In unprecedented move, Italy expands coronavirus lockdown nationwide.

Yesterday in a televised address to the country, Italian premier Giuseppe Conte announced the implementation of nationwide restrictions on movement throughout Italy and its islands. The new “zone protetta” (“protected zone”) expands the “zona rossa” (“red zone”) lockdown that was put into place across a broad swath of northern Italy early Sunday morning.

Read the New York Times coverage here.

As of today, Italians are being advised not to leave their homes and are only allowed to travel between cities and towns if they are in possession of a signed declaration that their movement is absolutely necessary for work or health reasons or “extenuating circumstances.”

The government has assured citizens that goods will continue to circulate despite the lockdown. There are widespread reports of supermarkets being overwhelmed by shoppers concerned that shortages of essential items are inevitable.

It’s not clear what the short-term impact on the Italian wine trade will be. All the major Italian wine trade fairs, generally held during this time of year, have already been cancelled or postponed. Most Italian winemakers had already cancelled international travel plans before the nationwide lockdown took effect.

“Dear friends and customers,” wrote one Italian winery in an e-blast to its clients today, “we inform you that the cellar will be closed for visits and tastings until April 3. In the meantime, keep drinking [our wine] at home, and if you don’t have enough, contact us, we will do our best to help you.”

Nothing like this has happened in Italy since the Second World War.

I had been planning to travel to Italy next week but when I logged into my airline account manager this morning, I discovered that my flights to and from Milan had been cancelled by the carrier.

My Italian friends and colleagues, at least those with whom I’ve traded messages since the announcement of the new restrictions, agree that the new restrictions are necessary. One friend in Milan told me that people are getting restless and that some are planning to travel regardless of the new lockdown. It’s not clear how authorities will enforce the restrictions or how severe the penalties will be for those who travel without authorization.

“We all have to sacrifice something for the good of Italy,” said Conte in his address.

Right now, our hearts and prayers go out to all of our Italian sisters and brothers, especially those with elderly relatives. Italians, know that we stand with you. G-d bless Italy and all of us.

Photo by Rosita Dorigo.

Coronavirus: northern Italy implements severe travel restrictions as Italian wine professionals face “discrimination” in U.S.

Above: Milan’s iconic cathedral on Monday morning around 10 a.m. On a normal day, this piazza would be full of commuters and shoppers (photo by Giovanni Contrada).

Early Sunday morning, in its ongoing efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Italian government announced severe restrictions for movement across a broad swath of northern Italy, affecting roughly 16 million people.

Later in the day, the U.S. embassy in Rome issued the following statement:

    On March 8, 2020, the Government of Italy signed a decree that requires individuals to avoid movement to and from and within certain areas unless one can demonstrate an essential work-related reason or other necessity such as an emergency health-related reason. It remains unclear what mechanisms the Italian government foresees to enforce the provisions of the decree.
    These areas include Lombardy region; the provinces of Padova, Treviso, and Venice in Veneto region; the provinces of Alessandria, Asti, Novara, Verbano Cusio Ossola, and Vercelli in Piemonte region; the provinces of Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Reggio nell’Emilia, and Rimini in Emilia Romagna region; and the province of Pesaro-Urbino bordering the Republic of San Marino in Marche region.
    The decree is in force through April 3 and also details restrictions for the rest of Italy, such as certain large gatherings, school closures at various levels, and the closing of civil and religious ceremonies, gyms and swimming pools, theaters. museums and cultural centers. Public transportation including trains and airlines continues, but travelers should check with carriers for any schedule updates.

Above: Milan’s canal district, known as the Navigli, deserted on Monday morning (photo by Giovanni Contrada).

According to the latest update published by the Italian health ministry (6 p.m. local time, March 8), there have been 7,375 reported cases of persons infected with the virus in the country, with 6,387 persons currently testing positive. 622 persons have recovered after being infected. 3,557 persons with symptoms are currently hospitalized, 650 are in intensive care, and 2,180 are in home isolation. As of last night, 366 had died as a result of the virus (although this number is still being verified by authorities).

There is still widespread confusion as to how the northern lockdown will be implemented and who will be allowed to enter and leave the restricted zones.

Milan’s central train station was overwhelmed on Sunday as thousands of southern Italians hoped to leave the city before restrictions went into effect.

None of my Italy-based colleagues I spoke to today know exactly how strictly their movement will be monitored in coming days or how the new measures will be enforced.

