John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

Grilling favorites with paired wines

My wife can really turn a phrase. She claims I avoid work as if it was a “four letter” word. I will admit, though, there are certain tasks – like cleaning out the garage or doing the dishes – which I do not willingly seek out. But give me something to cook and I am a diligent, energetic and enthusiastic laborer; give me something to grill and I’m in Nirvana!

And since the upcoming Memorial Day weekend is the official kick-off for summertime, that means we will be enjoying more of our meals in the great outdoors. That also means I can use my grill more frequently and that’s the type of work I truly love.

Over the years I have espoused the virtues of charcoal over gas grilling, but whatever your preference, nothing beats the flavor of outdoor cooking. Whether you’re searing a hunk of red meat, slow roasting a rack of baby backs or smoking a filet of salmon, grilling improves the flavor of just about any food – even vegetables. And there are myriad wine choices to pair with the foods we enjoy this time of year.

Here are a few of my favorite warm weather on-the-grill dishes, and the wines I think will pair especially well with them.

Hamburgers: I love to chop a few slices of bacon into small pieces and add them to a pound and a half of ground chuck. After pressing them into quarter pound burgers, I shake a generous portion of McCormick’s Montreal Grillmates Seasoning on them before placing them on the grill. Try pairing the burgers with zinfandel from producers such as Frank Family, Edmeades or Dry Creek. These California zins are all medium-bodied wines with delicious dark berry flavors that will accentuate the beefy goodness of the bacon-enhanced burgers.

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Restaurants Reopening: a time for celebration

With most of the restrictive, covid-related regulations now lifted on state restaurants, gourmands, including yours truly, are smiling like Cheshire cats. And, with facial masks secured, we’ve also begun to once again to sup and sip at our favorite dining establishments.

That’s great news! In fact, I’ve been patronizing some of my favorite local eateries and I can happily report that the quality of the food is as good as ever. Today, I’ll tell you about two restaurants I visited and share my favorite menu items from each establishment. I’ll also suggest reasonably priced wines to pair with the menu items chosen from each of the restaurants’ “by the glass” list. In future scribblings, I’ll review my favorite dishes and wines from other area establishments. So, let’s get started.

Ristorante Abruzzi, located at 601 Morris Street in the building adjacent to Appalachian Power Park, is a culinary gem. Owned by Mark and Libby Chatfield, Abruzzi features a fine cross-section of menu selections many of which are inspired by dishes from the eponymous Italian region.

Mark’s family (on his mother’s side) hails from Abruzzi and, while he is a college professor during the day, he has always dreamed of owning a restaurant that focuses on offering many of the same foods he relished growing up. Here are two pasta dishes and accompanying wines you might like to try the next time you visit Ristorante Abruzzi:

Radiatore Bolognese – Bolognese is a thick meaty sauce that is a combination ground beef, veal and pork with just a little tomato paste to color it slightly. The radiatore are small, squat pasta that kind of look like tiny radiators and they really absorb the Bolognese quite nicely.

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Wines for Passover and Easter

It’s beginning to look a lot like ….Easter. That’s right friends, it’s officially springtime and we’re about to ring in this season of rebirth by observing two of our most cherished holidays. Over the next few weeks, Passover and Easter will share the calendar and both holidays will feature special foods. I’ll tell you about those edibles and suggest a bevy of compatible wines to pair with them.

Passover and Easter, of course, are religious holidays and, in addition to their spiritual significance, they remind us that wine has always played an important role in our Judeo-Christian traditions and culture. And today, I’ll provide you with some vinous choices to pair with these important celebrations.

The Seder meal, which occurs on the first day of Passover, can consist of everything from brisket to chicken as well as gefilte fish, potato- type casseroles and other specific Jewish foods. And, if you’re like me, you’ll especially love the Seder tradition requiring each adult to sip four cups of wine with the meal. The problem is finding a diverse selection of Kosher wines in our state.

If you wish to sip only Kosher wines for Seder, you might be able to find a few at your local wine shop, but make sure they indicate they’re “Kosher for Passover.”  However, you’ll probably have better luck by ordering from online retailers like kosherwine.com. If you are able to choose from non-Kosher wines, I recommend either – or both – of these two wines:

2018 Willamette Valley Vineyards ($26)– This Oregon pinot noir is a very versatile wine with earthy, black cherry flavors and excellent balance. Should pair well with a variety of Seder foods, especially brisket.

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Wine for everyday meals

If you’ve followed my scribblings over the years, you know that I’ll never tell you about a wine without recommending specific foods with which to pair that particular bottle. However, a friend of mine (who is less than subtle) recently admonished me for always seeming to suggest wine compatible foods that she referred to as “Saturday night” or celebratory meals. You know, special dinners you might prepare for birthdays, anniversaries, or when Uncle Homer gets out of prison.

And you know what? She may be correct. So in an effort to dispel a myth which I may have been unintentionally espousing (that wine is only for special occasions), I want to offer you a sincere Mea Culpa. Let me also make this clear: wine could and, in fact, should be a part of your everyday meals!

I know that most of you don’t drink wine every night of the week. But when you do open a bottle on say, a Monday or Wednesday, you shouldn’t feel like you need to whip up some elegant repast like Beef Wellington or Peking Duck. So today, we’ll concentrate on some of the foods that comprise our everyday meals, and I’ll suggest wine pairings for them.

Meatloaf is a menu mainstay that some families enjoy regularly. Instead of boring yourself with diet cola or iced tea, you might open a bottle of inexpensive and medium-bodied red wine to spark up that meatloaf entrée. Marietta Old Vines, which is a blend of zinfandel and other red varietals, would be a good pick. Or, you might also pair it with malbec from Argentinean producers such as Susana Balbo or Catena.

Macaroni and cheese still graces our table as a main dish at least once a month. Sometimes, we’ll add roasted red peppers or jalapenos to the dish to spice it up. This is a meal that can be paired well with both white and red wine. For plain mac & cheese, try a medium bodied white such as Soave from Allegrini or pinot gris from Oregon’s King Estate. For spicy versions of the dish, I recommend pinot noir from producers such as Cline Family Cellars in Sonoma County or Erath in Oregon.

