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

Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin and a Super Tuscan

There’ a nip in the air, multi-colored leaves are falling from the trees and football is back! It’s officially autumn, and I’m ready for a hearty dinner with full-bodied wine to celebrate my favorite time of the year. And so, with Columbus Day also coming up in about a week, I’m going to recommend two Italian wines to accompany the recipe I’ve provided you below.

The Columbus Day holiday has been widely critiqued for the cavalier manner and heavy-handed actions of the explorer for whom the holiday is named. And Christopher Columbus does deserve criticism. He was, at best, directionally challenged. Here’s a guy who traveled west to find a quicker route to the east and ended up discovering North…. America. But he did introduce our continent to the lovely taste of Italian wine.

Most of you probably know about Italy’s Tuscan wine appellation. The region is noted for producing Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino, both of which are made from the ubiquitous local grape, sangiovese. However, the Tuscan wines I’m suggesting to accompany the recipe below lean heavily on a blend of Bordeaux-style grapes.

The primary grapes used in this blend are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and even syrah – or some combination of them all. Some of the blends include small amounts of sangiovese, but the resulting wine is fuller-bodied and more age-worthy than most other Tuscan red wines. Legendary wine critic, Robert Parker, called the wine a “Super Tuscan,” and the term stuck.

Acceptance by the Italian government of the non-traditional blend that comprises a Super Tuscan came only after years of wrangling. The government did not prohibit wineries from using different grapes (like cabernet or merlot) than those approved for a specific Italian region, but the resulting wine had to be labeled as “vino de tavola” or table wine. That designation was viewed by the Super Tuscan winemakers as indicating that the wine in the bottle was simple and ordinary, and they insisted on a new label classification.

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During winters when I was growing up in the Northview section of Clarksburg, I remember being forced to eat food I thought had been grown in tin cans. When I refused to eat the limp and tasteless vegetables and fruit that oozed from these metal containers, I was required to sit at the dinner table until I relented, and choked down a forkful of the despicable stuff.

I suppose there was some sort of nutritional benefit to consuming canned veggies and fruit back then, but I would have preferred starvation, a paddling from Dad or even being whacked on the knuckles again by Sister Grimalda for talking during class at St. James Grade School – a medieval, penal institution where I served more time in detention than in the classroom.

But summertime was a different story because all the adults in my Italian American family had vegetable gardens and fruit trees. None of my twenty or so first cousins – or I – had to be forced to eat freshly grown family produce. But we preferred to poach the cherries, tomatoes or apples from the vines and trees my family members so lovingly tended, and then had to protect from the horde of hungry and larcenous kids who would not wait for the bounty to ripen.

Kids today, though, don’t have to eat anything from a can – even in winter. With internationally transported fruits and veggies available year-round, the only thing worth consuming from a can now is a cold beverage. And with everything currently at peak harvest in our neck of the woods, there is no better time than now to enjoy the cornucopia of freshly grown edibles. So today, I’m going to provide you with a recipe that takes advantage of many of these fresh and abundant vegetables.

Teala (pronounced Tea-aa-lah) is an Italian vegetable casserole that is a spicy, delicious, one-pot, no-meat meal that is taken to another level with an accompanying bottle of wine. And Teala is an equal opportunity dish when it comes to wine since it pairs equally well with both reds and whites. If I’m using a red wine to accompany Teala, I prefer to sip light to medium-bodied bottles such as Valpolicella or Barbera.

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Keep peeling that onion!

When I was a teenager and knew everything there was to know about life, my father, in an attempt to enlighten me said, “Son, life is like an onion, there’s a lot of layers to it, and sometimes it will bring a tear to your eye, but you’ll be a wise man if you just keep on peeling.”

I just looked up at my dad with a blank stare and thought to myself: what the hell is he talking about? Of course, I didn’t verbalize what I was thinking. I simply nodded and continued to bungle my way through a decade of dissipation. And soon thereafter, I realized that I had just peeled back a layer of that onion and I wasn’t at all pleased with what I was seeing. I could only hope the next layer would reveal a wiser man.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘where the heck is HE going with this, and what does it have to do with wine?’

