Columns by John

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

Synapse Wines: connecting with West Virginia

Synapse Wines: connecting with  West Virginia
Throughout history, wine has had a powerful influence on just about every aspect of the human condition. From religion, to culture, to art, to war and, indeed, to our daily lives, wine has played an important role in shaping history and civilization for thousands of years.

The Romans sent farmers to far off lands to plant vines well in advance of their invading armies so the soldiers would have wine to accompany their meals and to celebrate their victories. And to this day, wine remains an integral part of Judeo-Christian religious ceremonies.

So I guess it should not be surprising that someone from Weirton, practicing medicine in California would become infatuated with wine. What is surprising is the degree to which this WVU graduate has pursued his passion for the fruit of the vine.

Bruce Ginier was born and raised in Weirton, graduated from Brooke High in 1978 and received a BS and MD degree from WVU. He actually spent the last two years of medical school here in Charleston. After an internship, Ginier moved to Sacramento for his radiology residency. The rest is wine-stained history.

As you may know, Sacramento is the gateway to the Sierra Foothills wine country that includes El Dorado and Amador Counties. The town of Placerville is smack-dab in the middle of the Sierra Foothills AVA (American Viticultural Area) and that is where Synapse Wines was established.

The Vineyard
The concept for Synapse Wines began in 2000 when Bruce Ginier and his colleague and friend Randy Knutzon hatched the idea one evening over a few beers. (Strange how beer always seems to play a role in wine making). Anyway, the two friends scoured the Sierra Foothills and found the perfect spot for the vineyard on a 40-acre westward-facing slope overlooking the Cosumnes River Canyon.

Synapse owners Randy Knutzon and Bruce Ginier



Ginier said the initial plan was to simply grow grapes and sell them to wineries in the area. So in 2002, they planted syrah and later added zinfandel, petite sirah, viognier, grenache and mourvedre. But four years after planting the vineyard, the partners were so excited by the quality of the first vintage, they decided it would be more fun to make wine than just grow and sell grapes.

The Wines
For such a new enterprise, Synapse has garnered a significant treasure chest of awards from several prestigious wine competitions. Their 2006 K-Space Syrah won a Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Many of their other wines have won gold, silver and bronze awards at other competitions around the country. Debbie Knutzon (Randy’s wife) is the winemaker and both families are involved in all aspects of running the winery.

Most Synapse Wines are priced from $16 to $28 a bottle and can only be purchased at the winery. However, the wines are available online and can be shipped to West Virginia.

If you’re interested, check out the Synapse website at: www.synapsewines.com. If you decide to order wines, Bruce has offered free shipping on any order of three or more bottles. (When going through checkout, there is a box in the shopping cart window to enter a promotion/coupon code. In the box, simply type in fs3b2011).

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Inexpensive Wine: Easier than ever to find !

Inexpensive Wine: Easier than ever to find !
As those of you who regularly read my ramblings know, I am on an incessant search for wines of excellent quality that are also values. A few years back it was easy to despair of the notion that you could easily find good wine at reasonable prices.

To be sure, there are still outrageously priced wines in the marketplace that are immune to conventional economics, particularly those with famous names or those from places which are revered such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa. Some wines from these regions are still priced out of all relationship to reality (as I define the term).

Chateau Petrus, which is undoubtedly the most famous wine in Bordeaux, is also the most extreme example of how crazy wine pricing can be. The 2005 Petrus fetches between $3000 and $4000 a BOTTLE! Amazingly, there is a long line of “trophy” hunters just waiting to plunk down their cash for the stuff.

But before you despair, forsake all wine purchases and switch to buttermilk, consider this: there are literally thousands of wineries around the world that are still making good and even great wine at affordable prices. You just have to look a little harder, be adventuresome and be willing to experiment with wines with which you are unfamiliar.

As a matter of fact, I am now convinced that the number of these value wines is increasing. Could this be a trend? I hope so.

World famous (and expensive) Ch. Petrus



In the past, it all came down to supply and demand. When Mother Nature smiles in the vineyard and there is a glut of wine on the world market, prices drop. The converse is true as well. You also have to factor in the tepid economy, which has forced some wineries to lower their unrealistic pricing.

But there is now more to the equation than just supply and demand and a weak economy. The new X factor is the Internet and search engines like Google, Yahoo and Ask.com. Information and pricing on wines which had once been obscure and unavailable are now just a click away.

I have maintained for years that there is a sea of excellent wine out there just waiting to be discovered. Well, now it’s easier than ever to find it, order it and sip it! And all because of the Internet.

Say you like cabernet sauvignon, but are put off by the prices of wines from some producers. Simply type: “highly rated cabernet under $20” onto your search engine and instantly you will be rewarded with an almost overwhelming number of choices.

At this point, you can order the wines online or simply take the list of wines to your local retailer. And building a relationship with folks running the local wine shop is probably the most important way of finding good wines that suit your budget. If the wines you want are unavailable, your wine shop can usually order the stuff for you.

We have a bevy of excellent shops in our state with a remarkable selection of wines from around the globe, and that is where I prefer to make my purchases. However, if you can’t find them locally, you might try the online retailers listed below that ship to West Virginia and many other states.

Here are some of my favorites: wineanthology.com; wineaccess.com; wine.com; and empirewine.com. There are many others, but these are among the ones with both excellent pricing and selection.

To give you a head start, you might want to lock your lips around these delectable wine values: 2007 Crooked Row Merlot ($12); 2008 Di Majo Norante Sangiovese ($12); Cristalino Brut Cava (Spanish Sparkler -$10); 2009 Pacific Rim Gewurztraminer ($13); 2007 Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc ($15); 2005 Bodegas Beronia Rioja Riserva ($19); 2007 Trimbach Riesling ($17); and 2008 Hey Mambo Sultry Red ($10 – no kidding this a good one!).

Port: making winter bearable!

Port: making winter bearable!
I’m sure many of you will be toasting the New Year with sparkling wine. I know that I will, but my choice for après Champagne is something that will warm the cockles of your heart and soul even more than your favorite celebratory bubbly.

Today, I’m going to regale you with information about Port - my favorite winter time beverage that is sure to take the edge off this frigid winter.

Some would suggest that port, like scotch, is an acquired taste. If so, I’ve acquired it! And I’m convinced that once you try the stuff with a good blue cheese or a handful of walnuts, you’ll be hooked too. But first, let’s take a look at the history of Port and how the wine is produced.

Port or Porto (as it is called in Portugal where it is produced) is made from a variety of grapes grown along the steep slopes of Douro River. In fact there are more than 80 varieties of grapes which are permitted to be used in the production of port, but most producers use less than 10. The most prominent port grapes are: Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cão and Tinta Amarela. Rolls right off the tongue, no?

The center of port production is the town of Oporto where the wine is sold to companies (called” Shippers”) who age it, label it under their house name and then export it all over the world.

