Chef Steve and his Rossoblu in the LA Times: the new Los Angeles restaurant where I’m writing the wine list

Above: the mural in the main dining room at Rossoblu, which will “hard” open in just a few weeks in downtown Los Angeles.

What a thrill to see my friend Steve Samson profiled this week in the LA Times for the opening of his new downtown restaurant (where I’m writing the wine list).

“Los Angeles is poised for some major restaurant openings in 2017,” writes Hillary Eaton for the paper. “Perhaps one of the most anticipated is chef Steve Samson’s Rossoblu, set to open in downtown’s gorgeous new City Market South development on May 17.”

    While Samson has earned a following for his perfectly blister-flecked, wood-fired pizzas at Sotto, his Southern Italian restaurant in Pico-Robertson, you will not find a single pie on the menu at Rossoblu. Instead, Samson’s newest project will allow him to flex other muscles, crafting a menu that reads as an ode to the Italian cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy.
    Samson’s connection to Emilia-Romagna runs deep. The region is home to his favorite soccer team, F.C. Bologna, referred to by fans as rossoblu (after the team’s red and blue colors). It’s also the place he spent his childhood summers with his mother’s family. Each summer he grew more enamored with the food and culture that would one day drive him to abandon a prospective career as a doctor to become a chef.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Steve and I first met back in 1987 — 30 years ago! — when we were both juniors at the University of California (I was at UCLA and he at UCSD) and we were both spending our year abroad in Italy.

Even though he was studying in Venice and I was in Padua, we became fast friends and it didn’t take long before he took me with him to Bologna, where he spent summers as a kid: his dad studied medicine on the GI Bill at Bologna where he met Steve’s mom. She grew up in the city’s San Donnino neighborhood.

It was such a great experience for me, during my first year in Italy, to experience Bologna and Steve’s family’s life and circle of friends there. Dindo, one of Steve’s best friends growing up, is still one of my best friends, too (here’s a song I wrote for him).

Seven years ago, when Steve was getting ready to launch his first restaurant in LA as chef/owner, I had just moved back to California from New York where I had spent a decade working as a translator, wine and food writer, and musician. He had always said that he wanted me to write the wine list at his restaurant and even though I had picked up and moved to Texas to marry Tracie P by the time he opened, he insisted that I be the restaurant’s wine director.

We’ve been going strong together ever since and I couldn’t more thrilled to be part of the new project and more proud to be Steve’s friend and colleague: it’s so wonderful to see someone you love thrive like this and achieve a lifelong dream.

Congratulations to Steve and his wife and partner Dina on this new gastronomic adventure! I am so stoked to be a part of it.

As soon as the restaurant officially opens next month, we’ll begin planning our first wine dinners and tastings etc. In the meantime, if you happen to be in LA next week, I’ll be leading a tasting of Campania wines at Sotto, Steve’s other restaurant, on Tuesday, May 23 (click here for details and reservations). Please join me!

Thanks for your support, everyone. I feel so blessed to do what I do for a living and so lucky to be surrounded by so many talented and gifted people like Steve and Dina.

In a world with greater wine knowledge than ever, why do we neglect sparkling?

Earlier this year, a wine director at a super cool, nationally renowned American restaurant told me: “You know, the French [sparkling winemakers] tell you that they only do one dosage. But, actually, they secretly do a bunch of micro-dosages.”

By its very nature and by definition, dosage can only be performed once in the life of a sparkling wine.

Also earlier this year, I spoke to a group of roughly 20 fine dining professionals and asked them their impressions of pas dosé sparkling wines. Not one of them knew what I was talking about.

Considering the role the sparkling wine plays in the fine dining experience and considering the category’s popularity in youthful fine wine culture today, a lacuna like that is helpful to no one — neither server nor guest nor to the restaurateur’s bottomline.

Ever since the dawn of the new era in wine connoisseurship in the U.S. and the rise of the übersommelier in the late 1990s, wine knowledge and awareness have exploded in this country. And more than ever, restaurant professionals have a treasure of media assets available to them in their quest to expand their knowledge.