Hey, you’ll just have to be patient with me because I’m about to peel back another layer! And this layer reveals an undeniable truth: enjoying wine involves a fairly simple process. All you need to do to is put the wine in your mouth. If that simple experience is pleasant, then you’re probably happy. But to really get the maximum pleasure out of wine, you will need to peel back a little more of the onion.

That means finding the attributes that make exceptional wine, and that process is not simple. It’s complex and it can be challenging, but it’s also a lot of fun. I’m talking about searching for and finding wine that is more than just a pleasant quaff. A bottle that has unique and pleasing aromas, beautiful color and clarity, and one that also features incredible layers of flavor. The search for and discovery of such a bottle is the essence of wine appreciation. And while the journey may be long, it’s always pleasurable and extremely educational. Today’s primer will involve ways of finding the best possible red wine.

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Dishing up an offer ‘You can’t refuse’

Summertime has come early this year with an extended period of San Diego -like weather, featuring warm temperatures, low humidity and cool nights. As a result, I transitioned earlier than normal from the full-bodied wines of winter to lighter and more refreshing whites and reds that are better suited to warmer weather. Likewise, my food choices have also morphed from heavier, protein-centric dishes to lighter vegetable and fruit enhanced meals.

Today, I’ll share a recipe with you for a summertime pasta dish that is light and healthy. It’s also delicious when accompanied by either of the two Italian white wines I’m recommending as pairing partners. And while each of the wines is made with different grapes, grown in distinctly diverse regions of the country, each bottle pairs exceptionally well with the pasta dish.

While Italian cuisine is considered world-class, the ingredients used to create dishes are simple and mainly local and farm fresh. Unlike French cuisine, which relies heavily on the addition of cream, butter and animal fat, Italian food is lighter and healthier. The main source of fat used to cook Italian dishes is olive oil which is universally considered healthy by medical experts. And when Italians do consume saturated fats -like cheese, prosciutto and sausage, – they do so in moderation, and then they sip a glass or two of wine to de-clog their arteries.

As a Magna cum Laude graduate of Whatsamata U, my credentials as a certified expert on all things Italian is beyond reproach. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I have memorized every legendary line in the “Godfather” movies, and I do know a thing or two about Italian wine and food. So today, I’m gonna make you ‘an offer you can’t refuse.’ The following recipe, along with complementary wine pairing recommendations, is the offer you won’t want to refuse.

Vino e Pasta

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Time to celebrate: The Judgement of Paris

The California wine industry got its start when Father Junipero Serra planted grape seeds at his San Juan Capistrano mission in 1769 near what is now San Diego. The string of Franciscan missions reached northern California nearly one hundred years later where the first commercial winery in the state – Buena Vista – was established in the town of Sonoma.

The wine industry in California has grown to nearly 3000 wineries and represents more than 80 percent of all wine produced in the United States. If California was a separate country, it would be the fourth largest wine producer in the world. Despite these impressive statistics, widespread acceptance and appreciation of California wine was a long time coming. In fact, through the first 75 years of the 20th Century, California wine received little recognition outside of the United States.

It was an event that took place forty-seven years ago in Europe that first focused attention on wine from the Golden State. The event, which came to be known as the “Judgement of Paris, was a wine tasting held on May 24, 1976, and every wine lover on this side of the Atlantic should celebrate that date. The consequences of that tasting for the California wine industry would prove to be monumentally important.

The tasting was the brainchild of Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who owned a wine shop in Paris called La Cave de la Madeleine. Spurrier also operated a wine school whose six-week courses were regularly attended by French oenophiles, chefs and sommeliers. Over the years, Spurrier developed a close relationship with winemakers in Bordeaux and Burgundy. However, unlike most European wine experts, Spurrier recognized the potential quality of California wines, particularly the ones being produced in Napa Valley.

