Miraculously, Parzen family safe and dry. So many of our fellow Houstonians flooded and stranded. #Harvey

From the solar eclipse “path of [partial] totality” to Hurricane Harvey’s “cone of uncertainty” in less than a week. It’s felt a little bit like the end of times here in Houston.

According to what I’ve read online and the television news we’ve followed, 30,000 people are displaced in our city right now and flooding isn’t expected to subside anytime soon: Harvey is expected to make landfall on the Texas coast at around 1 p.m. today after it moved back out over the Gulf of Mexico.

The good news for us is that it seems like the worst is over in our little corner of southwest Houston. That’s a screenshot of the radar tracking, above, on Sunday morning when things got really dicey for us. If you look carefully, you can see Houston’s inner “loop” (Interstate 610). We are just outside the lower lower corner.

On Sunday morning, we could see that the main thoroughfare closest to us was already under a foot of water and it was creeping up our street. At the same time, water was splashing up against our sliding-door window in the back.

We thought the house was going to flood then and so we packed up to get out. It was one of the scariest things that’s ever happened to us as a family. After about five hours huddled in the living room as we watched the water rise in the backyard, it finally stopped raining and the water began to subside.
Continue reading

The quiet before the storm: Parzen family hunkered down for Hurricane Harvey

It’s been drizzling on and off this morning since Lila Jane, age 4, woke us up at around 5 a.m.

She crawled in bed with us and told us that she didn’t like thunder.

At 8:20 a.m. the drizzle has already turned to a steady but light rain. You can only hear distant, intermittent thunder at the moment but even little Lila Jane knows that it’s heading our way.

As we await the arrival of Hurricane Harvey here in southwest Houston, Parzen family is hunkered down with plenty of water, canned food, batteries, flash lights, a first-aid kit, gassed-up cars, fully charged phones, and even a whistle (see the check list for hurricane preparedness here).
Continue reading

The strangest vintage on record? Harvest 2017 is full of surprises (and it’s only just begun)

I just had to share the following post by my client Stefano Cinelli Colombini owner and winemaker at Fattoria dei Barbi, which includes an estate in Maremma (I translated it yesterday for the winery’s blog).

    The 2017 harvest at Fattoria dei Barbi in Scansano: In the three glasses in the photo above from left, you can see Merlot (1), Ciliegiolo and Alicante (2), and Cabernet (3). The berries have crunchy brown seeds, wild color, and high levels of polyphenols.
    Notice anything strange?
    Nothing at all, except… The grapes in the first two glasses were picked 20 days earlier than usual and the grapes in the last glass were picked 40 days earlier.
    How can the grapes be so ripe?
    Beats me. But they are totally ripe.
    I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.
    But the flavors are great and there is no trace of bell pepper or jam.
    This harvest will make for excellent wines even though, theoretically, none of this should be possible.
    Everything about this year is strange. The woods seem like they’re dying but the vines continue to produce vegetation.

Click here for the complete post, including more observations on the changing climatic conditions in Italy and Stefano’s concerns.

His thoughts were echoed by winemaker Marilena Barbera, who commented (on Stefano’s Facebook version of the post): “I really don’t understand this vintage. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to figure it out.”

Across the internets, I’m seeing Italian winemakers scratching their heads as they try to wrap their minds around the 2017 harvest and the 2017 vegetative cycle in general. There have been so many “extreme weather events” this year: unusually warm temperatures in late winter, late spring frosts, intense summer heatwave…

When a grape grower is picking his Cabernet 40 days earlier than usual (and the grapes are excellent quality, which is nothing to complain about), there’s something really strange going on. But, then again, nothing about 2017 has seemed normal…

Italy’s harvest 2017 has begun, for better or for worse…

From Puglia to Friuli to Piedmont to Tuscany and beyond… many of my friends have begun sending me photos of the grapes they are harvesting.

Those are Chardonnay grapes in Franciacorta (Lombardy) harvested this week at the Vezzoli winery.

The 2017 is a vintage that will be remembered — without a doubt — as an extremely challenging one.

Warm temperatures came early in February and March, causing unusually early budding. Then in April, over the course of one week, two frosts struck northern and central Italy, capriciously devastating some growers and miraculously sparing others.

Summer rainfall helped some farmers but disadvantaged others when precipitation came in the form of “extreme weather events,” as we have come to call them in the era of climate change.

