Rethinking the OG Super Tuscans with Clara Gentili of Le Pupille live today at 11 a.m. CST on the @EthicaWines Instagram

Over my years of working in Italian wine, it’s become apparent that there are two questions posed more frequently than any other.

The first is what’s your favorite wine? My standard answer is shared by most of my fellow wine educators: it depends on what I’m eating, where I’m eating it and whom I’m eating it with.

The second is what’s a Super Tuscan? When asked to reflect on this now decades-old conundrum, my ready reply is I can’t tell you what a Super Tuscan is but I know one when I taste it.

Looking back to the early years of the Italian wine renaissance, it’s now clear (at least to me) that when we keepers of the faith railed against the Super Tuscan trend, our issue wasn’t as much with the “aia” wines as it was with the media who championed them.

Part of the problem was that many of us didn’t have the financial means to spend proper time with the wines. For many, the only opportunity to taste them was at walk-around events where we were served just a few ounces. Who could afford to go out to dinner and order a bottle of 1988 Sassicaia back then (or now)? But it was also exacerbated by said writers’ arrogance and, in many cases, their ignorance of a broader picture of Italian wine. Just because you read Italo Calvino in college doesn’t mean that Cesare Pavese wasn’t one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

One of the things that I’m eager to discuss today on my live Instagram story with Clara Gentili of Fattoria Le Pupille (@EthicaWines today at 11 a.m. CST/12 p.m. EST) is the legacy of the OG Super Tuscans. The ones, like her family’s, that have been around since before the “aia” era. The ones, like her family’s, grown on hillsides. The ones, like her family’s, that aim for elegance and balance, with acidity that will help the wine to age gracefully and make it food friendly at the dinner table. The ones, like her family’s, that taste of the Tuscan garigue even though they are made with international grape varieties.

I hope you can join us.

Webinar May 12: “Open for Business: The Italian Food and Wine Supply Chain.”

Above: Jimmy’s Food Store in Dallas, an Italian specialty shop. Photo taken in late February.

As businesses in Italy begin to reopen this week, Italian food and wine professionals are looking for new ways to connect with buyers across the U.S. With travel restrictions still in place and consumer confidence low, the challenges of doing business here are greater than ever.

In keeping with its mission to foster business ties between the two countries, the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce has asked me to moderate a series of webinars with leading importers, distributors, and buyers from across the nation.

The first one is scheduled for Tuesday of next week at 10 a.m. EST and it’s open to all (you don’t have to be a chamber member to participate).

I’ll be talking to two east coast importers and a business development specialist from the south (see their bios below).

I’m particularly excited to hear what my good friend Niccolo Lorimer has to say. He’s a top logistics expert and is specialized in clearing wine for trade events, a really interesting (and sweet) guy who always has compelling insights to share.

Please use the link below to register. And please feel free to share. All are welcome.

NEW WEBINAR SERIES: Challenges and Opportunities in the Post-Pandemic Era

A webinar series on how to navigate the challenges and opportunities of the After COVID-19 Era, featuring top food and wine importers, distributors, and buyers from across the U.S.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER.

EPISODE 1: “Open for Business: The Italian Food and Wine Supply Chain.”

Tuesday, May 12
10 a.m. EST / 4 p.m. CET

With veteran Italian food importer Cecilia Ercolino, global strategist and business development expert Denise Henderson Thomas, and logistics, customs, and importing expert Niccolo Lorimer.
Continue reading

Texas restaurants reopen today and it scares me to hell.

Image via Adobe Stock.

“Let me just say that it is my hope that with the measures that are being put in place that our numbers will not spike… That is my hope.”

Those are the words of our city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, speaking at a news conference Monday, April 27 following Texas governor Greg Abbott’s announcement that the state would “reopen” today, May 1.

Mayor Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (our city manager) had planned to keep Houston’s “Stay Home/Work Safe” order in place and they had just announced that masks would be mandatory when Abbott decided to supersede all local measures to combat the spread of the deadly virus.

It was the latest volley in Abbott’s ongoing war on local authority in our state. Since coming into office, he has lobbied assiduously to punish cities like Houston and Austin for their status as sanctuary cities and for their progressive policies on reproductive rights.

This week, he took it a step further: now he’s playing with life and death.

In just a few hours, scores of restaurants across Houston will begin opening their doors for “dine-in” service. Abbott has ordered that they can only operate at 25 percent capacity. But beyond that, he’s given no guidance on how restaurateurs can keep their staff and customers safe and how they can curb COVID-19’s spread.

Some in our city are looking to Georgia’s example. The state’s governor, Brian Kemp, issued these guidelines for reopening restaurants last week (Georgia’s restaurants were allowed to reopen on Monday).