As a justification for inviting the California wineries to compete in the tasting, Spurrier cited the American bicentennial. He had organized the event and he invited an expert, all-French, wine tasting panel consisting of some of that country’s most famous sommeliers and restauranteurs. To rule out any home-cooking, this was to be a blind tasting and none of the judges would be able to see the labels. At that time, the French didn’t consider any country’s wines to be the equal of what was being made in France, and they scoffed at any suggestion that American bottles would stand a chance.

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Wines to Ramp-up Springtime

It’s the end of April and, like many other mountain state residents this time of year, I’m excited to sample the latest crop of allium tricoccum – more commonly known as ramps. You can count me among those who have waited impatiently for the little buggers to peek out of the forest floor. For weeks now, I’ve checked my own special mountain ramp patch for the green shoots (resembling the leaves on scallions) that signal their arrival. Finally, they appeared, and I spent an hour last week digging them out of the ground– one by one – until I had what we refer to as a “mess” of the odiferous lilies.

There are any number of ramp feeds around the state now, and you’ll have ample opportunities to sample menus featuring them. However, most of the cooks at ramp festivals smother the flavor of these wild leeks by adding them to dishes like pinto beans or fried potatoes. I suppose ramps do add a distinct flavor component to bean or potato casseroles, but the true flavor of these delectable veggies is too faint when they’re buried under an avalanche of carbohydrates.

I’m not suggesting that you eat uncooked ramps– although that was how I first consumed them. I was still living at home when, late one night, a friend came into the kitchen with a mess of ramps and 12-pack of Carling Black Label. After shaking the dirt off the ramps and rinsing them in cold water, we proceeded to sprinkle them with salt and eat them raw, chasing them with the Black Label.

When my mother came to wake me the next morning, she was wearing my grandfather’s World War I gas mask and carrying an industrial size can of Lysol. She was not amused. If you ever do decide to eat them right out of the ground, make sure the people who live within a mile of you have fair warning. This is to prevent them from losing consciousness or from reporting you to the EPA.

I now prefer to eat my ramps cooked. I like to spark up whatever comprises the main dinner course with the little devils, and I especially love to douse them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and then grill them over low to medium heat. Prepared in this manner, they lose much of their pungency, and they become a delicious accompaniment to any grilled meat, vegetable or seafood dish.

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If only Homework was this much fun

I am always fascinated by how we make choices regarding the wines we purchase and drink. Whether for everyday consumption or for special occasions, we can all agree that quality wines are worth seeking out. I spend an inordinate amount of time perusing the shelves of beverage shops, surfing the internet and reading food and wine magazines all in the quest to find that next bottle of liquid bliss. But casting hyperbole aside, I’m really not searching for the perfect bottle of wine. Just one that tickles my taste buds and doesn’t break my piggy bank.

Those of you who faithfully read my ramblings (thank you, by the way) know that I am also looking for wines that offer value as well as quality. When I first fell in love with the fruit of the vine – not long after dinosaurs roamed the planet- it was easy to despair of the notion that you could find good wine at reasonable prices. And, yes, there are still stratospherically priced wines that seem to defy conventional economics, especially ones from old world places like Burgundy or Bordeaux. And there are several California wines that have been granted (not sure by whom) “iconic” status and can fetch upwards of a thousand dollars a bottle – or more.

But, brothers and sisters, let me loudly declare this from my wine-stained pulpit: there has never been a time like now to find good wine at reasonable prices. You just have to do your homework! And that involves sorting through all the vinous clutter out there to find the good stuff. Today, we’ll explore a few ways to make your homework assignment easier.

First, you might check out wine regions that are less well known, but which offer good tasting value wines. For example, instead of looking for wines made in the highly regarded Napa Valley, consider varietals from lesser-known regions of California such as Lake County, Paso Robles, or Lodi. The same goes for wines produced in the most sought after foreign wine appellations. Instead of looking for bottles from Bordeaux or Burgundy, consider other French wines like ones from the southern Rhone Valley or Languedoc -Roussillon.

You can also find tasty wines with modest pricing by switching from well known varietals like cabernet sauvignon to reds like sangiovese, petit sirah or cabernet franc. The same goes for trendy whites like chardonnay. You might consider trying wines such as sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, Alberino from Spain or Verdicchio from Italy. And forget about pricey Champagne. Instead, search for pleasing bargain sparklers like Prosecco (Italy), Cava (Spain) or Crémant (Alsace in France).

