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

Spicy Salmon Burger with Chili Lime Aioli

My mother was a very good cook, but the canned salmon patties she attempted to transform into something palatable were only marginally more appetizing than sautéed calf’s liver.

I’m sure there aren’t many of you who have been forced to experience the unique flavors of canned salmon. But if you grew up a few decades ago when there was little or no access to fresh seafood, your mom – like mine- would have added some type of canned fish product to the weekly family dinner menu.

That’s because doctors back then told parents that kids needed the vitamins, minerals and nutrients provided by seafood. So moms living in West Virginia, Iowa or other land locked places had little choice except to buy canned seafood products. The other option was to force-feed their kids daily spoonfuls of cod liver oil- a childhood experience only slightly less traumatic than an enema.


 
And while canned seafood products like salmon, tuna, and sardines are still available, we now have regular access to fresh seafood. So today, in honor of all those moms’ determined, but futile attempts, to create something edible from canned seafood, I am going to share a spicy salmon burger and chili lime aioli recipe with you. I think you’ll find that it is delicious, and made even more so with the wines I’m recommending.

While I prefer to grill the burgers, they can also be pan sautéed or baked for a short time in the oven. But the first step is to find fresh seafood from a shop or grocery store that has regular deliveries of this very fragile product. My go-to seafood monger here in the capitol city is Joe’s Fish Market on the corner of Brooks and Quarrier Streets (304-342-7827).

For the perfect roll to envelope this Spicy Salmon Burger, you might find suitable products at the grocery store, but I suggest calling ahead and ordering the delicious and fresh Brioche Buns from Charleston Bread at 601 Capitol St. (304-720-3022).

One of the attributes of the Spicy Salmon Burger is that the flavor components pair equally well with both white and red wine. You might try one or both of these wines.

2015 Chateau De Fontenille ($11)- From Bordeaux, this steely, yet rich white is a complex blend of sauvignon blanc, semillon, sauvignon gris and muscadelle. It marries nicely with the herbal nuances of the burger, and provides a refreshing counter to the spiciness of the dish.

2013 Chehalem Three Points Pinot Noir ($35) – From the Willamette Valley of Oregon, this wine has a mouthful of black cherries, spice and tea flavors. Rich, yet still perfectly balanced with a nice acid zing, it is very copacetic with the Spicy Salmon Burger.

Spicy Salmon Burger with Chili Lime Aioli
Ingredients:

One pound skinless salmon filet

Two tablespoons of chopped fresh cilantro

One egg

Two tablespoon of fresh lime juice

One-half jalapeno diced

Three teaspoons of diced onions

One teaspoon each of kosher salt, diced garlic, black pepper, cumin and chili powder

Two tablespoons of Panko or bread crumbs

One tablespoon of chopped chipotle in adobo sauce (optional)

Chili Lime Aioli
One-third cup mayonnaise or Miracle Whip

One tablespoon lime juice

One-half teaspoon of minced fresh garlic, smoked paprika, salt and black pepper

One-half teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper (optional) and chili powder

How To:

Combine all ingredients for the Aioli in a bowl, mix and refrigerate

Cut salmon into half-inch squares

Pulse in a food processor until salmon has the consistency of hamburger

Place salmon in a bowl and add the remaining ingredients

Mix ingredients and form into salmon burgers

Grill on a medium hot grill three minutes a side until firm

Place in a bun and add the chili lime aioli

Pour yourself a glass of wine and enjoy!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Wines for summer foods

Memorial Day is coming! Are you ready to get your picnic on? I am and today we’ll examine some vinous liquids that will enhance and elevate simple, but all-American, picnic and leisure time foods. So put out the porch furniture and crank up the grill because it’s (almost) summertime- and the livin’ is easy.

First of all, let me destroy the myth that warmer weather requires light, white wines that are cool and refreshing to pair with the chicken, seafood, salads and veggies we tend to consume more of in the summer. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with tasty, light white wines, but you don’t need to stop there. Trust me, you really can enjoy fuller bodied wines in the summertime – even big reds.

As usual, the food you’re cooking should determine what you’re drinking. But let’s start with lighter style whites and roses that fit the casual feel of outdoor cooking, and also pair really well with grilled foods. These lighter-style wines benefit from a little chilling, particularly the reds, which will provide a refreshing counterpoint to the sometimes spicy entrees being prepared.


You might choose a crisp, herbal or citrusy sauvignon blanc with foods such as dill poached salmon, grilled broccoli, roasted chicken seasoned with rosemary and olive or basil and pine nut pesto pasta. Here are some of my favorite sauvignon blancs to try with the above-mentioned foods: Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc and Brancott Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand; Ferrari -Carano Fume Blanc, Groth Sauvignon Blanc, St. Suppery Sauvignon Blanc and Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc from California; and Robert Oatley Sauvignon Blanc from Australia.

Rose’s are just made for warmer weather and the beauty of these wines is their versatility in either being an aperitif or a match to your picnic foods. I especially like the drier versions that are especially excellent accompaniments to grilled foods, particularly sausages. Whether you prefer Italian, Polish, Bratwurst or some other pork-encased tube steak, rose’ is a great choice.

Here are some roses’, which again I recommend serving chilled, you may wish to try: Las Rocas Rose’ (Spain); Grange Philippe “Gipsy” Rose’ (France); Reginato Sparkling Rose’ of Malbec (Argentina); Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rose’ (South Africa); Elizabeth Spencer Rose’ of Grenache (California).

Summertime gets me in a serious mood to fire up the old Weber and start grilling various hunks of meat that require medium to full bodied red wine. Whether you choose to grill hamburgers, rack of lamb, a rib-eye steak or a pork baby-backs, reds are my go-to wines.

Give one of these bottlings a sip: Easton Amador County Zinfandel, Villa Antinori Toscano Rosso (Italy); Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir (Oregon); Zaccagnini Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (Italy); Bodegas Muga Crianza Rioja (Spain); Field Stone Convivio Red (California); Domaine De La Janasse Cotes Du Rhone Villages (France); Mercer Merlot (Washington State); David Bruce Pinot Noir (California) and Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel (California).

So whether you’re grilling rib-eyes or tube steak, there is always a wine (or several) for every food, and that makes summertime so much fun.

Merlot: bad rap, but good rep!

I know that I am among many wine lovers on this planet who was initially outraged to hear the lead character in the movie, “Sideways, ” brutally disparage merlot. And I think it is more than just a coincidence that merlot sales have hit the skids in the decade since the movie first appeared in 2006.

But soon after Miles uttered that epithet-laced opinion, I began to recalibrate my feelings about his critical remarks. In fact, I guess you could say that I am actually happy that gullible movie-goers/wine lovers actually believed (or suspended disbelief) Miles’ pronouncements about merlot.


In any event, prices have dropped fairly significantly and, if you are a merlot fan, I suppose you should thank the movie for providing us with an exceptional buying opportunity. Actually, it’s ironic that merlot would face the screenwriter’s wrath since there are certainly more deserving varietals such as pinotage or retsina to avoid. After all, the most expensive and sought after wine on earth is Chateau Petrus which is comprised entirely of merlot.

So let me say for the record that I am a merlot fan. I’m also a pinot noir fan – which the movie praises to high heaven. But today we’re talking merlot, and I want to tell you about some new wines that have arrived in our state featuring this much maligned grape.

I have always been a fan of merlot grown in moderate climates where the finished product can exhibit both strength and finesse. Merlot is a prolific vine and given too much sun, water or heat, the resulting wine can be flabby, alcoholic, watery and out of balance. This was the style of merlot that Miles was savaging in the movie. But that’s not what I will be describing for you today.

Field Stone Winery & Vineyard in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County produces some exceptional merlot as well as other excellent red varietals too. Field Stone is small and family-owned, producing about 9000 cases of wine a year. This is one of the wineries that legendary wine maker Andre Tchelistcheff consulted for in years past. Field Stone also features one of the first underground wineries in California.

I tasted through some of their wines a couple of weeks ago and below are a few you might consider trying, especially with fuller bodied foods like grilled beef and pork as well as pasta dishes such as Cacio e Pepe (black pepper pasta) that I featured in a recent column. The wines are available at the Wine Shop in Capitol Market.

