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

The wines of Northern Italy

I just returned from a trip to Italy and I’m in a self-imposed food and wine de-tox program with the goal of deflating my dirigible-like countenance to something less frightening to small children. And, of course, I will have many experiences to share with you over the next few months.

I love visiting wine regions whether in this country or other viticultural regions of the world because there is always something new to discover. On this recent trip, I was privileged to not only taste a substantial number of different wines, but also to explore the variety of local foods that were paired with the indigenous wines.

I concentrated most of my time in the Veneto region north of Verona in Valpolicella, and in Trentino -Alto Adige (on the border with Austria and in the southern Alps known as Dolomites). These two areas presented distinctly different types of wine to explore - many of which were blends of two or more local grapes.

Like France, Italy has a government office that sets forth regulations determining which grapes can be grown and produced into wine for each viticultural area in the country.

[caption id="attachment_940" align="alignleft" width="225"] View of the Dolomites from my hotel window


Denominazione di origine controllata ("Controlled designation of origin") or DOC is a quality assurance label for Italian wine. DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) on the label of an Italian wine is an even stronger and higher quality assurance rating.

The government does not prohibit wineries from planting different grapes than those approved by them for a specific region, but in the past, the resulting wine had to be labeled as “vino de tavola” or table wine. Unfortunately, that designation was viewed as inferior by the wine cognoscenti.

For example, cabernet sauvignon was not an approved grape for Tuscany and therefore had to be labeled as table wine regardless of the quality of the product.This all changed about 30 years ago when the government, with extreme pressure from influential wine makers, set forth a new classification – IGT (indicazione geografica tipica) allowing wineries to produce wines from grapes not approved by them.

The wines known as “Super Tuscans” in the Maremma region of Tuscany led the way by producing Bordeaux-type blends such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Ornellaia is perhaps the best known example of a Super Tuscan” and is also considered one of the greatest wines in Italy.

Next time, I’ll tell you about some of the wines I experienced during my trip to that boot full of wine, but in the meantime, here are two wines (available right here in good old West Virginia) from northern Italy to tease your palate for what’s to come.

 2011 Abbazia di Novacella Lagrein ($24) - Great to find this relatively obscure red grape from Trentino in the foothills of the Italian Dolomites.  I just returned from that breathtakingly beautiful land and tasted several different lagrein wines.  Lagrein (pronounced lah-graw-heen) is a deeply colored medium to full bodied wine and the Abbazia is chock full of ripe, red cherry flavors with a mineral-like finish. Excellent balance in a wine that would marry well with a pork roast basted a port-cherry sauce.

2009 Matteo Correggia Rosso Roero ($19) – From northwestern Italy in the Piedmont, this wine is made from nebbiolo – the noble grape from which the world famous Barbaresco and Barolo are made. Grown in an area of Piedmont known mostly for the fresh and sprightly white called Arneis, the wine has a nose of cola and leather and ripe plum flavors.  This is a great and inexpensive introduction to nebbiolo and tastes like a baby Barbaresco.  Pair it with grilled flank steak spiced with black pepper, olive oil, garlic and kosher salt.

 

B.S. Chicken - a great recipe - no BS

Summer is on the way and, while I don’t need a warm weather excuse to roast animal parts on the grill, I am fired up to fire-up the old Weber Performer in clement (as opposed to inclement) weather.

Shucks, I’m like a dedicated athlete. You know the type. Nothing gets in the way of our mission to be the best regardless of whether (or weather) the contest is imminent.
While you were warming your tootsies by the fireplace last winter, I was out back trying to start a charcoal fire in a blizzard. Hey, frostbite is a small price to pay for the culinary treats I created.

Today, I’m going to regale you with a recipe for one of those cold weather creations and suggest two really nice wines that match this food just about perfectly.

When I was a tyke (before R&B – aka Rocky and Bullwinkle), my Italian grandfather would lead a few cousins and myself to his chicken coop where he would select a fat hen or two for the guillotine. Then he would revel in our pasty-faced reactions as the little critters pranced around headless for a few seconds.

After dispatching the birds to chicken heaven, he would present them to my grandmother and assorted aunts for de-feathering and cooking. The usual method was frying or roasting in the oven. I’m sure if grandpa had a charcoal grill he would have approved of my iteration of grandma’s roasted stuffed chicken.

I call this B.S. Chicken. No, I’m not disparaging my own recipe since the B.S. simply refers to Barbecue -Stuffed Chicken. Here goes.

B.S. Chicken
1 three to four pound chicken (fryer)
4 tablespoons of garlic chopped finely
1 tablespoon of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper (optional)
1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon of Kosher salt
1 half teaspoon of oregano
1 teaspoon of ground mustard
3 ounces of olive oil
1 teaspoon of ground fennel
1 red pepper chopped
I cup of wild rice (healthy minded folks can sub brown rice or quinoa)
1 Italian sausage patty
4 ounces of mozzarella cheese shredded

[caption id="attachment_936" align="alignleft" width="77"] Mulderbosch Rose


Make a wet rub by mixing 3 tablespoons of garlic, the black pepper, salt, oregano, mustard, paprika, cayenne and one ounce of the oil.
Discard the unmentionable parts inside the chicken cavity
Rub the chicken all over – inside and out -with the wet rub placing some under breast and leg quarter skin
Sauté the onions with the red pepper, garlic and add the Italian sausage and cheese
Cook the wild rice until fluffy and add salt and pepper to taste
Mix the onions, peppers, sausage, cheese and rice together
Allow mixture to come to room temperature
Stuff the chicken with the mixture
Make a charcoal fire and spread coals to either side of grill for indirect cooking
Or, heat one side of a gas grill so chicken can be cooked indirect
Place the chicken on the grill but not over the coals
Cover the grill and cook one and one –half hours (or to 175 degrees F.)
Allow the chicken to rest for 25 minutes and serve

Purists might insist on a full-bodied white to accompany this dish, but I recommend a medium to full red- no B.S. Here are a couple that should make this chicken cluck.

2010 L for Lyeth Merlot ($16) –Merlot has been catching a bad rap lately from the snobs, but this little lovely from Sonoma has just the right combination of ripe black fruit and balancing acidity to marry nicely with the chicken.

2012 Mulderbosch Rose ($15) This cabernet sauvignon rose from South Africa is about as full-bodied as you’ll find with the crispness and liveliness you expect from a rose. The wine is full of bright ripe cherry and strawberry nuances and delivers enough backbone to stand up to the full flavors of the B.S. Chicken.

The Taste of Parkersburg

Area food, wine and beer lovers should mark their calendars for the weekend of May 31-June 1 and seriously consider attending the annual Taste of Parkersburg (TOP).

This event features gourmet edibles from local restaurants, West Virginia farm to table foods and a whole host of wines from around the world. You will also be able to taste a good sampling of craft beers too. In addition, TOP will feature local artisans and crafters as well as excellent music.

The weekend kicks off with a special Bordeaux wine tasting from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday May 31, at the Blennerhassett Hotel. Parkersburg native and Bordeaux’s U.S. wine ambassador Robert Cavanaugh will share his knowledge of the famous French region, and lead attendees through a tasting of eight wines.

Cavanaugh is a master sommelier with certifications from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust of London (WSET), the Court of Master Sommeliers and Le Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux as part of the International Bordeaux Ambassador program.

From all accounts, Cavanaugh sounds like my kind of wine guy. He says he got his start in the beverage industry at Parkersburg’s North End Tavern where, I assume, he was inspired to move beyond that frothy amber fluid to the fruit of the vine.

On Saturday June 1, there will be several events taking place simultaneously – all from about 5 to 11 p.m., including tasting the wares of several restaurants, sampling wine and beer from a multitude of vendors - all the while being entertained by several different musical groups.

In addition to the public events, there will be a trade wine tasting on Friday afternoon where those involved in the wine industry are invited to taste and interact with winery representatives.

