Venissa, a project and a wine sui generis that deserve our attention

venissaHonestly, despite everything I’ve read about Venissa and the wine that is grown and raised there (above), I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the place and the project until I visited there recently with Adam Japko’s Design and Wine Tour.

I’ve known Matteo Bisol for years, since I first met him in Texas in 2009. And over the years, we’ve become friends thanks to our shared interest in wine (his family is a legacy producer of Prosecco) and poetry (he and his family were intimate friends and patrons of the great Veneto poet Andrea Zanzotto).

In 2008, the Bisol family replanted a historic vineyard on the Venetian island of Mazzorbo in 2008, using a local clone of Garganega called Dorona.

The vineyard had lay fallow since the great flood of 1966 (see the newsreel below).

Once the water had subsided, Matteo explained to me when I visited a few weeks ago, there was scarce interest in replanting. Although the site had produced wine for hundreds of years (stretching back to the Middle Ages), Italy’s economic boom of the 1960s was luring erstwhile farmers to the newly emerged industrial sector on the mainland.

Even if there had been interest in reviving the growing site, it would taken years before the soils would have been purged of elevated levels of salt in the soils owed to the severe flooding.

matteo bisolToday, the Bisol family uses the same drainage system that has been in place in the vineyards for generations.

Seawater flooding is inevitable, explained Matteo (that’s Matteo and me in the photo above). But it is manageable in part because the Dorona grape seems to have adapted to the environment and conditions where it is grown.

As you walk through the small vineyard there, with its wild grasses growing high between the rows, you can’t help but breathe in its robust health and life. It’s a remarkable experience and an entirely unique one. There’s really nowhere else in the world where something like this does or could exist.

Mazzorbo island is one in the group of the oldest Venetian settlements, dating back to the Longobard invasions of the late Roman era. Torcello is the most famous of these.

The Bisol family has done a superb job of preserving the viticultural legacy there: an island vineyard planted with a historic and entirely unique clone of Garganega that most likely evolved in situ.

dorona venissaAt dinner that night at the Michelin-starred Venissa restaurant, our group of roughly 30 persons had the opportunity to taste the wine.

It’s vinified in an elegantly macerated style. I liked it a lot: it showed great depth and nuance in its layers of flavor and I was impressed by its surprising freshness and fruit character on the nose.

It’s not cheap. Bottles can be had through private channels for around 120 Euros. The bottles are adorned with a gold leaf label intended to evoke the wine’s color and name: Dorona is believed to come from uva d’oro or golden grape.

But to my mind, the quality or value of the wine is not what’s important. What’s significant in my view is that this wine, a true wine sui generis, exists and has a sustainable structure in place that will preserve its future and legacy.

This example of extreme viticulture on a tiny island off the mainland reveals so much about Italy’s place in the world of wine and the country’s unrivaled ability to produce singular expressions of vitis vinifera.

When in Venice, if only a day trip to walk the gorgeous vineyard and see the drainage system, the journey is well worth the time on the water. Mazzorbo is easily reachable, btw, by public transportation and the vineyards are always open to anyone who cares to read their rows.

Thank you again, Matteo, for a wonderful visit and this precious chapter of Italian wine so intelligently preserved and thoughtfully presented.

Congrats David Keck, Houston’s newest Master Sommelier!

david keck food wine magazineThat’s David Keck, left, owner and wine director at Camerata and Houston’s newest Master Sommelier, with Elaine Brown, wine writer and blogger, who visited us earlier this year.

The news just broke: David has passed his Master Sommelier exams in Aspen!

Mazel tov, man! Nobody does it better and no one deserved it more.

Congratulations and thanks for bringing it back to the Bayou City, dude! Great news!

A new wine list and a tasting May 25 at Sotto in LA. Please join me!

ponte diavolo cividaleAbove: “chiare, fresche, e dolci acque” (“clear, cool, and fresh waters”). Does anyone remember the famous song by my beloved Petrarch? For those who don’t, it’s canzone 126. The view of the Natisone River, above, from the Ponte del Diavolo in Cividale del Friuli, reminded me of the poem when I visited a few weeks ago.