And who could avoid news this summer of the heat wave that affected European citizens of all stripes and further accelerated a vegetative cycle (that was already ahead of schedule thanks to the early budding in the late winter)?

From what I can gauge (between images that reach my inbox and photos I see on social media), most white growers are well underway with their picking. And many are resigned to lower yields this year.

It’s still too early to predict what will happen over the next few weeks for the red varieties. I’ll be following along…

Thank you, Solouva (my close friends and clients), for the image!

Wine culture takes Middle America by storm…

Above: the mélange of Venetian glass at Brandani’s in Missouri City was as brackish as it was playful and delightful. I loved it and I loved the restaurant.

I have to be totally and brutally honest.

When my editor at the Houston Press asked me to see if I could find any undiscovered wine country in Houston’s suburbs, I headed out to Middle America with the same preconceived notions that any average self-respecting American wine pro would harbor: there is no wine culture or true fine wine life outside our country’s major urban commercial centers.

But what I found was a vibrant, however unnoticed, community of people who love good wine and food, who appreciate good wine service, and who are looking to expand their wine knowledge and experience by adventuring beyond the stereotypes and common places of American wine enthusiasms.

Above: owner and wine director Kevin Rios of Veritas Steak and Seafood told me that his interest is turning from “big, bold” California to Italian and Spanish. Music to my ears!

On my last visit, at a small unassuming wine bar, Off the Vine Bistro, in a strip mall in Missouri City, Texas last night, I was blown away by wine director Manish Asthana’s selection of white wines, including a super groovy natural Arneis.

That’s Manish (below, right) with his wife Namita, who runs the “farm-to-table” menu. He’s an oil-and-gas dude and they’ve lived and raised their children in this southwest suburb of Houston for 22 years.

He told me that of all the places they’ve lived over their lifetime (mostly in Europe but also in Asia and their native India), they decided to make their home in the Houston area because they really loved it here.

There may be hope for (wine) America yet!

Click here for my post today for the Houston Press.

Wine trade in particular might be surprised by how ambitious some of these places are despite their location far beyond Houston’s inner urban loop.

Spirit of the Confederacy still stands in Houston, a dispatch from a Jewish son-in-law of Southeast Texas

Could there be a more apt allegory for America’s damaged psyche than a dark-as-the-thick-of-night, hundred-mile-wide shadow that will literally slice the nation in half today at midday?

The breathtaking (and scream-inducing) path of totality carved by today’s eclipse will stretch from coast-to-coast spreading (or reflecting?) our umbra at 1,800 miles per hour.

(Read Annie Dillard’s classic 1982 essay “Total Eclipse” where she recounts the transcendental experience of viewing the 1979 total solar eclipse in Washington State.)

On Saturday, just a week after torch-bearing white supremacists and Nazis marched in Charlottesville, killing a young woman and garnering the approval of the President of the United States of America (who noted that many of the racist activists were “fine people”), the Houston chapter of Black Lives Matter held a rally calling for the dismantling of “the Spirit of the Confederacy” sculpture in Sam Houston Park in the city’s downtown.

That’s the monument, above, photographed early Sunday morning.

My wife Tracie and I have attended Black Lives Matter rallies here in Houston in the past. We even took our children to one of the marches.

But in the wake of the violence in Virginia, we decided it was too dangerous to attend Saturday’s gathering. Luckily, no one was hurt. According to a report by my colleague Meagan Flynn at the Houston Press, only a handful of Confederate-flag-bearing counter protesters were on hand.

The Spirit of the Confederacy monument by Italian sculptor Luigi Amateis (aka Louis Amateis, an immigrant to the U.S.) was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the first decade of the last century, when Jim Crow was the law of the land in Southeast Texas.

Like countless similar memorials erected between 1895 and World War I to “serve as testimony to the Daughters’ aggressive agenda to vindicate the Confederacy,” the installation in Houston was “part of a campaign to paint the Southern cause in the Civil War as just and slavery as a benevolent institution,” wrote University of North Carolina history professor Karen Cox last week (Washington Post).
Continue reading

Barcelona, thoughts and prayers for our sisters and brothers

It seemed that even before the news about the Barcelona tragedy broke in the U.S. yesterday, I began seeing a stream of “marked safe” posts on Facebook. There are so many of my friends who live or are vacationing in Spain this summer: social media remind us how easily and senselessly terrorism can affect people we care about, even when they are far away. And they remind us that we are all connected — no matter where we live or travel, no matter the color of our skin or our religion — by our shared humanity.