Events will take place in and around the Blennerhassett Hotel located at 3rd and Market Streets in downtown Parkersburg. For ticket prices or other information, you may call 304-865-0522 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Sounds like a great weekend.

Italian wine and food: a ubiqutous influence

I have often suggested to friends that my obsession with wine and food can be attributed to at least one-half of my genetic composition – the Italian half. I suppose I should credit the other half (Irish) with my penchant for exposition - or blarney - as those Celts would describe my usually long-winded descriptions of things most normal people just simply consume.

But what the heck. To quote that world famous sea-faring philosopher, Popeye: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”

Ask an Italian what wine they consider to be best, and they will invariably suggest a local bottle produced from the vineyard on a hillside adjacent to their village. This is a country around which wine and food are the central components of everyday life.

As a wine-stained graduate of Whatsamatta U, I am understandably partial to the vino made in Italy. As a matter of fact, what I love most about Italian wine is its tremendous diversity. Within the geographic confines of its 20 states, Italy produces a virtual sea of wine from a dizzying array of grapes.

[caption id="attachment_925" align="alignleft" width="85"] La Scoloca Gavi available at Paterno's


The most famous wine states are Tuscany in north-central Italy and Piedmont in the northwest. In Tuscany, great wines such as Brunello di Montalcino and Ornellaia share the stage with the ubiquitous Chianti, and whites such as Vernaccia Di San Gimignano.

In Piedmont, the prestigious vines of Barolo and Barbaresco (made from the nebbiolo grape) reign supreme, and are joined by Barbera and Dolcetto along with crisp whites such as Arneis and Cortese Di Gavi.

While these regions are the most famous, there are others with wonderful wines. Be sure to try the vino of the Veneto – famous for Valpolicella, Soave and Amarone, or Apulia where the zinfandel-like primitivo grape is a superb quaff. And Sicily has really come on strong as a quality wine-producing area too.

But you cannot mention Italian wine without mentioning the exceptional and varied cuisine of Italy as well as the influence Italian food has had on the rest of the world - even here in Charleston.

Restaurants such as Soho’s Fazio’s and Leonaro’s are prime examples of local establishments that have consistently provided us with quality Italian cuisine. Add to this list Paterno’s At The Park.

Paterno’s, located at Appalachian Power Park in downtown Charleston, is the latest addition to the Italian restaurant scene here in the Capitol city. Andy and  Mary Jo Paterno along with daughter Niki Paterno  Kurten have produced an excellent menu and a very good wine list with an emphasis on Italy.

The menu has a northern Italian flavor. The Veal Chop Picata, which is a butterflied and sautéed 14-ounce bone in veal chop sauced with morel, cremini and shitake mushrooms, capers and lemon butter on a bed of risotto, is my favorite so far. My wife and I split this generous entrée and shared a tasty bottle of 2010 La Scoloca Gavi di Gavi Black Label.

Gavi is a crisp and fragrant white produced in Piedmont and it married well with the veal dish. Also represented on the wine list are Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti, Barbera and an assortment of quality California reds and whites.

Paterno’s is just one more tasty and tasteful example of how Italian food and wine have had a positive influence on our little part of the world.

Salute !

Wine leftovers: keeping them fresh

From time to time, friends ask me how to keep wine not consumed at one sitting fresh for later drinking. I must admit this is not a situation I have ever personally experienced, but I do have some suggestions.

In other words, how do we preserve the freshness and drinkability of wine  over time once the bottle has been opened?

Wine is usually bottled in a 25-ounce glass container with an average alcohol content of between 10 and 15 percent. This amount of alcohol serves to protect the wine from spoilage in the first few hours after the bottle is opened, but is not sufficient to keep the stuff fresh over an extended period.

This is particularly true for white wine where only the grape juice is fermented. Red grapes, which are fermented with the skins and seeds, has a longer shelf life before giving way to the ravages of oxidation.

A real life experience proved that point for me. On the occasion of a multi-course wine dinner, I decanted bottle of Barolo and forgot about it until the next day. To my surprise and delight, the wine was heavenly. Unfortunately, wines with less body and staying power (both red and white) would have been transformed into something tasting like turpentine.

Unlike chili, beef barley soup or meatloaf, fine wine does not improve over several days in the refrigerator. In fact, wine will deteriorate rather quickly if you don’t take certain precautions. Here’s why.

An open bottle of wine has a schizoid visitor: oxygen. When a wine is un-corked, the oxygen that invades it initially does wondrous things for the aroma and can actually serve as a catalyst to unleash the complex flavors that have developed over time in the bottle. Like a good friend, oxygen (Dr. Jekel) has a positive influence on wine - up to a point.

[caption id="attachment_917" align="alignleft" width="225"] Half full bottle with Vacuvin insert


Unfortunately, after several hours of uninterrupted contact with oxygen (enter Mr. Hyde), most wines begin to fall apart rather quickly - even if you put the cork back in the bottle. So, here are a few tried and true tips that should help keep that un-drunk wine tasty for a day or two.

If you’re going to drink the wine the very next day, you can sometimes get away with simply re-corking the bottle and putting it in the refrigerator. Young red wines seem to tolerate contact with air much better than older reds or any white wine. However, leaving any wine with significant air space in the bottle for more than one day is courting disaster.

Since the major problem is too much oxygen, you must reduce the air space in the partially consumed bottle. You can do this by pouring the wine into a smaller container (such as a half-bottle). It is safe to leave about one inch of air space at the top of the bottle which, of course, must be secured by inserting the cork or affixing the screw-cap. Then, either put the wine in the refrigerator or store it in a dark, cool place to drink another day.

Another tip is to keep different size containers (with accompanying lids) in your kitchen cabinet so you’ll have them when the need arises. Be sure also to save a couple of empty fifths and their corks to store wines from 1.5 liter bottles or jugs.

One other method of preserving your partially used wine is to pump the air out of the bottle by using something like a Vacuvin wine saver. Vacuvin employs the use of a rubber stopper that is placed in the bottle opening and then a device that is placed on the stopper to pump out the oxygen. These are widely available at wine shops and grocery stores for around $15.

Some folks have suggested putting marbles into a partially empty bottle of wine to take up the air space. Not only is this an impractical solution, you’re sure to lose your marbles over time.

Here are two bottles you’ll most likely consume at one sitting.

2011 Acrobat Pinot Gris($13)
This pale straw colored Pinot Gris from Oregon opens with a bright citrus and pear bouquet. On the palate, the wine is medium bodied and crisp and would be a superb match to halibut brushed with soy and hoisin.

2011 Chateau St. Roch Cotes Du Rhone ( $15)
From the southern Rhone, this young wine has a nose of dark fruit and leather. Ripe blackberry and cola flavors and excellent balancing acidity make this the perfect accompaniment to short ribs braised in a tomato and red wine bath

Flank Steak Gourmand

Two weeks ago, when it was 75 degrees, I was grilling animal flesh over charcoal and toasting the emergence of spring with a flagon of purple elixir. Now it’s late March, 32 degrees and there is snow on the ground.

What happened to the weather and that groundhog’s prediction for an early end to winter ? I hope that phony rodent prognosticator - Punxsutawney Phil – has burrowed himself deep underground because there are lot of folks who would like to turn him into road kill about now.

But what the heck. I’ve decided to ignore the weather and prepare one of my favorite go-to picnic dishes anyway. So who cares if there’s a blizzard raging outside? That’s why L. L. Bean invented the slicker, Weber invented the covered grill and someone (God Bless them) invented the flask.

The recipe I am about to divulge to you today transforms a boring, tough piece of inexpensive beef into a luscious, tender, mouth-watering steak that can become the repository for an other worldly stuffing. Sounds a bit hyperbolic, right?

