MASKS will be REQUIRED today at Houston’s first in-person wine trade tasting since the pandemic began.

A photo from the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Taste of Italy Houston trade show in 2018 (image via the IACC Facebook.

When the Miami-based event planning company I.E.E.M. first began discussing today’s Maremma Consortium trade tasting in Houston with the Italy-America of Chamber of Commerce, one thing was clear to everyone involved. This gathering would be Houston’s first in-person wine trade tasting in over a year, everyone on that first Zoom call acknowledged, and all parties — including attendees and staff — would need to make safety protocols a key element in the event.

When roughly 30 Houston wine professionals meet later this morning at a once popular events space, masks will be required (except when tasting) and each taster will be seated at their own table to ensure social distancing of a minimum of six feet.

It’s important to underline the fact that masks and social distancing will be mandatory: even though our state’s rollback of the mask mandate doesn’t officially take place until Wednesday of this week, many Houstonians — at least the barflies — shed their masks and began ignoring safety measures this weekend.

Once the seminar and guided tasting portion of the event have been completed, the walk-around tasting of roughly 40 wines will be divided into four tasting stations, each with a professional sommelier. Tasters will be assigned a color (using a poker chip) and then will be asked to observe social distance while tasting with their group at their assigned station. They will then be asked to follow their group to the next station. The systems is intended to avoid logjams at each station and ensure social distancing.

I’ll be the featured speaker and moderator of today’s tasting. And I’m also one of the organizers through my affiliation with the chamber. It’s not without some trepidation, tempered by hope and faith in human nature, that I’ll pull the cork on that first bottle of wine this morning. But the overwhelming response in the run-up to the gathering has been wonderfully positive and heartwarming. People want to get out and taste, we learned to our surprise when we first announced the date. And they’re ready to do what it takes to make it safe.

There’s no doubt in my mind that it will be a momentous occasion for all concerned.

Today, we will also spend a moment in silence remembering our colleague, beloved sommelier Thomas Moësse who died unexpectedly last month.

We will also take a moment to observe International Women’s Day, which is today.

And in case you hadn’t already seen it, the IACC is hosting its second-annual Taste of Italy Houston Virtual Trade Fair next week and throughout the month. It’s a great model for tasting safely: the food samples and wines are delivered directly to the taster’s home or office and then the IACC coordinates virtual meetings between trade members and the producers.

Please visit this link for information on who’s presenting and how to sign up.

Fabio Sireci’s astounding wines from Feudo Montoni deserve our attention.

Above: an aerial shot of the legendary Feudo Montoni farm in Cammarata township (Agrigento province), Sicily. Image courtesy of the estate.

Last night 80+ guests in Houston logged into Zoom for a virtually guided wine tasting with Fabio Sireci and Melissa Muller, legacy owners and grape growers at the historic Feudo Montoni farm in the central Sicilian mountains.

It was one of the most thrilling events in the weekly virtual wine dinner series hosted by my client Roma restaurant. That was thanks in no small part to Fabio’s wonderfully aphoristic way of talking about his wines and land. The brio of the evening was also owed tale’s from chef and cookery book author Melissa’s incredible journey: first falling in love with Fabio’s wines at her own restaurants in New York and ultimately marrying him in what is as close to a fairytale as you can get (a double rainbow appeared the day they first met on the grounds of the estate, no joke).

But beyond these two lovely, thoughtful people and the verve with which they talk about their wines and farm, the wines were what really stole the show. There is a clarity and vibrance in Fabio’s winemaking that few of his peers can even aspire to.

The Montoni farm is one of Sicily’s most unique properties. It lies inland in the mountains — not on the coast or towering above the Mediterranean on the slopes of a volcano. The vast estate is encircled by a ring formed by its seemingly endless wheat fields. Because of his vineyards’ isolation from the rest of the island, they are protected from contamination like chemical residue from commercial farms or biotype corruption (we spoke at length last night about his distinctive Nero d’Avola clone, developed through centuries of selection massale).

The high-altitude Grillo, a grape Fabio’s family has grown for generations, was deeply mineral in character, with notes of white flowers and underripe stone fruit.