When one of my close friends from high school (she’s vacationing there) and the brother of one of my best friends (he’s a genetic scientist there) marked themselves safe, sweet tears of relief were made all the more salty by those that fell in the anguish of a world wayworn with anxiety.

Today, the Parzen family’s thoughts and prayer go out to our sisters and brothers in Barcelona.

Roya and Tyler, I thank G-d you are safe…

Image via Wikipedia.

Mazel tov, Andres Blanco! The new “Best Sommelier in Texas”!

Above: Andres Blanco (center) revels in his new title as the “best sommelier in Texas” after winning the coveted Texsom Best Sommelier competition (photo by my bandmate and food editor for the Houston Press Gwendolyn Knapp).

The wine business has never been more competitive in Texas and the title of “best sommelier” in the state couldn’t have gone to a better man than Andres Blanco, general manager and floor sommelier at one of my favorite Houston restaurants, Caracol. (Today, the event is called the Texsom Best Sommelier competition but until two years ago, it was known as the “Best Sommelier in Texas” competition; it now includes states contiguous to Texas.)

When I interviewed Andres yesterday by phone (for my write-up for the Houston Press today), he mentioned that he is the first Mexican-born candidate to win the competition.

That says a lot about the ever evolving wine and restaurant scene in this rapidly expanding urban landscape, the fastest growing and most diverse city in the U.S. today. (Don’t believe me? Just ask the Los Angeles Times).

Mazel tov, Andres! The award and title couldn’t have gone to a more talented Houstonian.

Please click here for my post and interview with Andres for Houston Press.

Andres’ win — the second year in a row that the title has gone to a Houstonian — and our chat were bright spots in an otherwise on-edge, weepy day for us here at the Parzen household. In the light of the other events that took place over the weekend and Donald Trump’s embrace of the white supremacist and anti-Semitic movements in our country, it’s been pretty tough to get back to “business as usual.”

For all of you who voted for and continue to support Donald Trump: was the “disruption,” as you like to call it, worth it? The stock market is soaring and you foresee lower taxes and fewer government regulations impeding you from doing business. That’s good for you. And to that I say: fair enough (however much I disagree with Trump’s attitudes and policies).

But was it worth these last six months of chaotic, unmoored governance, and the lack of leadership in the face of racism and anti-Semitism? Last week he promised “fire and fury” in Asia and this week he’s saying that Nazi flags and anti-Semitic epithets are okay when people are “defending their heritage.” Even if you promised us all the money in the world, it wouldn’t be okay at our house… It will never be okay at our house… ever… For us to teach our children otherwise would be wholly and absolutely immoral.

“I will not be part of the silence on Facebook about this atrocity. It effects my family.” When anti-Semitism hits home in Southeast Texas…

Tracie’s uncle Terry Johnson, Tracie’s mother’s brother and my uncle by marriage, published the following post yesterday on his Facebook. Terry, Tracie, and nearly the entire Johnson family grew up in the city of Orange on the Texas-Louisiana border in Southeast Texas. That’s Terry, below, in the very last row, at our wedding in January 2010 in La Jolla, California where I grew up. And that’s the extended Johnson family surrounding Tracie and me, including Reverend Randy Branch, Tracie’s father, who officiated (to Tracie’s left, standing behind her mother Jane née Johnson).

Terry wrote the post after he read the post I published yesterday, “‘Jew will not replace us’: looking to Dante for the origin of anti-Semitic hate speech.”

The Washington Post reported today that a “White Lives Matter” event scheduled for September 11 on the Texas A&M campus (a two-hour drive from where we live in Houston) has been cancelled by the university. In a statement, the event’s would-be organizer described it as “Today Charlottesville Tomorrow Texas A&M.”

Thank you, Terry. I love you, too. Thank you for your words of solidarity and thank you for the way your family has embraced me so lovingly.

I am sharing this because I want to stand up against that despicable event in Charlottesville.

