Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

A wine bar in Verona

My long time affection for wine has enabled me to eat and drink in some of the best restaurants on this planet. On my recent trip to Italy, I spent a great deal of time in the Valpolicella region of the country near Lake Garda and the city of Verona.

Verona – the fabled home of Romeo and Juliet – is a relatively small city with a population of about 260,000, but the town has an arena that was built in 30 AD and is still used to host operas, plays and even rock n’ roll concerts. The town is also the repository of Valpolicella’s best wines as well as some excellent restaurants.

[caption id="attachment_980" align="alignleft" width="300"] Our luncheon wines


On a trip to the city more than a decade ago, I was told to visit a wine bar that is considered among the very best in Italy, and with undoubtedly the greatest selection of Valpolicella wines anywhere in the world.

Antica Botegga Del Vino occupies a very narrow and long space along one of Verona’s trendy pedestrian shopping concourses. It is difficult to locate, but worth searching out as I discovered that day years ago. (Check out the website at: http://www.bottegavini.it/)

On a warm day this past June, as my traveling companions toured the arena, searched for Juliet’s home and shopped, I set off to relocate the fabled wine bar. I also wanted to do a little recon to see if the place had maintained its quality status since I had asked my companions to join me later for lunch.

The first thing you notice upon entering the establishment is an oaken bar and above it a chalk board with a listing of that day’s wines by the glass. Using my pigeon Italian, I was able to order a taste of Soave, but unable to make the bartender understand that I wanted to inspect the larger printed wine list.

After an exasperating few moments, I was approached by a nattily dressed gentleman who spoke very good English and who presented me with a Gutenberg Bible-like wine list.

Mirko Favalli, the restaurant sommelier, introduced himself and proceeded to explain that he was re-doing the list to feature bottles representing the myriad wine appellations, not only of Valpolicella, but of all Italy. All the while, Mirko was having the bartender bring me small sips of each of the wines featured on the chalk board that day.

[caption id="attachment_981" align="alignleft" width="150"] Mirko Favalli


Before long, my wife, brother-n-law and sister-in-law arrived and we were seated for lunch. Mirko sat with us for a while and then asked if he could bring a few wines for us to try with our meal. While what followed was among the best food and wine pairings I have ever experienced, the comprehensive information imparted to us by our host on the Valpolicella region was just as delicious as the meal.

Ah yes, lunch. We feasted on a cornucopia of northern Italian treats from prosciutto and figs, to all manner of pastas, to fish from Lake Lugano, to zabaione for dessert. My brother-in-law actually ordered two different pastas!

Over a period of three hours, Mirko tasted us through seven white and four red wines, mostly from single vineyard properties and all from Valpolicella. The wines were produced from both single varietals and DOCG approved blends.

While many of the bottles featured grapes of the region such as garganega (white) and corvina (red), we also tasted ones produced from obscure varietals like turbiano, a white varietal grown on the shores of Lake Lugano.

While I have always appreciated Valpolicella, particularly the reds such as Amarone and others produced in the ripasso method, I was shocked at the world-class quality of some of the single-vineyard wines of the region we tasted that day in Verona.

[caption id="attachment_984" align="alignleft" width="150"] Cellar at Botegga Del Vino


After lunch, Mirko guided us down into the catacomb-like cellar stacked from floor to ceiling with wines from all around the world. Here in this subterranean cathedral of the vine, we toasted each other with the House Grappa and said Arrivederci to Antica Botegga Del Vino.

Can you trust vintage charts?

The importance of a quality wine vintage cannot be underestimated.

As a home wine maker, I know first hand what a poor vintage in the hands of someone incompetent can yield. One year, confronted with a half ton of mushy, moldy grapes, I produced a foul smelling liquid that tasted not quite as good as turpentine.

But this year, there’s some pretty good news for California wine lovers. The 2013 vintage is shaping up to be very good or, according to some prognosticators, even excellent. As a matter of fact, the harvest has already commenced with the picking of whites such as sauvignon blanc.