Port is fortified which means that brandy is added to the fermenting wine. This causes the fermentation to stop, leaving about 10 percent residual sugar in the wine and also boosting the alcohol to about 20 percent. While port was produced in mainly a dry style for centuries, today’s sweet version was popularized by the British in the middle of the 18th century. Many Shippers are also British companies.

There are also some very good port-style wines produced in other countries, most notably Australia and the U.S. As a matter of fact, two of my favorite tawny ports are produced in these two countries and I’ll list them for you later. Port is made in several styles, among which are:

Vintage Port -This is the best and most expensive style and is produced only in exceptional years (only about three years a decade). A “vintage year” is usually declared by an agreement among the shippers and the wines are given special care and aging.

Once you buy it, vintage Port can age easily for 15 to 40 years before reaching maturity. Recent vintage Port years are 1977, 1979, 1983, 1986, 1991 and 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2003. You can pay anywhere from $50 to $150 a bottle for vintage port with the older, more prestigious years, commanding the highest price.

Late Bottled Vintage Port - Not to be confused with vintage port, this wine is a blend of ports from different vineyards in the same vintage year. Late bottled vintage port (or LBV) will have a vintage date on the label, but it is not vintage port. However, these wines are vinified in the same manner as vintage ports, except they are aged in barrel longer to accelerate their drinkability.

Ruby Port - Young port wine blends from several different vintages comprise ruby port. They are lighter and fruitier than other styles and usually the least expensive ports.

Tawny Port - I call this the poor man’s vintage port because it is aged for many years in oak and, when released, it is very smooth and rich like an old vintage port, though not as fine. Without a doubt, this is my go-to port and I’ll list a few of my favorites for you later. Most of the better tawnies are aged for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years and this fact is listed on the label. These wines can be found in a wide price range from under $10 to more than $30 a bottle depending on the age of the Tawny Port.

Ficklin 10-year old Tawny Port



White Port - Made from white grapes, this is the only port-style wine that is dry. It is usually crisp, yet full-bodied, and makes a nice aperitif wine.

Okay, now here is a list of some of my favorite tawny port producers. Incidentally, these wineries also produce other types of port if you should wish to try them.

Ficklin and Quaddy (US) and Clocktower (Australia) are my favorite port-like wines produced outside Portugal. The rest of these producers are Portuguese: Warre’s, Graham’s, Taylor-Fladgate, Croft, Dow’s, Fonseca and Ramos-Pinto. Prices for 10-year old tawnies can range from about $10 to $40 dollars a bottle. If you can find it, try Ficklin’s 10-year old tawny – it’s absolutely delicious.

So grab yourself a bottle of Port, build a fire and sip the cold away.

Gifts of wine build Christmas cheer!

Gifts of wine build Christmas cheer!

‘Tis the season to be (get?) jolly! Well, in that spirit, it’s time for my annual Christmas wine gift recommendations. In addition to providing you with a few ideas for the important wine lovers in your life, you might also wish to pass this list along to those inclined to remember you on December 25th.

But before I get to the wines, I have a few other wine-related gift ideas.

Books:The Oxford Companion to Wine – Third Edition ($65) by Janice Robinson is the most comprehensive compendium of wine information you will ever read. It is the ultimate reference guide to anything to do with the liquid we all love.

Been Doon So Long ($35) by the zany, clever, irreverent wine maker-satirist Randall Graham is a hilarious romp through winedom. Owner of Bonny Doon Winery, Graham’s views on the state of wine are delivered with zinging tongue-in-cheek wisdom and humor.

Wine Vacation:Solage is a 22-acre uber-spa located at the northern terminus of the Napa Valley in the town of Calistoga. Surrounded by mountains and vineyards, I had the pleasure of reposing at Solage earlier this year and was blown away by the experience. With an incredible restaurant on the premises, a world-class spa and even mud baths, this is a spectacular destination for any food and wine lover. Check out the packages at http://solagecalistoga.com/ or call 866 942 7442.

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Chardonnay: Too much of a good thing?

Chardonnay:  Too much of a good thing?
Is it possible to love something, but be tired of that very same thing?

I emphasize the word “THING” to make sure the animate objects of my affection do not get the wrong idea. As you might suspect, I speak of wine. And not just any wine, but one of the greatest of all– chardonnay.

Too much of a good thing? Yes, that’s part of the problem because there’s no doubt the stuff is all around us. It seems someone is always handing me a glass of chardonnay at every event I attend or every bar I frequent. But that’s not the problem either.

What it gets down to is searching for quality and avoiding the boring plonk that so many wine makers are producing from this world-class grape.

With any wine, particularly one as ubiquitously produced around the world as chardonnay, the soil, climate and overall geography of the vineyard site, along with the wine making style of the vintner, become critical. These elements all define the style of the wine.

While it may be an oversimplification, I classify chardonnay as “new” or “old” world. New world chardonnays are those from North and South America, Australia and South Africa, and they are decidedly different from the old world wines produced with great success in the White Burgundy region of France.

For example, many new world chardonnays are rich, buttery and oaky with the intensity of a red wine. Many of these wines also have tropical fruit or butterscotch flavors and some have a good dollop of residual sugar.

In Burgundy, there are three basic regions where chardonnay is produced. In Chablis, the wine can show stony minerality and sometimes tart green apple flavors. In the Macon region, the best wines (such as Pouilly-Fuisse) can be aromatic and slightly buttery.

In northern Burgundy, the greatest chardonnays have creamy textures and ripe apple flavors with a kiss of oak. These wines, such as Corton-Charlemagne and Puligny Montrachet, can cost anywhere from $150 to more than $500 a bottle.

My own preference in chardonnay runs to the northern Burgundian variety, but my pocketbook leads me to California. In particular, I prefer chardonnay grown in the cooler areas such as Carneros, the Russian River Valley of Sonoma and the Santa Y’nez Valley near Santa Barbara where sunny days are followed by chilly nights to produce wines with excellent balance.

Carneros Chardonnay fermenting in my cellar



My favorite style of chardonnay combines ripe fruit richness, good acid balance and just a touch of oak. Wineries such as Chateau Montelena, Talley Vineyards, MacRostie, Acacia, Wente Riva Ranch, Talbott and Cakebread are among my favorites and range in price from under $20 to about $40 a bottle.

I actually took matters in my own hands (literally) a few years ago by making my own chardonnay from grapes grown in the Carneros region of southern Sonoma County. As a matter of fact, I’ve got 20 gallons of 2010 chardonnay fermenting in my cellar right now. I just bottled the 2009 chardonnay and I am sipping a glass as I finish this column.

I am not bored with this wine!

Bountiful food and wine options: giving thanks !

