California wine, I was wrong about you. I’m sorry…

The bunches in the photo above are from the Stolpman winery’s Angeli vineyard, where the family grows one of its top wines, the Ballard Canyon AVA Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County). I captured that image on Tuesday of this week as I walked through the Stolpman family’s organic, dry-farmed vineyard, where sustainable farming (including sustainable employment practices) is central to this historic winery’s mission and vision.

It’s just one of the vineyards I’ve visited over the last three months this year, between Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast, Russian River, Santa Cruz Mountains, and San Pasqual Valley.

I tasted the 2014 release from the Stolpman family’s Angeli vineyard back in June and it was utterly delicious.

California wine, I was wrong about you. Really wrong. And I’m really sorry about that. I am your native son: please forgive me.

When the publishers of Slow Food guides, magazines, and books asked me to be the co-ordinating editor of their new guide to the wines of California (to be released in early 2018), I wasn’t sure that we would find enough wineries and wines to fill the pages of the book.

Over the last three months, I’ve tasted hundreds of wines with my fellow editors and toured throughout California wine country — from San Diego where I grew up to Sonoma Coast where I discovered one of my home state’s most beautiful and otherworldly landscapes. Along the way, I found that not only does California produce some of the best wine in the world today but it is also home to a well-established and expanding movement of sustainable farms. And many of those farms and families span generations, like Volker Eisele, one of my favorite finds, in the heart of the Napa Valley, a farm where organic practices have been employed since its inception.

That’s a top growing site for Pinot Noir owned by the Domaine de la Côte in the photo above (taken Tuesday of this week). Check out the altitude reading in my compass screenshot below.

Lompoc in Santa Barbara County, where Domaine de la Côte grows its grapes, was another one of the eye-opening discoveries for me. When I woke up on Wednesday morning in Solvang, about 30 minutes inland from Lompoc, it was so cold that I had to wear a jacket when I went out for a Danish. Fog covered the valley. It was August 8. Today, August 10, the high is predicted to be in the low 80s and the low in the mid-50s. Could you think of better conditions (diurnal shifts) for ripening wine fine grapes? In Lompoc they’re beginning to pick their Pinot Noir this week.

In California wine country, they love to use the expression as the crow flies when talking about distance in the lay of the land (as opposed to as a human drives). I certainly have a lot of crow to eat: like so many europhile wine writers of my generation, I have been sweepingly dismissive of California wine in my nearly 20 years on the job.

California wine is hot weather wine. California wine is overly oaky, overly concentrated, jammy and overly alcoholic. California wine is about winemaking and not about grape growing. California wine was conceived historically as an exercise in marketing and has little connection to the land and the people who farm it.

All of those chestnuts are true. But they are also countless farmers, wineries, and winemakers that counter those stereotypes. And many of those farms are managed by multiple generations of the same family.

California, thank you for your grapes, thank you for your wines. Thank you for welcoming me back. I could even kiss a Sunset pig, California, now that I’m home.

Glen Campbell, he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother…

One of the most vivid memories from my childhood in San Diego, CA is my cello teacher showing me an autographed headshot of Glen Campbell. The year was 1975 and I was eight years old. And she had performed the night before in the orchestra with his band on the San Diego date of his tour.

I had no idea who he was or why the photograph was so important to her. It was the same year that Rhinestone Cowboy came out.

Decades later, when I started working in recording studios in Los Angeles, I heard lots of the veteran players talk fondly and reverently about what an inspiring player he was.

“Probably the best flat-picking [guitar] player that ever lived” was what so many of them said. The baritone guitar solo on “Wichita Lineman” is such a great example of his extraordinary playing and deeply soulful musicianship.

I happened to be on my way to LA yesterday (driving in from Santa Barbara wine country) when I learned that he had finally succumbed to his illness. It was in LA that he reshaped pop music in so many ways and on so many levels, whether working as session player or by showing the world how cool country could be.