When it’s common for sommeliers to be able to rattle off every growth in Volnay or every township in upper Piedmont or speak at length about the nuances of Nykteri, why is that knowledge of sparkling wine production has lagged so far behind?

In my two-year tenure working with the Franciacorta consortium (a partnership that ended in December but that’s another story), I traveled all over the U.S. talking about sparkling wines and sparkling wine production. And frankly, I was blown away by how this category is so rarely mastered by even the best and most successful in the business.

I ascribe the widespread insouciant approach to the fact that sparkling wine is arguably one of the most manipulative expressions of viticulture. Understanding how sparkling wines are made and what makes them unique takes a lot of time and study. It’s one of the most technical forms of winemaking and in many ways, sparkling wine runs counter to our fantasies about the historic natural wine movement. Just consider the sine qua non role of Chaptalization in sparkling wine production. There ain’t anything natural about that! (By the way, sine qua non is not pronounced seh-NAY-kwah-nun, like the wine from California; it’s pronounced SEE-neh kwah nohn).

Before I started working with the Franciacorta consortium, I was as guilty as the next floor sommelier in neglecting my knowledge of how sparkling wines are made and how to taste them properly. But thanks to my work with their bottler association, I had the opportunity to taste with a number of top winemakers and sommeliers and I was also very fortunate to get to taste a lot of above-my-paygrade sparkling wine from France.

The information is out there and easy to access: Jancis Robinson’s online edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine and Tom Stevenson’s introduction to Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (print only, I believe) were key resources I used in upping my game (and I highly recommend both).

Another key moment for me was when I asked Bellavista winemaker Mattia Vezzola to share his insight into how to taste sparkling wine.

“Does the promise of the nose,” he said, “deliver in the mouth of the wine? That’s one of the hallmarks of great classic-method wine.”

Unfortunately, we tend to taste sparkling too hurriedly and there’s no getting around the fact that tasting (and learning how to taste) classic-method wine takes a lot of time and patience.

Yesterday, I attended an excellent trade tasting of sparkling wines presented by the cellar master at Gosset here in Houston. I really liked the presentation: he led the group through a flight of monovarietal expressions of their classic cuvée to illustrate the role that the different varieties play in shaping the style of the house. And I really liked the wines, as well.

The export manager also gave a thoughtful and insightful talk on the history of the appellation and its role and place in the world of fine wine (although I took issue with his etymology of the toponym Champagne, which does comes from the Latin campania, as he noted, but campania does not mean chalk nor is it related in any way to the word chalk, despite the role that chalk plays in the appellation).

He pointed out (rightly) that Champagne owes its historic fortune not to the French but to the British and Russians, who embraced the wines as a core expression of their fine dining culture.

In a lot of ways, I thought to myself, Champagne and sparkling wine in general are the result of a series of Bloomian misunderstandings. And that legacy, no doubt, has contributed to the ways that the wines are still misunderstood today.

From the food trucks of Houston to the pizzerias of Naples, wine blogging brings us together

A few weeks ago, my friend and fellow Houstonian Shannen Tune (above, left, with his wife Stacey) reached out to me for advice about where to eat on a first trip to Italy.

Even if you don’t live in Houston, you may know Shannen: last year, he was a winner on the Food Network’s reality show “Chopped.” He’s also a super nice guy, a beloved member of the Houston food scene, and owner of the immensely popular Craft Burger Food Truck.

I was happy to share my top recommendations for Venice, Florence, and Rome. But when it came to Naples, how could I not turn to my wine blogging friend, Neapolitan sommelier, wine and food publicist, and now food sherpa, Marina Alaimo?

Before I knew it, Shannen was flooding my Messenger inbox with delicious images from meals with his wife in Naples, like the pizza they shared at Figlia del Presidente above.

In the era of hyperconnectivity, when our overexposure to media often seems to eclipse our humanity, it fills me with joy to think that technology — and a shared love of wine and food — allowed Marina, Shannen, Stacey, and me to interact with seamless celerity. And that connection happily delivered the Houston couple to the doorstep of great enogastronomic experiences in a country and city they had never visited before.