According to mainstream media reports, the Milan airports are still open although Alitalia has cancelled all flights to and from Malpensa (the city’s international hub). At least one masthead reported that Alitalia is still flying in and out of Linate, the city’s smaller airport.

As the number of infections continues to grow, there seems to be no indication of when the crisis will begin to subside.

Above: leading Italian wine critic James Suckling (center, right) presented his Great Wines of Italy event Friday in Miami. Many, including me, applauded him as a hero of Italian wine for his efforts this week in the face of the growing health crisis.

In the meantime, here in the U.S., traveling Italian wine professionals were turned away last week when the Manhattan venue hosting the James Suckling Great Wines of Italy tasting refused to allow them on the premises.

In an Instagram video that has since gone viral within the Italian wine community, San Diego-based Italian wine professional Laura Donadoni described her dismay when she learned of what she termed “discrimination” toward her fellow Italians in New York and at other tastings across the U.S. this week.

Thankfully, Suckling was able to secure a new venue for the event and did not have to reschedule.

On Friday, I attended the last stop of the Great Wines of Italy tour in Miami where the event went off without a hitch, although many attendees told me that there were fewer people than last year. Over the weekend, a few wine enthusiasts told me privately that they decided not to attend the event for fear of contracting the virus (although they all insisted that they were avoiding “public gatherings” and not Italians per se).

A bottle of 1985 Sangiovese restored my faith last night in Miami Beach…

One of the things that has always amazed me about wine is how it can expand the horizons in our minds and our hearts.

In our minds because every wine is a glimpse of the past, a moment in time captured in a bottle, the universe in a glass.

In our hearts because despite all our science, wine remains a mystery and miracle, the same that gave life, succor, and faith to the ancients and the women and men who came before us in nearer times.

A bottle of 1985 Morellino di Scansano reminded me of our shared humanity last night when a group of wine writers sat down for dinner and a flight of Fattoria Le Pupille wines with the farm’s current generation, Clara Gentili. (I’ve been consulting with her U.S. importer, Ethica, and they brought me to Florida this week to meet her and taste together.)

The wine, harvested a month or so after a kid from southern California started college and Ronald Reagan was roughly halfway through his presidency, was fresh and lithe in the glass, with moreish savory notes of macchia (the distinctive Italian garrigue) and supple red and berry fruit that danced atop its still very vibrant acidity.

A 35-year-old wine that’s abided patiently through world crises — bellic, pecuniary, and epidemical — that have convulsed human discourse and self-awareness. A more than three-decades-old expression of a rational contortion of nature, the effort resulting by women and men (some of whom are no longer here to know the fruits of their toil) who worked the vineyards and transformed the must.

The wine — utterly delicious and immaculate in its clarity and focus — lifted me up and brightened my spirit. It reminded me of a line from Boccaccio’s afterword, where he advocates for the entertainments and medicaments of the young Tuscan nobles who have fled Florence for the countryside.

“Who will deny that wine is an excellent thing for the living?” he asks.

Clara, thank you for coming to America during these trying times and sharing these extraordinary bottles with us! Thank you for not letting trepidation in the face of the uncertainty impede your travels in wine! Thank you for reminding us of the miracle of wine and its life-giving properties!

Thank you, most of all, for affirming that we, too, will weather the current crises the world faces, just like a 35-year-old bottle of wine harvested on the Tuscan coast nearly a lifetime ago.

I’ll be tasting with Clara and other Italian producers tonight at the Suckling event in Miami and on Sunday and Monday I’ll be attending the Florida Wine Academy’s Vino Summit conference. I’m looking forward to sharing notes from both…

Taste of Italy Houston festival postponed due to ongoing health crisis.

UPDATE (March 4, 2020): Vinitaly has been postponed until June. See details here.

As one of the organizers of this event, I am deeply sorry to have to share the following press release. See also this CultureMap coverage of the postponement.

March 2, 2020
Italy-America Chamber of Commerce
Houston, Texas

PRESS RELEASE: Taste of Italy Houston (March 29-30), Taste of Italy New Orleans (March 31), and Savor Italy Los Angeles (April 2) postponed.

As U.S. issues Italy travel advisory, IACC postpones food and wine festivals planned for Houston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles in March.

The Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central has officially postponed its food and wine festivals and trade fairs previously scheduled for March in Houston (March 29-30) and New Orleans (March 31). The Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West (Los Angeles) has also postponed the festivals’ sister event in Los Angeles previously scheduled for April 2.

