Houston: Greek wine city, U.S.A. (just don’t tell the Big Wine Police)

From the department of “the Ph. in Ph.D.”…

evan-turner-greek-wineA funny thing happened the other day on my way to everyone’s favorite wine bar in Houston.

Well, it actually happened after I had sat down with roughly 30 other Houston wine professionals for a seminar and tasting of Greek wines with Canadian Master Sommelier Élyse Lambert and Houston restaurateur and Greek wine expert Evan Turner. They were presenting 12 Greek wines at a Houston Sommelier Association gathering (a twice-a-month affair where collegiality and liberal views on wine trump the Texas status quo).

The wines had been selected by them and shipped to Houston especially for the event. I’ve tasted a lot of Greek wine ever since the Greek wine wave hit the U.S. about 6 years ago, landing first in NYC. But I only knew three of the producers in the flight.

I could feel a bead of sweat roll down the side of my face as my fellow tradespeople and I tasted through the excellent pours: was it just a matter of minutes, I thought to myself, that the Big Wine Police would burst in like the Untouchables and arrest us all for our adventurous and Hellenic sensorial spirit? None of the wines on offer came through the major two channels of wine distribution in our state. Goodness gracious! It might as well have been a Planned Parenthood meeting where condoms were distributed!

Luckily, the Big Wine Gestapo was busy investigating reports of sommeliers picking their noses while decanting Screaming Beagle.

Oh, and that funny thing that happened, you ask, on the way to the forum agora?

christina-boutariWe must have been three wines into the flight when I received an email from my friend Christina Boutari, above, left, with Evan at his excellent restaurant Helen Greek Food and Wine.

“I’m in Houston and I am pouring our wines at Helen from 3-6,” she wrote. “Please come and taste with me.”

Boutari is one of the few top Greek producers who make it to Texas through government-sanctioned channels and so I knew it was safe to connect with her.

The 2007 Santorini Reserve Kallisti (in the first photo, above, a current release for this legacy estate) was thoroughly stunning, with nuanced layers of dried fruit and nutty character. Wow, what a wine! And so lovely to see Christina, one of her country’s greatest ambassadors for its superb (and value-driven) wines. She’s in town to pour her family’s wines this weekend at Houston’s Original Greek Festival, which turns 50 this year.

When I first moved to Texas eight years ago, I never would have imagined that Houston would become an epicenter for Greek fine wine in this country. In the face of our state’s wine oligarchy, Houston continues to expand its spirit of wine freedom, corrupting our wine youth in the best ways imaginable.

Buon weekend a tutti! Thanks for being here and thinking subversive wine thoughts. And in case you missed it, check out Louis Menand’s excellent essay on Karl Marx in this week’s New Yorker. “Marx is a warning about what can happen when people defy their parents and get a Ph.D.,” he writes.

Is 2006 Barolo/Barbaresco over- or underrated? Ten years gone, experts weigh in…

From the department of “then as it was, then again it will be…”*

grape-harvest-italy-2016-piedmontLast month on my Facebook, I shared a post on Barolo/Barbaresco numerology by my friend and client Giovanni Minetti, CEO of Tenuta Carretta, a veteran and homegrown Langhe tradesman.

In it he ponders the question of vintages that end in the number 6. Will 2016, he asks, break the cycle of less-than-extraordinary vintages that end in 6?

The post was met with disbelief and protest by some of my favorite Nebbiolo collectors. And today, I’ve excerpted their comments and Giovanni’s response on the Tenuta Carretta blog (check it out).

I remember all to well when Produttori del Barbaresco decided not to release its single-vintage wines from the 2006 vintage. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether the decision was based on market factors (in 2010 the financial crisis was at its zenith); or whether the growers didn’t feel the harvest was up to snuff (here’s my post from 2010).

I haven’t even begun to touch the 2006 wines that I put down in my cellar at the time. Maybe it’s time to open a few. With ten years gone, only time will tell.

Check out thoughts on the 2006 vintage, including Giovanni’s response, here.

* Play it loud.