There has been a string of good to excellent vintages in California recently with 2012 being generally regarded as superb. The 2009 and 2010 vintages are also stellar, especially for reds such as cabernet sauvignon.

Only in 2011, where rains fell during peak harvest periods, was the vintage considered poor. However, some wineries, that had the foresight to pick before the rains or the patience (and nerve) to wait until late in the season, made good wines in 2011.

So how much should you pay attention to vintage reports in deciding which wines to buy? In general, these reports are helpful to use as a starting point. However, a region as large as California is full of very different appellations, microclimates and terroirs.

[caption id="attachment_975" align="alignleft" width="88"] MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir


What is terroir (pronounced tare-wah) you ask? Terroir starts with the place where the grapes are grown. The vineyard location, its slope, topography and angle toward the sun are all part of terroir. So is the soil type, climate, (including rainfall and other precipitation) as well as the type of vine or clone of the vine used.

There really is no simple answer to the vintage date question because there is so much variability from wine region to wine region. As a matter of fact, there are usually significant differences among wine producing regions from within the same small geographic area. Vintage disasters in one area can be mitigated in another by Mother Nature, vineyard practices or good wine makers.

The individuality of vintages reminds us not to take things for granted in the wine world. It is a good lesson, and vintages like 2011 serve as reminders for us to dig a little deeper and find good wines in “bad” vintages.

So the next time you wish to know about the quality of a particular vintage, consult one of the many vintage charts available, but be aware that these guides can be general in nature and somewhat misleading. Always remember to trust your own palate.

Here are a couple of wines from two distinctly different vintages you might wish to try.

2011 MacMurray Ranch Russian River Pinot Noir ($25) – An example of a wine produced from a “poor” vintage that is very tasty. From a very cool region, this pinot noir has cherry and cola flavors along with an earthy toasty oak aroma. Pair it with roasted salmon that has been brushed with soy, Srircha and ginger.

2010 Cantine Colosi Rosso Sicilia ($13) From Sicily, this nero d’Avola red is full of ripe plum nuances and is a medium-bodied but rich wine. With excellent balancing acidity, try this with grilled Italian sausage and fried sweet and hot red peppers.

Gallo: Still tasty after all these years

I have an abiding interest in all aspects of wine, particularly the historical and cultural components that make drinking the stuff all that more pleasurable. I am especially interested in how the wine industry developed in the good old US of A.

There were several wine pioneers in the industry that really provided the impetus for the breadth and quality of the products that we enjoy today. Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant and self-proclaimed “Count,” established the first premium winery in Sonoma in 1857 and Buena Vista Winery continues to make excellent wine today.

Since that time others, including Charles Krug, Karl Wente and Jacob Beringer helped establish the northern California wine appellations before Prohibition and were followed by more recent wine entrepreneurs such as Robert Mondavi, Joseph Heitz and a whole bevy of others who put California (and American) wine on the world map.

But I count Ernest and Julio Gallo as the most influential individuals in transforming wine from a mysterious, elitist beverage into something that began to be accepted by just about everyone. Ernest and Julio not only knew how to make good and affordable wine, they were master marketers who changed the way we viewed the product.

I first tasted the wines as a college student decades ago, discovering the pleasures -on numerous occasions -of Gallo Pisano and Hearty Burgundy. According to my fuzzy recollection, the Gallo wine portfolio of the 60’s and 70’s consisted primarily of 1.5-liter jugs that were produced from grapes grown on thousands of vineyard acres in California’s San Joaquim Valley.

While that area was not known as a great wine appellation, the fertile vineyards produced millions of cases of drinkable, inexpensive wines. In the late 70’s and early 1980’s, the Gallo’s focused on developing a market for inexpensive “fighting varietals” such as sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. At three to five dollars a bottle, these varietals created a whole new generation of wine drinkers who could afford to trade-up from the jugs and from that frothy stuff.


At about that same time, the family began purchasing vineyards in northern California’s Sonoma County. Quietly, the Gallo’s began acquiring huge vineyard tracts all over the county in such appellations as the Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander Valleys.

