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

Wine for Thanksgiving: Anything goes !

With Thanksgiving just a few days away, it is time to select the wine for this distinctly American feast. And while I will always use a wine or two from the good old US of A among those I uncork, the Thanksgiving meal can accommodate a diverse variety of both whites and reds from all around the globe.

The reason is that turkey is blessed with meat that has a variety of flavors, colors and textures which present opportunities for us to try with a variety of different wines. And, when you add the dishes that traditionally accompany Thanksgiving dinner, things really get interesting.

It is always safe to use a white wine for the main course. Whether you use a light, slightly sweet German riesling, Alsatian pinot gris, a fruit forward Gruner Veltliner, an herbal sauvignon blanc or even a rich and full-bodied chardonnay, you will find that traditional oven- roasted turkey will pair nicely with each of these white wines.

The type of stuffing you use adds a whole other flavor dimension which — depending upon the spices and ingredients used in the dressing — opens up even more wine possibilities.

But what really surprises some folks (particularly those who adhere to the rigid view that you should only pair white wine with white meat) is how well turkey matches up to red wines. In fact, the “national bird” can go quite well with even fuller bodied red wines, particularly when the bird has been grilled or smoked. We’re talking cabernet sauvignon, Chateauneuf Du Pape, zinfandel, syrah, malbec and even Barbaresco can be an excellent match to turkey prepared in this manner.

[caption id="attachment_1147" align="alignleft" width="288"] Grilled turkey needs fuller-bodied wines


While the traditional oven-roasted turkey with sage-flavored dressing does wonderfully well with the whites mentioned above, lighter to medium bodied red wines like Beaujolais, Chianti Classico or cabernet franc are also good choices and do not overpower turkey prepared in this manner.

My mother would oven-roast her turkey, but her dressing recipe excluded the use of sage. Rather, she would season with salt, pepper and garlic and then add roast chestnuts and Italian sausage to her bread dressing. In years past, I have used a full, rich chardonnay or a medium-bodied pinot noir to accompany this meal, and both have worked exceptionally well.

But this year, I’m going to place the bird on the grill and concoct a stuffing with southwestern flavors. Here’s how:

Ingredients
One 15-pound turkey
One large container to hold turkey and brine
One cup each of kosher salt, brown sugar and one gallon of water, one quart each apple cider and/or beer for the brine
One large package of corn bread stuffing
Two 12-ounce cans of turkey or chicken broth
Two rehydrated and diced dried ancho peppers (optional)
One tablespoon each of cumin and chili powder
Two finely chopped chipotles in adobo sauce (available in small cans)
Eight ounces of shredded sharp cheddar cheese
One-half pound of cooked and chopped chorizo sausage
One-half stick of butter

How To
Mix brine (water, beer, apple cider, salt, sugar) and place turkey in brine
Allow turkey to soak in brine for at least four hours or overnight
Mix stuffing (cornbread stuffing, sausage, broth, spices, etc)
Pat turkey dry, rub butter over all turkey inside and out
Stuff turkey or place stuffing in a separate pan to cook in oven
Light charcoal fire, place coals to either side of grate,
Place a pan of water on the grate in between coals
Put grill over the grate, place turkey over water, affix lid to grill and cook
Add charcoal to grill as necessary to maintain heat
Grill for three to four hours or until turkey reaches 165 degrees

This grilled turkey and spicy dressing would overpower lighter styled wines and requires varietals that can stand up to intense flavors. And while I plan to use red wines this year, I could easily have chosen an Alsatian gewürztraminer or riesling to tame and complement the spice and smoke in the dish.

So here are the wines that will complement my Thanksgiving dinner this year. To toast the holiday before dinner, I plan to open a bottle of Domaine Carneros Brut Rose. With the main course, I will uncork two different red wines: 2002 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel and a 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf Du Pape. And at the conclusion of dinner, we will pair the pumpkin pie dessert with a bottle of Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Riesling.

Then it’s off to the recliner for football and a tryptophan-induced nap.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wines to cure the cold weather blahs

The abrupt change in weather from relatively comfortable – if wet - days to frigid,
windy conditions has prompted me to adjust my consumption of that elixir we all love from lighter wines to fuller bodied whites and reds.

[caption id="attachment_1137" align="alignleft" width="279"] Hearty foods = full-bodied wines


I also need an attitude adjustment due to the almost depressing diminution of daylight. So here’s what I’m doing to lift my spirits and alter my mood - without a prescription.

My over the counter solution involves selecting wines that go with the types of hearty meals that late fall and early winter demand. With stews, soups and casseroles along with roasted meats accompanied by potatoes, squash and root vegetables on the menu, you will need wines that stand up to and enhance these heavier dishes.

The wines I am suggesting below should meet the requirements of this culinary transition quite nicely and also allow you to smoothly segue into the even more substantial foods and wines of the holiday season to come.

2011 Jean Sigler Gewurztraminer ($21)- From Alsace, this gewürztraminer is a full-bodied wine with a complex flavor profile showing tropical fruits and spices like anise. Very aromatic with hints of flowers and melon, this gewurztraminer pairs beautifully with spicy dishes and strong cheeses. It is particularly good with Vietnamese, Thai and Indian cuisines.

2012 La Bastitde Cotes du Rhone Blanc ($17)– Comprised of mostly viognier and marsanne, this southern Rhone white is medium to full bodied. Citrus and apricot flavors are buttressed by good acidity and make this wine a great match to Bouillabaisse or other hearty fish stews.

2012 Steele Cuvee Chardonnay – ($22) This medium-bodied chardonnay has everything – fruit, oak and acidity - in balance. From three different vineyards in three distinct appellations (Sonoma, Mendocino and Santa Maria Valley), you should pair this baby with Chilean Sea Bass basted with a beurre blanc sauce and roasted in the oven.

2011 Easton Monarch Mine Cabernet Franc ($19) – Cabernet franc has not been a very successful wine in California with a few exceptions and this is one of them. Grown in the Sierra Foothills at about 2500 feet, this wine has peppery, ripe plum flavors, a slight hint of vanilla from the oak and good balancing acidity. I would serve it with roast pork tenderloin in a mustard crème sauce.

2010 Mercer Estates Columbia Valley Merlot ($22) – Full-bodied, but very balanced, this Washington State merlot is more akin to the Right-Bank wines of Bordeaux than to anything in the new world. Ripe dark cherry and minty cola flavors combine to make this a good match to a spicy Chicken Cacciatore dish.

2012 Penfolds Hyland Shiraz ($16) –From the Barossa, McLaren Vale and Upper Adelaide regions of Australia, this shiraz is not at all like some of the high alcohol versions of the syrah grape produced Down Under. The wine is made in a fresh style with juicy berry flavors, soft tannins and just a touch of oak. Oven slow -cooked beef brisket slathered with a spicy red barbecue sauce is just what the gourmand ordered for this shiraz.

2011 Frescobaldi Nipozzano Vecchie Viti ($31), Produced from old vines in one of the best regions of Chianti, this silky red is rich, yet structured, with black cherry, tea and cola flavors. Just enough tannic background to justify additional aging, I would allow it to breathe in a carafe for a couple of hours and serve it as an accompaniment to roasted rack of lamb that has been brushed with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, coarsely ground black pepper, Kosher salt, Dijon mustard and lemon.

So this week, warm your body, lift your spirit and adjust your attitude with some hearty food and really good wine!

This Weekend is Wine and Wonderful

The annual “Wild, Wonderful Wine Weekend,” which has become an annual gourmet rite of fall, will be held from October 24-26 at Canaan Valley Resort. I have been privileged to lead the wine component of the weekend while working with the exceptional culinary team at the resort to put together a great food and wine event set in the majesty of one of our state’s most beautiful outdoor settings.

The event begins Friday, October 24th at 7 p.m. with a “taste-around reception” where more than 50 wines can be sampled with matching culinary treats from multiple food stations featuring a wonderful selection of delicious goodies upon which to graze.

[caption id="attachment_1132" align="alignleft" width="300"] Sip wine in these mountains!


On Saturday morning, I will conduct a tasting and lead a discussion of several wines from the world’s greatest wine regions. Immediately after the tasting, guests will be treated to a five-course, five-wine-paired luncheon with commentary by yours truly. After lunch, folks will be free to hike, bike, nap or- in my case - watch WVU whip up on and Oklahoma State.

