Texas wine industry exposed (our cover story for the Houston Press)

When food editor Katharine Shilcutt and I first began working on our cover story for this week’s edition of the Houston Press, “Texas Wines: Behind the Cellar Door,” our focus was on the heavy-handed use of chemicals in the cellar, a foregone conclusion for the majority of Texas winemakers.

But as we began to speak to winemakers and ask them some tough questions, it became clear that most of the wine bottled here in Texas is grown beyond the state’s borders — mostly in California but in some cases as far away as Spain and Chile.

As one winemaker put it, the amount of Texas fruit bottled here is “just a drop in the bucket,” even though, across the board, Texas wineries market their products as “Texas wines.”

Click here to read the piece.

George the Gator

After services at Rev. B’s church this morning in Orange, Texas, we headed over to Peggy’s on the Bayou where I met George the Gator (above).

Technically, George is “homeless,” one server told me, but he returns every couple of weeks for the French fries and other food that guests offer him. I’m not sure how they know that George is a he but they recognize him by the hole in his snout that never healed after someone shot him there.

Here in Coonass country, “po’ boy” can be pronounced with the accent on the second syllable: poh-BOY.

The oyster po’ boy was pretty good.

We got there too late for the gumbo (they’d sold it all already)… :(

Peggy’s not kidding when she says her place is on the bayou!

Boudin balls and Brunello (and a Ringo Starr anecdote)

In case yall don’t know what boudin balls are, yall don’t know what you are missing!

Boudin balls are a specialty of Cajun cuisine: you form balls using uncased boudin (pork and rice sausage, commonly found in Louisiana and East Texas where Tracie P grew up) and then you dredge in flour and cornmeal and then you fry.

For Easter this year, Pam brought steaming-hot, freshly fried boudin balls over to Mrs. and Rev. B’s house (she lives just a few blocks away). I paired with an 06 Brunello di Montalcino by Il Poggione that I’d been saving for the occasion. I wrote about it over at the Houston Press, the Houston alternative rag, where I am now a regular contributor on wine. Here’s the link. Fun stuff…

Speaking of Easter, what Easter celebration would it be without memaw B’s deviled eggs?! Man, they’d be worth the drive to from Austin to Orange alone! Love that stuff! Also excellent with the Brunello, where the acidity and tannin the wine cut through the fattiness of the filling like a Bowie knife!

Speaking of balls, I am reminded of something I once heard Ringo Starr say. It was back in 2003 and the French band was asked to open for Ringo at the now defunct Bottom Line in the Village. (You can imagine how thrilled I was to get to do this! It was an amazing experience. Nora Jones — at the height of her fame — also appeared with Ringo that night. Incredible!)

After sound check, Ringo was totally cool and signed autographs for all the folks who managed to make it in through the extremely tight-security (I got to be there because we sound checked after Ringo’s band). At one point, this dude brought him a baseball and asked him to sign it. To which Ringo said, “I’ll sign just about anything, but I don’t sign balls.”

So, there you go…

Xmas eve gumbo and Prosecco

Took a week-long break from work and blogging over the Xmas-NYE holiday but now I’m back! Where do I begin… to tell the story of how great a love can be? Buon 2011 ya’ll!

Uncle Tim’s Christmas eve gumbo, made with his housemade deer sausage. Note how the potato salad is served in the gumbo. That gumbo alone was worth the 4.5 hour drive through the heavy rains that fell that night on Hwy 290 and I-10. A delicious reward at the end of a white-knuckle road!

Tracie P and I had been saving a flight of Adami Prosecco (sent to us as samples) just for the occasion. Great pairing and a super fun Christmas eve in Orange in East Texas, on the Louisiana border.

The best little steakhouse in Texas

texas beef

Above: Now THAT’S a fine piece of meat! Bone-in rib eye is the preferred cut for steak in Texas.

Now, mind you, Pearland, Texas is not exactly on my beaten path. In fact, it’s a suburb of Houston about 40 minutes south of the city.

Last night, I gladly made the schlep with cousins Joanne and Marty to have dinner with their friend Deedee Killen at her family’s Killen’s steakhouse in Pearland. For months now, my cousins have been raving about the amazing meals they’ve had there and so last night we made the plunge.

texas beef

Above: The key to Chef Ronnie’s iceberg wedge with blue cheese was the creaminess of the dressing.

As much as Texas is known for its beef, its love of beef, and its tide of steakhouses (Dallas has its own “steakhouse row”), I have to admit that I’ve been disappointed with my own personal steakhouse experiences here. But all that changed last night.

texas beef

Above: Chef Ronnie’s crab cake is made with hand-shredded crab meat as opposed to ground. This was, hands-down, the best crab cake I’ve ever had.

