An Italian wine walks into a bar…

austin wine merchant

Above: Yesterday, I tasted through the current releases of Fèlsina with my friends, from left, Craig Collins (who works for the winery’s distributor in Texas), John Roenigk (owner and manager of The Austin Wine Merchant), and Chiara Leonini, Fèlsina’s export manager. For the record, Fèlsina is pronounced FEHL-see-nah.

It’s a labor of love and it’s my self-appointed duty: I just spent the first hour of my day translating Franco’s editorial on the list of The Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines and the Italian showing in the list. You’ve heard me say it before: Franco (the “Giuseppe Baretti” of Italian wine) is a friend, a colleague, a mentor, a partner, and one of the wine writers whom I admire most. I encourage you to read what he has to say: here in America, where few read the Italian wine media, we are often unaware of how the Italians view us and our wine media and how our wine media generally ignores the wines and the styles of wine that Italians hold to be the best representation of their enology.

In another editorial published today, by a young wine blogger and marketing consultant based in Apulia, the author writes: “Just think that the first wine in the list is an American wine that costs $27 and the second is a Spanish wine that also costs $27. In order to pay the tidy sum of $110, you have to get to the eighth place in the list for a Tuscan wine that costs a hefty $110!”

Today, I’ll leave the editorializing and pontificating to others, but I do encourage you to put it in your pipe and smoke it, so to speak.

As it just so happens, yesterday I tasted with the export manager for a winery that landed the thirteenth position in the magazine’s list: Fèlsina, whose Fontalloro, a barriqued 100% Sangiovese that has long been a popular wine in the U.S.

“Some would call it a Super Tuscan,” said Chiara (above), “even though I don’t like that term.” And, in fact, the wine actually qualifies as a Chianti, even though the winery has chosen historically to declassify it, initially to vino da tavola status and now IGT (it was first released in 1983, she said, the same year as the first release of the winery’s “cru” Chianti Classico, Rancia).

I’m a bona fide fan of Fèlsina but my favorites are always their entry-level wines, made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, vinified in the traditional style, and aged in large old-oak casks that have been used over and over again. The wines generally cost under $25 and I highly recommend them. The 2006 harvest was a good vintage for these wines, 2007 a great vintage. (I also had fun trading notes with Chiara about our university days in Italy. She studied Chomsky and generative linguistics at Florence, around the same time I studied the history of the Italian language and prosody at Padua and the Scuola Normale in Pisa. We knew a lot of the same professors!)

I’ve spent enough time in front of the computer this morning and it’s time for me to head to Houston, where I’ll be speaking about and pouring Italian wine tonight. So I’ll leave the punch line up to you Italo Calvinos out there…

An Italian wine walks into a bar…

Getting tiggy with it in the ATX

From the “just for fun” department…

On Friday night, Tracie B’s birthday celebration weekend began with a glass of 1987 López de Heredia Tondonia — one of the best wines I’ve tasted in a long while. Our good friend Mark Sayre at Trio at the Four Seasons always has something crazy and stinky for us to drink when we hang out at Austin’s best-kept-secret happy hour (half-priced wines by the glass, happy hour snacks menu, and free valet parking).

I’ve become somewhat obsessed with chef Todd Duplechan’s fried pork belly. He makes a confit of pork belly and then fries it: when he serves it, the fat in the middle is warm and gelatinous and the outside is crispy and savory. You know the story I always tell about the Rabbi and the ham sandwich he “can live without”? Well, I can’t live without Todd’s fried pork belly. He garnishes with a relish made from seasonal vegetables, in this case pickled watermelon radish and okra.

Later that evening, we met up with some friends at the High Ball (no website but does have a Facebook fan page), Austin’s newest (and only) bowling alley cum Karaoke bar cum mixology and designer beer menu. Tracie B had the “Heirloom”: roseberry fizz, citrus infused vodka, elderflower, rosemary, muddled blackberries. The High Ball hasn’t even had its official, hard opening and it is already packed nightly, Austin’s newest hipster hangout and a lot of fun with its art deco, Bettie Page ambiance and clientele.

Thanks to everyone for coming out to my Italian wine seminars at the Austin Wine Merchant. Last night was Tuscany (that’s our new friend Mary Gordon, front row center). Highlights were 2006 Chianti Classico by Fèlsina (such a great value), 2001 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione (this vintage is just getting better and better, always a fav), 2004 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano by Villa Sant’Anna (old-school Vino Nobile that I thoroughly dig), and 2005 Tignanello (not exactly my speed but always a go-to trophy wine). Coincidentally, Laura Rangoni posted an interview with the “father of Tignanello” Renzo Cotarella on her blog yesterday. “Barrique is like a mini-skirt,” he told her, “not every woman can wear one.” I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Yo, Renzo, get tiggy with it! Thanks for reading.