Picture my broad grin when Shannen’s messages began arriving in my inbox and I set about translating them for Marina!

Marina, who has helped me out on numerous occasions when I needed a food and wine connection in Naples, is now expanding her work as a wine and food publicist to include food sherpa services.

She doesn’t have a blog yet but you can nearly always find her on Facebook (Marina Alaimo).

Right now, she’s excited about a new hamburger (above) by her client, Neapolitan amburgheria Sciuè il Panino Vesuviano (amburgheria is Italian for hamburger joint).

Commonly used in the pleonastic and reduplicative expression sciuè sciuè, the word sciuè means in a jiffy in Neapolitan (from the Latin fluens, meaning flowing or fluent [in the literal sense]). It’s a pretty common name for street food venues in Naples, from what I understand. You could (roughly) translate the name of this sandwich shop as Vesuvian panini in a jiffy.

The new hamburger is named Totò le Mokò, after the famous 1949 film by Neapolitan genius comedian and actor Totò, who died 50 years ago this April.

If you haven’t been to Italy lately, you may not know that hamburger mania and the street food craze have taken the country by storm in recent years.

From where I stand, it seems that Shannen should feel right at home in Naples, right? From Houston to Naples, wine blogging brings us together.

From the department of “in case you missed it”…

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times published a front-page story entitled “How Houston has become the most diverse place in America.”

“The story of how his city turned from a town of oil industry roughnecks and white blue-collar workers into a major political centrifuge for immigration reform,” writes the author, “is nothing less than the story of the American city of the future.”

Please check it out and G-d bless…

Meeting the real astronauts… what an emotional and moving experience!

Above: Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli (left) was funny and wonderfully engaging at yesterday’s event. To hear him jokingly utter the words, “Houston, we have a problem,” took the iconic phrase into a whole realm of meaning. He is one badass dude and super nice.

All of our social media friends and anyone who’s ever visited our family here in Houston know that our daughters Georgia P and Lila Jane (ages 5 and 3) love “the real astronauts.”

Our monthly (and sometimes weekly) trips to the Johnson Space Center visitors center, about 40 minutes south from where we live, are always filled with marvel, joy, and learning: not only does the center host a wide range of interactive exhibits and media, but its guided tours allow you to see where the current astronauts are doing their training, not to mention the historic mission control and other artifacts from space exploration.

These are no mere museum pieces! In Parzen family parlance, these are the real astronauts!

Yesterday, thanks to my consulting work with Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas (the IACC, headquartered in Houston), I had the unique opportunity to meet the next astronauts headed to space.

What an incredible and incredibly emotional experience to shake the hands of these brave men and the team that will guide them on their mission! These affable, funny, and down-to-earth guys are going to the International Space Station in July aboard a Russian Soyuz.

And while the event was entirely free of any and all politicization or international intrigue, everyone in the room was acutely aware of the fact that the station represents “the greatest achievement in international cooperation” in humankind’s history, as one of the mission directors put it.

I’ve met all kinds of celebrities in my lifetime and I’m rarely starstruck. But, man, Beyoncé could have walked into the room last night and I wouldn’t even have noticed her.

G-d bless these courageous women and men. We owe them our greatest gratitude for all that they do to further the human cause and better the human condition.

Click here for my write-up of the event on the IACC website.

Below, from left, clockwise, space-bound astronauts with Italian officials: Paolo Nespoli (Italy), IACC Executive Director Alessia Paolicchi, IACC President Brando Ballerini, Sergei Ryazanzky (Russia), Randy Bresnik (USA), Italian Consul General Elena Sgarbi, Alexander Misurkin (Russia), Joe Acaba (USA), and Mark Vande Hei (USA).

Abe Schoener, Passopisciaro, and Justin Yu’s new kitchen: all in a day’s wine in Houston

From the department of “it’s been a hard day’s wine”…

What an incredible “wine” day yesterday in my adoptive hometown, Houston!

It started with a wonderful trade tasting of Passopisciaro and Trinoro wines at my new fave Houston BBQ destination, The Pit Room (see the spread below).