Five years ago, when we held our first staff training at Sotto before the restaurant opened, the team looked at me like I was crazy.

How on earth were we going to sell wines made from grapes like Aglianico, Falanghina, Gaglioppo, Pallagrello, and Tintilia when our prospective guests had probably never even heard of them let alone knew how to pronounce them?

I’ve known owner and executive chef Steven Samson since we spent our UC junior year abroad together in Italy back in 1987-88. He had asked me to create an all southern Italian wine list. I loved the challenge and I knew that southern Italian wine — from white to red and every color in between — offered all the goods we needed to deliver a world-class carta dei vini. I also knew that it was going to be an uphill battle to introduce Angelenos to a whole new world of wine and to overcome the stereotypes of the “north vs. south” culture war in Italian enogastronomy.

But Californians’ insatiable thirst for the unusual and exotic and their adventurous spirit in wine exploration swiftly brushed aside any prejudices our guests may have harbored. It didn’t take long before the Los Angeles Times called our list one of the “most interesting” and LA Magazine named it a one of the “best Italian wine lists” in the city.

Five years later, mission accomplished. Today, guests regularly order Gaglioppo and Aglianico with unrivaled linguistic mastery (pun intended).

As the next chapter in the history of Sotto’s wine program unfolds, we’ve decided to shift our focus beyond southern Italy to other “undiscovered” regions of Italian viticulture: Friuli in northeasternmost Italy and Liguria on the Italian riviera. Although few in America know the wines (yet!), we believe these regions produce some of the best still white wines and most compelling seafood-friendly reds in the world. They’re perfect for chef Steve’s evolving seafood menu as it will follow the seasons through summer.

I hope you can join me and Sotto’s sommelier Christine Veys on May 25 for a tasting of five of the new wines we are debuting this month at Sotto.

Chef Steve will be serving light bites as well.

Click here for details and registration info.

Lino Fritto, a brave, new and delicious Venetian seafood bar

Register for my May 25 tasting at Sotto in LA by clicking here.

venetian insalata di mareIn Venetian, they call it a bacaro (pronounced BAH-kah-roh, with the tonic syllable in the first position).

In Italian you might call it a cicchetteria (chee-keh-teh-REE-ah), a place where cicchetti or Venetian small bites are served.

One of the most thrilling discoveries of my recent Venetian sojourn was Lino Fritto, a new bacaro in the Venice fish market with classic and creative dishes and chic, clean-lined modernist décor.

sardine in saor recipeI was so enthralled with the food the night we visited that I forgot to take pictures of the space itself.

Have a look here on the shop’s site for a room shot and don’t miss the Facebook.

From the sarde in saor (traditional sardines cooked and served in sweet and sour sauce and consumed whole) to the classic Venetian-style seafood salads and fried fishballs, Lino Fritto serves my favorite kind of meal (especially easy on Jewish-boy stomachs, btw).

But they also serve a wide variety of fried and puréed vegetables.

shrimp cocktail recipeThe fact that it’s set on the edge of the picturesque Venetian fish market only sweetens the salty deal.

On my friend Adam Japko’s Design and Wine tour this month, we hosted our Sunday night light dinner there and it was perfect (especially when paired with Wayne Young who was pouring and speaking about Bastianich wines).

I need to send out a special thanks to owner Marco Ferro who was so gracious in taking a cold call from some dude in Houston (that would be me) and working with me to make this happen.

And I am also sending a big Texan-style bear hug to the lovely Federica Zane who handled our party and put our evening together so seamlessly.

I had so much fun planning and attending our dinner there and I can’t wait to get back and dive right back in to one of my favorite styles of eating and my new favorite bacaro.

Why doesn’t every American city have this? Hint hint: Marco is looking for American partners…

Best restaurants in Venice for the accidental connoisseur (part 1)

Taste with me:
Houston May 19, LA May 25, Chicago June 6.
Click here for details.

best restaurant st marks squareVenice is a tough town for hungry and thirsty food and wine tourists. It’s the ultimate tourist trap, especially when it comes to the dining scene.