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A wine for every holiday taste

I’m really looking forward to this Holiday Season! Many of us have suffered and all of us have had to hunker down and endure a year unlike any other. And one of the ways I plan on enjoying the spirit (s) of the season is to give a gift of wine to family and friends as we celebrate Christmas and the New Year, and as we look forward to a much better 2021.

One of the greatest attributes of wine is the almost limitless variety of grapes from vineyards around the world that produce bottles with an incredible diversity of aromas and flavors to please the palates of just about everyone. Whether you’re just an occasional sipper, someone who drinks a glass or two each day or a wine-obsessed individual, you’re probably always on the lookout for a good bottle, especially this time of year.

With that premise in mind, I’m going to suggest several bottles of wine you might consider giving to family or friends that fall into the classifications I mentioned above. I’ll suggest red, white and sparkling wines for each of the groups so you’ll have a variety of purchasing choices and prices. And keep this snarky thought in mind: giving the gift of wine, particularly to someone close to you, can have an ancillary benefit since there is a chance you’ll be invited to sip along once that particular bottle is uncorked.

For the occasional sippers: White: Martin Codax Albarino (Spain); Anselmi San Vincenzo (Italian, Soave-like); and Hess Select Monterey Chardonnay (California). Red: Allegrini Valpolicella Classico (Italy); Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (California); Foris Rogue Valley Pinot Noir (Oregon); and Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel (California); Sparkling: Chandon Brut (California); Nicholas Feuillatte Blue Label Champagne (France); and Dibon Cava Brut (Spain).

For the daily wine drinker: White: Chalk Hill Chardonnay (California): Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc (Australia); and Pierre Sparr Pinot Blanc (France); Red: Easton Amador County Zinfandel (California); Franciscan Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (California); Torbreck The Woodcutter’s Shiraz (Australia); and Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape (France). Sparkling: Iron Horse Brut (California); Segura Viudas Reserva (Spain); and Veuve Cliquot (The Widow) Brut Champagne (France).

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Thanksgiving 2020: Scaling back, but still celebrating

Thanksgiving is next Thursday! Under normal circumstances, our family would be gathering to stuff ourselves with all manner of goodies including, of course, a varied selection of wines to pair with – not only the “National Bird” – but with the multitude of delicious side dishes such as chestnut dressing and pumpkin pie.

But this year, Mother Nature has morphed into the “Wicked Witch of the Earth” with a dark and catastrophic menu of her own. She’s been conjuring up hurricanes, floods, wild fires and other global weather anomalies as side dishes to accompany the main course, Covid 19.

So, what can we do to celebrate Thanksgiving  this year, and still stay safe and virus free? Well, in our family that means limiting the number of guests at the holiday table to two: my wife and I. Oh, we’ll probably Face-Time with our kids and grandkids, but we will not be able to share food and wine or have any physical contact with them.

 

But the biggest problem for many of us in similar circumstances will be how to scale back on the Thanksgiving meal. Creating meals for two is not difficult under normal circumstances, but preparing the menu for the best food-centric holiday of them all will be a challenge, especially with regard to the main course – turkey.

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Wine Appreciation: keeping it simple

I know you’ve heard the term: “Harder than Chinese arithmetic,” right? Well, I’m here to tell you that wine appreciation doesn’t need to be that hard. Despite what some folks would like you to believe, it’s not necessary to have a degree in oenology, be a romance language expert or be wealthy to enjoy a glass or two of good wine.

For instance, some critics get way down in the weeds and use obtuse words to describe the sensory characteristics of wine. What, for example, do the terms precocious, unctuous or assertive have to do with the way a wine smells or tastes? Sometimes when I find myself slipping into what I call “snob-speak,” I harken back to an old Waylon Jennings song. In “Back to the Basics of Love, ” Waylon’s words give me swift rhetorical kick, knocking me off my high horse so I can explain in plain English the qualities of a particular wine.

So, when I describe a particular chardonnay as having ripe green apple flavors, you will immediately use your own memory of the taste, smell and texture of ripe green apples to understand how the wine might actually taste. If I wanted to be more specific, I could say that chardonnay also has the taste of ripe Honey Crisp apples. Well, you get the point.

In evaluating wine over the years, I have detected the flavors of blackberries, cherries, vanilla, cinnamon and countless others. And I have experienced the aromas of toast, grass, butterscotch and leather as well, unfortunately, as mold, Limburger cheese and vinegar too. These are descriptions that are based on solid sensory memories.

But what defines a good wine? Many of us struggle with another major consideration: price versus quality. Most of us assume there is a direct correlation between what you pay for a bottle and the way it should taste.

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Pesto Rosso Pasta: a spicy harvest dish!

It’s harvest time all across the “Fruited Plain.” In California, the grape harvest is in full swing while, in other parts of the country, bountiful crops of fruits and vegetables are literally ripe for the picking. I’ve been spending a good bit of time at our local farmer’s market loading up on everything from peaches and apples to peppers and tomatoes.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been canning hot and sweet banana peppers rings as well as roasted and peeled red bell peppers. Soon I will purchase a bushel of green tomatoes, fresh fennel bulbs, onions and more hot banana peppers to prepare the stacked and aged Italian vegetable concoction called saliata (I’ll provide the recipe for this complicated, but delicious, vegetable medley in a future column).

But today I’m going to pass along a recipe that combines roasted ripe tomatoes and peppers, along with garlic and onions, to create a red pesto and pasta dish. You’re probably wondering if that’s a typo because you’re certain that pesto is green -right? Well, normally it is and that’s because the traditional pesto recipe is made from handfuls of fresh basil. However, pesto can be made from other herbs or vegetables, and the term is more broadly defined as a sauce.

The main ingredients of this crimson version of pesto are roasted red peppers and Roma tomatoes yielding flavors that are rich, spicy, smoky and robust. And because the roasted veggies will be processed through a food mill, I suggest you use either capellini or rotini as the pasta noodle of choice. I call this dish: Pesto Rosso Pasta. To put this dish into the culinary stratosphere, you’ll need to pair it with a medium to full-bodied red wine like the ones suggested below. So here you go!

