The unimaginable: prayers for our sisters and brothers in Uvalde.

The Parzen family wishes to offer its heartfelt condolences to all the families of Uvalde who have been affected by yesterday’s unfathomable act of violence.

This morning when I walked our girls to their school, the parents who were dropping off — me included — waited until every one of their kids crossed the building’s threshold. There was a lot of extra hugging and I-love-yous as we all wished our children a good day.

It’s unimaginable to think that there are nineteen families who won’t be picking their kids up today at school… in a community not that far nor not too different from our own.

G-d bless them. We are praying for them and we share their pain, however unimaginable for us.

In future, there will be time to address the insanity of our state’s gun laws.

But today, we pray and we hold our children as tight as we can.

*****

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
Then push away the unimaginable

From the song “It’s Quiet Uptown” from the musical “Hamilton.”

All about (my) Bra: were I eat and drink in Slow Food City.

Please consider giving to Unicef’s Ukraine child refugee fund. This link takes you straight to the donation page.

My recent trip to Italy to teach at Slow Food U was a whirlwind. My itinerary and schedule had me on the ground for literally four days. Because the timing was so tight (including a day with two back-to-back three-hour seminars), wine country visits and trips to Piedmont’s many great dining destinations were not possible.

So it was that the small city of Bra, where the Slow Food Movement was founded in 1986, was radius of my culinary exploration.

Because of its association with Slow Food, Bra has some really interesting restaurants (including many chain pilot programs; more on that later). My next series of posts will be devoted to my favorite spots to eat and drink (including destinations from previous visits).

The first question that comes up when you mention the name Bra to an English speaker is does Bra, the toponym, have a relation to bra, the intimate apparel?

No, it does not (obviously).

Bra comes from the late Latin braida meaning a field in a suburban area. It’s relatively common across northern Italy. Some will remember the famous Piazza del Bra in Verona.

Bra in Cuneo province (Piedmont) got its name because it was an agricultural hub in Roman times (as was Verona, for that matter).

Over the seven years of my teaching gig there, one of my favorite first stops has always been Local, the university’s food shop and casual restaurant. It’s expensive, as the students always complain. But the food products there are phenomenally good.

Even though it’s not a regional dish, their porchetta sandwiches are inanely delicious (not always available) and their vitello tonnato is as traditional as it comes. They also do modern and classic interpretations of Bra’s famous veal sausage (more on that later). Our girls loved the cooked salsiccia the year they came with me.

But on this occasion, the classic Piedmontese salt-cured anchovies with salsa verde spoke to me.

Dissertations could be scribed on this mainstay of Piedmontese gastronomy. In many ways, it represents the basic building blocks of the Roero-Langhe-Monferrato culinary cannon. Vitello tonnato couldn’t exist without those anchovies. Nor could bagna cauda.

It was a thrill for this wine blogger to discover that they were serving a new wine from a favorite Dogliani farm, a Riesling from Cascina Corte, an ante litteram naturalist producer.

The bright acidity and intense fruit of the wine was such a fantastic match for the richly salty fishes and the garlic-heavy flat leaf parsley dressing.

And it all really hit the spot for lunch after a long day of travel from Houston.

Stay tuned for more notes on where to eat and drink in Bra…

G-d bless our sisters and brothers in Buffalo. When are we going to stop teaching our children hate?

G-d bless our sisters and brothers in Buffalo.

When are we going to stop teaching our children to hate?

When are we going to realize that racism is so deeply engrained in our society that it leads a young person to shoot people who look different than them?

When are we going to come to terms with the fact that barely veiled racism is all around us, no matter where we live?

Only when we do are we going to break the expanding cycle of racist terror in our country.

G-d bless our sisters and brothers in Buffalo. G-d bless our sisters and brothers in El Paso. G-d bless our sisters and brothers in Pittsburgh.

*****

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Nelson Mandela
Long Walk to Freedom (1994)

Did you see Stanley Tucci at Slow Food U where I teach in Italy? I’m heading back there next week.

Stanley Tucci is one of the few issues that brings division to the Parzen family household.

Tracie loves — LOVES — his show.

I still haven’t forgiven him for mispronouncing timpano in his 1999 breakout hit “Big Night” (ouch).

Scherzi a parte… Joking aside…

Tracie did eventually convince me to watch a few episodes of his “Searching for Italy” show and I genuinely thought it was great.