Nah nah nah nah nah… Get tiggy with it…

Do Bianchi live at today

Above: Sunday evening found me and Tracie B tattered by the rain and mud at the Austin City Limits musical festival but warm and happy at the dinner table of the inimitable Bill Head — Austinite bon vivant and all-around good fellow. Bill made a wonderful ragù alla bolognese and so I brought along a bottle of Lini Lambrusco (in this case, Lambrusco di Sorbara). As restaurateur Danny Meyer likes to say, “if it grows with it, it goes with it.”

If you happen to find yourself near a computer this afternoon at 3 p.m. (Texas time), please check out a live chat that I will be doing today with Austin American-Statesman social columnist Michael Barnes at Out and About (

Above: We were also joined Sunday night by Austin natural treasure Mary Gordon Spence (to Bill’s left), writer, humorist, and radio personality, who had many wonderful tales to tell of her recent trip to Italy, and University of Texas professor of government David Edwards.

We’ll be chatting about the series of classes on Italian wine I’m teaching every Tuesday at The Austin Wine Merchant beginning this evening.

Tonight’s class is sold out and the others are filling up quickly but there is still some space available. My favorite session is Italian Wine and Civilization (Tuesday, November 10), where we read a passage from Italian literature or history, and then taste a wine in some way pertinent to the text. Did you know that Niccolò Machiavelli was a winemaker, for example?

In other news…

Tracie B and I braved the rain and mud at this year’s Austin City Limits festival on Sunday. We didn’t stay long but did get to catch the B52s’s set, which couldn’t be anything other than super fun, and we also enjoyed super-shiny sisters-and-brother bluegrass/country act Jypsi (below). Jypsi was a little slick for my taste but man can they play!

Just over a year ago, I came to Austin for the second time to visit with Tracie B. Do you remember? Here’s a little post from the archive. We recreated the Austin City Limits photo op this year, except for this time sans mustache! ;-)

Waiter, waiter: I’ll have what Eric’s having…

Above: Last night, Tracie B and I opened Puffeney’s 2006 Trousseau, one of those “original” wines that we couldn’t stop talking about. Photos by Tracie B.

The wines from the Jura first came to my attention at one of my favorite restaurants in the world, L’Utopie in Québec City when my band Nous Non Plus was on tour there a few years back. Thirty-something owner and sommelier Frédéric Gauthier has an amazing palate and his list has always delivered something unusual and exciting to my table.

So when I read Eric’s preview of his column on the “Unusually Good” wines from the Jura at the end of a long workday for both me and Tracie B, I decided to cork a bottle of Puffeney 2006 Arbois Trousseau that we had picked up here in town at The Austin Wine Merchant.

At a talk on modern vs. traditional wines he gave in New York a number of years ago, Angelo Gaja discussed what he called “original” wines: wines that “surprise” you, he said.

The Trousseau, like nearly everything I’ve tasted from the Jura, was one of those “original” wines: it’s one of those wines that could only be made in that place, by those people, using the grapes, the techniques, and the terroir that belong uniquely to them. It was light in body but with some confident tannin, with berry fruit and brilliant acidity. Tracie B and I couldn’t stop talking about it: one of those wines that surprises you and speaks of a little mountainous utopia in France along the Swiss border where they make truly wonderful wines.

We loved it and I also highly recommend Eric’s column today in the times. Wine Digger digs these wines, too, as does McDuff. And here’s a little background on Puffeney’s methods.

Get it at The Austin Wine Merchant. Enjoy!

Italy: Birth of a Wine Nation

From the “a Ph.D. has got to be good for something, doesn’t it?” department…

Jeremy Parzen

I am thrilled to announce that I’ll be teaching a six-part seminar on Italian wine starting a month from today, every Tuesday at 7 p.m., at The Austin Wine Merchant. The title of series, “Italy: Birth of a Wine Nation,” was inspired by the vision of Italy’s first two prime ministers, Camillo Cavour and Bettino Ricasoli, both winemakers in their own right. As Italian independence and the Italian monarchy began to take shape in the second half of the nineteenth century, Cavour (in Piedmont) and Ricasoli (in Tuscany) envisioned the production of fine wine as a loadstone of the nascent Italian economy, identity, and nation. If only they were alive today to experience the renaissance of Italian wine!

Please join me in October and November for one or more of my classes and tastings (6 wines will be tasted during each session in one-ounce pours). Participants may reserve for individual or multiple sessions.


A 6-class series on Italian wine, past, present, and future with Jeremy Parzen, Ph.D.