Okay, fellow gourmands, on your mark…get set… go – to the nearest wine shop and begin stocking up for the marathon eating and drinking season which is about to commence. Thanksgiving is the beginning of this forty-day holiday season which includes Chanukah and Christmas, and culminates with the New Year’s celebration.

It is also a time when you will spend about seventy percent of your yearly wine budget purchasing bottles for parties, gifts and holiday dinners. For me, it’s the most exciting time of the year. I’m like a kid in a candy store! The shelves of local wine shops are overflowing with bottles of every type and pedigree.

But, first things first. It is likely that turkey will once again be the featured main course for Thanksgiving at your house. The culinary versatility of turkey to be successfully paired with red or white as well as light or full-bodied wines makes picking a winner an easy proposition.

The reason? The bird is blessed with meat that has a variety of flavors, colors and textures which present opportunities for us to try a lot of different wines.

The type of stuffing you use adds a whole other flavor dimension which, depending upon the nature of the dressing, opens up even more wine possibilities. Thus, the holidays also offer we wine lovers a rare opportunity to sample a virtual sea of wines. Here are a few wine recommendations to match your holiday turkey and associated culinary accoutrements.

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Smoky linguine and a big red: an Autumn repast

Smoky linguine and a big red: an Autumn repast
I really do enjoy the change of seasons, particularly the transition from summer to fall. I am aware that autumn is more than five weeks old, but my internal thermostat is just now registering the change. I also know it’s fall because my body is getting urgent messages from my brain to start ingesting fuller flavored wine and food.

Hey, you gotta listen to your body, right?

Well, nothing says full-flavor to me like pasta and red wine, so after a little rumination, I came up with a lovely culinary inspiration: why not combine my love of grilled vegetables with pasta and accompany the dish with a purple whopper?

You might remember a piece I wrote last summer extolling the virtues of grilled vegetables. Well, this recipe uses many of those same veggies, but in a whole new way. Listen up.

The first order of business was to visit the Purple Onion produce emporium at our own Capitol Market where I was able to procure a diverse selection of vegetable goodies that would be the centerpiece of this concoction. A little further down you’ll find my wine selections for the meal, but first, here’s the recipe for what I call “Smoky Linguine.”

Shopping List

1 red and one yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut lengthwise into thirds
2 peeled zucchinis cut lengthwise into half-inch wide, two-inch long rectangles
1 large onion, peeled and cut into quarter inch circles
2 poblano peppers, cut into long strips one inch wide
2 Portobello mushrooms cut into one-inch wide strips
4 Roma tomatoes cut in half length-wise
6 cloves of garlic peeled and left whole
3 ounces of extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons each of chopped fresh basil and Italian parsley
1 teaspoon each of kosher salt, black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
4 ounces of grated parmigiano reggiano
1 pound of linguine (you can use whole wheat or spinach linguine if you wish)

Ready for the grill !



Prepare a marinade for the vegetables by combining the olive oil and balsamic vinegar

Place veggies in a large bowl (or gallon plastic bag), add the salt and pepper and mix, allowing the vegetables to marinate for one hour

Fire up a charcoal or gas grill to medium heat and place the vegetables on the grill surface and turn them regularly to avoid burning

When veggies are charred (not burnt), allow them to cool to room temperature
and place half the veggies in a food processor and process into a paste

Cook linguine in boiling water until al dente, drain pasta (reserve one-half cup pasta water) and place pasta along with all veggies into a large sauté pan and blend the ingredients

Add the pasta water to the pan and heat the mixture

Remove and plate the Smoky Linguine, adding the red pepper flakes, parsely and basil along with the parmigiano reggiano to each plate

So, what about wine matches for this dish? Well, the key here is to use a wine that has some element or component flavor that pairs well with the smokiness and spiciness of the grilled vegetables. You might consider wines such as a zinfandel or something from Languedoc-Roussillon in southern France.

Zinfandel usually shows spiciness and dark fruit flavors while the Languedoc has a smoky, black cherry character. Never one to take a chance, I chose to open one of each of the following wines and both, for different reasons, paired well with the pasta dish.

2008 Chateau Coupe Roses (La Bastide, $15) – From the Minervois region in Languedoc Roussillon of Southern France, this blend of old vine carignan and grenache has ripe plumb flavors with nuances of smoke. Excellent accompaniment to the grub.

2007 Marietta Old Vines Zinfandel ($20) – A great mouthful of blackberry spiciness, this purple zin is a killer match to the dish.

2007 California Cabernet - Vintage of the century?

Cabernet sauvignon lovers rejoice! Wines from the extraordinary 2007 California vintage are beginning to make their way to a retail store near you, and you would be wise to grab as many as you can afford. While the vintage as  a whole is exceptional with just about every red and white benefitting from an almost perfect growing season,  the cabernet is stunning.

2007 is being hailed as the vintage of the century – which probably isn’t saying much since we’re only a decade into the new millennium. However, your humble wineboy has sampled a pretty good cross-section of these goodies, and I can honestly say that none of the more than two dozen different 2007’s that have passed these wine-stained lips have disappointed.

The Wine Spectator (Nov. 15 issue) sampled more than 500 cabernets from the 2007 vintage and rated nearly 200 of them with scores of 90 or above  (on a 100 point scale). And, while Napa is still the appellation to find the best of the best, every major wine producing region in the Golden State has produced exceptional cabernet sauvignon.

The wines have all of the flavors associated with great cabernet including rich plumb and cherry fruit, vanilla and mocha tones along with aromas of spice, currants and leather. These are classic wines and most have exceptional aging potential.

While you can spend several hundred dollars (a bottle!) on cult wines such as Harlan Estate, Schrader Cellars, Screaming Eagle and Staglin, prices of the wines listed below range from under $20 to less than $60 a bottle. So here are some labels to look for from the 2007 California cabernet sauvignon vintage that I recommend for your sipping pleasure.

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Fall wine and food events abound

Fall wine and food events abound
Charleston Area Wine Events
Mark your calendars for two wine-related events over the next couple of weeks. On Wednesday October 13, from 5 to 8 p.m., the Liquor Company will have a special tasting of Joseph Phelps wines at their location in the Patrick Street Plaza. Phelps is one of the most prestigious and historically significant wineries in the Napa Valley and their wines are renowned around the world. Cost of the tasting is $5 per person.

The Wine Shop at Capitol Market will host their annual Harvest Tasting on Sunday October 17, from 2 to 4 p.m. in the outdoor farmer’s market (weather permitting). The Harvest Tasting will feature an international array of more than 25 wines that will be specially selected to match the foods of fall. Munchies will be available and cost of the tasting is $15 per person.

By the way, if you haven’t had a chance to visit the wine shop lately, you will be pleasantly surprised to note that the location has been moved down the hall of the market to a greatly expanded space which features a special temperature controlled room for fine and rare wines. In addition, there is now a designated tasting area where wines can be sampled on weekends. Congratulations and good luck to the fine folks at the wine shop.