Pesto Rosso Pasta

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Charleston: a good place to ride out the pandemic

If you’re a food and wine junkie like me, this pandemic has really altered your lifestyle. My wife and I enjoy eating in and opening a good bottle of wine at home more than just about anybody, but we miss those restaurant or bar date nights where we can let someone else prepare our meal and serve us our beverages.

However, visiting restaurants or bars now, though, is not nearly as much fun as in the past. Social distancing, limited seating arrangements and facial coverings – while understandably necessary, present impediments and obstacles to having a relaxing and enjoyable dining experience. And if you are in the geezer demographic or are physically compromised, the fear of contracting the virus in public places – like restaurants -is an even more inhibiting factor.

But guess what? I have come to the conclusion that Charleston is a pretty good place to shelter in place for a while, especially for foodies and wine geeks. Why? Well, in our little corner of the world, we are blessed to have access to purveyors who provide us with some of freshest and highest quality victuals you can find just about anywhere in this region of the good old US of A.

Let’s start with the basics like bread, vegetables and proteins.

I have travelled in some of the most famous epicurean capitals of Europe where the local bread is spoken of reverentially, but none of those bakeries is any more accomplished than Charleston Bread located on North Capitol Street in our fair city. Their baguettes, ciabatta, multigrain, honey whole wheat, sour dough and other breads are delicious while the salt, pepper and olive oil focaccia is otherworldly. They even crank out delicious and varying styles of pasta noodles you can buy right there at the bakery. Oh, and the pastries are the real deal too, especially the cakes, brownies, cinnamon rolls and biscotti.

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Summertime Red Wine

Even though temperatures are approaching meteorological hell, I refuse to give up the pleasures of sipping red wine with the foods of summer.

Sure, I drink more refreshing whites and rose’s this time of year than I do of those purple monsters, but I still open and enjoy red wines. I just modify that old (and hackneyed) adage that red wine should be served at room temperature. Of course, when the Medieval wine snob who offered that advice did so, room temperature was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

I simply put my red wine in the refrigerator for about a half hour before opening it and then keep it in an ice bucket after pouring a glass or two. I do, though, usually prefer lighter styled reds such as pinot noir and Valpolicella this time of year. The beauty of these two varietals is that – while they are not full-bodied like cabernet or zinfandel- they do stand up to and pair well with picnic foods like sausages, ribs and foods with spicy heat.

Pinot noir like those produced by Elouan and Erath from Oregon, J. Lohr, Buena Vista and Cline Family Cellars from California, Kim Crawford from New Zealand and Cono Sur from Chile are all priced around or below $25 a bottle and make very nice accompaniments to the foods of summer.

However, one of the best warm weather reds is Valpolicella. Produced from a combination of the relatively obscure corvina, rondinalla and molinara grapes, this red wine can be a very pleasant sipper, as well as an excellent accompaniment to barbecue and other warm weather foods.

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A hidden gem from Friuli

As I have stated many times before, Italy is a boot full of wine. Each of its 20 regions have multiple wine appellations within them where an incalculable number of distinct grape vines are harvested each year and produce mind boggling amounts of vino.

When Americans think of Italian wine, most of us conjure up visions of Tuscany where the wines of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino take center stage. Some of us know about the Veneto region where Soave, Valpolicella and Amarone are the principle wines, or in the Piedmont where Barolo and Barbaresco are highly prized bottles.

Today I’ll tell you about a wine in the little known region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia (pronounced Free-ull-ee Ven-eat-see-uh Julia) in the far north eastern section of Italy bordering Slovenia to the east and Austria to the north. The capitol city of the region is Trieste located across the Adriatic Sea from Venice.

The two most respected wine appellations of Friuli are the Colli Orientali and the Collio both of which are located in the north eastern part of the state. While some red wine is produced in Friuli such as merlot and refosco, the region is known primarily for whites, the most notable of which are Friulano, ribolla gialla, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot grigio

I recently tasted a wine from Colli Orientali that took my breath away, especially when paired with (in this case )the appropriately compatible dishes. This bottle is produced by a family better known for its exceptional Italian restaurants than for its wines. If the name Bastianich sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen the public TV shows hosted by Lidia, the chef and founder of the family’s restaurant empire.


And if you’ve been to any of the Eataly establishments located in Chicago, Las Vegas or other major US cities, or if you’ve had the pleasure of dining at Dell Posto or Felidia in New York, you understand that the Bastianich name is synonymous with great Italian cuisine. Lidia’s son, Joe Bastianich, founded the eponymous winery in 1997 in the very region of Italy where his mother was born.

The 2016 Bastianich Vespa Bianco ($30) is a medium to full bodied white that has ripe pear flavors with hints of honey and almonds. It is round and rich, yet crisp, with balancing acidity that should allow it to age gracefully for several more years. If you can’t locate it in your favorite wine shop, simply ask your purveyor to order it for you. The wine is a blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and a local Friulian grape – picolit.

While this wine was a match made in heaven when we paired it with grilled Chilean Sea Bass, it blew us away when we sipped the last few ounces with our salad! My wife created a salad of arugula, thinly sliced fennel and Vidalia onions, fresh orange slices in a dressing of DiTrapano Extra Virgin Olive oil, some freshly squeezed orange juice and just a touch of aged Balsamic vinegar.

Oh My!! Can you say serendipity? I know it was just dumb luck because I probably would never have thought of intentionally pairing the wine with a salad, but I’m glad we had a sip or two remaining when we finished the Chilean Sea Bass. Goes to show you, it pays to be adventurous (or at least save a little wine for salad or dessert).

You might ask your wine shop folks to show you the bottles they have from Friuli. These are wines worth searching out.

Chimichurri with a Twang!

We’ve been hunkering down in the mountains for the past few weeks trying to avoid crowding other human beings and doing our best to social distance. It’s not hard to do because there just aren’t that many people wandering around in the forest.

