Donald Trump and the Partisan Johnny (Beppe Fenoglio)

Yesterday, my Italian colleague and friend Filippo Larganà, editor of the popular Piedmont-centric wine blog Sapori del Piemonte, asked me to write a note about the Tuesday evening presidential debate for his site.

Here’s a link to my “op-ed” entitled “Donald Trump and the Partisan Johnny” (in Italian).

For readers who don’t know the works of Beppe Fenoglio, he was one of the most widely read authors of the 20th-century in Italy. His most famous work was his auto-biographical novel Il partigiano Johnny (The Partisan Johnny), the story of an Italian soldier in the Second World War.

After the 1943 armistice with the Allies, Johnny abandoned his post and headed back to his native Piedmont where he joined the partisans fighting German and Fascist armies.

In my post for Filippo’s site, I wrote about how Fenoglio saw Piedmont’s farming culture and its values as the source for the human courage and solidarity that were needed to vanquish the occupying forces.

Piedmontese viticulture grew out of that same culture and humanity.

It’s up to us to draw on those same values as we face the rising but still stoppable racism and racist violence in our own country.

When we find it, we’ll share the human courage and solidarity of those partisans. And perhaps instead of saying, I’m not a racist, but…, we’ll say I’m not a racist, but instead an anti-racist.

Heartfelt thanks to Filippo for letting me share my thoughts with his readers. And special thanks to Strega Off for allowing me to use their photo.

Image courtesy Strega Off, the organizers of an event that celebrates the prestigious Italian Strega literary prize.

Taste one of my all-time favorite wines with me this Thursday in Houston: Pertinace Barbaresco with winemaker Cesare Barbero

In case you haven’t been following the news about the fires in Napa and Sonoma, please see this harrowing account by leading wine blogger Alder Yarrow. Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to our sisters and brothers on the ground there. See also this Calfund.org link with information about the current status of the fires and relief organizations that are taking donations.

This Thursday for our weekly virtual wine dinner at Roma restaurant in Houston, we’ll be hosting Pertinace winemaker Cesare Barbero (above) and presenting the cooperative’s Dolcetto, Barbera, and Barbaresco.

Whether the single-vineyard designates or the classic Barbaresco (the one we’ll be drinking on Thursday), these are some of my all-time favorite wines.

I started following Pertinace back in the early 2000s when I was still living and working in New York. For nearly two decades now, I continue to reach for these wines as one of Langa’s best values and one of the greatest expressions (imho) of Italian viticulture.

Roma owner Shanon and I have been working with the distributor to make the wines available at the same price he charges for all of these dinners. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be hosting Cesare and the wines this week.

See the menu and details here.

You can reserve by simply sending me an email (here).

I’ll look forward to tasting these extraordinary wines with you. Thank you for your support.

And btw, the importer recently gave me a bottle of the 2016 Dolcetto by Pertinace because I wanted to make sure the vintage was showing well. This wine knocked me off my feet with its vibrant fruit and balance. I thought it was stunning. I know our guests are really going to love these. They are really special wines.

A meaningful Yom Kippur.

My most vivid memory of Yom Kippur growing up stretches back to the year after I became bar mitzvahson of the commandment.

The services were held in a cavernous events hall (because at the time, our shul, now a large campus, was literally a house and the services were held in a living room).

Many conservative Jews like my parents didn’t attend Shabbat services regularly. But they all wanted to go to the High Holy Day services, Rosh Hashanah (the new year) and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), which take place 10 days part in that order.

My parents were going through an extremely messy divorce and my father had all but abandoned my mother, my brothers and me. But there I was, sitting next to Zane, in what felt like an airplane hanger to a 13-year-old dressed in an ill-fitting and very uncomfortable suit and rumpled tie.

I was so tired and bored that I could barely keep my eyes open when the rabbi called my name from the bimah. He was asking me to come forward to hold a Torah — the scroll where the five Books of Moses are transcribed — during part of the service.