While Ernest and Julio are now gone, the Gallo empire has expanded even more by purchasing wineries all over California (and the world) and has taken a quantum leap in quality while still maintaining very reasonable prices. Today, Gallo is the largest winery in the world.

Spearheading the Gallo portfolio of wines is a third generation of the family, Gina (wine maker) and Matt (her brother and grape grower). Today, they are responsible for producing Gallo’s premium line of wines most of which are available statewide.

I recently tasted three of the Gallo Signature Series wines from the premium appellations of Napa Valley, Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands. Here are some tasting notes for the wines.

2010 Gallo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) This round, rich and robust red has just a touch petit verdot and is a blend of grapes from three different vineyards in Napa. A nose of teaberry and mocha with just a hint of vanilla is followed by flavors of black raspberries, cola and chocolate. Pair this wine with a pan seared and oven roasted double cut pork chop that has been rubbed with sea salt, green peppercorns and rosemary and stuffed with herbed goat cheese.

2011 Gallo Russian River Chardonnay ($29) – 2011 was a cold and rainy year, but this wine is none the worse for it and, in fact, displays Burgundy –like balance. Crisp pear and citrus highlight the taste components that are rounded out nicely by soft oak notes. Excellent balancing acidity make this a tasty accompaniment to sautéed Chilean Sea Bass seasoned with ground fennel, a touch of garlic and lemon.

2011 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir (($35) – Earthy and ripe black cherry flavors highlight this spicy pinot noir from vineyards in the mountains overlooking the Pacific in Monterey. Nicely integrated oak gives the wine a floral nuance on the nose and complements this earth and fruit-driven pinot. Try it with grilled King Salmon that has been dusted with cumin, brown sugar and chili powder.

Sipping Valpolicella: a tasteful experience

After three days of feasting, sightseeing and navigating the waterways of Venice, my crew of intrepid wineaux (e.g. the plural of wino) set off for the Veneto in our rented Auto Europe Van. Though our stomachs were distended, our spirits were hungry for more.

It is only an hour and a half along the A-4 autostrada to our first stop of the day in the tiny village of Fumane di Valpolicella where we were to spend an interesting half-day with the folks from Allegrini.

I have written about my affection for Pallazo Della Torre - one of Allegrini’s Valpolicella red wines that is made in the ripasso method. Valpolicella is made from corvina, rondinalla and molinara grapes, all of which produce light to medium-bodied red wines that can be very pleasant quaffs.

Valpolicella becomes something more, though, when the grapes are planted in select vineyard sites and when a process called ripasso is employed during wine making. First though, it is necessary to tell you about Amarone which is like ripasso’s bigger brother.

Amarone is produced from the same Valpolicella blend, but instead of taking the grapes from the vineyard to the crusher, the little buggers are put in buildings and on trays and allowed to shrivel up and dry out like raisins. This exercise increases the sugar content so that the resulting wine is a powerful, dark and very alcoholic brute that is then aged in wood for a couple of years before it is bottled.

[caption id="attachment_952" align="alignleft" width="300"] La Grola Vineyard in Valpolicella


To make a ripasso, new Valpolicella wine is refermented by combining it with the pressings or pomace from the Amarone, and sometimes with the addition of dried grapes. The resulting ripasso wine is considerably darker and fuller bodied than Valpolicella, but not as powerful as Amarone. The well-respected Valpolicella producer Masi invented the ripasso process in the early 1960’s.

So I was excited to be at Allegrini where my favorite ripasso (Pallazo Della Torre) is produced. However, after visiting the vineyards and tasting through the entire Allegrini portfolio as well as sampling the vinous wares of many other producers, I had an epiphany: Valpolicella is one of the most underrated wine appellations not only in Italy, but in the world.

I know that is a pretty bold statement and certainly will elicit some scorn from those who view the Veneto as a second tier appellation, but the proof is in the palate and mine was blown away by the quality and diversity of the wines – both red and white. But back to my visit at Allegrini.