Well, after you give this dish a try, I think you’ll understand my enthusiasm. And when you open a full-bodied red wine to accompany it, you’ll be one step closer to becoming the gourmand you never knew you could – or would want – to be. Okay, so let me elaborate.

There is a big difference between a gourmet/connoisseur and a gourmand. A gourmet is discriminating and exhibits exemplary self-control while a connoisseur is defined as one who has expert knowledge and keen discrimination, especially in the fine arts. Together, this combination is a formidable – if stiff - “gourmanseur.”

A gourmand, on the other hand, is defined as one who enjoys good food and wine, often to excess. In other words, a gourmand will eat and drink everything in sight and ask for more. A gourmand will also ignore the disdainful looks of the gourmanseur.

So, heed this disclaimer: if you consider your self a gourmanseur, you may not want to risk devolving into a gourmand by trying the recipe below.

[caption id="attachment_905" align="alignleft" width="258"] Just what the Gourmand ordered


Flank Steak Gourmand
Shopping List

One 1 to 2 pound flank steak *
One-half cup of cooked brown or white rice (can substitute quinoa)
Quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil
One cup of shredded mozzarella cheese
One link of Italian sausage cooked and chopped (optional)
Two garlic cloves finely chopped
One sweet red pepper and one small onion chopped
Two cups of fresh spinach or half box of frozen spinach
One teaspoon each Kosher salt, dried mustard and black pepper
Three tablespoons of red wine vinegar
One gallon size plastic storage bag

Preparation

Make marinade with olive oil, vinegar, one chopped garlic clove and dried mustard
Place meat in storage bag with marinade over night or for at least six hours
Sauté garlic, onion, pepper then add sausage, spinach, rice and cheese and cool
Put stuffing inside the flank steak before grilling
Prepare a charcoal or gas grill and cook meat indirectly for about 20 to 30 minutes
Allow to sit for 15 minutes then slice and serve

Wine Recommendation
2011 Chateau St Roch Cotes Du Rhone ($15) This southern Rhone red has a nose of leather and tea with flavors of black cherries and cola. A blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre, the wine is full-bodied and rich with just enough tannic backbone to marry seamlessly with this gourmand’s delight.

* Ask your butcher to cut a small opening in the flank steak and then hollow out the inside. You can try this yourself using a sharp knife. Alternately, you can cut the steak horizontally into one or two pieces and then roll the meat with the stuffing inside and tie with butcher twine.

Wines of the Sierra Foothills

I have been a long time fan of wines made from grapes grown in the Sierra Foothills of California, particularly bottles produced from vineyards in Amador County.

The Sierra Foothills AVA (American Viticultural Area) is comprised of five counties in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe and about two hours east of Napa Valley.

More than 100 wineries are located in the AVA and I am particularly fond of zinfandel grown in Amador County. Without giving away my advanced age, I still have a couple of bottles of Sutter Home Amador County zin I purchased in the 1970’s.

Surprisingly, those old bottles have held up well, morphing into wines with similar taste characteristics to mature Bordeaux. I’m sure that comparison is considered heresy by wine traditionalists (can you say snobs) who put zinfandel in that category of beverages fit only for the unwashed masses.

Well, consider me filthy because I dearly love that plebian beverage!

But the Sierra Foothills are no one-trick pony when it comes to producing delicious bottles of wine. Over the past few decades, the area has also developed an excellent coterie of both whites and reds with particular emphasis on Rhone varietals.

Among the most consistently excellent wineries in the Sierra Foothills is Easton and their Rhone-style sister winery– Terre Rouge. Just recently, I attended a tasting of Easton/Terre Rouge wines hosted by the Wine Shop at Capitol Market.

Bill Easton, a California native and lover of Rhone wines, founded his eponymous winery in 1985 after spending years in wine retailing in the San Francisco Bay Area. He chose Amador County and the Sierra Foothills because the region seemed to have many of the same geologic and climatic conditions of France’s Southern Rhone Valley.

It is not uncommon now to find wines such as grenache, syrah, mourvedre (reds) along with marsanne, grenache blanc and viognier (whites) along side the traditional zinfandel, sauvignon blanc and barbera on wine shop shelves.

[caption id="attachment_898" align="alignleft" width="150"] A Perfect Enigma


Below are notes for some of the wines I tasted. All of them are available locally and are exceptional values given the excellent quality to price ratio.

2009 Terre Rouge Enigma ($26) – This white Rhone blend of marsanne, rousanne and viognier has aromas of anise and peaches and flavors of tropical fruit, minerals and citrus. Very complex and layered, this would pair nicely with chicken cordon bleu.

2011 Terre Rouge Vin Gris Rose ($19) Very pretty salmon colored wine with aromas of fresh strawberries. This blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre is among the best rose`s I’ve tasted in a long while. On the palate the wine exhibits ripe cherry flavors with excellent balancing acidity and finishes dry. Great as an aperitif or for picnic foods such as barbecue.

2010 Easton Amador County Zinfandel ($19) - Deep, dark blackberry flavors are enhanced by excellent balancing acidity to highlight this full-bodied wine best served with fuller flavored foods such as beef stews or roasted pork loin rubbed with garlic, black pepper and olive oil.

2009 Terre Rouge Tete-a-Tete Red ($20) – Don’t let the cute label fool you, this is a seriously good wine made in the style of a fruit- forward Cotes Du Rhone. Plum and blackberries combine with earthiness in this grenache, syrah, and mourvedre blend. Try it with grilled rack of lamb seasoned with rosemary, garlic and black pepper.

2009 Terre Rouge Cotes de l”Ouest Syrah ($29) – Made in the style of a northern Rhone where the emphasis is on syrah, this one has just a touch of viognier added to soften it up a bit. Dark and brooding at first, the wine opens up in the glass with a mouthful of black cherry and cola flavors. I suggest you try this with slowly smoked beef ribs that have been rubbed with cumin, chili powder, garlic and chipotles in adobo sauce.

2007 Easton Old Vine Zinfandel Fiddletown Vineyard ($30) – This one reminds me of the old vine zin I mentioned earlier since it has the staying power to continue to age gracefully for a decade or two. From a legendary California vintage, this wine has teaberry mint and berry aromas along with blackberry, chocolate and coffee flavors. If you drink it in the next five years, decant if for at least three hours and pair it with grilled double-cut pork chops stuffed with chevre and chives.

Wine Vs. Beer: The Results

Appropriately matching wine with food continues to be a challenging and pleasurable life-long pursuit of mine. It is not, however, an easy task since the flavor of a specific meat, vegetable, fruit or fish is never all one needs to consider.

Think about it. A roasted chicken is never simply a roasted chicken. In order for the bird to taste good, we season it with a multiplicity of ingredients (i.e., rosemary, garlic, cumin etc.). The meat’s flavor is further complicated by the cooking method employed such as grilling, broiling, frying, smoking, etc.

So while the uninitiated might rely on conventional wine advice to come up with a good match (i.e., pairing a lighter-styled white wine with plainly seasoned chicken), that suggestion could be disastrous depending upon the above-mentioned considerations.

I bring this up to underscore the difficulty I had this past weekend in picking wines to go with a menu that was truly delicious. The optimum solution would have been to do a pre-event tasting of the food with multiple possible wine partners and then to select the best.

Unfortunately, this is the real world where time and circumstances seldom offer such opportunities. My advice: make sure you try and match your wine to the most prominent tasting ingredient (i.e., spice, rub, marinade, etc) on the meat, fish or veggie.

As you probably know by now, Rich Ireland (“Beers To You“ blogger) and I squared off in a wine vs. beer throwdown where we each selected our favorite beverages to accompany a five-course gourmet dinner. The good, but perhaps not surprising, news is that wine was the clear-cut winner among the more than 200 folks who attended.

Kudos to Rich for suggesting this event last summer, which raised a whole lot of cash to support Festivall – our city’s multi-weekend entertainment gift to the community. And, while I certainly thought the wine showed well, there were some excellent brews – one of which won the night’s first course pairing.


