10 biggest stories to watch in Italian wine in 2018 (#1 might surprise you)

When I first moved to Texas nine years ago, it was common to see Italy grouped with “other” in wine shops (the Foucauldian implications were evident, at least to me). Today, it’s rare that Italy doesn’t have its own, distinct space on the retail floor.

10. The expanding Balkanization of importing and distributing.

Over the last two years, more and more blue chip and marquee-name Italian wineries have abandoned national distribution opting instead for a state-by-state strategy. None of the biggest players in Italian wine imports wield the power they did 10 years ago when the field of wines and importers was much smaller. California, with its extremely liberal importing and distributing regulation, sets the bar for this trend. It simply doesn’t make sense anymore to rely on the three-tier system with its inherent markups and bureaucratic obstacles.

9. The growth of self-importing.

More and more Italian wineries are investing in their own importing and distribution channels. In Texas, for example, a major northern Italian estate (with little history or market presence in the state) set-up its own importing and distributing company this year and from what the owner has told me, the company is looking to expand its reach to California and other states as well. High-profile Italian estates have also invested in existing companies in recent years. This trend will only continue to flourish.

8. Robust tribalization among big distributors.

As the big distributors have watched their empire dwindle as more and more small importer-distributors pop up across the U.S., they have doubled down on their efforts to muscle their smaller competitors through aggressive marketing and sometimes unfair market practices. Increasingly, I’ve seen wine buyers wooed with gifts and liberal expense accounts. It’s reminiscent of the “good old days” (as some would call them) when reps entered accounts with wads of cash to distribute. And it’s as scary as hell.

7. The importer vanity label.

Among their efforts to curb small-business mid-sized importers and distributors, the fat cats have increasingly turned to vanity labels — created out of nothing but ink, paper, glue, glass, and wine. They obtain large quantities of wine from commercial producers, concoct a back story and marketing campaign, and then sell the wines at a high markup. It’s a brilliant business model, no doubt. But it negates the very thing that makes Italian wine so cool: its small-scale familial approach to viticulture. Slap some Tuscan sun on to a bottle of Montepulciano farmed in Molise and pass out the cigars.

6. Multi-national corporations’ land grab.

One of the biggest stories of 2016 was the sale of Piedmont heritage producer Vietti to the American owners of the Kum and Go convenience store chain. One of the biggest Italian wine stories of 2017 was the release of what may be the highest-priced Italian wine ever. A growing number of Italians fear that it’s only a matter of time before many of the best Italian estates are bought-up by multi-national corporations. Sadly, the unstoppable march of capitalist progress is, well, unstoppable.

5. Sicily is the coolest kid on the block.

As a wine buyer and an Italian wine trade observer, I’ve been seeing more and more value-driven, high-quality wines coming from the island. Investment in Sicilian wine, from Etna to Vittoria, is only growing and Sicilians have become increasingly savvy about marketing their wines in the U.S. It seems like every day, I taste something great from a new Sicilian winery. And it’s not just limited to cool-kid estates. Last year, I was thrilled to see Monica Larner (who’s doing wondrous things for Italian wine, btw) devote so much ink to heritage winery Feudo Montoni and its show-stopping wines. This year, Ian D’Agata wrote the following for Vinous: “Feudo Montoni is one of Italy’s best but still relatively little known estates.” Yes! Keep the great wine (and great wine writing) coming…

4. Sparkling wine.

The unbridled success of Prosecco in the 1990s has spawned a wave of sparkling wine production in Italy. From Sicily to Gambellara, it seems that everyone wants to get in on the sparkling wine gravy train — with mixed results. There’s no doubt that sparkling wine is the fastest growing category in wine across the world and we are only going to see more bubbles and more investment in Italian bubbles marketing here in the U.S.

