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

Sicilian Wine and Food: An Offer You Can’t Refuse!

Ask an Italian what wine they consider to be best, and they will invariably point to a winery down the street or to a vineyard on the hillside adjacent to their village. This is a country around which wine and food are the central components of everyday life, and citizens are justifiably proud of what is grown in the fertile soil of this ancient land.

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. The most famous wine states are Tuscany in north-central Italy and Piedmont in the northwest. In Tuscany, the great wines of 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 Merlot along with crisp whites such as Arneis and Cortese Di Gavi. Both of these regions are in the northern part of the country where the wine produced is considered to be the best.

But what about the wines of the south and, more specifically, of Sicily? In the recent past, the cognoscenti would regularly heap praise on the wines of northern Italy, while those south of Rome were, at best, marginalized, and those of Sicily were dismissed as barely drinkable. Unfortunately, when most of us ruminate on Sicily, we conjure up images of the Mafia or Don Vito Corleone – a literary invention of the late American novelist Mario Puzo in his book "The Godfather." To butcher a line from that storied work: Sicily made me an offer I couldn't refuse - great food and wine!

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How I Forgot Valentine’s Day And Learned To Live The Monastic Life

Guys, trust me on this: women take Valentine’s Day very seriously! Hey, I’m no Dr. Phil (and I’m certainly not Dr. Ruth), but I do know that there will be serious consequences if you forget to do something special for your significant other on February 14.

I learned this the hard way a couple of decades ago when I arrived home after a hard day at work to find a candle–lit dinner table with a carafe of red wine, soft-jazz on the stereo and a Hallmark card the size of an armadillo waiting for me when I walked through the door. There was also a heart-shaped gift on the kitchen counter,and the wonderful smells of freshly baked bread. Was I in the right house? Was I in the Twilight Zone?

No, I was in the home of a romantic woman who just happened to be my wife -- and I had completely forgotten that this was Valentine’s Day.

To my wife’s credit, she seemed to understand and accept my heart-felt apologies as we enjoyed the fruits of her culinary skills. However, for the next several weeks, there was a distinct chill in the air at home, particularly in certain rooms. I now know how difficult it must be to live a monastic life.

You can avoid a similar fate by simply remembering this special date and you can actually win favor by giving the gift of wine along with the more pedestrian card, candy and flowers. Wine is an especially good choice if you plan to 'cook in' for Valentine’s Day. I plan on seasoning a couple of beef filets with kosher salt and black pepper and grilling them over charcoal. I’ll accompany the beef with sautéed mushrooms and shallots in a little butter and the same red wine I’ll have with the meal. A baked potato and some steamed asparagus will round out the meal. For dessert, I’ll cheat and buy a tray of heavenly pecan bars from the fine folks at Charleston Bread. For you chocolate lovers, I recommend the wonderful offerings at Holl's Chocolates at the shop on Bridge Road or at the Capitol Market.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Wine– and Beer — Suggestions for Valentines Day

EDITOR'S NOTE: We have even more 'spirited' advice for Valentine's Day over at Rich Ireland's "Beers To You" gazzblog.

LIQUID ASSETS: This week’s wine-buy recommendations

I know you’re just itching to get to the wine shop this weekend to spend a little hard-earned cash on some serious vinous elixir, so take a look at what I ‘m suggesting below.

2005 Melville Estate Pinot Noir ($30): Melville is a small producer in the Santa Rita Hills area in the cool, Pacific Ocean- influenced Santa Ynez Valley. You may recall this area from the movie “Sideways” or from your own personal experience with the delicious Pinot Noirs produced here. The bright red color of the ’05 Melville may mislead those expecting a lighter-styled version of Pinot Noir. However, once you put the Pinot Noir in your mouth, you realize this is a much more complex wine with layers of flavor. The nose is a combination of cinnamon spice with nuances of caramel and the flavors are of black cherries, spice and just a hint of earth. This wine begs for roasted pork tenderloin in a slightly sweet sauce made from dried cherries or cranberries.