Tracie and I were both floored by the rosé from Nerello, another grape that Fabio’s family has grown for generations, long before the variety became trendy. It was super fresh but also lean and razor-focused in its red and berry fruits. Delicious. And I loved Fabio’s take on how Nerello is a grape that doesn’t know whether it’s red or white (much more discussion needed on this; really interesting).

The showstopper was the cement-vinified Nero d’Avola. Fabio’s biotype makes for wines slightly lighter in color and more lithe in the glass than most wines from this variety. But it was the wine’s freshness and “transparency” of fruit (rich but not overly ripe red fruits) that really wowed Tracie and me. What an incredible wine! And that was just his entry-tier Nero d’Avola!

“Fabio says that tonight the experience was unique,” wrote Melissa after our call. “And the sensation is that the world is small and it felt as if we were all in the same house chatting and tasting wine together. The miracle of the wine is the creation of smiles and friendships and union in our marvelous world.”

It was a truly enchanting evening. And it reminded me, all over again, why I love Italian wine and why I love what I do for a living.

If you’ve never tasted these wines, search them out. Grab your favorite Verga novella and enjoy them slowly, patiently, and quietly. Savor every last drop.

Italy has its first Master of Wine: Gabriele Gorelli from Montalcino.

Above: Gabriele Gorelli tasting in Chablis (image via his Facebook).

Last week, the Institute of the Masters of Wine announced the names of its 10 newest members, including Gabriele Gorelli (above), the first Italian Master of Wine.

The qualification was conferred after Gabriele presented his thesis on “Quercetin precipitation in Brunello di Montalcino. What are the organic fining options to prevent this phenomenon occurring in bottle?” (Quercetin is a flavanol that can cause wine to become hazy when it takes solid form.)

Born and bred in Montalcino, Gabriele comes from a family steeped in grape-growing, winemaking, and the culture of wine.

He is also the co-founder of one of Italy’s highest-profile marketing and branding firms whose clients include some of Italy’s top wineries.

According to his biography on the institute’s website, he also has his own wine- and restaurant-focused marketing consulting company.

The fact that Italy has its first Master of Wine is not insignificant. Many wine industry observers and trade members have lamented the under-representation of Italian wines and wineries in the curricula adopted by institutional wine educators. It’s no secret that Italy is often considered — wrongly — to be a second-class citizen in the commonly embraced caste system of international wines.

The fact that he is a favorite son of Montalcino, home to one of Italy’s most highly regarded luxury wine brands, has many Italians cheering for him and his new title.

The news of his qualification was first reported in Italy by WineNews.it.

How Etna counters preconceived notions about fine wine.

Above: Mt. Etna, an active volcano. Note the spontaneous vegetation around the crater (image via Adobe Stock).

“Last week’s eruptions were really spectacular,” said Etna grape grower Roberto Muccifuori yesterday. “But what people don’t realize that they were just a handful of the many eruptions that happen each year.”

The recent seismic events, he noted, got a lot of attention because they were particularly dramatic. (Disclosure: I was interviewing him for his importer, one of my clients. See the post and interview here, including his notes on the 2021 vintage. Roberto works for the Terrazze dell’Etna winery there.)

“The immediate impact of the eruptions is that it scatters ashes” across the appellation, he explained. And that makes the soil remarkably fertile because “the ashes distribute abundant nutrients in the soils ”

The resulting fecundity helps to keep the vines healthy, he told me.

“There aren’t studies to back this up,” he said, “but most believe that the excellent health of the plants helps to prevent vine disease.”

As a result, growers don’t need to use fungicides as liberally as their counterparts in other appellations.

His observations brought to mind something that the noted Italian consultant Maurizio Gily once told me about his experience on Etna.

“The earth is so fertile there that it is teeming with vegetation,” he said as he remarked on how atypical that was for a fine wine appellation.

As I was chatting with Roberto yesterday, it occurred to me: most of the great appellations of the world are known for their nutrient-poor soil. In a time before the current international renaissance in fine wine, growers generally and historically planted grapes in places where other crops can’t easily be grown. When vines are nutrient- and water-challenged, they attain more vigor and produce richer-tasting fruit.

