Thank you Grandi Marchi for coming to Houston…

It was a true honor and pleasure for me to lead a tasting of wines from 19 members of the Grandi Marchi (Top Estates) Institute winemakers yesterday in Houston. And it was amazing to see how many of the “principals” made the trip.

From Piero Mastroberardino (the institute’s president) to Federica Rosy (Pio Boffa’s daughter, the new generation of the Pio Cesare winery, and the youngest person to present), it felt like Italy’s wine aristocracy had bivouacked along the Gulf Coast.

Today, the group is on its way to Boston to present their wines and then it heads to New York where it’s going to host a luncheon at the New York Wine Experience.

Before the event, Piero showed me a letter his grandfather had received in 1932 from a Texas-based importer. Prohibition would soon be repealed, it declared, and said importer wanted to order wines from the family’s estate. Galveston and New Orleans would be their ports of entry.

Piero’s 2011 Taurasi showed gorgeously as he shared notes on his favorite vintages of the wine stretching back to the 1930s.

Another highlight yesterday was the 2014 Barolo Conteisa by Gaja, the second release of this cru from the winery since it reclassified it as Barolo in 2013. It was my first taste of the new designation.

And I was really impressed by Giovanni Gaja, who has stepped up recently to join his sister Gaia in traveling for the family’s properties. In his presentation, he offered some interesting insights into how their vineyard management team has been responding to the challenges of climate change.

Another highlight was the Umani Ronchi 2011 Conero Riserva (above).

I remember tasting these wines back in New York in the late 1990s. Their Verdicchio and white blend also really blew me away. it’s a mystery to me why American lovers of Italian wine haven’t discovered these yet. Great wines.

And dulcis in fundo, Alberto Tasca treated me to a bottle of Tasca d’Amerita 2008 Nozze d’Oro over dinner and a lively conversation on sustainability and the legacy of organic farming in Italian viticulture.

For Americans, the 2012 vintage of this wine — a blend of Inzolia and “Sauvignon Tasca,” a spontaneously mutated clone from clippings planted on the estate during the first world war — is available only in New York, he said.

But last night the 2008 was thoroughly enjoyed in Houston. Ten-year-old white wine from Sicily, still showing fresh and with vibrant fruit? This wine has “enohipster” written all over it. I loved it.

As I read the morning’s New York Times feed over breakfast with the girls and Tracie, I laughed out loud when I stumbled upon Mimi Swartz’s column Jeremiad.

“Non-Texans,” she wrote, “are still stunned to discover that even people who don’t live in Austin know about Tuscan blends and Karl Ove Knausgaard.”

We tasted a good Tuscan wine or two yesterday in Houston. But Cesare Pavese was the novelist we discussed at the event, not Knausgaard.

A big shout-out to IEEM USA for putting on this great event. And thank you for thinking of me as presenter!

Is Pignolo Italy’s most underrated red grape? The 2012 Ronchi di Cialla was astounding.

It didn’t occur to me until I got back to Texas week before last from a whirlwind trip across the U.S.: despite two visits over the years to Ronchi di Cialla — one of the pioneers of Friuli’s native grape revival and one of its most acclaimed and soulful winemakers — I had never tasted the winery’s Pignolo.

Thinking my mind was playing tricks on me, I checked out the estate’s website: the Rapuzzi family, who founded the winery in 1970, doesn’t even mention the wine on it library release page.

Visits to Robert Parker and Antonio Galloni similarly revealed no mentions of the wine.

It was a week ago last Thursday that my friend, Italian wine importer Earl Cramer-Brown, generously opened a bottle of the Rapuzzi’s 2012 Pignolo to share with me in McMinnville, Oregon where we had dinner at the famous Nick’s Café.

Man, what a wine!

Many compare Pignolo to Nebbiolo because of its generally powerful tannic character and rich fruit buoyed by vibrant acidity. But it’s such a distinct and distinctive grape in my experience: black cherry and black currant seemed to dance against the minerality and hint of eastern spice in this wine. It was just so lithe in the glass that you simply couldn’t stop drinking it. And even though its tannin has many years of evolution ahead, it was already drinking great, food-friendly and approachable, straight out of the bottle (opened on the spot).

It reaffirmed my belief that this grape wholly deserves its place among the pantheon of Italy’s great red wines.

Thank you again, Earl, for sharing this extraordinary bottle with me!

Master Sommelier exam scandal: 23 new titles “invalidated” including one in Houston

The news ricocheted across the enocentric internet yesterday afternoon: in a press release issued by the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas, the group announced that its board had “unanimously voted to invalidate the results of the tasting portion of the [September 5] 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination for all candidates due to clear evidence that a Master breached the confidentiality with respect to the wines presented for tasting.”

Wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle Esther Mobley broke the story in the mainstream media yesterday evening. Her piece includes background info on how the court works and how the exams are administered.

And New York-based sommelier and wine writer Courtney Schiessl published this excellent post on the developing story for the wine trade portal and blog SevenFifty. She reports that “23 newly-minted Master Sommeliers [had their] tasting results revoked.” Of the 24 who recently passed the three-part exam, only one retained his title, she writes, because he had previously completed the tasting portion.

According to the Court’s press release, “the Board of Directors found sufficient evidence that the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination was compromised by the release of detailed information concerning wines in the tasting flight.”

“The tasting portion is what first made the exam the object of popular fascination,” writes Mobley. “In 25 minutes, a candidate must taste six wines, blind, and identify each one’s grape variety, region of origin and vintage.”

One of the Master Sommeliers who lost their titles lives with his family around the corner from our house here in southwest Houston. He’s one of the most beloved and respected wine professionals working in our city. I’ve sat with him in blind tastings and have watched him ace the wines without even breaking a sweat. Our kids go to school together and we eat at the same breakfast place. He is one of the nicest and most talented people working in a business where niceness and ability don’t always go together. I admire him immensely and am devastated to learn that his much deserved title has been snatched away from him by a cheat.

Master Sommeliers do so much to foster wine education and appreciation in this country. As mentors to young wine professionals pursuing careers in the culinary arts, they set a standard of conduct and excellence in their industry. I applaud the Court for its transparency and I wish them speed in cleaning house. And I grieve for their erstwhile members whose perseverance and sacrifice have been sullied by a swindler.

Taste with Giovanni Gaja and a who’s who of Italian wine (and me) Monday, October 15 in Houston

Scion of the legendary winemaking family from Piedmont, Giovanni Gaja (above) is just one of the boldface winemakers whom I’ll be presenting next Monday here in Houston at the Grand Marchi (Top Estates) tasting.

Piero Mastroberardino, Alessia Antinori, Maurizio Zanella, Alberto Tasca, Alois Lageder, Alberto Chiarlo… And those are just some of the a-listers who will be there. It’s a true hit parade of Italian wine.

So if you’ve ever been curious about tasting Sassicaia from Tenuta San Guido, Barbaresco and Brunello by Gaja, Chardonnay by Jermann (one of my personal faves), Taurasi by Mastroberardino etc., this is a great opportunity to dive in.

I’ll be leading a guided tasting in the morning, followed by a walk-around tasting where the estates will be presenting a broad selection of their wines.

Click here for event details and registration info (you have to register).

I hope to see you next Monday in Houston and thanks for your support!

Image via Giovanni Gaja’s Facebook.

Light Years: Houston has its first radical natural wine bar

High fives, hugs, and congratulations filled the air last night at Light Years, Houston’s newest wine bar and its first and only radically natural wine bar.

The congratulations were gladly shared, no doubt, with owners Steve Buechner and John Glanzman, who moved here from New York to build their dream wine bar in a market they suspected, rightly, would embrace it (see Eric Sandler’s preview of the venue for CultureMap here).

But felicitations were also shared between the revelers themselves.

“We finally have the wine bar we’ve been dreaming of,” said one noted Houston wine professional to another.

Houston has seen a boon of alternative and progressive wine bars in recent years: the pioneer was 13 Celsius, followed by Camerata and Vinology.

But the new wine bar/shop represents a new frontier for the city: it’s the first vineria that specializes solely and exclusively in natural wine — à la Terroir in San Francisco or The Ten Bells in New York. No conventionally vinified wine here, whatsoever.

What is natural wine? Most would agree that natural wine is wine that has been organically farmed, spontaneously fermented (using ambient yeast), and bottled with as little intervention and sulfur as possible.

My definition of natural wine? It’s like obscenity: I can’t define it but I know it when I taste it.

At last night’s friends and family event, Tracie and I drank Clos Saron Tickled Pink and Clarine Farm al basc Albariño from the Sierra Foothills in northern California. They were both great and Tracie looked more beautiful than ever.

When we arrived home, paid our babysitter, and tumbled on to the couch together, it just felt like Houston’s now an even better place to live. That’s what natural wine can do to you…

Mazel tov, Steve and John, on your launch! And thank you for bringing Light Years to Houston!

Pound for pound, is there any better value in American wine than Eyrie Vineyards?

The locals joked last night at the famous Nick’s Italian Café in McMinnville, Oregon in the heart of Willamette Valley wine country: there used to be a tube, they told me, that connected the Lett family’s winery to the restaurant. Their Eyrie Vineyards cellar is just a stone’s throw away (literally).

David Lett made history when he singlehandedly launched the Oregon fine wine trade in the twentieth century. His story as a pioneer of American viticulture has been told many times and his renown as a winemaker has touched all corners of the globe.