Suddenly, I was paralyzed with fear. As hard as I tried, I simply couldn’t move my legs.

But after a long and awkward silence that seemed like an eternity, I mustered the courage to head to the bimah where I was handed the sacred text.

My fear — shared by 13-year-olds across the world, I imagine — was that I would drop the Torah.

As we were erroneously taught back then, a person who dropped a Torah would have to fast for 40 days. And everyone who saw the Torah drop also had to fast for 40 days.

But what weighed on me even more greatly was knowing that I would be letting my entire community down.

Although this was long before I would become a serious student of writing, the importance of this text was acutely engrained in me.

“Man is drowning in the sea of life,” one of my Hebrew school teachers once told the class (which was held in a trailer outside the house where the sanctuary was located). “The Torah is G-d’s way of throwing him a lifesaver,” he said, using the gendered synecdoche for “humankind” as was the custom in the early 1980s.

Would I drop G-d’s “lifesaver”? I thought to myself.

I had sweat through my suit jacket and was still shaking when the cantor had me pass the scroll back to him and I went back to my seat next my father. But I hadn’t dropped the Torah.

Today, on Erev Yom Kippur, the day before the Day of Atonement, that memory fills my mind. Except now, our children are my Torah.

In a world very literally gripped by plague, in a world where the air quality is so bad that my brothers and mother can’t go outside in my native California, in a world where Biblical flooding wipes away cities on the coast where I now live, in a world where my white neighbors still contend that people who don’t look like them must “prove their worth,” where my white neighbors tell me to “get the hell out of America” because of my beliefs…

In this world, Georgia and Lila Jane are my lifesaver. G-d has blessed us with them and we are called to nurture and protect them the same way we observe Their word.

Today, 40 years after I didn’t drop that scroll, they and their future are what give me hope for a world better than the one we brought them into.

May your fast be easy and your Yom Kippur meaningful.

Have you ever tasted a still Sorbara? I have thanks to a virtual trade tasting.

When the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central, my longtime client, first contacted me about helping out with a virtual trade tasting, I have to admit that I was skeptical.

The concept was as simple as it was ambitious. The project leader planned to convince producers in Italy not to send just a handful of bottles for each of their labels but rather multiple cases of each one. He and his team (I’m a member) would then reach out to leading Texas wine professionals across the state to set up one-on-one virtual conferences where the Texans and the Italians would each have the same wines in front of them. Using a time-tested logistics partner on the east coast and a new digitally based importing platform, the wines would be gathered in Florence and then sent to Texas to be distributed between trade members and media in Houston (where the chamber is based), Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin.

On paper and in practice, it was nothing short of a herculean effort.

I was surprised that the producers were willing to ship so much wine for the uncharted waters of a massive virtual wine event. But ultimately, when they factored in all the money they were saving by not traveling to the U.S., scores of wineries were eager to participate.

And when you explained to incredulous Texas-based wine and restaurant professionals that the wine would be delivered to their doorsteps and that all they had to do was log on to a virtual 30-minute call with producers they selected, they were happy to take part. After all, not only did you get to taste the wine, but you had the opportunity to “spend some time with it” later in the day and at dinner. That’s something that rarely happens at a conventional trade tasting where you line up to get a small pour in a crowded and often chaotic ballroom or events space.

My ah-ha moment came when I sat down to taste a line of sparkling wines with a newish producer from Modena, Venti Venti. We had a great chat about the use of copper in organic farming as we tasted through their classic-method Lambruscos.

The wines were very good but I was the most curious about a still rosé they included in the flight. It was from Sorbara grapes, they told me.

I’ve been working in the wine trade for more than two decades now and Lambrusco and sparkling wine in general are some of my main interests. But I had never tasted a still wine made from a Lambrusco clone in all my years.

The day after the two-day event, I caught up with a Hosuton-based importer who was raving about a Gutturnio from Piacenza producer Zerioli.