Tuesdays in October and early November, staring at 7 p.m.

The Austin Wine Merchant
512 W 6th St.
Austin, TX 78701-2806

To reserve, please call: (512) 499-0512.

Italian Wine 101 — October 6 — $25

Introduction to Italian wines, an overview of Italy’s most important grapes and major wine production zones, and the secret to unlocking the mysteries of Italian wine labels. Taste 6 wines from 6 different regions.

Jeremy Parzen

Tuscany — October 13 — $37.50

Learn what makes Super Tuscans so super (you might be surprised at the answer), experience Italy’s quintessential red grape Sangiovese in its greatest expressions (modern and traditional). Taste six wines including Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico.

The “Other” Piedmont — October 20 — $25

This is the Piedmont your mother didn’t tell you about: Moscato d’Asti, Gavi, Freisa, Dolcetto, Barbera, and “outer borough” Nebbiolo. Taste 6 wines that the Piedmontese produce and drink regularly.

Jeremy Parzen

Piedmont’s De Facto Cru System — October 27 — $37.50
(recommended for wine professionals and collectors)

Learn the difference between the east and west sides of the Barolo to Alba road and explore the nuanced distinctions between Tortonian and Helvetian subsoils. Debunk the feminine vs. masculine myth in the Barbaresco and Barolo debate. Taste 6 noble expressions of Nebbiolo.

Jeremy Parzen

The Enigmatic Wines of the Veneto — November 3 — $37.50

Unlock the mysteries of Valpolicella, Amarone, and Recioto della Valpolicella, taste one of Italy’s most ancient noble wines, Soave, and learn why Venetians love their Prosecco so much. When in Venice: taste 6 ombre as the Venetians say!

Jeremy Parzen

Italian Wine and Civilization — November 10 — $25

Read 6 passages from Italian literature and history and taste 6 related wine selections. Readings include Dante, Machiavelli, Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, Camillo Cavour (above, far left, 19th-century Piedmontese winemaker and Italy’s first prime minister), and Bettino “Iron Baron” Ricasoli (above, far right, 19th-century Tuscan winemaker and Italy’s second prime minister).

To reserve, please call: (512) 499-0512

The N word

From the “so to speak department” otherwise known as the “department of semiotics and semantics”…

It’s not a bad word.

Nor is it a racially charged or in any way nocive or noxious word.

It’s a nice, normal nomination that we use nomenclaturally.

It’s no nomen novum, nomen nudum, nomen dubitum, nor a nomen oblitum. No, it’s a word that most folks use nearly every day in one way or another.

It has become the subject of gnostically nuclear debate in the notoriety of Saignée’s recent series 31 Days of N… OOPS! SAWWY! I almost said it.

This morning, two of my blogging colleagues, both of whom I respect immensely, posted on its meaning and its contextualization with regard to enological epistemology here and here. In diametrically opposed stance (however unaware of each other’s posts), they contemporaneously espoused two radically different points of view. I won’t dare SAY the WORD but I do recommend both posts to you.

Last night, Tracie B made us a dinner of rotisserie chicken (from Central Market) and iron-skillet roasted potatoes and peppers that we enjoyed with one of our favorite wines of the summer of 2009, our current house white: Luneau-Papin’s 2005 Muscadet Sevre & Maine Clos des Allées, which retails for under $20 in Texas and is imported by one of the prime movers of N wines in this country, Louis-Dressner. We love this wine and I don’t know, nor will I venture to guess whether or not it is a N wine. All I know is that it is great, we can afford it, and we LOVE it. (Love is a great four-letter word, isn’t it?)

The minerality and acidity of the wine was FANTASTIC and was a great match for the spiciness of the peppers that I bought at a road-side rustic gastronomy on my way back to Austin the other day from Dallas, where stuffed armadillos guard over bottles of sorghum syrup. We love the wine so much that we cleaned out our local retailer’s stock and it has become our “go-to” white for the summer of 2009.

Yesterday, as I headed to Tracie B’s after a long day’s work, I snapped this photo of the sunset over Austin. One of the things that has impressed me the most about living in Texas is the beauty of the sky here. The sunsets and dawns are among the most stunning and truly inspirational that I’ve ever seen. When you gaze up at its beauty and its awesome expanse, you can understand why the Texans are such a G-d-fearing nation (and I mean nation in the etymological sense of the word). Like the N word, the word of G-d is not for me but for higher authorities to discuss.

Sometimes when a word is repeated over and over again, it begins to lose its meaning. Children often indulge in what scholars of linguistics call “nonsense-word repetition.” I will not dare repeat the N word but I will leave you today with the epistemological conundrum: could the bird be the word?