Cakebread Chardonnay ($40): This Napa Valley Chardonnay is the essence of power and finesse in a grape that can sometimes be abused in the winemaking process by producers who err on the side of too much oak, alcohol and richness. The 2005 Cakebread is a very balanced wine with a yeasty, toasty aroma and bold, ripe apple flavors with just a hint of vanilla from new oak.over the next two years. This is a wine that would shine with a dish like chicken cordon bleu or Chilean Sea Bass pan sautéed in a little butter. I know something about the 2005 vintage, because I actually made 20 gallons of Chardonnay from a vineyard in the Carnerous region of southern Napa and Sonoma. While I would not dare compare my finished product with this world-class Chardonnay, my wine exhibits some of the same balance and finesse that is a characteristic of this excellent vintage.2005 Rock Rabbit Sauvignon Blanc ($11): This Central California Coastal wine has an herbal-grassy aroma very typical of Sauvignon Blanc grown and produced in California. In the mouth, the wine explodes with bright fruit notes of melon and citrus. Try this is an aperitif or with an oven roasted cod or other delicate white fish that is flavored with dill. Great value!

2004 Earthquake Zin ($28): This Lodi District appellation Zinfandel is produced from very low-yielding old vines. Right out of the bottle, the first thing that is apparent is a sweet new oak aroma masking just about everything else. Once the oak aromas blow off, the blackberry and dark fruit flavors are surprisingly soft and approachable. This is a serious mouthful of wine and at 15.9 percent alcohol this baby needs some serious food. I’d try this with roasted Italian sausage with sweet red peppers and onions over a marinara sauced -pasta dish.

Hearty Food and Wine: A Tasteful Alternative To Anti-Depressants

Let’s face it, not many of us venture outside when the ambient air temperature descends to single digits. This is an exceptionally bleak time of year when the only product selling more than adult beverages is anti-depressant medication. So what can you do to lift your spirits and alter your mood without a prescription?

How about this: create your own bacchanalian extravaganza this weekend. Just fire up the grill, put a pot of chili on the stovetop or put together a huge pan of lasagna or baked pasta with Italian sausage, peppers and a couple of pounds of mozzarella! Then wash it all down with your favorite beverage. I know , to some hop-heads it’s almost un-American to drink anything other than that foamy malted beverage with the menu suggestions above -- but I suggest you uncork a few bottles of wine instead.

The only time I plan on leaving the house this weekend will be to smoke a brisket of beef that I will have dry-rubbed first with copious amounts of crushed garlic, black peppercorns, ground cumin and kosher salt. I’ll then prepare a sweet and sour barbecue sauce or “mop” to pour over the sliced brisket before serving it with a baked macaroni and (four) cheese casserole that’s flavored with chopped chipotle peppers.

So what wine goes with such hearty fare? If you guessed full-flavored reds, you’re right, and in a moment, I’ll make a few recommendations. But how about trying a big ‘ole Alsatian Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer? That’s right, I’m talking white wine made from grapes grown along the Rhine River in eastern France.

Before you send the guys in the white jackets to my house, give me a chance to state my case. Go to your favorite wine shop/grocery store and look for Pierre Sparr or Trimbach – both widely available Alsatian producers that make exceptional Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer in the $15 to $20 a bottle range. What you’ll find is that both these wines are surprisingly full-bodied and rich. Pinot Gris will give you pear and melon flavors underlain with hints of minerals. It has a wonderfully long finish that just keeps on, keeping on.

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Charleston’s Culinary Journey: From Wasteland to (not quite) Nirvana

One of Peter Meyer’s disciples was Bill Sohovich, owner of Soho’s (above) and Blossom and a culinary pioneer in his own right. Photo by Walker DeVilleAs a native of Clarksburg, W.Va., I am genetically predisposed to seek out and find good food. It is in my DNA! So when I moved to Charleston a few decades ago, I was shocked to find that the Kanawha Valley was a culinary wasteland. Back then, there were only three fine dining establishments in Charleston. Catering to traveling salesmen on expense accounts, the “Heart of Town,” Ernie’s Esquire and “Top of the Inn” restaurants served up gigantic portions of prime rib washed down with barrels of beer and a mind-boggling assortment of “high balls.” Wine lists consisted of Lambrusco, Lancer’s Rose and Vito’s Thunder Mountain Chablis - and only artsy types or effete snobs ever dared order wine with their dinner.

Yes, there were a whole host of fast food and chain restaurants where most of the rest of us dined (on those once-a-week occasions when our meager budgets permitted a night out). But there were really no fine dining establishments, and hardly any ethnic food restaurants – except for a couple of Chinese places and Joe Fazio’s.Look, I’m really not a food or wine snob, but the restaurant choices were very limited back then. Okay, so Charleston is not quite culinary nirvana yet, but, in my humble opinion, we’ve come a long way, baby! The wine lists have evolved, too. Now, even the chain restaurants have decent lists while the finer dining establishments’ selections provide a variety of choices for the knowledgeable wine consumer.