We still haven’t seen the episode where he goes to Piedmont. But we’ve been told that he makes a stop at Slow Food University where I have been teaching in the grad program for the last seven years (above).

I’m so proud of the work I do there (I teach food and wine communications). It meant the world to me that so many people called to say they had seen Pollenzo, the village and campus, on Tucci’s show.

I’ll be there on Monday and will be teaching for the better part of the week. Because Tracie is working full-time now, we need to limit the time I’m away from home. So this is going to be a very short trip. But if you happen to be in the Roero-Langhe area, ping me for sure and we’ll taste something great together (there’s a wonderful natural wine bar and a mostly great old-school Piedmontese in the town where I stay).

In other news…

My editor gave my pitch the green light and if all things go as planned, my Pietro Crescenzi translation and critical apparatus are going to be published by a University of Toronto imprint later this year.

I’m so stoked about this. My heartfelt thanks to all the folks who shared good vibes, encouragement, and wishes. We did it! THANK YOU.

I fly out tomorrow night. Wish me luck, wish me speed. Hit me up if you’re around. See you on the other side…

The Italian wine list has evolved in America. But is Italian wine in danger?

Above: the list and food at Felix Trattoria in Venice, California blew one Italian wine blogger completely away. Wine director Matthew Rogel has created what is possibly the best Italian list in the country right now. Its depth and thoughtfulness are going to be hard to match.

Today it seems hard to believe. But it’s been more than 20 years since Joe Bastianich launched his game-changing all-Italian, high end-heavy wine list at Babbo in the West Village, opened in 1998.

New York-focused Italian wine insiders from that era will also remember that it was right around that same time that Nicola Marzovilla debuted his similarly ambitious list at I Trulli on E. 27th with a southern-centric program.

Of course, the ultimate cognoscenti will also recall the extraordinary cellar put together by Vincenzo Cerbone, and later by his son Anthony (one of the loveliest people in our industry), at Manducatis in Long Island City — “opened on Christmas Day in 1977.” But that was ante litteram and antediluvial.

All three of these lists were a foreshadowing of what was to become a bona fide renaissance of Italian wine throughout the world.

I’m not quite old enough to remember the good old days of the holy tretalogy — Bolla (Soave and Valpolicella), Ricasoli, and Fazi-Battaglia — that once populated the italophile wine lists of America.

But memories of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, with its artsy-fartsy label and clear-glass bottle, are yet unhazed in my mind.

It’s incredible to think how refreshingly unsurprising it is today to find a sub-section for “Alto Piemonte-Valle d’Aosta” in the superb program conceived by Matthew Rogel at Felix Trattoria in Venice, California (above). It’s followed by “Roero-Langhe” and not by “Barolo-Barbaresco-Brunello-Super Tuscans” et alia, as one would have unwittingly expected even just a decade ago.

But is Italian wine in America “in danger” as one colleague (a leading player no less) put it to me earlier this month?

Above: a friend treated me to a super bottle last night at the wonderful Ferraro’s Kitchen Restaurant and Wine Bar in North Miami. In terms of its drinking window, that wine was as perfect as it could possibly be. What a bottle! And great menu by chef/owner Igor Ferraro. Even a decade ago, you wouldn’t have expected to find such a gem and such excellent wine service in the U.S. outside of New York.

The presence and marketshare of Italian wine in the U.S. has expanded over the last 20 years, they said, thanks to Italian restaurants here.

But now that the once supremely unencroachable Italian restaurant scene here is now being gently however consistently elbowed by the growing tide of internationally focused concepts, Italian wine is not growing in tandem.

The plain-sight evidence of this? Italian restaurants, for the most part, have Italian-focused programs, they pointed out. But as soon as you stray to something like, say, a high-end and high-concept Korean steakhouse, you’ll be hard pressed to find much beyond France and California. Similarly, casual and formal-dining French concepts hardly even consider Italian wine. Progressive American cuisine? Only the initiated will ever know how much Italian wine appears on the list at the French Laundry.

For Italian wine to meet the challenges of the future, they noted, it needs to find a way to connect with an increasingly fusion-focused international dining crowd. And it needs to reconnect with francophiles who now seem more open to getting oustide their box (perhaps because of prohibitive pricing of the French stuff).

