Aglianico and sushi made for magic last night in Houston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mother of all sandwiches (and updates from New York and Houston)

A bunch of folks commented yesterday on the above photo posted on my social media.

I’m really into sandwiches (it that’s not already abundantly apparent).

Yesterday’s was uncured ham, Colby-Jack cheese, red leaf lettuce, sliced tomato, thinly sliced red onion, generously slathered Mexican-style mayonnaise (with lime juice), stacker pickle, French’s mustard (also generously doused), lightly sprinkled kosher salt, and freshly cracked Cambodian pepper (that my older brother gave us, one of our current obsessions). It was all layered on slightly toasted Italian country bread from Whole Foods.

No wine pairing because I rarely drink at lunch, sorry.

I’m glad that social media friends enjoyed it as much as I did!

In other news…

Today finds me in New York City, literally for 24 hours and a couple of meetings with a favorite client.

Last night he treated me to a spritz at Bar 54 atop the Hyatt Centric Hotel Times Square. That’s the view looking south. I highly recommend it.

It’s always strange to be back in the city where I spent my 30s, especially when I’m here solely for business and not connecting with friends.

But, hey, it’s nice work if you can get it! I ain’t complaining.

In other other news…

Thanks, everyone, for all the sweet birthday wishes over the weekend!

On Saturday, the girls, Tra, and I spent the day together doing fun stuff and cooking a fat dinner to be paired with a bottle of Nebbiolo.

And on Sunday, my new band BioDynamic played a Bastille Day gig in midtown Houston. I even revived Cal d’Hommage, my stage name from the good ol’ French band days (WAY back in the day).

It was a great birthday weekend and the wishes meant the world to me.

Gotta run now… wish me luck and wish me speed!

And btw, I still have a few spots open for the Prosecco seminar I’m leading with Flavio Geretto from Villa Sandi tomorrow at Vinology in Houston. HIT ME UP!

Houston mourns the loss of beloved Italian wine professional Joseph Kemble

Above: Jospeh Kemble in Cervia (Ravenna), Italy (photo via Joseph’s Facebook).

Today the Houston wine community mourns the loss of one of its most beloved members, Joseph Kemble, longtime Italian wine buyer for Spec’s retail operations and distribution.

According to numerous posts by his friends on Facebook, he died yesterday after a long bout with cirrhosis. He was 48 years old and would have celebrated his 49th birthday next month.

Joseph was a larger-than-life figure in the Italian wine world: as the Italian buyer for one of the largest retail chains in the country, with more than 150 locations across Texas, he oversaw one of the biggest Italian wine programs in the U.S.
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Prosecco seminar and Bastille Day/birthday bash music this week and next in Houston

Back when I was living in New York City and playing with Les Sans Culottes and Nous Non Plus, we ALWAYS had a gig on my birthday, July 14 — Bastille Day.

It was only natural: as the city’s leading faux French rock bands, we were always in demand for the holiday, which is annually celebrated there with élan.

Sometimes we would play two gigs on the same day, usually at the Orchard St. Bastille Day festival during the day and then later that night at a club like the now defunct Brownies where the above picture was snapped in the pre-digital days.
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Prosecco DOCG named UNESCO World Heritage Site

Above: a photograph taken in the hills of Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene during the 2018 harvest (via the Villa Sandi Facebook).

In a tweet posted early Sunday morning (EST), UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) announced that the hills of Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene have been officially “inscribed on” the World Heritage list, a coveted designation that adds the Prosecco DOCG appellation to an exclusive club of sites recognized for their cultural uniqueness, beauty, and significance.

The following statement appeared yesterday on the UNESCO website:

    Le Colline del Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene (Italy) — Located in north-eastern Italy, the site includes part of the vinegrowing landscape of the Prosecco wine production area. The landscape is characterized by “hogback” hills, ciglioni – small plots of vines on narrow grassy terraces – forests, small villages and farmland. For centuries, this rugged terrain has been shaped and adapted by man. Since the 17th century, the use of ciglioni has created a particular chequerboard landscape consisting of rows of vines parallel and vertical to the slopes. In the 19th century, the bellussera technique of training the vines contributed to the aesthetic characteristics of the landscape.

With 55 sites included in the list as of 2019, Italy has more designations than any other country in the world (see the complete list on the Italian Wikipedia here). Other sites include the archeological excavation at Pompei in Campania and the viticultural landscape of Langhe-Roero and Monferrato in Piedmont.

The hills of Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene were considered but not included in the list during last year’s meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Committee. They are now the eighth site to receive the designation in Italy’s Veneto region.

J. Brix Chardonnay from Santa Barbara Calaveras County blew me away and other great wines (and guitars)

That’s Chris Broomell above, co-owner Vesper Vineyards in north county San Diego, one of the most compelling winemakers working in the state imho.