Saturday evening’s activities begin at 7 p.m. with a six-course, six wine grand gourmet dinner. Here’s a preview of the grand dinner:

Chilled Banana Bisque -2013 Gunderloch Kabinett Sweet Potato Gnocchi -2013 Stags Leap Hands of Time Chardonnay Diver Scallops over an English Pea Puree -2013 Granbazan Etiqueta Verde Albarino Malback Marinated Lamb Chop - 2010 Mercer Estates Columbia Valley Merlot Lobster Stuffed Beef tenderloin- 2012 Evesham Wood Eola Cuvee Pinot Noir Smoked Dark Chocolate Ganache Campfire Tart- Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto
Guests have the option of attending the entire weekend for a package price ($359 for a single attendee and $599 per couple) or choosing to participate in individual events ala carte (i.e., $50 per person for the Friday night reception, $54 for the Saturday lunch and $99 for the gourmet dinner.). For additional information or reservations call 800-622-4121 or visit online at www.canaanresort.com.

If you are interested, you will need to move pretty quickly.

Give your chops a little Seoul

Sometimes it ain’t easy being me. Just the other day I caught a peripheral glimpse of rather rotund chap as I passed what I thought was a glass door. Unfortunately, the glass door turned out to be a mirror and the corpulent image turned out to be ME.

So here is my dilemma: While I try to exercise restraint at the table and exercise more at the gym, I am still obligated to cook, eat, drink and evaluate so I can enlighten you hungry and thirsty rascals about a world full of exceptional food and wine combinations.

Okay. So I will try and moderate the intake a bit, but as Curtis Mayfield so righteously sang in his tune of the same name, I’ll just have to “Keep on Keepin’ on.” And today that means letting you in on a food and wine combination that is a staple in my home, particularly during grilling season.

When I cook for friends and family, I try to use fresh ingredients I can purchase locally and then accompany the meal with inexpensive, no-nonsense wines that taste good and help de-clog the arteries. But with the dish below, you may want to pop a Statin, too.

[caption id="attachment_1126" align="alignleft" width="300"] Seoul Chops


I love to one-stop shop and our excellent Capitol Market in Charleston has just about any consumable ingredient needed to put together a great meal. In this case, the good folks at Johnnies Fresh Meats provided the protein for the dish while the liquid inspiration came from the Wine Shop at Capitol Market.

The pork chop is the centerpiece of this recipe and features a Korean marinade. Have your butcher cut thin (one-half inch thick) pork blade chops which are a bit fattier than other cuts. You can also use the leaner pork center loin chops that have a T-shaped bone, but I find that these do not absorb the marinade as well as the blade chops.

These grilled chops are great when paired with a medium-bodied red wine. In this case, I am suggesting a northern Italian red along with a pinot noir from California. Check out my recommendations below.

Seoul Chops
What you will need:
(4 servings)

Eight one-half inch thick pork blade chops
One cup of light soy sauce
One-fourth cup each of white sugar, and Mirin (a sweet rice wine)
Two tablespoons of rice wine vinegar and sesame oil
Six cloves of garlic finely chopped
One small chopped onion
Three chopped scallions
One tablespoon of grated fresh ginger
One teaspoon of red pepper flakes
One-gallon plastic baggie

How To:

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and stir marinade
Reserve one quarter of marinade and use to baste the pork chops later
Place pork chops into gallon baggie
Pour marinade into baggie, seal and place in the refrigerator for at least four hours
Prepare a charcoal fire or gas grill
Grill chops directly over heat source turning regularly to prevent flare-ups
Baste the grilling chops with the reserved marinade until cooked – approximately five minutes
Serve and accompany with roasted red skin potatoes or wild rice

Wine Suggestions:

2012 Tenuta Sant’Antonio Scaia Corvina ($12) I first tasted this wine last year in Verona on a trip through the Alto Adige region of northern Italy. Made from 100 percent corvina – the primary grape used to make Valpolicella and Amarone – this is a delicious mouthful of medium bodied red wine that has flavors of tea, cola and ripe dark cherries. While it flourishes as an accompaniment to the dish above, it goes equally well with other grilled dishes such as chicken, salmon and Italian sausage.

2012 Adler Fels “The Archivist” Pinot Noir ($20) This is a juicy, spicy, and earthy Monterey County Pinot Noir. With just a touch of new oak, this well balanced wine has flavors of ripe plums and makes a great partner to the Seoul Chops.

Describing Wine

Describing the sensory characteristics of wine is an inexact science. Rooted, as it is, in subjectivity, accurate descriptions detailing the taste and aroma components of a wine are dependent on the reader (you) sharing some common experiences with the writer (me).

I’m often asked why wine writers feel compelled to go to such great lengths and use sometimes obtuse terms to describe the sensory aspects of wine. My stock answer is that wine has such multi-dimensional qualities that it is helpful to give readers as much information as possible.

On the other hand, if I use non-traditional language to describe the wine, you may end up scratching your head and wondering what “precocious, assertive, or unctuous” have to do with the way a wine smells or tastes.

This all came to mind the other day as I was trying to describe the attributes of a particularly good red wine produced in California’s Sierra Foothills - the 2012 Easton Amador County Zinfandel.

The stuff was so pleasing to me that I was having difficulty describing it without becoming overly exuberant. However, I think there is a difference between using what I will call traditional language to describe wine versus using non-traditional terms.

[caption id="attachment_1121" align="alignleft" width="300"] Easton Amador Zinfandel


For example, if I describe a chardonnay as having ripe green apple flavors, you will immediately use your own memory of the taste, smell and texture of ripe green apples to understand how the wine might actually taste.

If I wanted to be more specific, I could say that particular chardonnay has the taste of ripe Granny Smith apples. Well, you get the point. In other words, the more specific the language used to describe how the wine looks, tastes and smells, the better you will be able to make a decision on whether it appeals to you.

There are descriptors I try and steer clear of because, first and foremost, they sound like words an officious wine snob might use. And secondly, the terms don’t really provide any good information that can be used to evaluate whether or not I should purchase the wine.

That’s not to say I haven’t ever succumbed to the temptation. The rationalization I once used to defend my description of an exceptionally good wine as being “orgasmic” was that most people have some sense of what that word means. Hey, I could have described the experience as having been “ethereal,” but then how many of us have a working knowledge of that transcendent term.

The moral of the story here is that you can benefit from descriptions that are based on solid sensory experiences. In evaluating wine, I have experienced the taste of blackberries, cherries, vanilla, cinnamon, etc. And I have smelled toast, grass, butterscotch, mold, or Limburger cheese.

But when you get right down to it and the adjectives are stripped away, wine is either good, okay, or unpleasant. So here are a few adjectives to describe in –hopefully- understandable language a couple of wines you might wish to try.

2012 Paul Mas Estate Picpoul De Pinet ($12)

From Languedoc in southern France, this ancient grape (picpoul) is grown along the Mediterranean Bay of Thau near the village of Pinet. A clean and refreshing white with fresh tropical fruit flavors, try this with plainly cooked seafood or as an aperitif with fruit and cheese.

2012 Easton Amador County Zinfandel ($18)
This zinfandel has chocolate and teaberry aromas with rich, blackberry and plum notes. It is full-bodied, yet balanced and is a serious mouthful of wine. Aged for 10 months in French oak barrels, this Zin begs to be matched with a pork roast rubbed with garlic and black pepper.

Fried Peppers Calabraze

We are very fortunate in our little part of the world to have some of the most accomplished creators/purveyors of essential consumable products that allow us, along with our friends and family, to experience simple pleasures in our every day lives.

In addition to a bevy of excellent restaurants in our town, we have a superb bakery in Charleston Bread, outstanding access to fresh seafood at Joe’s Fish Market, hand cut fresh meats at Johnnie’s in the Capitol Market and several fine wine shops including Kroger’s Ashton Place, the Wine Shop at Capitol Market and the fine sippers available at Drug Emporium.

And this time of year, we have access to world-class, homegrown vegetables at the amazing outdoor Capitol Farmer’s Market. A literal cornucopia of locally grown goodies, I graze almost daily through the aisles and stalls, selecting fresh vegetables for the dinner table.

[caption id="attachment_1116" align="alignleft" width="276"] Local ingredients from Capitol Market


Today, I am going to share with you my recipe for “Fried Peppers Calabraze. ” This nostalgic dish brings back fond memories of my Calabrian grandmother frying peppers just picked from the garden and placed on slices of hard-crust Italian bread. The bread, freshly baked and still warm, came from our family bakery just across the street.