The IACC has decided to reschedule the gatherings in the wake of news reports of U.S. carrier flight cancellations to and from northern Italy and the U.S. government’s newly announced screening policy for travelers arriving in the country from Italy.
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I kissed 221 Italians at the Gambero Rosso tasting on Friday in New York. Italian wine marches forward despite coronavirus fears.

The Italian health ministry hasn’t updated the number of reported novel coronavirus cases today but according to mainstream media reports, there are now nearly 1,700 confirmed cases, with nearly 500 new cases reported over the last 48 hours. The healthy ministry also reports that 11 cities in northern Italy remain on lockdown (see link for list).

It was an amazing site to see on Friday in Manhattan as 221 Italian wineries presented their wines at the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tasting there.

That’s a photo (above) of the tasting as it was coming to an end shortly before 6 p.m. The room had been packed all afternoon, with no noticeable dip in attendance (at least in my experience; I attended last year’s tasting as well and have been going to Gambero Rosso events like this for more than 20 years).

The Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tasting is like a high school reunion for most of us, an event where you see people you’ve known for decades (at least for the older folks like me). Although people were asking permission to give a hug or a kiss, it seemed (at least to me) that no one feared personal contact.

Overall, despite the growing bad news about the spread of the virus and events being postponed, the mood was joyous. In some ways, it felt like we were all commiserating in the wake of this year’s unfortunate setbacks for the wine trade (first the continued tariffs and the disruption the threat of tariffs has caused and now the virus).

On Saturday, news broke that Prowein in Düsseldorf, one of the European wine trade’s major tastings and events, has been cancelled. It was scheduled for March 15-17.

At dinner with Italian trade veterans on Friday night in Manhattan, I heard that at least one major American importer and distributor of European wines has banned European travel for its employees.

Over the weekend, U.S. mainstream media reported that Delta and American have cancelled all flights to Milan. My go-to carrier, United, hasn’t cancelled my March flight to Malpensa (Milan). But it is offering a change fee waiver for flight to most of its northern Italian destinations, including Milan.

It’s also been reported that travelers arriving from Italy will be “screened” by U.S. authorities when they arrive in the U.S. But it’s not clear yet what that will entail.

Today, I received an email from a small Italian growers association in which the authors asked me (and everyone else on their e-list) if they were planning on attending the April fairs in Italy (Vinitaly, Vinnatur, Vini Veri etc.). It seems that many in the industry are gauging whether or not those events should be cancelled. Most people I’ve spoken to on Friday and over the weekend are expecting Vinitaly to be cancelled as well.

As of today, I’m still planning on heading to Italy in mid-March.

Yesterday, I traded messages with a Los Angeles-based health professional, a good friend of mine and noted surgeon. He’s also planning to head to Italy the same week.

“From a health perspective, I’m not concerned,” he wrote. “But I am concerned that our … president can put us on a 14-day quarantine on return. I think the virus is already established here on the west coast. We have done only 600 or so tests, compared to 7000+ in Italy. We have had 2 cases out here of unknown etiology.”

I’m going to watch the evolving situation closely. But I’m still planning on going.

That’s all the news I have to report so far this morning. I’m sure there will be new developments today. Stay tuned…

MLK billboard appears over Confederate memorial throughout Black History Month. Thanks to everyone who made it possible.

Thanks to the generosity of everyone who contributed to our GoFundMe campaign, not only did our Martin Luther King billboard appear over the newly erected Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas on Martin Luther King Day this year, but it continues to appear and has appeared for the entirety of African American History Month (February).

Our goal was to buy one month of advertising space, starting a few days before the MLK holiday (January 20, this year), to coincide with our protest of the site that day. But ultimately we raised enough money to cover two months, making it possible to keep it up throughout February and beyond.

In late 2017, two Orange residents — Granvel Block and Hank Van Slyke — first began displaying the Confederate flag over their newly built Graeco-Roman atrium on Martin Luther King Dr. in Orange, where half the population is black and where there is a nasty legacy of Jim Crow and racial violence. And that’s when Tracie and I began organizing our protests at the site. Tracie grew up there and we spend a lot of time there with our children. (You can read about our campaign here on our Repurpose Memorial website.)

One of our donors this year was the Southern Poverty Law Center. Please check out the center’s Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy website and awareness program.

