Jared Brandt, reluctant Natural winemaker at Donkey & Goat @SottoLA

Above: Polymath and reluctant Natural winemaker Jared Brandt sat down for dinner together last night at Sotto.

It’s hard to explain the role that Donkey & Goat wines play in our lives.

We serve them by the glass and by the bottle at Sotto in Los Angeles, where I curate the wine list.

Tracie P and I drink them regularly at home (the last vintage of Sluicebox is currently our house white).

And Rev. B, my father-in-law, just can’t get enough of the Berkeley winery’s red wines, which, like most of Jared’s wines are sourced from a new frontier of grape growing in contemporary California winemaking, El Dorado, where wine grapes have been grown since the time of the Gold Rush.

“It’s really interesting to see where they planted their vines” during the Gold Rush, said Jared, who doesn’t own any land there but works closely with growers.

“You’ve got to consider that they had no means to acidify their wines and so they needed to plant on sites where they had diurnal temperature variations.”

The thought of gold miners growing wine grapes in an era before Pasteur’s discoveries had taken root would have been enough to occupy the conversation for the entire evening.

But there were so many questions I had for Jared, a polymath who came to wine and winemaker later in life after a career in high tech but who has now emerged as one of our country’s leading Natural winemakers — however reluctantly.

“I don’t like labels and I don’t consider myself a Natural winemaker” per se, he said. “I think of it more as ‘unmanipulative’ winemaking. But that’s not as fun to say.”

“Basically,” he explained, “I don’t put anything in my wine that could hurt my daughter if she ate it,” referring to the many chemical treatments that even Natural and biodynamic producers use regularly. Of course, his rule of thumb resonated with me, father of a six-month-old baby girl (Tracie P has been posting about Georgia P’s Baby Led Weaning on her Sugar Pie blog, btw).

I don’t have time to recount our entire confabulatio this morning but I was impressed by his take on Native yeast.

“It seems that the one thing that everyone [of the Natural winemakers] agrees on is native yeast,” he said. “I’ve experimented with commercial yeast but every time, I’ve ended up with a stuck fermentation. You’d be surprised by how many famous Californian winemakers use native yeast.”

His approach to winemaking has been enjoying popularity among young U.C. Davis enology students, he told me. “Davis is changing: there is a generation of professors there and we have a quite a following of students who come to visit us at the winery.”

The spark that ignited his career in winemaking?

“I was collecting the wines of [Rhône producer] Eric Textier and had tasted a white wine he made and loved it. I then read in the Wine Advocate that Robert Parker found the wine undrinkable. That’s when I decided I wanted to travel to France to make wine with him.”

An ice cream machine, said Jared, is one of the techniques employed by the famed zero-sulfur producer as a means to stabilize his wines and eliminate the need for sulfur. But that will be have to be another story for another day…

Taste Jared’s wine with me tonight at Sotto if you’re in LA…

The sushi in California is just better…

I’m sorry but the sushi in California (and the west coast in general) is just better than everywhere else in the U.S.

New York has its Masa (ho hum) and Austin has its Uchi (yes, sushi in Texas), but there’s just nothing and nowhere that comes close to the wide range of styles and price points and ubiquity of Southern California sushi and Japanese cuisine.

Popped into K-ZO Japanese and French restaurant in Culver City for quick working lunch with a friend and colleague today and man, that shit rocks… The live sweet shrimp — tails served raw and heads dredged in flour and deep-fried (lower left hand corner) — were friggin’ amazing…

How I stay so thin

From the “just for fun” department…


jeremy parzenPeople ask me all the time how I stay so thin when I work in the food and wine industry and indulge — perhaps too often — in the hedonist pleasures of eating and drinking.

Yesterday, after the nth photo of a Jaynes Burger (my favorite dish at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego) appeared on my blog, Tom G commented and noted: “You need a dietician, you return to Cali and go for the Burger and fries in the land of fresh fish and veggies, better lay off that Chicken fried steak for a week. I also think you need an extra dose of red wine.”