That was when it struck me: if two veteran wine professionals can learn something new in a virtual tasting like this, there must be something to it.

I have seen the future of trade tastings and it’s name is “virtual.”

How to open a wine shop during a pandemic. Video interview with James Oliver of Vesper Wine.

Above: Vesper Wine owners and founders Aisha Savage-Shirley and James Oliver.

Late last week, I had the good fortune to get on a Zoom call (below) with James Oliver (above) who opened Houston’s newest wine shop, Vesper Wine, earlier this year.

Licensed as a winery, Vesper Wine is located in a part of Houston that some might call a “wine desert.” The status as a grape-to-wine transformer allows the business to considerable leeway in how it stocks and delivers its wines to customers across the state (wineries in Texas essentially exist outside the three-tier system and the state’s notoriously restrictive and anti-competitive regulation of the wine industry).

Working beyond the city’s inner loop (where most of Houston’s wine culture is concentrated), the new shop serves an under-served and wine-thirsty community eager for high-quality wine and high-caliber wine education.

Anchored around highly focused wine pedagogy combined with finely honed social media strategies, the store’s business model has proved an unmitigated success at a time when consumers have pivoted toward retail. As wine lovers go out to eat less often and increasingly want to create a high-end dining experience at home, wine merchants like Vesper Wine have become the focal point of the new wine normal. And James, who has that “people person” demeanor that you need to succeed in the wine trade, is providing his clients with consumer-friendly and tech-savvy wine knowledge that enhances their enjoyment — a sine qua non of the New Wine.

Check out the Vesper Wine site and the shop’s Instagram.

And watch the video below to learn how James managed to open a super successful wine shop in the middle of a pandemic that has gripped our city for more than half a year.

Thanks for being here. I know you’ll enjoy our chat as much as I did.

Drink a bottle of Barolo with Giuseppe Vaira and me this Thursday in Houston.

Photo by Ilkka Sirén.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to be moderating a virtual wine dinner this Thursday with my good friend Giuseppe Vajra (above), legacy winemaker at G.D. Vajra in Barolo and one of the most soulful Langa growers I know.

Giuseppe will be joining me for our weekly event at Roma restaurant, my client, here in Houston.

I first tasted at Vajra back in 2010 and then later had the opportunity to work with Giuseppe here in Texas. Over the years, Tracie and I have enjoyed the wines immensely and I’ve featured his wines on restaurant lists I’ve managed. We have more than a few vintages of his Bricco delle Viole in our cellar. The family’s Riesling is another age-worthy stand-out among many others in the line up.

As every wine professional knows these days, this is a time for creativity. Roma owner Shanon Scott and I have been working with our suppliers to keep the price of these dinners low while still being able to offer our guests a unique and truly compelling experience. As if tasting with winemaker like Giuseppe weren’t enough, we were able to obtain his 2016 Barolo Albe specially for this event. But the price will be the same as always: $119 sends you home with dinner for two and three (yes, three!) bottles of wine including Giuseppe’s Barolo.

Click here for the menu and the other wines. (The Vajra Dolcetto is my 87-year-old mother’s all-time favorite red wine, btw.)

We expect this event to sell out quickly: please let me know if you’d like me to hold you a spot (click here to email me).

Shanah tovah (שנה טובה). May your new year be filled with sweetness…

Shanah tovah u’metuka. May you have a good and sweet year ahead.

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, we eat apples and honey as a symbol of the sweet year ahead we hope G-d will grant us.

May you and yours be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good and sweet new year.

From Chabad.org:

Let us turn our heads heavenward and, while thanking Him for sparing so much human life, beseech G-d to restore health and well-being to those who are suffering!

Let us ask G-d for a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year for the entire universe! Our High Holiday prayers, we are taught, have an extraordinary effect on the year ahead – let’s seize the opportunity!