Here is the course-by-course breakdown.

Course 1 – Roasted Roma tomato with Romano, pan seared polenta wedge and chevre goat cheese
Winner was Mons Abbey Witte Beer over 2010 La Zerba Gavi. I was surprised by this, but not shocked. I expected the Gavi to have a little more acidity, but still thought it was a better choice than the Mons. Oh well, not good form to express “sour grapes.”

Course 2- Sweet potato soup with toasted sunflower seeds
Winner was 2011 Anton Bauer Gruner Veltliner GMORK (versus Pumking Pumpkin Ale) I actually picked this pumpkin-flavored beer over the wine in this course. I expected the grunner to be sweeter to match the richness of the soup.

Course 3- Spicy Calabrian Shrimp with Peppers and Cannelloni beans
Winner was 2010 Busi Chianti over Raging Bitch Belgian Style IPA. Loved this inexpensive Chianti with loads of sour cherry and cola flavors.

Course 4- Braised Pork Loin with seasonal vegetables
Winner was 2010 Domain Brusset Cotes Du Rhone “Laurent B” over Goose Island Mild Winter. I really enjoyed both the beer and wine pairing here, but gotta go with another excellent 2010 Cotes Du Rhone.

Course 5- Chocolate truffle and various artisanal cheeses.
Winner was Domain Rondeau Bugey Cerdon over Mons Abbey Dubbel. The Bugey is a lovely sparkler that is light and refreshing with hints of strawberry. I felt sorry for Rich on this course. I did really like the Dubbel, but it was a little too heavy for this paring.

All in all, this was an excellent evening full of good food ,wine and cheer. I look forward to making this an annual event.

FeastivALL: The first ever wine and beer throw-down

If you have read this column/blog, you KNOW that wine is the ultimate liquid accompaniment to just about every type of food known to man.

Yet, there are heathens out there who deign to suggest that beer is a more appropriate beverage to swill with our daily repast. Heresy, I know, but in an effort to put this issue to rest once and for all, some good folks in our fair city have suggested a contest where wine and beer will be pitted against each other in a five- course gourmet meal.

This good, old-fashioned throw-down will benefit FestiVALL, the multi-week festival that has brought a plethora of top-notch musical entertainment to our region for the past several years. Here’s the skinny on what we’re calling FeastivALL:

A Wine vs. Beer Challenge
On Feb. 23, FestivALL Charleston will host its first ever fundraiser, “FeastivALL”, a five-course gourmet dinner with a wine and beer pairing for each course.
The event will take place at Berry Hills Country Club with food prepared by noted chefs Nick McCormick of Berry Hills and Café Cimino’s Tim Urbanic.

[caption id="attachment_886" align="alignleft" width="300"] You be the judge


A reception with a silent auction begins at 6pm with dinner following. Guests will enjoy five courses, each paired with a craft beer and fine wine chosen by Charleston’s top beverage consumers, Rich Ireland (beer) and yours truly (wine).

After each course, guests will vote for the beverage pairing they like best. By the end of the night, one will emerge the winner. (Is there really any question, Rich?)

In the spirit of FestivALL, the night will be a celebration of artistic expression hosted by Mountain Stage’s Larry Groce and featuring brief performances between courses. Guests will also get a first look at schedule highlights and headliners for FestivALL 2013.

There will be a silent auction with items including, a stay at Cafe Cimino Country Inn, high-end art by local vendors, autographed movie memorabilia from West Virginia celebrities and more.

Tickets are $100 per person, $40 of which is tax deductible. All donations above the ticket price are completely tax deductible. Tickets are now on sale and you can purchase them online at  http://www.festivallcharleston.com/content/feastivall  or at Taylor Books (which adds a $2 sales fee). You may also call (304)389-4873 for additional information.

Seating is limited and no tickets will be sold after February 20 so that the chefs will have a final count. All proceeds from the event will go toward FestivALL 2013 which will celebrate the arts, the city and West Virginia’s 150th anniversary.
Special thanks to FeastivALL sponsor Kanawha Scales and Systems of Poca, WV, Cafe Cimino Country Inn and Berry Hills Country Club.

Join me in tastefully demonstrating the superiority of wine.

Making good wine: Is it location or weather?

Most of us want simple answers to the questions that perplex us. Take wine appreciation for example. I am often asked to describe the most important qualitative aspect in producing good wine. Well, unfortunately there is no simple answer, but there are two basic conditions that must exist for good wine to be made.

The two most important influences in the cultivation of grapes are the geographic location of the vineyard and the weather. Assuming these two variables are in place, then other influences such as soil composition, topography, orientation of the vineyard to the sun and a whole host of additional esoteric factors come into play.

You don’t have to be a horticulturist to know it’s impossible to cultivate a vineyard at the North Pole, in Death Valley or at the top of Mount Everest. We all know that grapes require a moderate climate in order to grow and ripen to full maturity before being turned into wine.

What, then, is more critical to the production of good wine? The vineyard location or the weather? The obvious answer is both, but reality is a bit fuzzier. For example, take the world famous appellations of Bordeaux and Burgundy in France.

The best wines from these two regions are among the most expensive on earth, some of which cost more than a thousand dollars for a single bottle. The French proclaim loudly that wines produced in these places are superior because of the soil in the respective geographic locations.

What they don’t tell you is that less than five out of every 10 vintages is average to awful in quality. Why? Simply put: Mother Nature. Weather in both Bordeaux and (particularly) Burgundy can be less than ideal for grape growing.

A perfect year can quickly morph into disaster when a sudden hailstorm in the spring or torrential rains during harvest wreak havoc on the vineyards. Just this past vintage, weather reduced the Burgundy crop by almost 70 percent.

Conversely, wine makers and growers in California and Southeast Australia tout the consistently good weather as the reason for the outstanding wines they produce. It is not often that weather causes problems in these regions. Yet, too much of a good thing (e.g. long, hot growing seasons) can result in a vintage of out of balance, insipid and overly alcoholic wines.

[caption id="attachment_879" align="alignleft" width="150"] 2011 Borsao Tinto


So how do winemakers in the most prestigious appellations around the wine world deal with an imperfect geographic location or intemperate weather conditions? A lot of different ways actually.

Let’s look at how some deal with the issue of location. For years, wine makers in California struggled to make decent pinot noir and consistently failed. It was widely held that the state was just too warm to successfully produce this fickle grape which requires a long, cool growing season.

Then along came wineries such as Calera and Acacia who began planting the grape in cooler locations and using rootstock from Burgundy. Consequently, by adapting their vineyard practices to what the grape required, California has been making excellent pinot noir for the last thirty years.

In Bordeaux and Burgundy, growers and wine makers now use advanced weather forecasting to protect their vines and to know exactly when to harvest. In addition, they employ new world techniques in the winery to improve the quality of their wines. And Voila (That’s “hot damn” in West Virginian), they are able to mitigate some of the most vexing problems.

If you are still reading this and just about to fall asleep, the take away is to do a little homework before you go on a wine-buying spree. Check out vintage reports and tasting notes for the wines you are interested in, particularly those, like Burgundy, that require a serious investment. You can also use Google, Ask.com or any Internet search engine to get the latest information.

In the meantime, you might search your local wine shop for this gem. The 2011 Borsao Tinto ($11) from Spain is one of the best inexpensive wines I’ve tasted in a long time. Rich and full of blackberry and cola flavors, this grenache (85%) and tempranillo (15%) blend is delicious and would pair very nicely with braised beef short ribs in a bath of red wine onions and mushrooms.

A dish for the New Year

With the dawn of a new year, it is not uncommon for many of us to experience a touch of melancholy, guilt or both. Melancholy – in my case - because I cannot physically or fiscally sustain the incessant consumption of excellent food and wine ad infinitum.