The Piedmont usage of the word bricco is a great example of this. Today, many wine professionals know the term as site-specific designation reserved for top wines. It actually means crag, in other words “a steep or precipitous rugged rock” (Oxford English Dictionary). In literature from that era, Piedmontese writers refer to bricchi (pl.) as barren, depressing hilltops where nothing can be grown. A far cry from the delicious Bric dël Fiasc we drink thanks to Paolo Scavino today!

Similarly, if you talk to the older folks in Proseccoland, they’ll tell you that before the Prosecco boom of the 1980s, Glera grapes were planted only where the soils were too nutrient-challenged to grow other crops. Today, Prosecco is one of the richest appellations in the world. But back in the 1960s, as Italy was experiencing its first post-war boom, people fled the region because of the agriculturally hostile landscape. Cartizze didn’t become a “cru” designation for Prosecco because its soils are magical. It became a top spot for growing Prosecco because you can’t grow anything else there.

Soldera (first) and Gaja (later) famously planted their Montalcino vineyards, to cite another example, in one of the most nutrient-poor areas of the appellation. The families who were already farming grapes there knew full well that other crops weren’t viable on their land.

Etna counters this model by virtue of the fact that its soils are incredibly fertile, something that Maurizio Gily was alluding to in his observations from his time on the ground there. We have all tasted astounding wines from Etna, with incredible depth, complexity, and nuance.

Frank Cornelissen once told me that the reason why he planted on Etna was because he couldn’t find anywhere else in Europe where the soils hadn’t been compromised by chemically based commercial farming. But could it be that the wines of Etna are so compelling in part because they challenge our preconceived notions of where the world’s greatest fine wines can be raised?

Help feed hungry winter weather-affected Houstonians: give to the Houston Food Bank.

A number of friends from across the U.S. and Italy have written asking us how they can help us during the ongoing extreme weather, electric grid failure, and now water shortage in Houston.

My recommendation is to give to the Houston Food Bank. I’ve done a lot of events with them over the years and they do an amazing job. Right now, people simply don’t have enough food to eat: between the electric and cold temperature crises this week, people haven’t been able to get out of their freezing homes to shop for food and now we are facing food shortages because of shipping challenges (it’s an accumulation of things, including icy weather, gas shortages, and electric outages).

Here’s a New York Times list of resources for helping to feed people across Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.

The Houston Food Bank will get food and water into people’s hands right away (they were open again as of yesterday, at least according to social media posts).

Tracie, the girls, and I have had power for the last two days and our water pressure is just starting to come back. And we’re praying for no busted pipes but so far so good. We could all use a hot shower but we managed to make through. Not everyone has been so fortunate.

Thanks for all the notes, wishes, thoughts, and prayers. Our children, ages seven and nine, have now lived through Hurricane Harvey, Tropical Storm Imelda, the global coronavirus pandemic, and now a human-made crisis.

Governor Abbott, you can blame this on windmills, you can blame it on Democrats, but there’s no doubt about this: it happened on your watch, man. People across Texas have died because of your administration’s ineptitude, negligence, and sheer callousness (spurred and cheered on by a Republican-dominated state government). Why is it that the buck never stops with you? I love living in Texas, I love being a Texan, I love raising our children in Texas. We deserve better from our elected officials.

Parzen family update from Houston: power, heat, and phones finally back. We are cold but okay.

Parzen family update: we have been without power, heat, phones, or water for the last 24 hours. Temperatures were in the 10s last night. Power, cell. service, and heat just came back on about an hour ago. No water yet. Last night was brutal but we all slept together in the girls room (with the dogs and every last blanket in the house). Not sure how long we’ll have power today but we have it for the moment (people are getting power back only to lose it again, at least that’s what we’re seeing on social media). NEIGHBORS: we have water and food and heat for anyone who needs or wants to warm up while we still have power. Thanks to everyone for all the messages, thoughts, and wishes. Texas needs the prayers! And thanks to everyone who is waiting on emails and work from me. I’ll be in touch soonest. Hoping everyone is safe, healthy, and warm. And big shouts-out to the girls who been real troopers throughout their umpteenth natural disaster. 

The Pope’s vino: Vatican will produce estate-grown wine. Vineyards to be planted this spring.

Above: the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo in Castel Gandolfo township outside of Rome (image via Adobe Stock).