And let’s just be honest about it. The Venetians don’t like tourists. And that applies to Italian tourists as well.

It’s understandable. How would you feel if you actually lived in the Magic Castle at Disneyland?

The Venetians live nearly 365 days a year with a unrelenting onslaught of people, people, people… People who need a bathroom, people who don’t speak their language, people who think pizza is a dish for lunch and cappuccino a beverage to drink after dinner, people who think that Sassicaia is the only Italian wine worth drinking…

And people — egad! — who want to put grated cheese on their seafood risotto! Blasphemy to an Italian of any stripe.

best restaurant rialto veniceThe only way to get great treatment in Venice is to speak Italian with a Veneto accent (which, fortunately, is how I speak Italian). I hate to say it but it’s true. And I write this as a lover of Venice and the Veneto who spent many days studying in Venice (mostly at the Marciana library) and many evenings playing music there back when I was a grad student in Italy.

If you don’t speak Italian with a Veneto accent, try your best to be your most polite and considerate and take in everything cum granu salis as the saying goes. It just comes with the territory.

Here are some of my recent discoveries from the week I spent in Venice earlier this month. It’s the first part of a series I’ll be publishing this week on the blog.

best wine list venice italyThe recently opened Local (above) is a natural wine lover’s dream.

Owner and wine director Luca Fullin honed his chops at Al Covo (previously, the only destination for natural wine folks) and now he’s opened his dream restaurant. Food is traditional seafood (fantastic) with modern touches. Expensive but worth every last cent. I really loved this place, especially the wine program.

Another great discovery for me was ABC Quadri, the Alajmo brother’s casual concept downstairs from their Michelin-starred restaurant in the historic Caffè Quadri on St. Mark’s Square.

The décor is classic 18th-century Venetian, the food was good, the service superb, and the wine list is very reasonably priced for the location. I never thought in a million years that you could get a solid and affordable meal right on Piazza San Marco. But lo and behold, ABC Quadri is the answer to this age-old conundrum.

best seafood restaurant venice italyAnother place I highly recommend to you is Ai Gondolieri in Dorsoduro, which is worth the visit if only for the classic 1950s feel and look of the dining room.

People often think of Venice solely as a seafood destination. But don’t know the Venetian gastronomic canon until you have had Fegato alla veneziana, Venetian style liver, cooked with onions and white wine.

Ai Gondolieri is also a great destination for a steak if you’re in the mood for beef (something a lot of Americans crave when traveling abroad, of course).

But the two things that take this joint over the top are the wine and artisanal beer program and the overall service experience.

Barman and wine director Marco is from Udine and runs a really tight and classically focused wine program. I loved his selection of Collio wines and I loved how he had super groovy crunchy natural beer ready to pop open (this place became my afternoon/before-dinner stop).

General manager Massimiliano is a Venetian dude and not only does he keep Gondolieri humming but he also runs catering for the nearby Guggenheim museum.

These guys are top-flight pros and they make the magic happen nightly. I really loved them and this place…

On deck for tomorrow: my favorite new bacaro will blow your mind!

Taste with me: Houston May 19, LA May 25, Chicago June 6

jeremy parzen wine blogHere are some events that I’m going to be attending or where I’m going to be pouring and speaking about wine in coming weeks. Please join me if you can!

An Evening in Rome with Tony Vallone
Thursday, May 19
Ciao Bello, Houston

Tony’s a client and a friend and a bona fide national treasure when it comes to Italian gastronomy in this country. I have a lot of fun working with him and am very much looking forward to attending his Roman event, the latest in his series of regional Italian cuisines dinner series. Click here for details. Tracie P will be there, too!