Unlike the “Big Bang” theory of evolution, the Charleston culinary Renaissance did not just dramatically appear one day. In fact, I give most of the credit to a couple of local pioneers: Otis Laury and the late Peter Meyer. Otis Laury worked his culinary magic at his Laury’s Restaurant, featuring Continental cuisine, and Meyer led the food and beverage operations at the Charleston Marriott’s (now closed) Tarragon Room. Meyer, a classically trained chef and native of Switzerland, took that restaurant and wine list to a whole new level until his untimely death a few years back.

In the last decade or so, we’ve seen an influx of fine dining establishments whose owner-chefs combine quality ingredients, excellent culinary skills and aesthetic presentation, to deliver the kinds of dining experiences one could previously only expect in “the big city.”

One of Peter Meyer’s disciples is Bill Sohovich, owner of the Blossom and Soho’s restaurants and a culinary pioneer in his own right. Sohovich is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and has carried on the traditions of Peter Meyer into the new century. There are others who deserve credit too. Jeremy Stills, chef at Edgewood Country Club and also a graduate at the CIA, has worked with Sohovich over the years and has had a notable influence on the city’s culinary transition from ordinary to exceptional. Tom Grant, whose Wellington's Restaurant at Scarlett Oaks Country Club, still serves excellent cuisine was a local culinary pioneer, too.

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La Dolce Vino. Or how I survived “White Pheasant” and found a sweet wine worth drinking

The label for Michele Chiarlo 2005 Moscato D'Asti Nivole, available at the Capitol Market wine shop

I must admit to an inauspicious introduction to the ‘fruit of the vine.” It was during a time when automobiles had fins, Motown was in its prime and most wine came in large jugs with screw cap closures. Guys were always looking for an angle – if you know what I mean – and so I decided to demonstrate my sophistication to my date at the fraternity party by introducing her to the sensory aspects of a wine called “White Pheasant.”

This beverage, possibly made from grapes, but certainly infused with rocket fuel, was enclosed in a half-gallon green jug with a label featuring a picture of what looked like a demonic white condor. I’m pretty sure my date was impressed because she proceeded to slake her mighty thirst with countless cups of the Pheasant. On the way back to her dorm - in my father’s new Chevrolet- she proceeded to redecorate the interior of the car.

I know. You’re wondering where I’m going with this. Well, here’s my point: don’t be deterred by a negative first experience with wine! Many people look down their respective noses at sweet wine, proclaiming that only college co-eds or winos drink the stuff. This is either a reflection of their own personal experience (see above) or actual inexperience in pairing a delicious sweet wine with a lovely desert. If you are one of those sweet wine nay-sayers, try this combo below and let me know what you think.

There is an Italian dessert wine made from the delicate and delicious Muscat grape which has appealing apricot and melon flavors with just the slightest hint of effervescence. The wine is Michele Chiarlo 2005 Moscato D'Asti Nivole and comes in a half bottle. It retails for about $12 and is a wonderful accompaniment to chocolate-based desserts. “Nivole” means “clouds” in Italian, and its light and billowy texture perfectly describes this wine, which is produced in the Piedmont region of that wonderful nation of vines. You should be able to find it at wine shops in the area, and perhaps even in some grocery stores. I know it is available at the Capitol Market wine shop in Charleston. So forget about those preconceived notions (or bad first experiences) and give “La Dolce Vino” a chance.

Home, home on the range, Where the lamb and the zinfandel play

It's January. Cold, gray, dreary January! Things could get depressing were it not for my penchant to match ugly days with great food and wine. I'm actually thinking about Arizona and the Sonoran dessert. I'm getting inspired! Here it comes...I've got it: Grilled lamb over mesquite coals washed down with a bottle of Zinfandel so big and juicy it'll make your teeth itch! Okay, so I'm taking a few liberties with conventional Southwest cuisine by substituting lamb for beef, but I think you're going to like this.

Thinking of this dish reminds me of an old Johnny Cash song about cowboys and their feelings about shepherds and sheep. These lines say it all: "A sheep herder come once and put up a fence/ We seen him that time, but we ain't seen him since/ But if you're needin' mutton, we got mutton to sell/ 'cause we're cow-punchers and we're mean as hell."

Thatt line is from a mid-1960's album by Cash called "Ballads of the Old West." Goes great with grillin'. But I digress.