But with no official norms or regulations in place, Houston’s restaurant managers are on their own in terms of how they operate and what safety measures they adopt.*

In other words, it’s the wild west when it comes to culinary hygiene. Concerned (however courageous) restaurant-goers have no way of knowing with confidence what safety protocols restaurants owners have put into place, if any.

I understand the economic logic behind reopening. And I recognize that Texas has “flattened the curve.” But on the same day that “Texas reports most deaths in a day from COVID-19” (a story that appears on the landing page of the Houston Chronicle this morning), wouldn’t it be prudent to provide businesses like restaurants — where proper hygiene is always essential for safety — with more robust guidance?

Just like the families of countless wine professionals across our state, ours is struggling to make ends meet in the time of the pandemic. It’s my hope that we’ll all be able to get back to work as soon as possible. But without the proper guidance, Abbot’s order is a genuine gastronomic “go to Hell” to Houston and Austin where local authorities have fought to keep restrictions in place.

Texas reopens today and I am scared as hell for dishwashers, prep cooks, line cooks, waitstaff, sommeliers, and the customers they will serve.

This isn’t political. It’s just common sense.

I encourage you to watch Mayor Turner’s news conference. His remarks moved me to tears when I watched them in real time. He and Judge Hidalgo are true American heroes.

*”‘Reopened services’ shall consist of the following,” wrote Abbott in his decree, listing which businesses could reopen today, including dining establishments: “Dine-in restaurant services, for restaurants that operate at up to 25 percent of the total listed occupancy of the restaurant…”

He specifies that the order only applies to restaurants “that have less than 51 percent of their gross receipts from the sale of alcoholic beverages” and he also prohibits valet parking except for “except for vehicles with placards or plates for disabled parking.”

But there is no mention of masks, gloves, hand-washing, or testing, for example.

In all fairness to our heartless governor, he does offer an overarching recommendation that reopened businesses “should implement social distancing… and practice good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation.” But it’s just advice, not an order. “Individuals are encouraged to wear appropriate face coverings,” he writes, “but no jurisdiction can impose a civil or criminal penalty for failure to wear a face covering.”

My first virtual wine dinner was a disaster (and a lot of fun).

Yesterday evening, a Houston-based wine professional and his wife attended their first-ever virtual wine dinner.

Registered guests were asked to pick up their food and bottles curbside between 5-7 p.m. And the event was to begin at 7:30. So far so good.

After plastic bags were discarded and the to-go boxes and bottles were wiped down with sanitizer, hands were washed, the food was plated, and the bottles were opened and poured.

A mix-up with the Zoom link triggered frantic scrambling to get all the participants the correct credentials. By the time it was all sorted out and nearly everyone was online, many — including said wife — had already begun to eat the food because it was just too tempting with all the victuals laid out before them.

The hosts of the event were clearly flustered by the technical snafu and spent the first 10 minutes apologizing as the guests continued to trickle in. And just as one of the couples logged on, their chihuahuas had an outright conniption and erupted into a burst of barking, huffing, and snarling. They — the humans, not the chihuahuas — had neglected to mute their microphone.

But when the first masterfully Berkel-cut slice of Prosciutto di Parma was wrapped around an oozing chunk of burrata and a glasses of Malvasia Puntinata were first drawn to the participants’ lips, the frustrations and craving appetites all melted away like the thin layer of snow that occasionally falls across tropical southeast Texas in winter.

The foibles of Zoom users and the drawbacks of virtual events like these have been widely parsed in the mainstream media. We’re all learning, warts and all, how to connect in the new world where social distancing is the byword to live by. And although Tracie and I have already taken part in countless Zoom sessions for work and private socializing, we’d never been participants in an end-user-focused event like this — with couples we’d never met before.

And we had a blast.

Tracie wore lipstick at dinner (something that doesn’t happen regularly these days). I shaved and donned a nice shirt (as opposed to my regular two-day stubble and ratty around-the-house t-shirt). We got out some of our better dishes and stemware and set our table properly. Even our daughters, ages 6 and 8, seemed to get a sense that last night’s dinner was special (and highly unusual for them, they went to bed straight away after their own dinner without protest — a miracle!). Our chihuahuas were another story all together.

All in all and despite the mishaps, it was a breath of fresh air that disrupted the monotony and monochromy of self-isolation dining. We laughed, we pigged out, we drank a little too much, and we even made some new friends. In the era before the health crisis, I used to attend dinners like this — in person — at least twice a month. It was great to get a taste of what life used to be like. And the experience reminded me of the important role that food and wine play in creating community.