That’s the good news. The challenge, of course, is to maintain some semblance of sanity through our self-imposed isolation. It’s easy for me because I’m naturally lazy and content to just lounge around watching reruns of the Beverly Hillbillies or reading the works of authors like Elmore Leonard, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut.

My wife, on the other hand, spends an inordinate amount of time cleaning, and then re-cleaning, the house. Our home is so immaculate now that she doesn’t seem to mind when I dirty up the kitchen or when I crumb-bomb the carpet. In these strange times, I’m finding that being slovenly might actually serve a higher purpose.


Anyway, like many of you, we also pass the time cooking - especially recipes of dishes that have been in the “on deck” circle for decades. So today, I’m going to share one of those on-deck recipes that should enhance just about any protein dish you wish to prepare. And I’ve added a special West Virginia ingredient I’ll call a “twang” to the recipe that will intensify the flavors even more.

Chimichurri has been variously described as a piquant sauce or a condiment; while others use it as a marinade. Argentina is given credit for originating the dish, and the ingredients can vary according to the style of chimichurri you want to concoct. I’m going to provide you with my take on chimichurri that includes the addition (or Twang) of that odiferous West Virginia lily known as the ramp. I actually harvested the ramps for this recipe in the woods near our home during one of our regular social distancing hikes.

In Argentina, Chimichurri is used as an accompaniment to grilled beefsteak, but it works equally well with pork, chicken and even fish. I love to use it with cuts of beef like chuck or skirt steak grilled over charcoal, and I always suggest pairing the chimichurri-enhanced beef with a rich red wine. Because chimichurri is made with a good dose of vinegar, you will need a wine that is round and even soft. Wines with a lot of acid, such as pinot noir or barbera, will clash with chimichurri. You might try merlot, red blends or even malbec like the one I’m suggesting below.

So strap on your big-boy pants and get ready for a real explosion of flavors!

Chimichurri with a Twang
Ingredients

One each, red bell pepper, sweet onion and jalapeno
Three cloves of garlic
One-half cup each Italian parsley and basil
One-quarter cup of fresh cilantro
One teaspoon each of red pepper flakes, kosher salt and coarse black pepper
One half teaspoon each dried oregano and ground cumin
Four ounces each of extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar
Ten or 15 small grape tomatoes
Two medium ramps (optional)
One medium size bowl

Preparation

Dice red pepper, jalapeno, onion, basil, cilantro, ramps and parsley
Mince garlic
Cut grape tomatoes in half
Add olive oil, vinegar and above ingredients into a medium bowl
Stir mixture and add salt, cumin, oregano, red pepper flakes and black pepper
Allow to sit for a few hours or overnight in refrigerator
Serve at room temperature and spoon over or next to beef

2013 Luna de Esperanza Super Premium Malbec, Uco Valley ($40)- This malbec is comprised of ninety percent malbec and five percent each of cabernet franc and syrah. With blackberry, mocha and coffee flavors, the wine’s richness and soft tannins marry nicely with the beef and chimichurri sauce.

Saint Patty's Day Pasta

Saint Patrick’s Day is coming up this week, so I thought I would wow you with a great Irish recipe. So, while I’m not a Bangers and Mash or Soda Bread kind of guy, I am one-half Irish and I feel obliged to celebrate my Gaelic heritage by cooking up a Saint Patrick's Day meal. However, I just couldn’t find anything that tickled my culinary fancy.

Then I had what I thought was a solution to the problem. Since I am also one-half Italian, why not find a recipe that uses the traditional culinary ingredients of Ireland and Italy to prepare a dish that pays homage to both storied nations.

Unfortunately, as I searched my treasure trove of cookbooks, I was unable to find any Irish-Italian dishes. I suppose I could try and create one. How about something like this: Corned Beef Marinara over Cabbage Fettucine; or Skirts and Kidneys Bolognese in Blood Pudding?


I must admit neither of the above mentioned combos excited my taste buds. So I decided to go in another direction. Since everyone knows that green is the national color of Ireland and that pasta is the national food of Italy, I’ve decided to combine these two characteristics to create a dish I’ll call Saint Patty’s Day Pasta.

Okay, I know, this is a bit of a stretch, but hang with me a bit longer because I think you’re going to love this recipe.

Two of the main ingredients in the recipe are Charleston Bread’s homemade spinach fettucine, and the lovely extra virgin olive oil from locally-owned Villa Ditrapano. Both the pasta and olive oil are green and they share the culinary stage in the recipe with arugula and basil to give this dish a definite emerald hue.

More importantly, this is one tasty dish! Check this out.

Saint Patty’s Day Pasta

One red bell pepper, small fennel bulb, medium onion,
Six Italian Roma or plum tomatoes
One pound spinach fettuccine
Four peeled cloves of garlic
Two links each of Italian and Andouille sausage
One 8 -ounce can of tomato sauce
Two ounces of cooking olive oil
One ounce of premium extra virgin olive oil
One-half teaspoon each of Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Four ounces of grated parmesan cheese
One-half cup of pasta water
Two ounces each of fresh, chopped basil and arugula

Cut bell pepper and tomatoes in chunks; onion and fennel in eighth inch rings
Place vegetables and garlic cloves on an oven pan, drizzle with regular oil and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes
Roast the sausage in another pan in same 400 degree oven for 40 minutes, turning once at 20 minutes
Chop cooked garlic in small pieces and combine with cooked vegetables in a sauce pan
Add tomato sauce to pan, cook at low heat for 30 minutes- add salt and pepper to taste
Cut sausage into half inch rings, set aside; then add to the sauce after 25 minutes
Cook pasta Al-dente and drain in colander
Combine pasta, sauce and half the parmesan to a large sauté pan over low heat
Toss together with fresh basil and arugula then add pasta water if needed
Plate pasta and sprinkle parmesan and drizzle premium olive oil over top of pasta

My wine choice to pair with Saint Patty’s Day Pasta is the 2016 Alexander Valley Vineyards Redemption Zinfandel ($25). This medium-bodied Dry Creek Valley red is round, rich and well balanced with spicy, blackberry flavors and just a hint of toasty vanilla.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. And may all your Leprechauns be green!

