulder for another packed wine tasting at Boulder Wine Merchant, we decided that we should try to organize an event in Tulsa, a city where I’d never been but where, I had heard, there was (and is) a vibrant progressive wine scene.

After researching possible venues, I cold-called Matt Sanders (above) owner of the fantastic Tulsa wine destination Vintage Wine Bar.

After a roughly 10-minute conversation, he agreed that he would let us host a tasting of Paolo’s wines there.

There’s not really anything so remarkable about that other than the fact that Matt, such a gracious and massively talented wine professional, took a chance on a couple of complete strangers.

Paolo and I ended up hanging out all night after our event (no surprise there), drinking mostly high-end California Chardonnay (one of Paolo and me’s shared loves).

The offerings at Vintage Wine Bar would have been right at home in Oakland or Brooklyn. And meeting and interacting with Matt reminded us of how wine and the global wine community never fail to bring us together — even when on a first date with a new city. We had such a blast that night.

Matt, if you’re reading this, please take it for what it’s worth: a love letter to one of my favorite wine bars in the country and one of the coolest wine people I’ve met in a long time.

I know Matt and co. are doing well thanks to their Instagram. And I can’t wait to get back there when Paolo and I make our next trip. It’s one of the first things he and I are planning to do once we can connect in person again.

Earlier in the day, Paolo and stopped to eat chicken fried steak at Marilyn’s in McAlester, Oklahoma.

It was everything we dreamed it would be: a cozy, homey all-American dinner serving biscuits and gravy at all hours of the day.

We even got trolled by a very large and farty Trump supporter who took us for a gay couple (Paolo’s leather may have been the trigger). It was right around the time that Rush Limbaugh was huffing and puffing about Pete Buttigieg being gay. So I can understand our fellow diner’s concern.

The lady behind the counter (below) seemed to feel bad about it. And she even gave me an ice tea (unsweetened) to go.

Man, I love America. And I miss it even more.

Thanks for being here and be sure to check out Matt Sanders’ super wine program in Tulsa! I can’t wait to make it back!

Lini Lambrusco featured in Food & Wine. Congrats to some of the best people in the biz.

Above: winemaker Fabio Lini, one of the greatest sparkling winemakers I know, pours the wine, center. And that’s Alicia Lini, his daughter and my cherished friend on the right.

In January 2007, my then employer sent one of my colleagues and me to Italy as a bonus for a successful year in the New York City food and wine scene. I was working for an Italian restaurant and importing group at the time. And while my boss gave us a budget and simply told us to have a great time, I was determined to source a classic method Lambrusco for the company.

Nice work if you can get it… My colleague Jim and I ate at all the great restaurants in Emilia that were on our list. And at each meal, we asked what the owner’s favorite classic method Lambrusco was. The name that kept coming up, over and over again, was Lini.

(At the time, nearly all Lambrusco was produced using the tank method, whereby both fermentations were carried out in a stainless steel tank, the first not pressurized, the second pressurized. Classic method or “bottle fermented” Lambrusco is made using a technique lifted from Champagne whereby the second fermentation is carried out in bottle and the wines are disgorged before the final bottling.)

In April of that year, our boss tasted the wines with us at Vinitaly and it was decided: we would import Lini and make the wines the centerpiece of our fall campaign at the restaurants, including a swanky new downtown location we were opening.

It was my first “up at bat” as a wine trade marketing specialist. And it was Alicia’s as well. By the end of the year, we had landed coverage in the Times, Men’s Vogue, Food & Wine, and on WNYC. By the end of the season, Lini had been christened the sparkling toast of the town — literally as well as figuratively!

It was also the beginning of my deep bond and cherished friendship with Alicia and her family.

The events of that year indelibly shaped both of our lives as professionals. For Alicia, they showed how her family’s soulful wines could reach the greatest heights. And to me they gave the blueprint for a career in wine and food marketing.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to see Alicia, her family, and her family’s wines featured in the December 2020 issue of Food & Wine. Ray Isle, executive wine editor for the masthead, visited the Lini family last December for their Saint Lucy’s Day celebration. His wonderful dispatch includes the Lini family’s personal recipes for their traditional Christmas meal.

I wish I could share the entire article with you here but I can’t, of course. I do encourage you to check it out. It’s worth the price of admission and more.

Warmest congratulations to Alicia and her family! They are some of the nicest people in the wine trade and I love how Ray captured the joy they put into their wines and everything they do.

Dulcis in fundo: Alicia will be joining us on Thursday, December 17 for my final virtual wine dinner of the year here in Houston at Roma restaurant, my client, where I’ve been hosting the events every week since the late spring.

Just let me know if you’d like me to save you a spot for an evening of bubbles and great food.

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.

Scenes from a Tuscan castle and dinner this week with Baron Francesco Ricasoli in Houston.

In January of this year, before the lockdowns began, I made my last trip to Italy (on behalf of my client Ethica Wines, an importer). My visit to the Castello di Brolio and the Ricasoli winery and tasting room in the heart of Chianti Classico was one of the highlights.

That’s a portrait of Bettino Ricasoli (1809-80) above: the “Iron Baron,” the second prime minister of united Italy (1866-67), and historic champion of Sangioveto (Sangiovese). Not only did he transform and elevate Sangiovese into Italy’s quintessential red wine, but he was also one of the earliest Italian growers to favor native grape varieties. He was arguably Italy’s most influential winemaker and the impact of his studies and experimentation still shapes Italian wine today.

The Ricasoli family and winery hold a special place in my heart. More than a decade ago, Francesco Ricasoli (the current generation) and his father Bettino received me at their Castello di Brolio to discuss my then ongoing research into their namesake’s famous “Chianti recipe.”

Francesco’s father pointed me to an archive where I could find a transcription of the “recipe,” a letter published in the late 19th century. See my translation, the only English-language version of the “recipe,” here.

He also treated me to a wonderful tour of the castle and estate.

At one point, he recounted how he was embedded with British soldiers as they tried to re-take the castle from the occupying German forces toward the end of the Second World War. It was incredible to retrace his movements with him as he described the final battle: because of his intimate knowledge of the castle’s design (he was born within its walls, after all), he was able to provide the British with a layout of the structure’s battlements. Amazing!

I’ll never forget that day and visit. I felt like a 12-year-old kid watching his favorite movie. We ate tripe and drank Sangiovese at lunch.

Here are some photos from my visit. I’ll be hosting Francesco Ricasoli at Roma restaurant, my client, this Thursday for our weekly virtual wine dinner. Francesco is one of the most magnetic and engaging winemakers you’ll ever taste with. We’re expecting this event to sell out. See menu and details here. I hope you can join us!

The Ricasoli family chapel. Magical.

A view from the castle. It’s hard to take a bad photo in Tuscany.

Renaissance garden. Note the vineyards that practically touch the castle’s walls to the right in the image.

Francesco’s studies of Chianti Classico soil types are astounding and extremely useful. Note the ancient sea shell, a trace of ancient seabed, a red thread in many of the world’s greatest appellations.

The Iron Baron greets King Victor Emmanuel II at the Castello di Brolio. The two statesmen were eager to compare notes on their viticultural studies and findings.

The night before my winery visit, I drank the Ricasoli 2012 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Colledilà (single-vineyard designate) paired with creamy veal spleen and chicken liver crostini at a forgettable trattoria in Greve in Chianti. It was one of the best wines I drank this year. Highly recommended.