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Try my Hub Bub Rub and a good bottle of red!

I was all set to present you with a scrumptious wintertime meal recipe, and suggest some tasty wines to accompany this heavy, full-flavored dish. But the February weather hasn’t cooperated, and that’s a good thing because, unlike most rational folks, once I get that hankering to cook outside, I don’t ever let snow, wind or rain interfere with my decision.

So with this month’s balmy weather, I decided to leap forward to spring, summer and fall (also known as grilling season) to fire up my trusty old Weber Performer grill. And today, I’m going to provide you with a simple dry rub recipe that will transform any slab of beef, pork or chicken into a culinary masterpiece. It’s also delicious rubbed on salmon filets. And it works well on just about every cut of meat from prime to not so prime.

However, I am very particular where I shop for meat and seafood. I believe that even good meat can be (excuse the phrase) butchered by an inexperienced or oafish meat cutter. Here in Charleston, we are fortunate to have access to the highest quality meats and seafood you’ll find anywhere in our Wild and Wonderful state.

General Steak and Seafood Market on Quarrier Street is my go-to stop for edible protein. Their beef, veal, pork, lamb, chicken and seafood selections are hand cut right before your eyes. Buzz Food Service provides the professionally butchered meats as well as providing the seafood straight from the ocean. And Robin Harman in the shop puts the finishing touches on the meat selections you buy. Same goes for the myriad fresh seafood selections where several talented fishmongers (afishianotos?) will gladly filet your choice of sea creatures.

I had the pleasure of buying a couple of prime beef tenderloin steaks at General Seafood which I used to grill for my lovely wife and I on Valentine’s Day. But remember, this spice rub works as well on hamburgers, pork tenderloin, chuck steak, pork chops, or seafood too. I call it Hub Bub Rub and here is the recipe: Two parts of light brown sugar to one part each of smoked paprika and kosher salt (or our own local salt from J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works).

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Feastivall: Wine vs. Beer

After a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus, Feastivall, that hedonistic gala that features a wine vs beer throwdown, will once again welcome a packed house of hungry and thirsty gourmands to Berry Hills Country Club on Saturday, February18.

Feastivall, of course, is a fundraiser supporting Festivall – the multi-week entertainment event that brings a plethora of talented musical artists to the greater Charleston area each summer. It’s always gratifying to observe the positive effect our contributions make to the community in which we live. But Feastivall is also a good old fashion beverage rumble pitting wine versus beer in a five-course gourmet meal. And attendees will have the opportunity to vote on the best accompaniment (wine or beer) for each course prepared by local guest chefs.

The event will begin at 6 p.m. with a wine and beer aperitif bar where guests can sip, mingle and bid on items at the silent auction, including works of art, as well as restaurant packages, travel opportunities, and other gifts. The evening will also feature musical performances by local artists. If you’re interested in attending, cost is $125 a person. However, the event always sells out quickly so you might want to sign up right away. Get your tickets by going to: or by calling 304-470-0489.


Guests will enjoy five courses, each paired with a craft beer selected by (misguided) beer geeks Charles Bockway and Erin McCoy. Of course, yours truly, assisted by Amanda Karpeuk of Mountain State Beverage, selected the wines which come from Germany, Spain, California, Washington State and Italy. I’m sure our opponents for Feastivall will soon reveal their frosty pairings for the dinner, but I can’t imagine that lesser liquid (beer) will be able to compete with the most food-friendly beverage (wine) man has ever produced.

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Christmas: A few of my favorite things

As a card-carrying member of LOG (Laggards of America), I am fanatically dedicated to the practice of procrastination. I almost never do today what I can put off until… later.

Well, it’s later now, and with Christmas only a week away, I’m motivated to find gifts for the people who have patiently tolerated my imperfections for the past twelve months. And, of course, the gifts I will bestow on friends and family will be either wine or wine accoutrements (i.e., “stuff”). So, in the Spirit of the Season, you may joyfully read on for my fine wine -and wine-related – suggestions you might consider gifting to those special people in your life.

