Californians keep all the good wine for themselves! Wouldn’t you? Slow Wine Guide 2020 dispatch.

One of the things that has become abundantly clear to me after three years of working on the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California is that the Californians keep all the good wine for themselves.

Well, that’s only half true: they keep the good stuff for themselves and their friends.

So many of the top wines, I’ve discovered — from the super collectible to the cool kids — are sold predominantly via the estates’ mailing lists and on premise (to restaurants).

Looking back over the years, it occurs to me now that one of the reasons California wine was so unfashionable among enohipsters was that it was hard to find the more soulful stuff. Even during my youth in my hometown of San Diego, the wine shelves were mostly stacked with the classic oaky, extracted, and supercharged goods. You know, the Schafers and the Caymus and the Silver Oaks etc. I’m not saying that those wines are “bad.” But they don’t fit the more youthful, woke (as it were) approach to wine. You had to look a little bit harder to find the vino buono. After taking the time to dig deeper, I’ve been blown away by the quality of the wine I’ve tasted and how much it aligns with the progressive wine lover’s palate.

Later today I’ll be visiting my all-time favorite Napa wine grower. And I have never seen their wines in a wine shop — never ever. And I go to a LOT of wine shops.

Yesterday I met and tasted with Mark Pisoni at his family’s Pisoni Ranch in the Santa Lucia Highlands. That’s a shot of their farm above. And the Lucia Pinot Noir he tasted me on was spectacular (and an amazing value, btw). But it’s sold, he told me, primarily through their mailing list and to restaurants.

The Californians aren’t keeping all the wine to themselves (and for their friends) because they are covetous. They are simply faced by too much demand for their labels.

I’ve been on the road this week in northern Californian wine country tasting with winemakers and grape growers for the 2020 edition of the Slow Wine guide. I’ve already had some amazing visits and have more today and tomorrow. I’ll share my notes soonest.

Have to hit the road again now but need to give a shout out to El Molino Central in Boyes Hot Springs, Sonoma County (where I stay at my best-kept-secret hotel).

That’s their Oaxacan zucchine flower quesadilla below. One of the best things I’ve eaten this year. Thanks again to John Lockwood of Enfield Wine for the recommendation!

A voice from Trump’s America: “Our Country Needs God’s Way.” Rev. Branch’s letter to the White House

My wife Tracie grew up in Orange, Texas, a Gulf Coast town that lies in the ruby-red heart of Trump’s America. The president enjoys nearly unmitigated support from the white community there. Her parents live there and we visit regularly.

That’s Tracie’s father below, Rev. Randall Branch, a Methodist Pastor, celebrating Easter in his church with our daughters.

Last week, following the El Paso and Dayton shootings, he sent the following letter to the White House. He also posted it on his church’s blog and Facebook. It speaks for itself and I am glad to share it here (as per his encouragement in the post’s post-script).

Our Country Needs God’s Way.

I have been praying about the shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Asking for God to be with those who have been thrust into a time of grief, healing and perhaps hopelessness. My prayer is that God heal them in every way needed, physically and mentally. My prayers are also for all those who are afflicted with hatred, bigotry and racism, that they too may be healed and come to know the loving grace that God pours out upon all people.

For all of us who know Jesus Christ as our savior I pray that in all we do and all we say we are an example of who Christ wants us to be and not who our flesh sometimes calls us to be. You know that “loving your neighbor is all inclusive and never exclusive!”

I am not making a political statement when I say that it was good to hear President Trump denounce all forms of hatred and bigotry. I do wish however that he had gone a step further in that statement and made sure that those who thrive on hatred, racism and bigotry would know that he is not their friend and wants nothing to do with their movements or way of thinking. I believe that step further would also lead to a kinder more thoughtful way of saying things in the future that would/could not be interpreted by people that are looking for an excuse to cause harm to others through word or deed.

If you need some Biblical support one of many scriptures we should be living by is Colossians 3:1-17. They speak about our world today and about how we are, as Christians, to live our lives.

Got that off my chest but maybe I need to send a letter just like this to the White House. Hmmm! I wonder if He would read it.

Have a blessed day in Jesus Christ…for He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Pastor Randy

PS. please feel free to copy and share if you would like to..maybe even come to a house of worship like the one below.

A Barbera d’Asti that fired on all cylinders and an all-American pairing…

It’s become a cliché for American sommeliers and wine pundits to talk about Barbera’s role as a “pizza wine” in our country.