Global warming no hoax for Texas fine wine grape growers (my piece this month for Houstonia magazine)

Please note that I’ve changed the time for my Franciacorta Real Story tasting in Las Vegas on Monday, October 17. The new time: 1-3 p.m. I hope to see you there! Thanks for your support…

texas-wine-countryIt all began with a press release that was as hyperbolic as it was surreal: “TEXAS FINE WINE PREDICTS 2016 HARVEST TO YIELD HIGH QUALITY FRUIT, WITH RECORD CROP FOR SOME VARIETIES.”

After the heavy 2016 spring rains and biblically proportioned flooding in central and southeast Texas, it seemed unlikely to me that fine wine growers here — especially in the Texas Hill Country — were to be blessed with a “record crop” of anything, let alone “high quality fruit.”

But when said adjuration reached the desk of one of my editors at Houstonia — Houston’s popular and editorially (as opposed to advertorially) driven monthly lifestyle magazine — she asked me to investigate in earnest.

Skeptical but undaunted, I swiftly learned that Texan fine wine grape growers had been spared a dreaded spring frost this year (although late spring cold temperatures did diminish yields in central Texas). But for a second year in a row, late April and Memorial Day rains had left a devastating wake of rot and mildew there. In southeast Texas, where growers were also afflicted by severe precipitation, a vineyard manager and winemaker for one of the state’s more critically acclaimed wineries told me she had lost her entire crop to canker disease.

When I started speaking to Texas High Plains growers, the narrative wasn’t as bleak. None of them spoke of “record yields” of “high quality” grapes. But across the board, they told me they were expecting a healthy crop thanks in part to the fact that spring weather had been mostly favorable. (Contrary to popular belief, the biggest challenge for Texas wine growers in’t the state’s hot summers, which most compensate for by acidifying their wines, a common practice here. The greater challenge faced by growers here is the late spring frost which can arrest the vegetative cycle of the vines.)

But then something remarkable happened. During a conversation with one of the state’s legacy growers and leading winemakers, he told me that he had grubbed up the Bordeaux varieties his father had planted. “Global warming,” he told me, was the reason that cooler-climate grape no longer delivered the quality they once did, he said. His winery was working more and more with Spanish grape varieties, he explained, and he was thrilled with the results.

Ding, ding, ding… Intrigued by this nugget and nudged by my editor, I contacted a couple of climate change experts at Texas A&M, including the Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon (wow, with all due respect to my adoptive and most beloved state, what a lonely job that must be!).

In the end, the story I filed for the October issue of Houstonia isn’t just another Texas cheerleader piece for local winemaking (sadly, there are way too many of those).

Click here to check it out.

Thanks to my editors who believed in the article and who gave me the extra time to flesh it out properly. And thanks to all the Texas winemakers who spoke so candidly and openly about the challenges they face. My exchanges with them really did a lot to restore my faith in the Texas wine industry.

To publicists who write and issue such cockamamie releases (I can’t think of a better word than cockamamie to describe the one in question; look it up and you will see what I mean): you are doing a disservice to the honest and earnest winemakers here by creating false expectations and disseminating misinformation. In the end, there turned out to be a great story there. A story very much worth telling…

Las Vegas, Monday, October 17: please come out and taste with me

lake-iseo-water-sportsAbove: Lake Iseo as seen from the south, a photo snapped earlier this week while I was still visiting my beloved Franciacorta.

Just time enough for a quickie today as I post airborne above that misunderstanding otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean. Thank you, United wifi, however spotty!

Please come taste Franciacorta with me on Monday, October 17 in Las Vegas and please help spread the word if you are so inclined.

Thanks for all your support and see you on the other side.

Franciacorta Real Story Tasting
Monday, October 17

3-4:30 p.m.
Las Vegas
Google map

RSVP is not required by encouraged so that I can get a head count. Please shoot me an email by clicking here if you plan to attend.

Goodbye Franciacorta, goodbye Mr. Chips…

lake-iseo-lago-hotelsAbove: a view of Lake Iseo from its eastern coast. The lake is one of the Franciacorta appellation’s defining geographic features.