Shitake Stuffed Portobellos

I made the mistake of walking past a mirror right after the first of the year. The reflection of a rotund stranger stared back at me, and it took me several seconds to realize that the portly visage I was staring at was – ME!

Unfortunately, I have been having this same New Year’s wake up call for decades. Once again, I am vowing to moderate my excessive appetites in the hope of sculpting a visually more appealing version of myself. In other words, I’m going to try and eat less and choose foods that are healthy – and that actually taste good too.

I’m going to share a recipe with you for a dish that accomplishes both of the above-mentioned goals. Of course, I’ll give you a couple of wine pairing suggestions that will significantly enhance the enjoyment of the dish. It will be up to you, however, to moderate your wine intake. In my case, that means cutting back to only half a bottle.

Spoiler alert: If you do not like mushrooms, you won’t want to read any further.

I’m sure many of you have eaten Portobello mushrooms. You may have cooked them on the stovetop, or oven baked them with stuffing. You might have sliced and sautéed them with onions, garlic and other spices, and used them as a side dish. My recipe, which is meant to be an entrée, uses a little bit of each method just described, and you’ll have the option of making the dish with or without meat. In addition, this recipe also includes shitake mushrooms as part of the stuffing. And since mushrooms are full of vitamins and are a terrific source of fiber, this entree is also extremely healthy. So here you go.

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Happy food, wine, and family!

Christmas is upon us and I am psyched! So, bring on the seven fishes, the Christmas dinner and even the twelve days because I’m ready and raring to go. And, as always, I will provide you with some vinous choices to enhance your holiday meals.

Of course, my first challenge will be to weather the (sometimes literal) storm of preparing the Christmas Eve fish extravaganza. I will use the outdoor gas grill to heat up the canola oil to 350F and then begin frying cod, smelts, squid and scallops. This can be tricky if the weather is raining or snowing heavily, but I’ll get it done – with the help of my eldest grandchild who has been my sous-chef for most of his post, pre-K life.

I’ll also brine and then hot smoke a side of salmon, while my wife constructs a pasta and clam dish. And there will be cocktail shrimp and other appetizers to get our palates properly tuned up. Since most of the fish will be deep fried, I find it’s best to pair them with white wines that are medium bodied, refreshing and even thirst quenching.


You might give these bottles a try. Italian whites: Arneis; Cortese di Gavi; Greco di Tufo; and Falanghina; California Chardonnay: Cakebread Cellars; Ridge Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains; Far Niente; and Mer Soleil.

There is no standard, traditional Christmas day meal in our country. Depending upon your religious or ethnic background, you might enjoy everything from ham to goose, to turkey to beef. In homes where the ancestral heritage derives from the British Isles, Germany or other northern European locales, we Americans tend to lean toward these culinary options: turkey; prime rib roast or filet mignon ; or baked ham as the featured main course.

If you’re preparing oven-roasted turkey as the main course on Christmas day, these medium bodied wines will pair nicely: Chateauneuf Du Pape; Rioja; California merlot, Chianti Classsico or Cotes Du Rhone.

If your Christmas dinner features baked ham with a honey glaze, you have several more options, including red, rose or even white wine. You might select: Tavel Rose from Southern France; riesling from Alsace; Sonoma Coast pinot noir; or malbec from Argentina.

At our home, my wife will dry rub a bone-in prime rib roast with garlic, kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Then she’ll roast it in the oven until it’s medium rare. Here are the wines I’m considering to accompany the rib roast: 2004 Ducru Beaucaillou (Bordeaux red); 2007 La Massa (Italian super Tuscan red); or 2016 Ridge Lytton Springs Vineyard Zinfandel.

Over the next two weeks, you will drink more than half of your yearly total consumption of sparkling wine. It could be Champagne or other sparklers like those produced using the Champagne method or by other vinous means of eliciting bubbles in still wine. So, whether it’s Brut Champagne, Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy or Cremant from Alsace, the apex of sparkling wine consumption will occur between Christmas and the New Year.

There is nothing quite like Champagne to ring in the New Year. Give one or more of these Champagnes a try: Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésime; Krug Grande Cuvee Brut; Nicholas Feuillatte “Blue Label” Brut; Veuve Cliquot Brut; and Piper-Heidesieck Brut Cuvée.

Sparkling wine from regions other than Champagne: Gusbourne Brut Reserve (England); Mumm Napa Cuvee, Roderer Estate Brut Anderson Valley and Iron Horse Russian Cuvee ( all from California); Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace (France); Segura Viudas Reserva (Spain); La Marca Prosecco (Italy); and Gruet Blanc de Noirs (New Mexico

Have a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah and a prosperous New Year!

November: a palete pleasing month !

November is the most exciting and palate pleasing month of the year for both wine and food lovers. Serendipitously, the most anticipated weekday of the year for both groups falls on a Thursday in November. And since most wine and food lovers are one and the same, it’s prime time for those of us who love to eat and drink

Of course, every living, breathing, epicurean knows that Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of November. And if you’re a living, breathing, wineaux, you know that Beaujolais Nouveau is always released on the third Thursday in November. So let the celebrations begin!

If you haven’t already sampled the 2019 Beaujolais Nouveau, it is now available in wine shops and grocery stores around the state. The Nouveau is made from the gamay grape grown in the. Beaujolais region just south of France’s Burgundy appellation. It is always an easy quaffing wine meant to be a celebration of the recently completed harvest. You can expect Beaujolais Nouveau to be a fruit forward wine with strawberry flavors. It can be paired successfully with brunch- type foods, and you might even consider opening a Nouveau as an aperitif before dinner.

Thanksgiving dinner is a wine lover’s dream feast because the meal can be successfully paired with white or red, as well as light or full-bodied wines. With turkey as the centerpiece of the meal, and with the wide variety of side dishes accompanying the “National Bird,” you’ll have an almost limitless number of vinous options. That’s because turkey is blessed with meat that has different flavors, colors and textures. Add to this the manner in which it is cooked – from traditional oven baking, to deep frying, to grilling and/or smoking, and you have even more wine choices from which to select.