But predictably does have its merits and a Sunday pairing of the Maraja 2015 Barbera d’Asti Masche with some of our favorite pies was by no means a cliché négatif (photography buffs will appreciate the paronomasia).

Italians generally pair beer and/or sparkling soft drinks with their pizza. And if they reach for wine instead, it’s usually something bubbly. The fattiness and acidity of the mozzarella, the wisdom goes, needs something effervescent to aid in digestion (the metabolic challenge of pizza is one of the reasons that Italians mostly avoid eating pizza at lunchtime but that’s another story).

Only in America, where the great misunderstanding otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean gives rise to our gastronomic exceptionalism, do gourmets and enohipsters view still red wine as a excellent match for pizza. How many times have you heard the lesser informed members of our society point to Chianti as a “pizza wine”? Chianti! (But that’s another story as well.)

On Sunday, our all-American family found itself with another red-white-and-blue couple who’ve recently expanded their brood with a beautiful, precious baby girl. And the Maraja was the bottle we reached for when we ordered pizzas creative and traditional.

Man, this wine had it all: buoyant red and berry fruit, minerality and a hint dusty earth (hallmarks of Astigiano-raised Barbera), the classic electric acidity that the variety is known for, and higher-than-expected-alcohol that was kept wonderfully in check by the sum of its parts. It just fired on all cylinders like a finely-tuned 1968 hardtop Mustang Fastback. What a gorgeous lip-smacking wine!

One of the things that has fascinated me the most over the course of my bilingual career is how wines and foods are often “applied” by Anglophones in ways that their Italophone counterparts didn’t imagine and/or intend.

Sometimes we get it right, sometimes wrong. But on Sunday, we, Americans, nailed it.

Greenwashing, Instagram food waste, food porn health risks: issues that matter to millennials at Slow Food U.

Above: the Slow Food U. campus was once a country residence belonging to King Vittorio Emanuele II, united Italy’s first ruler until his death in 1878.

Grading exams is rarely a task that professors look forward to. But when it comes to reading term papers by graduate students in my food and wine communications seminars at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences, the engagé topics and theses reveal some of the issues that matter most to these millennials, many of whom will become food and wine professionals.

One of the subjects that stood out was “greenwashing,” the black art of misrepresenting a product or producer as environmentally responsible. Wineries in particular have been the culprits of such dissimulation in the eyes of some of my students. The conviction and vehemence with which some of the students call out unscrupulous winemakers are impressive.

Food waste by Instagram users was another red thread that connects many of the essays. Instagram users, especially chefs, some of the wrote, have lost sight of nutritional value and sustainable practices when they create and then discard hardly edible dishes conceived expressly for the social media platform.

Food porn health risks also concern my students. A number of them pointed to the high fat content and low nutritional value of the foods commonly represented on social media. This trend, they point out, encourages and even promotes unhealthy eating habits among young people.

Natural wine’s grip on cultural hegemony was one of the topics that surprised me. The popularity of natural wine and natural winemakers and their uncanny ability — purposeful or incidental — to eclipse conventional wine and conventional winemakers is, evidently, a real concern among some of my students. It takes a lot of courage to speak out about the issue, especially on a campus where natural wine is taught like gospel.

All and all, the socially conscious, woke issues that my students grapple with align with overarching millennial trends.

As one of my former students put it, he wants to make the world a better place to eat. If these millennials have a say, we’ll all be the better for it.

Verdicchio of a lesser god? Let Lugana have its day in the sun!

Above: Turbiana vines on Zenato’s Sansonina estate in Peschiera del Garda.

If given a quarter for every time they’ve recently heard the line did you know that Lugana is actually made from Verdicchio?, Italian-focused American wine professionals would all be wealthy today.

In the light of this “recent” discovery, many would be surprised to learn that the genetic kinship between Verdicchio and Trebbiano di Lugana, otherwise known as Turbiana, the primary grape used in Lugana production, was actually identified nearly 30 years ago.

And they might also keen to learn that leading Italian ampelographer Ian D’Agata has not so recently proposed that Turbiana, however related to Verdicchio and Trebbiano di Soave (another genetic family member), should be considered its own, distinct biotype.

Over the last couple of years, Lugana has become fashionable among the American wine glitterati, in part thanks to laudable efforts by the Lugana consortium to raise awareness of the wines. But those who have spent any significant time in Brescia province already knew that it has always been the still white wine of choice for those who inhabit the lands that stretch from the banks of Lake Garda to the Oglio river in the west, a tributary of the Po.