2013 Field Stone Convivio Red ($13) – Comprised of 74% merlot, 19% sangiovese and the rest a combination of malbec and cabernet sauvignon, this value blend is round, rich and full-bodied. In addition, you can sip and feel good about it since a portion of the proceeds from this wine is earmarked for Clinica Alianza - a non- profit medical center serving farm workers and their families among others in northern California.

2013 Field Stone Merlot Alexander Valley ($18) – Deep and full flavors of black cherries and spice are rounded out with light touches of toasty oak. This is a well-balanced merlot that will benefit from aeration in a decanter to soften up the fine tannins and allow the lovely aromas and flavors to express themselves.

2013 Field Stone Staten Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) – This one is a keeper. Deep and rich with extracted dark plum and blackberry notes, the wine was aged 21 months in French oak. Despite its concentrated and full-bodied characteristics, it is is exceptionally well-balanced and will improve with several years in bottle.

You might also try the winery’s 2013 Petite Sirah ($40) and the 2013 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($20). Both wines are exceptionally well made and demonstrate the consistency and quality of the entire Field Stone line.

Ramping up for Springtime

Ramps! Like snails, buttermilk or sweet breads, you either covet these “acquired tastes” or detest the very thought of them. I know people that would rather experience water boarding than consume ramps. Me? I love these little lilies, but I think I’m genetically predisposed to do so.

Let me explain.

My paternal grandparents hailed from Richwood, a small mountain village on the shores of the Cherry River. In the days before air-conditioning, I spent many happy summer days there, escaping the heat and humidity of my Harrison County hometown.

The legendary stories about Richwood and ramps are many, outrageous and sometimes true. The late Jim Comstock, publisher of the now defunct West Virginia Hillbilly newspaper, chronicled many of these tales in his publication. Here is a story that proves the old saying: “truth is stranger than fiction.” In this instance, Comstock became the lead character in a story that made nationwide headlines.

[caption id="attachment_1337" align="alignleft" width="275"] A Spring Harvest of Ramps


A few decades back, Jim Comstock literally created a national stink when he added ramps to the printers ink for one edition of his newspaper. The Hillbilly had subscribers all over the country and even in foreign lands. The US Postal service was not amused and Comstock almost went to jail, but it sure did put his town and ramps on the map.

I cannot ever remember my grandmother cooking me up a mess of ramps during my idyllic summertime visits to Richwood, and it wasn’t until years later that I tasted them for the first time. But when I did, I was hooked after that first bite. That was years ago when I was home on leave from the Army, and about to be deployed overseas.

It happened late one evening when my next door neighbor brought over a six-pack (or so) of beer and a bundle of ramps. He suggested the best way to enjoy the little buggers was to sprinkle them with salt and eat them raw. Love at first bite? You bet. So we ate the entire bunch of ramps, chasing them down with several brews until the wee hours of the morning.

Well, I awoke that next day shivering. It seems my mother had opened every window and door in the house in a vain attempt to rid the abode of a foul odor permeating the place. I looked out the window and there was mom with a large container of Lysol spraying the stuff into the house from the outside. To put it mildly: there are better, far less offensive, ways to consume ramps- and without violating the EPA’s clean air act.

We are now in the midst of ramp season and many towns in the state, particularly in the mountains, are holding ramp feeds. However, I am not a fan of the traditional manner in which they are prepared. Most cooks fry them in lard or bacon grease and then add them to potatoes or (worse) pinto beans. This can cause folks to leave the events belching and flatulent while vowing never to get within a country mile of a ramp.

I prefer to sauté them in olive or canola oil and then add them to just about any vegetable dish from asparagus to potatoes to zucchini. There are also excellent grilled to accompany steak and can be added to scrambled eggs. I have also made them the key component of a pasta dish in which they are tossed with pancetta, asparagus and parmesan cheese in a white wine and olive oil sauce.

Sauvignon blanc is my favorite wine to accompany just about any ramp dish. I suggest pairing the above pasta recipe with the 2014 William Hill Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($17) or the 2014 Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc ($30).

So give ramps a try, but not at a one of the ubiquitous feeds where their flavor is obscured in pinto beans or fried potatoes. Simply sauté them in small amount of oil and add them to your vegetable dishes or pasta. Like onions and garlic, ramps are much less pungent when cooked and really do enhance the flavor of just about any dish.

Pasta inspiration from Paterno's at the Park

There’s a lot to like about Paterno’s At the Park, one of Charleston’s best restaurants, and one with a very extensive and exceptional wine list. I’m fortunate to live within walking distance of this special eatery because I’m usually in need of a postprandial stroll after I dine there.

I visited Paterno’s the other evening and I chose the Sausage and Pea Rigatoni offering which combines Italian sausage with peas and shallots tossed in a parmesan cream sauce. Rich and decadent, this was culinary perfection, particularly since I paired the pasta with a crisp and fruit-forward white - the 2014 Scaia Garganega/Chardonnay. This delicate, but flavorful blended wine from Italy’s Veneto region provided a nice balance and contrast to the richness of the pasta.


The Scaia is featured on a separate wine list at Paterno’s which has about 30 red and white Italian wines all priced at $20 a bottle. This value list is  designed to encourage guests to experiment with food and wine pairings and at a very enticing and consumer friendly price. And if you don’t finish the whole bottle, Paterno’s can legally bag up any wine leftovers for you to take home.

In addition to this special value list, Paterno’s features a more comprehensive wine list that hits all the right vinous notes. For the veal and beef courses at the restaurant, try the 2008 Travaglini Gattinara. This is owner Andy Paterno’s favorite wine and it is a medium to full bodied red from the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Like its Barolo and Barbaresco neighbors, Gattinara is made from the nebbiolo grape and the Travaglini is rich, rustic and full of black cherry and cola flavors.

After dinner there the other evening, I came away inspired to create a special pasta dish for our regular Sunday family dinner. But instead of trying to recreate Paterno’s sausage and pea rigatoni recipe, I chose to prepare a peasant pasta dish which is a Roman staple: Cacio e Pepe (pronounced Catch -oh –ay- pay- pay) or Black Pepper pasta. And to give the recipe a little color, more heat and a personal touch, I added green peas and red pepper flakes. This is a simple, delicious dish that you can make in about 30 minutes. Here’s the recipe.

Ingredients:
One pound of Fettuccine or Bucatini pasta
One cup each grated Pecorino Romano and parmesan (blended together)
Three tablespoons of freshly ground black pepper
One cup of frozen peas
One teaspoon of red pepper flakes (optional)
Three tablespoons of butter
Four ounces of extra virgin olive oil
One cup of reserved pasta water

How To:
Boil one pound of pasta until al dente
Reserve one cup of pasta water
Drain the pasta in a colander
Place butter and half the olive oil in a large skillet and allow butter to melt
Add two tablespoons of black pepper, the peas and pepper flakes
Pour one half of the water into the skillet and stir in half the cheese
Put the pasta in the skillet and toss until mixture is integrated
Add the remaining water, cheese, black pepper and olive oil and toss
Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary and serve immediately

The beauty of this recipe is that it can accommodate either red or white wine. So give it a try and consider uncorking one of these wines: the 2011 Bertani Ripasso ($25), a medium-bodied red from the Valpolicella region of Italy; or a rich and round white like the 2013 Calera Central Coast Chardonnay ($30). Buon Appetito!

How to become a Rhone Ranger

With the exception of Chateauneuf du Pape, most of us are unfamiliar with wines from the southern Rhone region of France. That’s a shame because there are so many delicious, value-oriented bottlings readily available to us from this very special wine appellation.

With about the same texture and intensity as Chianti Classico, southern Rhone reds are very versatile wines that are also quite food compatible. Listen up, you're about to become a Rhone Ranger!

There are 13 grapes that can be used to make red Chateauneuf Du Pape and other wines of the region, but most wineries blend a combination of just three: the ubiquitous grenache; the more famous syrah; and just a touch of mourvedre. This blend produces flavorful, medium to full-bodied wines.