I never met him. But between the many guitar solos and songs of his that have played such a big role in my musical and emotional life, the news hit me like a brick. It felt and feels like I had lost a best friend.

The image is still so clear in mind: the autographed picture that my teacher was so proud of. I had no idea what it meant or what it would come to mean to me…

Here’s one of my favorite songs by him. It’s what I’m listening to on a sunny but otherwise blue day in LA.

Image via Lawren’s Flickr.

Lambrusco, what the fuss?

Ever since we began working on the wine list at Rossoblu in Los Angeles, where I co-author the program, I’ve been fermenting my thoughts on how to explain to Italian wine lovers what Lambrusco really is. Between blog posts and a seminar I led the other day here in Houston, I felt like I’m getting closer to cracking the nut otherwise known as “the Lambrusco paradox.” And then, this morning at 6:01 a.m., this happened (below)…

Join me Tuesday evening, August 8 at Rossoblu where I’ll be leading my first Lambrusco tasting for the restaurant. Click here for details.

Emilia’s Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano are counted among the world’s most renowned and most coveted foods. And they are also one of the world’s greatest examples of terroir, the unique confluence of soil and climate that delivers expression of place. No matter how hard they try (and try they do!), no one beyond the southern banks of the Po River can reproduce the delicate, sweet character of Parma’s Prosciutto and the distinct crumbly texture and gently piquant flavor of Parmigiano Reggiano.

But when they reach for a wine to pair with these delicacies, the Emilians reach for one wine and one wine alone: Lambrusco. That’s partly because no wine pairs better with those noble foods than Lambrusco, made from the humble Lambrusco grape, which is grown side-by-side with the pigs and the cows that give the Emilians the materia prima for their unrivaled gastronomy.

But there’s another and perhaps more important reason why the Emilians so jealously and so zealously reach for their Lambrusco. Just like the Emilian people, whose joyful passion for good living is rivaled only by their appetite for great food, there is perhaps no wine more joyous than Lambrusco. After all, wouldn’t you be as happy if you were constantly surrounded by pigs and cows, Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano?

The key to understanding the Lambrusco paradox — the world’s most noble food served canonically with its most humble wine — is wrapping your mind around the fact that Lambrusco is wine but it’s not fine wine. It’s not meant to be nuanced or structured. It’s not intended to be enjoyed for any refined nature. With its broad, bold strokes of aroma and flavor, it was conceived to express the expansive joy and happiness that the Emilians — arguably the world’s most sensually minded people — feel every day when they awake surrounded by their ham and cheese.

Ask the Emilians and they will invariably tell you that no, it’s not Sangiovese, Aglianico, or Nebbiolo that pair best with their beloved foods. It’s always and only Lambrusco, absolutely and undeniably the ideal match for their cuisine and the perfect antidote to all that is ostentatious and officious in life.

Pass the Lambrusco please, hold the fuss.

Xochi is my new favorite restaurant in Houston

Last night, thanks to cousins Dana and Neil (who graciously treated us to dinner), Tracie P and I finally made it over to Chef Hugo Ortega’s new(ish) restaurant in downtown Houston, Xochi, his homage and ode to the cuisine of Oaxaca.

His seafood restaurant Caracol was my previous favorite restaurant in Houston (such a brilliant place, btw). Xochi is my new one!

That’s the queso de cincho, above, topped with a “trio of insects” (fried worms, ants, and grasshoppers) and accompanied by chicharrones (fried pork skins).

Infladita de Conejo — rabbit, black tortilla, raisins, almonds, tomato, and refried beans.

Speaking to our server, he told me that he was so eager to work there that he told the managers he would take a dish-washing position just to get his foot in the door. You can tell by the warm vibe of the restaurant that Ortega’s staff is as inspired by him as they are by what he is doing in the kitchen. And it shows in the quality of the food and the caliber of the service.

Robalo (sea bass crudo) — aguachile verde (green chile water), cilantro, parsley, lime, orange, avocado, serrano, corn, red onion, cucumber, and plantain tostada.