Last night’s dinner was the second virtual wine tasting event I took part in yesterday. Earlier in the day, I tasted some great Lugana with my buddy Gianpaolo Giacobbo via Instagram live stories — I was here in Houston and he in Montebelluna (Treviso province, Veneto). At the end of our chat, we even busted out our dueling telecasters and played an eight-bar blues (below).

It will take years before life in food and wine finds its footing in the new ordinary. I’m looking forward to that day. But in the meantime, I’m reminded of the great line by George Harrison:

The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows

Arrive without traveling! Stay safe and thanks for being here and supporting Italian wine.

Taste Ca’ dei Frati Lugana with me and Giampi on Instagram live @EthicaWines today at 11 a.m. CST/12 p.m. EST. Please join us!

Above: I visited and tasted at the Ca’ dei Frati winery in January on my last trip to Italy.

Today at 11 a.m. CST/12 p.m. EST I’ll be chatting live with my good friend Gianpaolo Giacobbo on the @EthicaWines Instagram about one of my favorite Veneto winery, Ca’ dei Frati, producer of Lugana.

I’ve been drinking the wines for years with my friends in Franciacorta (one of my buddies is a consulting enologist there) and they’re great.

I’m stoked that they’ll be coming to a town near you soon thanks to the folks at Ethica.

And I’m super geeked to chat with Gianpaolo. We even have big surprise in store for you! I know people are going to like it. Ready, Giampi? Psyched to connect! 

Hope you can join us… Thanks for being here and there.

A red wine for my wife thanks to Luigi Coppo’s L’Avvocata.

Like a lot of American wine professionals, we drink mostly white wine at home. Unless we are having meat for a main course or aged cheeses for dessert, its fresh-style white wine we crave.

In recent years, my wife Tracie has stopped drinking red wine altogether, unless it’s something really special or something with some “age on it” as we say in the trade. That’s partly owed to the fact that red wine doesn’t always agree with her. At our house, wine is an essential part of our dinner and the wines we choose are always those that align with our metabolic rhythms. (I believe that one of the most important things we overlook in wine tasting and writing is how does the wine make you feel, during and after the meal? That’s another story for another post.)

But the other night when I opened a bottle of my friend Luigi Coppo’s Barbera d’Asti L’Avvocata (shared with me by the generous folks at Folio Fine Wine Partners), Tracie asked me to pour her a second and even a third glass.

We were both surprised: wines made from Barbera are known for their high acidity and excessive acidity can often be a turn-off for Tracie. Of all the red wines we have in our home cellar, a Barbera d’Asti was the least likely candidate for a wine she would enjoy, we thought.

Although this classic fresh-style, bright, slightly underripe red fruit-driven expression of Barbera d’Asti delivered the acidity that we expected, its balance was so beautiful that it seemed to sing in the glass. I’ve tasted so much Barbera d’Asti over the last couple of years (because I’ve spent so much time teaching in Piedmont for the last four years), including some great ones.

But this one just seemed to have a marcia in più, as the Italians say, an extra gear in the motor. What a wonderful wine! And what a great pairing for the chicken breasts we sautéed and deglazed with white wine that night for ourselves and the girls. The apotheosis of what Barbera can and should be in my view.

I knew and tasted with Luigi’s father Paolo back in the day when I was living and working in the wine trade in New York. And over the last few years, thanks to my Piedmontese sojourns, Luigi (above in his family’s historic cave) has become a good friend.

It seems like a lifetime ago that he and I were sharing dinner in Manhattan, drinking the same wine, back in late February. We even talked about writing some songs together and possibly doing an event in Houston this year.

Man, we miss those times before the pandemic. But Luigi’s wine brought a lot of joy into our lives the other night. The next best thing besides having him here with us and getting to taste it together.

I highly recommend the man and the wine to you.

Check out this recent post by friend Michael Godel, one of the best tasters I know, on a visit to the Coppo winery in late 2019, including Michael’s always spot-on tastings notes.

And thanks again to Folio for hooking us up!

Grande Luigi! Salutami tanto tuo padre. Un abbraccione.

Letter from Italy: “Social distance must not become the distance of heart and hope” by Enrica Cavallo.

Over the weekend, the Italian government announced that it will slowly begin lifting restrictions on movement across the country. Family members who don’t reside together will now be allowed to visit one another (as long as they wear masks). But restaurants and cafés won’t be resume operation until early June. Today’s “letter from Italy” comes from Enrica Cavallo in Lecce, Puglia. She and her husband Enzo are both lawyers who also run a wine consulting business.