According to a post published Friday by the Italian wine industry news portal WineNews.it, the Vatican will plant two hectares to vine this spring on its Castel Gandolfo estate outside Rome, the Pope’s official summer residence.

Although the grape varieties remain unknown, the project will be overseen by top Italian enologist Riccardo Cotarella, one of Italy’s most prolific winemakers and one of the country’s earliest “flying winemakers.”

This is the first time that the Vatican will grow grapes on one of its estates for the production of its own wine, write the authors of the report. The wine won’t be available for sale, they note, but it will be used for sacramental purposes and will be given as gifts.

Let’s be honest about the 2017 vintage in northern Italy: a breathtakingly candid dispatch from a Barolo icon.

Above: Barolo Castle, photo taken January 17, 2020, on my last trip to Italy before the pandemic shut down global travel.

In an era when truth and fact seem to have become relative terms, it was remarkable to read the breathtakingly candid assessment of the 2017 vintage in Barolo circulated last week by legacy grower and winemaker Alberto Cordero, the current generation of the historic Cordero di Montezemolo winery in La Morra (disclosure: I contribute to his importer’s blog).

An “intense frost… hit not only Piedmont but practically all of Europe,” in April of that year, he wrote, “causing extensive damage in every wine-growing area from Tuscany upwards [northward]. One of the largest and most devastating frosts ever recorded.”

He includes in his a report a photograph showing one of the affected vineyards on his family’s historic estate.

In its entire history, he writes, his family had never seen “damage so huge from spring frosts.”

His notes hardly jibe with the notes issued by the Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba, Langhe, and Dogliani consortium.

“The 2017 vintage growing year will be remembered,” wrote the authors of the report, “for its hot climate, and in particular sparse rainfall.”

There was “some frost damage,” they added, “though in the Langhe only the bottoms of the valleys and cooler slopes were affected.”

Alternate facts?

Italian wine trade observers generally concur that the 2017 vintage represents a climatic anomaly, even for a decade when climate change delivered a string of extraordinarily extreme weather events.

Above: 2017 Barolo in cask at the Cordero di Montezemolo winery.

“2017 – Hail, Frost & Heat…,” wrote Antonio Galloni on Vinous: “Whereas 2016 was an extraordinarily benign year, pretty much anything that could happen did happen in 2017.”

The editors of Jancis Robinson’s site have called the vintage “fairly dismal.”

“The 2017 vintage for Piedmont was difficult, to say the least,” wrote the editors of WineSearcher.com.

In November 2017, shortly after harvest had been completed, one of the consortium’s most prominent and politically active members wrote that the Piedmontese hadn’t seen such an extreme frost in half a century (I don’t want to name the winemaker, whose report still appears on their blog, for the sake of not pitting them against the growers and bottlers assocation).

Many years ago, I had the remarkable opportunity to ask one of Piedmont most celebrated growers about their impressions of Langhe vintages stretching back to the 1950s (again, for the sake of comity, I don’t want to name names).

They talked about how market concerns have often compromised vintage assessments. This was especially true, they said, in the 1970s and 80s, before the time of global warming, when Piedmont vignaioli were lucky to have one great vintage per decade, let alone a string of good if not exceptional harvests (a trend that began in the 1990s).

It wasn’t so long ago that a celebrated Langhe cooperative created a stir when it reclassified its 2006 cru-designate wines. The vintage was called “promising” at the time. But the release of the wines coincided with the peak of the financial crisis. The episode, controversial in some quarters, was the inverse of what typically happens: the bottler talked down the vintage because they wanted to justify the decrease in price.

Traditionally, February is the month when Italian wine pundits begin publishing their vintage notes for the year’s releases. And we should start seeing the 2017s from Langhe in the U.S. by May or so.

Some of the wines will be good, others very good, and some even exceptional. These days, it’s rare that a winery releases wines it doesn’t like (and given the technology available to those who choose to use it, it’s challenging to make bad wine).

In the case of the Langhe 2017 releases, there will just be less wine. As a famous Tuscan grower once noted, there are no bad vintages; there are just vintages when we make less wine.

It’s inspiring to read the brutally honest words of a grower like Alberto. Maybe it’s because he has a longer-term perspective that allows him to see this anomalous vintage as just one piece in a much larger puzzle.