I also really liked wine director and general manager Sean Beck’s smart, value-driven wine list. The Brooks 2016 Pinot Noir Rosé from Oregon was such a perfect pairing that worked gorgeously throughout the meal, even as a refreshing counterpoint to my chicken mole. Sean should win an award for “best Mexican cuisine wine program.”

Accolades aside, hearing him speak in such glowing tones about his many trips to Oaxaca, you can tell that his passion for the restaurant and its menu are reward enough.

But the best part of the meal…

…was having a night out with my beautiful wife.

Thank you, Dana and Neil, for such a lovely and unforgettable evening. And thank you, Sean and staff, for such seamless, warm, and thoughtful service.

Xochi is a true original: a meal there is a voyage to Oaxaca and a reflection of the best of Houston and its peoples.

Ever tasted Coteaux Champenois? New Houston restaurant offers 5, ridiculously low pricing sweetens deal…

Above: some of the labels that Shawn Virene pulled for his VIP debut party last night at Houston’s soon-to-open À Bouzy. Bollinger Grande Année? Now that’s my kind of wine, especially when priced so aggressively (check out “Bollinger,” a song that I wrote and recorded with my band Nous Non Plus here; that’s how much I love it).

Petroleum crowd, rejoice!

Not only is Houston now home to what may be the largest Champagne program in the country, with a 1.25 markup (!!!) applied to sparkling wines and a 1.5 markup for an ample gathering of heavy-hitting Californian and European lots, it is also the host city for biggest collection of still wines from Champagne, the elusive and coveted Coteaux Champenois.

For context, we turn to the Oxford Companion to Wine: “For every one bottle of still white [wine] produced in Champagne,” write the editors, “perhaps 20 of still red … are produced (in a good vintage), and 16,000 bottles of sparkling.”

In other words, still wine in Champagne represents less than .002 percent of the appellation’s entire production — and that’s in a good vintage.

I’ve only ever tasted one in my whole career as a wine writer.

Yesterday, I sat down with the author of the new list, one of Houston’s most respected and beloved wine pros, Shawn Virene, who is launching his new restaurant À Bouzy this week.

Check out my preview of his extraordinary program here, my post today for the Houston Press.

Shawn told me that the average price of a bottle of Champagne will be $50. And all the sparkling wines, even the hardest to source, will be available at the 1.25 markup.

As he was working on his cellar, he said, he contacted nearly every Champagne house that he could think of. And most responded gleefully, he reported.

It makes perfect sense: Champagne, a “luxury brand,” has been one of the appellations hardest hit by the world recession over the last decade. And many Champagne producers have been looking for a shots-in-the-arm like this — in one of the world’s hottest destinations for premium wine to boot.

Check out my preview here. I can’t wait to get there and check out the food: Shawn said Champagne-friendliness was the key element in crafting the restaurant’s menu.

Mazel tov, Shawn, for making our city an even more compelling wine destination!

In other news…

Thanks to everyone who commented on, liked, and shared my post yesterday on the meaning of the name Scaramucci. Thanks especially to the all the people who found my blog for the first time as they were searching for the signification of the surname.

It was on the verge of going viral until he got canned. O well (sigh)! No chaos here!

Scaramucci and the meaning of the name? Machiavelli has the answer.

From the department of “nomen est omen”…

Above: the celebrated 17th-century Italian actor Tiberio Fiorilli as Scaramouche (or Scaramuccia), the commedia dell’arte character that he popularized during his tenure at the Comédie-Italienne (image via the Wiki Creative Commons).

Like many of my fellow Americans, I’ve been dismayed by the ongoing degradation of civil discourse in our country, which most recently found its apotheosis in the figure of Anthony Scaramucci. Whatever your political viewpoint, there’s no denying that his embrace of vulgarity and profanity in mainstream media is yet another sign of the times and an indicator of the decline of politesse in politics.