Writing on the fly I am this long holiday weekend in San Diego where I’ve been tasting with winemakers like Chris for the Slow Wine Guide 2020 (and playing some guitar).

I’m always impressed by the way he talks about his wines and the nascent revolution in San Diego viticulture. The fruit has always been here, he points out. But the hegemonic winemaking style never reflected — never translated — the quality that San Diego can produce.

But the wine I can’t stop thinking about is the J. Brix Santa Barbara Calaveras County Chardonnay I tasted this week.

I had tasted Emily and Jody Towe’s wines on many occasions over the years and have always enjoyed them immensely (I had them on my list at the now defunct Sotto in Los Angeles where I ran the wine program for nearly eight years).

But this wine really takes it over the top in terms of the depth and nuance. It opens with primary Chardonnay flavors (tropical fruit and banana) but then unfolds its layers-upon-layers of savory herbs, minerality, and ripe and dried stone fruit.

I can’t wait to taste Tracie on this wine. She is going to flip out (I’m planning smuggle a couple of bottles back to Texas where they are still illegal).

Another wine that surprised me with its depth was this Syrah by Chris’ wife and partner Alysha Stehly, another winemaker to watch imho. I’ll be visiting and tasting with her tomorrow before I head back to Houston.

I’ve only been here a few days but have tasted some truly spectacular wines — all of which land with affordable pricing btw.

But the biggest treat of my sojourn was getting to sit in with the magical Dave Gleason (below).

He’s a true virtuoso of the Telecaster. I’m nowhere in his league but he generously lets me sit in with his band when I’m in town.

We played blues and country yesterday out at the Grand Ole BBQ Flinn Springs in El Cajon (where, btw, the Texas-style brisket was completely legit, melt-in-your-mouth liquid delicious).

Dave is a Doug Sahm of our generation, a musical polymath and one of the sweetest people you could ever meet.

Tonight I’ll be playing the whole evening with one of his bands, the Born Fighters, at Beaumont’s in La Jolla (where I grew up). All the stars from the La Jolla music scene are coming out for this one.

If you’re in town, we’ll take the stage around 9 and play until midnight or so. Beaumont’s is pretty rowdy and things can get a little out of hand there. So come ready to rock!

The wine world’s culture wars have left millennials behind

Above: students in the Master’s in Wine Culture and Master’s in Food Culture at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy.

More than any other, three posts captured and commanded the attention of wine trade members, observers, and enthusiasts this month.

Master of Wine Jancis Robinson’s “Naturally Divisive” on “natural vs. conventional” wine culture for the Financial Times (republished and available to all on her tasting note portal); Cathy Huyghe’s interview with natural wine advocate Alice Feiring, “Alice Feiring on Satire and Misogyny in the Wine Industry,” a response and reaction to a predictably misogynic parody of Alice’s work; and New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov’s “It’s Time to Rethink Wine Criticism” on the dismal state of winespeak today.

At the center of each of these pieces, one character looms ominous above all others: Robert Parker, Jr., the twentieth-century creator and disseminator of the hegemonic 100-point-scale score and tasting note model for wine criticism.

Jancis is the only one who doesn’t mention him by name but he’s in there. A genie in a bottle, he arrives via a pair of top-rated Bordeaux wines from the 1982 harvest — the same “near-mythical” vintage, as Jancis calls it, that launched his name, brand, and career as America’s most famous wine writer.

“His influence grew in the mid-1980s,” writes Eric for the Times, “particularly with his unconditional, flamboyant praise for the 1982 Bordeaux vintage…”

Parker more than any other writer, perhaps unjustly so, represents the realm of what has been inaptly called “conventional wine.” It’s a category that exists only inasmuch as it is the polar and polarizing opposite of “natural wine.”

“A very significant proportion of the wine establishment,” writes Jancis, “roll their eyes at the very mention of natural wine. On the other hand, there is no shortage of converts to natural wine who… will not sully their or their customers’ palates with wine they do not consider natural. They have a tendency to lecture the world on the iniquities of conventional wine.”

The terms of that dialectic were forged once and for all in 2008 when Alice published her now landmark book, The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization (Harcourt).
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Alba has a new progressive wine bar (FINALLY!): Petricore…

petrichor, n.

A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions. Also: an oily liquid mixture of organic compounds which collects in the ground and is believed to be responsible for this smell.

From the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition).

It’s been a long time coming but I’m happy to share the news that Alba — one of the world’s greatest wine capitals — finally has a progressive wine bar. FINALLY!

The joint is called Petricore Enoteca (as in petrichor).

It’s run by a lovely couple of wine professionals, Rebecca Ruatasio and Carmine Pessolani, whom I had the distinct pleasure to meet and taste with the other night.

The town of Alba lies smack-dab in the heart of Barolo and Barbaresco country and it receives a tide of wine lovers and tradesfolk each year.