Let us make firm, tangible resolutions to better ourselves and increase our mitzvot, in both our interpersonal and our G-d-and-us relationships.

And let us all simply shower one another with blessings!

Thanks for being here. I’ll see you next week. Happy new year…

What are biodynamic wines? Taste virtually with one of Italy’s leading biodynamic grape growers this Thursday in Houston.

You’re probably wondering why I’m posting a picture of a dog with a basket full of flowers on my blog today.

Yes, it’s true that Tracie, the girls, and I are dog lovers and we count a Chihuahua and a Chihuahua mix as family members (Paco and RooRoo, respectively).

But it’s actually the flowers that make the image compelling.

This week at the weekly virtual wine dinner I host for my client Roma restaurant in Houston, we’ll be welcoming Emilio Fidora of the Fidora winery in Veneto.

Founded in 1974, Fidora claims to be the Veneto region’s first organic certified winery. And it was also one of the first estates there to convert to biodynamic farming.

But one of the things that I find so exceptional about Emilio (a super cool dude who lives in Padua where I studied for many years) is that he actually makes his biodynamic preparations himself. That’s his dog in the image above and those are some of the flowers he grows for the preparations.

For those not familiar with biodynamic preparations, they are powders made from flowers and herbs. They are then mixed with cow dung, which in turn is used to fill cow horns. Those horns are then buried and once the desired microbiome (bacteria and fungi) has been achieved, the horns are unearthed. Their contents are mixed with water and then sprayed across the vineyards to help bolster the “humus” or life force (some would call it the biodiversity) of the soil.

On Thursday night, we’ll be tasting three of Emilio’s wines paired with Chef Angelo Cuppone’s food. And Emilio will be walking our guests through the history and impact of biodynamics on grape farming and winemaking.

One of the things I’m most interested to ask him is the spiritual aspects of biodynamics. In America, many fine wine grape growers have embraced biodynamics but they tend to omit the historic movement’s quasi-religious character. In Europe, in my experience, winemakers seem more attuned to the metaphysical elements of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, one of the first and most widely hailed agronomists to champion biodynamics.

As always, it’s going to make for fascinating conversation. If you’ve never attended, I know you’ll enjoy our simpatico group of regulars.

See the menu and reservation details here ($119 per couple for three courses and three bottles of wine!). And please feel free to email me here if you’d like me to hold you a spot.

On deck for next week: Barolo producer Giuseppe Vaira from G.D. Vajra.

Black Lives Matter over newly built neo-Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas.

Late last week, RepurposeMemorial.com posted its latest billboard across from the newly built neo-Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up.

Today, we are happy to report, “Black Lives Matter” looks down on the site from across the road.

Tracie and I launched RepurposeMemorial.com in January, 2018 (we began protesting the site in November 2017 after the neo-Confederates began displaying their flags there for the first time). Since that time, we have repeatedly asked the Sons of Confederate Veterans (the neo-Confederate and outwardly racist group behind the memorial) to enter into dialog with us about how the memorial could be repurposed (not torn down) to reflect community values in a city where nearly half the residents are black and where there is a sordid legacy of racist violence.

So far, the Sons have responded with threats of violence and trolling.

The billboard was made possible through our ongoing GoFundMe campaign. Thanks to the generosity of donors, we were able to secure the billboard for six months. This is the second billboard we’ve published since we inked our latest contract.

We hope to raise enough money to renew the contract by the time it expires in January, 2021 (right before Martin Luther King Day).

The “Confederate Memorial of the Wind” stands on Martin Luther King Dr., one of the city’s main arteries. Construction on the site began in 2015 and the neo-Confederates began displaying their flags there in late 2017 (not long after the notorious neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate march in Charlottesville, Virginia).

The response to the new billboard has been overwhelmingly positive.

Heartfelt thanks to Orange native designer Ashley Evans for creating the artwork and to Beaumont-based photographer Pete Churton for the photo above.