The patriarch of the clan – the late Giovanni Allegrini – was among the most influential voices in the emergence of Valpolicella as a premium appellation. Much to the chagrin of the majority of producers back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, he began to employ viticultural practices such as limiting the quantity of production, planting on hillsides and planting the proper varietals on specific vineyard sites. Until that time, producers were content with planting in the valleys and getting the maximum production to market where quantity counted more than quality.

We visited one of Allegrini’s single vineyard sites La Grola situated on a hillside overlooking the Valpolicella plain. La Grola is planted to corvina which is known to be the best red grape of the Valpolicella region. Later, we tasted the entire Allegrini portfolio at the actual medieval palace – Pallazo Della Torre.

[caption id="attachment_955" align="alignleft" width="300"] Allegrini's Pallazo Della Torre


This incredible pallazo, constructed in the 1300’s, is a treasure trove of antiquity and has some pretty startling stone work, including fireplaces constructed to look like lions and other beasts. Our tasting room had one of those fireplaces and I couldn’t help but think how scary they must have been to the kids living in the place way back then.

While we tasted several excellent white wines, the stars were the red wines. Prices range from a low of about $12 for the Valpolicella Classico and $22 for the Pallazo Della Torre to up to $80 for the single vineyard La Poja and around $40 to $50 for the Amarone wines. Most are blends of the Valpolicella varietals with La Poja made entirely with corvina and planted in the La Grola vineyard.

Valpolicella Classico – Deliciously fruity light to medium bodied wine that would be excellent with antipasti or grilled Italian sausage.

Palazzo Della Torre – medium to full-bodied – almost zinfandel like- with black cherry and toasty oak flavors. This would be hit with double-cut, pork chops stuffed with herbed goat cheese, pan-seared and oven baked with a soy-honey glaze.

La Grola   – Full-bodied and long-lived, this wine demonstrates that Valpolicella can be a serious wine. Ripe and rich with blackberry and cola flavors, this would pair nicely with a grilled bone-in ribeye.

La Poja – Slightly more elegant than the La Grola, the La Poja is a 100% corvina that is aged in new French oak for more than 20 months. It has licorice and plum flavors and is one you will want to lay down for a few years. Try this with a butterflied veal chop that has been marinated in red wine, garlic and rosemary.

Villa Giona - A blend of cabernet sauvignon 50%, Merlot 40%, Syrah 10%, this wine shows how well Bordeaux varietals take to the soils of Valpolicella. Aged for about 18 months in French oak, Villa Giona has aromas of tea and leather and flavors of ripe cherries. Marry it with oven roasted pork tenderloin that has been rubbed with kosher salt, coarse black pepper and fennel seeds.

[caption id="attachment_954" align="alignleft" width="225"] Fireplace lion at Pallazo Della Torre


Amarone – Ripe, but not overripe, this Amarone is full of sweet and sour cherry flavors. Very intense, but not raisiny as some Amarone’s can be, this wine would be a lovely accompaniment to a sweet (dolce) gorgonzola with roasted walnuts. Great by a roaring fire around a campsite or at the fireplace during winter.

The wines of Northern Italy

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Taste of Parkersburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds like a great weekend.

Italian wine and food: a ubiqutous influence

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salute !

Wine leftovers: keeping them fresh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flank Steak Gourmand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flank Steak Gourmand
Shopping List

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

Preparation

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

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

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

Wines of the Sierra Foothills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wine Vs. Beer: The Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here is the course-by-course breakdown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

FeastivALL: The first ever wine and beer throw-down

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Join me in tastefully demonstrating the superiority of wine.

Making good wine: Is it location or weather?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

A dish for the New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Christmas Cheer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Champagne and Sparkling wines:

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

Happy Holidays!

Is decanting wine beneficial?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving: a wine lovers dream meal!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving.

Canaan Valley Wild, Wonderful Wine Weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday Reception ($40.00 per person)

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

Lunch with Wine Pairings ($35.00 per person)

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

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

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

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

Wine Availability in West Virginia: from Mad Dog to Mouton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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