3. Natural wine.

The ongoing debate over what is and what is not natural wine remind me of the countless hours we used to spend in graduate seminars discussing the definition of post-post-modernism. Sometimes it took up so much time that we hardly devoted our attention to the works of literature we were supposed to be studying. There’s no doubt that natural wine has established itself firmly as a market and marketing category in the minds of U.S. consumers — especially among young ones. In bon appétite, wine writers Belle Cushing and Marissa A. Ross called natural wine “2017’s Drink of the Year.” One of their criteria for selecting a bottle of natural wine was “It’s Fine to Just Pick the Coolest Looking Label.” Yes, it’s come to that. But it can only be a good thing in my view: the newer wave of natural wine enthusiasts only continues their predecessors’ efforts to champion small-scale farming and wholesomeness. That’s a positive, at least where I come from.

2. Asti Secco.

The first wave tsunami of Asti Secco is beginning to hit American shores. It’s going to give Prosecco a run for the money. The category didn’t make landfall in time to insinuate itself fully into holiday sparkling wine sales in the U.S. market. But Prosecco growers are going to be carefully watching developments in 2018. There’s a lot of money and marketing savvy behind the brands that are pushing this newly created Italian wine. Hold on to your seats… it’s coming to a Target near you!

1. The delayed issuance of CMO marketing subsidies.

Although hardly noticed by the American wine trade, the biggest story in Italian wine in 2017 was Italy’s failure to renew its CMO subsidies. More widely known by its Italian acronym OCM, the EU’s Common Market Organisation includes programs to protect and promote heritage viticulture and sustainable farming practices. But it also provides funds for the marketing European wines abroad. In the fall 2017, France and Spain received their new round of foreign marketing subsidies without a hitch. Italy did not: the EU delayed the issuance of monies earmarked for the country until February of 2018. From what I’ve been able to find out, the delay is owed to the fact that Italy wasn’t able to spend all of the funds allocated for 2017.

Thanks for reading and thanks for drinking Italian wine in 2017, 2018, and beyond…

Gualtiero Marchesi, 87, pioneer of Italy’s new cuisine, dies

Gualtiero Marchesi, a pioneer of Italy’s new cuisine and the first Italian chef to be awarded three stars by the Michelin guide, has died.

The Corriere della Sera reports today that Marchesi was surrounded by his family at his home in Milan. The cause of death was a tumor.

Marchesi famously became the first Italian chef to be awarded the top ranking by the French restaurant guide in 1985 (published in 1986). He also made headlines when he “gave his stars back” in 2008.

“I’ve had enough with scores,” he said at the time. “From now on, I’m only accepting comments.”

A generation of Italian chefs — many of them now celebrities in their own right — cooked in his kitchens and studied with Marchesi, who is widely viewed as the father of the new wave of Italian cookery.

I only met him once, nearly 20 years ago in New York at an event at the Tavern on the Green. He was extremely approachable and polite, a true gentleman of Italian gastronomy.

In his talk that day, Marchesi, who was born in Milan and opened his first restaurant there, spoke of making a risotto alla milanese while attending a food event in Israel. He couldn’t use Parmigiano Reggiano — a key ingredient — to make the dish, he said, because it had to be kosher. He used olive oil instead, he recounted, noting that the omission of dairy didn’t diminish the authenticity of the recipe.

“You have to cook with the ingredients available to you,” he said. “That’s what makes for great cuisine.”

I’ve never forgotten his advice, nor will I ever.

Gualtere sit tibi terra levis.

Read the English-language Wikipedia entry on his life and career here.

Image via Bruno Cordioli’s Flickr (Creative Commons).

Best Champagne buys for the holidays (Houston-centric recommendations)

When it comes to sparkling wine for the holidays, there’s really no good reason for Champagne to eclipse the myriad classic-method wines available today from other appellations.

But let’s face it: even for the hippest and most ardent lovers and defenders of pét[illant]-nat[urel], there’s nothing that beats a great Champagne house — large, small, storied, best-kept-secret, corporate-owned, or family-run — on New Year’s Eve.

At our house, we will be drinking my favorite Franciacorta over the holidays (yes, Arcari + Danesi is now legal in Texas!). But we will also be drinking Champagne with the family friends we will be hosting for New Year’s.

Yesterday, I made the rounds of some of my favorite wine shops in Houston and here’s what I found.