I’ll start with some non-liquid gift ideas that should enhance the enjoyment and appreciation of wine.

Wine Books:  The Oxford Companion to Wine ($36) by Janice Robinson and The World Atlas of  Wine  ($37) by Janice Robinson and Hugh Johnson are the two most comprehensive compendiums of wine information you will ever read. They are the ultimate reference guides to anything to do with the liquid we all love. You can find them at local bookstores or online at Amazon.

Wine Stemware: The aesthetics of sipping wine in crystal is oftentimes a very expensive proposition, but it’s nice to occasionally break out (probably not the best choice of words) the special stemware for that celebratory event. Riedel, Schott Zweise and Spiegelau are probably the best options for fine crystal. You can find them at wine shops, department stores and online. I recently purchased Riedel Veritas Wine Glasses (a set of four tasting glasses) at Amazon ($159). These glasses are dishwasher safe, and you can select from several styles and shapes.

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Thanksgiving Wines

I love Thanksgiving dinner! It is my favorite holiday meal of the year because it’s a wine lover’s dream come true. The versatility of preparation methods for turkey, along with the various delectable courses and side dishes in the meal, present a culinary extravaganza where there are almost limitless wine pairing opportunities.

The reason is the “National Bird” is blessed with meat that has different flavors, colors and textures which pair seamlessly with a variety of medium to full-bodied white or red wines. Add to this the way the bird is cooked – from traditional oven baking to deep frying, to grilling, to smoking -and you have even more wine choices from which to select.

For the traditional oven baked turkey with an herb seasoned dressing, I suggest opening a light to medium bodied white wine such as a Spanish verdejo, California sauvignon blanc or a steely chardonnay like Chablis. For reds with this type of turkey preparation and dressing, try pairing the just released Beaujolais Nouveau from France, a Chianti Classico from Italy, or a Rioja from Spain. You might also be surprised to know that older reds, such as aged claret from Bordeaux, Brunello Di Montalcino from Tuscany, or cabernet sauvignon from Napa, go nicely as well. However, if you choose to smoke or charcoal grill the turkey, I suggest pairing this spicy, smoky meal with pinot noir from Oregon, zinfandel from California or an Amarone from Italy. And if you’re a white wine drinker, I’ve also successfully paired a full-flavored Alsatian riesling successfully with grilled turkey.
Here’s what I plan to do this year.


Turkey: I’ll brine a 15 -pound turkey overnight in a mixture of kosher salt, brown sugar, water, apple cider and beer, I’ll grill it over a covered charcoal grill for two hours. Then I’ll transfer the turkey to the oven and bake it at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for another hour and a half- or until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.

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Pairing Hillbilly Chili with… wine?

Obsessed as I am with eating and drinking well, I make a conscious effort to not only pair wine with the food I consume, but also to match these pairings with the seasons of the year. You would think the occasional sideways glance in a full -length mirror would disabuse me of this obsessive tendency, but it does not. Right now, the daily recipes at Chez Brown are morphing from the warm weather, lighter-type meals of summer to the heartier fare of fall. So, the white and red wines I choose to pair with autumn meals are necessarily fuller bodied – kind of like me!

Soups and stews are among the most desirable transition foods to experience in autumn, and good, old American chili tops my list of fall culinary delights. While many folks prefer beer as the go-to beverage for chili, I’m going to suggest that you consider wine to accompany this spicy, vegetable and meat concoction, especially when you pair it with my own recipe below. As a matter of fact, chili is the reason I started writing about wine. Confused? Let me explain