But I have also been dismayed by the many pejorative and degrading stereotypes of Italian-Americans and Italians that have been employed by mainstream media in describing Scaramucci’s regrettable but sadly unavoidable — given the tenor and timbre politics today — approach to American politics and policy.

Yesterday, for example, I heard a commentator compare him to Joe Pesci’s character in My Cousin Vinny, the 1992 microagression against the progeny of Italian immigrants.

I’ve also heard a number of journalists make allusions to the lyrics of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” — Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango — where the band purposefully employs (literal) gibberish as literary nonsense.

Like the French calque scaramouche, the family name Scaramucci comes from the Italian scaramuccia, which means and is akin to the English skirmish (both terms probably come from the Frankish or Longobardic skirmjan).

The surname is still commonly found in Italy, mostly in Tuscany and the Marches. And even in the wake of the recent seismic activity in Italy, Palazzo Scaramucci — a trace of the noble Scaramucci family that once thrived there — still reportedly stands in Norcia.

When I looked up scaramuccia in the Treccani encyclopedia (Italy’s Britannica), I wasn’t surprised to find that an early example of its usage is ascribed to Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy, where the historian reflects on Roman models of conquest and governance with an eye to politics and warfare in his own time.

He offers the definition of scaramuccia in his chapter on “what esteem artillery should be held by armies at the present time, and whether the opinion universally held in its regard is sound.”

“It is an accepted maxim,” writes the author of The Prince, “that against a heavy massed attack, artillery is powerless. For this reason the defending of towns against the fury of ultramontane [northern nations’] attacks has not been successful… [But] against the assaults of Italians they have been highly successful, for the latter do not attack en masse but in detachments, a form of attack for which … the best name is skirmishing [skirmishes, scaramucce, the plural of scaramuccia].”

(Translation by Leslie Walker, revised 1970, Penguin.)

Artillery was the cutting-edge weaponry in Machiavelli’s era. To offer some context, firearms like the arquebus, an early form of the long gun, were first introduced into combat in Machiavelli’s time. How wars were fought was a major concern to him and his contemporaries.

In the century after Machiavelli, scaramuccia would enter the public consciousness with the rise of Tiberio Fiorilli’s role as Scaramuccia in the Comédie-Italienne.

According to the Britannica, Scaramuccia was a “stock character of the Italian theatrical form known as the commedia dell’arte; an unscrupulous and unreliable servant. His affinity for intrigue often landed him in difficult situations, yet he always managed to extricate himself, usually leaving an innocent bystander as his victim.”*

To borrow a phrase dear to Dante, it would seem that nomina sunt consequentia rerum.

* From the Britannica: “Scaramouche was originally a variation of the commedia character Capitano, a braggart soldier. The role was closely associated with the Italian actor Tiberio Fiorillo (1608–94), who played without a mask. He transformed the military role to that of a comic servant, usually an indigent gentleman’s valet. His costume was black breeches, jacket, cloak, and beret.”

That Awful Mess on Karl Marx Street: taste Lambrusco with me in Los Angeles at Rossoblu August 8

Taste 4 Lambruscos with me in Los Angeles
with Emilian bites by Chef Steve Samson

Tuesday, August 8
6:30 p.m.
Rossoblu
$40 per person
1124 San Julian St.
Los Angeles CA 90015
Google map

Please call (213) 749-1099 to reserve.

Above: image via the Italian Communist Party’s Reggio Emilia Facebook page. Reggio Emilia is in the heart of Lambrusco and Parmigiano Reggiano country.

On Tuesday of this week, I shocked a few people (all friends, thank goodness) at my Lambrusco tasting in Houston when I spoke about Lambrusco’s relationship with historic Communism and Marxism.

The thesis of my talk was what I call the Lambrusco paradox.

Emilia is home to some of the world’s most celebrated, coveted, and costly food products: Prosciutto di Parma, Culatello, Zampone, Parmigiano Reggiano, and aged balsamic vinegars.

A 100ml bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena will set you back nearly $830 at Walmart in the U.S., for example.