Owner Ted Armbrecht in his temperature controlled wine room



Canaan - Wild and Wonderful Wine and Food Weekend
It’s always both a pleasure and a learning experience to work with culinary professionals, and that’s why I love to be a part of the semi-annual Wild and Wonderful Wine Weekend at Canaan Valley Resort. These food and wine events have become a tradition at the Tucker County facility where you’ll also revel in the visual beauty of fall in the Potomac Highlands.

Join me and a whole host of other wine and food lovers on October 22- 24 for an entertaining and educational gourmet extravaganza. I select wines from the best vineyards on the planet that will be matched to culinary delicacies prepared by Canaan Valley Resort’s executive chef. The event will begin Friday, October 22 at 7 p.m. with a “taste-around reception” where wines from the world’s most prestigious regions can be sampled with matching culinary treats from food stations featuring, Italian, Mediterranean and Mexican delicacies. And for the sweets folks, there will also be a dessert station featuring custard and berries, chocolate cheesecake balls and mini apple dumplings.

On Saturday, guests will participate in a tasting of wines I will select that will be followed by a scrumptious four- course Mediterranean-inspired luncheon with matching wines. 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 evening’s activities begin at 7 p.m. with a six-course grand gourmet dinner with accompanying wines.Guests have the option of attending the entire weekend for a package price, or choosing to participate in individual events ala carte.

For pricing and additional information or reservations call 800-622-4121 or visit online at www.canaanresort.com.

Wine in vending machines?

Wine in vending machines?
The next time you feel like complaining about the weird laws surrounding alcohol in the Mountain State, be thankful you don’t live in that land of plenty just to the north of us.

To say that wine, beer and liquor laws in Pennsylvania are complicated and restrictive would be an epic understatement.
In fact, getting a bottle of hooch was probably easier and less complicated during Prohibition than it is in the Keystone state today.

But now bureaucrats in Harrisburg have devised a new method of getting wine (which, like liquor, can only be purchased in state stores) to thirsty Pitt and Penn State fans. They’re making it available in vending machines in selected supermarkets. Sounds great, right? Here’s how it works.

After selecting a wine from among the more than 50 bottles available in the machine, customers must insert a driver's license into the kiosk proving they are at least 21 years old. Next, a camera in the machine verifies their identity via video link with a state liquor control board official. If that’s not complicated enough, customers then must blow into a breathalyzer to make sure their alcohol level is not more than 0.02, or just one quarter of the legal limit for driving.

Why not require a birth certificate, immunization card or, at least, a note from your dentist attesting to fact you don’t have trench mouth? Our brethren from Pennsylvania have taken a pretty neat customer convenience idea and complicated it to the point of bureaucratic absurdity.

The French, however, have added a true wine customer convenience device that I would like to see here in the good old U. S. of A. sometime soon. They actually are installing 500 and 1000 liter wine self-serve tanks in supermarkets around France. The tanks look like gasoline pumps where consumers fill their own reusable bottles and jugs (or they buy containers at the store), and then use the self-serve hoses to fill them up.

It’s pretty simple too. You just select your wine type (red, white or rose), pump it into the container and take the printed receipt to the checkout counter where you pay. Now, obviously these pumps are not going to be dispensing Chateau Lafite, but for everyday sipping, in a country that takes its wine drinking seriously, this is about as good and convenient as it gets.

French Wine Dispensing Tank



 

Until we get vending machines or wine dispensing pumps, we’ll have to settle for the old tried and true method of purchasing our wines from shops and grocery stores. Here are some bottles you may wish to acquire in this traditional method.

2007 Masciarelli Montepulciano ($10.99) Soft and supple, this red will marry nicely with pizza topped with fresh tomatoes, olive oil and fresh mozzarella.

2009 Paitin Langhe Arneis ($18.99) One of the most famous white wines of Italy's Piedmont region, arneis is delicate, somewhat spritzy and fruit forward. Try it with mussels poached in some of the arneis along with a little chopped garlic.

2007 Cantele Primitivo ($15.99) Full and rich, this zinfandel-like red will match up nicely with lasagna in a spicy red sauce.

2008 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio ($19.99). This pinot grigio is a fuller-bodied version of this popular white from northern Italy. With flowery and somewhat spicy notes, try it with penne pasta in a basil pesto sauce.

Remembering Sunday Dinner

Remembering Sunday Dinner
Since I am able to trace one-half of my ancestry back to southern Italy, I am prone to wax poetically from time to time about the tasteful treats emanating from that remarkable boot-shaped peninsula bisecting the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas.

And while it would be a gross oversight to disregard Italy’s contributions to art, culture and, indeed, Western civilization, my interest in the country has always been squarely focused on food and wine, along with the warm and talented people who produce those exceptional products.

My maternal grandparents landed at Ellis Island in the late 19th Century, following others from their home state of Calabria to north-central West Virginia. After more than 15 years working in the mines, my grandfather built a bakery in the North View section of Clarksburg that, to this day, my cousins continue to operate.

Sunday family dinners at my grandparents’ home, replete with dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles, are happily and indelibly seared in my memory. Those Calabrian-inspired feasts, washed down with jugs  of home made red wine, would begin shortly after noon and proceed until early evening.

Once the multi-course meal was completed, the adults would insist that we children provide the postprandial entertainment. As our elders sat sipping vino or grappa, we would sing, recite poetry and/or perform little skits to our always appreciative audience.

Grandma, Grandpa and the Sunday dinner clan



One of my occasional duties on those Sundays decades ago was to descend into the earthen-walled, dark, dank and spooky basement to fetch a jug of wine from one of the oak barrels in my grandpa’s cellar.

I would rush down the steps, open the door to wine cellar, and pull the string on the single hanging light bulb to illuminate the room. Then I would turn the spigot on the barrel, quickly fill the jug and hurry back upstairs, hoping to avoid any contact with creepy crawlers or poltergeists.

Once, in my haste to complete the task, I inadvertently filled the jug from the wrong barrel – one containing vinegar. My grandpa, anxious to toast that day’s meal, poured himself a glass, uttered the words “Salute” and took a big sip of the vinegar.

Suffice it to say, the next words out of his mouth were  unprintable, but I was no longer asked to fetch the wine on Sunday.

We still keep the tradition in our family of gathering for Sunday dinner and many of the recipes I’ve recounted to you over the years have been versions of meals from those halcyon days. I’ll even open a bottle or two of my home made wine on occasion.

And while I do not (intentionally) make vinegar, some not so subtle individuals, after tasting my home made wine, suggest that  I have killed two birds with one stone!

Wine Spectator Awards include WV restaurants

I have always maintained that a good meal can be transformed into a great dining experience when a complimenting wine accompanies it. This is particularly important for restaurants. Those that understand and incorporate this principle into their business model should be recognized.