The American steakhouse is like a sonnet. Using a rigid and highly codified format, the steakhouse chef is like a poet who has to assemble the same elements given to every troubadour and that artifice must be delivered within the confined space of 14 lines. The success of the poet and steakhouse owner is based on the ingenuity with which that reassembly takes places. Scanning and parsing dishes and the packed house at Killen’s on a Tuesday night, I’d have to rank Killen’s in the same league as Shakespeare.

texas beef

Above: The American steakhouse canon is happily frozen in the 1950 and 60s. Is that a baked potato the way you remember them from when you were a kid or WHAT?

Down at Killen’s, which retains the homey air of a family-friendly restaurant while allowing plenty of wiggle room for the fat cat high rollers, they’re still talking about a 2008 visit from Food & Wine executive wine editor Ray Isle (a great guy and super fun to taste with). That meal landed Chef Ronnie and family in the magazine’s Top Ten Best Restaurant Dishes 2008 for their bread pudding.

texas beef

Above: Even I ate dessert last night. Tracie P will be the first to tell you that I rarely enjoy sweets. But, man, when it’s this good… Chef Ronnie makes the brioche in house.

There was even more than one bottle of wine I could drink on the list, which had judiciously restrained pricing on all the usual suspect Napa Valley “Cabs,” a refreshing surprise for the steakhouse category, where 300% and 400% markups are generally the norm.

Marty and Joanne couldn’t believe how much I ate. I was like that little kid, who gets taken to a steakhouse for the first time, and just can’t believe how big the baked potato is. Everything you want a steakhouse to be…

In other news…

Tracie P on Greco di Tufo…

Rev. B’s birthday and the BEST chocolate cake

Yesterday, we celebrated Rev. B’s 60th birthday in Orange, Texas, where Tracie P grew up, on the Lusiana [sic] border. All the Johnson and Branch families were there, all the children, the Croakers and even the Manascos were there, too.

Mrs. B made homemade chili for DELICIOUS chili dogs and all the fixings for perfectly sized hamburger patties.

Tracie P made what everyone said was the BEST chocolate cake ever (and it was), now our official family chocolate cake recipe (if you’re real nice, maybe I could be convinced to share the recipe).

Jason M’s key lime pie — made with 20 key limes — was pretty spectacular, too. He made it fresh, just for us. It was rich in flavor but wonderfully light in mouthfeel. If you saw all those tattoos on Jason, the thought of him holding a pastry syringe doesn’t immediately come to mind. But man, that dude has a way with whipped cream!

Happy, happy birthday Rev. B! Know that we love you a lot and that I couldn’t have asked for a better father-in-law… :-)

Did you know that Rev. B is a blogger, too?

Happy fourth of July, ya’ll!

Texas Cajun Heritage Festival, Orange, Texas

From the “if you could see through my eyes, if you could hear with my ears, if you could smell and taste with my nose and palate” department…

cajun fest

Uncle Tim (right) won the competition for best potato salad.

cajun fest

But Tim’s gumbo is always a winner in my book. Man, that stuff is TASTY!

cajun fest

Vincent is from San Diego like me, although he “ain’t been there in a ‘coon’s age,” he told me.


These kids played like real pros. I guess it’s because it’s in their zydeco blood.

cajun fest

The dancing tent at the festival wasn’t exactly what you would call a “smoke-free” environment. The band was most definitely smokin’ too!

cajun fest

Word to the wise.

cajun fest

My Tracie P and I loved us some crawfish pistolettes.


The pistolettes were stuffed with crawfish étouffée.


Jaybo and his “Hoghide Cracklins” tossed in Cajun seasonings were awesome.


Jaybo revealed his technique to us.

annette pernell

Annette is a “baker of all things delicious” and man, let me tell you, she ain’t lying.

annette pernell

Annette’s “Mississippi Mud Cake.”

singing cowboy

The evening ended with grilled steak dinner back at Rev. and Mrs. B’s house. Pepaw really seemed to enjoy my guitar pickin’.

Thanks for reading, ya’ll!

Long way home: one man’s Yquem is another’s strawberry milkshake

From the “just for fun” department…

columbus texas

Above: Yesterday, I walked out onto the railroad bridge in Columbus, Texas and took this photo of the Colorado River. Man, what a beautiful day and what beautiful drive home to Austin from Houston. But, then again, any drive home is beautiful when Tracie P and her ragù alla bolognese await you at the end of the trip. :-)

Yesterday in Houston, after spending nearly 6 hours in a Starbucks, sitting in front of my Mac, going back and forth over the details of a big proposal with a client, I decided to take the “long way home.” About halfway through my journey, I stopped in Columbus, Texas, where a bend in the Colorado River and a junction between the old highways 90 and 71 come together.

sauternesWhen I stopped at an old-school carhop drive-in, the “Dairy Cone,” I couldn’t help but think of an evening I’ll never forget, when as the guest of wine maven Charles, I experienced one of the all-time aristocratically classic pairings of Western civilization, Sauternes and foie gras. In this case, 1976 Yquem and fattened goose liver at Gramercy Tavern in New York a few years ago.