America’s behemoth wine and spirits retailer Spec’s has its flagship store in Midtown (on the “verge of downtown,” as my current favorite singer-songwriter-guitarist Robert Ellis would say). When it comes to Champagne, the outfit has cornered the market on the most aggressive pricing for the top domaines. And it also had the biggest selection of large-format Champagne — a great option for entertaining during the holidays.

I can’t ever recommend shopping at Spec’s without adding this caveat: when buying entry-tier wines there, you have to be sure to check the vintage to make sure that you’re getting the current release. Unfortunately, there are legions of stale wines that populate its shelves (especially when it comes to white wines). But when it comes to premium appellations like Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy, Spec’s pricing is the most competitive.

Delamotte, Pol Roger, Bollinger, Pierre Péters, Billecart-Salmon, Henriot, Gaston Chiquet, André Clouet… Paying cash/debit and buying six bottles or more, all of the above wines landed at more-than reasonable prices (even when compared with more liberal markets like California, where wine sales are less heavily regulated by the Communist government there, a paradox and conundrum of contemporary American mores).

Spec’s also had a great price on La Montina Franciacorta, the vintage-dated rosé and the Satèn. If you’re looking to spend something closer to $30 as opposed to $50 (the average price for a decent bottle of Champagne), this is my number-one recommendation. I like the wines a lot from La Montina, an organic grower and solid winemaker.

Next on my itinerary was the Houston Wine Merchant where prices are higher but you the level of wine knowledge among the staff and attentive customer service are more than worth the admission price. I was impressed by some of the more coveted bottles they had there.

I wish I could afford the Pierre Gimonnet 2010 Spécial Club, for example, or the Vouette & Sorbée Saignée de Sorbée Rosé Brut Nature. I couldn’t find wines like that anywhere else in my adoptive city. Alas, they won’t be served at our house this year. Great wines…

One of the most overlooked venues for fine wines in Houston is the Kroger’s supermarket on North Shepherd, where a purchase of six bottles or more (mix-and-match) gets you a 10 percent discount.

You won’t find some of the more esoteric bottles of Champagne that some of us prefer for special occasions like New Year’s. But you will find extremely aggressive pricing. Entry-tier Taittinger and Perrier-Jouët — perfectly respectable, delicious wines — both clock in around $40 if you hit the six-bottle threshold (mix-and-match on any wine, including great prices on Qupé and Mattiasson, two of my favorite Californians, for example).

And if you want to land below $30, the Californian classic-method Domaine Carneros by Taittinger is a great option for a great domestic sparkler, available at Kroger’s.

Whatever you drink this year for the holidays, I hope you drink it with someone you love.

Happy holidays, everyone!

How to handle a faulty cage on a bottle of sparkling wine? Sommeliers please weigh in!

Over the weekend, Tracie, our girls, and I hosted a holiday party for roughly 50 people in our home. In keeping with seasonal spirit, I wanted to greet every adult guest with a glass of sparkling wine. And so I had chilled a six-pack of one of my favorites.

In order to have the wine ready, I decided to open the bottles a few minutes before guests were to arrive.

And that’s when something DISASTROUS happened: the cage on every bottle was faulty. Something at the winery must have gone awry when the wine was disgorged and sealed. Either that or the cages themselves were defective.

As any wine pro should be able to tell you, it takes six turns to remove the cage from a bottle of sparkling wine. But occasionally (rarely though it does happen), the wire will break before the cage can be removed. (It wasn’t the wine in the photo above btw; it was a wine from another European appellation.)

How do you deal with this issue when it arises? I’d really appreciate any insights.

Here’s how I handled the situation.

First of all, I took all the wine outside. I knew that the pressure of cutting the wire from the cage would agitate the bottle, making the pressure inside the bottle even strong and increasing the risk that I would not be able to contain the cork. I wanted to make sure that no one (including me) would be hurt.

Armed with a wine key, kitchen shears, and a dish towel, I gingerly used the knife of the wine key to pull the wire a few millimeters away from the bottle.