Sotto New Wine List Launch
Wednesday, May 25
Sotto, Los Angeles

After five years of writing a wine list devoted almost exclusively to the wines of southern Italy at Sotto in Los Angeles, it’s time to shake things up. I’ll be visiting the restaurant in a few weeks to launch our new list and will be leading a special tasting of five new wines that we’ll be adding. The new list will still be southern-inspired but it will also have new regional focus. Stay tuned for registration info (the event isn’t listed yet on the restaurant’s site but I’ll be posting details as soon as I have them).

Franciacorta Real Story Tasting
Monday, June 6
Perman Wine Selections, Chicago

Now almost midway through its second year, my “Franciacorta Real Story” campaign for the Franciacorta growers consortium has been one of the most rewarding of my career. This will be the last tasting in the series until the fall and I know it will be a good one: I’m a huge fan of Craig Perman and his wine shop and I know we’re going to have a top-flight group of wine pros and lovers for this limited-seating tasting. Please shoot me an email to reserve a spot because it’s already filling up.

Houstonians, please come out and hang with us next week at Tony’s place! And likewise, Angelenos and Chicagoans, I hope to see you soon! Thanks for being here… and there…

Italy’s first 100 percent organic appellation? Italy’s natural wine pioneers see the fruits of their labor

organic farming grapesAbove: grapes harvested in August 2015 at Ca’ del Bosco, another one of Franciacorta’s “big three” and another winery experimenting with organic farming practices.

Producing 4.2 million bottles of wine a year, Guido Berlucchi is Franciacorta’s largest and oldest winery.

It’s a powerhouse estate that produces a wide array of wines, ranging from under $15 a bottle to around $65 (according to WineSearcher.com results retrieved today).

And with Berlucchi’s ongoing conversion to organic farming and certification process, Franciacorta has crossed an extraordinary threshold: today, more than 50 percent of the appellation is organically farmed.

There’s even talk that Franciacorta could become Italy’s first 100 percent organic appellation.

Today, I posted an interview with Berlucchi CEO and enologist Arturo Ziliani on Franciacorta Real Story, a blog I author for the Franciacorta consortium. In the post, he discusses the genesis of the conversion and its significance in Franciacorta’s bigger picture, including the likelihood that it will become 100 percent organic.

Over the last two months, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with two of Italy’s natural wine pioneers and founders of its leading natural wine fairs: Giampiero Bea of ViniVeri and Angiolino Maule of VinNatur.

In our interactions, each made analogous remarks about the arc of the natural wine movement in Italy: in the 90s, they were considered fringe; in the 00s, they were called crazy; and today, the mainstream has begun to embrace their call for chemical-free agriculture in Italy and across the world.

Both of them pointed to the ViVit and the VinitalyBio pavilions at the behemoth Vinitaly, Italy’s annual wine industry trade fair held in Verona, as examples of this. The fact that “big” Italian wine has included a natural wine ghetto (the former) and an organic wine ghetto (the latter) represents a substantive break from convention and a milestone in their mission to raise awareness of natural and chemical-free viticulture.

And both of them pointed to the fact that every day it seems that another large winemaker or winery group announces its conversion — whether complete or partial — to organic and more environmentally friendly (and human friendly) farming.

Will the relevance of natural wine be negated as more and more mainstream wineries embrace the tenets of natural and organic wine?

Perhaps. But it doesn’t matter because ultimately, having reached for the stars, they will have delivered the earth.

That fact that the “powers-that-be” in Franciacorta are looking at becoming Italy’s first 100 percent organic appellation is surely a step in the right direction.

Click here for the interview with Arturo Ziliani of Guido Berlucchi.

The sun also rises over Slovenia and New York Times on Texas

slovenia wine brda rebulaThe sun rose over Slovenia’s Brda hills yesterday morning as I enjoyed a daybreak walk on the Italian side of the border before heading back to Texas (check out the video below and be sure to turn up the volume to hear the sound of the day’s first church bells in the distance).

After spending nine days as a wine and food sherpa on my friend Adam Japko’s Design and Wine Tour between Venice, Verona, and Cormons (Friuli), I was eager to get back to my family and to the place I’ve called home for the last eight years.

On the first leg of my journey homeward from Venice to Newark, I read Manny Fernandez’s compelling New York Times piece on “What Makes Texas Texas” (published on Saturday).