The beauty of the recipe is that you can adjust it to accommodate your tolerance for spiciness. Since you will choose how many – if any – hot peppers to use in the dish, you can control the heat. I use Hungarian wax peppers which range in color from light green to red and which approximate the heat of a jalapeno.

For the sweet (non-hot) peppers, I use red, green, yellow and orange bell peppers. You may also use sweet Hungarian Wax peppers which have the same flavor as their spicy cousins, but without the heat.

This fried pepper recipe can serve as a spicy accompaniment to any meat or fish dish, and makes a sensational sandwich when heaped on slices of baguette or ciabatta from Charleston Bread. And of course, I’ll also give you suggestions for a couple of wines that pair nicely with the dish.

Fried Peppers Calabraze
Ingredients
Seven multi-colored bell peppers, sliced into five-inch long by one-inch wide pieces
Three hot banana peppers (optional) sliced the same as above
One large onion sliced into approximately three-inch lengths, a quarter-inch wide
One large ripe, red tomato, peeled and coarsely chopped
Three garlic cloves coarsely chopped
Three ounces of olive oil
Two tablespoons each of freshly chopped basil and oregano
One teaspoon of salt and coarsely ground black pepper


[caption id="attachment_1117" align="alignleft" width="261"] Fried Peppers Calabraze


How To
Heat olive oil in a large frying pan (I use a cast iron skillet) to medium high heat
Add onions and sauté for about three minutes, then add all peppers, salt and pepper
Use a spatula to stir the peppers regularly to prevent ones on bottom from burning
Add garlic and tomatoes to the mixture after about 15 minutes and continue stirring
Lower heat and cook until most of the liquid evaporates
Continue to sauté until the peppers and onions begin to caramelize
Remove from the stove (cooking usually takes 25-to 30 minutes)
Place in a large bowl and mix in the basil and oregano and then serve

This dish needs a wine that can stand up to the spiciness of the peppers. My choices are a sparkling wine from Argentina and an Italian Valpolicella.

Reginato Rose of Malbec NV ($15) – What a nice surprise! Lovely strawberry and cherry flavors highlight this crisp and dry sparkler from Argentina made from malbec. Not only stands up to and complements the peppers, but also adds a thirst quenching component to the whole equation.

2013 Allegrini Valpolicella Classico (16)- Bright red and full of black cherry flavors, this wine from the Veneto in northern Italy is a medium-bodied wine with a smooth texture and good balance. Refreshing with just enough body to pair well with the peppers and cool the spiciness just a bit. Serve it slightly chilled.

Sipping Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley

I’m just back from my fourth trip to the Oregon wine country and participation in the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). If you like pinot noir and superb cuisine, I encourage you to put this event on your bucket list.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting some of the world’s most heralded wine regions and Oregon’s Willamette Valley is among the most revered, particularly for pinot noir. (Incidentally, Willamette, often mispronounced, rhymes with Willdammit).

[caption id="attachment_1102" align="alignleft" width="300"] Oregon's Willamette Valley


The event was held at Linfield College – a small liberal arts institution located in an idyllic setting in McMinnville, Oregon. This town is wine central for Oregon pinot noir and is where most of the alfresco lunches, tastings and dinners are held. Each day, half the attendees stay on campus for seminars, tastings, etc., while the other half bus to different vineyards to participate in wine-related learning exercises and tastings. The next day, the two groups switch venues.

Here’s the agenda for a typical day at the IPNC: alfresco breakfast with fresh berries, croissants/breads, mini-omelets, juices and espresso/coffee/tea; visit to a winery (or stay on campus) with an extensive tasting of pinot noirs from Oregon and the world and a Q&A with winemakers; lunch in the winery or alfresco on the campus prepared by a chef from the region and paired with wines; post lunch afternoon seminars and more tastings; and a two-hour tasting of the pinot noir offerings of the participating wineries before a gourmet wine dinner under the stars.

The wonderfully fresh local foods were prepared by an all-star lineup of chefs from some of the Pacific Northwest’s most highly regarded restaurants, and the servers included sommeliers, wait staff and restaurant owners. One of the two evening gourmet extravaganzas featured an incredible and visually striking Northwest Salmon Bake.  The event winds up Sunday morning with a spectacular sparkling wine brunch.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: how can any normal human being survive all this food and wine for two and a half days without exploding? The key, of course, is moderation and understanding the necessity of spitting the wine after tasting. Paper cups were provided for just such a purpose at all activities. I saved the swallowing for the dining events.

[caption id="attachment_1107" align="alignleft" width="243"] Enjoying an IPNC Sip


While enjoying superb wine and food is the happy result of the weekend, there is always an educational theme for the event and this year’s was: “The Doors of Perception.” In other words, what forms our preferences for the wines we choose to drink, and how do various influences such as weather, geography and the components of the wine itself affect our perceptions.

Thought provoking? Yes, but the real learning experience was tasting wines from not only Oregon, but also from geographically diverse vineyards including those in Argentina, New Zealand, France, California, Italy, Germany and Canada. More than 80 wineries participated in the event and attendees got to interact with wine makers as well as sip and dine with them throughout the weekend.

While it is always fun to compare and contrast pinot noir produced in different parts of the world, the focus of this event is on Oregon. The northern Willamette Valley, just south of Portland, is where the most famous Oregon wineries are located within several American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) including Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, and Yamhill Carlton.

Within these AVA’s, more than 200 wineries produce pinot noir. From a taste perspective, Oregon pinot noir combines the fruit and richness of California pinot with the earthiness, balance and elegance of Burgundy.

[caption id="attachment_1103" align="alignleft" width="300"] Northwest Salmon Bake


For example, California wines are generally more fruit-forward, rounder and many times have less balance and acid than their Oregon counterparts. Burgundian wines can be balanced and earthy, but are sometimes less fruit-forward and can be overly acidic. So, in my opinion, Oregon pinot noir exhibits the best of both worlds.

So which of the 80 or so wineries were my favorites. From Oregon: Argyle; Archery Summit; Anne Amie; Bergstrom; Benton Lane; Domaine Serene; Domaine Drouhin; Harper Voit; Hyland Estates; Patricia Green; Seven Springs; Cristom, Stoller; Westry; and Chehalem.

From California: Drew Family Cellars; J Vineyards; Knez Winery; Navarro Vineyards, Patz & Hall; Red Car Winery; and Talley Vineyards.
Other Standouts: Bodega Chacra – Argentina; Maison Ambroise, Domaine Marc Roy, Joseph Drouhin – Burgundy; J. Hofstatter – Italy; and Akarua and Mt. Beautiful Wines -New Zealand;
If you love wine and particularly pinot noir, you should check out the IPNC website (http://www.ipnc.org/) or call them (800-775-4762). It’s not too early to book reservations for next year’s celebration to be held July 24-26, 2015.

Selecting the right wine

I am always fascinated by how we make choices regarding the wines we choose to purchase and drink. Whether for every day consumption or for special occasions, we can all agree that quality wines that offer great value are worth seeking out.

So how do we determine what is not only an acceptable wine, but one that is also exceptional?

Of course, the easy answer is that wine, like art, food or any other aesthetic thing, is evaluated subjectively so that judgments on quality must be evaluated in a quantitative context before they can be accepted.

In other words, if I claim that “Uncle Rupert’s Rustic Rose” is a superior wine and 500 others (or at least a reputable wine critic) rate it as something akin to witch hazel, then the majority or the critic’s views would logically prevail.

Many of us depend on rating systems such as the 100- point scale used by The Wine Spectator or by wine critics such as Robert Parker or Steven Tanzer to guide us through the purple maze, while others will purchase wine from exceptional vintages or from acclaimed regions like Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Still others focus their choice on wineries that consistently produce excellent wine. And unfortunately, a large number of folks with too much money to spend think there is a direct correlation between quality and very expensive wine.

In my opinion, the best way to judge a wine’s quality is to taste them blind. Be assured this has nothing to do with using blindfolds or drinking to excess. A blind tasting involves obscuring the wine label by having another person place the bottle in a bag before you taste. This will eliminate any possible price or winery bias so that you can truly judge the product on its quality.

Blind tastings are something I do regularly so I can objectively evaluate the aroma, taste and visual qualitative elements that are the basis for whether I recommend a wine or not.