Then with my thumb placed firmly over the cage, I used the shears to cut the wire.

As I suspected, the cork was ready to pop. Even though I had been extremely carefully not to disturb the bottle too much, the force exerted to pry away and then cut the wire was enough to increase the pressure in the wine to the point that the cork would pop off if left unchecked.

Holding the cork tightly with my thumb, I loosened the cage until the cork popped off. It was extremely difficult to keep the corks from being shot across the backyard. I managed to hold on to all of them. But I was glad that I had stepped outside: it was clear to me that I risked not being able to control the situation.

Sommeliers, what tool should you have on hand for this situation? I had kitchen shears but I could have also used needle-nose wire cutters (that I always have handy for when I work on my guitars).

What do you do when this happens on the floor of a restaurant during service?

My favorite Franciacorta is here in Texas! And it sweetens last night’s Maccabee miracle. Happy Hanukkah y’all!

Touch it, feel it, kiss it, smell it, taste it…

My favorite Franciacorta — Arcari + Danesi by my good friends Giovanni Arcari and Nico Danesi — is FINALLY available in Texas thanks to importer and distributor Rootstock (thank you, Ian and Nathan!). I picked up a case yesterday at the Houston Wine Merchant. But wherever you live, just ask your favorite wine merchant to order it for you. It’s now available in Texas.

The 2013 Franciacorta Dosaggio Zero is 90 percent Chardonnay and 10 percent Pinot Blanc fermented in stainless-steel and aged on its lees for 30 months. While many Franciacorta producers are leaning toward monovarietal Chardonnay wines, Giovanni and Nico’s use of Pinot Blanc (the traditional cuvée in Franciacorta) gives the wine a wonderful aromatic character. And thanks in part the balanced 2013 vintage (one of the best of the decade so far imho), the wine’s rich stone fruit flavors play beautifully against its lip-smacking minerality. The wine isn’t topped off when it’s disgorged and bottled (no added sweetener) and its own reserved grape must (from the same vintage) is used to provoke the second fermentation during tirage. Nothing but grapes are used to make it (no cane sugar is employed). The sweetness that you taste when you drink it is the natural flavor of the fruit. What a wine, people!

It’s what Tracie and I will be serving at our Hanukkah latke party this week. A great pairing btw.

My recommendation? Run don’t walk to your nearest wine shop: Texas received a limited amount of this highly allocated wine and I just depleted another case! Seriously, this is a wonderful wine for the holidays and the dudes who make it and import it couldn’t be nicer folks.

And speaking of the Festival of Lights…

The Parzen family celebrated the first night of Hanukkah last night with candle lighting, dreidels, and donuts (a traditional Hanukkah food because they are fried in oil).

The miracle of Hanukkah was sweetened by the fact that ALABAMA IS SENDING A DEMOCRAT TO THE U.S. SENATE! The news is a bright ray of hope in this dark time in America.

When Moore’s wife gave her “some of my best friends are Jews and blacks speech” the night before the election, she and her husband managed to take civic discourse in this country to a whole new low. The best line was “my attorney is a Jew.”

Anyone who denies that anti-semitism is on the rise in this country is either blind or a fool. Or worse… Had Alabamans sent Moore to the senate, they would have reaffirmed the GOP’s new Trumpian embrace of racist-driven politics and its current abandonment of Christian values.

G-d bless Alabama for doing the right thing! Finally, Americans have stood up for what is right instead of acting like dumb sheep who hope Trump will make America white again.

The Maccabees of the Hanukkah narrative stood up to a tyrant who wanted to impose his religious beliefs on them. Moore made it very clear that in his view, Christianity — or at least the hate-filled pseudo-Christianity that he and Trump and their supporters believe in — was the only religion that should be allowed in our country.

BLESSED BE THE SOVEREIGN OF THE UNIVERSE FOR THIS MACCABEE MIRACLE!

And thank you, Alabamans, for embracing humanity over hate. G-d bless America.

Happy birthday Georgia! You are six years old today!

Happy birthday, Georgia Ann Parzen! You are six years old today! And your mommy, daddy, and sister love you so much!