 
 
Stuffing for the turkey adds a whole other flavor dimension which, depending upon the nature of the dressing, opens up even more wine pairing possibilities. I’ll usually feature both white and red wines to go with the dinner, and then open a sparkler or late harvest sweet wine to pair with the pumpkin pie dessert. This Thanksgiving, I plan on using a few wines from a recent tasting at the Wine Shop at Capitol Market. Featured at the event were the wines from American winery Kate Arnold as well as from Spanish winery Torres.

As an aperitif, I’ll open a bottle of 2017 Vina Esmeralda Muscat ($16). This tasty wine is just slightly sweet with a spicy floral aroma followed on by peach and apricot flavors. I always feature both a white and red wine with the main course. This year, I’m opening a 2017 Kate Arnold Sauvignon Blanc ($16). This California wine has aromas of anise and herbs, mouth-watering citrus nuances and good balancing acidity. The wine should be an excellent pairing with my wife’s chestnut, sausage and sage dressing.

The turkey this year at our home will spend two hours on my Weber charcoal grill before being transferred to the oven to bake until it reaches 165 degrees F. This method of cooking the gobbler is the result of detente between my wife (oven) and yours truly (grill). After decades of marriage, I’ve decided to test my hypothesis ( i.e., that compromise is only slightly more satisfying than passing a kidney stone). Anyway, I will pair this culinary experiment with a pinot noir from Oregon. One that I had the pleasure of sipping at the aforementioned tasting.

The 2016 Kate Arnold Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($23) has aromas of spice and earth and flavors of plum and blueberries with hints of vanilla and cola. It is a wine of excellent roundness and depth, with just the right dollop of acidity to make it a perfect match to your Thanksgiving meal. And I’m confident that the wine will do wonders for our détente turkey too.

Here’s wishing you a very Happy Thanksgiving!

For the love of Zin

Benjamin Disraeli, the former British prime minister and novelist, was famously quoted as proclaiming: “The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can never end.”

But I must disagree with the late and esteemed Mr. Disraeli, particularly when it comes to wine. The first grape I ever had the pleasure of making into wine more than 40 years ago was zinfandel. And even though the wine-like result was so over-oaked that it tasted like toothpicks, I still love zinfandel to this day. And, by the way, the latest version of my home made zinfandel, made from Amador County grapes in 2018, was just bottled a few weeks ago and actually does taste like wine!

I consider zinfandel America’s wine even though it is genetically identical to an unpronounceable Croatian vine ( crljenak kastelanski) and the more widely known Italian primitivo grape. But the good old US of A is where the wine has achieved stature and a world-wide following. The vine was first planted in Sonoma County in the 1850’s and, according to the California Wine Institute, zinfandel is the third-leading grape variety planted in California with nearly 45,000 acres planted in the state.


 
But still, most novice wine drinkers think zinfandel is a white, slightly sweet wine best suited for quaffing at picnics. And there is a reason for this impression many of us have of the grape. When one particular winery could not find a market for his over-produced zinfandel in the 1970’s, he decided to use the excess grape production to make a wine in a slightly sweet rose’ style. The rest is history. The new wine was called: White Zanfandel and it became a sensation. To this day, White Zinfandel still retains a huge market share among American wine drinkers. And while I will occasionally chill a bottle of Beringer White Zin for porch sipping, red zinfandel is still among my favorite wines of all time.

 
I suppose my fondness for zinfandel stems from the versatility of the vine to produce wines that range in intensity from the aforementioned white zin to full-throttled, purple monsters. I also love the wine because it is so malleable and can complement such a wide range of dishes. And with the arrival of fall, my thoughts turn to richer textured wines like zinfandel and fuller-flavored edibles, including all manner of grilled meat dishes that just seem to go so well with the wine. So, when I cook for friends and family this time of year, the food is usually straightforward, down-home, meat and starch type meals such as grilled thick-cut pork chops, leg of lamb, baked lasagna or red beans and rice.

So what are the flavor profiles of zinfandel? Well, regardless of the intensity of the finished product, most zinfandel does share some general flavor characteristics such as dark berries, black cherries along with briary and peppery nuances. However, the easiest way to pick the right zin for dinner is to categorize the wine according to its weight and intensity of flavor. That way you can decide which style to use with the food you’ll be preparing. Below are some of my favorite zinfandels rated by intensity and weight, along with some matching food suggestions. Incidentally, these wines range in price from about $20 to no more than $50 a bottle.

Lighter-Bodied Wines: Peachy Canyon Incredible Red; Marietta Old Vines Red; Pedroncelli Mother Clone; Sobon Estate Old Vines; Ravenswood Lodi; Bogle; Try these wines with pizza, grilled hamburgers, Italian sausage or meatloaf.

Medium-Bodied Wines: Rancho Zabaco Heritage Vines; Sebastiani Sonoma; Seghesio Old Vines; Dry Creek Vineyards; Ridge Geyserville; Renwood Old Vines; Easton Amador County; and Rosenblum Paso Robles. Good with roasted pork tenderloin, grilled salmon or barbecued baby back ribs.

Full -Bodied Wines: Ridge Lytton Springs; Renwood Grandpere; Montevina Terre D’Oro; Chateau Montelena; Grgich-Hills; Turley Juvenile; Storybook Mountain Eastern Exposure; and Hartford Russian River Valley. Try these purple monsters with pasta in marinara sauce, hearty stews, grilled rack of lamb and marinated and stuffed flank steak.

John Brown is also an author and his novel, Augie’s War, is available online and at at bookstores.

A tasty and tasteful visit to Tucker County

Tucker County, West Virginia is a special place. That statement doesn’t qualify as an epiphany for any of you who have had the pleasure of spending time in that region of the Potomac Highlands. But in addition to experiencing the many and varied recreational options in this wild and magnificent place, there are also several tasty and tasteful creature enhancements, particularly in the towns of Davis and Thomas.

I’ve been a part-time resident of Tucker County for three decades, and I still enjoy a sense of happy anticipation during the three-hour trip from Charleston. When I arrive, I’m content to just sit on the deck and gaze at the multi-colored leaves of fall while puffy white clouds glide across a robin’s egg-colored sky.