It peaked with a intensely engaging and delightfully intellectual guided tasting of wines by Abe Schoener of Scholium Project fame.

And dulcis in fundo, the day’s coda came with a ethereally light and wholly satisfying meal at B[etter] L[uck] T[omorrow], celebrity chef Justin Yu’s newest entry and one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of the year (see the establishing shot below).

Another one of the day’s highlight’s was the arrival of the current issue of Wine & Spirits magazine wherein I offer a review of Vinology, the wine bar and wine shop that has quickly become the new epicenter for the vinously inclined among us.

That’s Thomas Moësse below (second from left) in a photo that I snapped at the trade lunch where we tasted Etna and Val d’Orcia wines together. He authors the wine program at Vinology and he is the top Italian wine professional imho working in Texas today, although his expertise isn’t limited by any means solely to the Italic peninsula.

Man, what a day of tasting extremes! From the heights of Etna to Abe’s highly thoughtful, provocative California winemaking.

I’d never had the chance to taste with Abe and I found the experience exhilarating, I have to say. He’s one of the best technical tasters I’ve ever sat down with in the U.S. His style and his approach to wine reminded me of the Italian intellectual celebrity, writer, and taster Sandro Sangiorgi, to give you a reference point.

But the thing that impressed me the most about his session was his seemingly innate ability to explain even the most subtle and challenging technical aspects of tasting and winemaking with great clarity. When and if you ever get the chance to taste with this dude, take it. Great experience, where everyone, myself included, walked away with brain cells churning through thought like Saccharomyces cerevisiae munching on sugar.

Houston’s new and expanding role in the American fine wine scene was put into context when we arrived at BLT at the end of our night. James Beard-winner and founder of the superb but now shuttered Oxheart, Justin is arguably Houston’s most well known chef. The new restaurant and bar is his most recent venture with celebrity mixologist Bobby Heugel, another one of the city’s food industry notables.

When we sat down to order, we were asked for our IDs, not to verify our age but to sign us up as members of a private drinking club. Even though the law was overturned in last November’s elections, Justin’s new place stands in a still dry area of Houston, the Heights, where alcohol has been officially verboten since the 1910s. (Check out this super cool article on the subject and its loopholes by Houston writer Nick Hall for PUNCH.)

Ever since a brave restaurateur established the first private drinking club in the Heights in the early aughts (if I’m not mistaken), countless fine dining establishments with world-class wine and cocktail programs have opened there.

But the anachronism is a reminder that history still casts its long shadow on this great metropolis of the South.

That shadow is long but the future is bright, my friends. Come see me in Houston some time. I promise you we’ll drink well!

This is not the Merlot you’re looking for: opening Rossoblu, Chef Steve Samson’s new Italian in Los Angeles

Like a junkie’s first fix, there’s nothing that gets me higher than the first staff training with the équipe of a brand new restaurant where I’m consulting on the wine list.

That’s the new staff at Rossoblu, my long-time friend Steve Samson’s downtown Los Angeles fine dining Italian and Lambrusco garden, which should be opening any day now.

What a great group of food and wine professionals!

What should have been a marathon session of training and tasting yesterday flew by like a bullet train. I’m really looking forward to today’s session this early LA morning as I sit in my cozy Little Tokyo hotel room and write this.

More than six years ago, Steve asked me to author the wine list at his first restaurant, Sotto, and we’ve been going strong there ever since.

As we did with Sotto, where I co-authored the list for the last couple of years with my talented colleague and cherished friend Christine Veys, she and I are trying to do something entirely unique and provocative with the Rossoblu list.

I can’t reveal our raisin d’être yet (pun intended). But did I hear someone say something about Marxism?

Stay tuned for the shocking news…

Christine’s now full-time at Rossoblu and I’m handling the list at Sotto again by myself: in case you’re in town that week, I’ll be leading a wine tasting featuring small bites from Steve’s menu on Tuesday, May 23 as part of the LA Times FoodBowl festival (“Beyond the Volcano: The Wild Wines of Campania”). Should be fun times.