Today is your actual birthday but we had your party this last Saturday so all of your friends could come.

That’s you with your friends Suhani (above on the left) and Sylvie. They had so much fun at your party and so did we. Mommy made you Nutcracker cupcakes, cookies, and cake. They were delicious! Everyone enjoyed them.

My goodness, Georgia Ann, you are such a special little girl to me and your mother.

You started kindergarten this year and you’ve really been enjoying your violin lessons at the music magnet school you attend in our neighborhood. Hearing you draw the bow across the strings of your instrument for the first time was one of the proudest and joyous moments of my life. It really and truly was.

You’re really into Broadway musicals (who would have ever thunk it?). Currently, you love to sing all the songs from “Hamilton.” You listen to the music over and over again and you memorize all the words and you practice the delivery until you get it just right. My GOODNESS, Georgia Ann Parzen, you are just like your daddy! When we are driving around Houston in our minivan, hearing you belt out the tunes at the top of your lungs fills me with unimaginable joy. I love that about you, sweet girl.

This year, you’ve been learning to read; you’ve been learning to write; you’ve been learning addition and subtraction… You are always brimming with a thousand questions for me: what does this mean, daddy? how does this work, daddy? where does this come from? why is the world the way it is? Every day, it seems, you and I sit and discuss the world around us and I giddily look forward to the next question. You are such a bright and inquisitive little girl. You couldn’t make your father more proud. You really couldn’t.

But the thing that fills me with the greatest pride and happiness, sweet Georgia Ann, is your deep empathy. You are such a polite little girl and you know how important politeness is to me and mommy. But you also care deeply about your family and friends and all the people around you. You comfort people when they are sad. You share your toys with your sister when she’s grumpy. And when your daddy cries at the front door before he leaves on a business trip, you always tell me not to be sad and that you love me.

Sweet Georgia Ann, I am so frightened of the way the world is changing around us. When mommy and I read the news about the growing tolerance of intolerance and the way our politicians and religious leaders are abandoning common decency and humanity for the sake of building walls, keeping people out, and keeping people down, I am afraid that you will inherit a world where people like you and me won’t enjoy freedom and safety the way we deserve. Yes, sweet Georgia Ann, you are like me and there are many people around us who don’t like people like you and me. But we will always have each other. We will always have our love, our smiles, our songs, our knock-knock jokes, and our stinky feet. No matter how sad I am about the world outside, your smiles and your hugs and kisses remind me that the good in this world can’t be destroyed by the mean people — no matter how hard they try.

Georgia Ann, today is your birthday and tonight we will eat jelly-filled donuts as we celebrate the day you were born and we light the first candle on our menorah.

That’s a photo of you from when you were one year old below, Georgia. You are such a good little girl and the miracle of your life is the greatest thing I have ever known. I love you, Georgia. I love you… Happy birthday! I can’t wait to celebrate with you tonight!

Your loving and adoring father, Jeremy

Thank you Prince Alessandro for sharing your unicorns with us last night at Rossoblu

What an incredible flight of wines — true unicorns! — with Prince Alessandrojacopo and what a fantastic menu of classic Roman dishes by chef Steve last night at Rossoblu!

A few months ago, when I made my first call to Alessandro inviting him to join us in Los Angeles for the dinner we hosted last night, I was truly giddy — and not just because of the wines.

“Georgia,” I said to our soon-to-be-six-year-old, I just got off the phone with the prince!”

“Does the prince have a castle, daddy?” she asked me in earnest.

“Let’s take a look on the internets and see,” I told her.

Sure enough, he does.

The 1987 Fiorano Rosso was probably the winner in the flight of extraordinary wines we shared with the sold-out private dining room at the restaurant. It seemed only fitting: that was the fall that I met chef Steve on our junior year abroad in Italy (my first year in the country).

Thanks, chef Steve and Dina, for letting us create this unforgettable evening and dinner. And thank you, Alessandro, for believing in a crazy dude from Houston who called you a few months ago and invited you out to LA.