Back in 1981, I won the state chili cookoff at Snowshoe and then represented West Virginia at the World Chili Championship in Los Angeles. I also convinced some friends to join my wife and I in LA where we all had a great time (from what I remember), but, not surprisingly, my chili didn’t win. Afterward, we rented a van and spent the next week touring the wine country of Napa and Sonoma where we tasted at some of the greatest wineries in California. When I returned to Charleston, I happened to mention to Daily Mail city editor (at the time) Sam Hindman that the paper should have someone write about wine and the nascent wine industry. Sam suggested that I do it, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In addition to the chili that I prepared at Hollywood Race Track that day, there were also awards for categories like unique costumes, best decorated booths and most clever skits. Our group decided to do a short skit entitled: Hillbilly Chili – The Real McCoy.” Based on the hit TV show of the time, “The Real McCoy’s,” I’m ashamed to admit we looked like moonshiners dressed in bib overalls and wearing pointy hats. We even blacked out our teeth to further solidify the stereotypical view all outsiders had about West Virginians. Mea Culpa!

So, what wines pair well with chili? I generally use medium to full-bodied reds such as zinfandel, Cotes du Rhone or Valpolicella. You might try these: Terra d’Oro Zinfandel; Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone; and Allegrini Valpolicella Classico. I also recommend sparkling wines with chili because their refreshing and thirst -quenching qualities present a nice counterpoint to this spicy dish. Here are a few sparklers that work well: Segura Viudas Cava from Spain; Gruet Blanc De Blancs from New Mexico; and Saint-Hilaire from France. All the wines listed above are priced under $30 a bottle.

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Youth Movement needed in wine industry!

I came of age during a time when beer was… well… just beer. Oftentimes, the suds were chased with a shot glass full of cheap hootch. Heck, if you ever wanted something other than cold, yellow, pilsner in my neighborhood, you had to wait until Christmastime when a regional brewer produced something called “Old Frothingslosh.” One of the taglines in the commercials for Old Frothingslosh read: “A whale of an ale for the pale, stale, male.” Another one read: “A beer so light the foam is on the bottom.”

Aside from unconventional (and apocryphal) brews like Old Frothingslosh, beer remained predictable (and boring) in this country with most of the suds mass-produced by large industrial type breweries. That is, until the past couple of decades when enterprising beer lovers re-invented the business by creating a new category of products called craft brews.

Since then, craft breweries have sprung up in great numbers all over the US with more than 25 such businesses now operating in West Virginia. These new businesses have taken beer to a whole new level by qualitatively improving traditional brews like pilsners, stouts and ales, and by developing unique products using non-traditional ingredients such as fruits and herbs.


Okay, you’re probably thinking: why is this wineaux (that’s French for wino) spending so much time on beer? Well, I have confession to make, I actually like beer, especially the stuff being made by West Virginia craft breweries such as Stumptown Ales in Davis and Weathered Ground in Ghent. But, let me be clear, I do prefer the taste of wine over beer, particularly when it comes to pairing either beverage with food. However, I must give credit where credit is due. Simply stated, the wine industry is stagnant and seems content to appeal to those of us who are predominately long in the tooth.

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Red wine and serving temperature: The Truth!

So, there I was: sitting at a table under a multi-colored umbrella on the deck of a semi-high-class eatery. The weather was very warm, but pleasantly dry, and I had a hankering for a wine that -given the climate and my menu selection– probably qualified as a counterintuitive choice. I wanted a glass of red wine to accompany the grilled octopus I had ordered.

“Are you sure about that, sir?” my officious wait person asked in a snickering and patronizing voice. “I have a lovely pinot grigio which would pair much better with our polpo alla griglia,” he added with a bit of a flourish, obviously flaunting his Italian linguistic skills.

I smiled up at the fellow and repeated my request, disregarding the look of disdain and disapproval on his face. In a few moments he returned with my glass of pinot noir and then left in a huff. The wine was tepid, almost warm. I waved my waiter over and asked if he had any bottles of red that were a bit cooler. I didn’t even ask for pinot noir. I just wanted a glass of red – any red – that would provide a bit of cooling contrast to the grilled octopus.

Without hesitation, he scolded me with the standard (and archaic) reply that red wine should be served at room temperature. I didn’t bother to remind him that we were outside, and that the temperature was 90 plus degrees Fahrenheit. I just asked him to bring me a glass of ice and a spoon. Of course, he was appalled when I proceeded to add two or three cubes to my pinot noir, stirring the wine for a few seconds before retrieving what was left of the ice from my glass.