Or maybe it’s because he knows that honesty is a key element in authenticity. This is especially true at a time when nearly everything in the world’s “constitution of knowledge” has come into question.

I applaud Alberto (who’s a really nice and extremely thoughtful guy, btw) for the candor and the earnestness. His report kind of reminds me of a “rare menu that tells the truth.” Please pass the orange beef.

As Italy lifts dine-in restrictions, restaurant owners (and winemakers) see glimmer of hope.

Above: a classic Italian trattoria in Florence (image via Adobe Stock).

“Let me call you later,” wrote an Italian winemaker in a text message around 1:30 p.m. Italian time today. “I’m eating lunch in a restaurant for the first time since dining rooms were closed three months ago.”

In all but five Italian regions, restaurants were allowed to open again today, Monday, February 1. In some cases, like Lombardy in Northern Italy where said winemaker lives, dine-in service has been prohibited (intermittently depending on the city and/or province) for the last there months and beyond. And take-away service was only allowed until 6 p.m.

Restaurateurs and café owners will still be required to close their dining rooms at 6 p.m. nightly, although they will be able to continue take-away until 10 p.m. and home delivery service is allowed 24 hours a day where available.

The re-openings are welcome news to restaurant owners, winemakers and grape growers, and brewers alike. Especially in the case of small-scale wineries, independent regional restaurants are a primary outlet for sales. The lifting of restrictions will undoubtedly lead to a much-needed boost in orders. Restrictions on tasting rooms and independent wine shops, some of which are still in place, have also slowed recovery for winemakers.

With most of Italy now under “yellow zone” restrictions,

– customers can consume food and beverages inside from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m.;
– take-away food and beverages may be sold from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m.;
– restaurants may still fulfill take-away orders from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.;
– but beverage take-away from cafés (without restaurant service) and wine shops is prohibited after 6 p.m;
– delivery service is allowed 24 hours a day.

“I walked into the restaurant,” said the winemaker, who was seated in a dining room together with the family of his business partner, “and I told them to make me whatever they wanted. Anything. I just wanted to sit down and enjoy my meal without thinking about anything else.”

“Crisis in the dark”: Italian government collapse exacerbates wine industry challenges.

Above: Palazzo Montecitorio in Rome, seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies (counterpart to the U.S. House of Representatives). Image via Adobe Stock.

Although it wasn’t entirely unexpected, Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s announcement yesterday that he would resign set into motion what the Italian media have called a grave “crisis in the dark” (a reference to the political turmoil of the 1970s when the country faced a complete economic meltdown).

The collapse of the Italian government comes as the country faces cascading health and economic challenges.

(See the links above for the New York Times coverage.)

For Italian winemakers, many of whom are relying on domestic sales to keep their businesses afloat as exports have dropped precipitously, the political infighting couldn’t come at a worse moment. With nearly all of the country under lockdown, Italian restaurants and wine shops are required to shutter their doors at 6 p.m. every evening. As a result, major supermarket chains and other national retail outlets, which are allowed remain open in the evening, are seeing a boost in sales. But because the chain retailers source their wines primarily from larger wineries, this shift leaves smaller estates, who depend on boutique shops and independent restaurants, without a means to sell their products.

Earlier this month, Andrea Terraneo, president of the Italian association of wineshop owners (Vinarius), sent an open letter to prime minister Conte and his health and economic ministers asking him to amend the restrictions crippling the independent wine retailer industry. The “discriminatory” 6 p.m. cut-off, he wrote, has led to a 30 percent drop in sales in a sector already decimated by the pandemic fallout.

The restrictions add to the woes of a hospitality industry already besieged by the pandemic.

For small-scale growers, the government collapse only exacerbates the economic pain felt across the nation. Tasting room closures and restrictions had already shut off one of their main sales channels. And now, with the government on hold, there is little hope that the restrictions will be lifted in the near future.

If Conte or one of his rivals (namely, the self-described “Machiavellian” Matteo Renzi), are unable to form a new coalition, it’s possible a technical government will be installed to oversee the country’s current covid response and the management of forthcoming financial aid from the European Union — another crucial element in the wine industry’s recovery. Although unlikely, snap elections would take months to be implemented.