But even if I had the wherewithal to keep it going, my old companion – guilt – is always present to remind me that my wanton appetites are approaching cardinal sin status.

So, I suppose it’s time to back it off a bit, bite the bullet and adopt a more ascetic lifestyle. No more multi-course meals with multiple wines (for a while). After all, Lent is only a month away and I’ve got a plan.

Now don’t get me wrong- there is no cold turkey on this menu. And, I will allow myself a sip or two of that purple or golden elixir we all love. But moderation is my new mantra this winter.

Eating the appropriate food is key to any successful lifestyle modification, and I know just the food to get me on the straight and narrow. Menasha (pronounced men-nay –sha) is a dish that my grandmother, mother and aunts prepared with great regularity, particularly in the cooler months of the year.

The dish is also known as minestra and is a cross between a soup and a stew. The main ingredient is any type of green vegetable. Our family used everything from spinach, dandelion greens, kale, and cabbage, to green beans, broccoli and collards.

They also flavored the dish with a piece of meat boiled in water. Now don’t gag, but it was not uncommon for Grandma to use a pig’s foot, chicken feet or even a pig’s ear in Menasha. Sounds strange, I know, but the resulting dish was delicious and nutritious.

The recipe below uses a more acceptable pork part, but you may eliminate the meat completely and make this  vegetarian if you like. To spark up the dish, I also always add hot vinegar pepper rings to the bowl right before serving.

To complete this hearty and warming meal, pair it with a big, rough around the edges red such as Marietta Old Vine Red, Antinori Santa Cristina Sangiovese or Martin Codax Tempranillo to name a few of my favorite vinous accompaniments.

So if you’re feeling a little fat and guilty about now, try on my recipe for New Year’s Menasha.

The Ingredients
Two pork ribs with bone (optional)
One-half pound of cleaned kale
One head of Napa cabbage
Two medium onions chopped in large pieces
Three cloves of garlic
Three tablespoons of olive oil
One tablespoon of fennel seeds
One teaspoon of red pepper seeds (optional)
Four medium potatoes quartered
One tablespoon each Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
One quart of water

The Cooking
Sauté the ribs in a large pot with one tablespoon of olive oil until brown
Add one quart of water to the meat and allow to boil for 15 minutes
Add all the vegetables, salt, pepper, red pepper and fennel to the pot
Sauté the garlic in two tablespoons of olive oil in a separate pan until lightly brown
Discard the garlic and add the olive oil to the pot.
Cook for approximately 45 minutes or until the potatoes are fork tender
Serve in large bowls with crusty bread and enjoy

Some Christmas Cheer

Is this fun or what? The holiday season, I mean.

It’s not often you get a pass to cast prudence and caution to the wind and plunk down some serious green for a little red or white.

I‘ve already been perusing the shelves of my favorite wine shops (and online too) in search of that special bottle. The good news is that there is an incredible selection of wine from all over the world available in any number of price ranges to meet just about any budget.

And giving the gift of wine, particularly to someone close to you, can have its own reward since there is a good likelihood you’ll be invited to sip along with the giftee once that special bottle is uncorked.

And of course whenever I consider a wine, I always ruminate over what type of food will present the best opportunity for gastronomic synergy. In my particular situation, I’m thinking about Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals and the wines that will make the feasts memorable.

In my household, my wife and I divide up responsibility for the two meals. I take Christmas Eve and she is chef de cuisine for Christmas Day. As one who was raised in a Catholic Italian family, I will spend all day Christmas Eve preparing and cooking seafood (ala the feast of the seven fishes).

After five or six hours of frying, boiling, steaming, smoking and poaching fish, I will be worn out, cranky, smelly and in serious need of a sip or two of wine. My choice to soothe my weary body and reinvigorate my spirit is Champagne or sparkling wine which is also an excellent accompaniment to all manner of seafood.

On Christmas day, my wife will prepare a more traditional American holiday meal featuring a standing rib roast. After working her culinary magic for a couple of hours, she will emerge from the kitchen smiling broadly, full of Christmas cheer, and smelling of lavender. Of course, this meal demands a big red wine such as cabernet sauvignon or even a Christmas Claret (Bordeaux).

So today, I’m going to share a list of wines I would love to find under my Christmas tree and which just happen to include bottles that would go particularly well with our holiday meals. I think you would like them too.

Cabernet sauvignon /Bordeaux Red or Bordeaux -style blends (i.e., blends which might consist of any combination of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, Malbec, or petit verdot):

2005 Chateau Lynch Bages; 2007 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon; 2008 Joseph Phelps Insignia; 2007 Dominus; 2005 Harlan Estate The Maiden; 2005 Chateau La Dominique; 2007 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve; 2000 Chateau Brainaire Ducru; 2008 Merryvale Profile; 2005 Chateau Cos d’Estournel; 2007 Saddleback Cabernet Sauvignon; 2009 Pontet Canet; 2005 Leoville Las Cases; 2008 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; and 2007 Ornellaia.

Champagne and Sparkling wines:

Nicholas Feuillatte "Blue Label" Brut; Mumm Napa Cuvee (sparkling); Paul Bara Brut; Veuve Cliquot Brut; Roderer Estate (sparkling); Krug Grande Cuvee Brut; Perrier Jouet Grand Brut; 2003 Taittinger Comptes De Champagne Rose; Iron Horse Russian Cuvee (sparkling).

Happy Holidays!

Is decanting wine beneficial?

At dinner the other evening at a local restaurant, I asked the waiter if he could decant the rather full-bodied red wine that I had selected to accompany our meal. One of my tablemates looked quizzically at me and inquired why I felt the wine needed to be decanted.

To air or not to air. That is the question I am often asked by perplexed wine lovers. No, I’m not referring to one’s wine-stained undergarments here, but to the somewhat controversial practice of decanting wine.

The air we breathe can be both friend and enemy to the wine we drink. Depending upon the wine type and its age, oxygen can transform a tight, tannic, young wine into a mellow and more appealing nectar, or it can turn an old, valuable, complex wine into salad dressing.

Most of us will agree that before we open a bottle of old wine, we should stand it up for a day and then decant the wine so that the sediment (which is a natural by-product of the aging process, particularly in red wine) can be left in the bottom of the bottle. The burning question here, though, is how long we should allow the wine to “breathe” before consuming it.

Most wine makers will tell you that their wine is ready to drink right out of the bottle and they’re probably right. What they don’t tell you is whether or not the wine will actually improve after an hour or so in a decanter.

And hey, you don’t need a crystal decanter to aerate your wine. I’ve used a fruit pitcher. As long as the decanter is clean and free from off tastes or smells (hint: don’t use a pickle jar), any open container will do.

Some “experts” suggest that merely removing the cork will suffice in allowing enough oxygen for the wine to benefit. That’s patently ridiculous since only a miniscule amount of air actually touches the top-most surface of the wine.

Knowing when to aerate the wine (allowing air to interact with a substance) by decanting it into a larger, more open container is a matter of judgement and experience. Generally, I think that young red wines (under 10 years old) benefit from being decanted.

With older wines, I will also generally decant the stuff right before serving to preserve the delicate flavors and complexity that have been bottled up over time. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of allowing an older wine (a 30-year old California cabernet) to sit in a carafe for as little as 15 minutes and have literally tasted the wine lose its flavor.

On the other hand, I once mistakenly allowed a 25-year old Barolo to sit for 18 hours in a decanter and the result was a wine with an aroma of violets and spice, and flavors of chocolate and currants. Go figure.

[caption id="attachment_863" align="alignleft" width="258"] To breathe or not to breathe?


So, here are three factors to consider in weighing whether or not to aerate your wine: the type of wine; the age and vintage date; and the manner in which the wine was stored.
Most fuller bodied red wines such as cabernet sauvignon (to include Bordeaux), zinfandel, Rhone varietals such as syrah and mourvedre along with Italian reds like Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello and Amarone will benefit from at least an hour’s worth of decanting.