Chateauneuf Du Pape (priced anywhere from about $40 to more than $100 a bottle) can produce truly exceptional wines, particularly from producers such as Beaucastel, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine du Pegaü, Rayas, Paul Autard, Vieux Télégraphe and Clos des Papes. But these same producers and many others also make excellent value wines known by the village names around which they are produced or from the larger region known as Cotes du Rhone.

[caption id="attachment_1318" align="alignleft" width="235"] Gigondas, Chateauneuf Du Pape & Cotes Du Rhone Villages


Remarkably, there have been a series of exceptional to superlative vintages in the Southern Rhone region over the past 15 years. With the exception of 2002, when many vineyards were inundated by torrential rain and flooding, every vintage that has been released since 1998 has averaged a rating of more than 90 points (on a 100 point scale). And, while there are some good white wines made in the southern Rhone, the major emphasis is on red. Here is some information on the various appellations in the region.

Cotes Du Rhone can be made from grapes grown anywhere in the broader Rhone region and is generally a medium-bodied wine with appealing peppery, spicy and dark cherry flavors. Rated just a little higher in quality, Cotes Du Rhone Villages is produced from grapes within the lager Cotes Du Rhone area.

Both Cotes Du Rhone and Villages are typically priced from $12 to $20 a bottle. One of my favorite wines from Cotes Du Rhone is 2012 Jaboulet Parallele 45. Try it with pizza, chili or an Italian sausage and pepper sandwich.

After Chateauneuf Du Pape, the most notable wine areas in the southern Rhone are around the villages of Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Cotes du Luberon. These wines are labeled by the producer or winery and then the village (i.e., La Vieille Ferme, Cotes du Luberon).

The wines around Gigondas are often mistaken for Chateauneuf Du Pape because of their dark fruit flavors, black pepper aromas and intensity.
When young, bottles of Gigondas can be a little rough around the edges. But these wines are significantly less expensive (priced between $20 and $40) than their more famous neighbor, and they are a great accompaniment to roasted and seasoned meats.

Vacqueyras (pronounced vack-er-as) is a little village right next door to Gigondas, yet the wines seem to be fuller and richer with an earthy character. One of my favorites is 2012 Domaine la Garrigue "La Cantarelle" Vacqueyras ($25). Try it with roasted leg of lamb. Most Vacqueyras wines are priced between $12 and $25 a bottle.

Cotes du Luberon wines are made mostly with grenache. Soft, round and flavorful, you should be able to buy them for around $10 -$20 a bottle. I recently matched a Cotes du Luberon – the aforementioned La Vieille Ferme - with beef stew and it was yummy.

So the next time you’re looking for an alternative to zinfandel, shiraz or some other juicy red, saddle up, channel your inner Rhone Ranger and choose a wine from the southern Rhone. You won’t be disappointed.

A tasteful exercise: getting the most out of wine

A friend of mine approached me the other day with a kind of sheepish look on his weathered brow and asked: “I want to learn how to like wine. I’ve tried it several times and I just don’t like it. Is there some way to learn to like the stuff?”

I must admit I was momentarily flummoxed. Why would anyone want to learn to like something that they have tried and don’t like? I’ve always preached that wine appreciation is a very subjective undertaking, and that you should drink whatever type of wine you choose.

And if you don’t like wine, try something else. There are plenty of options out there. However, it may be that people who claim -like my friend –to have repeatedly tried and failed to enjoy wine, just need to approach the whole wine appreciation process differently.

Let me explain. I asked a few probing questions of my friend and concluded that his problem was mainly related to how and where he tasted wine. He explained that his negative experiences almost always occurred at cocktail parties or bars, and the wine offered or ordered was usually a full-bodied red such as cabernet sauvignon. He also said the wine was almost always tasted without food

Hey, I am an avowed wineaux, but I will not drink any red wine without at least some kind of food. Give me a piece of bread, a hunk of cheese, or some type of fare that has at least a modicum of texture and substance. Drinking red wine without food is like taking a bite of an unripe pear – it’s hard, sour and makes you pucker.

[caption id="attachment_1311" align="alignleft" width="219"] Food and Wine Synergy


Further, someone new to wine appreciation should never begin the process by starting with red wine. You should always begin with a light, white, slightly sweet wine such as riesling or chenin blanc. You can accompany these lighter wines with a cracker, some cheese or even a piece of fruit. It’s a good way to introduce yourself to the pleasures of pairing food with wine.

The next step is to graduate to a fuller flavored white wine such as chardonnay and pair it either with a vegetable, chicken or fish dish. At this point, you should be enjoying the white wine experience so it’s time to move up to reds.

Beginning red wine drinkers should always start with light to medium-bodied wines such as pinot noir which is compatible with a variety of foods. Try it with pork tenderloin, grilled salmon or roasted chicken.

Once you’re comfortable with lighter style reds, you’re ready to transition to fuller bodied ones such as zinfandel, syrah, merlot or cabernet sauvignon. However, make sure you accompany these biggies with full-flavored, garlicky or spicy foods such as steak, pasta, stews, chili or some other substantial food.

At this point, I have to assume you’ve discovered the pleasures of wine. So, now that you are an official wineaux, here are some general suggestions for wine and food pairings.

To be successful in finding that perfect match, you need to consider flavor, texture and weight of the food and wine pairing. Lighter-bodied foods go best with lighter style wines while heavier flavored foods are best paired with fuller-flavored wines. Makes sense, right?

For instance, a poached white fish would go best with a lighter styled white wine such as a pinot grigio, white Bordeaux or Albarino from Spain. Conversely, it would take a robust red wine such as cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel to stand up to and enhance the flavors of a well-marbled strip steak.

The addition of sauces or spices to a dish can add a flavor dimension that can also affect the wine you select. For example, sauvignon blanc is an excellent choice with poached salmon in a dill sauce, but grilled salmon that has been dusted with cumin, black pepper and chili powder needs a medium-bodied red such as pinot noir.

So it really is quite simple: to get the most out of that special bottle of wine, pair it with a compatible food partner to discover the real meaning of synergy!

Need a night out? two options for good food and wine

Okay, let’s face it. The holidays are in the rear view mirror, the Christmas tree is on the curb and a cold, gray winter is just starting to chill our weary bones. My advice? You need an attitude adjustment and the best way to do that is to treat yourself to some good food and wine.

If you’re a regular reader of these scratchings, you know I will never just give you my impression of a particular wine without mentioning a food that is enhanced by it. Finding a compatible food and wine combination makes the whole dining experience so much more pleasurable.

And while we all love to cook, I suspect that the folks in your household need a break from the kitchen. After a month of chopping, boiling, sautéing, roasting, grilling and cleaning up after a herd of hungry and thirsty holiday celebrants, don’t you think we all deserve a night out?

Well, I do, and so I’m going to share with you today two of my favorite meals and accompanying wines from a couple of excellent local restaurants. We are blessed in this small, but beautiful valley, with several fine dining establishments that deserve your patronage. In future columns, I will tell you about other special culinary experiences I’ve had in and around our community.

Let’s begin with South Hills Market and Café. Chef Richard Arbaugh and wife Anne have done an exceptional job at this small restaurant with an inventive and eclectic menu which also has a Wine Spectator award wining wine list. Here is a three-course menu that I have enjoyed there on a few occasions.

[caption id="attachment_1304" align="alignleft" width="192"] Strip steak with Bordelaise sauce at So. Hills Market


I start with the Roasted Bone Marrow with gherkins, pickled onions, whole grain mustard, and grilled crostini. I love the huge (about eight inch long) caveman-like bone in which the marrow is served. Next, I opt for the Artisan greens with cucumbers, pickled onions, tomatoes and asiago cheese.

And for the main course (especially for you red meat lovers), I recommend the 12-ounce New York Strip Steak with Bordelaise sauce. Make the meal even more special by ordering a glass or a bottle of the Grochau Cellars Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. This medium-bodied wine from Oregon is full of black cherry flavors that can stand up to the meat, and also marry well with the Bordelaise sauce.

Bricks and Barrels across from Appalachian Power Park is not yet a year old, but the upscale restaurant has weathered the slings and arrows of many passionate and discerning local diners. Owners Matt and Nikki Holbert have hung in there and, in the past few months, have made several positive changes, not the least of which is hiring a new chef with excellent credentials.