Yesterday, I published “Is Trebbiano di Lugana (Turbiana) the same grape as Verdicchio? Or is it a distinct biotype?” on the Zenato-Sansonina blog, where I take a look at D’Agata’s call to reconsider Turbiana’s genetic legacy. It’s a small and perhaps insignificant detail in a much bigger viticultural picture. But it’s also an example of how we are ill-served by pigeonholing Italian grape varieties within a strict (and restrictive) genetic hierarchy.

Verdicchio = Turbiana, the status quo syllogism goes; Verdicchio is used to produced some of the greatest white wines in the world (that much we should all agree on); therefore Turbiana must be capable of producing some of the greatest white wines in the world.

Given some of the extraordinary bottlings of Turbiana I’ve tasted over the last decade, I concur that Turbiana can deliver spectacular white wines with depth, nuance, and rich minerality (the savory character is particularly popular among au courant enohipsters).

But I would argue that it’s not the genetic kinship that creates Lugana’s potential to impress on a world stage. The best Verdicchio grows in predominantly sandstone soils in central Italian mountains that overlook or are in close proximity to the Adriatic. Turbiana, on the other hand, is cultivated in clay- and morainic-rich soils that lie — literally — on the mostly flat southern banks of Lake Garda. On my palate, the wines couldn’t be more distinct from one another, especially when you compare Lugana and Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, the former with a more savory character, the latter with a more fruit-driven flavor profile.

The toponym Lugana comes from the Latin lucus meaning a wood, grove, or thicket of trees sacred to a deity. The Romans considered modern-day Lugana and neighboring Valpolicella to be magical places where vineyards and olive groves flourished thanks to the great “protector,” Lake Garda. The knew that the immense body of water, Italy’s largest lake, made Lugana a viticulturally unique growing area, in part because of the temperate maritime influence, in part because of the distinctive morainic and clay subsoils.

There may be a solid genetic link between the two varieties. And as D’Agata, notes, “clearly, further studies are needed.” But the growing conditions are so different from one another and the wines so distinct from one another that I believe it’s time to stop calling Lugana a Verdicchio of a lesser god and let it have its day in the sun.

Looking for natural wine in all the wrong places: NASA Liquor, I love you!

Parzen family doesn’t visit the Johnson Space Center as much as we used to. After nearly six years of living in this Gulf Coast town, Georgia and Lila Jane (ages 7 and 6) are more interested these days in Houston’s natural science museum with its awe-inspiring dinosaurs, the city’s excellent zoo, and its superb art museums (mostly the Museum of Fine Arts and the spellbinding Menil Collection).

But the hullabaloo marking the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing this month (an expedition where Houston — Space City — played a major role as home to Mission Control) re-ignited the girls interest in astronauts (the “real astronauts” as they used to call them).

Grocery and wine shopping was also on the agenda last Saturday. But the heavy summer traffic prompted this mission’s commander to avoid the city’s congested inner solar system. The grocery shopping would be no problem in Clear Lake where the Space Center is located.

But the wine? That was another question. Down in that part of greater Houston, there are no progressive wine shops. At least, that’s what the enonaut thought.

A Google Maps search revealed a number of wine shops and liquor stores. But none showed much promise until the flight navigation directed him to NASA Liquor on East NASA Parkway, a stretch of road populated seemingly by strip malls, smoke and vape shops, faded Mexican restaurants, and military-industrial-complex chains.

Scrolling through the otherwise pedestrian establishment’s Google business page photos, the pilot discovered a smattering of classic European and forward-looking American wines among the shop’s offering.

The venue’s facade (above) didn’t raise expectations. In fact, the crew wondered why on earth were they making a stop at an anonymous strip mall where the pavement was as steaming hot at the waning off-beige color of the stucco walls. The bullet-proof glass that protected the cashier made the outing feel even more far-fetched.

Undaunted, Parzen family made the return journey with a bottle of skin-contact Minimus 2017 Willamette Valley Pinot Gris Antiquum Farm in tow. With its ripe cherry and berry fruit flavors, vibrant acidity and restrained alcohol, it was throughly enjoyed by the pilot and his commanding officer as they watched the third episode of “Chasing the Moon,” a documentary about the moon landing by America Experience on PBS.

It just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover or a wine shop by its shingle, especially when you’re looking for natural wine in all the wrong places.

A couple of Sicilians that wowed and an eggplant alla parmigiana to live and die for

Last night found me a guest at Houston’s ROMA, an Italian restaurant I consult with through the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas (headquartered here in the Bayou City, one of my biggest clients).