While all these evaluation methods have merit (except for basing your selection solely on price), there is one consideration we often overlook that can sometimes cloud our judgment. I’ll call it context.

Here is an example of what I mean.

On a beautiful early fall evening, my wife and I were dining al fresco at a small restaurant overlooking Lake Garda in northern Italy. The food was simple, but delicious. And the wine? It was made by the family that owned the restaurant and I swear – at that time and place – it was among the best wines I had ever tasted.

That entire multi-course meal with wine did not exceed $45, but this was one of the best wine and food experiences of my life. Why, you ask? Well, simply put, it was the context under which I had the experience, and I believe it is one of the most important, and underrated, elements of food and wine appreciation.

You cannot underestimate how the setting or context of your wine tasting affects your perception of its quality. Why? Well sometimes it has to do with whom I am forced to consume the stuff, the location of the tasting or even my mood.

Business dinners, where tensions are high and where the food and wine are secondary to accomplishing some corporate objective, are, for me, among the most difficult times to enjoy and objectively evaluate wine. At such dinners, I am tempted to order a wine that I actually dislike so that it will pair well with the sometimes distasteful subjects under discussion – but, of course, I don’t.

So the next time you ‘re using your critical wine appreciation skills to determine the quality of a specific bottle, think about the external influences that just might cloud your judgment.

Try these two –context-neutral- but excellent wines for your sipping pleasure.

2013 Raptor Ridge Pinot Gris ($20) – From Oregon’s Willamette Valley, this round and refreshing pinot gris is full of citrus and melon flavors and finishes with nice acidity. Sip it on the porch before dinner or pair it with grilled chicken thighs with a lemon, rosemary and honey glaze.

2013 Sierra Cruz Carmenere ($9) – This medium -bodied cabernet franc from Chile is a black cherry, fruit forward wine that finishes fairly dry. Chill it for 20 minutes and then drink it with grilled flank steak that has been rubbed with coarsely ground black pepper and marinated in soy, olive oil, and garlic with a dash or two of red wine vinegar.

It’s okay to chill red wine

After a winter when I wondered whether the weather would ever warm up, summer has come and now I feel obligated to complain about the temperature- not outside- but rather the temperature at which my favorite beverage is being served to me in restaurants.

It is extremely important any time of the year to serve wine at the proper temperature, but in summer it is especially critical so that both whites and reds are not only cool to the taste, but also provide a pleasing counterpoint to the warmth of the accompanying food.

Here is a universal and unfortunate truth: White wine is served too cold and red wine too warm.

In my estimation, the problem is twofold: for whites it is the ubiquitous convenience of refrigeration; and for reds it is our confusion over the term “room temperature.”

Let’s start with white wine and the almost fervent belief by some that if we have the capability to make something cold, then we should therefore serve our liquids – including white wine – at Arctic temperatures. Drinking wines that are served at just above freezing will give you a headache and, worse, you won’t even be able to taste them.


I’m sure that many flawed wines benefit from this chilling effect, but the delicate flavors and nuances of taste in say, a riesling, gavi or sauvignon blanc, will be absolutely neutered by excessive chilling. The good news here is that if you wait 10 or 15 minutes, the wine will warm to a reasonable temperature.

So what is the proper temperature to serve white wine? Whites served at between 48 and 53 degrees Fahrenheit are about ideal. However, since most of us don’t carry thermometers with us, the easiest way to judge the proper temperature is to drink them when they are cool, refreshing and you can actually taste the flavor nuances of the wine.

There is one exception to this rule and that is Champagne or sparkling wine. These “fizzers” actually benefit from colder temperatures (around 45 degrees F), where the chilling effect blunts some of the carbonation yet still allows you to enjoy the complex flavors of these wines.

Red wine is a bit more complicated. In fact, you can trash the old axiom that proclaims red wine should be served at “room temperature.” Why? Well, that room temperature rule was adopted in the middle ages when the average castle, lean-to or hut’s temperature was about 55 degrees F. – in the summer.

Unfortunately, some individuals and restaurants assume room temperature means somewhere between 70 and 80 degrees. When you are at home, this problem is easily resolved by simply refrigerating the wine for 15 to 30 minutes, which should bring the temperature down to around 60 degrees.

But what if you are in a restaurant and you’re served red wine that is too warm? While there are a few establishments - Noah's Eclectic Bistro in Charleston comes to mind -  that actually keep their reds at the proper temperature both summer and winter, the overwhelming majority do not. In this case, you should simply ask for an ice bucket to chill the wine for a few minutes.

However, don’t be surprised if you’re lectured by some clueless waiter on the “proper” serving temperature of red wine. Don’t laugh, there are restaurants with award-winning wine lists where hundred dollar bottles of red wine are served lukewarm.

So, while dinning at your favorite restaurant this summer, insist on reds and whites served at a temperature that is both refreshing and also complimentary to the food you are eating. And don’t be embarrassed to ask for an ice bucket to chill your red if it is served to you at “room temperature.”

Here are two wines I think you will enjoy this summer:

2012 Buty Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc/Muscadelle ($33) This complex white blend is from Washington State. It’s a medium-bodied wine with aromas of ripe pear and slate, and a rich, creamy mouth fill with anise and citrus flavor nuances. Try this wine with ripe tomatoes drizzled with the best Tuscan extra virgin olive oil you can find and topped with fresh mozzarella and basil.

2011 Louis Martini Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) – Ripe blackberry and cola flavors highlight this balanced and very approachable cabernet. Decant and chill this tasty wine in the refrigerator for 15 minutes before serving it with a grilled rib eye rubbed with garlic, coarsely ground black pepper and kosher salt.

State restaurants with excellent wine lists

I have always appreciated the exquisite synergy between food and a companion beverage. Now that beverage is wine, but in my formative years, I discovered others that not only whet my whistle but were also improved when I sipped them with food.

The first epiphany occurred when I poured a small bag of salted peanuts into a bottle of RC Cola and took a drink of the mixture. Holy Molley! Both the peanuts and the cola were vastly improved by the marriage of these humble products. Later, when I was old enough to place a quarter on the bar at Joe’s Sportsman Inn and request a “cold one,” I discovered that even alcoholic beverages were improved when consumed with food and vice-versa.

At Joe’s, it was a hot dog made with mouth-searing chili sauce created by the proprietor to keep patrons from ordering food. Joe, who preferred to sip Calvert Reserve blended whiskey without interruption, could never understand why his thermo-nuclear hot dogs were so popular. Anyway, that’s when I realized that food was a lot better when accompanied by a complementary beverage other than water or even RC Cola.

Since then, I’ve had the occasion to dine at some pretty special restaurants in the US and around the world. As a matter of fact, we have quite a few good ones right here in the Mountain State that also understand the importance of cultivating a good and fairly priced wine list. Others have noticed too, including the Wine Spectator Magazine that has recognized eight Mountain State establishments with “Awards of Excellence” and another for “Best of Awards of Excellence” for their wine lists.

[caption id="attachment_1081" align="alignleft" width="300"] Food and Wine = Synergy


The state restaurants receiving Awards of Excellence are: Bridge Road Bistro, The Chop House and Laury’s in Charleston; Provence Market Café in Bridgeport; Final Cut Steak House in Charles Town; Sargasso in Morgantown; Savannah’s in Huntington; and Spats in Parkersburg (within the Blennerhassett Hotel). Another state restaurant, The Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, received “Best of Awards of Excellence” and that’s quite an honor since fewer than 1,000 dining establishments achieved that distinction.

One restaurant that is conspicuous by its absence from the Wine Spectator list is the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs. I spoke to an official at the Greenbrier who noted that the restaurant lists are currently being reviewed and updated. Once this process is completed, the resort will be presenting them for review. Expect them to be among the Wine Spectator awardees in the future.

Not every good restaurant in the state has sought national recognition  and there are several establishments that deserve mention here for their exceptional food and their thoughtful wine lists. Here a few of my favorites.

The South Hills Market and Café in Charleston, owned by Richard and Anne Arbaugh, features a superb and ever-changing menu of continental, low-country and new American delicacies with a visually appealing presentation. The wine list is well conceived, priced fairly and complements the cuisine.

Another Capitol city establishment — Paterno’s At The Park — has become the city’s best Italian restaurant with a very good and reasonably priced wine list. And Rocco’s in Ceredo features artful and inventive southern Italian delicacies. Rocco knows his wine and the list marries seamlessly with his creative cuisine.