The improvement in both the quality and consistency of the menu at Bricks and Barrels has been a pleasant surprise. I have always been pleased with the nicely conceived wine list, the classy bar and (don't tell Rich Ireland)  the extensive selection of West Virginia craft brews.

Here’s a three-course menu at Bricks and Barrels that is worth giving a try. I have always enjoyed Crab Louie Napoleon, but the version at this restaurant is about the best I’ve ever eaten. Baby Bibb lettuce is stacked with layers of jumbo lump crab, a slice of tomato, asparagus, hard-boiled egg and avocado. Yum!

Next, I suggest The Beet and Goat cheese salad which is a delicious combination of roasted beets on a bed of summer greens with warm walnuts all tossed in Italian dressing. For the main course I suggest the melt-in-your-mouth filet of butter-basted salmon served with sweet potato puree, deep-fried Brussel sprouts and parmesan risotto.

To accompany the meal, I chose a glass of Ladera Chardonnay, a Napa Valley wine that has medium intensity, flavors of ripe honey crisp apples and a light kiss of oak that marries especially well with the butter basted salmon. Bravo!

Holiday Wines: 'Tis better to give AND receive

It’s that time of year again! You know what I’m talking about: Rudolph with his nose so bright; Folks dressed up like Eskimos; and Jack Frost nipping (hopefully a sip or two of vino). Yes siree, I’m ready and raring to get my Yuletide on.

So, in the spirit of the Season, I’m going to provide you with some red and white wine recommendations for your holiday gift giving because I believe in the old saying: “Tis better to give than receive. ” This is even better if the giver and receiver is you (or if the recipient is someone who is willing to share).

And depending on your budget, the sky is truly the limit when it comes to finding a wine to give that special person. Shopping for wine any time is a labor of love, but during the holidays it is a lot more fun because wine shop shelves are chock full of a wide and varied selection of vinous products.

The great thing about the holidays – especially Christmas – is that we also have a perfect opportunity to choose wines that pair well with the cornucopia of special foods we’ll be eating. Following that theme, I have selected for your consideration a list of wines below that would make great gifts, and also be excellent accompaniments to some of the more traditional holiday foods we will be enjoying over the next few weeks. So here we go.

[caption id="attachment_1296" align="alignleft" width="207"] Great Holiday Gifts!


For the celebratory sparkling wine aperitif: Taittinger Comptes De Champagne Rose; Nicholas Feuillatte “Blue Label” Brut Champagne; Mumm Napa Cuvee (sparkling); Paul Bara Brut Champagne; Segura Viudas Reserva Cava; Veuve Cliquot Brut Champagne; Roderer Estate Anderson Valley Sparkling Wine; Krug Grande Cuvee Brut; Perrier Jouet Grand Brut; Iron Horse Russian Cuvee (sparkling).

For the traditional Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, you might search out these lovely bottles: Tenuta Sant’ Antonio Scaia Garganega; d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Marsanne-Viognier Blend; St, Supery Sauvignon Blanc; Falcor Chardonnay; Castello Banfi Principessa Gavi; Montinore Estate Riesling; L’Ecole 41 Semillon; Cakebread Chardonnay; Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay; and Talley Arroyo Grande Vineyard Chardonnay.

For Christmas Ham or Turkey: Newton Claret; Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir; Banfi Brunello Di Montalcino; Marques de Caceras Rioja Reserva; Chapoutier Bila-Haut Cotes Du Roussillon; Ferraton Tavel Rose’; Easton Amador County Zinfandel; Raptor Ridge Atticus Vineyard Pinot Noir; and Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti.

For the traditional Prime Rib Roast: Chateau Lynch Bages; Joseph Phelps Insignia; Falcor Le Bijou; Chateau La Dominique; Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve; Chateau Brainaire Ducru; Merryvale Profile; Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon; Chateau Cos d’Estournel; Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon; Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon; Leoville Las Cases; Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; Antinori Tignanello; and Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon;

Have a great holiday season, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Talking Turkey : a fowl (or foul) affair ?

It’s that time of year again when all talk turns to turkey. However, I must admit I have mixed feelings about the “national bird.” In my decades long association with Thanksgiving, I have both feasted on spectacular fowl, and, on occasion, have been subjected to very foul experiences.

On the one hand, Thanksgiving is a holiday of which I have very fond sensory memories, particularly of being awakened on that special morning by the delicious redolence of a butter basted turkey roasting in the oven. My mom was artfully adept at marrying the classic all-American recipe for roasted turkey with a nod to her ethnic heritage by creating a bread dressing that featured chestnuts and spicy Italian sausage.

That she was able to bridge this culinary and cultural gulf and please both ardent WASPs as well as charter members of the Son’s of Italy was probably influenced by her desire to please my father – a gentle wood tick from the mountains of West Virginia who, before he met my mother, thought black pepper was an exotic spice.

And to be fair, some of my negative experiences involved positives. Do I speak with forked tongue? Well, not really, because sometimes the turkey would be cooked to perfection and the dressing would be inedible – or vice versa. But why can’t everyone get it right – like my mother.

Well, let’s be honest. Thanksgiving dinner is a complex undertaking (eat too much and you’ll end up in the undertaker’s complex – couldn’t resist this). Anyway, when you consider the degree of culinary minutia involved, it is understandable that something might go wrong.

[caption id="attachment_1002" align="alignleft" width="300"] Paired with Domaine Serene Pinot Noir


Preparing and properly cooking a large turkey over a period of several hours can be a daunting experience. And when folks choose to try brining or marinating and then grilling or smoking the bird, chances that something bad will happen increase dramatically. Add to that the plethora of choices for dressing along with traditional side dishes and then pumpkin pie for dessert, and about the only thing you can truly count on being good is the wine.

Which brings me to the point of all of this angst over Thanksgiving Dinner: simplify your chores by preparing as many of the courses as possible ahead of time, and then stock up on both white and red wine. That way you will guarantee you’ll have a tasty vinous treat that is bound to match one or more of the items on the Thanksgiving menu.

This is possible because turkey has a variety of flavors, colors and textures that can match just about any wine. Add to this, the manner in which the turkey is prepared (i.e., roasted, smoked, grilled or fried) and of the type of stuffing used, and you have a complex set of flavor components that make matching wine with the meal both easy and fun. Indeed, we should give thanks for this rare opportunity to sample several different wines with the same holiday meal. So here are a few wine recommendations to match your Thanksgiving turkey and associated dishes.

The traditional oven-roasted turkey with sage-flavored dressing does wonderfully well with sauvignon blanc (St. Supery or Ladera), Alsatian riesling (Trimbach or Pierre Sparr) and gewürztraminer (Chateau St. Jean or Navarro). Red wines such as pinot noir (Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee or Freestone Sonoma Coast), Meritages (Falcor Le Bijou or Mercer Canyons Red Blend) and Rhone wines (Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape or Kermit Lynch Cotes du Rhone) will also marry well with oven roasted turkey.

[caption id="attachment_1205" align="alignleft" width="160"] Or Ridge Lytton Springs


For smoked or grilled turkey with spicy dressing, I prefer fuller bodied red wines. Try Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, Carparzo Brunello di Montalcino or Alto Moncayo Garnacha from Spain. You might also try an intensely flavored chardonnay such as Beringer Private Reserve, Mer Soleil Reserve or Cakebread.

And for dessert, I’m going to suggest a few festive sparkling wines that will pair quite nicely with that pumpkin pie and whipped cream. Try one of these invigorating sparklers: Paul Bara Champagne, Segura Viudas Brut Cava or Domaine Carneros Brut Rose.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Rites of Fall: football,wine and roasted red peppers!

I love this time of year. Football season is in full swing, the leaves are painting the mountains with blazing colors and I’m in the process of turning purple grapes into about 70 gallons of home made wine. And just last weekend, I completed the final rite of fall by roasting, peeling and bagging one of the most delightful treats imaginable.

Every autumn for the last three decades, I have waited anxiously with bated anticipation for locally grown green bell peppers to turn large and red. Some years, because of too much heat or too much rain, the harvest can be less than bountiful and replete with small, gnarled red peppers. But even mal-formed, diminutive peppers can be transformed into the delicious Italian antipasto treat my mother lovingly made and passed on to me so many years ago.