At my local gourmet market in Houston, to cite a more mundane example, 12-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano costs $21 a pound!

The Via Emilia corridor — Modena, Reggio Emilia, and Parma townships — is home to some of the most famous gastronomy in the world.

But the only wine that the Emilians serve with their food products is an inexpensive, humble, and monodimensional wine made from a grape that is so tannic and bitter that you have to add sugar to it to make it drinkable — Lambrusco.

I spent a considerable amount of time in Emilia when I was in graduate school, first when I taught American students in Modena and then later when I was writing my dissertation and living cheaply on the outskirts of Reggio Emilia. My connection to Emilia runs even deeper thanks to my 30-year friendship with Chef Steve Samson, owner of and chef behind Rossoblu in Los Angeles where I co-author the wine list. He grew up spending summers at his mom’s house in Bologna (and Rossoblu is his first restaurant devoted to his family’s culinary heritage; his dad, from Brooklyn, studied medicine in Bologna in the 60s and married Steve’s mom, who grew up there).

I can tell you from personal experience that Emilians rarely drink any other wine than Lambrusco with their traditional dishes. And the only wine that they recommend pairing with their top food products is Lambrusco: not Nebbiolo, not Sangiovese, not Aglianico… It’s Lambrusco, period, end of report.

I’ll never forget bringing back a six-pack of Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany to Modena and having my Emilian friends look at me like I was crazy. Why would we drink anything else besides Lambrusco with our cuisine? they asked me rhetorically.

So what is the origin of this disconnect, this conundrum? Why don’t the Emilians — from the entitled to the middle and working classes — reach for a “Super Emilian” to pair with their famous delicacies?

I believe that the answer lies in part with their region’s historic embrace of communism and Marxism.

In the decades that followed Italy’s reconstruction and historic “economic miracle,” politics and policy in Emilia were dominated by the Italian Communist Party — from the local to the regional level. The overwhelming majority of mayors, municipal council, and regional committee members were members of the Italian Communist Party. And that trend continued until the second half of the 1990s when the Tangentopoli (Bribesville) scandal marked the beginning of the end of relevance for the socialist and communist parties in Italy.

Evidence of that legacy is the fact that throughout Emilia you will find streets named after Marx and Lenin and St. Petersburg.

It was no surprise to me when I discovered that one of the wines I presented the other night in Houston comes from a winery located on Via Carlo Marx in a small village in Reggio Emilia province (the image below of Via Carlo Marx in Bologna, Emilia’s capital city, comes from Wikimapia.org).

Communism was always deliciously palatable in Emilia: in the years that followed Italy’s reconstruction, Emilia quickly emerged as one of the country’s richest regions thanks in no small part to the food industry there. After all, the Via Emilia corridor runs parallel to the Po River, the heart of Italy’s agricultural epicenter (akin to California’s San Joaquin Valley or the Loire Valley in France).

It’s easy to be a communist and a Marxist in a region where there is plenty of Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano for everyone.

But there’s no space in a Marxist realm for elitist wines. Not only is the Po River Valley a place where the humidity and heat make it nearly impossible to produce fine wines, it’s also a place where no one really cares about fine wines (except when it comes to restaurants that cater to tourists).

Over the last 20 years, the hard right has risen in Emilia (and throughout northern Italy) and in most cases has wrested power from the Italian Communist Party.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that Marxist spirit and ethos continue to shape the Emilian’s love for and devotion to their humble Lambrusco, a proletarian wine that pairs brilliantly with their “queens” and “kings” of food products.

There’s a lot more to this than space and time allow for here (and I’ll expand on it in upcoming posts; I’ll also write about the origins of Lambrusco and why it’s the wine that it is today).

But in the meantime, I hope you’ll come out to taste with me week after next in downtown Los Angeles: I promise not to talk (too much) about Karl Marx!

In case you didn’t get the allusion in the title of this post, it comes from Gadda’s extraordinary book, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana.