The charm and atmosphere of Café Cimino in Sutton is only exceeded by the Italian and Mediterranean dishes inspired by Chef Tim Urbanic. I once participated in a 10-course Italian meal with accompanying wines, including consecutive older vintages of Barolo. Café Cimino is also a B&B and should be on your must go-to list.

In the northern part of the state, the Wonder Bar, between Bridgeport and Clarksburg, has always been known for its excellent steaks. With new ownership, the steaks are still superb, but the wine list has been completely improved and updated.

Three other restaurants in Charleston deserve mention here. Noah’s Eclectic Bistro is a small, 11-table establishment that, as its name implies, showcases a very wide-ranging menu and a wine list exceptional for its variety and value. And the good folks at the Bluegrass Kitchen continue to improve their small, value -oriented and well thought out list to accompany the excellent menu offerings. And finally, some of the best thin crust pizza in the state, along with an extensive wine-by-the-glass list, can be enjoyed at Soho's  at the Capitol Market.

Tipsy Hot Smoked Salmon

It’s pretty obvious that most of us plagiarize each other’s recipes. Unless you have discovered a new fruit, vegetable or species of animal, everything ever prepared to be consumed has been documented and then revised by someone else.

So this is my rationalization for borrowing - and personalizing – a recipe from my favorite local fish monger. Joe’s Fish Market in Charleston (304-342-7827) is a great place to buy fresh seafood. Two brothers – Joe and Robin Harmon – have perfected a “hot smoked” salmon recipe that I have taken the liberty of altering somewhat, and which I’ll share with you (see recipe below).

Robin is the smoke master for this delicious treatment of salmon, and each week he labors on his smoker out behind the market to produce this culinary masterpiece. The easy way out is to get to the market early in the week (or call and place an order) and purchase a slab of Joe’s hot smoked salmon. It is simply delicious!

But if you have a couple of spare hours, particularly on the weekend when the alternative is yard work or worse (honey-do’s), then you just might try your hand at hot smoking a side of salmon. Oh, by the way, you will love the wines I am recommending to accompany the dish.

First though, it’s important to understand the difference between hot and cold smoked salmon. Traditional cold- smoked salmon is produced by hanging sides of the fish in a smoke house where a wood fire is constantly tended to insure that the temperature is between 80 and 90 degrees (F). This process can take a few hours, overnight or a couple of days to complete.

If you want to cold smoke your salmon at home, there are actually electric smokers you can purchase for a few hundred bucks. Bradley Smokers are often recommended for home use, but I prefer to hot smoke my fish using my trusty old Weber grill.

At Joes, the hot smoked salmon produced in house is brined in water, salt, brown sugar and garlic for a few hours and then smoked for up to an hour over apple wood. They also use farm-raised salmon and recommend using it rather than wild salmon that tends to dry out if you are not careful.


The main difference between Joe’s version and mine is the brine where I believe in giving the salmon a little sip of wine and maybe a beer or two. It’s also a good idea to have a taste or two while you’re creating this culinary masterpiece. After all, dehydration is a terrible thing.

If you live around these parts, go on down to Joe’s and try his hot smoked salmon, and then go back and buy a side of salmon and smoke it yourself. I don’t claim to say my recipe is better, but it’s pretty good. I hope you give it a try.

 
Tipsy Hot Smoked Salmon
Ingredients
One salmon filet with skin on (usually 1.5 to 2 lbs)
Two bottles of pilsner (any American beer will do)
One-half bottle of dry white wine
Two quarts of cold water
One half cup of Kosher salt
Four garlic cloves minced
One half cup, plus teaspoon of light brown sugar
Two teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil
One teaspoon each of cumin, black pepper and chili powder
Three cups of apple wood chips

How To
Make a brine (in large pot) of the salt, sugar, water, wine, beer and garlic
Mix and pour brine into a gallon baggie
Place salmon filet in brine making sure the liquid covers the fish
Put baggie into the pot and place in refrigerator for two to three hours
Soak wood chips in warm water for same amount of time
Remove salmon from brine and pat dry
Rub olive oil all over fish and place on aluminum foil in a cookie pan
Sprinkle cumin, black pepper, brown sugar and chili powder evenly on filet
Make a small charcoal fire (about three handfuls of coals)
Move coals to one side of grill, drain wood chips and place in and on charcoal fire
Place pan with salmon on the opposite side of grill and put lid on
Smoke slowly by adjusting grill vents to control temperature (no more than 300F)
Check salmon after 30 minutes and then again after 45 minutes
Salmon is done when firm, but not hard to the touch

Wine Recommendations: This tipsy hot smoked salmon needs medium to full-bodied white or red wines. I prefer pinot noir from cooler growing areas in California or ones produced in Oregon. I also suggest Rhone-style whites and medium-flavored chardonnay for the salmon. Here are ones you might try.

Pinot noir: 2010 Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee ($45); 2011 Melville Santa Rita Hills ($30); 2012 Acacia Carneros ($20); 2012 MacMurray Ranch Russian River ($25).

Whites: 2011 Paul Mas Marsanne ($12); 2012 Anselmi San Vincenzo ($14- blend of garganega and chardonnay); 2011 Mer Soleil Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay ($27); 2012 d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier/Marsanne ($15).

What it takes to make good wine

Try as I might, I can never comprehend more than just rudimentary mathematical calculations. I do know simple math and can recite my multiplication tables (but not beyond nine times nine) so I am able to function fairly well in this increasingly complex world.

Most of us want simple answers to the subjects or hobbies that pique our interest. Take wine for example. I am often asked to disclose the most important factor in producing good wine.

Well, among the plethora of qualitative components that must be present to produce a good bottle of wine, it is difficult to single out just one as the most important. So I’ll focus on two basic conditions that must exist for good wine to be made.

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

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

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

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

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

A perfect year can quickly morph into disaster when a sudden hailstorm in the summer or torrential rains during harvest wreaks havoc on the vineyards. Just this past vintage, hailstorms in July and August decimated many vineyards in Burgundy.

[caption id="attachment_829" align="alignleft" width="300"] Sunny days don't always insure good wine


Conversely, those in California, South America (Chile and Argentina) and Southeast Australia tout the consistently good weather as the reason for the outstanding wines they produce. Weather is usually not an issue in these regions. Yet, too much of a good thing (e.g. long, hot growing seasons) can result in a vintage of out of balance, insipid and with overly alcoholic wines.

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

For years, wine makers in California struggled to make decent pinot noir and consistently failed. It was widely held that the state was just too warm to successfully produce this fickle grape, which requires a long, cool growing season.

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

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

So, the take away is to do a little homework before you go on a wine-buying spree. Check out vintage reports and tasting notes for the wines you are interested in, particularly those like Burgundy, that require a serious investment. You can also surf the Internet to get the latest information.

Wine Recommendations:

2012 Kiona Cabernet Sauvignon ($27) – From Washington State, this is a perfectly balanced cabernet with medium tannins that should keep getting better for years to come. Delicious now with flavors of cassis and blackberries, I suggest decanting the wine for two hours and pairing it to a grilled strip steak that has been rubbed with kosher salt and ground black pepper.

2013 Charles and Charles Rose ($14) – Also from Washington State, this salmon-colored Rhone-like rose blend is dry, delicate and infused with strawberry and cherry flavors. This Columbia Valley beauty is just the right bottle to sip on the porch or at a picnic with a slice of honey glazed ham.

Ramps, bow-ties and wine

I spent a few days in Canaan Valley recently and, as all who frequent that unique and spectacular mountain getaway know, mother nature usually puts on quite a show, particularly in spring. Bored with the weather? Wait five minutes and watch it change.

And, like other mountain communities around our wild and wonderful state, spring ushers forth bountiful quantities of allium tricoccum or as they are more commonly known: ramps.

Yes, that odiferous wild lily pops up through the earth in early spring and is both adored and despised by disparate groups of people who find themselves within sniffing distance of the controversial plant.


Count me among those who wait impatiently for the little buggers to peek through the  ground. For a month, I checked my special ramp patch for the green shoots (resembling the leaves on scallions) that signal their arrival. Finally they appeared and I spent an hour digging them out – one by one - until I had what we refer to as a “mess” of ramps.