I know I’ve written about red wine and proper serving temperature before, so I won’t go into any more detail on the subject other than to remind you that the above-mentioned adage was first uttered in the 1500’s. Rooms back then were a lot cooler -even in the summer. The most compatible wine and food pairing cannot overcome a red that is served too warm. The only way to enjoy a red wine that is served too warm is to have your waiter take it back and put it in ice or ask for an ice bucket. At home in the summer, I always put the red I intend to open at dinner in the refrigerator for about a half hour. However, if you’re in a restaurant and the red you’ve ordered by the glass is warm, don’t be afraid to ask for some ice and a spoon. You may get some strange looks, but you’ll be a lot happier with the wine.

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Wines for Caprese

I don’t know about you, but after a particularly good meal accompanied by a glass or two of fine wine, I can become pensive, reflective and downright hillbilly profound. One evening last week after such a repast, I came to the happy realization that, despite the troublesome distractions of the times, including wars, natural disasters, pandemics and global warming, it’s less than two months until the Backyard Brawl.

Perspective is important. For example, it has taken me several decades to accept these absolute truisms: there aren’t many things that I can control; and there are even fewer things I can depend on. So, it’s important to concentrate on the things we do have some ability to control -like the food we eat and the wine we drink.

We are blessed here in West Virginia with a substantial agrarian economy which produces a cornucopia of vegetables, fruits, meats and grains through the state’s many farmers’ markets. Here in Charleston, we have easy access to these local products at the Capitol Market. The Capitol Market’s outdoor vendors’ stalls are now overflowing with produce, and it’s prime time to take advantage of their bounty.

I’d like to share a simple, but delicious, recipe composed of ripe tomatoes, herbs, extra virgin olive oil, fresh mozzarella, basil, salt and black pepper. The Italians call this delectable concoction Caprese, and I’m sure many of you have consumed this delicacy. But you’re probably confused as to which, if any, wine can be appropriately paired with the dish.

Today, I’m going to recommend several wines that will complement and enhance this simple salad. Unlike other vegetable-centric dishes -like roasted peppers, squash, onions or broccoli- that can stand up to medium-bodied reds, Caprese is best enjoyed with crisp, dry white wines.

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Wines to Toast the Fourth of July

Independence Day is just around the corner, so I’ve been thinking about wines I’ll use to toast Uncle Sam on his 246th birthday. At the risk of sounding provincial, I’m going to stick with wines from the good old US of A to celebrate the Fourth of July. And since most of us will be consuming picnic-type fare this coming holiday weekend, I’m going to suggest an All-American lineup of wines to pair with your Independence Day meals.

I must (grudgingly) admit, though, that the best wines this country produces are made from European vines (vitis vinifera) like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and zinfandel, etc. Unfortunately, native American vines (vitis labrusca) produce better grape juice (concord) and waterfalls (Niagara) than they do wine.

However, there is one European vine, zinfandel, that is commonly thought of as “America’s grape”- even though its original home has been the subject of heated debate. Zinfandel vine cuttings were brought to California and planted in the 1850’s near the town of Sonoma. For years, experts argued that zinfandel is really an Italian grape known as Primitivo. More recent DNA research of the vine, though, indicates that zinfandel is really a Croatian varietal. The true name of the grape is Crljenak – a word that is not only unpronounceable but has also been banned from use in international spelling bee competitions.

I hope you won’t be disappointed, but I think it’s time to move on from this enthralling examination of vine etymology to the slightly less interesting topic of today’s column. So, for your consideration, here are some All-American wine pairing ideas to accompany the foods most of us will be consuming this Fourth of July.


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For wine lovers: Milo’s in Davis

Many of you have ventured to the Canaan Valley and the towns of nearby Davis and Thomas. I have written about some of my favorite eating and sipping establishments there such as Sirianni’s Café, Stumptown Ales and The Billy Motel in Davis, along with Farm Up Table Restaurant, Riverfront Wood Fired Pizza and Tiptop Coffee in Thomas. I’m also excited about the renewed emphasis on food and wine at Canaan Valley Resort with the recent hiring of an internationally trained executive chef. From a culinary perspective, things are looking up in Tucker County.

