New York Stories: Vino Italiano, Foley Sq. student protest, Lilia, and a great sommelier at Terroir

Posting in a hurry this morning in Manhattan as I get ready to head back to Texas and my girls. But here are a few highlights from my demi-week in the city…

italian-wine-week-new-yorkMonday I was very fortunate to be included among the guests and tasters at Vino Italiano 2017, the annual Italian Trade Commission wine event. The organizers really did a great job of bringing top wine professionals and writers to New York for the seminars and grand tasting. It was great to catch up with some of the top people working in our filed like Alan Tardi, Meg Houston Maker, and Rebecca Murhpy, and Elin McCoy among many others. There were a bunch of high-profile sommeliers from Texas there as well like June Rodil and Thomas Moësse. Great event and great to catch up with so many talented folks.

jon-pack-photographer-new-yorkOn Tuesday, I connected with my good friend Jon Pack (a fellow italophile and an immensely talented photographer) at the student protest in Foley Sq. downtown.

Please check out these photos from the rally.

New York is the city that produced Trump and the city that loathes him most. I spent ten years living here and feel very connected to the people and the place. Even though I can’t really put my finger on it, there’s something very different about the vibe here.

Seeing the students protest and hearing them chant brought tears to my eyes.

lilia-new-york-restaurant-brooklynOne of the restaurants I was most excited to check out was Lilia in Williamsburg. My friend and client Tony in Houston had raved about his dinner there.

I thought the food was terrific, the wine list compact but spot on, and we even had a celebrity sighting (and I ran into a bunch of my friends there as well). Super fun. Williamsburg is SO different from the years when my band used to hit the stage at 3 a.m. at underground raves.

georgia-harrison-sommelier-new-york-terroirAnother highlight from the trip was interacting with sommelier Georgia Harrison at Terroir (Tribeca). Her wine service was super sharp and her recommendations and pairings were truly brilliant. It’s so remarkable to look back over the years and reflect on how interest in wine has grown and blossomed in our country. Georgia (who shares her name with our oldest daughter!) is the face of a brave new generation of extremely gifted wine professionals. I couldn’t have been more impressed by her knowledge and service.

That’s all the news that’s fit to blog about this morning from midtown Manhattan. Now it’s time to get my butt on a plane and back to Houston…

How I got a table at Rao’s…

raos-raos-creative-commons-frank-pellegrinoAbove: Rao’s restaurant in Spanish Harlem, one of the world’s most coveted reservations (image via Raos.com).

It was before September 11, when I was still working as an editor and wine writer at La Cucina Italiana in New York.

One of my myriad tasks for the magazine was to conduct “celebrity” interviews that appeared in the last pages of the “book” (as they used to say in print-magazine speak). It wasn’t always easy securing A-listers for the column but a call into Rich Kind’s publicist’s office was answered with a counteroffer: if I could get us a table at Rao’s, he would agree to meet me.

In case you are not familiar with the New York institution otherwise known as Rao’s, it’s one of city’s most exclusive restaurants and one of its most coveted reservations. The tables are “owned” by a select group of New York power brokers, insiders, and celebrities. Depending on the frequency determined by their arrangement with the venue, they need to use their table (some, I believe, were once-a-week affairs) or give it to someone else presumably vetted by the table owner. Hands down, it’s one of the hottest tickets in the city.

Doubtful that I would be received, I phoned the restaurant nonetheless. And to my great surprise and delight, not only did proprietor Frank Pellegrino, Jr. answer the phone, but he said he could accommodate me as long as Rich and I came on the date that he had availability.

It was one of the most incredible nights of my life: the perennial Christmas lights (Rao’s is always dressed for the holiday), the celebrities, the sports figures, and the opera singer who performed in the middle of the dining room… I’ll never forget Ronald Perelman (no joke!) asking me if he could bum a cigarette.

At the end of the evening, Frank gave me his home phone number and told me to call him anytime I needed a reservation. I was fortunate enough to visit the restaurant on two other occasions and each time, I would call his house and speak with his wife, who would refer my message. After a day or so, I would get a call back from Frank (these were the days before ubiquitous cell phones and messaging). He would tell me when I could come and needless to say, I cleared my schedule to accommodate his.

Over the weekend, catching up on my New York Times, I read that Frank had passed away. For someone known for turning away some of the most famous and most powerful people in the world (read the obituary to get a better sense of how hard it is to get into Rao’s), he was always the sweetest and warmest host to me and my friends. Just a regular guy with a big heart who happened to own some of the most sought-after tables in the world.