Like some of my other controversial predilections, my fondness for ramps does not endear me to my significant other. Their smell, when raw, can be eye wateringly painful to more delicate creatures. However, like garlic and onions, the pungency of ramps is greatly diminished when they are cooked.

This time of year, just about every town in our state features a ramp feed at which people are introduced (many for the first time) to over-ripe and under-cooked ramps. After experiencing the culinary massacre of ramps by those who fry them in lard or bacon grease and add them to potatoes or (worse) pinto beans, many people leave the events belching and flatulent, vowing never to get within a country mile of a ramp.

Today, I am going to provide you with two recipes for ramps that may well give you the courage to try them. The first is a delicious ramp and pasta dish I call Ramps and Bow Ties. The second is to simply and quickly grill them (no more than three minutes) and then pair them to grilled meats or veggies. By the way, I have purchased ramps at the Purple Onion store at Capitol Market in Charleston. Do a Google search and I’m sure you will find purveyors in your area.

Oh, surprise - I’m also going to give you a couple wine suggestions that will enhance the dishes.

Ramps and Bow Ties
Shopping list:One small bunch of ramps –-
One pound of fresh asparagus
Two slices of thick sliced bacon
Three table spoons of extra virgin olive oil
One-pound of farfale (bow tie pasta)
One teaspoon of red pepper flakes (optional)
One cup of grated pecorino-romano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

[caption id="attachment_1048" align="alignleft" width="225"] Grilled Ramps with Veggies


Creating the DishDice two pieces of bacon, sauté until crisp then put bacon onto paper towels
Reserve one tablespoon of bacon fat and add olive oil to sauté pan
Chop approximately ten ramps (white parts) and the asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces
Sauté the ramps and asparagus in the oil and bacon fat until tender
Reserve the green parts to add as garnish to the pasta dish when completed
Cook the pasta (al dente) in a large pot and reserve one cup of the cooking liquid
Transfer the cooked pasta to the sauté pan and add the reserved cooking liquid
Mix the pasta into the sauce and add the cheese and red pepper
Serve with the green ramp leaves as a garnish

Wine Recommendations:
2012 St. Supery Virtu Meritage ($32) is a great pairing with this pasta/ramp concoction and lends a refreshing and herbal element to the dish. This blend of sauvignon blanc and Semillon also has the texture and depth to stand up to and enhance the aggressive flavors of the sauce. It is also a great match with the ramp and grilled vegetables dish pictured above.

2011 Dolcetto d'Alba Sori Paitin ($19) This northern Italian red is exceptionally fruit forward with dark cherry flavors, yet it is medium to full bodied. The wine marries nicely with the ramp pasta. It would also do well as an accompaniment to barbecued pork or beef that is flanked by grilled ramps brushed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Vinous goodies from Down Under

In the last few years, Australia has experienced a decrease in export wine sales due to, among other things, the recent world wide recession, an over supply of wines in the American marketplace and over production of wines from “Down Under.”

Yet, with all these difficulties, many Americans – including yours truly – still love the tremendous variety, value and quality of Australian wines.

As a young man a few decades back, I spent a week Down Under courtesy of the US Army. What I remember of that R&R week in Sydney is a bit fuzzy, but one aspect of Australian life was crystal clear: those folks liked their adult beverages!

While my beverage of choice that week was beer – (which came in 10W-40-like cans or served in large draft mugs called “Schooners”), years later I came to appreciate another consumable liquid ably produced by the Aussies – wine.

Over the last 25 years, I have seen the Australian wine market grow from a few recognizable quality brands like Penfolds, to hundreds of excellent wineries from several growing regions in that vast country. The Barossa Valley in southeastern Australia is the most prestigious wine region and, meteorologically speaking, is very much like northern California with vintages that are consistently good.

While Australia is known mainly for its shiraz (which the rest of the world calls syrah), Aussie wine makers also produce excellent cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, riesling, semillon and grenache. I also like the Australian penchant for combining different varieties of grapes into a bottle of wine that is a blend.

[caption id="attachment_1042" align="alignleft" width="146"] The Laughing Magpie


I’ve often wondered if the cultural diversity of Australia has played a role in the ubiquitous practice by many of their wine makers to blend. Whatever the reason, I’m glad they continue to do so because the resulting wines are not only very good, they provide complex tasting experiences.

Just the other night I opened a bottle of 2002 d’Arenberg’s The Laughing Magpie which is a blend of shiraz with ten percent viognier- a white wine. Adding the viognier gave the blend a more lively and refreshing mouth feel yet did not take detract from exceptional way the wine complemented the grilled strip steak with which it was paired.

In addition to the aforementioned Laughing Magpie which retails at about $30 a bottle, d’Arenberg has a whole stable of very good wines that go by some strange and humorous names, including The Lucky Lizard Chardonnay, Dead Arm Shiraz and The Hermit Crab Viognier, just to name a few.

Try the old vine grenache from d’Arenberg called The Custodian. At under $20 a bottle, this wine is from ancient vines – some more than 100 years old – and yet it is soft, approachable and full of spicy blueberry flavors. It would be a wonderful accompaniment to grilled beef ribs in a tomato-based barbecue sauce.

The Hermit Crab ($15), which is a Rhone-like blend of viognier and marsanne, is well balanced and chock full of ripe pear flavors with a pronounced minerality. Its great as a porch-sipper or with lighter fish dishes such as flounder sauced with lemon and butter.

Another of my favorite shiraz’ is one produced by Torbreck called The Woodcutter’s Red ($25). This is a spicy, elegant wine with hints of blackberries that is pulled together by excellent balancing acidity. Grilled salmon with a southwest seasoning would be a good choice with the Woodcutter’s.

In Australia, semillon (which sometimes is blended with chardonnay or sauvignon blanc) is made in a full-bodied and rich style, yet it has a mineral quality that allows it to go quite well with oysters on the half shell as well as pasta dishes, especially sauced with a basil pesto. Try the Semillon from Simon Hackett, Rosemount and Peter Lehmann all of which retail for under $25 a bottle.

Riesling is also a good choice from Down Under and the following wines are very reasonably priced: Pikes Clare Valley Riesling, Wolf Blass Adelaide Gold and Grant Burge. Slightly sweet, these are great aperitif wines or good matches to lighter foods like seafood salads or brunch grub such as omelets.

So go Down Under for some seriously good wines.

Springtime: bring on the spicy barbecue and wine

Despite snow flurries and frigid temperatures to the contrary, I am confident that springtime is about to break out and that means firing up the trusty old Weber grill for some spicy barbecue treats.

But first, let’s define the term barbecue - which seems to mean different things to different people.

For some, it’s a verb as in: “I’m going to barbecue some hot dogs.” For others, barbecue is a noun and refers to a type of cooked pork or beef (usually rib meat) that is dry-rubbed and/or immersed in various sauces, chopped or pulled and then served on a bun.

I define barbecue as a style of cooking, and you will find just about every kind of food on my grill, including (but not limited to) pork, beef, lamb, fish, vegetables and even fruit.

I am also a “true believer” in using charcoal or wood to cook the animal, vegetable or fruit on my grill. I have used every brand of gas grill – from the most expensive to the most economical -and they all share one fatal flaw: uneven heat distribution.

It’s also a pain in the posterior to try and use smoking woods such as hickory, mesquite or apple on a gas grill, and that’s a problem for me since these woods add a wonderful flavor dimension to barbecue foods.

And okay, I confess, there’s just something compelling and deliciously barbaric about setting charcoal on fire, and then using the coals to sear animal flesh or things that grow. (I’m not sure I want know why this practice is so appealing to me).

So here’s a recipe for my original Barbarian Barbecue sauce that you can use on just about any meat or fish (especially salmon). Of course, I’ll provide you with a few wines that are among my favorites to complete this spicy meal.

Barbarian Barbecue Sauce
Combine a cup of ketchup with half a cup of white vinegar in a cooking pot
Pour a 12-ounce bottle of beer and two ounces of orange juice to the pot
Add a tablespoon each of brown sugar, molasses and Tabasco
Add one teaspoon of dried mustard, Kosher salt and ground black pepper
Bring to a boil and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes until it thickens
Brush the food with the sauce and serve.

[caption id="attachment_550" align="alignleft" width="225"] Barbarian Baby Backs


Here are some excellent wines to sip that are especially good and will help you release your inner Barbarian.