Anyway, here are the marching orders (note that marinade time!):
1. Begin with a six-pound boned and butterflied leg of lamb. Make sure you trim most of the fat from the leg and then rub it all over with coarse ground black pepper, finely chopped garlic and ground cumin.
2. Next, make a marinade of one-half cup of extra virgin olive oil, one-third cup of fresh lime juice, one tablespoon of ground cumin, two tablespoons of chili powder, one teaspoon of dried oregano, one teaspoon of salt and seven chopped garlic cloves.
3. Put all the ingredients into a food processor and process until smooth. Cover the meat with the mixture either in a bowl or a gallon freezer bag and allow it to marinate, from 12 hours to 24 hours. Most normal human beings would then place the lamb on a roasting pan and inject it into an oven heated to 375 degrees F, where it would roast for about 45 minutes to one hour. Me? I'm grilling that sucker over a hot charcoal fire onto which I will have liberally sprinkled water-soaked mesquite chips.
4. You want to baste the lamb with the leftover marinade and turn it at least once while grilling. Grilling should be completed in about 30 minutes. Slice the lamb and serve it over grits baked with jalepeno peppers and Monterey jack cheese. This dish will warm the cockles of even the blackest heart!
The absolute best wine for this meal is a big red Zinfandel. Uncork a Marietta Old Vines, Ravenswood, Ridge Lytton Springs or Renwood Old Vines. You might also try Red Truck or Marietta Old Vines Red which are Zinfandel blends.

DEFINING TERMS: (and ‘orgasmic’ is not one of them)

"The nose is quite developed, the tannins are still hard, but the fruit seems overripe and flabby, and the finish is a bit short."


While conducting a wine tasting recently, it was pointed out to me that I had begun to sound a little too 'winesy-cutsey. ' It was a polite reminder I was using wine jargon instead of English to explain attributes of the wine. While I deplore wine snobs and other bores, I must admit to falling into the occasional habit of using "winespeak" to describe the sensory aspects of wine. I guess it comes from reading a great deal from other wine writers or experts who liberally sprinkle around such terms as "tannin, acid, flabby, robust, " even "orgasmic" when describing their tasting experience.

Below, I have listed several terms regularly used in describing wine qualities (but not orgasmic). There are obviously many more, but we'll start with these:

Tannin(s) – A naturally-occurring chemical substance present in wine (particularly red wine) which can allow the wine to age. It manifests itself in the mouth as that sensation which makes you want to pucker.

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Moving Outside Your W.C.Z. (Wine Comfort Zone)

You're probably wondering about my qualifications to write this blog. So here's all I can say about my credentials – such as they are. After a trip to the California wine country in 1981, I was asked to write a wine column for the Charleston Daily Mail. I wrote that weekly column until 1989 and also did a wine commentary gig on West Virginia Public Radio during that same time period.

The commentary, which lasted only a few months and was produced by Mountain Stage's Andy Ridenour, was cancelled when one person wrote to say that Public Radio should not be advocating the use of alcoholic beverages. That was it – one person. Who says a single voice can't make a difference?

Since 1989, I have written a monthly wine column for a weekly West Virginia business publication. I've also conducted hundreds of wine tastings, MC'd countless wine dinners and have traveled fairly extensively to some of the world's most famous wine regions. But before you get too overly impressed with my wine-stained resume, keep in mind that I am also a home wine maker. In other words, I have a great tolerance for mediocre wine. I actually think my wine, which I've been making from California grapes since 1977, is pretty good. If that's not enough to make you stop reading right now, you must really be desperate for wine information.

Okay, so here's what we're going to do: I'm going to write about wine and sometimes food, and hope that you will occasionally respond with your own feelings about the information I impart. Let me say up front that I don't expect you to like every wine I recommend. Wouldn't that be boring?

However, I do taste a pretty substantial number of wines in the course of a year. And I'll bet (unless you're as wine-obsessed as I am) that I might get you to try something other than what you drink regularly. I might even be able to get you to move outside your wine-comfort zone. If so, then I will have succeeded.

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INTRODUCING: Wine and Dine

Welcome to 'Wine and Dine,' a new Charleston Gazette blog about wine selection and advice, along with tips on pairing wine with food. John Brown is a seasoned wine columnist, whose writing on wine will also be seen in the Sunday Gazette-Mail on a regular basis. Also, we will be rolling out some wine tips on video and taking some multimedia journeys in search of the best places to enjoy wine in the West Virginia region. We welcome your feedback on this new blog, either in the 'Comment' section below each post or by sending your comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Douglas Imbrogno | editor