Killer rosé from Grenache on what (already) felt like the first day of summer

Temps had already reached the mid 80s yesterday afternoon when I rolled into Houston. Luckily, my buddy Sean Beck has some AWESOME 2009 Mas de Gourgonnier rosé from Grenache chillin’ for me when I stopped by Back Street Café for an aperitif before meeting cousins Marty and Joanne for mussels and fries last night.

Sean just got some love from Houston Chronicle wine writer Dale Robertson after snagging Houston’s Iron Sommelier title for the third straight year. This dude knows his shit! Mazel tov, Sean! Keep that wine cold! It’s gonna be a scorcher!

Mexican wet dream: carnitas and Riesling

Above: Pulpo al Carbon at Hugo’s (Houston), grilled and marinated octopus with housemade salsa and three different kinds of peppers and warm pillowy blue corn tortillas. HIGHLY recommended.

The caliber and quality (and sheer fun) of Mexican food in Texas continues to blow me away (and this comes from a Southern California dude who grew up traveling in Mexico).

Wednesday night found me with cousins Joanne and Marty at Houston’s legendary Hugo’s, where my friend Sean Beck has put together what is IMHO the best Mexican restaurant wine list in the country. From an obscenely low-priced bottle of Taittinger La Française to cru Beaujolais (great with Mexican food, btw) and his hand-selected shortlist of German and domestic Riesling, I was like a Mississippi bullfrog on a hollow stump: I just didn’t know which way to jump! (who can name the song?)

Above: Do you know of any Mexican restaurant with such an extensive and well-thought-out wine list? I had never seen anything like and Sean’s recommendation, Schäfer-Fröhlich 2004 Riesling Halbtrocken, was utterly brilliant with my carnitas. Chapeau bas, Sean. Fantastic pairing!

I’m dying to get to the famous Sunday brunch at Hugo’s and I’m sure we will soon. In the meantime, Hugo’s has now formed the triptych of what I consider to be the top high-concept Mexican restaurant in the U.S., together with Fonda San Miguel in Austin and La Serenata in LA (downtown, not westside).

(RdG+BarAnnie could be included in that list but it’s really a Southwestern as opposed to traditional Mexican cuisine restaurant.)

Even though California — from the Mission burritos of SF and the huevos rancheros of Half Moon Bay to the camaronillas of San Diego — is still the leader when it comes to down-and-dirty greasy hole-in-the-wall joints, Texas has the monopoly on the luxury, regionally themed Mexican restaurants in the U.S.

The carnitas — a litmus test for any self-respecting Mexican restaurant — were moist and perfectly seasoned, reminiscent of those I first experiences when I spent the summer of my sixteenth birthday in Mexico City so many moons ago.

Above: Flirtatious nurses tell cousin Marty (left) that he has “excellent veins.” He is in great shape and is an amazing specimen of the human variety — for his fitness of body, mind, and heart.

If there was a somber note at our excellent dinner, it was because we discussed some of the very serious (although under-control) health issues that our beloved cousin Marty is facing right now. Technically, he’s my second cousin (Zane’s first cousin) but he’s more like an uncle to me and Tracie P. I never really had much contact with Joanne and him before I moved to Texas but since I got here, he and family have welcomed us into their homes and lives with immense generosity and love (it’s thanks to Marty that I know Tony!).

I wish all of you could experience Marty’s lusty appetite for great food and wine, engaging conversation, and intellectual pursuit (he’s a constitutional law scholar, btw). Tracie P is always tickled by his “potty mouth” and I hang on to every word and insight that he shares about our family’s history and evolution (I’m named after his father, Ira Levy, Jeremy Ira Parzen). More than anything else, we love to share meals together and some of the most memorable of my life Texana have been with him and company.

We just can’t imagine a world without him and we’re sending him lots of love and good thoughts in this trying time…

04 Barbaresco Montestefano by Produttori del Barbaresco, a wine Gramsci would approve of

Above: I love it when you drop in on someone and they just happen to be opening single-vineyard designated Produttori del Barbaresco!

Yesterday, while meeting with Tony in Houston, one of his clients asked me, “if you could only choose one Italian red wine to recommend for value and quality, what would it be?”

Anyone who follows our enological adventures knows that I didn’t skip a beat in answering Produttori del Barbaresco.

It’s a winery that truly speaks to me and Tracie P: its traditional-style bottlings of Nebbiolo — Langhe Nebbiolo, classic Barbaresco, and single-vineyard designated Barbaresco — are wonderful expressions of earth, fruit, and acidity. And thanks to the agricultural cooperative social experiment launched by a Barbaresco priest in the 19th century and carried forward into the 21st by winemaker Aldo Vacca and his team, the wines remain extraordinarily affordable. In our modest library of wines that we’re cellaring (appropriate for a couple with middle-class means), Produttori del Barbaresco is our flagship. A luxury wine even Gramsci would approve of!

Above: Winemaker Aldo Vacca vinified his crus separately in 2009, as he regularly does in vintages he deems good enough. Whether or not he will release it as a cru-designated wine is another question. I snapped this photo in March 2010 when I last visited the winery.

When I rolled into Houston town Tuesday night, early for a holiday cheer appointment with friend and blogger colleague, Food Princess, who now writes for the new Houston Chronicle aggregate lifestyle blog 29-95), I stopped by Backstreet Cafè to see if my friend, sommelier Sean Beck was around.

As it so happened, he just happened to be opening a bottle of Produttori del Barbaresco 2004 Barbaresco Montestefano to enjoy with friends. (I love it when that happens!)

After the classic Barbaresco (a cuvée sourced primarily from Ovello with fruit from crus as well), Montestefano and Rabajà are my favorite bottlings by Produttori del Barbaresco. They are among the most powerful and the richest in terms of their earthiness and savory flavors.

At 6 years out, the Montestefano is very, very young and has many, many years ahead of it. But its balance is already beginning to emerge, with the fruit still relatively muted. Back in April 2009, I asked Aldo if he would compare his 04 to the now legendary 1989 vintage. He said that yes, in fact, even though he had initially thought it more similar to 90 (in his early reports on the vintage), he agreed: 04 has that classic harmony that these wines can achieve in great vintages — earth, fruit, and bright acidity.

However young, with still attenuated fruit, the 04 Montestefano was brilliant on Tuesday night, very much in line with what I imagined it would be and brighter, in fact, that expected. Sean, next time you open a bottle, you know my number! Thanks again dude! You rock…

A gorgeous dry Muscat to start Tracie P’s birthday weekend

Tracie P and I started her birthday weekend off with cousins Joanne and Marty on the patio at the Backstreet Café in Houston, where our friend, sommelier Sean Beck, poured us this AWESOME 2008 dry Muscat from Weinbach (Alsace), a classic expression of the grape (which I was tasting for the first time).

So salty and such beautiful floral notes and so perfectly paired with the warm fall early evening on the patio…

Sean matched this excellent wine with a grilled portabello cap, topped with sautéed Gulf shrimp and cremini, from the restaurant’s current and very groovy “mushroom menu.”

Delicious…

Next up: right this way, your table’s waiting… dinner at the incredible RDG