This year was- and still is -(at least for the next week or so) a banner year for red peppers of a size and shape that make the sometimes long and arduous task of processing them a lot easier. You can check out the recipe below for the routine detail, but mere words cannot describe the agony (sometimes) and ecstasy (always) associated with turning these red lovelies into edible bliss!


Let me explain.

The agony is related to working with small peppers which can take two or three times as long to process as larger ones. But even this extra work is validated when you pull a baggie full of sweet red peppers out of the freezer in January, and experience a little taste of summer in the dead of winter.

And while you can get sweet red peppers all year round at just about any super market, I eagerly await the ones I can procure locally. You may have noticed how expensive red or yellow bell peppers can be when purchased at grocery stores (sometimes as much as $2 a piece). I love to support our own Capitol Market where you can comparison shop among the many vendors and select just the right peppers at a very a reasonable price.

I prefer to work with at least a bushel of peppers at a time,  however, you may wish to start with a more modest number for your first effort. As a matter of fact, you can experiment with roasting just one or two on your stovetop and then follow the steps below.


You can serve the peppers with small slices of crusty bread or even crackers, but you will need a medium to full- bodied red wine to make the perfect food and wine marriage. I suggest pairing the peppers with any of the following three wines:  2010 Antinori Peppoli Chianti Classico ($26);  2012 Easton Amador County Zinfandel ($18);  or 2013 Bila-Haut Cotes Du Roussillon Villages ($14). The Bila-Haut is a terrific bargain for a wine rated 91 points by Robert Parker.

What you will need:
Red bell peppers (as many as you wish)
Several fresh basil leaves
Quart size sealable plastic freezer bags
Grill, oven or stovetop
Large grocery paper bags
Dinner plates (such as Fiesta ware, etc.)
A colander with a bowl underneath, a small knife, a large cutting board, a large bowl
One garlic clove, salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil and Balsamic vinegar

How To:
Wash the peppers under cold water and dry
Place on a grill, in the oven or on the stovetop on high heat
Turn the peppers often to expose all surfaces to the heat until the skins are scorched
Place dinner plates in the bottom of the paper bags
Stack the peppers (about five or six) onto the plates and then close bags tightly
Allow the peppers to steam in the bags for at least one hour
Remove them from the bag and place over the colander with the bowl underneath
Cut the peppers from top to bottom and catch the pepper juice in the bowl
Peel the skins from the peppers and cut them into large pieces (about three per pepper)
Fill bags ¾ full, add a couple of pieces of basil, seal and place in the freezer or use
Freeze the accumulated pepper juice for use in sauces

[caption id="attachment_1280" align="alignleft" width="300"] Ready to eat or freeze


Final Preparation:
Thaw the peppers and cut them into small strips
Place them in a small bowl
Chop one clove of garlic finely and add to the bowl
Add one teaspoon each of extra virgin olive oil and Balsamic vinegar
Put salt and pepper to taste and stir all ingredients
Allow the mixture to sit for one hour and serve the peppers on bread or crackers

Beam me up, Bacchus!

One of the most fascinating aspects of  wine tasting is the way you can almost be instantaneously transported from one part of this planet to another by simply sipping a few different wines.

Beam me up, Bacchus! The first taste of that lovely Italian chardonnay is like being immediately teleported to the hills of Piemonte’ where you find yourself sipping a creamy, fruit forward and exquisitely balanced white from a region more known for big reds like Barolo and Barbaresco.

And moving to the next wine might take you across the world to Oregon or to South Africa. As a matter of fact, the three wines reviewed below are from those three countries I just mentioned. So many wines from so many geographically diverse regions provide us with so many opportunities to literally taste the products of a different culture.

So why not invite a few friends over and conduct your own wine tasting? It’s really easy, fun, inexpensive and very educational. Whether you’re tasting all one varietal, such as cabernet sauvignon, or different types of both whites and reds, it is important to remember to taste lighter, sweeter wines first and then move on to more full bodied ones.

Here is a typical example and order of a tasting of six different white and red varietals: riesling, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The wines are arranged from lighter to fuller bodied to prevent the stronger flavored ones from overpowering and masking the flavors the less intense wines.

[caption id="attachment_1267" align="alignleft" width="253"] Give these three a try


Since you will want to get the most out of the tasting, you need to learn how to use your senses to fully appreciate wine.  One way of doing this is to use what I call the
“Five S’s” of wine appreciation: (1) sight – observe the wine and judge its clarity, color, etc; (2) swirl- rotate the wine in the glass to unlock the flavor and aroma; (3) sniff – place your proboscis deeply into the glass and smell and try to describe what you are smelling; (4) sip – my favorite part of the tasting where you roll the wine around in your mouth allowing it to touch all the surfaces; (5) swallow – judge the impressions the wine leaves when you swallow it.

Generally, a wine tasting will consist of examining five to ten wines and tasters should receive about one ounce of each wine. Ask each taster to critically examine each wine, and to render an opinion as to what they liked or disliked about a particular bottle.

You can take the tasting to a whole different level by eliminating the bias of seeing the wine labels. This is known as a blind tasting and involves obscuring the wine label by having someone place the bottles in bags before you taste. This will eliminate any possible price or winery bias so that you can truly judge the product on its quality.

Here are three wines that were among my favorites in a recent wine tasting. You might want to give them a try.

2013 Mullineux Old Vines White Blend ($28) – An elegant South African blend of chenin blanc (80%) along with clairette blanche and viognier, this has flavors of ripe pears and melon. Rich, yet very balanced, the wine is one to pair with a whole roasted chicken that has been basted with olive oil, rosemary and a little of the Mullineux Old Vines.

2012 Chehalem Stoller Vineyards Pinot Noir ($45) – This Oregon and Willamette Valley wine is exceptional. Delicious black cherry and cola flavors and excellent balancing acidity are the highlights of this beautifully crafted example of pinot noir from a truly historic vintage. While I would lay this one down for a few years, those unable to wait should decant it for a couple of hours and then serve it with grilled wild salmon or roasted pork tenderloin.

2014 Marco Capra Chardonnay ($20) – More like a very good Pouilly Fuisse from Burgundy, the Marco Capra Chardonnay is a creamy, round yet very balanced wine with scents of anise and citrus. This wine, from the Langhe’ region of Piedmont in northwestern Italy, would make an excellent accompaniment to veal saltimbocca.

A delicious view!

We are so fortunate to be living in such a visually beautiful state that sometimes, when I am unexpectedly presented with a magnificent natural scene, I cannot adequately describe in mere words the exhilaration and awe I feel. Combine this stunning scenery with excellent food and wine, and a special person with whom to share it, and you have the makings of a truly memorable experience.

Such was the case a couple of weeks back as I made my way to Canaan Valley for a little rest and relaxation. The usual route I take is up I—79 to US 33 east, through Elkins and then up to Canaan. The trip usually takes about three hours with at least one pit stop.

On this particular evening, my wife and I decided to find a restaurant along the way to break up the trip. A few miles outside of Elkins just off Route 33 at Kelly Mountain Road, we stopped at The Forks Restaurant and Inn. This establishment at almost 3000 feet in elevation has five newly renovated guest rooms and a restaurant that is a true gem.

While the food and wine at The Forks Inn are exceptional, what pushes the experience over the top is the VIEW!

[caption id="attachment_1256" align="alignleft" width="300"] View from the deck at The Forks


There are not sufficiently accurate descriptive words or phrases to describe the amazing mountain panorama that is visible from the outdoor dining deck at The Forks. Purple mountain majesty squared might begin to come close. And as amazing as the view was a few weeks ago, I really look forward to visiting again later this month when the leaves on the trees turn the surrounding forest into a blaze of fall colors.

But the real surprise is the culinary excellence of the place. This is a family owned business operated by two brothers and their uncle. Hailing from Buckhannon- Elkins area, the Stalnakers (brothers Trevor and Drew and their uncle Eric) totally renovated the lodging facilities, the restaurant and the bar.

While the restaurant has several tables for indoor dining, the place to be is outside on the porch or deck where the views make the superb dining fare even more enjoyable. The eclectic menu is the province of  Eric Stalnaker whose 30-year culinary resume is comprehensive and impressive.