Decanting white wines is a little trickier. Some white wines such as chardonnay, young sauvignon blanc and Alsatian varietals such as gewurztraminer, pinot blanc, riesling and pinot gris will also improve from a half-hour to an hour in a carafe or decanter. But delicate whites such as pinot grigio are better left undecanted.

One other factor to consider when contemplating decanting is the particular vintage year of the wine. If wines from a specific vintage were known to be fuller-bodied, for example, they might require even more aeration than ones from lesser vintages (see my example regarding Barolo).

Finally, the conditions under which the wine was stored will have a great bearing on how well the wine will stand up to air. Poorly stored wines will generally accelerate the aging process and thus be less tolerant of aeration. One quick clue to how a wine is stored is to check the level of the wine in the neck of the bottle. If the level is lower than normal, that could mean the wine has not been stored properly.

One fun way to test whether or not a wine benefits from aeration in a decanter is to purchase two bottles of the same wine, decant one for an hour and then open the other and evaluate the wines.

To breathe or not to breathe: you be the judge.

Thanksgiving: a wine lovers dream meal!

I’ve proclaimed this many times before, but it bears repeating: Thanksgiving is truly a wine lover’s holiday!

Why? Simply put, it’s the culinary versatility of the Thanksgiving dinner and the way turkey and all the “fixins” can be successfully paired with just about any type of wine.

The turkey by itself possesses meat that has a variety of different flavors, colors and textures which can match nicely with any medium to full-bodied white or red. And, when you add the dishes that traditionally accompany Thanksgiving dinner, things really get interesting.

Whether you use a light, slightly sweet German Riesling or Alsatian Pinot Gris, a fruit forward Gruner Veltliner or an herbal and dry Sauvignon Blanc (which pairs nicely with a sage-flavored bread dressing) or a rich and full-bodied chardonnay, you will find that oven- roasted turkey will pair nicely with each of these white wines...

However, what surprises so many folks (particularly those who adhere to the rigid view that you should only pair white wine with white meat) is how well turkey matches up to big red wines, particularly when the “national bird” has been charcoal -grilled or smoked. Full bodied reds like syrah, cabernet sauvignon, Chateauneuf-du-Pape or even zinfandel go especially well with smoked or grilled turkey.

Oven-roasted turkey is also very nicely accompanied by medium-bodied reds such as Chianti Classico, pinot noir or tempranilo from Spain. Several years ago, I even opened older Bordeaux to celebrate the holiday.

But this year, I’m not going to cook “no stinking, ordinary oven-roasted bird.” No siree Pancho! I’m going for a semi-smoked, charcoal -grilled turkey.

Here’s how I’m doing the National Bird this year. After soaking my 15 -pound turkey in a brine of kosher salt, brown sugar, water, apple cider and beer for about three hours, the bird will be stuffed with bread dressing to which Italian sausage, chestnuts, onion and celery will be added.

I’ll prepare a charcoal fire, move the coals to either side of the grill, place an aluminum pan half filled with water between the coals and then place the bird directly above the water and grill for about three and a half hours.

[caption id="attachment_856" align="alignleft" width="150"] Grilling the National Bird


There will also be the usual Thanksgiving dinner accompaniments of mashed and sweet potatoes, giblet gravy, peas and mushrooms and pearl onions along with freshly baked rolls and pumpkin pie. Of course, cranberry relish will also make an appearance as will the following special wines.

To get everyone in the proper mood, I’ll open a bottle or two of Domain Chandon Blanc De Noirs as an aperitif. Then I will decant into separate carafes a 2007 Schulmberger Alsatian Riesling along with a 2008 Domaine Serene Evenstad Pinot Noir to accompany the meal. I think it’s fun to experiment with both wines and discuss the relative merits of each with various components of the meal.

For a dessert of pumpkin pie, I will open a bottle of 2005 Two Hands For Love or Money (a late harvest semillon from Australia). This wine rivals the storied Sauternes of France and is infused with apricot and honeyed sweetness and just a touch of the “Noble Rot” so sought after in great late harvest wines.

By the way, all of the wines mentioned here were purchased locally.

After such a meal, it is prudent to take a slow walk around the neighborhood before plopping down on the couch in a tryptophan- induced coma to watch football or old James Bond movies.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Canaan Valley Wild, Wonderful Wine Weekend

One of the state’s premier food and wine events will once again be held in beautiful Tucker County at Canaan Valley Resort. The “Wild, Wonderful Wine Weekend,” which has become an annual gourmet extravaganza, will be held this year from November 9th thru 11th. Once again, I will have the privilege of selecting the wines for the event and providing commentary on those delectable sippers throughout the weekend.

I’m in the process of choosing wines from some of the world’s greatest wine regions to be paired with a cornucopia of culinary delicacies prepared under the direction of Canaan Valley Resort’s Food and Beverage Manager Lawrence Walkup.

It’s always fun to work with culinary professionals in pairing wines with their scrumptious creations, and the folks at our state’s most scenic resort always hit the mark at this signature event.

The weekend begins Friday, November 9 at 7 p.m. with a “taste-around reception” where more than 20 wines can be sampled with matching culinary treats from food stations featuring a wonderful selection of foods upon which to graze (see below).

On Saturday, there will be a tasting featuring wines that I recommend with the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner celebrations. Guests will also be treated to a four-course wine-paired luncheon led by yours truly. After lunch, guests will be free to hike, bike, nap (what I plan to do) or just enjoy Mother Nature’s purple mountain majesty!

The menus below should precipitate a surge in endorphins and get your collective palates watering in anticipation. I haven’t completed selecting all the wines at this writing, but you can be assured that I will do my best to make you happy.

Guests have the option of attending the entire weekend for a package price ($290 for a single attendee & $499 per couple inclusive of room, taxes and fees) or choosing to participate in individual events ala carte (see prices below). For additional information or reservations call 800-622-4121 or visit online at www.canaanresort.com.

[caption id="attachment_850" align="alignleft" width="300"] Northern Canaan Valley


Friday Reception ($40.00 per person)

Chicken En Croute
Bacon Wrapped Bread Sticks
Smoked Trout Dip with Crostini
Smoked Pork Stuffed with Savory Meatloaf
Fish Tacos
Mini Potato Cakes with Crème Fresh
Marinated Cheese Trays and Antipasti
Artisan Chocolates
Chocolate Fondue Fountain

Lunch with Wine Pairings ($35.00 per person)

Spinach, Apple, and White Cheddar Salad
Trout Cake with Lemon Caper Butter Sauce
Blackened Chicken Pasta
Carrot Cake with Maple Crème Cheese Icing

Demystifying Wines for Thanksgiving ($20.00 per person)
I'll share my picks for "National Turkey Day."

Grand Gourmet Dinner with paired wines ($75.00 per person)

Sliced Pork Belly and Apple Fritters
Potato Ramp Soup with Cracklin’ Bread
Black and Blue Pear Salad
Filet Mignon with Gnocchi topped with a Morel, Tomato, and Herb Ragout
Pumpkin Crème Brûlée with Caramelized Maple Sugar

Wine Availability in West Virginia: from Mad Dog to Mouton

When it comes to finding that special wine you’ve been looking for, we’ve come a long way baby!

I am old enough to remember a time when searching for a good bottle of wine in West -By -Golly was an exercise in futility and frustration. That was back when the only place to purchase wine was the State ABCC store where the choices were extremely limited.

This was due in large measure to our small population, our redneck stereotype and the inescapable fact that West Virginia was last in US per capita consumption of wine. Heck, our consumption of buttermilk exceeded that of wine back before Elvis died.

In fact, of all the inhabited land on the planet, only citizens of Borneo and Canada's Northwest Territories consumed less wine than West Virginians. And Borneo has more reptiles than people, while the few inhabitants of the Northwest Territories prefer Yukon Jack to the fruit of the vine.