Tracie and I aren’t giving up this fight — not now, not ever.

It appears that at least one of the site’s organizers is launching a new campaign to intimidate us. It’s not their first and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

The people who conceived and built the site claim to be members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a secretive society of cowards who hide behind cosplay pageantry, all the while insinuating their racist iconography into public discourse.

They have brought a stain on their community with their “Memorial of the Wind,” as they call it (perhaps a better name would be the “Memorial of the Breaking Wind”!). And they lack the moral backbone to engage with their fellow citizens in meaningful dialog about the damage they have done to their city’s reputation and standing in the eyes of fellow Texans and Americans.

Bring it on, Granvel! Bring it on, Hank! We’re not going away and we will continue to remind you and your kind that such conspicuous displays of hateful iconography are socially unacceptable.

Thanks to everyone who made the billboard possible this year.

The Confederate flag is a symbol of hate. Don’t believe me? Ask your black friends.

Coronavirus unleashes panic across northern Italy.

Above: an illustration released today at noon (Italian time) by the Italian health ministry — 213 cases reported, 99 persons being treated at a hospital, 23 cases in need of intensive care, 91 persons in home isolation.

According to a report published this morning by the Italian national daily La Repubblica, a sixth person has died in Italy’s novel coronavirus outbreak.

The latest victim, report the editors, was a man in his 80s in Milan. All of those who have died from the virus have been more than 80 years old, they write.

You can see a map of areas where contagion has been reported here.

City streets are deserted and grocery store shelves emptied across northern Italy, where panic has gripped citizens in Piedmont, Lombardy, Trentino, and Veneto. In the southern Italian region of Puglia, officials are asking returning residents who work in the north to report their status upon their arrival there.

Italy’s emergency telephone number, 112 (similar to 911 in the U.S.), has been overwhelmed by callers who are seeking information about the outbreak.

At least 10 towns in Lombardy, where the outbreak is concentrated, are on lockdown, according to the most recent report by the New York Times.

Museums, schools, and churches are closed and all public gatherings have been postponed through Sunday, March 1.

Anecdotally, I’m hearing that lines at supermarkets are long and vital products are scarce. Nearly everyone who dares to go out wears a surgical mask (despite the fact that it doesn’t reduce your risk of being infected).

So far, I haven’t heard of any impact on the wine trade. But with industry fairs around the corner (Prowein next month and Vinitaly in April), some are concerned that the outbreak will impede attendance.

Italy’s winemakers dodged a bullet on February 14 when the U.S. government announced it wouldn’t be expanding wine tariffs to include Italian products. But many fear that the recent and rapidly evolving health crisis will ultimately have a negative effect on domestic sales. Today’s steep drop in global financial markets will certainly be viewed as an indicator of consumer confidence.

I’ll keep posting updates as more information becomes available.

If you’ve never been to Jimmy’s Food Store in Dallas, you don’t know what you’re missing…

Last night I was Paolo Cantele’s wing-man as he led a guided tasting and dinner featuring his family’s wines at the amazing Jimmy’s Food Store in Dallas, a national culinary treasure and a great resource for Italian and Italian-American gastronomy in the U.S.

Those are rigatoni with (housemade) sausage alla vodka. Legacy owner Paul Di Carlo did the cooking himself last night and the sauce was spot on, with just the right tang you achieve when you deglaze the tomato with the spirit. This was straight out of 1989 and full-on delicious.

Not only is Jimmy’s a fantastic old school Italian deli (like the “pork stores” in Brooklyn) but it’s also the best Italian wine shop in the state. Paul really knows Italian wine. Spectacular selection.

Jimmy’s has a special place in my heart because it was there, 11 years ago, that Paolo and I did our first event together. I was working for a supplier rep at the time and Paolo was one of my first ride-withs in Texas after I moved here to be with Tracie P. It was really neat for us to relive that moment.

A few years ago, Paul renamed his wine room. No explanation needed. If you have worked in Italian wine in this century (and/or the last), you know why this image is so special.

Paolo and I are headed to Tulsa today where we’ll be hosting an event at Vintage Wine Bar (at 5:30). Please join us! I’m SO PSYCHED to finally make it to Tulsa, a city I’ve wanted to visit for a long, long time. I know it’s going to be a great time.

1988 Aglianico del Taburno from Veronelli’s cellar blew us away last night (and Chambers St. now ships to non-ship states)

Above: just look at the color of that wine! We expected it to be light or even brown in color, with little flavor. But it drank beautifully last night.