2013 Moulin Gassac Guilheim Rose ($10) From Languedoc-Roussillon, this dry rose is a blend of each grenache, carignan and syrah. This baby is full of strawberry and red fruit flavors with a crisp acidity that makes it a great pairing with barbecue.

Fisher Ridge Syrah ($12)– From Putnam County, Fisher Ridge is the oldest West Virginia winery and does a marvelous job with this fruit forward and lighter styled version of syrah. Excellent balance and bright cherry flavors marry well with barbecue.

2011 Paul Mas Estate Carignan Old Vines ($11) – This red wine from is also from France’s Languedoc region and is produced from vines older than 50 years. With aromas of spice, tea and just a hint of oak, the wine exhibits dark fruit flavors that finish dry and pair well with just about any barbecue dish.

2011 Las Rocas Garnacha ($15) – From the Aragon region of Spain, this grenache is produced from 30 to 50 year old vines which exhibit blackberry, cherry and tea flavors to create a robust and full bodied wine. This would be excellent with grilled baby backs slathered with the aforementioned barbecue sauce.

2011 Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ($32) – Produced from 100 percent sangiovese grapes, this round, rich and full-bodied wine will meld its black cherry and cola flavors exceedingly well with a grilled and barbecue-sauced pork tenderloin.

Pairing wine and food: No rules, just do it !

Wine without food is like, chips without dip, Adam without Eve, spring without ramps, or love without a partner!

Yeah, yeah, I know, we all occasionally sneak a glass or two of wine at a cocktail party to be social, but that little sip tastes so much better with just about any morsel of food. And while finding the perfect pairing is akin to discovering the Holy Grail, even the imperfect matches are so much better than consuming wine or food alone.

While there is some legitimacy to the old adage of red wine with red meat and white wine with fish or white meat, pairing food and wine is a lot more complicated. Today we’ll examine those complications and hopefully provide you with some helpful tips.

Of course, I must provide the disclaimer that what I am about to recommend is the subjective opinion of an avowed hedonist. Still, some matches are so good that they are almost universally embraced. Take steak and cabernet sauvignon for example.

Most carnivores I know agree that cabernet, particularly from California, South American or Australia, is a wonderful accompaniment to a grilled or broiled rib eye, filet, strip steak or prime rib.

Another undisputed winner is to pair a rich chardonnay or White Burgundy with lobster and drawn butter. The richness of the lobster along with the oiliness of the butter is married spectacularly with the unctuousness of a full-bodied chardonnay.

While there would be virtually no disagreement on the accuracy of the above two food and wine pairings, more generalized statements can be dead wrong.

For example, if you assume that all chardonnay is always the best choice with lobster and drawn butter, or that all cabernet is perfect with steak you would be making a big mistake. Here’s why.

A chardonnay from Chablis in France is usually austere with crisp acidity and mineral qualities. It is best paired with oysters and/or plainly cooked seafood. It would be overwhelmed if matched with lobster and drawn butter.

The same goes for pairing an older cabernet or Bordeaux with a grilled steak. The cabernet or Bordeaux develops layers of delicate flavors and aromas over the years that would be destroyed by, say, a grilled rib eye.

So how do you make good judgments on pairing food and wine when the answers are not obvious? Well, you can rely on “experts” to provide advice and/or you can use common sense and be adventurous. Here are some tips that may help you out if you choose to go it alone.

Think of flavor, texture and weight of the food and wine pairing. You wouldn’t logically pair a full-flavored red wine with delicate broiled seafood such as Dover Sole. Think about it. The flavors, textures and weight are all out of balance. Instead, try delicate White Bordeaux, an Italian Arneis or a Washington State semillon.

Here’s the closest thing to an absolute wine and food no-no: vinaigrette salad with any wine. Why? The vinegar based dressing clashes with the acid in wine destroying the flavors of both the salad and wine. Creamy or cheese dressings work fine with sauvignon blanc, riesling or viognier, but nothing works with vinaigrette.

This one breaks the rules, but is a definite winner. Try a pinot noir, Chianti, or even Beaujolais with grilled salmon, tuna or chicken. Pinot noir also pairs greatly with spicy foods, particularly Southwestern (US) fare. Ditto, gruner veltliner or gewürztraminer. They go especially well with spicy oriental dishes, especially Thai food.

Roasted Thanksgiving turkey can handle just about any white or red, but I particularly like Rhone reds, Alsatian pinot gris and merlot-based Bordeaux with the “national bird.”

Chocolate desserts love – are you ready for this – cabernet sauvignon. Ices and sorbets are great with Moscato and sweet sparkling wines. Try blue cheese with Port and late harvest zinfandel.

One final thought: if you prefer Mad Dog 40-40 with your Peking Duck, go for it! The best food and wine pairing is what you choose. The key is to do the pairing.

How I took advantage of the water crisis to drink more wine!

I have never been a big fan of water, though I do know we need to consume a good bit to sustain life. I generally prefer to get my water through the consumption of other beverages (after all, wine is approximately 85 percent water).
I must admit, however, that it has been easier than usual to abstain from water over the past couple of months here in Charleston. Therefore, I have turned our water emergency into an opportunity for you and me.
Since I am only getting 85 percent water out of each  bottle consumed, I needed to rev up my wine consumption in order to remain properly hydrated. Therefore, today I am able to recommend quite a few more wines than normal for your sipping pleasure.

Here are some wines that you might wish to try along with some suggested food pairings.

Voveti Prosecco DOC NV ($20) Fresh, fragrant and light, this delivers a touch of sweetness, followed by aromas of citrus and ripe apples. This wine is crisp, easy and refreshing and would make a great porch sipper or a good accompaniment to mild cheddar, some walnuts and a bunch of grapes.

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


2011 Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay ($20) While 2011 was difficult vintage, this barrel fermented chardonnay has apricot and spicy nutmeg –like flavors, balanced by good acidity and toasty oak nuances. Try this with a roasted chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes and rubbed with garlic, olive oil and rosemary.

2011 Gary Farrell Russian River Pinot Noir  ($45) Another good wine from 2011, this pinot noir has ripe black cherry and spicy tea flavors. With a backbone of bracing acidity, this wine begs to be matched with a filet of salmon that has been brushed with cumin, lime juice and honey and grilled over a charcoal fire (or gas grill).

Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs ($22) - This Sonoma County wine is produced using the Champagne-method. Made from pinot noir, this blush colored sparkler is richly textured with a hint of brioche underneath the ripe berry flavors. The wine is round but dry on the finish and would make a good match to grilled baby back ribs with a red sauce.

2012 Mulderbosch Rose of Cabernet Sauvignon ($12) This is a very full bodied South African rose that tastes of ripe sour cherries just picked from the tree. It is rich, but dry and would work very well as an accompaniment to lighter styled meat dishes such as chicken coq au vin.

2010 Alto Moncayo Veraton ($27) From Spain, this old vine grenache is rich, ripe, round and full-bodied. Flavors of black raspberries and spicy tea with just a hint of vanilla make this a superb accompaniment to beef dishes such as roasted prime rib with a chimichurri sauce.

Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto ($20) – This Italian sweet red sparkler is chock full of raspberry and black cherry flavors and would make an equally good aperitif or dessert wine. Rosa Regale is especially good with most desserts, especially vanilla ice cream and raspberries or any chocolate dish.

If you’re still concerned about the water, you might want to get your hydration the way I do. Cheers.

The Importance of vintage years

I believe the most important factor in making good wine is temperate weather throughout the vintage cycle. Yes, the location and topography of the vineyard is important as is planting the right grape in the right soil, but none of this matters if the year is too wet, dry or cold, or if the vineyard experiences the devastation of hail or a vine killing frost.

With that said, there’s some pretty good news for those who like to drink American wines.

[caption id="attachment_708" align="alignleft" width="300"] Easton Amador County Zin


In California, after an uncharacteristically cool growing season in 2010 and an almost disastrous harvest in 2011, 2012 turned out to be both large and excellent and 2013 is proving to be almost as good.

Amazingly, given the geographic diversity of the state, all AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) have reported excellent wine in the last two California vintage years. That is already translating into better availability and steady prices for California wines, even those in the premium growing areas of Napa and Sonoma counties.

Washington, which produces more wine than any state other than California, has had good to exceptional vintages in recent years. The 2009 vintage has resulted in very good cabernet, syrah and merlot while unusually good acidity helped the 2010 harvest overcome a cool growing season to produce excellent pinot gris and riesling.