Now it’s one thing for this backwater gourmand to say nice things about a grubbery, but when a prestigious international magazine - like The Wine Spectator - does…well…that, to use the local vernacular, is “spay-chull ” (or special for those whose ears are unaccustomed to our twang).

Therefore, wine lovers and foodies in West Virginia should be proud to know that the annual Wine Spectator restaurant awards were recently announced and that 12 Mountain State establishments are among those receiving the lofty honors.

According to the magazine, “Wine Spectator’s restaurant wine list awards program recognizes restaurants whose wine lists offer interesting selections, are appropriate to the cuisine and appeal to a wide range of wine lovers.

“To qualify for an award, the list must present complete, accurate wine information. It must include vintages and appellations for all selections, including wines by the glass…” The three categories of awards are: “Awards of Excellence;” “Best of Awards of Excellence;” and the “Grand Award.”

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More Oregon Pinot Noir

More Oregon Pinot Noir
So which pinot noirs at the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) stood out to yours truly at that lovely weekend event in the Willamette Valley? So many were special, but several exceeded my expectations.

As I mentioned last time, there were two evening tastings at IPNC where approximately 100 wineries were featured. The task of tasting the wines and then evaluating each was, to say the least, daunting, but your intrepid boy of wine was up to the task. Armed with a pen, notepad and palate, I plodded through the exercise and came away with a purple tongue and some unexpected insights.

First eye-opener was the quality of the 2007 Oregon pinot noir vintage. Largely (and prematurely) panned, the 2007 wines are certainly leaner than many of the recent Oregon pinot noir vintages, but they uniformly showed a silkiness and suppleness that is very appealing. Given a few years in bottle, these wines will continue to develop complexity and should be delightful for years to come.

The 2008 vintage in Oregon is already being hailed as one of the best ever. Deep, rich and earthy, these are more hedonistic wines than their 2007 older brothers. The tannins are harder and therefore the wines will require a few years in bottle to reach drinkability. But make no mistake, these will be excellent wines.

One of the most important aspects in producing quality finished wines is the art of blending. As a home wine maker, I can attest to the fact that blending different wines (made from different grapes) can produce a more refined and complex finished product. However, I have never had the opportunity to blend wines made from the same grape and vintage date – until a seminar at IPNC.

This particular seminar was held at Selena Winery – a brand new facility within the Yamhill Carelton AVA. The focus of the seminar was on the importance of blending and it was hands (or should I say lips) on. Our group was divided into tables of eight, each of which was presided over by an Oregon wine maker. The wine maker was there to answer technical questions, but was not involved in choosing our blend.

Our job was to create a final blend out of wine made from three different 2008 Selena pinot noir vineyards. Each of the wines we tasted had different characteristics, and it was our job to agree upon the proper proportion of each to achieve the blend which would then be evaluated by a panel of professionals.


Charleston native Kevin Wiles Oregon pinot noir
Guess what? Our table’s blend was judged best! I’m sure it was my years of home wine making experience that put us over the top (actually, the blend I suggested was picked by another table and came in third place). Anyway, this was not only great fun, it was also an insightful exercise that gave us an appreciation for how difficult it is to make good wine even better.

There is no doubt that pinot noir is among the most food friendly wines on the planet, and a key component in producing excellent wine requires not only geography, science and wine making skills, but also people with experienced palates to create the final blends.

So which Oregon pinot noirs tickled my palate most? Here is listing of my favorite wines, including one made by Charleston native Kevin Wiles whose 2008 Wiles Cellars Hope Cuvee is a delicious, round and rich wine I had the pleasure sipping with lunch in McMinnville one afternoon. You may contact Kevin and order the wine direct from him by calling 843-338-0583 or emailing him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Other favorite wines: Domaine Serene, Bergstrom, Brooks, Chehalem, Elk Cove, Lange (they also make a killer pinot gris), Lemelson, Redhawke, Scot Paul, St. Innocent, Domaine Drouhin and Raptor Ridge.

If you are a pinot noir lover too, you might want to consider a trip out to the Willamette Valley to sip some of the best wines on this planet. Better yet, sign up for next year’s IPNC event to be held July 28-31. Check it out online at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by calling 800-775-4762.

A weekend in Oregon with pinot noir

A weekend in Oregon with pinot noir
I have a love affair with pinot noir! Among its many attributes, I am most impressed (and mystified) by the wine’s unique ability to pair incredibly well with an array of edibles, including fish, fowl, lamb, beef and a whole host of vegetables.

Pinot noir is a very difficult wine to produce. From vineyard to bottle, it is a perilous journey for this thin-skinned grape which gained it’s world-class reputation in the fields of Burgundy. There, Mother Nature can be cruel and, on average, only three in ten vintages escape the ravages of hail, cold temperatures or harvest rain to produce excellent wines.

Here in the U.S., the problem with pinot noir for the first three-quarters of the 20th Century wasn’t the weather, but rather the heavy-handedness of the few wine makers who grew the grapes, more often than not in completely inappropriate soils and microclimates.

Pinot noir needs a long, cool growing season to reach its full potential, and then must be vinified into wine by deft, artisan wine makers who understand and appreciate the complex nature of the grape. Until the 1980’s, most American pinot noir producers were more Attila the Hun than Emily Post.

However, in the past three decades, we’ve come a long way baby!

Now California and Oregon, along with other new world pinot noir producers like those in New Zealand and Chile, are getting the most out of this temperamental grape. While each country (and viticultural appellations within them) produce distinctive versions of pinot noir, the good news is the wines are now uniformly good.

To get my pinot noir fix, I once again attended the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in McMinnville, Oregon in the heart of the Willamette Valley. This weekend-long event held in July of each year is the Holy Grail of pinot noir gatherings. I have written about this marvelous wine and food extravaganza in year’s past, but it bears repeating.

The northern Willamette Valley (about 60 miles south of Portland) is where the most famous Oregon wineries are located within several American Viticultural Appellations (AVA’s) including Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, and Yamhill Carlton.

Pinot Noir Vineyards in Oregon's Williamette Valley



Within these AVA’s, wineries such as Domaine Serene, Argyle, Elk Cove, Ken Wright, Ponzi and more than 200 others produce pinot noir in styles distinctly different from wines made from the same grape grown in different parts of the world. In fact, I believe pinot noir from the Willamette Valley has more in common with Burgundy than it does with wine produced from the same grape in California.

Don’t assume, however, that all pinot noir made in Oregon tastes exactly the same. It doesn’t. Yet there is a taste characteristic which I’ll describe here as “earthy” that seems to be present in most of the wines. This is not to suggest that the wines taste like dirt, but rather they exhibit a flavor nuance not unlike the taste of fresh mushrooms.