It’s a bittersweet goodbye as I head out of Brescia province this morning — the last time I will visit Franciacorta in 2016.

The “Franciacorta Real Story” social media and media outreach campaign I’ve been running for the Franciacorta consortium for the last two years has been one of the most rewarding and one of the most challenging experiences of my professional life.

Last week’s trip to Franciacorta with a group of American wine writers and buyers was truly exhilarating. It was wonderful to share my passion for the appellation with them and watch them discover the wines for themselves.

And it’s been amazing to interact with so many of my wine writing colleagues and American restaurant professionals who have taken time out to wrap their minds around Franciacorta’s place in the panorama of classic-method wines in the world today.

I’m really proud of the work I’ve done for the consortium and I am confident that we have significantly raised awareness of the appellation, its growers, and its wines among U.S. wine professionals, wine critics, and consumers today.

To put it euphemistically, not everyone in the consortium has appreciated the work I’ve done. As with any project of this scope and nature, it was to be expected.

But I am a firm believer that a rising tide lifts all boats on Lake Iseo…

Whether or not our campaign will continue in 2017, I can’t say. But I am eternally grateful to all the producers and growers who have supported and participated in the work we’ve done together.

No matter where you stand, there’s no doubt that only good can come from it.

I hope it’s only an arrivederci: but for now, goodbye Franciacorta… goodbye Mr. Chips…

Donkey steaks, a great new wine from Berlucchi, and the best group I’ve ever led, period…

donkey-steakPosting on the fly this morning as we head out for our last day of tasting in Franciacorta with a group of writers and buyers I’ve been leading as part of my Franciacorta Real Story campaign for the Franciacorta consortium.

That’s the donkey chop and horse steak we were served last night at the super fun and aptly named Ristorante Romantica in Passirano village in the eastern part of the Franciacorta appellation.

Our group had a blast, thanks again, Elena and Ale! Really loved your place. I’m looking forward to the next time.

berlucchi-franciacortaWe had made our way to the restaurant after being hosted by Cristina and Arturo Ziliani at Guido Berlucchi.

My team was blown away by this new Brut Nature from the estate. It’s just being released in Italy this year and hopefully it will make its way to the U.S. Really worth checking out.

The Zilianis were SO much fun to taste and chat with. And their brio followed us through the night. Cristina and Arturo, that was such a great visit and the wines showed beautifully. Thank you and looking forward to the next time we get to connect (in Texas please!).

wine-press-tripOur day had started with a lovely morning tasting with winemaker Giulio Barzanò (at the head of the table) at Mosnel. This trip has been all about wrapping our minds around sugar and its role in the sparkling winemaking process. Giulio, the dialog and interaction were as fascinating as they were illuminating. Yesterday’s tasting was a highlight among a week of spectacular visits.

From the left, clockwise, that’s Jeremy D., Nico, Jessica, Giulio, Marta (from the consortium), and Becca.

Guys, this has truly been the best trip I’ve ever led (and I’ve led some pretty cool ones). I get so lonely on the road being away from my family but the friendship, camaraderie, solidarity, and professionalism this time around have been an inspiration.

Jeremy D., it’s just too crazy (and uncanny) that you and I know all the words to the Producers and every other song in the Mel Brooks’ canon (apologies to the other guests at our agriturismo for our midnight concert!).

Time to head out for our last day of tasting… please stay tuned for more dispatches from the FC!

Franciacorta quickie highlights day 2…

ronco-calinoJust some quickie photo highlights from my day in Franciacorta leading a group of American writers and buyers for my Franciacorta consortium gig.

Whenever I’m here, it always feels like I’m surrounded by sensual images ready to be gobbled up by my camera’s lens.

