Since when is Texas a Muslim country? Sans pain, sans vin, l’amour n’est rien #TexSom

I filed my report on the Texas Sommelier Conference today over at the Houston Press.

Click through to the post and see why Master of Wine and Master Sommelier Doug Frost was asking: since when is Texas a Muslim country?

Everyone was looking sharp at the opening session of the conference yesterday, including D’Lynn Proctor (left) and Devon Broglie, one of the two new Master Sommeliers in Texas.

The other new Texas Master Sommelier Craig Collins (right) posed with winemaker legend Serge Hochar at the panelists dinner party the night before.

Bumping into (the) stars of (the) Austin (wine scene at the airport)

At the Austin airport, me on the way to San Diego, these two dudes on their way to San Francisco where they’ll be tasting with top sommeliers in preparation for the Master Sommelier exams in August. Two of the coolest “buds” I have in the biz here in the ATX, Devon Broglie (left) and Craig Collins.

I know your exams are still a ways off but as the Italians say, in culo alla balena!

Tracie P’s sfincione was amazing

Above: Last night we hosted the first couple of the Austin wine scene, Craig and April Wright Collins. Tracie P truly outdid herself with her cooking.

To borrow a phrase from friend and colleague Charles Scicolone, whose wife Michele is one of the best cooks I know, “I am truly blessed.”

Tracie P simply outdid herself last night with the dishes she prepared for a dinner party we threw.

Ever since cherished family friend Mrs. Reynolds (above) made us a sfincione to celebrate our then upcoming wedding (back in December), Tracie P has wanted to make this classic savory pie from Sicily.

That’s Tracie P’s, above, on the pizza stone we received for our wedding (thanks, Aunt Holly and Uncle Terry!). Did I mention that I’m blessed?

She also made a wonderful olive oil cake for dessert. Yum…

The 2005 Barolo Ca’ Mia by Brovia was stunning. (Check out Cory’s awesome post on Brovia here.)

That’s all I got time for this morning… gotta run… thanks for reading!

Che bigolo! A sexy pairing with Pierre Péters

Above: Not exactly traditional but delicious. Buckwheat bigoli with guinea hen last night at Trio in Austin.

My Italian friends will get the joke from last night. When Tracie B and I saw that Trio chef Todd Duplechan was offering buckwheat bigoli on his menu at Trio, I couldn’t resist the pun: I turned and asked sommelier Mark Sayre, “do you think that Todd will let me taste his bigolo?”

Here’s what “Trevisan humanist” Bepo Maffioli had to say about bigoli in his landmark Cucina Veneziana (1982):

    “Brown” bigoli — the buckwheat long noodles of Bassano and Treviso — went through a dark period because Italian law requires that only durum wheat flour be used to make pasta. As a result, bigoli were considered an adulterated product. But then, sentence was passed, and they were found to be a traditional product and thus were permissible for consumption. Since the time of the “vigils,” bigoli a puro oio, in other words, dressed with just extra-virgin olive oil, has been one of the most common dishes for abstinence and fast days. Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday have always been holidays for bigoli in salsa (literally, bigoli in sauce) in nearly every city of the Veneto. This dish was almost always made by pairing bigoli and salt-cured sardines but the ingredients could change depending on the city and province and sometimes even the township.

[His thoughts on “adulteration” and culinary law (playful in this case) might seem ironic in the light of the pasta price fixing scandal that surfaced this week in Italy and the Chianti adulteration controversy that first raised its ugly head last week. Ne nuntium necare!]

Like the Tuscan pinci or pici, the Veneto word bigoli is a generic term that denotes long, round artisanal noodles. Most believe it comes from baco or worm. Many Veneto cookery authors use it interchangeably with spaghetti, which simply means little strings (from spago or string). In English, the term spaghetti evokes a particular shape of long noodle. But in Italian, it is a generic term that can be used in certain contexts to denote a wide variety of long, round noodles. The expression bigoli in salsa, literally bigoli in sauce, is used elastically to denote the traditional Venetian dish bigoli with sardines or anchovies as well as other preparations.

For obvious reasons, bigolo, when singular, is a euphemism for the male sex.

Todd served his buckwheat bigoli with guinea hen. They were shorter than traditional bigoli but delicious nonetheless.

Above: Pierre Péters rosé at Trio. I had never tasted this superb wine before. What a fantastic, exquisite expression of Champagne! There is so much great wine in the world. Anyone who’s really into wine will tell you, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.

Our friends April and Craig Collins graciously and generously treated us to a bottle of Pierre Péters rosé to celebrate the holiday season. What an amazing wine! Ubi major minor cessat: for notes on the producer and the wines, I’ll point you to the experts here and here.