And thank you to everyone who contributed to our campaign: none of this would be possible without you!

Tony Vallone, Italian-American culinary pioneer, dies at 75.

Above: Tony Vallone at his landmark Houston restaurant Tony’s in 2013.

Tony Vallone, an Italian-American culinary pioneer and owner of one America’s most renowned restaurants, has died this week. He suffered from “health complications” said his wife, Donna Vallone. He was 75.

Vallone’s landmark restaurant Tony’s in Houston was a place where presidents, sentators, oil executives, and socialites entertained for more than five decades. See this Houston Chronicle obituary where society reporter Amber Elliot lists just a handful of the politicians, business leaders, and celebrities who dined regularly at the restaurant.

Myriad remembrances have been published since news of his passing stunned the Houston food community yesterday. Countless more will surely be posted in coming days.

Few will remember, however, that beyond his role as chef and host to America’s glitterati for more than a half century, Tony was an insatiable gastronome and gourmet, an authority on Italian and American cuisine, and a generous soul who mentored a generation of food and wine professionals. He simply loved to talk about food — especially Italian cookery — with anyone who shared his boundless passion for gastronomy.

Above: Baron Enrico “Ricky” di Portanova (left), a Houston socialite, with Tony (center) and baseball great Bob Aspromonte in an undated photo (circa 1980).

I worked for nearly eight years as a media consultant for Tony’s restaurant group and spent many mornings with him bantering over the minutia of Italian cuisine and drinking espresso.

In the 1970s, after the legendary Houston developer Gerald Hines had recognized Tony’s immense talent and helped him launch the second Tony’s (the first stood where the Macy’s in Hines’ Galleria shopping mall is now located), Tony began traveling regularly to Italy where he dined and researched Italian regional cuisine.

From the finer points of ragù alla bolognese to the wild fennel fronds needed to make a proper pasta con le sarde (the classic Sicilian spaghetti with fresh sardines), no nuance of Italian gastronomy escaped Tony, a true culinary titan of his times.

His recipe for cannoli was based on his experiences eating the dessert in Piana degli Albanesi in Sicily, a small village in Sicily where he had traveled expressly to uncover the secrets behind the iconic dish. Today, in the (pre-pandemic) world of global travel and Instagram, that may not seem impressive to some. But when you consider that Tony made the trek in the late 1970s, it’s clear that he was an unrivaled culinary pioneer and gastronomic adventurer of the era.

Italian food writer and restaurant critic John Mariani often cited Tony as a leading restaurateur of the “FedEx” generation. Tony famously recollected how he would source his calamari from bait shops in the early days of Tony’s because no fish monger in Houston would carry them. But in the 1980s, when international couriers made it possible to obtain fresh buffalo’s milk mozzarella from Campania and line-caught Mediterranean sea bass, Tony was literally one of the first in America to offer his guests such delicacies. Today, food like that may seem commonplace to WholeFoods devotees. But when Ronald Reagan was president and Houston was enjoying its second wave as one of the world’s must-visit destinations for the well heeled, Tony was an unrivaled trailblazer of fine dining.

His encyclopedic knowledge of Italian and world cuisine was nothing short of spectacular. And his hunger for culinary exploration never waned. I remember his unbridled joy when he finally sourced a rare Italian heirloom legume, a broad bean distinctive for its nearly black coloring. The dish he was working on at the time wouldn’t be complete without it, he said.

When a friend texted me to let me know of his passing yesterday, my mind overflowed with warm memories of Tony, our conversations, and spellbinding meals that Tracie and I shared at his table.

The greatest lesson that he ever taught me about Italian food was as simple as it was profound.

“For Italian food to be truly authentic,” he told me, “it has to be creative.”

That philosophy — that ethos — pervaded all of Tony’s cooking. He’ll be sorely missed. But he and his food will never be forgotten.

Sit tibi terra levis Iosephe.