The occasion was a Sicilian wine dinner that owner Shanon Scott (one of the nicest dudes in the business btw) was hosting for regulars.

I’ll admit that I was a little bit skeptical when I saw the vintage on the Caruso e Minini Inzolia. Honestly, I didn’t know the winery and 2015 seemed on the older side for this grape variety, usually bottled and consumed in its youth.

But man, beyond a rich golden hue, otherwise a tell-tale sign, this wine didn’t have a note of oxidation on it (there’s no mention of maceration on the winery’s website so I’m guessing the color was owed to the wine’s middle age). It was fresh on the nose, with classic quasi-aromatic stone fruit and vibrant ripe stone fruit in the mouth. I loved it.

The main course braciole were accompanied by one of my favorite Sicily wines, a Nero d’Avola by Marabino from Noto (does anyone remember the famous scenes from Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” set in Noto?).

As always, this wine was simply electric, with that verve and vibrancy that you find in passionate growers like these guys (the hyper-site-specific notes on their website are Melvillian in character!).

It slightly and deliciously unripe dark fruit was buoyed by the electrons that pulsed elegantly throughout. I’ve been following Marabino for a number of years now and have always been impressed by the value and quality it delivers. And this is simply one of their entry-tier wines. The top wines are even more compelling.

Also have to give a soulfelt shout-out to chef Angelo Cuppone for his super melanzane alla parmigiana, sautéed eggplant layered and baked with tomato sauce and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, one of the few pan-Italian dishes that you can find throughout the peninsula and its islands (one of these days, when I win the lottery and can focus on my writing, I hope to produce a tome on the origins of this unique confluence of northern and southern Italian foodways, the origins of which might surprise many).

Chef Angelo is a friend and a comrade and as much as I swoon over his carbonara and classic lasagne (Bolognese, is there any other?), he really shines at these regional wine dinners. His eggplant had a wonderful balance, a marcia in più, an extra gear in the motor as the Italians like to say. Really great stuff. At the end of the night, I begged like a pup for a doggy bag to take home to Tracie.

Thank you, Shanon, for making me part of it! Great evening, great food, and superb wines.

Your Italian wine is organic but what about your vinegar?

A new category on the blog: de aceto.

Above: a popular brand of organic-certified red wine vinegar in Italy. The designation “biologico” on the label denotes “organic” in Italian.

Over the course of my three trips to Italy this year (so far), it seemed that organic wine vinegars kept popping up at every meal. One of the most popular brands, at least in Piedmont where I was teaching, was this Ki Group red wine vinegar, above.

(I’m not a fan of the commercial “balsamic” vinegars that generally find their way to even some of the best restaurants in Italy. They are mostly made from wine vinegar that’s been aromatized with real or concentrated balsamic or even caramel. The balsamic vinegar trade, sadly, is one of Italy’s most under-regulated imho.)

According to the product profile, the Ki Group vinegar is organic certified and made from Italian grapes. Otherwise, there’s little information about how it’s made beyond the ingredients listed on the company’s website — “wine, antioxidant: sulfur dioxide.”

One can only wonder what went into the wine besides grapes and there’s no information as to whether or not it was inoculated. There’s also no indication of how the vinegar was inoculated (all commercial and nearly all small-scale production vinegar is inoculated with a live “mother” yeast).

The best vinegars I’ve ever tasted were those produced by Joško Sirk in Collio (Friuli). There’s no mention on Sirk’s site of organic growing practices as far as I can find. It only mentions the high-quality of the fruit used to vinify the base wines.

I’ve also tasted wonderful homemade vinegars that have been fermented by trattoria owners in Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces (Emilia) where home and in-house production is widely found and where vinegar culture is widespread and heartfelt.

But I’ve never heard an oste (countryside restaurateur) say that her/his vinegars are organic. Most of them will tell you that they make their vinegars using their guests’ leftover wine (whatever that might be) and a mother yeast they’ve been cradling for years.

We consume a lot of vinegar at home (because we eat a lot of leafy greens), mostly organic vinegars that we buy from Whole Foods. Like the Ki Group vinegar I tasted repeatedly in Italy, they are good but nothing out of the ordinary. Honestly, I don’t taste much difference between the commercial high-volume vinegars we get our favorite local supermarket chain and the more expensive organic-certified bottlings we get from Whole Foods. And as in the case of the Ki Group vinegar, there’s not much info available regarding the growing and production practices. But we buy them nonetheless (being the vinegar suckers that we are).