Hello Jeremy,

I’m a reader of you blog and a wine lover, too. I’m sure you already know that — since you are “at home” in Italy — April marks the beginning of the beautiful season: especially in the south of Italy, the weather gets better, the days get longer, the temperatures change from sparkling to mild and people go out…

Actually no, people here in Italy, like in the rest of the world, are not free to go out and move about because of the coronavirus.

Because of the virus, we are living a strange reality. All is suspended. We’ve put our lives on hold. Time is marked by everyone’s fears. We are submerged in a sea of uncertainties. The silence of the streets is compensated by the mountains of news (especially negative). And even those of us who are strong and can swim often are tired and rely on the current.

We don’t want to drown and so we cling like castaways to what brings a little light into the day.

A blooming flower because despite it all, you can’t stop spring from coming.
Continue reading

Italian wine “after COVID”: a new book on the challenges faced by Italian winemakers in the post-pandemic world.

Above: a photo taken (with a Blackberry) in Austin, Texas in 2008.

In 2008, one of the largest wine retail chains in Austin, Texas relegated its selection of Italian wines to an “Italy/Other” rack. The ad hoc category was a reflection of Italy’s station, so to speak, in the hierarchy of international wine at the time. With higher-profile space allocated to California and France, the chain’s sales team displayed its Italian offerings in one of the shop’s least prominent racks together with after-thought “esoteric” wines.

Since that time, so much has changed. Thanks to aggressive efforts by Italian winemakers and their U.S. importers and a wave of heightened interest, the category has become a major focus in wine retail in Texas and across the U.S.

In the A.C. (after COVID-19) world,* will the Italian wine industry be able to maintain its newly conferred status as a leading international category? Or will the challenges of doing business in the U.S. in the post-pandemic era erase more than a decade of robust growth?

The authors of a new “instant” book entitled Italian Wine Beyond COVID-19, Flavio Geretto (export director for leading Prosecco producer Villa Sandi) and Fabio Piccoli (founder and editor-in-chief of Wine Meridian), share their predictions for what the A.C. wine world will look like and how producers will need to adapt their marketing and sales strategies.

(Disclosure: Flavio is a good friend of mine and I am a media consultant for Villa Sandi; Wine Meridian featured me in a 2018 interview.)

The book, written in Italian, can be purchased here. Proceeds go to the Italian hospital system.

The following are my notes. While some of the authors’ observations align with commonly embraced tenets for good business practices (like the need for diversification in sales channels), others genuinely surprised, impressed, and inspired me. Flavio and Fabio don’t have all the answers but the questions they raise are spot on. If you read Italian, I highly recommend ordering a PDF. Special thanks to the authors for sharing a review copy with me.

– Sales channels diversification will become a primary factor in determining which wineries succeed and fail. For too long, the authors write, wineries have focused on an overly limited number of outlets for their wines. And in some cases, companies have even “snubbed” certain sectors, like supermarkets and online retail platforms. Today, those choices have left countless producers highly vulnerable.

– Sustainability and organic farming, they predict, will increasingly become a focus for winemakers as consumer demand more transparency and clarity in terms of how producers present their wines. Authenticity and health concerns will become primary drivers of how wines are marketed and sold and how end users perceive them. This trend had already emerged over the last decade, they note, but now it will be “accelerated.” The nature of the COVID-19 crisis will heighten the demand “organic, biodynamic, natural, and sustainable” wines, they believe. Wineries who embrace these categories — and more importantly — those who are prepared and have the resources to market their wines as such will enjoy a significant advantage over those who don’t.

– There is an increased need for the government to regulate payment terms, they note, so as to ensure prompt transfer of funds. Chronic delays in payment, a systemic problem throughout the Italian business world, make wineries more vulnerable, especially in times of crisis. The authors cite the case of a major northern Italian winery group that faces bankruptcy because of unpaid, overdue invoices that it is now unlikely to collect. Italian legislators, they argue, should intervene to ensure that credit terms are respected, including government-imposed penalties for late payments.

– Restrictions on movement, and especially intercontinental travel, will make it extremely challenging for winery ambassadors to visit foreign markets. As a result, wineries will increasingly have to rely on agents already present in the market. The authors foresee the rise of ad hoc brand ambassadors. (Similarly, travel restrictions will lead to a rise in domestic tourism in Italy. The Italian wine industry needs to be bolster its hospitality programs in order to take advantage of a surge in Italian tourists with better education and a more highly trained work force.)

– Because of the new challenges of market work, especially when budgets are stretched thin, wineries will have to be more selective and demanding when designating a wine ambassador. As the authors note, wineries often delegate market work to employees — like winemakers — who have no sales experience. Sales skills, not technical knowledge, and robust training of sales staff will be one of the keys to reviving the industry.