But thanks most of all to the simpatico group who joined us. It was a night to remember and a flight of wines that will never be again — true unicorns, thanks to the prince and his generosity.

I have many stories to tell about my conversation with Alessandro and our tasting. But they will have to wait: it’s time for me to get my butt back on a plane for Houston, where I belong.

Buon weekend a tutti…

Annus horribilis: posting from So. Cal. where wildfires continue to threaten life and property

Those aren’t clouds. That’s smoke from the wildfires in Ventura County, photographed yesterday from my Southwest flight from Oakland to LAX. You could smell the smoke in the cabin.

“Don’t be alarmed,” said the captain over the loudspeaker, “if you smell something that smells like a camp fire.”

In the photo below, you can see the smoke hanging over Los Angeles.

Here’s the LA Times wildfire live updates link.

The hotel where I always stay when I’m in town isn’t far from where the Skirball fire, still not contained. I used to go to shul up there when I was an undergrad and grad student. My alma mater U.C.L.A., also not far from there, has cancelled classes today.

In my hotel room this morning, you can smell and taste the smoke and my throat is scratchy, my eyes and nose irritated and itchy. I’m 100 percent safe where I am but the fires continue to rage not far from here.

Will this year of natural disasters — this annus horriblis — come to an end?

Hurricane arvey, the wine country wildfires, the Mexico City earthquake, Charlottesville, and now the LA fires… It seems like 2017 has been a revolving door of natural and human tragedy and catastrophe.

G-d bless Southern California. G-d bless us all… Please stay safe.

Do pot smokers drink less wine? I don’t. But am I your average cannabis consumer?

Above: cannabis grown on a private biodynamic farm in Sonoma, California. I spent the day yesterday in Sonoma county touring some of the damage from the wildfires.

Major-league wine blogger, marketer, and lobbyist Tom Wark is worried.

He’s concerned that legal recreational cannabis, which goes into effect in California in January 2018, will eclipse the sales of wine.

Earlier this week, he wrote that “cannabis is bad for wine.” He quotes a new and widely reported study whose authors claim that “alcoholic beverage sales fell by 15 percent following the introduction of medical marijuana laws in a number of states.”

And just today on his blog, he included “Cannabis and Wine” as one of the top 10 “wine stories” of 2017 (leave it to Tom, a blogger and writer I admire greatly, to nail it when it comes to listicles).

“Some [in the trade] like myself,” he wrote, “have been looking closely at the degree to which cannabis will cannibalize sales from the wine industry.” (Great parononmasia!)

Save for linguistics (a sine qua non tool in any self-respecting philologist’s gearbox), I’m not well versed in hard sciences like psephology. I can’t counter the results of studies like this one, which came to my attention via Tom’s blog (which I highly recommend to you btw, one of the best wine blogs out there).

But I can speak from personal experience. Like many in the industry (see this article by Eric Asimov for the New York Times), I don’t see cannabis as a threat to wine sales or consumption because pot smoking is already pervasive among grape growers, winemakers, and wine consumers. And it’s been that way for decades.

The fact that recreational cannabis will soon be available for retail purchase won’t change the robust cannabis culture that already exists across the United States — most vibrantly in California, where I grew up and where pot and wine are woven into the fabric of everyday consumption since the 1970s when I was a kid.

I’ve got news for white bread wine lovers: Americans love pot, they have for generations, and even though some Americans still associate it with sinfulness (like Tom, who calls it a “sin industry”), pot culture is an all-American tradition — from San Diego to Austin, from Portland to New York City, from Seattle to Boca Raton. The fact that it’s now becoming part of the mainstream business community doesn’t really change much in the way that I or hundreds of my colleagues and peers will consume cannabis (after all, you can’t write business without writing sin).

I’ll never forget when, in 2010, then Governor Rick Perry said: “if you don’t like medical marijuana and gay marriage, don’t move to California.”

I’ve got news for you, Rick. It’s not just coming to a town near you soon. It’s already there…

Check out Tom’s blog. It’s a daily read for me and one of the best wine blogs out there.