O tempora, o Nebbiolo

O tempora, o mores, to borrow a phrase from Cicero. Times are tough all around and these days I’m slinging a wine bag on my back and hitting the streets, hawking wine. I’m a traveling salesman like my maternal grandfather Maurice (poppa, we used to call him; my paternal grandfather was a rabbi, our zaidi — Yiddish for grand-père — but that’s another story). But as fate would have it, I consider myself lucky inasmuch I get to sell a lot of wines that I genuinely love (my new gig is with the Austin-based Mosaic Wine Group; check out the new blog we launched here). The other day I got to pour multiple vintages of one of my favorite wines (as anybody who follows my blog knows so well), Produttori del Barbaresco: I led a guided tasting of the 2004 and 2005 Barbaresco and 2006 Langhe Nebbiolo the other night at The Austin Wine Merchant in downtown Austin, Texas.

I didn’t get to participate in the Piedmont edition of Wine Blogger Wednesday, orchestrated smashingly by David McDuff at his excellent blog McDuff’s Food and Wine Trail, and so he graciously honored me with a guest blogger spot writing about Produttori del Barbaresco and my recent tasting notes at his kick-ass web log (one of my daily reads).

To read my tasting notes (including my translation of the winery’s 2006 vintage notes), click here.

In other news…

As my friend and dissertation adviser Luigi Ballerini used to say whenever we ate Japanese: oh tempura, oh soy sauce!

From the archives: interview with Aldo Vacca, winemaker Produttori del Barbaresco

Fortune has smiled on me lately: I’ve had the opportunity to taste a lot of 2004 and 2005 Barbaresco and 2006 Langhe Nebbiolo by Produttori del Barbaresco side-by-side over the last few weeks and it’s been really great to see how the 04 has been evolving in bottle, to experience the differences between the 04 and 05, and to get a preview of what the 06 will be like by tasting the Langhe Nebbiolo from the same vintage. If you happen to be in Austin today, come by Austin Wine Merchant to taste Produttori del Barbaresco with me. I’ll be pouring all three of the above wines. Click here for details.

Here’s a post from the Do Bianchi archives: an interview I did with Produttori del Barbaresco winemaker Aldo Vacca last year where he gives some notes on the 2006 and 2007 vintages. Buona lettura!

Earlier this year [January 2008], Produttori del Barbaresco’s president and winemaker Aldo Vacca (left) took time out from his importer’s grand portfolio tasting to talk to me about recent vintages and the cooperative’s approach to winemaking.

Produttori del Barbaresco has always stood apart for its steadfast traditionalist approach to winemaking. Where do you see Produttori in relation to the current trend of modern-style Nebbiolo?

You have to understand that the winemaking tradition in Langhe comes from an entirely agricultural mentality, a “farmer” culture. Early on, we were insecure, if you will. We didn’t have enough faith in our land. This insecurity led a number of winemakers to adopt a modern approach. There are also a lot of new producers who have only recently begun making wine in Langhe. Many of them don’t have the respect for our tradition of winemaking. This trend has developed over the last 20 years and has had a big impact. But I also see that many producers are returning to a more traditional approach.

Produttori del Barbaresco has never changed its style. From the beginning, Produttori has always made wine using traditional methods [extended maceration, natural fermentation, and aging in traditional botti, large oak casks]. The winery’s style is very distinct but the wines are always respectful of the terroir.

How are as-of-yet unreleased vintages showing?

Both 2007 and 2006 were very good vintages in Langhe. 2006 saw a warmer summer and it will be a more “fleshy”* wine, with softer tannins, while 2007 is comparable to long-lived vintages like 1996 and 2001.

The harvest came early in 2007, but this was not because of a hot summer. It was due to the fact that the mild, dry winter caused the growing cycle to begin early. As a result, we harvested early. 2007 has intense tannins and high acidity [good signs for long-lived Nebbiolo].

* Aldo and I conversed in Italian and it’s interesting to note that he used the English “fleshy” to describe his impression of the wine.

Produttori del Barbaresco tomorrow in Austin

From the “this is my favorite wine ever” department…

Above: There won’t be any pizza (sorry, Franco) at tomorrow’s tasting but there will be 2004 and 2005 classic Barbaresco by Produttori del Barbaresco and 2006 Langhe Nebbiolo. These are some of favorite wines and favorite vintages. (I snapped the above photo last summer at Mamma Mia Pizzeria in Pacific Beach, San Diego.)

If you happen to be in Austin tomorrow, please come see me at Austin Wine Merchant where I’ll be pouring my beloved Produttori del Barbaresco. Click here for details. A vertical of Produttori del Barbaresco? Life could be worse…