Last night at Nick’s, where the wine list includes the largest vertical library of the Lett family’s wines in the world (they say), we drank the 2016 Pinot Gris and the 2014 Pinot Noir Original Vines.

Such beautiful, pure, and elegant expressions of Oregon grape growing and winemaking, these “entry tier” wines represent the greatest value in American wine today imho. They still land at a “special occasion” price for our family but they are within reach. And I couldn’t think of a better pairing for my meal (Pinot Gris for Nick’s Caesar and Pinot Noir for the locally farmed pork three ways).

Their organically farmed, they’re spontaneously fermented, the whites undergo unprovoked malolactic fermentation (said Jason Lett when I tasted with him earlier this year). They couldn’t be more natural and they couldn’t be more naturally and classically delicious.

Tracie and I drink them every chance we get. And I drank the last glasses of each at the McMinnville Comfort Inn last night, a sweet coda to a long but fruitful week of traveling and working.

No regrets, Coyote. Heading home to Texas, Tracie, and my girls today. I can’t wait to hold them… Wish me speed!

“I don’t want this tradition to be forgotten.” Some groovy wines I tasted in LA…

“I don’t want this tradition to be forgotten,” said the importer who brings in this classic from Sardinia, the Silvio Carta Vernaccia di Oristano from Sardinia (2005 vintage).

“There are some wines you import because you love them,” he told me.

It was just one of the groovy wines I tasted this week in Los Angeles, the town where I lived and went to school for many years and one of my favorite Italian wine and food destinations in America.

I love how the dried fruit and nuttiness work against the oxidative character of this wine. 100 percent delicious.

And in a business where numbers increasingly trump soulfulness, it was awesome to sit down and taste with someone whose love for great Italian wine always prevails.

Imported to California by my friend Ramin at Vitis.

Another highlight was the Eleva 2013 Valpolicella Ripasso Tenzone.

From a great northern Italian vintage, it reminds me of the old-school Valpolicella I used to drink back in the late 1980s when I was a student in the Veneto. But its focus and clarity of fruit really took it to another level for me. And the zinging acidity kept its alcohol in check. Very food-friendly and approachable but with that mineral streak that makes great Valpolicella stand out.

Really loved this.

Imported to California by my friend Anthony at Palermo.

I’m not sure who imports Miani to California but G-d bless them!

I visited Miani back in 2010 and was blown away by its maniacal grape growing and laser-sharp winemaking. The winery’s bottlings are among my all-time favorite wines and they represent some of Friuli’s most compelling whites imho.

The rich stone fruit in this wine just seems to wrap itself around your palate and its elegant savory character taste like a subtle flourish of flaked sea salt lightly sprinkled over a grilled peach.

Man, I loved this wine and I loved that it was poured for me by my good friend Rachel who’s worked as a sommelier at Mozza in LA for some time now. She is super cool.

And I just have to give a shout out for the tagliolini al limone at Gino Angelini’s Angelini on Beverly, one of the best Italian restaurants in the U.S. imho. It’s just so good that I have to get it every time, a Platonic expression of Californian-Italian that plays on the bounty of great produce here.

This restaurant is just so damn good and the people who work there are so joyful. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thank you, Californian friends, for treating me so well out here. It’s always good to come “home” to you.

Now it’s time to head up to Oregon wine country for one last round of tastings before I get back to Houston where I belong.

Wish me speed!

The ultra-rare 1990 Giacosa red label sans vineyard designation was opened last night…

Manhattan was abuzz with ministerial week at the UN when my taxi brought me to the city yesterday.

But the back room at Morrell Wine Bar in Rockefeller Center was peaceful as a group of Nebbiolo collectors sat down for an extraordinary flight of wines stretching back to the 1960s.

Moved by their generosity, they had asked a lonesome Texas wine blogger to join them.

It’s hard to say that any one wine was better than the other last night. Aside from one bottle that had clearly peaked some years ago, all the wines were extraordinary and each would have been a joy to drink in its own right.

They were served blind and every guest offered impressions and speculations as the group tasted.

Most agreed that the standouts in the three indisputably illustrious flights were the Produttori del Barbaresco 1990 Barbaresco Asili and the Bruno Giacosa 1990 Barbaresco Riserva (Red Label). According to at least a couple of the tasters, the 1990 vintage was the only Giacosa Barbaresco riserva that he ever released without vineyard designation.

Both were vibrant, fresh on the nose, and rich with fruit. The Produttori del Barbaresco was in a state of grace, perfectly ready to drink. The Giacosa would have had many years ahead of it had it not been opened.

It was also a treat to see the old Roagna label from an era before the estate developed its distinctive black and white lettering.