I’m sure that Frank, who was also there that evening, would agree that a chili cheeseburger and strawberry milkshake on a warm spring day in a Texas small town on the banks of the muddy Colorado river are about as good as it gets. If Frank knew what a shitty week I’d had (will people just friggin’ chill out and realize it’s not all about them???!!!), I’m sure the doctor would agree that a drive through the country and some comfort food would do this body some good.

strawberry milkshake

Above: Sweetened milk with a few strawberries thrown in, chili con carne, American cheese, and bread made with hydrogenated oil. Probably about as fatty as foie gras and Sauternes. And, man, I don’t know why, but it just tastes so good.

Columbus is one of those wonderful “little pink houses” American towns and it has an impressive “historic sites” program. The railroad bridge in the photo above is one of two 1920s truss bridges, a handsome artifact of America’s industrialization and growth between the two world wars.

columbus texas

Above: I couldn’t find any historical information about the locally owned Dairy Cone but it looks to me like it was once a classic 1950s carhop.

Maybe it was just my mood, maybe it was the beautiful, warm spring day. Maybe it was the sound of the Union Pacific passing through behind the Dairy Cone… The pairing of chili cheeseburger and strawberry shake was divine. One man’s Yquem, as Howard would say, is another’s strawberry milkshake.

My advice? When life gives you lemons, take the long way home. My journey was rewarded by a ragù alla bolognese and a KILLER bottle of 2005 Spanna by Dessilani and a sweet kiss on the lips…

Reunions and Indian Paintbrushes

Prodottori del Barbaresco 2005 Barbaresco was the wine that I ordered to share with the adults on Saturday night in Houston at the Levy-Parzen-Rosenberg family reunion, although not everyone cared to try my selection. That’s Aunt Lilian (from left), cousin Marty, and father Zane. I guess reunions like this are bound to be sweet and bitter — the glass shared and the glass refused. It seemed only fitting that my wine of choice would be Produttori del Barbaresco since its flavors and aromas, its terroir and its ethos are red threads woven into the fabric of my life with Tracie P. The glass offered, the glass received, the glass refused.

Marty did a great job of organizing the dinner on Saturday night and cousins Dana and Neil treated everyone to a beautiful brunch on Sunday morning.

It’d be untrue for me to say that I wasn’t a little bit melancholy on the drive back to Austin from Houston. The sky was gray and cloudy but the fields were full of brilliant colors, like these Indian Paintbrushes.

The Texas countryside is beautiful this time of year.

Tracie P and I took our time getting home, making a detour around Zionville to enjoy the beautiful springtime scenery and to talk about the history of my family and the many kinfolk she met over the weekend.

And to remember the sweet fruit of the wine and its balance with the bitterness of its tannin.

Giacosa and Mauro Mascarello spar over 2006

Above: A recent photo of iconic Langa producer Bruno Giacosa.

Over at VinoWire, Franco and I have posted a preview of Franco’s article on Bruno Giacosa’s controversial decision not to bottle his 2006 Barbaresco and Barolo (to appear in the February issue of Decanter Magazine). But you’ll have to click over to VinoWire to get it. It marks the first time that Giacosa has spoken directly to the English-speaking world on the polemic move. You might be surprised by what some of his peers and interlocutors have to say about the vintage.

In other news… from the “just for gastronomic fun” department…

It’s that time of year again when we spacciatori di vino (wine pushers) hit the streets and start showing our wares again. It’s been good to reconnect with a lot of folks I only see when I’m on the road, like my good friend Josh Cross, who always has something fun on the menu at his awesome restaurant Oloroso in San Antonio. Josh and I both worked in the New York restaurant scene during the better part of the last decade and so we have a lot of friends in common.

He’s open for lunch now and so he treated me to one of his lunch specials, a take on “pigs in a blanket” (above): housemade venison sausage, cased in a runza dough kolache bun, served with a fig mustard and piquillo pepper relish.

I really like his sous chef Ernesto Martinez’s take on the German and Czech historical presence in Central Texas. How’s that for fusion?

Today, I’m on my way from Dallas to Houston, where I’ll be speaking at a wine tasting tonight. In less than a week, my beautiful Tracie B and I will be leaving for San Diego and the final preparations for our wedding. I wish ya’ll could see the grin on my face as I write this from a Starbucks in Ennis, Texas! :-)