Back in the day, the shelves of those ABCC stores were filled with Mateus Rose, Hearty Burgundy or Carlo Rossi Paisano. Unfortunately, these humble, but sound, wines had to compete for shelf space with the more popular Thunderbird,  MD 20/20 (Mad Dog) , Wild Irish Rose or other high alcohol, wine-like beverages better suited for consumption under a bridge than at the dinner table.

Fortunately for we Mountaineers, our state legislature modernized our laws about 30 years ago allowing for wine sales in grocery stores and wine specialty shops. In addition, we are also permitted to purchase wines online and have them shipped to us. All in all, while our per capita consumption is still relatively low, we now have access to just about any wine that strikes our fancy

[caption id="attachment_844" align="alignleft" width="130"] Still a pretty good quaffer


And when you examine worldwide statistics on wine consumption, the US is surprisingly ranked behind 50 other countries. Lithuania, Cyprus, Madagascar and Slovenia and a whole host of European countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Germany all consume more wine than we do here in America.

And - Holy Mother of Vines - the Vatican City State leads the world in per capita wine consumption! And we’re not talking Sacramental wine either.

So with that historical perspective about the bad old days, here are a few wines I’ve sampled recently that would not have been available just a few short years ago. Hope you like them.

2011 Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Chardonnay ($19) – Rich, yet balanced chardonnay with just a kiss of oak and ripe apple flavors. Excellent pairing with roast chicken cordon bleu.

2011 Sur de Los Andes Torrontes ($11) – Excellent floral aromatics along with crisp pear and melon flavors highlight this Argentinean white. This delicate Torrontes would enhance a meal where pan fried, lemon and butter-enhanced white fish was the feature.

2010 Annalisa Sparkling Malvasia ($13) – A delightful effervescent wine with strawberry and raspberry flavors make this a delicious aperitif or a nice accompaniment to brunch type foods such as omelets or quiches.

2010 Easton Amador County Zinfandel ($18) – I must admit my fondness for zinfandel grown and produced in Amador County and this one definitely does not disappoint. Deep, dark blackberry flavors are enhanced by excellent balancing acidity to highlight this full-bodied wine best served with fuller flavored foods such as beef stews or roasted pork loin rubbed with garlic, black pepper and olive oil.

2009 La Bastide St. Dominique Grenache ($16) – From the excellent 2009 vintage in the southern Rhone Valley, this juicy grenache with bright cherry flavors and leather and tack room aromas is a lively mouthful of wine. Try it with grilled baby back ribs in a tomato based barbecue sauce.

Smooth and silky St. Supery

My affection for wine is rekindled each time I visit a working winery and observe not only the amazing process of transforming sweet grape juice into wine, but also the passion of the people who grow the grapes and make the finished product.

At St. Supery Estate Vineyards and Winery in the Napa Valley, that passion endures and is, indeed, infectious - due in large measure to the vision and enthusiasm of the winery’s founder.

Inspired by legendary wine maker Robert Mondavi, St. Supery owner Robert Skalli fell in love with the Napa Valley in the early 1970’s and searched for nearly a decade to find the perfect vineyard site to establish his own winery.

Skalli, whose wine roots go back three generations from Algeria to Corsica and then to France, found a remote ranch in the eastern mountains of Napa Valley in 1982. This 1500- acre property known as the Dollarhide Ranch became the primary vineyard site for St. Supery, now renowned as one of the shining stars of Napa Valley.

With nearly 500 acres of vineyards, the majority of the site is planted to sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon with a substantial planting of chardonnay along with Bordeaux blending grapes such as merlot, malbec and cabernet franc. There is also 12-acres of Semillon, a grape which is a particular favorite of mine and of which St. Supery has no domestic peer in my humble opinion.

To round out the St. Supery estate, Skalli purchased a 35- acre vineyard along the Napa Valley floor. Known as the Rutherford Estate, the vineyards are predominately cabernet sauvignon and merlot with a sprinkling of petite verdot and cabernet franc. The Rutherford Estate also houses the winery, tasting room and visitor center.

[caption id="attachment_827" align="alignleft" width="195"] Tasting from barrel at St. Supery


I have always enjoyed the wines of St. Supery, especially their world –class sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. This Napa Valley winery produces a consistently exceptional portfolio of wines that are characterized by supple and silky smoothness.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the winery and tasting my way through the estate’s portfolio of wines. I came away very impressed with St. Supery’s offerings. The good news for state residents is that most of the wines are available at local wine shops and restaurants. Here are my tasting notes for your perusal.

2011 Estate Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley ($20) – Crisp flavor of citrus is balanced by hints of honeydew melon in this stainless steel fermented wine. One of my favorite sauvignons in California. Excellent accompaniment to pan sautéed grouper with a touch of butter and lemon.

2011 Estate Virtu ($30) – This complex white blend of 60% semillon and 40% sauvignon blanc is round, rich and partially barrel fermented. It has lime and apricot flavors with just a touch toasty oak on the finish. Pair this with roasted chicken that has been rubbed with rosemary, garlic and olive oil.

2011 Dollarhide Estate Semillon ($30) There are very few wineries in the US producing semillon and none does it with more precision and elegance than St. Supery. With aromas of green apple and flint along with flavors of anise and citrus, the wine is supple yet balanced. I suggest trying this with capellini in a basil pesto sauce.

2009 Rutherford Merlot ($40) – This complex and layered offering has more in common with wine produced in Pomerol (Bordeaux) than it does with domestically made merlot. Blackberry fruit and mocha flavors along with tack room aromas give way to a silky smooth texture and make this a lovely mouthful of wine. Open up a bottle and sip it with braised beef short ribs.

2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) – Ripe cherry and blueberry flavors highlight this tasty cabernet that is balanced by just the right touch of acid. Fruit forward and medium -bodied, this wine should be paired with a grilled flank steak. 
2008 Estate Estate Elu ($65) –This red Meritage is a blend of Rutherford and Dollarhide vineyards and is comprised of cabernet, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Complex aromas of mocha and leather lead to black cherry and cola flavors in this exceptionally balanced wine. Try this one with grilled rack of lamb that has been basted with Dijon mustard, lemon, garlic and rosemary.

2009 Dollarhide Estate Elevation ($65) – This blend of 88% cabernet with just about equal parts cabernet franc and malbec was aged in French oak for 22 months and exhibits a nice toasty note. Ripe dark fruit and coffee flavors are supple yet lend structure to a wine that will age gracefully for years to come. Marinated and charcoal grilled leg of lamb would be an excellent accompaniment to this wine.

[caption id="attachment_829" align="alignleft" width="300"] Lunch in the Vineyard


2007 Dollarhide Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($85) – From an exceptional vintage, this 100% cabernet is aged for 33 months in French oak. While smooth and full of ripe currant and berry flavors, the wine is age worthy and should continue to improve for a decade or two. This special wine should be accompanied by a standing rib roast that has been rubbed with peppercorns, garlic and sea salt.

Ask your local wine purveyor to order any of the above mentioned wines not on the shelf or check out the St. Supery website at: www.stsupery.com and have them shipped to you.

DisclaimerMy brother is a wine broker in North Carolina and he represents St. Supery on the East Coast.

Good for any occasion: a sparkling idea

While rooting around for something to pair with the spicy baby back ribs we were going to enjoy for Sunday dinner, I grabbed a bottle of sparkling wine. And not just any sparkler, but a bottle of Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Champagne.

But doesn’t true Champagne deserve to be paired with foie gras or caviar - or at least be used to celebrate a special occasion such as a birthday, anniversary or holiday? Well, in my estimation, every day spent above ground is a reason to celebrate.

And, hey, don’t you think that that if they could, the baby backs would be thrilled to be consumed with something other than beer? Anyway, my surprised meal mates were certainly happy and I was too.