While 2011 was a very challenging year in the state, 2012 produced great quantity and excellent quality, particularly in red wines. The 2013 Washington vintage was very warm with abrupt cooling late in the year, but overall quality, especially for reds, is very good.

There is also good news coming out of Oregon where there has been a string of good to excellent vintages. While 2011 was average at best, the 2008, 2010 and 2012 harvests have produced exceptional wine, particularly for that state’s premier grape – pinot noir. This past year has been called a tale of two vintages. Grapes picked before the rains began (and continued for 11 days) were exceptional while the jury is still out on those picked later.

Why all this information on vintages? Well, as a home wine maker, I know first hand what a poor vintage can yield, particularly in the hands of an amateur. One year, confronted with a half ton of mushy, moldy grapes, I produced a foul smelling, horribly flawed wine that tasted not quite as good as witch hazel.

But even professional vintners hold their collective breaths waiting for Mother Nature’s final verdict. The individuality of vintages reminds us not to take things for granted in the wine world. It is also an opportunity for we consumers to take advantage of an abundant and good vintage to stock up on the wines we love to drink.

One important caveat, though, is worth noting here: even in poor vintage years, there are some hidden gems just waiting to be found.

Here are few wines I’ve been sipping from a few of those good vintage years that you might consider: 2010 Easton Amador County Zinfandel ($17); 2010 Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir ($44); 2012 Chateau Ste Michelle Cold Creek Chardonnay ($19); and 2012 L’Ecole No. 41 Semillon ($17).

Pour yourself a big glass of Zin and forget the bills

While we all await with great trepidation the inevitable onslaught of post holiday bills, I’ve got the prefect tonic to assuage our collective mental anguish: open a bottle of good, inexpensive, mood enhancing red wine and sip it with your favorite comfort food.

Hey, there’s no shame in feeling a little down after all that celebrating. The real shame would be neglecting our primal need for hearty sustenance beginning with a spirit warming red wine. We’ll get to the food later.

While I dearly love cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux varietals such as merlot and cabernet franc as well as those full-bodied reds such as syrah, Barbaresco and Barolo, I invariably fall back on my favorite go-to big red – zinfandel.

Benjamin Disraeli was famously quoted as proclaiming: “The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can never end.”

With all due respect to the late and esteemed Mr. Disraeli, I must say that I disagree, particularly when it comes to wine. The first grape I ever had the pleasure of making into wine more than 30 years ago was zinfandel. And even though the resulting liquid was so over-oaked that it resembled toasted wood more than it did wine, I still love zinfandel (made by professionals) to this day.

[caption id="attachment_254" align="alignleft" width="125"] One of my favorite Zins


Zinfandel is a very versatile wine. While the actual origin of the grape has been genetically traced to Croatia, it is widely thought of as “America’s wine.” This is a wine many people think is white (as in White Zinfandel) or blush, but of course it is one of California’s greatest red wines.

And while Napa Valley is the premier growing area for most red wines, I feel zinfandel does best in Sonoma and Amador Counties. Sonoma zinfandel is a characteristically full-bodied wine with loads of blackberry –like flavors that, while classically dry, has an almost mouth-filling fruit sweetness.

I suggest you try these Sonoma zinfandels: Ridge Lytton Springs, Ridge Geyserville, Ravenswood Sonoma, Quivara, Dry Creek, Seghesio, Foppiano,
Mazzocco and Pedroncelli.

While Sonoma zins showcase berry fruit, Amador County zinfandel has more coffee, mint and chocolate-like qualities. There are some berry flavors too, but they are not as prominent as in the Sonoma-made wine.

Amador can produce some very highly concentrated wines, but they are wonderful matches with garlic-infused dishes. Try Renwood Old Vines, Montevina, Terra d’Oro, Shenandoah Vineyards, Folie a Deux , Easton and Amador Foothill Winery.

As noted earlier, zinfandel is a wonderful match to fuller flavored foods and hearty dishes. Here is one of my favorites: Pasta with red sauce, peppers and Italian sausage.

One pound of linguine
One-half cup of Peccorino- Romano finely grated cheese
One pound of Italian sausage without the casing
Three garlic cloves finely chopped
One large can of whole tomatoes (San Marzano if you can find them)
One large onion chopped
One hot banana pepper chopped (optional)
Two red peppers and one green pepper cut into two-inch long strips
One teaspoon each of ground black pepper and kosher salt

Sauté the sausage until cooked, drain off fat and remove from the pan
Sauté garlic, onion and peppers until translucent and add sausage
Add the tomatoes and cook for about 15 minutes
Cook linguine and drain
Add linguine to tomato, sausage and pepper sauce
Plate and add cheese

Then pour yourself a big glass of zin and forget about the bills to come.

On the lamb with Sparky's Revenge

Lamb gets a baaaad rap.

I know, I know… my attempt to use this sophomoric pun doesn’t play as well to the eye as it does to the ear, but you have to admit, it does ring true.

And in all honesty, how could anyone abide the traditional English leg of lamb which is roasted (without any other spices save salt and pepper) in it’s own gamy juices and then served with huge dollops of mint jelly to obscure the awful taste.

In my own case, I could never get over the traumatic early life experience of finding out that my pet goat Sparky had not really run off, but rather was the featured centerpiece of an Easter meal that my Italian grand parents prepared decades ago.

For whatever reason, though, lamb is still mostly unappreciated by we All-American beef eaters who have been steer-ed toward and force fed cow meat from the time we could use a fork and knife without hurting ourselves.

Hey, believe me, I am a beef addict too, but years ago I was introduced to a marinated and grilled leg of lamb that was so off the-charts spectacular that I was able to dis-remember the day we ate Sparky.

And I can’t help but think that some of our aversion to mutton has to do with our Wild West forebears who saw sheep as competition to cattle for the huge tracts of land it took to raise beef.

I’m often reminded of the cowboy ‘s disdain for sheep that was recorded for posterity by Johnny Cash on his album “Ballads of the True West. ” A verse from one of his songs of his songs says it best:

“A sheep herder come once and put up a fence, We seen him that time, but we ain’t seen him since, But if your needin’ mutton, we got mutton to sell, Cause we’re cow punchers and we’re mean as hell.”
Well, despite that old song, the truth is lamb has come of age and is widely available on most fine dining room menus. Lamb is raised all over the world – even here in our state - where I regularly get it from the Monroe County Farm Coop and Sandy Creek Farms. I also get New Zealand rack of lamb at Sam’s Club.

Today, I’m going to provide you with my recipe for leg of lamb that is a perfect holiday season alternative to those roasted meat dishes we traditionally prepare. Of course, nothing marries better with roasted lamb than full-bodied red wine, and Ill suggest several for your consideration.

I call this recipe Sparky’s Revenge.
One five to six-pound boned and butterflied leg of lamb
One half bottle of good dry red wine
Six ounces extra virgin olive
Two ounces of red wine vinegar
Eight garlic cloves, chopped finely
One teaspoon of dried mustard
Three tablespoons of fresh rosemary chopped or two of dried rosemary
Two teaspoons of freshly ground black pepper
One tablespoon of salt
Two lemons juiced and cut into quarters

[caption id="attachment_254" align="alignleft" width="125"] A perfect match with Sparky's Revenge


Trim some of the thickest fat from the lamb
Combine the salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary and mustard into a mixture
Rub the mixture all over both sides of the lamb
Place lamb in a large container or gallon plastic bag
Add the wine, lemons, vinegar and juice and pour in and cover lamb
Put in the refrigerator overnight or for at least eight hours
Prepare a charcoal fire or heat up the gas grill
Remove meat from the marinade and pat dry
Place meat directly over the fire four minutes per side until seared
Cook meat indirectly for 30 minutes or until inside temperature reaches 135 F
Allow the meat to sit covered loosely with foil for 20 minutes
Slice and serve immediately

My favorite wines for grilled leg of lamb are big and red. Here are some that should make Sparky sing: 2011 Easton Amador County Zinfandel ($17); 2010 Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel ($32); 2011 Molly Dooker Maitre D’ Cabernet Sauvignon ($25); 2010 Brancaia Tre Rosso ($20); 2011 Ciacci Piccolomini Toscano ($16); 2011 Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon ($32); 2008 Zonin Amarone Della Valpolicella ($42); 2011 Vu ja de Outlaws, Rebels and Renegades ($29).