Is natural wine the key? Is sustainable? Is organic? Will it be through programs subsidized by the EU? Will it be thanks to a new generation of new wave of Italian wine lovers? Will it be launched by a new generation of Italian wine professionals? Do we need to mount an intervention with the WSET to inform them that Italian wine isn’t just an afterthought?

My colleague doesn’t have the answer yet. But they’re working on it.

After more than two decades of unparalleled growth for Italian wine, it seems we are at a crossroads. Who’s with me?

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Sex in the vineyard: polyculture is the key to the future, says Aleš Kristančič of Movia.

Anyone who’s ever spent a significant time around the legendary grape grower and winemaker Aleš Cristančič (above) knows that he loves to talk about sex and sexuality. (I’ll never forget the time my band played a crazy wild gig at his winery, Movia, below. But that’s another story for another time.)

To some who know him only peripherally, it may seem like a cliché, not uncommon among European and American men of a certain age. But over the years of our interactions, it’s become clear to me that his obsession with sexuality is not just an expression of attenuated or hyperactive masculinity. No, Aleš has plenty of manliness and sexual confidence to go around, even beyond his sensual discourse.

When we spoke a few weeks ago, we discussed his reflections on polyculture vs. monoculture and how he is working to bolster and foster polyculture on his family’s estate in innovative and immensely thoughtful ways.

On my last trip to Italy before the lockdowns in January 2020, my visit and tasting at Movia prompted a powerfully compelling discussion of how the rise in monoculture has begun to homogenize winemaking, even at the highest levels of production.

It’s a conversation that was presaged not so many years ago in an article by Slow Food founder and essayist Carlo Petrini where he bemoaned Piedmontese growers who are grubbing up less lucrative, lesser known grape varieties and replanting their vineyards entirely to more bankable Nebbiolo.

Although they haven’t yet published on the topic, Melissa Muller, a chef turned winemaker, and her husband Fabio Sireci, a legacy grower at Feudo Montoni in Sicily, shared with me a study on their successful experimentations with polyculture, conducted over many years. It’s a work in fieri they explained. But gauging from their preliminary survey, it’s not hard to imagine that many winemakers will read it eagerly.

I recently caught up with Aleš by phone and asked him to expand on some of the observations he shared with me in 2020. That call resulted in a wonderful, if somewhat chaotic, interview published last week by my client Ethica Wines, his U.S. importer.

In our chat, he makes a really profound point about clonal selections. Nurseries may provide you with a genetically perfect clone. But where, he asks, did that clone come from originally? It’s not the result of massal selection in his vineyards, he explains. And so it’s lacking some of the local genetic information that vines acquire through massal selection and decades of growing in the same place. This means that grape farmers around the world are increasingly using the same clones and as a result they are promoting homogeneity and monoculture with adverse effects on the wines’ quality.

He also talks at length about what he calls “passion” in the vineyards. He’s referring to pollination and how the vines and other plants compete for sexual fulfillment. That tension, he believes, especially when well managed through polyculture, is key to creating wines that speak of place, of terroir to borrow a cliché. When stronger clones are introduced to a vineyard with old vines, they tend to hoard the pollen and as a result pollination isn’t equally distributed, as it were. That results in uneven ripening and diminished quality, he contends.

There are some real gems in this wild and crazy piece and I highly recommend it to you. Thanks for checking it out.

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Natural wine in Palm Springs? Yes, it’s true and it’s wonderful.

Just had to give a shout-out this week to John Libonati (above) and his awesome natural-focused wine shop Hyphen- in Palm Springs. Yes, Palm Springs!

For a lot of folks who grew up in southern California like me, Palm Springs was often a destination for visiting relatives, family get-togethers, and long weekends just a few hours away from home.

But in my adult years, those get-aways always meant bring your own wine because you’re not going to find much there. Let’s face it: beyond Sherman’s Deli, Palm Springs is not exactly known as a fomo food destination.

That’s all changed now that John, a lovely man from a storied New York restaurant family, has launched his shop. Organic is the baseline, he told me when we visited earlier this week. He wants to get his clients to get out of their “Rombauer” mind set. And it’s working.

Yesterday, during a visit with a hipster colleague in San Diego, news of natural wine in the desert was met with glee.

“I’m going there this weekend!” he exclaimed. “Where is this place?”

He was pleased to know that you’ll find it right on California State Route 111 as you drive into town.