There is no question that sparkling wines are underused. We seem to forget how good they are with everyday meals, especially those that are spicy, rich or salty. And you really do have a wide variety of reasonably priced domestic and international wines from which to choose such as Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy and Champagne-like wines from just about every wine-producing country including the US.

You may have heard the mythical story of the monk Dom Perignon who is credited with inventing Champagne. If not, here is how that story goes.

As a Benedictine monk and winemaker living in the Champagne region of France in the late 1600’s, Dom Perignon noticed that many of his wines would re-ferment in the bottle when the weather began to warm in the spring.

Instead of allowing this second fermentation to be completed, Dom Perignon came up with the idea of corking the wine and capturing the resultant effervescence. After years of experimentation, which included developing the blend of wines comprising the final product, he is credited with creating Champagne.

The process supposedly developed by Dom Perignon and still used today is called methode champenoise or the Champagne method. Every truly great sparkling wine employs this costly and labor intensive process.

The three grapes making up the traditional Champagne cuvee (blend) are pinot noir, pinot meunier (both reds) and chardonnay. These grapes are used to make three separate wines, which are then blended by the winemaker into his final cuvee.

[caption id="attachment_817" align="alignleft" width="165"] Nicolas Feuillatte - great with baby backs!


Once blended, yeast and sugar are added to each bottle which is then secured with a crown cap. The wine is allowed to ferment a second time in the bottle and, depending upon the quality of the cuvee, it is usually aged from two to four years.

Before the sediment arising from the second fermentation can be disgorged from the wine and a final cork secured, each bottle is turned, shaken slightly (this is called riddling) and put in a successively more vertical position for several weeks.

Once the solids are in an upside down position and in the top of the bottle, dry ice is used to freeze the sediment in the neck, the crown cork is popped and the solids are disgorged. A small amount of sugar, wine and brandy are then added back to the bottle ( this is called the “dosage”) and the Champagne cork is secured.

Other, less expensive ways of making sparkling wine have been developed, but none can compare with the complexity and quality of the traditional Champagne method.

Champagne is priced from the mid twenties to upwards of hundreds of dollars a bottle while sparklers from other places can be acquired from around $10 to $30 a bottle.

Here a few of my favorite Champagnes priced under $50: Nicolas Feuillatte; Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut; Moet & Chandon White Star; Veuve Cliquot (Yelow Label; and Perrier Jouet Grand Brut.

Sparkling wines (those made outside France, but using the Champagne method) priced under $30: Gloria Ferrer Brut; Schramsburg Brut; Domaine Carneros; Mumm Cuvee Napa; Domaine Chandon Reserve; Piper Sonoma Brut; Ste. Michelle Brut; Freixenet Cordon Negro; Dibon Cava.

Grilled Nirvana: release your inner-ogre

I am flawed human being. I know this because I am married to a brutally candid woman who reminds me daily of my myriad imperfections.

Hey, I’m not complaining. If she were not critical of some of my more my aberrant idiosyncrasies, I would probably be living in a cave, wearing an animal skin and reduced to yodeling – u-da-lay-ee-o!

However, the older I get, the more I have come to the conclusion that some of these imperfections are acceptable. No, let me rephrase that: they are essential!

I’m not endorsing really obnoxious behavior like flatulence, profanity or – heaven forbid –rooting for Pitt. And while I may have (once or twice) lapsed with regard to the first two infractions mentioned above, you may be assured that I would rather go streaking through St. Peter’s Square than root for Pitt.

No, the oft-criticized behavior I am endorsing involves eating red meat on a regular basis. I know it’s not politically correct to admit this, but I am addicted to red meat, particularly steak. I must consume the roasted flesh of a steer or cow at least once a week or I turn into my alter ego - the ogre just waiting to emerge.

Okay, so maybe I’ve engaged in a little hyperbole here, but I do really love a good steak, preferably one grilled over blazing charcoal. So while too much of a good thing like beef can be a health risk, I mitigate that problem by flushing my arteries regularly with a steady stream of red wine.

Today, I’m going to share my mouth-watering recipe for grilled steak nirvana and provide you with a few nice red wine recommendations that will please your palate and transform the meal into an other worldly experience. I prefer to use rib eye, but strip or porterhouse steak work just as well.

Grilled Nirvana
1 one and one- half inch thick bone-in rib eye
1 tablespoon of Kosher or sea salt
1 tablespoon of fresh coarsely ground black pepper
1 small clove of garlic finely minced
1 teaspoon of olive oil

[caption id="attachment_810" align="alignleft" width="300"] Grilled Nirvana


Cover steak all over with the olive oil
Rub the steak with salt, pepper and garlic
Allow to sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes
Prepare a hot charcoal fire or turn one side of a gas grill up to the highest setting
Place steak on grill, close lid and cook for two minutes a side
Move steak off direct coals (or direct heat on grill)
Cook indirectly for 8 minutes for medium rare
Remove from grill and allow to sit for 10 minutes and then serve

Any full-bodied red wine will go well with the steak, but I prefer cabernet sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend (cabernet, merlot, cabernet franc, etc.). Here are some of my favorite labels priced between $15 and $30 a bottle: Franciscan, Sebastiani, Alamos, Alexander Valley Vineyards, St. Supery, B-Side, Robert Mondavi, BV Rutherford, William Hill, Clos Du Val and Newton Claret.

So go ahead and give it up for a little grilled nirvana and release your inner-ogre.

Your choice: Saturday night special or everyday sipper

I oftentimes refer to bottles of that elixir we all love as either Saturday night specials or everyday sippers. Saturday night specials can also morph into holiday or celebratory wines when the occasion dictates. So, doing the math, you will have significantly more opportunities to experience the everyday sippers.

I know. I am the master of the obvious, but that’s why I spend so  many words telling you about wines that are both excellent and usually priced under $20 a bottle. I’m just explaining (rationalizing?) my predilection to concentrate most of my tasting research and recommendations on less expensive wine.

Okay, I’m a cheapskate too.

That’s why – of the wines reviewed below – all but one are everyday sippers. Also, I am a firm believer that there is a whole lot of buried treasure at the bottom of the sea of wine we are all adrift in - and I was put on this planet to find it for you.

So, I hope you will try a bottle of two of the vinous booty below – even it’s the Saturday night special.

2010 Bridlewood Pinot Noir ($15) –Bright black cherry and spicy flavors highlight this smooth, supple pinot noir from Monterey County. The medium-bodied texture is balanced out with a touch of vanilla and ample acidity. Try this one with grilled chicken spiced with black pepper, garlic and kosher salt.

2008 Sebastiani Cherryblock ($80) – This is definitely a special occasion or celebration wine. Earthy aromas with a hint of cigar box lead to a silky smooth Bordeaux-like wine with complex flavors of cola, plums and dark fruits. It is an elegant wine that will continue to develop for a decade or more. Try it now with filet mignon in a mushroom demi-glace sauce.

[caption id="attachment_799" align="alignleft" width="72"] A great Saturday night special


2011 Conde Villar Vinho Verde Rose ($10) – Strawberries and raspberries co-mingle to produce a refreshing and slightly spritzy rose which is just the right wine to open on the patio. Just a touch of sweetness is balanced out nicely by citrus-like acidity. You might also pair this with brunch type food.

2009 Treana White ($18) A great alternative to rich and full-bodied chardonnay, this blend of 50 percent each Viognier and Marsanne has a creamy, toasty and floral component. From the Central California coast, Treana would be an excellent accompaniment to broiled lobster with drawn butter.

Bugey Cerdon Sparkling Gamay ($16) –From the foothills of the Alps in the Jura Mountains of eastern France, this sparkling rose is comprised of 80% Gamay and 15% Poulsard -which is an indigenous regional grape.

There is just a touch of chardonnay added to provide some body to the strawberry and cherry flavors. Sip it as an aperitif before dinner or with chocolate based desserts. This is a very pretty and tasty wine.