But a person DOES need to eat and drink too!


First stop is in Davis for a glass of suds from a West Virginia Craft Brewery of The Year award winner-Stumptown Ales. Stumptown has a stable of tasty brews to be sure, but they’ve also created a friendly gathering place for both visitors and locals alike. And they’ll even let you bring your dinner in to pair with their brews. You might try a sandwich from the Farm Up Food Truck that parks near Stumptown several times a week.

Just up the street is one of the state’s best pizzerias - Sirianni’s Café. Sirianni’s also serves sandwiches and pasta along with the absolute best antipasti salad (get the white garlic dressing) anywhere. The wine list is small, but well thought out and there is an extensive selection of beer, including local draft from Stumptown or from the other local brewery- Mountain State.

One of the best breakfast and brunch restaurants in the entire county is Bright Morning Inn which doubles as a B & B. All the menu choices are exceptional, but the peach pancakes are beyond good. Then wander right across the street to the WV Highlands Artisans Gallery to view the works of local artists while you walk off those pancakes.

Just up the road is the Billy Motel. The owner bought a former “No-Tell” motel a few years back and completely upgraded the rooms, added a bar and lounge, and has just opened a tapas-like restaurant there. When I heard the bartender at the Billy tell a tipsy bar patron that the next bus to Mars would be leaving soon, I knew I was in the right place. Really though, if you’re looking for the perfect cocktail, great conversation and an eclectic vibe, you must visit the Billy Motel in Davis.

Three miles north on Rte. 32 is the town of Thomas which has re-created itself over the past decade into a hip, art-centric little village with galleries, a coffee shop and bar, antique stores and music venues. There is also Cottrill’s Opera House, built in 1911, that is being restored into a performing arts center. Next door is Thomas Yard, a business featuring a very good wine shop where you can also buy fresh flowers and small gifts. About a mile outside of town, you might also wish to visit the Buxton Landstreet Gallery where artwork, stained glass and artisan furniture are available for purchase.

I love wandering into and browsing at The Creature, Bloom, The Gradient, and the White Room Art Galleries all along the same block (on the lower street) in Thomas. A little further down the street, you can book a room at The Cooper House Bed and Cocktail lodging facility that is right next door to the Purple Fiddle. The Fiddle features live traditional music almost seven days a week.

Top off your visit to Thomas by slipping in to Tip Top Coffee where the baristas brew up seriously good java, and the bartenders create tasty specialty cocktails. Tip Top also bakes pastries, makes sandwiches and, on Friday evenings, serves up delicious hamburgers made from locally sourced beef. And the wines by the glass and bottle at Tip Top feature quality and value, and represent a broad cross-section of wine appellations from around the world.

And I haven’t even mentioned what’s available for you to experience in Canaan Valley and other communities of Tucker County like Parsons and St. George. That’s for another time.

So whether you’re a skier, mountain biker, art and music lover, gourmand, hiker or just someone who enjoys observing the wild side of Mother Nature, take a trip to the mountains of Tucker County. Oh, and if you stop by The Billy, ask when the next bus leaves for Mars.

 John Brown is also an author and his novel, Augie's War, is available online and at at bookstores.
 
 

The magic of Brunello Di Montalcino

If the wine world ever establishes a Hall of Fame, Brunello Di Montalcino will be a charter member! It would share center stage with the planet’s greatest wines such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and a few others considered to be among the best.

What makes the wine so special? Well first of all, just pronouncing the name can make you thirsty (brew-nell-oh dee mon-towel-chee-no). And that’s good because I can’t think of any better way to slake your thirst than by sipping the silky elegance that is Brunello Di Montalcino. And for me, silky is the word I always associate with the wine.

I know you’re probably thinking that “silky” is a feeling - a texture if you will - and not a taste. But the aroma that precedes the texture and the flavors that follow it are also exceptional too. I’ll get to those other sensory aspects later, but first here is some information on the grape that’s used to make Brunello, and the region where the wine is produced.

Sangiovese is the grape vinified to make the wine. It’s the same varietal and primary grape used to produce most of the reds in Tuscany, including Chianti. Sangiovese can also be a component of “Super Tuscans” which are blends of non-traditional Italian varietals such as cabernet, merlot and syrah. But the sangiovese grown around the small town of Montalcino is considered superior to wines made from the same grape in other parts Tuscany.

And according to the experts, it’s all about the terroir of the vineyards around Montalcino, especially the soil. Terroir (pronounced tare-wah) is defined as the combination of soil, climate and geographic location that determine the quality of a wine appellation. While the climate and the geographic location of vineyards in the Montalcino appellation are ideal for producing excellent Brunello, the varied soils of the region are given most of the credit for the exceptional quality of the wine.


 
On a visit to Brunello producer Castelgiocondo last month, their wine maker Filippo Manni took me to an area where several feet of exposed vineyard showed limestone, clay, schist, and volcanic soils stacked on top of each other. He said the complexity of the soils is the major reason for the superior quality of the sangiovese produced in the Montalcino region.

So what should you expect when you put that glass of Brunello to your lips for the first sip? The aroma of Brunello can be varied, but I usually get dark fruit, spice and sometimes leather. And like most other quality red wines, Brunello produced in a good to exceptional vintage will have two flavor profiles. The first, when the wine is under 10 years old, will have dried cheery or cranberry flavors along with fairly noticeable tannins and bright acidity. As the wine matures, the flavors get richer with caramel nuances to the fruit while the tannins and acid soften. And here’s where you’ll begin to feel the silkiness of the wine.

Castelgiocondo is one of several wineries owned by the renowned Italian wine family, Frescobaldi. After visiting the winery, cellars and vineyards of Castelgiocondo, my wife and I sat down for an elegant outdoor lunch with winemaker Manni. We tasted through the winery’s entire portfolio, including three Brunello’s, a Rosso di Montalcino (Carpo Al Sassi) and a merlot (Lamaione).