This is very subtle, but it’s fairly distinctive. Some Burgundies have a hint of this flavor component, but they have a lighter mouth feel (generally speaking) and more acid than the wines from Oregon or California. Anyway, it’s kind of fun to note these dissimilarities. Take California pinot noir for example. More dramatic differences are evident when one compares Oregon to California.

Whether from Carneros, the Santa Rita Hills or the Russian River Valley, these California wines are generally  rounder and seem to have more deep, dark fruit flavors and less acidity than their Oregon counterparts. Yet both states' pinot noir can be excellent accompaniments to a wide variety of dishes.

Ah, food…

While my affection for pinot noir was the primary catalyst for the return trip to IPNC, I must admit that memories of the “incredible edibles” prepared by a host of talented chefs from all over the Pacific Northwest was an equal attraction.

Salmon Bake at IPNC



In fact, in a few short days we participated in and consumed wine and food at two multi-course dinners, two luncheons (all outdoors in perfect weather conditions) and a Champagne brunch featuring food almost too visually appealing to eat – almost!

In addition, we attended and sipped wine at four seminars (including one at a winery) and two evening receptions, featuring more than 100 wineries from Oregon, Burgundy, New Zealand and California.

Hands-on blending seminar at Selena Winery



Now, before you get the impression that this was an out-of-control bacchanalian orgy, let me emphasize that the more than 600 people attending this event were under control, and I saw no evidence of stumbling, bumbling or slurring.

I did, however, observe many people spitting wine into Styrofoam cups or pouring their wine into dumping vessels. By the way, spitting is an acceptable practice in wine tasting, particularly when the taster must evaluate multiple wines.
And no, I didn’t observe anyone drinking from the dump bucket like the actor in the movie “Sideways.”

However, I do think we West Virginians have genetic advantage when it comes to accurately expectorating. It comes from generations of our kinfolk who were adept at hitting a spittoon from great distances in saloons. There, such oral feats were commonplace and necessary to avoid bodily harm if the expectorant missed its target.

Next time, I’ll list some of my favorite wines at the event.

Wine and grilled veggies

Wine and grilled veggies
Boy do I love my grill! Not only does it provide me with the consummate summertime cooking tool, it also offers me the perfect excuse to postpone completing other (less enjoyable) chores like cutting the grass and cleaning out the basement.

Over the years I have touted the virtues of charcoal over gas grilling, but, regardless of 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.

That’s right, I said vegetables!
With a little preparation and a lot of imagination, you can coax a whole new palate of flavors out of veggies when you grill them. The key is to be vigilant and cautious because there is a fine line between delicious success and utter disaster. In other words, you need to tend them carefully or you could quickly end up with something more akin to forest fire remnants than grilled vegetables.

But I think it’s worth the risk because grilling these edible plants also creates an added benefit for we wine lovers. The smoky, slightly charred flavors of grilled vegetables add a taste dimension that enables normally delicate plants like…say… green beans and asparagus to pair very well with medium bodied reds and fuller-bodied whites. Say hallelujah!!

So today, brothers and sisters, I’m going to suggest the perfect method to prepare, grill and serve up a platter of lip smacking vegetables that will transport a vegan to gustatory heaven, and make a veggie convert out of the most ardent carnivore. Then I’m going to suggest a couple of excellent wines to wash it all down.

I’m a big fan of the local food movement, and I spend a great deal of time perusing the aisles of our own Capitol Market ‘s outdoor section for fresh produce picked daily by area farmers. Right now, you can find just about any vegetable grown in the northern hemisphere from all manner of peppers, to corn, green beans, squash and, of course, tomatoes.

You may even find the unexpected. Just last week, I purchased zucchini blossoms (for 25 cents each) at the market, stuffed them with a mixture of goat cheese and provolone and sautéed them in some olive oil –spectacular! We ate these lovely, delicate morsels as an appetizer and accompanied them with 2009 Natura Sauvignon Blanc ($11) from Chile.

Zucchini blossoms



Marinated and Grilled Veggies:
1 red and one yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut lengthwise in half
2 peeled zucchinis, two yellow squash, cut lengthwise into half-inch wide rectangles
1 large onion, peeled and cut into quarter inch circles
1 lb. asparagus, bottom two inches cut off spears
2 hot (optional) banana peppers, cut into long strips one inch wide
2 bulbs of fennel, split lengthwise, top two-thirds discarded
2 heads of radicchio (aka red chicory) halved
2 Portobello mushrooms cut in half
4 ounces of shredded mozzarella
3 ounces of extra virgin olive oil
2 talbespoons each of balsamic vinegar and chopped fresh basil
2 teaspoons each of kosher salt, black pepper and minced garlic,

Prepare a marinade by combining and blending the olive oil, minced garlic, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and basil

Place veggies in a large bowl and mix, allowing the vegetables to marinate for one hour

Fire up a charcoal or gas grill to medium heat and place the vegetables on the grill surface, being careful not to allow smaller ones to fall into the fire. Turn them regularly to avoid burning

When veggies are limp and tender, arrange them on a plate in layers, sprinkling the cheese in between layers and drizzling olive oil and balsamic vinegar on top. You can also sprinkle additional chopped basil over the top.

Allow the vegetables to come to room temperature and serve by themselves or as an accompaniment to any grilled meat, sausage or fish dish

The great thing about grilled vegetables is their versatility in working with both red and white wines. I think you’ll like how they pair nicely with the 2008 Castle Rock Pinot Noir Carneros ($14) or the 2008 Franciscan Chardonnay ($20).

More Monterey County wines

More Monterey County wines
My short stay in Monterey County was highlighted by several tastings at some of the area’s best wineries. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago (in my first installment), Monterey is a sea of wine with nine distinct American Viticultural Appellations or AVA’s.

While the county is probably best known for pinot noir and chardonnay, the amazing geographical diversity of the area allows wine makers to plant and vinify a wide variety of grapes. From cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc to sauvignon blanc, viognier and riesling, to syrah, zinfandel and petit sirah, you name it and Monterey County probably produces it.

My base of operations in the county was the idyllic coastal village of Carmel By The Sea. Probably better known outside California as the town Clint Eastwood led as mayor some years ago, Carmel is a charming little berg with excellent small inns and restaurants.

Carmel is also adjacent to the world famous Pebble Beach Resort where the US Open Golf tournament was recently completed. As a golfer, I am an accomplished wine drinker.

That is to say, while I’m not very good advancing that little white ball down the fairway and into the hole, I do enjoy (and am very adept at) the après golf scene, particularly the “19th” hole tradition of toasting the game. At about $500 for a round of golf at Pebble Beach, I decided to forego the first 18 holes and , instead, go directly to the clubhouse for the 19th hole toast.