With a college degree in hospitality management and business along with a two-year culinary apprenticeship through the Hilton Hotel Corporation, Eric has worked all over the world including restaurant stints in Paris and Dijon in France. He has been chef at five Hilton Resorts around the US and has worked at Snowshoe and The Greenbrier here in West By Golly.

My entrée –a flat iron steak au poivre – was grilled to perfection, exactly medium rare and was accompanied by creamy, cheesy dauphinoise potatoes. At $21, this was not only a culinary success, it was a bargain. And the extensive wine list at The Forks is well composed and reasonably priced with selections from all around the wine world.


The Forks is open at 5 p.m. from Tuesday through Sunday for dinner only. While walk-ins are welcome, I recommend you call for reservations (304-637-0932). You can also check out their website at: http://attheforks.com/.

The Forks offers a complete and pleasurable sensory experience where fine food and wine are complimented by spectacular mountain scenery to provide sustenance for both your body and your spirit.

Spicy skirt steak and a BIG red!

Vegans and vegetarians take note and be forewarned: I am an unabashed carnivore! Please understand that while I love veggies, fruit, grains and just about everything edible produced or grown on terra firma, I have a special fondness for seared, baked, fried, grilled or broiled animal flesh. And let's not leave out those creatures that are caught, speared or netted from rivers, lakes and oceans- I love to knosh on them too.

Among the plethora of meats and fish available, I must profess a special fondness for beef. Give me a piece of red meat and I'll rub that sucker with loads of black pepper, garlic and a little Kosher salt, and then I will build a wood or charcoal fire so big it will create its own micro-climate. Next, I'll roast the meat until the red inside just starts turning pink, and then I'll wolf it down with a big, purple wine that will make your lips pucker and your heart sing (and continue to beat too).

[caption id="attachment_1244" align="alignleft" width="242"] This dish needs a BIG red!


According to my own medical consultant (Dr. Feelgood), wine, especially red, has properties that mitigate the rumored negative consequences of eating red meat on a regular basis. So there.

And while there is nothing better in this whole wide world than any type of meat or even fish on a grill, I must admit (are you listening veggie lovers?) that I do enjoy things that are harvested from the soil, too, particularly the goodies I procure from local farmers at the Capitol Market here in Charleston. For the next six weeks, we will have the opportunity to choose from a cornucopia of the region's most wonderful assortment of vegetables.

I am particularly fond of peppers! Green ones, red ones and especially hot ones. I have prepared peppers in more ways than the normal person can fathom. I roast them, stuff them, fry them, freeze them, can them and, above all, I consume them almost daily. Here is a recipe for a dish I must give credit to my lovely bride for spicing up and improving on one she found in Bon Appetit Magazine a few years back. It combines three of my favorite foods: red meat, peppers and freshly picked corn. And you will need to pair this dish with a substantial red wine like the one suggested below.

While I shop regularly at Johnnies Fresh Meat Market here in Charleston, the beef for this recipe hails from the Monroe Farm Market (www.localfoodmarketplace.com/monroe/). These good folks from Monroe County deliver produce and grass fed, freshly butchered meat weekly to Charleston. Incidentally, Johnnies also has a good selection grass fed beef too. This recipe calls for skirt steak, but you could also use thinly cut flank steak.

Spicy Skirt Steak with Poblano and Corn Salsa (serves four)

Ingredients

Two pounds of skirt steak cut into five inch long pieces
Three medium sized poblano peppers
Three ears of corn shucked
One teaspoon each kosher salt, black pepper, brown sugar and smoked paprika
One-half teaspoon of cayenne pepper (optional)
Three ounces of extra virgin olive oil

How To

Light a gas grill or fire up a charcoal grill
Rub the corn and poblanos with olive oil and grill until both are slightly charred
Peel the skin from the poblanos and then dice them finely
Place half the corn and half the poblanos in a food processor with two tablespoons each of olive oil and water
Puree into a chunky salsa and add salt and pepper to taste
Toss remaining corn and poblanos in a small bowl, add remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper
Rub skirt steak with olive and rub then with the mixture of pepper, salt, cayenne, brown sugar and paprika
Grill steaks over high heat, turning two or three times until lightly charred (about 7 minutes)
Remove meat from grill and allow to sit for five minutes
Spoon the sauce onto the plate
Slice meat across the grain and place atop the sauce
Spoon the salsa onto the meat and serve immediately

[caption id="attachment_1245" align="alignleft" width="300"] Peter Franus and wife Deanne


You will want to pair this dish with a full-bodied red wine and, as luck would have it, I had the pleasure of meeting a very accomplished Napa Valley wine maker who was visiting Charleston a few weeks back. Peter Franus and his wife Deanne were in town to join chef Richard Arbaugh in hosting a dinner featuring Franus' wines at South Hills Market & Cafe.

While I really enjoyed the 2014 Franus Albarino and 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (both in the $26 to $28 price range), the 2012 Franus Zinfandel Brandlin Vineyard ($45) is the wine to use with the recipe below. Ripe, rich, blackberry and spicy teaberry flavors combine with the full-bodied, moderately tannic texture to make this the perfect accompaniment to the Spicy Skirt Steak recipe.

Enjoy!

Rose': No one trick pony!

I suppose I have always been destined to appreciate the fruit of the vine though I certainly had no inkling when my go-to wine selections were enclosed in half or full gallon screw cap bottles, and where quality took a back seat to price and quantity.

To this day, I remember the first cork-finished bottle of wine I ever purchased to accompany a steak dinner at –believe it or not – the WVU Mountainlair restaurant on the campus of the old U. I was trying to impress a young lass with my savoir-faire by selecting a bottle of Mateus Rose’ to accompany what would turn out to be the leather-like slices of prime rib we had both ordered.

And while the wine and meal were forgettable, my date (and now wife) and I have always had a special fondness for rose’. Remarkably, Mateus is still being produced in Portugal, and remains a very popular aperitif wine with its characteristic fizzy and slightly sweet raspberry and cherry flavors.

Although I continue to buy and use rose’ throughout the year – even sometimes to accompany Thanksgiving dinner– there is no better time to open a bottle than in the heat of the summer. I have recommended a few for your consideration below, but first let’s take a closer look at the “how, where and when” of rose’. It is definitely no one trick pony!

[caption id="attachment_1237" align="alignleft" width="170"] Perfect on the deck with grilled foods


I know that some of you may turn your nose up at this (sometimes) pink wine, or think of rose’ as a one-dimensional, inexpensive and sweet wine like the aforementioned Mateus or even white zinfandel. But most are produced classically dry (which means they have less than one-percent residual sugar).

Well, you may also be surprised to know that rose’ is made in just about every fine wine region using just about every red grape imaginable from cabernet sauvignon to carignan and from pinot noir to malbec. And, while there are some slightly sweet aperitif roses, there are even more that are made to accompany food.

In my view, these wines are especially lovely accompaniments to grilled foods, particularly sausages. Whether you prefer Italian, Polish, Bratwurst or some other pork-encased tube steak, rose’ is a great choice. The wines below are also delicious with baby back ribs slathered in a tangy barbecue sauce.

Here are some roses’ you may wish to try. I recommend serving them slightly chilled.

2014 Grange Philippe “Gipsy” Rose ($12) – This wine from France (region unknown since it is labeled “Vin de Pays” meaning country wine) is a blend of syrah and grenache. Strawberry aromas yield to flavors of spice, cinnamon and cherries. Sip it on the deck with grilled lamb burgers or bratwurst.

Reginato Rose of Malbec NV ($15) – Excellent strawberry and cherry flavors highlight this dry rose’ sparkler from Argentina. Produced from malbec, this wine would be a great accompaniment to jalapeno poppers (cheese stuffed jalapenos) or other spicy foods that are tamed by this sparkling rose’.

2014 Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rose ($16) – From South Africa, this medium-bodied wine is almost red and is full of ripe, dark cherry flavors. This would be one to pair with Asian cuisine like Pad Thai.