Frank, thanks for everything you did for me. You were a true mensch and a New York original. Rest in peace, friend.

I’m actually on my way to New York today. Buona domenica and see you on the other side…

Cannubi: a small but significant discovery in the origin of the place name

vietti-sale-baroloThe insatiable human curiosity for the origins of place names still baffles me (even though I am as much of a victim of its unyielding grip as the next guy). Chasing the origins can often reveal deeper meaning about the places and the people who inhabit them (and the grapes they grow there). And sometimes, to borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein, the quest for topographic knowledge simply reveals that a name is a name is a name.

Click here to read my post today for my client Tenuta Carretta on the origin of the toponym Cannubi.

Thanks for reading and buon weekend, yall!

Trump’s immigration ban and how it will affect Italian wine in the U.S.

The following is a post I wrote today for the UniSG blog. Trump America’s ban on immigration has already begun to affect the Italian wine trade in the U.S. It’s one of the topics that I’ll be covering in coming weeks and months as the new administration’s immigration and trade policies began to take shape. Thanks for reading.

art-tijuana-wallAbove: A section of the wall that separates the United States and Mexico along the Tijuana-San Diego border where I grew up (photo, “Art on the Tijuana Wall,” via Jonathan McIntosh’s Flickr Creative Commons).

Like many Americans today, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around President Trump’s new ban on immigration from seven “majority-Muslim” countries (in case you are not familiar with Executive Order 13769, check out the Wikipedia entry here; I’ll refrain from sharing my own thoughts and feelings on the ban).

Even in the short time that it has been in effect, the impact on the Italian wine trade in the U.S. has been worrisome.

The biggest issue is that there are many foreign-born individuals who work in the Italian wine business in America and many of them come from countries included in the ban.

In one case, a wine director and leading italo-centric sommelier I know has cancelled his plans to attend Vinitaly — the annual Italian wine trade fair held in Verona. He was born in one of the seven countries included in the President’s list. He has a green card and is here legally. And technically, he should be able to re-enter the country (initially, green-card holders were to be denied re-entry but the administration back-pedaled back on that point). Not only is he afraid that things could change unexpectedly and that his status could be threatened without notice (no one had any idea that President Trump was planning such a severe ban so soon in his presidency), but he is also fearful of the scrutiny to which he might be subjected: There are widespread reports that immigration officers are scanning social media posts by migrants entering the U.S…

Click here to continue reading.

Click here to learn more about the Master’s in Wine Culture program at UniSG where I will be teaching three courses this year.

Taste bubbles (and sing) with me and my bromance Feb. 25-26 in So. Cal: All We Need Is Grapes

See the February 25-26 tasting event details below…

giovanni-arcari-wineFranciacorta winemaker Giovanni Arcari (above, left) and I first met back in 2008 in Erbusco in the heart of his appellation. We immediately hit it off and became fast friends. But it wasn’t until I was invited to speak at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Brescia a few years later that our friendship began to blossom (Brescia is the capital city of Brescia province, which includes the Franciacorta appellation).

Even in those early years of our relationship, we talked about working together. But I was already working with another Franciacorta producer by that point. That partnership was so fruitful that it lead to a two-year campaign that I ran for the Franciacorta consortium.

As our friendship grew deeper and deeper and the years passed, Giovanni and I were disappointed not to be working together. But he always insisted that the appellation came first and he was unabashedly supportive of the program I ran for the bottlers’ association.

In December 2016, after 24 months of blogging, traveling across the U.S. leading tastings, and bringing writers to Franciacorta to raise awareness of this extraordinary appellation and its often spectacular wines, I felt it was finally time to move on. I’ve been thrilled by the results obtained and the full-fledged support that the consortium gave me throughout my tenure there. But it was time to turn the page, as the adage goes.

And where one chapter in life comes to end, another begins: I’m overjoyed to announce that I’m going to be helping out with promoting Giovanni’s wines in the U.S.

giovanni-arcariGiovanni and I are going to kick things off with two tastings this month:

Jaynes Gastropub
San Diego
Saturday, February 25
details to follow

Sotto
Los Angeles
Sunday, February 26
details to follow

I’ll be posting the details in coming days and sharing on social media. But please save the dates if you’re in Southern California then. Thanks in advance for your support!

nico-danesiThere’s so much more of this story to tell: I’ve just taken over Giovanni’s “SoloUvaUSA” English-language blog where I’ll be posting regularly there on our adventures, the wines, and their reception in the U.S.

But I couldn’t publish this post and launch this project without a nod to Giovanni’s better (winemaking) half, Nico Danesi (above, left).