– Remote tastings with buyers using video technology are less than ideal, they note, because the variables affecting the wine (temperature, humidity, bottle variation, etc.) are too complex to mitigate. Even tastings conducted with proper social distancing won’t suffice because the two actors — buyer and winery ambassador — still won’t be able to taste from the same bottle. The industry will need to devise new ways for interacting with buyers. The authors don’t have the answers for this seemingly insurmountable challenge.

*The acronym is borrowed from Thomas Friedman’s March 17, 2020 op-ed for the New York Times, “Our New Historical Divide: B.C. and A.C. — the World Before Corona and the World After.”

Live with Nicolis Amarone today, MS Steven McDonald on what’s next, and a great podcast from Columbia Journalism School

“It was like 2018 all over again,” said Master Sommelier Steven McDonald (above) when I spoke to him recently for the last in my series of posts for the Houston Press on how the Houston wine community is coping with the ongoing health crisis. He was referring to the moment the Court of Master Sommeliers revoked his newly awarded Master Sommelier title after it discovered irregularities in the testing process (answers had been leaked to another candidate; Steven later re-tested and was awarded the coveted pin).

“It was like your whole world was falling apart,” he said. “I feel like I’m living it all over again right now.”

Until late March, Steven was running what many consider to be one of the best wine programs in the U.S. Today, he and the team he managed are all unemployed.

Steven’s a friend: our kids attend the same elementary school and we often bump into each at our favorite neighborhood breakfast place. And he’s one of the wine professionals in our community I admire most. An immensely talented sommelier and an accomplished songwriter and performer, he’s trying to figure out what’s next.

Check out the post here.

In other news…

I’ll be doing a live Instagram story today with Angelo Nicolis from Valpolicella. I tasted with Angelo and his family back in January during my last trip to Italy, including the 2010 Ambrosan (what a wine!) which we will also be opening today.

Valpolicella is such poorly understood appellation in the U.S. I feel a deep connect to the wines because of my many years living, studying, and working in Veneto during my grad student days. I’m really geeked to talk shop with Angelo (who’s a super cool guy, btw, and speaks great English).

Check it out today at 11 a.m. CST/12 p.m. EST on the Ethica Wines Instagram @EthicaWines. I’ve really been enjoying my work with Ethica. Great people and great wines. And these stories have been a lot of fun. Help support Italian wine and Italian winemakers and growers by joining us. I hope to see you then.

In other other news…

Last week I did an interview with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism candidate Emily Pisacreta on how the health crisis will impact the availability of Italian foods and wines in the U.S. (her professor is my good friend Ben Shapiro).

Check out her podcast here.

The Italian wine and food industries were already deeply impacted by the trade wars, tariffs, and the threat of more tariffs when the pandemic forced governments across the world to shut down their economies. It was a “perfect storm” for many in the trade.

Check out her podcast: it’s really compelling to hear her interview with Marco Forti from the Pecorino Toscano Consortium.

Dulcis in fundo…

A lot of people asked me about my Earth Day greeting yesterday: non unius terrae sed totius naturae interpretes sumus.

The line comes from Pliny: “we must contemplate/study not just one [place on] earth but all of nature [to have a deeper understanding of it].” It seemed fitting for the moment.

Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Please share: Southern Smoke (Houston) offering restaurant worker relief nationwide (Houston Press interview with wine director Matthew Pridgen)

Until I reached out to Underbelly Hospitality wine director Matthew Pridgen (above) for an interview published today by the Houston Press, I wasn’t aware that the group’s non-profit Southern Smoke is offering financial aid not just to Houston-area residents but also to restaurant workers across the U.S.

“So far we’ve donated over $670,000 to 354 people to date since the COVID crisis has started,” he told me. “Obviously there’s still a lot more. They’re processing them as fast as they to try to get money to people. Once people are approved, it’s a really quick turn-around. The check is in the mail immediately. It’s been a big help to a lot of people. We’re able to help outside of Houston. It’s nationwide. It’s not relegated to strictly Houston.”

Southern Smoke is currently accepting applications from people in need: click here to apply. And they have 30 staff members processing applications.

“Once people are approved,” he said, “it’s a really quick turn-around. The check is in the mail immediately. It’s been a big help to a lot of people.”

Please share with anyone who needs the support right now.

The interview is part of a series of posts devoted to the Houston wine community and how it is coping with the ongoing health crisis (for the record, I’m putting these together pro bono).

Thanks for sharing.

And happy Earth Day: non unius terrae sed totius naturae interpretes sumus.