Slow life in Bra: an Italian university town, the way I remember it from the old days

Before the Parzen family headed to southern California for our summer 2017 vacation and my 50th birthday celebration, I spent a week in Bra, Piedmont, where I taught two seminars at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Food Writing in the Digital Age and Wine in Boccaccio’s Decameron).

I really enjoy the teaching (I’ll be back in November teaching wine writing and it looks like I’ll be doing four or five grad seminars, all taught in English, next year).

And I’ve really fallen in love with the little town of Bra where the university is located. It reminds me of my student days in Padua, before the age of Berlusconi and the rise of the hard right in northern Italy. Back then, Padua had countless pubs, inexpensive restaurants, and a vibrant student community.

That’s a view, above, facing west toward the Alps from the highest point in Bra, at the octagonal Zizzola House.

I know a lot of people are curious about the toponym Bra (and the homonymic jokes are as predictable as they are forgivable).

The place name Bra comes from the late Latin braida, meaning open field or arable land. Its origins may be Longobard and it is sometimes transcribed as breda. But regardless of Longobard inflection, most agree that it comes from the classical Latin praedium meaning farm or manor.

That’s the castle in the nearby hamlet of Pollenzo, above. Today, it is home to the university, its staff, and its classrooms and lecture halls. But it was once a country residence inhabited by the House of Savoy. It’s surrounded by rich farmland, hence the Roman name Braida and the Italian name Bra.
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La Jolla, California: our summer 2017 vacation and my 50th birthday celebration

It’s 8 a.m. Monday morning, July 24, and I am back in the saddle and back at my desk after nearly three weeks on the road between teaching in Italy and vacationing with my family in La Jolla, California, where I grew up. Here are some scenes from our vacation (images and notes from my last Italian sojourn forthcoming).

There were so many highlights from our summer vacation this year. But I’ll never forget that magical moment of finally being strapped in aboard a plane bound for California. The folks at Southwest were super nice and everyone was super cool about our car seats on the plane (I can’t say that every airline is like that!).

Here’s the view that awaited us on the other side. That’s the La Jolla Children’s Pool (beach), where I used to swim as a kid.

The Children’s pool has been taken over by the seals in recent years. So I took the girls nearly every morning to search for shells at the nearby La Jolla Cove, where the seals also hang out but still leave enough room for humans.

On Friday, July 14, we celebrated my 50th birthday (!!!) with an all-star hometown show at La Jolla’s sole rock club, Beaumont’s.
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Houston, we have a Lambrusco tasting: on Tues. July 25, I’ll be leading a seminar @ Vinology

For years now, there has been talk of a Lambrusco renaissance in the U.S. And while there have been many valiant attempts to hip Americans to what Lambrusco really is and why it is so great, it’s only in recent years that a confluence of factors — ranging from a new and growing wave of independent importers and distributors in the U.S. to Americans’ expanding and incessant thirst to (re)discover Italian viticulture — has made Lambrusco’s risorgimento possible.

I’m proud to say that I’ve made my own modest contribution to the Lambrusco revival: our wine list at the newly opened Rossoblu in Los Angeles (one of my clients) already has one of the largest (if not the largest) selection of Lambrusco in the country, including a robust rotating and evolving by-the-glass program.

In the light of the new age of Lambrusco, I asked my good friend Thomas Moësse if I could host a Lambrusco tasting and seminar at the excellent Vinology wine bar and shop in Houston where he authors the wine list. It’s one of my favorite wine retailers and wine programs in the city.

“Lambrusco, Karl Marx, and a Proletarian Wine for a Capitalist Age”
Seminar and Tasting with Jeremy Parzen
Tuesday, July 25, 6:30 p.m.
Vinology (Houston)

PLEASE REGISTER BY SENDING ME AN EMAIL HERE.

You have to RSVP by emailing me. The venue won’t be taking reservations. There are a limited number of seats so please contact me soonest to ensure availability.

Vinology
2314 Bissonnet St.
@ Greenbriar Dr.
West University
Houston TX 77005
(832) 849-1687
Google map