Tom, thanks for the comment and for the genuine concern. Unfortunately, Tracie B and I are headed to Dallas for a Saturday evening and lazy Sunday of unusual wines and chicken fried steak “prepared with native yeasts” by Italian Wine Guy. So, the diet will have to wait until next week.

Above: Cake tasting for our wedding celebration in La Jolla. Tracie B wondered out loud: “wouldn’t it be great if you could spit at a cake tasting the way we [wine professionals] spit at a wine tasting?”

In fact, I do pay attention to my health (that’s me, above left, on tour with Nous Non Plus in May, poolside in San Jose before the show; Tracie B and I got engaged the next night after the show in LA!).

Above: On an account call in Arkansas for lunch, I asked our waiter for the restaurant’s “signature” dish and she brought me Frito Pie. Sometimes, as a food and wine professional, you find yourself in situations where you have to make unfortunate food choices and so it’s important to take care of oneself. The pie wasn’t so bad and I only ate a small portion of it. It did pair well with Primitivo.

I try to follow these simple rules:

  • I never eat when I’m not truly hungry;
  • I only eat at mealtimes, at most three times a day;
  • I never eat something that doesn’t truly appeal to me, even if I am hungry;
  • I try to eat as many leafy greens as I can;
  • I try (not as hard as I should) to stay physically active.
  • Above: California is the Golden State (not so much these days, actually, with its budget crisis) and Texas is the Lone Star State but Texas rivals California on any given Sunday for its gorgeous produce. I’ve found it’s easier to find farm-to-table produce here than in my home state and that farm-to-table isn’t limited to higher-end eateries. That’s the insalata mista at Dough Pizzeria in San Antonio.

    I do believe wholeheartedly (pun intended) that as food and wine professionals, we have a responsibility to project balance (aequitas) and good common sense in our daily lives and eating habits.

    Above: Ceviche, camaronillas, and grilled mahi mahi tacos at Bahia Don Bravo in Bird Rock, La Jolla (San Diego). Photo by Tracie B.

    When we go home to visit in La Jolla, Tracie B and I do tend to indulge in foods we can’t find here in Texas, Asian cuisine in particular. On this recent trip, I took mama Judy to lunch at Spicy City (an excellent Szechuan restaurant in Kearny Mesa, San Diego, highly recommended). Or the superior seafood (see above) we find at places like Bahia Don Bravo in Bird Rock (La Jolla) or Bay Park Fish Company on Mission Bay.

    I’m not sure what Italian Wine Guy has in store for us tonight but I know tomorrow’s “supper” will center around Kim’s (i.e., IWG’s SO’s) secret recipe for chicken fried steak.

    Stay tuned… There’s more food porn to come. Thanks for reading, everyone, and happy weekend!

    Post scriptum: with this post I’ve added a new category to Do Bianchi — de santitatis or on health.

    How her life Italian became mine (and our very first wine)

    Above: The first wine we ever tasted together was Moncontour sparkling Vouvray. Tracie B had a bottle waiting for me in my hotel room the first time I came to Austin to visit. “Champagne,” I said. “No,” she corrected me. “It’s Vouvray.” I guess you could say that she had me at “hello.”

    Stranger things have happened. When I got on a plane to come visit Tracie B in Austin, Texas in August last year, she and I weren’t strangers but we had never met in person nor had we ever spoken on the phone. We had been emailing probably ten times a day since our first exchange on July 15, the day after my birthday, one year ago today.

    Above: This photo was taken the second time I visited and the first time we went to my now favorite (and Tracie B’s all-time favorite) Austin honky tonk, Ginny’s Little Longhorn. I was most definitely in the “pesce lesso” or “boiled fish” stage, as Franco used to tease me happily. That’s an Italian expression for “you’re so in love that the expression on your face looks like that of a boiled fish” (more or less). Franco’s family agreed with his assessment.