We enjoyed each of the wines, but the 1998 Castelgiocondo was everything I love about Brunello. The aroma was redolent of tea and leather and the flavor of dark cherries with nuances of caramel and herbs went on and on. Of course, the texture was pure silk.

Brunello is not inexpensive. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $150 a bottle. You might wish to start out by trying a bottle of Rosso Di Montalcino. Rosso, which is produced from young vines or wines that do not meet the strict standards of a winery, are usually priced between $25 and $50 a bottle. These “Baby Brunello’s” can be delicious wines too, and can give you a tasty hint of what to expect once you trade up.

While Brunello Di Montalcino is usually very good in just about any year, here are vintages that are rated among the best in the past two decades: 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2015.

Enjoy!

Italy - A destination for all generations

PUNTA ALA, ITALY – My wife and I had already visited the country where my family originated just a few generations back. Now we faced the challenge of a trip that would have to offer something for everyone: it was time to travel with the entire family, with a wide range of ages and interests.

I hoped our sons and daughter-in-law, along with grandkids, Ellis, 16; Palmer, 13; and Barrett, 11; would find Italy as magical as we did.

How could they not? It's an ancient land where – over the last thousand years – culture, art and history have converged to create civilization, and where visitors can now walk, observe and taste this living, breathing encyclopedia of life.


However, I was forewarned by You Know Who that on this trip I would need to devote more time to walking and observing, and less time on the tasting components of Italian culture. And while I reluctantly conceded the point to my spouse, I also knew that my kids and grandkids had, thankfully, inherited my fondness for food and drink.

They know, as I do, that food gives us strength and that thirst is a terrible thing. So off we went.

Part of our strategy was to divide and conquer: while all three branches of the family arrived in Rome on the same day, each branch headed out in different directions. Son Bryan and his family would spend three days touring and exploring Rome while son Aaron went south to Naples and the Amalfi coast.

For our private getaway, Debbie and I decided to spend a couple of leisurely days at the beach. We had been looking for a coastal resort favored by Italians, and one that was within easy driving distance of Tuscany. It was our plan to meet there later and spend five days all together exploring the region and visiting the towns, castles, churches, vines and art in that storied part of Italy.

The Gallia Palace, a Relais & Chateaux resort hotel, was perfectly situated two-and-a-half hours north of Rome near the seaside port town of Punta Ala, along the Mediterranean coast in a region of Tuscany called Maremma.

This same area is home to vineyards that produce crisp white wines such as Vermentino, and superb red wines called “Super Tuscans.” These blended wines, made from grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and sangiovese, can rival the great reds of the world such as those produced in Bordeaux and Napa.

The Gallia is a small but very pretty property, set on a hillside in a spectacular natural setting. From our balcony, we could look down across the grounds to a stand of stately Stone Pine trees) that resemble umbrellas. And beyond the stone pines, just a kilometer away, was the sparkling blue Mediterranean with the Gallia's private beach.

But the highlight of the resort for me is the superb restaurant back at the hotel. Some of the dishes are like art on a plate, almost too pretty to eat, and the wine list features selections from all the major Italian regions. In fact, one of the most delightful wines of our entire trip (and there were many) was the 2014 Col D’orcia Brunello Di Montalcino made just an hour from the Gallia resort.


While we were enjoying our beach getaway, Bryan and family spent their days touring the antiquities of Rome and Aaron visited and explored the stony beaches and steep hills of the Amalfi Coast.

Then it was time for all of us to meet in Tuscany.

My daughter-in-law, Ericka, used VRBO to locate a large country home near (delete:Siena in ) the small village of Sovicille [so-va-CHIL-ah], that served as our base. La Dimora di Teresa (residence of Teresa) features four bedrooms and four baths along with a fully equipped kitchen and a large great room with cable TV and internet. It is also completely air-conditioned, which is not common everywhere in Italy, especially in large homes.

The outdoor spaces include a long covered porch, a swimming pool, an outdoor fireplace and even a pizza oven. Naturally, on our first night together, we took full advantage of this particular amenity and arranged to have a local chef, (delete: Chef Giulia) make custom pizzas for us in the outdoor, wood-fired oven. Our hungry group (delete: of eight ) ate, and ordered, and ate some more. What a treat!

Each of our days in Tuscany was spent exploring a different town, historical site or museum.

In Florence we were led on a private tour of the Uffizi and the Academia Museums, viewing priceless Renaissance artworks such as The David, along with the paintings of Michelangelo, Botticelli and DaVinci among others. We also visited the old walled city of Siena, marveled at the towers of San Gimignano and watched artisans carve alabaster into bowls, grapes and vases in the hill top town of Volterra.

And even the most modest restaurants served us amazingly fresh and delicious meals. We dined at two small eateries within five minutes of La Dimora di Teresa that were exceptional.


La Compagnia featured exquisite, mouth-watering pasta choices, including the best ever cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) and carbonara dishes I’ve ever eaten.
The traditional Bistecca alla Fiorentina (or beef steak of Florence) served at the other local establishment – Il Grillo Morro - is a giant, four-inch thick, bone-in rib eye that will melt in your mout

We ended our five-day tour of Tuscany with a visit to Il Borro, a relatively new winery owned by the Ferragamo family, more widely known for their famous namesake famous fashion and clothing company. The entire family toured the cellars, tasted the wines and had a very special lunch at Il Borro. You just knew I had to get a little more wine-time in, right?

When we departed our lovely Tuscan digs, Aaron headed to the airport and back to the U.S. while Bryan and family traveled just up the road to Lucca to attend an Elton John concert under the stars. They spent two more days exploring the canals of Venice before making their way to the airport and the long flight home.


We took the fast train to Rome and checked into the Palazzo Cinquecento Hotel in the center of the city. From this exceptional hotel, we were able to conveniently visit the most important Roman landmarks, as well as savor those last delicious bites of Cucina Italia before heading back to the mountains of home.

Photos from Top to Bottom:
1.  Grandkids marvel at the frescos in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel 
2. Sommelier at Gallia Palace pours us Brunello Di Montalcino
3. Chef making us pizzas at our Tuscan Villa
4. Bryan, Ericka and children tour Venice in a gondola