The Gaja 2001 Sorì San Lorenzo was also remarkable, still very young in its evolution but a pleasure to drink as it was beginning to reveal its fruit.

Heartfelt thanks to my dear friends Ken Vastola who “sponsored” my participation and Eric Guido (above) who organized the excellent dinner and superb wine service.

Ken is the author of the immensely useful Nebbiolo-focused online portal Fine Wine Geek. He is particularly dear to me because he knew my Uncle Manny Parzen. And he is the sweetest man, a genuine mensch.

Eric runs Morrell’s online program and holiday catalog and he is also an executive buyer for the operation. He is one of the most remarkably productive and talented people I know in the biz.

I only had a moment to look at the wine bar list, now run by Anna-Christina Cabrales. In another era, wine insiders wouldn’t expect much from a midtown list like this. But Anna has transformed it into a fantastic program that offers something for everyone, from the New Yorker executive and tourist to the wine überhipster (Lieu Dit Santa Ynez Sauvignon Blanc by the glass, anyone?).

Wow, what a night! Thanks to all the folks who made me part of it. A wonderful time and a great way for a lapsed New Yorker and lonesome Texan to come home.

Now it’s time to get my butt on a plane to Pittsburgh and play some blues…

Flight 1
1974 Francesco Rinaldi & Figli Barbaresco
1974 Roagna Pajè Riserva
1990 Produttori Asili
1990 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Riserva

Flight 2
1961 Vietti Barolo
1986 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Villero
1990 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Villero
1996 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Villero

Flight 3
2001 Sandrone Cannubi Boschis
2001 Gaja Sorì San Lorenzo
2001 Paolo Scavino Bric del Fiasc

A new (old) Pelaverga clone finds its way to the U.S.

It was way back in 2006 that then New York Times dining editor Frank Bruni brought a bottle of Pelaverga to Eric Asimov’s Thanksgiving tasting panel.

“Among the reds,” wrote Eric at the time, “Frank, naturally, brought the most arcane wine of the meal, a 2004 Verduno Basadone from Castello di Verduno, made from the Pelaverga Piccolo grape, which is obscure even in its home territory in the Piedmont region of Italy.”

In the wake of that piece, Pelaverga seemed to explode in the Italian wine scene in the U.S.

American wine cognoscenti have a quenchless thirst for “arcane,” highly localized Italian grape varieties. And Pelaverga, with its distinctive white pepper note and purported aphrodisiacal properties, really hit the spot (and paired exceedingly well with Thanksgiving turkey!).

Today, Pelaverga from legacy estates like Castello di Verduno and Burlotto are sine qua non for any self-respecting Italian wine lover.

In the light of this, there’s no doubt in my mind that American wine professionals are going to be eager to taste a new-old Pelaverga clone that just found its way to our shores. The wine comes from a farm called Cascina Melognis in Saluzzo township in far-western Piedmont at the source of the Po River.

Full disclosure: the wife and husband, Vanina and Michele, who grow and vinify these wines are our good friends. And Michele is also technically my boss: he is the director of the master’s programs in food and wine communication at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra (Piedmont) where I have been teaching for the last three years and where I’ll be returning again for the 2018-19 session.

When Michele told me that Kevin Pike of Schatzi Wines had decided to import their organically farmed and spontaneously fermented wines, I couldn’t have been more thrilled for their family. Arguably one of the most scholarly among wine purveyors in the U.S., Kevin is one of the brightest rising stars in our industry imho.

The Schatzi producer page devoted to Cascina Melognis is some of the finest wine writing on the internets today. And I’ll leave it to Kevin to tell the story of the clones, soils, and unique climatic conditions of Revello hamlet where Vanina and Michele farm.

“Pelaverga Grosso (distinct from the Pelaverga Piccolo variety of Verduno),” writes Kevin, “is characteristic of the area around Saluzzo. Here it was long a staple in blends, but its importance shrank over time, until it nearly vanished in the 1970s. Today, careful site selection and pruning are bringing about a small and welcome renaissance for the grape. Its peppery, high-toned freshness, and delicate floral and herbaceous notes are quintessentially Alpine. It is still rare to find monovarietal Pelaverga from anywhere in the Piedmont, let alone the Colline Saluzzesi.”

I know this wine is going to be a big hit among Italian wine lovers. It has everything going for it.

But my favorite wine in their lineup is the Ardy, a lip-smacking blend of Barbera and Chatus grapes.

Chatus, you ask? Click the link to read Kevin’s excellent write-up.

Vanina and Michele’s wines are vibrant, electric, wholesome, and delicious. They are the children of their deep knowledge of grape growing, winemaking, and aesthetics.

Mazel tov, Vanina and Michele, for your new relationship with Schatzi! And chapeau bas, Kevin, for bringing these extraordinary wine to our country and our dinner tables!