John ran restaurants and night clubs in the city roughly around my same years in New York. It was so much fun to reminisce about some of the characters and players from that now lost era when cool bands still played at CBGB. Natural wine began to become a thing around that time as well.

It’s great to see John spreading the good word to the Golf Capital of the World. Be sure to check his shop out when you visit. You’ll thank me.

Humankind’s best friend? Saccharomyces cerevisiae. A guest post by Davide Camoni.

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Guest post by Davide Camoni.

Do you know who humankind’s best friend is?

Think about it for a minute before answering.

It’s a living being.

That’s right, it’s saccharomyces cerevisiae.

It’s a hundred times as small as a strand of hair. Humankind has been using it for 5,000 years. It helps us to make beer, wine, bread, cakes, and sake. It’s used in bioethanol production. It works in symbiosis with lactic bacteria as a sourdough starter for pizza, Pugliese bread, pan de San Francisco, and a thousand other uses. When it’s activated in a fruit solution, like prunes or peaches, it’s a key ingredient in kefir. And when it’s ingested on its own, it could solve world hunger because it’s so high in nutrients. It contains all of the known vitamins. When it’s dehydrated, it helps to flavor soup as a substitute for monosodium glutamate (and bouillon cubes).

It puts billions of people to work, including the undersigned.

Here it is in a photo (above) that I managed to take this morning, enlarged roughly 10,000 times.

Davide Camoni

Davide is the laboratory director at Enoconsulting in Villa Pedergnano (Franciacorta) where some of the world’s most famous wines are tested. Translation mine.

Forget Steiner! Read Crescenzi from the 13th century. Biodynamics’ ancient origins.

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Above: an agricultural calendar from a “painted book” (circa 1309) of Pietro de Crescenzi’s treatise on farming, possibly executed in his lifetime. There numerous extant 13th and 14th century manuscripts of his book Ruralia Commoda and translations of his work became instant best sellers in the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe. Note the October panel where the figure is crushing grapes. Image via Wikipedia.

As Nietzsche famously wrote in the Twilight of the Idols (1889), the philologist must look beyond the “sacred texts.”

In today’s world of wine, the spiritually focused writings of early-20th century critical theorist Rudolf Steiner have become one of those pillars — a sacred text — of our shared “constitution of knowledge.”

But if we look beyond his writings on agriculture (which represent a small part of his critical output; just think of his many titles devoted to Christ), it doesn’t take long to realize that he was merely repackaging knowledge and know-how that had been around for a long, long time.

In my recent close reading of the 13th century Bolognese jurist and agronomist Pietro de Crescenzi, whose Ruralia Commoda was an ante litteram best seller from the time of its first circulation in the late 1200s to the height of the Italian Renaissance and beyond, I’ve discovered some important antecedents for our current understanding of biodynamics.

The most striking of these is Crescenzi’s detailed instructions on how to follow the lunar calendar for planting, sowing, and winemaking.

Above: a folio from a 1784 Italian translation of the Ruralia. The work’s popularity only began to wane in the modern era.

Among the descriptions of lunar cycles and the best moments to carry out work in the fields, some of the most compelling recommendations are in reference to winemaking and more specifically in reference to obtaining the highest quality in wine.

In the passage highlighted in the image immediately above, he explains the exact, ideal moment in the lunar cycle to pick. Wines made from grapes picked at the right time will be less “watery,” more “powerful” (alcoholic), and better for aging.

Wow, sound vaguely familiar? The language is different. But the concept, based on observations made during Crescenzi’s constant and extensive travels throughout Italy, is the same.

Crescenzi’s work would ultimately be neglected as farmers in the modern age began to abandon what had come to be considered outdated observational agricultural science. By the 1930s, an effort by Italian agricultural historians to revive interest in his opus would ultimately fail.

But isn’t it incredible to think that today thoughtful and highly informed people are growing grapes and making wine according to the same practices that Crescenzi prescribed in the 13th century?

Forget Steiner, let’s read Crescenzi! And when we’re done reading the Bolognese jurist, let’s reach back even further and browse the Γεωπονικά.

Week after next, I’ll be pitching a translation and critical apparatus of Crescenzi’s book on viticulture to an academic publisher. So whatever you do — poo, poo, poo! — don’t wish me luck! Seriously, thanks for being here and thanks for reading. See the Unicef link at the beginning of this post.