I know you have organic wine in your glass. But what about the vinegar you use to dress your salad and pickle your vegetables?

For the record, the restaurant where I used that vinegar to dress my salad doesn’t make any distinction on its list between organically farmed wines and conventionally farmed ones. But it serves organic certified vinegar. Salad for thought…

Not a “racist bone” in his body? Trump supporters: stop the charade already!

You don’t like the tweets but you like the policy.

You don’t like the menacing language but you like the direction the country’s going.

He’s a straight shooter who tells it like it but sometimes the message comes out wrong.

“There’s not a racist bone in his body” but the media spins it to sound racist.

Remember when a white supremacist threatened Tracie and me and told us to “get the f*ck across the border” because we didn’t like a newly constructed Confederate memorial in Tracie’s home town (on MLK Dr. no less)?

Sound familiar?

Even some Republicans are starting to get nervous about Donald Trump’s language.

You know why? Because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue that he’s not a racist.

And there’s a reason for that (in case you haven’t noticed): he is a racist, a “white grievance” politician who’s based his entire political career on stoking the flames of racial division and violence — from the invocation of “Mexican rapists” to the chants of “send her back.”

Many to the left of Donald Trump (and perhaps some of his supporters) remember the famous lines from Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech: a time comes when silence is betrayal

Few know that King didn’t pen the aphorism. In fact, as he acknowledges in the speech, he borrows it from the platform of an antiwar group known as the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, the largest religiously based antiwar organization at the time.

In the lines that followed the now iconic truism, they wrote:

    Both the exercise of faith and the expression of the democratic privilege oblige us to make our voices heard. For while we speak as members of religious communities, we also speak as American citizens. Responsible expressions of disagreement and dissent is the lifeblood of democracy, and we speak out of loyalty that refuses to condone in silence a national policy that is leading our world toward disaster.

There comes a time when silence is betrayal. And the time is now to stand up and speak out.

When our nation’s president menaces sitting members of congress with vexations that echo racist tropes like “go back to Africa” and “go back to Mexico,” the time is now to honor our obligation to make our voices heard.

Those who stand idly by, prisoners of political expedience and their lack of moral fortitude, will have to face their own reckoning with morality.

For those who condone Trump’s vituperation, the time is now to admit that they, too, are racists to the bone.

Aglianico and sushi made for magic last night in Houston

Learn how to pronounce Aglianico in Neapolitan and in Italian here.

Something remarkable happened last night after Tracie and I sat down for a splurge sushi dinner at Kata Robata, one of Houston’s premier Japanese restaurants.

Seated at the (cocktail) bar, we had just ordered a bottle of Graci Etna Rosato, a rosé from Nerello grapes grown on the high-lying slopes of the Sicilian volcano, by one of our favorite producers (a classic). The same bartender who had taken our order approached us with another glass of rosé in hand.

“Hey,” he said, “if you like that wine, you might like this one, too.”

It was the Rogito rosé from Aglianico by storied Aglianico del Vulture producer Cantine del Notaio (rogito — ROH-gee-toh — means public decree in archaic Italian; all the names of the labels by Cantine del Notaio are plucked from ancient legalese; the name of the winery means the notary’s cellars; a notaio was a term used for what we would call lawyers today).

Tracie had never had the wine and she loved its bright fruit and freshness. So our bartender, Mohammed Rahman, graciously offered to switch our bottle order to a by-the-glass order instead. It turned out that he is also the wine director at this super high-profile Houston dining destination (and a lovely guy).

The wine worked brilliantly with our meal, including the fatty tuna and Japanese scallops that we ordered. The whole experience was fantabulously delicious.

But the thing that struck me was the ease and grace with which Italian wines have insinuated themselves into an unlikely program. The last time Tra and I visited Kata Robata, one of our Houston special-occasion spots, we were lucky to find an affordable Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc.

Mo, as Mohammed introduced himself, is a big fan of Italian wine and his list is peppered with some of my favorite value-driven wines from the peninsula and its islands: Winkl by Terlan, Falanghina by I Pentri, not to mention a solid Assyrtiko (from Santorini, Greece) by-the-glass and Hanzell Chardonnay (from California) by-the-bottle.

It’s rare that you find so much affordable drinkability at a place that also sells current-vintage Château Margaux (750ml) for $1,400. Mo told us that he tries to offer a robust selection of wines like the above for budget-challenged food and wine people like us and him.

Chapeau bas, Mo! We LOVED YOUR list. Thanks for taking such great care of us last night.