But as surprising as it may be, it isn’t exactly the most welcoming destintation in Italy when it comes to people looking to connect with the more playful, experimental, and funky side of wine life.

A friend treated me there to a reclassified bottle of white Burgundy the other night. Think of that! Hipster Chardonnay in Alba! If I hadn’t tasted it myself, I still wouldn’t believe it.

Humans cannot live by Nebbiolo alone. And from what I’ve heard through the grapevines, Petricore has been a warmly welcomed addition to the Langa and Roero wine scene.

I can’t recommend it enough.

Just four more days of teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra. On Monday, my last night, Natale Baricchi and I will be playing a couple of acoustic sets at L’Alfieri here in town. Come on by!

Old(est) school dining in Piedmont? Ostu di Djun… look no further!

Last night found me, guitar in hand, at the Ostu di Djun in the hilltop village of Castagnito in the heart of Roero country (on the west bank of the Tanaro river, which divides southern Nebbiololand).

Some believe its Piedmontese name comically ironic: Ostu di Djun means literally osteria di digiuno or fasting tavern. But it’s hard to tell. Nothing can be taken for granted in this crazy, enchanted, and enchanting restaurant.

What’s for certain is the food is all old(est) school, all the way.

When my friend Natale and I sat down for dinner last night, the owner Luciano asked us if we wouldn’t mind sharing our table with two other dudes. One turned out to be the legacy owner, the son, of one of Piedmont’s hottest Michelin-style restaurants (I won’t reveal the name so as not to humblebrag).

He and his buddy told me that they eat there at least three times a month and whenever they can.

For our first course, we all shared family-style tajarin with ragù and agnolotti, the classic ravioli from Piedmont. And for our second course, they ordered heart and sweetbreads. Me and Natale ordered liver.

All three of them remarked that they like the food there so much because it reminds them of what they’re grandparents used to feed them when mom and dad were at work each day.

I can already hear Tracie P rolling her eyes and hoping that I was able to drink natural wine last night.

No, we drank classic Pelaverga and then Barbaresco, strictly from magnum, the only bottle format that Luciano serves.

(All is good, Tra… well, kinda… but it was worth it!)

It was a wild and raucous night that culminated in a rollicking set of covers performed by me, Natale, and the resident piano player Giorgio.

I regret that between the banter and the Bacchanal, I didn’t have much a chance to photograph the food in the dimly-lit room, which brimmed with Italians and foreigners.

That’s the raw beef they serve when you arrive (above, top) and the Piedmontese standby insalata russa (second photo). Both were utterly delicious. So were the pastas and the offal.

Old(est) school, all the way.

Luciano says he wants me and Natale back to do another set soon. I’d be back in a heartbeat if I weren’t so busy teaching and keeping up with work back home in America.

It was one of those magical nights that only seem to happen in Italy… Haven’t had one of those in a while and man, it felt pretty friggin’ good.

Ostu di Djun has no website, it seems.

But you can find it on the Google here.

Slarina, the next Piedmont grape you’ve never heard of, is coming to a town near you…

No one knows for certain where the name Slarina comes from but Torino university researchers believe it might come from the Piedmontese word sinréna and related Italian cenerina, a reference to the bloom that commonly appears on this red grape’s skin (ceneri means ashes in Italian, hence the association with bloom, the powdery deposit sometimes found on the berries).

I finally had the chance to taste a couple of bottlings of Slarina when I visited my friends at the lovely Cascina Iuli in Montaldo di Cerrina in Piedmont’s Alessandria province over the weekend.

One was from a nearby farm where the owners have only recently begun growing and vinifying the grape. The other was from my hosts’ estate, where grower Fabrizio Iuli, known for his deft hand at lo-input winemaking, has already produced a handful of vintages from this erstwhile forgotten Piedmont variety.

Italian agriculture officials probably removed Slarina from the registry of authorized varieties during the country’s post-war viticultural renaissance because of its inconsistent productivity, a fate shared by countless highly localized grapes like this.

Because it was illegal to grow, it was all but abandoned by farmers in Monferrato where Fabrizio was born and lives with his family. Thanks to the work of University of Torino’s department of agriculture, it’s been redeemed from oblivion.

Like many of his progressive sisters-and-brothers-in-arms, Fabrizio is keenly interested in reviving its fortunes — a homage to an underexploited but rich heritage.

The slightly underripe red fruit and berry flavors in the brightly colored wines were by no means overwhelmed by their surprisingly tannic character. They were particularly delicious and well paired with juicy red steak our hosts served that night.

Young American wine professionals are always excited to learn about grapes like Slarina,
a variety plucked from the boundless treasure box of Italy’s evanished vines and winemaking traditions. There’s no doubt in my mind that it will be well received in my home country. There was even talk of Fabrizio’s planned visit to the states to present a micro-vertical tasting of the three vintages he’s produced.

Slarina, the next Piedmont grape you’ve never heard of, may be coming to a town near you soon.