I technically have been in Houston now for almost six months and people ask me all the time “what’s it like?” People on the East Coast think that moving to Texas is not just a southern state, but another country (if not another planet)–I know, I use to be one of them. I envisioned that I would have to work hard to prevent my boys from adopting a southern accent, a populace that was decidedly close-minded politically, fearing heat stroke in the summer, and the four of us would be labelled as “Yankees” and stick out like a sore thumb.
The truth is, I am a bit disappointed with Texas thus far. I had prepared myself for gun-toting, pick-up driving, cowboy boot wearing, scripture quoting, country music blaring, huge belt buckle sporting, square dancing populace that I could lampoon in the privacy and anonimity of my basement (if there were actually any basements in Houston, of course).
What did I find instead?
Well, there are plenty of pick-up trucks and cowboy boots, but as for the rest? Well, not so much. Yeah, the almighty is more present than in Philly (although not by much), I do hear a bit of country music now and then, and I have seen a gun (although I am pretty sure the guy wearing it that day at the Whataburger was a cop).
Other than that? The truth is I live in a city with beautiful winter weather, drivers that respect cyclists (at least thus far), people who go out of their way to be nice, and perhaps the most wine and food friendly American city I have experienced outside of New York and San Francisco.
Case in point: within a couple of months of moving here, I was invited to lunch to have a tasting with an Italian producer at Arthur Ave., a restaurant not too far from my house.
As of this writing, I have already been invited to close to a dozen such events in the six months I have been here in Houston. For the record, that happened exactly three times over the last four and a half years I lived in Philly.
So there is that.
The producer in question was Elia Pellegrini, of Aia Vecchia, makers of Super Tuscan blends in the Bolgheri DOC. Let’s get this out in the open right away: Elia is a good-looking man. On top of that, he is a former professional soccer player. Now I am not a huge fan of “football” but the two preceding facts would have been sufficient to elevate Elia to my distinguished “man-crush” club had he not been about half my age (I do have some standards, after all).
Although they did not start making wine until 1988, the Pellegrini family had been in the wine business for generations. Elia’s great grandfather supplied grape skins to grappa producers and his grandfather was good friends with the winemaker of Sassaccaia, the famed Super Tuscan producer.
Unlike other producers in the region, the Pellegrinis hail from Bolgheri and owned land throughout the region—including the land they purchased in Maremma, near the coast in Tuscany, where they grow their Vermentino.
2014 Aia Vecchia Vermentino: Retail $14. 95% Vermentino, 5% Viognier. Fermented separately then blended. Floral and tropical the Viognier really comes through. A bargain for sure. Very Good. 87-89 Points.
As we moved on to the two reds that Elia brought with him, he touched on his soccer background (being a frustrated jock, I am always interested in hearing about sport played at the highest levels).
Elia started playing soccer professionally at the age of 16 and never thought he would work in the winery. Then in 2011, he broke his knee while playing in the northern part of the country and he thought: “Here I am on crutches and in the snow, what am I doing?” So on Feb 14th 2011 he got in his Mini Cooper and drove south, back to Bolgheri and the winery.
He added that he has not touched a ball since 2011. His friends still beseech him to partake in their weekly pick-up games, but he won’t. He wants to have positive memories of the game and his abilities playing it. Now he sees the game differently, perhaps more negatively, as he can see the influence of the money, the coaches, the business a bit more clearly.
He remains competitive, but he now competes for his family and for the winery where he never thought he would end up. Tasting through the wines (two-thirds of the 300,000 bottles are exported), my first response was that they were under-priced as all three delivered quality above their pay-grade. Elia acknowledged their value, but stressed that they did not want to compete with the big names from the area, so they strive to keep prices low.
2013 Aia Vecchia Lagone: Retail $16. 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc. The largest production wine from Aia Vecchia, and they source the fruit from all over the region. It spends up to a year in oak barriques and then six months in the bottle. A bit oaky on the nose but nice fruit and structure on the palate—there is also a slightly meaty component that is fantastic. This is a steal at $16. Very Good to Outstanding. 88-90 Points.
2013 Aia Vecchia Sora Ugo: Retail $39. 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot. This wine goes through a longer maturational process with each variety aged separately for 18 months in new French oak, then another year in the bottle. Closed nose but a big wine. Big fruit but also plenty of tannin here. I would hold onto this for a while but it is tasty now. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
As I was leaving the restaurant, I was struck at the value in this wines, and then I was struck by the high 90s of a Houston September (yes, both heat and humidity). I realized that at least one of my preconceptions of living in the city would never change.