Everything he writes about the Lone Star State is true, of course.

Both native Californians, he and I are faces of the “new” Texas.

And I share his wonderment at Texan nativism and exceptionalism.

And like him, I still can’t wrap my mind around our politicians’ often bizarre and hateful attitudes. While some of the topoi of Manny’s piece are the usual common places that non-Texans love to chide us for, our political class wholeheartedly deserves our (and your) scorn and even ridicule in my view.

But I also think that Manny has missed some of the fundamental things that make Texans Texans.

I’m thinking of Texans’ seemingly innate politeness (despite their political views).

I’m thinking of Texans’ love of gastronomic tradition. It’s so much more than Tex Mex, people! I’m thinking of Uncle Tim’s gumbo but I’m also thinking of Tony’s tortellini.

I’m thinking of Texans’ musical legacy. Just think of how many famous performers and songwriters Texas has produced — and not just country music stars!

I’m thinking of the humanity that I’ve found her in people stopping on the freeway to help me push my overheated car to the side of the road outside of Waco not long after I arrived.

I’m thinking of my father-in-law, Reverend Randy Branch, a Methodist pastor whose political views are diametrically opposed to mine but who embraces me at every one of our family get-togethers and tells me that he loves me.

I’m thinking about so many things that make Texans Texans.

And I’m thinking about how I awoke early and jet-lagged this morning.

As I watched the sun rise over Texas, one of our micro-Texans crawled into bed with me and said “I missed you, daddy…”

Thanks for being here. I’ll be back tomorrow with more tales of Italy…

How should a sommelier react when you tell her/him a wine is corked?

best restaurants valpolicella veronaMy good friend Adam Japko’s Design and Wine Tour officially came to an end yesterday (although many from the group, including me, are staying on for a couple of days for tasting and touring in Friuli).

After tasting Valentina Cubi’s excellent Valpolicella and Amarone yesterday morning at her estate, we enjoyed one of the best meals of the trip down the road at the superb Enoteca della Valpolicella (above), where the quality of the food was rivaled only by the caliber of the wine service.

The Enoteca’s cellar may very well be the best destination in the appellation for those who want to dig deep into verticals and horizontals of Valpolicella wines.

And the food there… my goodness, the food! Just look at the yellow of that egg below!

white asparagus bassano italyBut the thing that impressed me the most was the professionalism of the sommelier who waited on us yesterday.

Her service and wine knowledge were impeccable, from her presentation of the bottle to a pour that featured the label before the eyes of each and every guest. And her hospitality — in the true sense of the word — was superlative.

In a dining room where she was pouring Cubi’s wines for a group of roughly 25 persons, I was at the last table to be poured the last bottle of Valpolicella she opened.

Unfortunately, our table’s bottle was corked. And when I brought this to her attention, she didn’t raise a glass of the wine to her nose to assess the wine or my take on the wine.

She took the glass from me and simply said, “I’m so sorry. I’ll open a new bottle right away.”

It occurred to me that, sadly, many sommeliers often question their guests’ ability to determine the fitness of a wine (often in their guests’ presence) and that some even refuse to substitute it.

At yesterday’s seating, even with a wine that needed to be replaced, my dining experience was seamless, all thanks to a wine professional who holds service and hospitality above one-uppersonship or virtuosismo.

I never asked her name nor did she and I ever lower the tenor of our formal interaction, addressing each other throughout with the lei as opposed to the tu.

But, man, her wine service was, imho, the apotheosis of viticultural hospitality. #respect

Maule, one of my loci amoeni

maule biancara vineyards wineryNot much time to post this morning as I try to catch up with work before heading out for the last day of our Design and Wine Tour.

But I just had to share this photo I snapped yesterday in the vineyards at the Maule winery in Montebello Vicentino, one of my loci amoeni and one of my favorite wines to drink anywhere.

Thanks again to the Maule family for such a great evening.

Looking forward to posting notes from my trip as soon as the dust settles.