As we sipped this delicious and gorgeous pink wine (full of luscious fruit balanced by stern minerality), I couldn’t help but think to myself about how some of my wine blogging colleagues warned me (fruitlessly) that I wouldn’t find good wine to drink in Texas. Well, I’m here to tell ya, they got them some pretty darn good wine down here in this fine state!

Above: Master sommelier candidate Craig Collins and his lovely wife April are the leading man and lady of the Austin wine scene.

Thanks again, April and Craig, for turning us on to (and treating us to) such an amazing wine!

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…

My dinner with Étienne (in flyover country)

From the “life could be worse” department…

Above: Last week the gracious Étienne de Montille tasted and took time out to pose with members of the Texas “dream team” in Austin, Texas. From left, Master Sommelier candidate Devon Broglie, Étienne de Montille, Master Sommelier candidate Craig Collins, and Fabien Jacobs, sommelier at Andrew Weissman’s Le Rêve, considered by many the best restaurant in Texas.

Over the course of my life, I’ve been very fortunate to meet and get to interact with rock stars. And I don’t just mean music rock stars. (Even though the time my band opened for Ringo Starr at the Bottom Line in the West Village was probably the top pinch-me-because-I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening moments: me, sharing a stage with a Beatle!!! A childhood dream come true. Unbelievable.)

Ever the lovable Sicilian cynic, Italian Wine Guy often laments that people consider Texas “flyover country.” He tends to exaggerate (a trait owed to his Mediterranean roots) but I have to concede that, more than once, the more snooty among my friends have asked me if life out here in Texas is boring. But, folks, I’m here to testify: it sure ain’t!

Above: A home-cooked meal at Italian Wine Guy’s place in Dallas was a welcomed respite from a week of dining in restaurants. What did we drink? Étienne’s Volnay and Barbaresco, of course!

In all seriousness, getting to “ride with” and interact with Étienne was a true thrill for me. (See the image in the left hand corner of my banner above? Tracie B took that in Paris: that’s Étienne’s father’s 1991 Volnay Les Champans in my glass, a wine I will never forget.) I’m working these days with a small Dallas-based distributor of fine wines and I had to good fortune to travel, taste, and dine with Étienne last week.

His father Hubert, now retired, is one of the greatest producers in Burgundy, and Étienne began making wines at the family estate in the late 1990s. As his American importer John Winthrop likes to say, he is “a French aristocrat whose family was ennobled so long ago that the Bourbons are relative arrivistes.” But Étienne is also a really cool, down-to-earth guy, very generous in spirit and a wine “fanatic,” as he likes to say.

Italian wine will always be my first love but Burgundy is my mistress: it was fascinating to taste with Étienne and hear him share his thoughts on biodynamic and organic farming practices. In many ways, his wines could be considered — dare I say? — “natural wines”: he employs biodynamic farming practices and uses only ambient yeast in fermentation. No one would deny, however, that his wines are a supreme example of terroir expression. He doesn’t believe in “sexual confusion” in the vineyard, for example (organic growers often deploy pheromones in vineyard that confuse the insects’s sexual drive and stops them from procreating). “Sexual confusion upsets the ecologic balance of the vineyard,” he told me, “and so it is not true to the terroir.”

The thing that impresses me the most about his wines is their balance of tannic structure and lightness in color and body. “Only nature can give color to the wine,” I heard him say over and over. “I don’t want to extract [i.e., concentrate] the wine too much because it can bring out undesired flavors,” he said, referring to the time he allows his wines to macerate with skin contact. The 2006 Beaune 1er cru Les Sizies and Volnay 1er cru Les Mitans were great examples of this: the vintage has delivered healthy but not overwhelming tannin and the wines were a pure delight, with savory, classically Burgundian aromas and flavors.

Raj ParrWhen I took Étienne to the airport on Thursday in Dallas, he left for California where he did a wine dinner — a vertical tasting of his family’s celebrated wines — at one of our country’s most famous wine destintations, RN74 in San Francisco, with one of our country’s leading sommeliers, Raj Parr. That’s Raj (one of the nicest guys in the biz, btw) to Étienne’s left and collector Wilf Jaeger to his right (Wilf is one of co-owners of the restaurant).

I’m so glad that took time out to come visit us here in “fly-over country.” Life sure could be worse out here in Central Texas! ;-)

In other news…

I’m no rock star but she sure makes me feel like one! Tracie B and I had a great time at Liz and Matt’s wedding in Richmond over the weekend. Who would have ever thought that a schlub like me would end up with a cover girl like her? Gotta say, this whole Texas thing is growing on me! ;-)

In other other news…

More rock stars are coming! Kermit Lynch and Ricky Fataar are coming to Austin on November 9 to spin tracks from their new record, eat some barbecue, and drink some good wine. And yours truly is the MC for the night (I’ll be traveling to Nasvhille with Kermit, too, for a similar event). Click here for details (the event is almost sold out so please make your reservations asap).