    When my beautiful Tracie B and I became friends on Facebook a year ago today and began emailing and messaging furiously, I had known of her existence for some time: I had learned about her blog in early 2008 when I read her comments at Italian Wine Guy’s blog and started reading about “her life Italian.” IWG (aka Alfonso) and I had become friends through blogging, as had he and Tracie B. I really liked her “sassy” comments, as she likes to say, and when I started reading her blog, I was immediately enchanted by her honest writing style, with its Texan- and Neapolitan-inflected twang, and her funny insights into her life as an “ex pat” in Italy. But what impressed me the most was her sharp palate and her immense talent for describing wine. I was already a fan, but from a distance.

    Above: In October, I surprised Tracie B for her birthday with Willie Nelson tickets. Back then, we had a long-distance relationship and I would come to visit with her in Austin about once a month. We hadn’t started talking yet about me moving here but the Texas flag in the background was a certain sign of things to come!

    After Tracie B and I had been emailing, Facebooking, and otherwise messaging for about a month, IWG serendipitously suggested that I come out for Tex Som, the annual Texas sommelier conference, held in Austin last year (this year in Dallas). I couldn’t make it on those dates and so I asked Tracie B if I could come visit her anyway. She said yes and so the San Diego Kid booked himself a room at a B&B not far from where she lives.

    Above: That’s us on New Year’s 2009 in Austin, just a few weeks after I drove out to Texas in my beat-up old Volvo from San Diego where I had been living.

    We never spoke in realtime or in real life until that very first day she came to pick me up at the Austin airport back in August. In the months that followed, I must have come to visit Tracie B three or four times. In a lot of ways, our courtship was very old-fashioned: we would write each other every day, describing our daily lives and our lives past and our hoped-for lives future. I would send her mixed CDs of my favorite music, mostly country, and lots of dedications of songs that expressed what I was feeling for her.

    Above: In February, Tracie B accompanied me on tour in France with my band Nous Non Plus. We had one of the most memorable meals of my life, lunch at the Tour d’Argent. It was a beautiful, clear winter day in Paris and I’ll never forget the way the sunlight shone on Tracie B’s face, reflecting up from the Seine.

    In November, Tracie B made her first trip westward, to see where I lived and to meet my family and friends. By then, we were already deeply connected and the pangs of love that came with every goodbye were too much to bear and it was during her visit that we first talked about me moving to Austin. Later that month, I met her family for the first time when Tracie B took me home with her for Thanksgiving in Orange, Texas where she grew up.

    Above: In March, Tracie B surprised me with Merle Haggard tickets. We’re both huge country music fans. That night was one of the most fun ever.

    You see, when I met Tracie B, my whole life changed (you may remember the post I did, not too long ago, Just some of the reasons I’m so smitten). I’ll never forget when I first told Jayne and Jon about Tracie B and how I was going to visit her for the first time. “She’s an amazing writer,” I told them, “she loves food and wine, she has a fantastic palate, she loves country music, she’s beautiful, and she can cook like nobody’s business…” And Jon turned me and said, “AND she can speak Italian?” (Sometimes Tracie B and I speak in Italian, her with her Neapolitan accent, me with my Veneto accent! It’s hilarious.) By December, we had decided that I would move to Austin and I packed up my car and headed east and rented myself an apartment here. It was the smartest thing I have ever done (not that I am known for doing smart things).

    Above: In April we went to the Texas Hill Country Food and Wine festival gala in Austin. I don’t know how a guy could be prouder than having a beautiful lady like Tracie B on his arm.

    You see, Tracie B is simply the most lovely creature on this God’s earth that I have ever seen. And her cover-girl beauty is matched by the immense generosity of her heart and her bright spirit. Through her love and her affection, her devotion and her tenderness she has brought once unimaginable joy in to my life. I’ve fallen madly in love with her and just can’t imagine my life without her. She is my “Phantom of Delight”:

    A perfect Woman, nobly planned,
    To warm, to comfort, and command;
    And yet a Spirit still, and bright,
    With something of angelic light.

    And so her life Italian has become mine.