He’s also become a cherished friend over the years and he’s one of the most interesting and intellectually provocative winemakers I’ve ever met (he also commands an encyclopedic knowledge of film and film history, our favorite subjects after Wittgenstein).

He and Giovanni conceived what is known as the SoloUva method, the “just grapes” approach to the production of Franciacorta wines. I’ll be sharing more about the method in upcoming posts on the SoloUvaUSA blog.

Read about the SoloUva method here in the meantime. And check out the song I wrote about it a few years ago here or below.

All we need is grapes! Thanks for your continued and future support. And thanks for believing in me and our crazy dreams.

Giovanni and Nico, I love you guys! Giovanni, see you soon in the U.S.!

Slow Wine in Austin: how does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?

giancarlo-gariglioThe weather couldn’t have been more perfect for the Slow Wine guide tasting in Austin, Texas this week. And the people — organizers, producers, and tasters — couldn’t have been nicer or more excited about this super fun gathering.

I know I’ve said it many times before but I’ll say it again: when I moved to Texas more than eight years ago, I never would have imagined that top markets in our state would become “targets” for media and trade events like this. Between the Benvenuto Brunello tasting in Houston a few weeks ago (the second time the Montalcinesi have come to the Bayou City) and this one (the second time the Slow Wine cats have come to the River City), it would seem that my adoptive state and two cities I have called home are now firmly established as hubs for Italian wine in the U.S.

That’s Slow Wine guide editor Giancarlo Gariglio (left) and Houston-based wine professional Thomas Moësse (right) in the photo above.

There’s talk that the Slow Wine event will come to Houston next year (don’t quote me but it looks likely). And there’s also talk that I’ll be involved in presenting next year’s gathering. I can’t spill the beans just quite yet but there’s some good stuff (and some good wine) in our future here in Space City.

lucia-barzano-husband-barzanoWhat a lovely day to catch up with some of my favorite people in the business. That’s Lucia Barzanò (right) of Mosnel, one of my favorite Franciacorta producers, with her husband Andrea. The nicest people… great wines.

art-fristoeMy good friend Silvano Brescianini of Barone Pizzini (left), another one of my favorite Franciacorta producers. And that’s Art Fristoe, one of the top keyboard players in Texas right now. Super cool cat. He ripped it up at the Elephant Room later that night.

its-italian-market-austinIf I’m not mistaken, these nice folks work at It’s Italian Market in Austin.

austin-bonhomieMore nice people from Bonhomie in Austin.

italy-america-chamber-maurizio-gamberucciMartin Morales (left) and Maurizio Gamberucci from the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce of Texas (one of my clients). Looking sharp, guys!

jerry-reidJerry Reid, a top sales rep for Southern Glazer’s and another one of those good eggs in the wine trade.

rob-formanRob Forman national sales manager for importer Dalla Terra (left), one of the hardest working people in the wine biz.

Thank you to everyone who came out for the event. Thank you for all you do for Italian wine and the Italian wine renaissance in Texas!

See you next year in Houston!

Biondivino in Palo Alto: Ceri Smith’s newest outpost in Silicon Valley

biondivino-palo-alto-addressI have to admit that I felt a little bit giddy yesterday when my UniSG colleague Lydia Itoi pointed out the sprawling Facebook campus to me (Lydia and I will be co-teaching an English-language seminar later this year in the University of Gastronomic Sciences Master’s in Food Culture program in Piedmont).

She, her husband, and I had just met for lunch in the Town & Country Village mall, a stone’s throw from the Stanford campus and the new home for Ceri Smith’s Biondivino wine shop (opened last month).

I first met Ceri nine years ago not long after she had opened her first shop in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood. Since that time, Ceri and her small but immensely influential wine store have become a flash point in the Italian wine renaissance in the U.S.

Name a top Italian winemaker and it’s more than likely that she or he has presented her or his wines at Biondivino. Having one’s wine appear on Ceri’s shelves has become an unabashed point of pride for the Italians tapped by her shop’s Midas finger.

As a lover and advocate of Italian wine, I am thrilled to see her expanding her brand to Silicon Valley where some of the brightest people on earth are trying to figure out what’s going to come next in a crazy mixed-up world increasingly shaped by the unstoppable march of progress.

Ceri’s been one of the world’s greatest advocates of wines produced without and despite technology. It’s no small irony that her shop lies in the shadow of Stanford University, one of the world’s centers for technologic advancement.