Carmel looking toward No. 18 at Pebble Beach 



But my real reason for being in the county was to taste my way through a representative sampling of wines .So after a short trip up the Carmel Valley AVA, I found myself at another Monterey County winery, Heller Estate.
Heller is a certified organic farm winery which means all the grapes at the winery are 100 percent organically grown. No pesticides or herbicides are used and weeds are controlled by planting cover crops. While organic certification is no guarantee the wines will be any good, it does demonstrate a commitment by the winery to do things in an environmentally responsible manner. Happily, though, Heller wines are very good.
Heller produces more than 15 wines and I actually tasted most of them. In fact, they make petit verdot (one of the blending grapes in Bordeaux) as a single varietal and the 2007 ($25) is a mouthful of wine with tones of chocolate, pepper and dark fruit.

While the 2007 Chardonnay ($24) is an excellent, balanced wine with hints of apricot and citrus, it is the 2008 Chenin Blanc ($25) that captivated me. I was impressed with the full mouth feel and richness of the wine. It also possesses the crispness to not only be a good accompaniment to lighter style seafood and chicken dishes, it also would make a nice aperitif.

The red wines are led by a 2002 Merlot ($30) which tastes more “right bank” Bordeaux than California. It’s amazing the wine is still available for sale and it shows how good merlot can be when it is grown in the appropriate AVA. Full, supple and rich, it still has a life and would go wonderfully well with roast pork tenderloin in a mustard crème sauce.

The 2007 Dancer’s Meritage ($24) is a symphony of flavors with a nice balance of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and other traditional Bordeaux blending grapes adding to the harmony of this silky wine. Smooth around the edges, it would make a nice pairing with grilled veal chops marinated in rosemary, garlic and olive oil.

You might also sample the wines of Bernardus, Cima Colina, Morgan, Estancia, Galante, Paraiso and Mer Soleil – all from Monterey County. Ask your wine retailer about the wines mentioned. Many are available, but you may need to order others online. Simply Google the winery and check out the instructions for online ordering.

Some much wine, so little time!

Sipping for a good cause

Before I continue with the tasting notes from my recent trip to California, I want to spend this week telling you about a wine-related event worth attending. The fifth annual “Summer Sipping: Wine and Roses” celebration will take place on Thursday July 15, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Capitol Market. Proceeds will benefit the Roark-Sullivan Lifeways Center (RSLC) in Charleston.

The RSLC assists individuals experiencing homelessness with services that help them become self-reliant. It is a very special organization with a great group of dedicated employees and volunteers. For the past several years, Capitol Market has been providing the venue for this excellent event. Wouldn’t it be great to help programs like Roark-Sullivan and enjoy good wine and gourmet food, too?

Well, you can!  Join me and other wine lovers sip and enjoy great food for a very worthy cause. The wines will be matched with gourmet appetizers prepared by Capitol Market Food Vendors. In addition, many of the wines featured at the tasting will be available at the Capitol Market Wine Shop for purchase at the event.

Area wine distributors and locally owned Napa Valley winery, Falcor, are donating the wines.  And believe me, there will be exceptional wines available for your sipping pleasure from all over the world.  Tickets for the event can be purchased for $25 by calling 304-414-0109 (est. 20) and using your credit card, or by sending a check to: RSLC, P.O. Box 1707, Charleston, WV, 25326. Tickets may also be purchased at the door.

Hey, and I’ll be there to answer your wine questions and chat about the tasty treats we’re sipping.

I count myself fortunate to have the time and resources to engage my passion for good wine and food. Others in our town, state and nation are not so fortunate. Each day is a challenge for them. Many of our fellow citizens are dealing with debilitating physical, emotional and mental issues that make each day a struggle to survive. Their goal is simply to find food to eat and a place to sleep. Fortunately, there are agencies in our communities that exist solely to assist these people, many of whom are homeless.

RSLC operates the 60-bed Giltinan Center on Leon Sullivan Way (formerly the Charleston Men’s Emergency Shelter) and the 16-bed Twin Cities Center in St. Albans and provides comprehensive services such as healthcare maintenance; substance abuse and mental health assistance; outreach; and transitional and aftercare services. Last year, RSLC constructed and opened a Veterans Transitional Center adjacent to the Giltinan Center that provides services to homeless veterans.

The Roark-Sullivan Lifeways Center and other such organizations exist because of state and federal programs funded by your taxes, and through your generous personal contributions.  Please join me and raise a glass for a great cause!  

 I hope to see you there.

Monterey County Wines

Monterey County Wines
When most of us think of California wine country our thoughts naturally track to Napa or Sonoma counties- two of the most famous wine appellations in the entire world.

However, if you are unfamiliar with Monterey County, you need to take a trip down the Golden State’s coast (about a 100 miles south of San Francisco) and sample the truly amazing variety of wines produced in this topographically diverse region.

Just recently, I had occasion to re-visit the area and today I’ll try and paint a picture of the region as well as share some of my tasting notes from some of Monterey’s best wines.

In addition, the Monterey Peninsula is also an overflowing cornucopia of fruits and vegetables with thousands of acres of fertile farm land producing everything from artichokes to garlic.

From Carmel Valley and the Santa Lucia Highlands in the north to San Bernabe and San Antonio Valley in the south, Monterey County is an incredibly large wine producing region with more than 40,000 acres of vineyards, 85 wineries and nine distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s). It also features breath-taking vistas of the Pacific Ocean, picturesque seaside villages and the rugged coastal highlands.

Sunset at Big Sur



The variety of soil composition, topography and unique micro-climates allow the county to produce a wide range of wine styles. Probably the most significant influence on grape growing in Monterey is the Pacific Ocean where just off the coast the depth of the sea plunges more than two miles.

This “Blue Grand Canyon” as it is locally known has a tremendous effect on the coastal climate where summertime temperatures on shore can reach triple digits during the day and plunge 40 or 50 degrees F at night. In addition, morning fog delays the heat and combines to give Monterey County a long, cool growing season which is perfect for just about all great varietals, particularly chardonnay and pinot noir.

I had the occasion to taste a fairly wide variety of wines from different AVA’s in Monterey County, and I was pleasantly surprised by their overall balance of fruit, alcohol and acidity As you know from reading these tomes, I value wines that pair well with food and are balanced, especially ones that are subtle and complex. I certainly prefer wines of this style rather than the “in your face” alcoholic fruit bombs that seem to have a gained a cult wine following and which are more suited to accompanying road kill than real food. But I digress.

Along the Coast in Monterey County



My first stop was the tasting room at Robert Talbott Vineyards. Talbott was founded in 1982 and the winery concentrates on pinot noir and chardonnay grapes planted in two distinct estate vineyards – Sleepy Hollow in the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Diamond T in Carmel Valley. I was led through the tasting of the Talbott portfolio of wines by Ross Allen, director of marketing and a wine industry veteran.