2014 Elizabeth Spencer Rose of Grenache ($17) – Elizabeth Spencer is one of my favorite pinot noir producers, but with this rose’ she shows her vinous versatility. Delicious, ripe strawberry flavors, with aromas of spice and tea, this Mendocino County wine is one to try with grilled Italian sausages.

Choosing a large format bottle? Size matters!

As a young man, I made beverage buying decisions on two factors: price and size. So, it was not uncommon for me to select the cheapest and largest volume container that I could find to assist me in pondering the existential verities, and such critical human questions as: will the Mountaineers defeat Pitt this weekend; and will Mary Lou accompany me to the Toga Party after the game?

Yes, volume and price were an important part of my earlier years, but as I ascend to Old Codgerdom, the terms have taken on a whole different meaning where pain is the price I pay for excessive volume consumption. But I digress.

I got to ruminating about the “good” old days, and those seemingly bottomless jugs of Uncle Frankie’s Purple Passion, as I began to write this column on the various sizes of and monikers for large bottles of wine. It’s actually pretty fascinating – at least to me.

Of course, the standard size bottle of wine is 750 milliliters (ml) or what we Americans call a “fifth” which is 25.360 fluid ounces. All larger wine bottles are therefore designed to accommodate multiples of the 750 ml bottle. But that’s just size, and we all know that size is the least important component of what comprises a pleasant (drinking) experience.

[caption id="attachment_1231" align="alignleft" width="278"] Capitol Market Wine Shop manger Scotty Scarberry with 9 -liter Salmanazar


For most meals, a 750 ml bottle is perfect for two diners and can sometimes suffice for as many as four. So a table of eight or more folks requires more wine, and most people simply buy a second bottle. The beauty of a larger format bottle is that it not only will serve more guests, it is also one you can keep in your cellar longer. The reason is that wine ages slower in larger bottles, allowing you to uncork that older red wine you’ve been holding for just the right occasion-  like a holiday or birthday.

I’m sure most of you have purchased  a magnum (which is a 1.5 liter bottle and the equivalent of two fifths) when you were hosting six to eight folks for dinner.  But that bottle is a runt compared to several larger format bottles which range in size from three to – are you ready for this- 30 liters! And these larger bottles have all been given the names of Biblical figures, many of whom were kings or wisemen.

So here is the line-up large format bottles to look for in specialty wine shops:

Jeroboam (three liters) – Named after a king in ancient Israel;

Rehoboam (4.5 liters) –King of Judea;

Methuselah (six liters) – According to the Bible, the oldest man;

Mordechai (nine liters) – The uncle of Ester, queen of Persia;

Salmanazar (also nine liters) –King of Assyria;

Balthazar (12 liters) – One of the three Wise Men;

Nebuchadnezzar 15 liters) – King of Babylon;

Melchior (18 liters) – Another Wise Man;

Solomon (20 liters) – King of Israel;

Melchizedek (30 liters) – King of Jerusalem.

To put this in some sort of visual perspective, a Melchizedek is the equivalent of 40 fifths of wine -all in one bottle! It’s as tall as an adult human being, but I don’t think there are any earthly creatures able to lift and pour from that size bottle. But wouldn’t popping the cork on a Melchizedek be a hoot?

So the next time you’re planning a Toga Party for a few hundred of your closest friends, go out and hire a couple of Sumo wrestlers to pour your favorite Melchizedek, and party like it’s 500 B.C.

Wines of Spain

One of the most alluring features of The Block –one of Charleston’s newest eateries – is the availability of a small plate menu where guests can choose the informality of casual dining and still be assured of a quality culinary experience.

These small plate, or tapas-style menus, originated in Spain and have become a pretty common option in American restaurants for the past several years. Spanish native and renowned chef, Jose Andres, introduced the cuisine to America in his restaurants.

Chosen as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012, Andres owns Jaleo in Washington DC where his tapas menu is spectacular. I visited the restaurant on a recent trip and tasted my way through several lovely courses. And while the food was exceptional, I was equally awed by the amazing selection of Spanish wines, many of which are available by the glass.

Until the last decade, the only Spanish wines any of us knew about were the tempranilo-based reds of Rioja, the Cava’s (Sparkling wines) from the Penedes region and, of course, the fortified wine known as Sherry. Hey, these are wines worth drinking, but fortunately there is now an even greater selection from which to choose.

And they are wines, many from lesser-known appellations  in a country known more for bull fighting, that are worth searching out. For those of you who have limited experience with the wines of Spain, you might want to read on about the great selection of vinous products which are now making their way to our shores.

[caption id="attachment_1224" align="alignleft" width="300"] Jaleo Tapas - too pretty to eat - Not!


But first it might help to give you a little geographic perspective on where the vines are grown and how that geography is so important to the finished product. To make it as simple as possible (and nothing is simple in the world of wine), northern and central Spain are considered the nation’s best producing regions because of more hospitable weather and the influence of the sea and mountains

In the northwest region of Galicia, the cool Atlantic greatly influences what is produced with the most famous white – albarino- and the red –mencia – being the regions’ most sought after wines. Continuing east, the famous northern wine regions of La Rioja and Navarra produce some of the most sought after reds made predominately with grapes such as tempranillo and grenache.

One of the most exceptional appellations in the north central part of the country is Ribera del Duero where reds produced from tempranillo are among the best wines in all of Spain. Further east toward Barcelona and the Mediterranean, vintners in the Penedes appellation produce arguably the world’s second greatest sparkling wine (called Cava) made in the Champagne style. And in this region, the country’s best cabernet sauvignon is produced (my favorite for years has been the Torres Gran Coronas Reserva).

Among the most important regions of central Spain are the appellations of Priorat which produces consistently good old vine grenache and Rueda where the fruit-forward white made from verdejo is the pick. In southern Spain, the most famous wine is, of course, Sherry but increasingly the roses and whites of the Canary Islands are worth seeking out.

Here are some of my favorite Spanish wines you might try which are available in local fine wine shops:

Castillo Perelada Cava Brut Rosado ($12) -A blend of garnacha, pinot noir and trepat aged for 12 months prior to disgorging, this is a crisp and dry rose’ sparkler you might use as an aperitif or with a manchego cheese and chive omelet.

2013 Lagar de la Santina Albarino ($18) This white from Rias Baixas (pronounced ree-es buy-shez) in the Galicia region of northwestern Spain is crisp, round and full of citrus and mineral flavors. Match it up with cod quickly broiled in beurre blanc.

2010 Rotllan Torra Crianza Priorat ($19)- This silky blend of garnacha, mazuelo, and cabernet is a great introduction to the complexity of wines from the Priorat appellation. Blackberry and cola flavors combine to make this a wine to pair with roasted pork tenderloin that has been basted with a honey-chipotle glaze.

2011Chapillon Cuvee Harmonie ($20) An inky, full-bodied red made from 90% petit verdot in the Calatayud region of north central Spain, this wine is kind of like malbec on steroids. It is, however, a delicious mouthful of wine, particularly if matched up with smoked beef brisket slathered in a Kansas City-style barbecue sauce.

A sip off The old Block

Charleston’s newest restaurant – The Block – is an epicurean’s dream come true with a deliciously enticing menu and a wine list that is extensive and well thought out. I had heard good things for years about the wine and food at The Block’s sister restaurant- Wine Valley - located in a shopping mall in Winfield, but I had never taken the time to drive to Putnam County to taste for myself.

 The wine list at the Block does feature some of the usual suspects such as steak house cabernets and big rich chardonnays, but what sets this establishment apart from any other restaurant in the state (except perhaps The Greenbrier) is the focus on wines that are really meant to be enjoyed with the eclectic menu of small plates and full entrees.

Take, for example (as I did) the sampler appetizer that featured Marcona almonds, a crab cake, a  quinoa-feta salad dollop, thinly sliced Genoa salami and Tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber dip) accompanied by toasted pita wedges.  Talk about your opportunity to experiment with a whole host of wines!

I chose Bisci Verdicchio from around the commune of Matelica in the Italian state of Marche. The verdicchio grown and vinted in this part of Italy is much superior to the wine made from the same grape grown closer to the Adriatic Sea. Those wines can be light and almost tasteless. The Matelica region is further inland and in a less fertile area which forces the verdicchio vines to work harder, and the resulting wine to be fuller and richer.