It’s one of the most anticipated openings in LA this year (no joke, people) and it will stand side-by-side next to Charles Phan’s Slanted Door, the legendary San Francisco restaurateur’s first venue in the City of Angels.

I gotta say, I’m super psyched for all of this.

Thanks for being here and thanks for all your support. It means the world to me. Stay tuned…

#TexasWineFreedom: Texans, please call our legislators and ask them to support a bill that would allow Texans to DRINK WHAT THEY WANT

The following post is taken from Wine Freedom Texas, a blog devoted to promoting Texans’ freedom in choosing the wines they want to drink. Texans, please call the numbers below and leave a message for our legislators asking them to support this bill. Its passage would be a monumental leap forward in freeing Texan wine lovers from the yoke of big business interest and its “ridiculously anti-competitive” hold over our state’s shipping laws, as the bill’s author, Dallas-area Republican state representative Matt Rinaldi, has called it it.

WINE FREEDOM FOR TEXANS
(House Bill 2291) – Updated May 2, 2017

Texas law bans its citizens from receiving shipments of wine from out-of-state wine stores, internet wine retailers, wine clubs and wine auction houses. [Texas Legislature] H[ouse]B[ill] 2291 would remove this ban and create a free market in wine for Texans and giving its wine lovers access to hundreds of thousands of wine now unavailable to Texans.

STATUS OF BILL

A hearing on HB 2291 was held on May 1 in the House Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee. In testimony by Texas consumers, the National Association of Wine Retailers and the bill sponsor, Matt Rinaldi, committee members heard how consumers could not find the wines they want, how the current anti-competitive and anti-consumer law impacts consumers, and how HB 2291 would not harm Texas package stores. By contrast, lobbyists for Texas wholesalers and package stores testified that they ought to be protected from competition and that the bill was a threat to minors’ safety.

The Committee members did not vote to pass on the legislation to the full house at the May 1 committee hearing. The future of HB 2291 could take three possible paths: Committee members vote to kill the bill in committee, take no vote and let it die or vote to move the bill to the floor for consideration.

CONSUMER ACTION NEEDED

Call Key Committee Members. Now is the moment when committee members need to hear from Texas consumers. Call the committee members below and respectfully tell them you support HB 2291 and that you are calling to urge them to vote it out of the Licensing committee.

Chairman John Kuempel: (512) 463-0602
Rep. Ryan Guillen: (512) 463-0416
Rep. John Frullo: (512) 463-0676
Rep. Charlie Geren: (512) 463-0610
Rep. Ana Hernandez: (512) 463-0614
Rep. Abel Herrero: (512) 463-0462
Rep. Chris Paddie: (512) 463-0556

Read more here…

The Robert Parker conundrum: it’s never boring to sit down and taste with Robert Kamen

Screenwriter, grape grower, and winemaker Robert Kamen was in town last night for what’s become his yearly stop in Houston, where he always holds court over dinner at Tony’s, my friend and client Tony Vallone’s iconic restaurant.

I always have to pinch myself: how did I get here? I wondered as I hob-nobbed with some of the city’s leading politicians, oil moguls, and real estate developers, not to mention the man who gave the world wax on, wax off.

But wine has its unique way, I always remember, of connecting people from the most disparate walks of life. (And Tony’s generosity may have a little something to do with it, too.)

I also had the great fortune to sit down with Robert earlier in the day to chat about a wide variety of subjects, from the current political landscape to his cannabis advocacy, the latter a subject that he’s touched upon in every conversation we’ve had since I met him back in my NYC days in the late 1990s. When we first connected, he was just starting out and I’ve followed him and his wines ever since. I can tell you that the confabulatio is never dull!

One of things I was curious to ask him about was something that I view as an anomaly in the contemporary wine trade: on the one hand, you have a New York-born lefty writer cum Sonoma winemaker whose vineyard manager is California’s pioneer of biodynamic farming and whose wines embrace an Old World, acidity-driven and restrained style; and on the other, you have the wine world’s über-critic who regularly gives these wines 98- and 99-point scores, even though he historically tends to favor the big, bold, and powerful when it comes to his top-rated wines.