When Chambers Street Wines did a recent offering of onesies from the famed Veronelli Collection, I thought I would read the shop’s e-blast just for fun (it’s one of the best wine shop newsletters out there imho, with great and often funny writing, and lots of juicy info). But when I saw a 1988 Aglianico del Taburno from Cantina del Taburno, it tugged at my heartstrings. And frankly, it was just too much to resist.

Luigi Veronelli was one of the greatest food and wine writers of the 20th-century, a pioneering editor and publisher of guide books, recipe books, and long-form gastronomic prose. And he was also one of the century’s most prolific (ante litteram) influencers. Many Italian wines we consider benchmarks and icons today were anointed as such by Veronelli over the course of his more than 40-year career in publishing. (Few remember that Veronelli’s “breakout” book was his best-selling I Cocktails published in 1971, a mixology recipe book; fewer still will remember that his 1957 edition of the Marquis de Sade’s Historiettes, Contes et Fabliaux was banned by Italian authorities at the time, marking an early financial disaster for him).

I never got to meet Veronelli before he died in 2004. But his writings and work as a publisher have shaped my own career in food and wine media. And I was deeply disappointed when I couldn’t attend any of the tastings of lots from his wine cellar when the wines began to be auctioned off a few years ago.

The fact that the bottle in question was from his own library made the purchase even more tantalizing and so I bit.

When we opened the wine last night, we expected it to be near dead. Often with wines like these, they offer a very brief moment of flavor when they are opened but then quickly fade away. My friends and I imagined it would be light in color or even brown. We also figured it would be cloudy with sediment (I had stood the wine upright for two days before opening in hopes of reducing the cloudiness and/or excessive amount of solids that you often find in wines this old).

But to our immense surprise and delight, the wine was very much alive, with delicious fruit and nice acidity. In the end, we didn’t even reach for our backup bottle of young Aglianico as we ate tagliatelle with lamb ragù and lasagne alla bolognese at our favorite Houston BYOB.

What a great wine!

It reminded me how every bottle you open, young or old, is always a gamble, but when it pays off, the results can be exhilarating, as was certainly the case last night.

The other good news about this bottle is that wine shops like Chambers Street Wines have now found a work-around that allows them to ship to restrictive “non-ship” states like Texas. This bottle, along with a mixed case of other bottles I ordered, found its way to me via a third-party shipper. The bottomline is this: as long as the wine is not shipped directly from an out-of-state retailer, it’s totally legal to ship wine to Texas. It just has to be purchased by the recipient before it shipped and then handed off to a courier who doesn’t sell the wine itself.

Arcane and backwards but such is the world we live in. It’s great news for people like me who want access to retail offerings from specialty shops like Chambers, one of my favorite in the country.

So little time and so much to tell. I’ve got to hit the road with my buddy Paolo Cantele: we’re heading to Dallas for a dinner tonight, Tulsa tomorrow for another tasting, and the Boulder for the last tasting of our road trip. See details here if you’d like to join. Thanks to everyone from the Houston wine community who came out to our super fun event at Vinology. That was awesome. Thank you!

Hang me in the Tulsa County Stars (taste with me there on Thursday)

I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Maybe it’s because Steinbeck made such a big impression on me when I read him as a kid.

Maybe it’s because I loved the musical “Oklahoma” when I was growing up.

Maybe it’s the Merle Haggard in me. I don’t know.

Or maybe its ’cause I want you to hang me in the Tulsa County stars, meet me where I land if I slip and fall too far.

See the lyrics to John Moreland’s awesome song here (and see the video below; he is supercool and he’s from Tulsa, of course).

I’ll be heading to Tulsa with my buddy Paolo Cantele, one of my best friends, this Thursday.

If you happen to be in the city that I’ve dreamt about all these years, please join us at Vintage Wine Bar where we’ll be leading an informal tasting and hanging out.

We’ll also be pouring in Houston tonight and Boulder on Saturday. Details follow. Hope to see you on the road (again)! Thanks for being here and there.

Vinology (Houston)
Tuesday, February 18
6:30 p.m.

Vintage Wine Bar (Tulsa)
Thursday, February 20
5:30 p.m.

Boulder Wine Merchant (Boulder)
Saturday, February 22
5:30 p.m.

Photo via TexasBackRoads’ Flickr (Creative Commons).