    Above: In May, I gave Tracie B this 1930s diamond and blue sapphire ring and asked her if she would marry me and she said yes! We are getting married in January 2010 in La Jolla and then we’re going to celebrate with friends and family at Jaynes Gastropub. I would venture to say that we’ll probably blog it, too! ;-)

    When people ask us how we met, we tell them the story of how we learned of each other’s existence through our blogs and then were introduced online by a mutual and virtual friend whom we had both met through blogging. We courted, sending each other secret messages through our blog posts: remember the kiss I blew from the stage in Germany last September? Sometimes, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, we sit around her living room drinking coffee, blogging and reading blogs, sending each other messages on Facebook and emailing each other. Ours is a bloggy blog world and we love it.

    It’s our life Italian now and I love her. I love her thoroughly, completely, absolutely, immeasurably, undeniably, undyingly, ceaselessly, tirelessly, unflaggingly… I thank goodness for the day I started my blog way back in 2006, just to keep a journal of good things I drank and ate. Blogging has delivered more rewards — personally and professionally — than I could have ever imagined. (Click here to read her version of our story).

    Coda: We’ll be serving that same sparkling Vouvray by Moncontour to our wedding guests as they arrive next January.


    She Was a Phantom of Delight
    —William Wordsworth

    She was a phantom of delight
    When first she gleamed upon my sight;
    A lovely Apparition, sent
    To be a moment’s ornament;
    Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair;
    Like Twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
    But all things else about her drawn
    From May-time and the cheerful Dawn;
    A dancing Shape, an Image gay,
    To haunt, to startle, and way-lay.

    I saw her upon a nearer view,
    A Spirit, yet a Woman too!
    Her household motions light and free,
    And steps of virgin liberty;
    A countenance in which did meet
    Sweet records, promises as sweet;
    A Creature not too bright or good
    For human nature’s daily food;
    For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
    Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears and smiles.

    And now I see with eye serene
    The very pulse of the machine;
    A Being breathing thoughtful breath,
    A Traveler between life and death;
    The reason firm, the temperate will,
    Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
    A perfect Woman, nobly planned,
    To warm, to comfort, and command;
    And yet a Spirit still, and bright,
    With something of angelic light.

    Holy guacamole, Batman! Ceviche porn (warning: extreme fish content)

    Yo, Dr. V, impossible pairing? What does one pair with ceviche? Tracie B and I don’t usually drink wine at lunch (when we ate most of the fish during our San Diego trip) and we had sake with our sushi (see below). What would you pair with ceviche? Leave a comment and let me know!

    Is that a face or IS THAT A FACE? I couldn’t help but post this snap Tracie B took of a ray in the aquarium at the new Zenbu in Cardiff (North County, San Diego).

    Isn’t he cool? That is, assuming he’s a he! Owners Matt and Jacqueline Rimel and I all went to La Jolla High together and I’m thrilled to see their businesses thriving.

    Like the La Jolla location, the cooking style is decidedly Southern Californian. I like to call it “heavy metal” sushi. Tracie B and I had the Mexicali Roll (above), which is basically a classic shrimp roll with a garnish of jalapeño and cilantro imparting some Baja California flavors. It was delicious.

    The traditional-style ceviche at Bahia Don Bravo in La Jolla was awesome, as always. So were the grilled mahi mahi tacos and the camaronillas (shrimp deep-fried in a corn tortilla).

    The ceviche at Bay Park Fish Company in Mission Bay, San Diego was slightly more contemporary but just as delicious. I’m loving living in Austin but one thing I really miss about Southern California is the availability of super fresh seafood.

    Like Matt’s materia prima at Zenbu, most of the fish at my high school bud Marc Muller’s Bay Park Fish Co. is also sourced as locally — and as humanely — as possible. Tracie B said these were the best clams she has had outside of Italy.

    I couldn’t resist this pic either, snapped at Siesel’s Old Fashioned Meats, right next door to Bay Park Fish Company.

    In other news…

    I’m about to get on a plane for Little Rock, Arkansas where I’ll be hawking wine for the next few days. It should be a fun trip, with wine dinners tonight and tomorrow.