And let me tell you, folks: Robert Kamen is no Ann Colgin!

“I don’t give my wines to anyone,” said Robert referring to the fact that he doesn’t submit his wines to the major mastheads for review.

“I’m in the movie business and I’m critic-adverse,” he told me.

But when former Parker editor Antonio Galloni visited the estate some years ago and spent the better part of the day there touring the growing sites and tasting the wines, “I decided to give him the wines.”

And that legacy carried over even after Antonio departed from the storied publication.

Do the scores have an effect on sales? I asked Robert.

“In all the years that I’ve been making and selling wine,” he revealed, “only once did someone come into the tasting room and say he wanted to buy the wines because he was collecting ’98-point’ Cabernet.”

That’s the octopus with fiddleheads and favas that Tony served last night with Robert’s 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. An awesome dish that danced with the lithe but meaty wine.

As the dinner wound down, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the city’s leading Republican politicians. We chatted about our shared view that Houston is the future of America: it’s the one great American metropolis, we agreed wholeheartedly, where left and right, blue and red, Democrat and Republican interact every day; and it’s also America’s most diverse city, where people from all parts of the world live and breath in harmony and civility (and if you don’t believe me, come see me please).

Only at Tony’s, I thought to myself, does a lefty like me (a native Californian and lapsed New Yorker) get to drink one of America’s best wines with a leading advocate for the right in one of the union’s most conservative states.

But then again, only Tony could serve octopus and Cabernet Sauvignon and make the food and wine dance so gloriously on our palates.

Click here to read the interview with Robert that I published this morning on Tony’s blog.

Post-frost outlook not as bad as it may seem, says former Barolo-Barbaresco consortium president Giovanni Minetti

Last week, late spring freezing temperatures damaged vineyards across northern Italy. Piedmont was not spared, writes Tenuta Carretta CEO Giovanni Minetti, my client, friend, and former president of the Barolo and Barbaresco Consortium. But dire predictions for this year’s harvest are premature and market panic is uncalled for and is best avoided, he notes. I received and translated the following email from him this morning.

Dear Jeremy,

I wanted to share my thoughts about the spring freezes that occurred last week over the course of two nights, Tuesday and Wednesday, April 18-19.

As far as weather phenomena go, this was an extraordinary event. It affected a wide surface area and it burned a series of buds that promised to deliver excellent fruit and a crop similar in quality to last year’s harvest.

The number one thing that makes me reluctant to comment on episodes like this is the media and writers who set about casting doubt on this year’s future harvest. The truth is that hail and frost during this time of year do not compromise the quality of the end product. But just try explaining that to people who have already read the news and committed it to memory. It’s hard to believe but there were even people who asked what the vintage would be like this year while the buds were still dormant!

Secondly, we need to look at the true extent of the damage, above and beyond the emotion of the moment. The quality of the grapes that will be produced will surely be greater than forecasted. At the moment, everything has been burned. But aside from the Nebbiolo, which was only minimally affected and suffered barely even a scratch, most grape varieties have base buds that are still fertile. This means that the plants will lose about 10-15 days in their growing cycle but they will also recoup about 80 percent of their production. You could say that this will actually save us a green harvest. Obviously, it all depends on what happens down the road. But you could say the same thing about every vintage.

Then there is the effect on wine prices. The excessive coverage of the damage (however probable but far from certain) immediately impacts the market by creating higher prices for bulk wines. In turn, this raises fears of shortages. That outlook immediately causes an increase in the price of grapes. That’s good for those selling. Not so good for those buying. It would be much better to wait until the dust settles, so to speak, so that market panic can be avoided.

Lastly, calls for government aid and a tendency toward self-pity have only caused damage to our agricultural economy. Luckily, things are starting to change. But there is still a strong desire to cry out for help in the hope that government institutions (and politicians) will be moved to the point of releasing funds in the form of emergency subsidies for lost agricultural income. But no one knows yet what the final production numbers will be…

These are the main reasons why I am reluctant to take part in this sort of collective apocalyptism.

Giovanni Minetti
CEO
Tenuta Carretta