Ross Allen Talbott Vineyards



Here are my tasting notes for the Talbott wines. Incidentally, these wines should be available throughout the state.

2008 Talbott Kalie Hart Chardonnay ($24)  Named after Robb Talbott’s daughter Kalin, this wine literally bursts with clean, crisp chardonnay fruit, yet it has roundness on the finish that comes from extended aging on the lees. Nicely balanced with citrus and peach notes, I would suggest pairing it with halibut in a beurre blanc sauce.

2008 Talbott Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay ($40) The essence of what California chardonnay can and should be, this wine is a combination of power and subtly with ripe apricot and peach flavors and a nose of butterscotch and freshly baked bread. Exceptionally balanced with a lingering finish, the Sleepy Hollow chardonnay deserves to be accompanied by either roasted Chilean sea bass or lobster and drawn butter.

2008 Talbott Logan Pinot Noir ($26) This Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir (named after Robb’s son Logan) is a medium bodied wine with jammy, earthy aromas, ripe cherry/cola flavors and a hint of spice and vanilla on the finish. Pork tenderloin roasted and sauced with cherries or blueberries would be a lovely combination with this tasty wine.

2008 Talbott Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Pinot Noir ($40) Spicy, rich and full bodied, the Sleepy Hollow pinot noir is a fairly powerful wine with dark fruit flavors balanced by an acid backbone that pulls the wine together. This one has some aging potential and should reward the patient wine lover with an even better experience with three to five years in bottle. Pair it now with grilled King salmon or apple wood smoked chicken.

Next time we’ll take a look at a few other wines from Monterey County. Stay tuned.

Summertime wines and picnic foods

Last time, I regaled you with my version of wine and food pairings and today I’ll continue along that theme line with a little more emphasis on summertime wines.

Once the weather moderates, some people’s thoughts turn to gardening or even golf. Not mine. Summertime gets me (and my trusty old Weber) fired up to start grilling various hunks of meat and/or vegetables, and accompanying these tasty delights with picnic-style wines that refresh the body and the calm the spirit.

I’m not talking about altar wine here! No sireee Bob. I’m suggesting lighter-bodied whites and reds that fit the casual feel of outdoor cooking as well as pair terrifically with grilled foods. These lighter-style wines also benefit from a little chilling, particularly the reds, which will provide a refreshing counterpoint to the sometimes spicy entrees being prepared.

How about a crisp, herbaceous sauvignon blanc with herbal-suffused foods such as salmon with dill or grilled asparagus, or even a pesto of parsley and garlic over linguine? Look for lively sauvignon blancs from Nobilo, Alan Scott, Caymus, Groth, Estancia, Kenwood, St. Michelle, or Sterling that are wonderful accompaniments to these types of foods.

Sangiovese and pinot noir are my choices for red wines in the warm months, particularly when matched with grilled lamb. Whether you choose a boned and butter flied leg, chops or – my favorite – rack of lamb, these wines do not over-power the food, but rather compliment and enhance the flavors. From Tuscany, try wines such as Villa Banfi Centine and Monte Antico, as well as Chianti producers such as Monsanto, Fossi, Cecchi, Brolio, and Nozzole.

Continue reading

Some favorite food and wine pairings

Summer is almost here and if you’re like me, you will do almost anything to avoid yard work. One of my  best “get out of yard work” ploys is to offer my services as chef de cuisine  in the Brown household from time to time. I take this obligation seriously regardless of the menu  du jour and make sure that even the most humble meal is accompanied by an appropriate wine. Ah, but therein lies the challenge. Pairing wine with an appropriate menu selection can be an intimidating exercise, particularly when you’ve invited a few friends or business associates to dinner.  However, it can also be fun. Today, I’ll give you a few tips that will hopefully make the experience more enjoyable than daunting. I know you’ve all heard the first commandment in the food and wine bible: Thou shalt not match red wine with white meat or fish, nor white wine with beef, game or other meats. For instance, there is hardly a better wine and food pairing for you carnivores than a thick, juicy steak accompanied by a full-bodied cabernet sauvignon like the ones produced at Franciscan, Silver Oak or Catena (from Argentina). Likewise, it is hard to beat pairing a full-bodied, unctuous Chardonnay such as Chateau Montelena, Talley Vineyards or Falcor with a rich seafood dish like lobster with drawn butter. While these two classic food and wine combinations seem to underscore the tenets of the food and wine bible, I’m going to advise you to break that commandment on occasion. After all, every now and then a little sinnin’ is fun. So let’s start breaking rules.Fish with red wine?  You bet, but here’s a little tip: red wines, particularly medium-bodied ones such as pinot noir or sangiovese, match well with fully flavored fish such as salmon, tuna (not the canned kind) or sword fish. However, using these same wines with delicate seafood like sole, flounder or scallops will provide a sensation akin to running your fingernails down a blackboard. Try matching a grilled fillet of salmon that has been dry rubbed with cumin, chili powder and brown sugar with a pinot noir like Domaine Serene Yamhill or David Bruce, or a sangiovese-based wine from Monte Antico or Cecchi Bonizio.  Lock your lips around a glass of one of these wines after a bite of grilled salmon and you may start speaking in tongues. These same type reds do well with white meats such as grilled chicken, veal or all cuts of pork too.How about a big juicy hamburger with Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio? Nah, it won’t work because the hamburger will overpower the delicacy of these particular wines. But try a medium-bodied white such as 2008 Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay or a Rose (such as Mulderbosch Rose of Cabernet) and it works quite well.Herbal flavored foods like those with sage, basil, rosemary or dill go great with the grassier-styled sauvignon blanc.  Kenwood, Dry Creek and Murphy-Goode come to mind as good accompaniments to herb-enhanced foods like pesto, sage dressings, dill mayonnaise and asparagus - just to name a few.I love fuller-bodied reds with pasta in a marinara sauce. You may be surprised to know that I am not particularly fond of Chianti with this dish because I think it gets rolled over by the red sauce.  I suggest Zinfandel (Renwood Old Vines, Montevina, Ridge Geyserville) or blended wines such as Big House Red and Marietta Old Vines with traditional pasta in red sauce.. Sparkling wines are wonderful paired with  salty or spicy foods. Try Pierre Sparr Cremant Brut or Domaine Chandon Blanc De Noirs with smoked salmon , popcorn or  anchovies along with jalapeno and other hot pepper appetizers.Gewurztraminer ( Hogue, Columbia, Navarro)  and riesling (Ch. Ste. Michelle, Hugel or Clairborne and Churchill) are spectacular with oriental dishes, particularly sushi, maki Thai and spicy Chinese cuisine. For chocolate desserts save a little of that full-bodied Cabernet from dinner and give it a try. I also love Tawny Port  (Taylor or Fonseca) with nuts and blue cheese, and late harvest riesling (Chateau St. Jean) with.... …anything!