Super Texans: tasting Texas with the Austin Dream Team

Above: The Austin Dream Team. From left, Craig Collins (Central Texas Sales Manager for Prestige Cellars), Devon Broglie (Southwest Regional Wine Buyer for Whole Foods Markets, which was founded in Austin), and June Rodil (recently crowned “best sommelier in Texas,” sommelier at Uchi in Austin, a world-class and cutting-edge Japanese restaurant in land-locked central Texas).

This was no run-of-the-mill focus group. It was an Austin Texas USA dream-team of young sommeliers gathered by the PR firm that reps the Texas Department of Agriculture to taste some Texan wines blind.

Folks in Texas are serious about their wine (Texans love to drink locally) and when it comes to marketing of local products, they don’t kid around: these top young somms had been asked to give their honest no-holds-barred opinions of the wines (each flight included a ringer, not from Texas) to help gauge which wines to present to food and wine writers and pundits etc.

Frankly, I haven’t taken Texan wines very seriously since I moved here nearly 10 months ago but — as Franco rightly reminds me — rules are rules: when you taste blind and you taste something you like, you have to admit it (even when you weren’t expecting to like it) and frankly, I tasted more than one wine I liked in yesterday’s degustation.

And there was another surprise as well.

I had never heard the term Super Texan before and when I wondered out loud why so many Texan wineries are Italophilic as opposed to Francophilic (like their Californian counterparts), one of the more interesting theories was proposed by June, who noted that Texas is a predominantly Republican state and has a historic distaste for Francomania.

Above: Also in attendance was wine writer David Furer who came to town especially for the tasting and who was lucky enough to taste Tracie B’s farro salad the other day at our impromptu Labor Day picnic.

In the first flight of red, we tasted a number of wines made with Sangiovese (monovarietal or blended) and varietal expression was clearly evident. The wine that impressed me the most was the Llano Estate Newsome Vineyards High Plains Viviano, a “Super Texan” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese. The wine was real, it was elegant, it had natural acidity, honest fruit, and genuine freshness (although I’m not sure I would reach for it at $40 a bottle).

In the same flight, however, was a wine that the panel didn’t seem to like because of a green, herbaceous quality. When asked my opinion (and frankly, I was out-classed by these top somms in their superior ability to taste and describe blind, ubi major minor cessat), I asked the other participants “to cut it some slack,” as it was also one of my favorites in the flight. Anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised at the laughter in the room (Devon and Craig and I have tasted a bunch of times together) when it was revealed that my ugly duckling was Italian.

But to my great surprise, it was a wine that I never would have thought I’d like, 2006 Chianti Classico by Badia a Coltibuono, a high-volume winery that has enjoyed wide success in the U.S. thanks to aggressive, intelligent marketing. According to the website, 170,000 bottles of this wine are produced every year, but, frankly, I could really taste place in this wine: it had that characteristic Sangiovese plum note and I liked its food-friendly herbaceousness. For $25, I like it. There you go: rules are rules and there’s a lot to be said for tasting locally.

In other news, another taste of Texas…

Tracie B snapped this slice of Texan life last night outside the Broken Spoke where I played a gig. I gotta say that I love living in Austin… not that the lovely Tracie B has anything to do with it… ;-)

My first crawfish boll (boil)

From the “ain’t this living?” department…

The weather’s still cold here in Texas but folks are already beginning to hold their annual crawfish bolls (boll is Texan for boil). The crawfish boll is a true convivium, in the etymologic sense of the word, a “feasting together” or “living together.” Although the crawfish are sometimes served on trays after being bolled (boiled), most folks spread them out on a table over newspaper and everybody eats standing, shelling and sucking the crawfish communally. Yesterday, I attended my first crawfish boll ever at the invitation of my new friends, wine professionals Craig Collins and his lovely wife April.

Baby onions, whole bunches of garlic, mushrooms, corn, sausage, and spices are set to boil in a large pot. Then, the crawfish are dumped live into the cooking water. Crawfish or crayfish are also called “mud bugs,” said Tracie B.

They simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes. When asked if it was okay that the pots were boiling over, Chef Drew Curren said, “actually, it’s preferred.”

The crawfish are strained and then seasoned again with hot spice.

The crawfish are then distributed over newspaper (we finally found a good use for Dorothy and John’s article on money-saving wine list tips!). As in a bollito misto, the flavors of all the ingredients intermingle. As the crawfish cool, they purge their savory juice, which is sopped up by the baguettes. So tasty…

You twist the crawfish at the top of their tails. You suck the head and then peel the tail.

That’s April and Craig in the foreground, right. What an awesome way to spend an afternoon. Tracie B and I brought Camillo Donati Lambrusco, which showed beautifully with the spicy flavors of the boll.

The wine cowboy drank beer, the lady sipped Riesling.