Maybe her tastes will inspire them to figure out why uninoculated Sangiovese tastes better (at least to some of us) than the inoculated kind. Or maybe they’ll just mindlessly lap up the delicious offerings that line her walls like grape clusters on a double-Guyot-trained vine.

Either way, Ceri’s expanding university of great Italian wines is sure to make the world a better place.

Congratulations to Ceri and business partner Shelley Ryan for the launch of the new shop!

best-wine-shop-palo-alto

At A16 in SF, the battle of the volcanoes rages…

cantine-del-notaioWhat a great night and dinner at A16 yesterday!

Between the Cantine del Notaio dinner/tasting and Benanti dinner/tasting, there was a WHOLE lot of great wine being poured. I LOVED the rosé from Aglianico that the folks from Cantine del Notaio poured my table (above).

And I loved what manager Patti Robison told me: “It’s the battle of the volcanoes,” she said giddily, referring to the volcanic soils of Mt. Vulture (Notaio) and Mt. Etna (Benanti).

I’ve never had a bad meal at A16 but last night’s dinner was really outta sight, especially the acqua pazza seafood medley, which went great with the rosé. Those are the pumpkin gnocchi below, also delicious and light on the palate.

How many years has A16 been open? I’ve never seen it anything less than completely packed and I’ve never seen the staff skip a beat — ever. What a great place… and it just keeps getting better.

Thank you, Shelley and Patti, for everything you do for Italian wine. Last night was just super!

pumpkin-gnocchi-recipe-best

RossoBlu, the new LA restaurant where I’ll be writing the wine list, coming online, and a meeting with an Italian wine hero…

rossoblu-new-restaurants-los-angeles-laPosting in a hurry this morning as I board a flight from LAX to Oakland. I’m heading to the Bay Area to attend the Slow Wine tasting there today and to catch up with my SF wine peeps.

That’s a shot (above) of the facade at RossoBlu, the new downtown LA restaurant where I’ll be co-authoring the wine list this spring. The list will be pan-Italian with a focus on Lambrusco and Italian sparkling. So psyched for that.

rossoblu-interior-photography-photographIt was really exciting to tour the new space yesterday and see the progress they’ve made on the buildout. Things are on a fast-track now as we are preparing for a March launch of the restaurant.

That’s a shot of downtown LA (below) that I took from the second floor of the building where a high-profile film production company is going to build an screening room and small studio. Cool, right?

downtown-los-angelesChef Steve, it’s so exciting to be part of this project and dream of yours. How many years have we been talking about this? 20+? Thanks for making me part of it.

In other news…

I finally had the chance to break bread with one of my Italian wine heroes, importer and arbiter of Italian wines Brian Larky (below, left), founder and owner of Dalla Terra. We shared a great dinner last night with chef Steve at Sotto (Steve’s ode to southern Italian cookery where I wrote the original wine list and where I still consult on the wine program, now in its sixth year).

Brian is a pioneer and a visionary of Italian wine in the U.S. and he’s also one of the coolest people I’ve ever met in the trade. A “real human being,” a mensch as we say in Jewish. In a business where there are so many egomaniacal jerks (sad but true), it’s so great to meet someone of his stature and station and learn what a wonderful, warm and lovely person he is.

Brian, thank you for coming to meet us at Sotto last night and the spectacular wines you shared (Selvapiana 1990! Holy cow!). And thank you for everything that you have done and do for Italian wine. I’m so glad we all made time for that and can’t wait for the next glass we share…

Now it’s time to get my but on another plane! Wish me speed.

brian-larky

Bentornato Brunello: the Brunello vintage debut event returned to Houston last week

best-brunello-tastingWhen I moved to Texas more than eight years ago, I never would have imagined that Houston would become a hub for the fine wine trade. But less than a decade later, the city has established itself as one of our country’s top destinations for fine wine events.

The allure of Houston was on display last week when nearly 50 Brunello producers gathered in downtown Houston for Benvenuto Brunello (Welcome Brunello), the annual tasting of their new releases. The event should have been dubbed bentornato Brunello or welcome back Brunello: it was the second time in four years that the organizers brought the traveling show to the Bayou City.

Here’s my coverage of the event today for the Houston Press.

One of the things that struck me about the seminar and tasting was how much great wine is produced in Montalcino and how many estates remain undiscovered by the general wine media and consumers at large.

Wines from estates Paradisone Colle degli Angeli, Sassodisole, and Corte dei Venti were all great discoveries for me (the old-school Sassodisole in particular).

Thank you, Brunello, for coming back to our city. I know that the standing-room-only crowd at the seminar was well worth the trip.