Jeremy Parzen is MY nephew. He married my beautiful niece Tracie Parzen. W[est] O[orange]-S[tark High School] Class of ’94. Jeremy is an extremely learned scholar. He grew up in beautiful La Jolla, CA. Many in the Johnson family went out to La Jolla for their wedding. It was an experience that my family will forever remember. We created family memories that we will always have. He is Jewish. He is very well-known for writing several blogs. He is one of the best fathers, to my two beautiful, great-nieces. Georgia Ann Parzen (named after our beloved mother RIP 😥) and Lila Jane (as in Jane Branch [Tracie’s mother] from the mere rock-throw proximity on Smith St. by Mustang Dan R. Hooks Stadium).

They are a beautiful family that is targeted in the hearts of these ilk of humanity White Supremacists. It hurts in their hearts to see.
Continue reading

“Jew will not replace us”: looking to Dante for the origin of anti-Semitic hate speech

Like 65,844,954 of my fellow Americans, I was sickened and horrified by the citronella torch-bearing white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville this weekend waving Nazi and Confederate flags and chanting — among other despicable hate speech — “Jew will not replace us.”

I had never heard the expression before. And so I turned to the internets where a calibrated Google search revealed that it seems not to have appeared in mainstream media before Saturday of last week.

By now most Americans — regardless of their political, ideological, and spiritual leanings — are aware that Jews have been historically targeted by European and American white supremacists. In the minds of certain racists, Jews have corrupted the purity of European and Anglo blood and intellectual thought over the centuries.

In 1938, after Mussolini and Italy’s fascist régime adopted Hitler’s race laws, the Italian government began to publish La difesa della razza (In defense of [our] race), a journal intended to bolster the standing of the Aryan race (to which the Italian supposedly belonged in Hitler’s Europe).

On the cover of each issue, the editors transcribed a quote from Dante’s Comedy, lines 80-81 from the fifth canto of the Paradiso, where Beatrice (Dante’s spiritual guide) encourages the peoples of Europe:

uomini siate, e non pecore matte,
sì che ‘l giudeo di voi tra voi non rida

be men, not maddened sheep, lest the Jew
there in your midst make mock of you

Not surprisingly, the lines were taken out of context. And it’s worth reading Beatrice’s entire exhortation, which she delivers as she guides the pilgrim Dante to spiritual redemption.

Be more grave, Christians, in your endeavors.
Do not resemble feathers in the wind, nor think
all waters have the power to wash you clean.

You have the Testaments, both New and Old,
and the shepherd of the Church to guide you.
Let these suffice for your salvation.

If wicked greed should call you elsewhere,
be men, not maddened sheep, lest the Jew
there in your midst make mock of you.

Be not like the lamb that leaves
its mother’s milk and, silly and wanton,
pretends to battle with itself in play.

Just as I [Dante] am writing, thus did Beatrice speak.

For Dante, the demise of European culture was owed to Christians’ abandonment of the Word of G-d. He saw the growing secular influence of the Holy Roman Empire — as opposed the Church — as the greatest threat to human salvation.

When read in context, Dante’s reference to the Jews should be interpreted as don’t allow the spiritually anchored among you to deride you for your spiritual ambivalence.

Unfortunately (for them), the editors of La difesa della razza weren’t the greatest Dante scholars. Had they read the text they were quoting more carefully, they would have realized that, in fact, Dante was encouraging his readers to turn to G-d for guidance in times of moral and ethical crises. Don’t mindlessly follow G-dless ideology. Don’t be small-brained sheep who lack the moral guide that G-d gave us with his Word — his Testaments, New and Old. Let Christ be your shepherd, he tells his Christian readers.

Whether or not you voted for Donald Trump, whether or not you call yourself a Christian or a Jew, it’s time for all Americans to condemn the Nazi and Confederate symbols and hate speech employed by the white supremacists in Charlottesville over the weekend.

There are too many among us — Christians and Jews — who have tolerated the rise of white nationalism in this country with the excuse that it was a necessary evil in achieving Donald Trump’s victory. No matter where you stand on the issue, white nationalism played a significant role in his election — there’s no denying that, folks.

Someday, when my semi-Semitic children are old enough to read the newspaper and their white mother and their Jewish father have to explain to them that there are people in our country who want to expel Jews from their communities, I will point to the Word:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien… you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19).

I never thought in a million years that my children would have to experience anti-Semitism (as I did growing up). But it’s come to this. And this can and will not stand in the Parzen family.

Image via Alessandro Robecchi’s blog. Translation via the Princeton Dante Project.