The fact that owner Desislav (Des) Baklarov even found this verdicchio is testament to his impressive wine curiosity and knowledge. And, at $8 for a six-ounce glass, the wine is very reasonably priced. With almost 300 wines by the bottle to choose from and about 50 of them available by the glass, you will find wines from just about every major region on the planet. I know I did.

[caption id="attachment_1215" align="alignleft" width="225"] Owner Des Baklarov at The Block


Perusing the wine list, I almost fell out of my seat when I spied a Spanish red that is extremely hard to find locally and which was the perfect match for the meal I later chose. Most normal people select the menu item before looking for a wine to pair with it.  Not yours truly.  I look for a wine first and then figure out what I am going to eat.

The 2012 Alto Moncayo Veraton Garnacha is a brooding, full-bodied, fruit-forward wine that Des decanted for me into a lovely crystal carafe. This old vine Grenache is grown and produced near the town of Borja in northeastern Spain. I chose the “French Pork Chop” to accompany the wine.  This tender, perfectly seasoned and grilled chop was just the entrée I needed to accompany this full-bodied red wine.  After about 15 minutes and for the next hour, the wine opened up beautifully and alas, like all good wines, the last sip was the best

Hey, but I wasn’t finished.  I could not resist choosing from among the many excellent selections of late-harvest and after dinner wines offered at The Block.  Eventually, I chose an Alvear Amontillado Sherry. For those of you unfamiliar with anything but Harvey’s Bristol Crème, this lovely, caramel and nutty flavored, slightly sweet wine will open your palate to a whole new appreciation of Sherry. The wine list also boasts a number of ports and other late harvest wines to put a nice cap to your meal at the Block.

For a new restaurant opened for just two days prior to my visit, I was shocked at the quality of the food and, particularly, the depth and breadth of the very impressive wine list.  Visit The Block at the Corner of Capitol and Quarrier Streets in downtown Charleston.  If you love good wine and food, you might try a sip off the old Block!

Supporting and consuming local food products

My love of just about all things palatable includes, of course, a wide and varied cuisine. I embrace just about every morsel grown, produced and/or cooked by indigenous peoples from all over this globe. I am particularly fond of locally grown or raised food.

The term locavore has entered the lexicon in the past decade to define organized groups that encourage growing, producing and then providing local products to the restaurants, markets and people living nearby. This locavore movement also extends to beverages produced locally which include wineries, distilleries and craft breweries.

And this is a movement with enough room for both vegans and carnivores!

Supporting locally produced edibles has caught on just about everywhere in the US and is being embraced in communities around West Virginia too. Most counties and some towns in our state have established local farmers markets, and many restaurants are purchasing and then featuring these locally grown and produced foods on their menus. For a listing of a local farmers market near you, go to http://wvfarmers.org/.

But there are several other organizations involved in the movement. I am board member of “The Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia” that has (thankfully) been co-named “WVFARM2U.” FARM2U actively promotes cultural and culinary tourism in large measure to connect the people involved such as farmers, restaurateurs, tourism promoters and the general public.

As an example, one of our website pages (www.farm2u.org) has a listing of “destination dining” restaurants in West Virginia that use locally produced food. These establishments were nominated through a FARM2U survey of people who had exceptional dining experiences. A panel of culinary experts then selected the eventual destination dining restaurants.

But you may recognize the FARM2U organization by one of the state’s signature culinary events – the annual Cast Iron Cook Off. The Cook Off is an event where everyone -from culinary students to chefs, to farmers, to local business people- participates in an Appalachian cooking competition focused on preparing local foods and using traditional cast iron cookware.

[caption id="attachment_1205" align="alignleft" width="160"] Ridge Lytton Springs


Here are a few other organizations in the state that make it their goal to bring locally produced foods to your table. Check out the facebook page for the WV Food and Farm Coalition for information on Community Supported Agriculture Program (CSA) organizations. CSA’s put people who want to use local farm-grown products together with farmers that grow them. These farmers provide various locally produced foods for a subscription price.

Two CSA’s were featured in a recent Sunday Gazette-Mail article by Dawn Nolan focusing on the good work being done by the Wild Ramp and Gritts Farm CSA's. My family has participated in the Fish Hawk Acres CSA run by Chef Dale Hawkins. If you’re interested, check out Fish Hawk Acres’ facebook page for information on how to subscribe.

We also receive regular local food shipments from the Monroe Farm Market (www.localfoodmarketplace.com/monroe/) This farmer coop, located in beautiful Monroe County, provides a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables as well locally raised and butchered meat. We enjoyed a delicious leg of lamb from the Monroe Farm Market on Easter Sunday.

As someone obsessed with food and wine, I understand the passion and commitment it takes to produce a product you wish to share with those in your local circle. We need to encourage our restaurants and markets to use our home-grown food – along with wine and other beverages (even beer) produced here in West By Golly.

Here is a wine that will (and did) marry exquisitely with a Monroe County boned, butter flied and grilled leg of lamb.

2009 Ridge Lytton Springs ($38) - This blend of 71 percent zinfandel (along with petite sirah, carignane and mataro) is the flagship product from my favorite zinfandel producer. With aromas of teaberry mint, this complex, layered, blackberry and cola flavored wine is full, rich and nicely balanced. It paired superbly with our marinated and grilled leg of lamb.

Aging Wine: how, when and what

One of the few benefits of being a long–in-the-tooth wine lover is you probably have squirreled away a few bottles over the years that are finally coming of age. Yes, it can be a sublime experience when you uncork that special wine you’ve allowed to mature for a decade or two in your cellar.

Conversely, the experience can be supremely disappointing and unpleasant when the wine from that coveted bottle smells like dirty socks and tastes like spoiled buttermilk.

Over the years, I have experienced both the ecstasy of sipping liquid silk, and the agony of having to discard a wine that is “over the hill.” If you would like to lay down a few bottles for future enjoyment, there are some important issues to consider.

It may come as a surprise, but the vast majority of wines on the market today are meant to be consumed now, or within a couple of years. In fact, around 95 percent of all wine is ready to be consumed right off the shelf. So what wines can you safely put away for future sipping?

First and foremost, you’ll want to collect wines that have the best chance of morphing into something more pleasurable as they age. That means buying red wines such as Bordeaux, California cabernet sauvignon or other sturdy reds like Chateauneuf Du Pape or Barolo and Brunello Di Montalcino from Italy. Whites such as chardonnay from Burgundy, late harvest sweet wines like Sauternes from France and riesling from Germany can also improve with age.

[caption id="attachment_1199" align="alignleft" width="300"] Barolo has great aging potential


The next important step is to determine which vintage years are touted as being the best for long-term aging. You can read periodicals such as The Wine Spectator or the Wine Advocate or go online and search for vintage rating information.

Once you’ve decided on a likely age worthy vintage, read up on the specific wines and what critics are reporting about them. Oftentimes, you’ll see a lot of attention directed at the “superstar” wines such as Chateau Lafite Rothschild from Bordeaux or Opus One from Napa.

But unless you’re a Russian oligarch or a dotcom billionaire, you’ll want to avoid these “trophy” wines and concentrate on ones that share the same zip code or geographic area and are more reasonably priced.

Next, make sure you buy at least three bottles of a particular wine. This will allow you to open a bottle every five or so years to make sure the wine is making “forward” progress. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of finding out that I waited too long to assess the bottle, and the wine had passed its prime.

Storing the wine properly is an absolutely critical issue. You don’t have to buy one of those expensive wine storage closets, but you should age the wine in a dark, vibration and odor-free area where the temperature doesn’t vary more than 10 degrees from summer to winter, and where the humidity is pretty high – around 70 percent.

Get yourself one of those temperature and humidity gauges and check out your designated area to make sure it’s appropriate. If you absolutely want to be sure the storage system is ideal, you can buy temperature-controlled wine cabinets for as little as $300 or as much as several thousand.

If you do the things I‘ve mentioned above, you may be able to experience in a decade or two what I had the pleasure of enjoying at Christmas dinner. That magical night, I opened a 1997 Barolo from the Piedmont region of northern Italy to accompany the traditional bone-in rib roast. Magnificent!