    But I miss her already…

    Impossible Pairing: Sushi, Me, & NYC

    Having grown up and come of age in southern California, I have had the opportunity to experience some of the best “sushi” and Japanese cuisine in the country. During the 1990s when I was a graduate student at U.C.L.A. (and when the sushi craze was rippling through the U.S.A., with its epicenter in Los Angeles), I was fortunate enough to dine at the now legendary Katsu (first in Los Feliz and then in Beverly Hills), opened by Katsu Michite who now works in Studio City at my fav LA sushi place, Tama Sushi (no website, unfortunately, see info below).* Then came Hirozen (in an unassuming strip-mall, still fantastic, a must), R23 (downtown, disappointing the last two times I visited), and one of the most beautiful restaurants I’ve ever eaten in, Thousand Cranes, which is supposedly returning to its former glory (the traditional Japanese breakfast there is worth a visit if you’re staying downtown).

    Down in San Diego, where I grew up, Zenbu can be a lot of fun. So crowded and popular (and expensive) these days, it has its ups and downs but I still love their “aggressive” dishes like live prawns and giant clams (and by live, I mean literally). I also like the colorful cocktail menu inspired by local surf spots and surf lore. The lounge is very hip there and one of my best friends, Irwin, performs electronica there on some nights. The restaurant’s owned by another of my high-school friends, Matt Rimel, a huntsman and fisherman, whose fishing crew provides nearly all of the fish, working with eco-friendly and dolphin-safe fishing techniques.


    Above: I felt like I was a tourist in my own city when I asked our sushi chef Mano, at Sushi Ann, NYC, to pose for a picture (with a beer we bought him in gratitude).

    I had always found NYC sushi disappointing, even though I’d been treated to some of the finer and pricier venues in town. But now I have seen a new dawn on my NYC sushi horizon at the wonderful and very reasonably priced Sushi Ann.

    The Odd Couple — that’s me (Felix) and Greg (Oscar) — dined there last night on the recommendation of friend and colleague, top NYC Italian restaurateur and wine maven, Nicola Marzovilla (who owns I Trulli and Centovini). We asked our chef to prepare whatever he liked — really, the way to go at the sushi bar — and we were delighted with each serving. The fish was fresh and he avoided the sushi stereotypes. One sashimi dish was tuna belly cubed (not sliced) and drowned in a miso reduction sauce (sinfully good). Mano, our chef, also liked to counterpose bitter and sweet, as he did in some rolls, which he served together, the one made with Japanese basil and pickled radish, the other with scallion.


    Above: Mano offered me a leaf of Japanese basil, sweeter than the western variety.

    Most of the fish seemed to be flown in from Japan (Japanese Red Snapper, Japanese Mackerel, etc.) and tasted fresh (didn’t have that freeze-dried taste that find in so many of the Lower East Side sushi joints). The restaurant was very clean (important for sushi restaurants, in my opinion) and the waitstaff polite and attentive.


    Above: skewered octopus tentacles, raw but seared with a torch.

    One of my favorite dishes was the seared octopus tentacles, dressed with just a little bit of lemon juice.

    Greg drank a cold, unfiltered sake (which was a little too sweet for my taste, although our waiter said it’s very popular in Japan) and I stuck to beer. I’m sure we could have spent a lot more had we indulged in a bottle of fine sake — the list was alluring but it wasn’t the night for that. Our bill was very reasonable for an excellent experience in a high-end midtown neighborhood (51st between Park and Madison).

    After ten years in this town (I got here in 1997), I finally found a great sushi restaurant. Who knows? After the recent crazy changes in my life, maybe I should stick around after all.**

    *Tama Sushi
    11920 Ventura Blvd
    Studio City, CA 91604
    (818) 760-4585

    **So all you newsy people, spread the news around,
    You c’n listen to m’ story, listen to m’ song.
    You c’n step on my name, you c’n try ‘n’ get me beat,
    When I leave New York, I’ll be standin’ on my feet.
    And it’s hard times in the city,
    Livin’ down in New York town.

    — Bob Dylan