That’s the superb rosé we tasted this afternoon with Lara Radici at Ronco Calino. Wow, what a wine and what a gem of an estate… super cool people…

how-do-i-get-invited-on-wine-tripsThat’s our group at Ronco Calino. It’s such a fun group and we’ve been really enjoying the time together. It’s nice when that happens!

bella-vista-wineryI was so stoked to finally get to Bellavista. Really interesting visit on many levels… But especially cool to get to taste and chat with winemaker Mattia Vezzola. Mucho groovy to get his insights into how to approach, taste, and understand Franciacorta. I can’t wait to get a post up about that.

We also had a lovely tasting with my friend Marta Piovani at Barone Pizzini, where I used to blog before the consortium thingy. Marta, that was so wonderful to see you! Thanks again… The wines were awesome!

As Gene Wilder would say, so much time and so little to say… stay tuned…

Whole lotta Franciacorta right there, folks! Our sparkling journey begins…

vittorio-moretti-ricci-curbastro-riccardoThat’s legacy Franciacorta winemaker Riccardo Ricci-Curbastro (Ricci-Curbastro, far left) and Franciacorta consortium president and legacy winemaker Vittorio Moretti (Bellavista/Contadi Castaldi, far right) at the first tasting and cellar visit for team #ClassicMethod2016, a group I’m leading as part of my Franciacorta Real Story campaign for the Franciacorta consortium.

Two heavyweights in the world of fine sparkling wine today.

Jeremy D. (middle left) and Nico (right), together with Jessica, Becca, and me, will be traveling around the appellation all week, meeting with producers and tasting their wines as we wrap our minds around what Franciacorta was, is, and will be.

It was super cool to chat with Riccardo today at his winery. His knowledge of Franciacorta history and perspective are boundless. His son Gualberto led us through a fantastic flight of their wines.

And president Moretti was super cool to stop by to meet the group and interact with us on the first day of our sojourn.

I gotta say that I love this photo and what it means to me.

Writing in a hurry as I’m still catching my breath after hitting the ground running here in Brescia province. Stay tuned… and thanks for being here!

Oristano dreaming and missing my girls dearly as I head back to Franciacorta for the last time this year

malvasia-di-bosaCan’t stop thinking about this Oristano wine that we drank Saturday night with a U.S. importer of Italian wine in Houston.

It’s from a PDO that I’d never heard of: Malvasia di Bosa, from the west coast of Sardinia in Oristano province, a DOC with three producers according to the excellent Italian appellation wiki Quattro Calici.

Gorgeous gold and amber in color, the 2010 Columbu Malvasia di Bosa was lithe and salty with just the right touch of dried stone and dried white fruit to make it pair beautifully against aged white domestic cheddar and dark chocolate tabs.

Enjoying it immensely at the end of the evening, it occurred to me how wines like this and its sister appellation Vernaccia di Oristano were overlooked in the wave of oxidative-style wines (Sherry, Jura, etc.) that swept the überhip sommelier crowd some years ago.

What a great, truly original, and utterly delicious wine…

And how cool that Florence-based Ernest Ifkovitz, owner of Portovino, was in Texas working the market with his distributor for a week between Houston and Austin?

More and more, we see independent importers like the affable Ernest coming to our markets in Texas as smaller distributors continue to flourish, even where big wine once eclipsed the little guys. I loved that wine and I also really liked the Zero di Babo white by Marco Merli (Umbria) that Ernest poured for us that night. Super groovy stuff and cool packaging, too…

zero-di-babo-merli-grape-varieties-umbriaToday, I’m on my way to Franciacorta where I’ll be leading a group of wine writers and bloggers for the next few days.

It’s one of the last events in my Franciacorta Real Story campaign for 2016. Everyone in the group is super nice, fun, and talented and it should be a fun visit (one of them is the son of a one of my favorite wine bloggers and one that you probably love and follow like I do if you’re here).

I’m looking forward to it and some other fun eating and drinking I’ve got lined up for this Italian sojourn — my seventh for the year? I’ve lost count!

But today I’m just feeling super blue about saying goodbye to the girls (below) and Tracie P. It’s been such a lovely summer, with just a little bit of light travel for work. Now begins the season of some heavy lifting. And it just never gets easy to say arrivederci

Wish me luck, wish me speed. See you on the other side…