I’ve been privileged to have had a second home in that mountain county for the past three decades. I am still in awe of the physical beauty of the place, but I’m even more blissfully affected by the almost mystical ambiance of the mountains to produce feelings of well-being and peace. And those pleasant feelings are enhanced by sipping a glass of wine while meditating on Mother Nature’s bounty.

Don’t worry, though, I’m not going to launch into Deepak Chopra-speak and suggest mindfulness, meditation and chanting. But like that Indian mystic and alternative medicine advocate, I have always touted the healing powers of the naturally produced elixir we all love. And when I find an establishment in a location like Tucker County, where you can sip and sup in a such an inspirational physical environment, well, I’ve got to tell you about it.

The newest and most wine-centric of all the eateries in the county is Milo’s Café & Restaurant in Davis. Located on the first floor of the Bright Morning Inn B&B, Milo’s features an excellent and reasonably priced menu with an emphasis on locally grown and produced food. The cafe also features the most extensive wines by the glass list of just about any restaurant in the state! Oh, and the staff at Milo’s is first class, providing excellent service and in-depth knowledge of both the menu selections as well as the wine list. The restaurant is open for breakfast and dinner Thursday through Monday, has weekly musical entertainment and has a very good selection of craft beers. When the weather warms a bit, you can also enjoy your meal and/or beverage outdoors in Milo’s side yard

It’s evident that owner Brent Markwood (who also owns Bright Morning Inn) has spent a tremendous amount of time ruminating about wines to accompany his restaurant menu because he has succeeded in compiling an eclectic and regularly changing list of international bottles. And he has priced the wines exceptionally well with 18 of the 25 wines by the glass under $10. Only four of the more than 30 wines on the list are by the bottle only. Six bottles are from California while the international offerings come from Australia (3), Germany (2), France, (8) Italy (5), New Zealand (2) and one each from Chile, Argentina, South Africa and Spain.

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Aunt Notie’s Leg (of lamb)

Leg of lamb is always the featured entrée in our home on Easter Sunday. I must admit, however, that my first experience with lamb could have been my last. That inedible dish was prepared in the time-honored and assertively bland tradition of English gastronomy. It was roasted in its own pungent juices, devoid of any spices and then served with huge dollops of mint jelly to obscure the gamy taste.

Unfortunately, we Americans do not often eat lamb because of this gaminess. When it comes to meat, we prefer beef, chicken or pork, and we are unaccustomed to gamy-flavored meat, except for venison. But venison is usually made palatable by the addition of flavoring spices and/or marinating – which is what we’re going to do in the recipe I’m sharing with you below.

Thank goodness that one of my Italian aunts later shamed and nearly force fed me into trying her version of lamb. Her rendition featured a boned and butterflied leg of lamb marinated in a heavenly bath of olive oil, wine and lemons with copious amounts of garlic and other spices happily swimming in the liquid.

So, in honor of my late Aunt Notie, who never met a garlic clove she didn’t covet, I’ll share her recipe for the absolutely best leg of lamb you will ever prepare! And to truly elevate this transcendent culinary experience, I’m going to suggest two round, rich and supple red wines to accompany the dish.

I’ve eaten lamb raised in the U.S. and from other countries such as Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand. I’m convinced the folks from the two Down Under nations produce the best tasting lamb, especially from the leg and rack of lamb cuts. The leg of lamb I used for this recipe was raised in New Zealand.

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Spring wines and a Toast to Moldova

Just recently, I had the pleasure of sipping three wines I think you might find enjoyable, especially when paired with the dishes I’m also suggesting.

2019 St. Supery Dollarhide Sauvignon Blanc ($32) – The Dollarhide vineyard is nestled in the mountains on the eastern slopes of the Napa Valley. Cool evening temperatures allow this sauvignon blanc to develop flavors of citrus and anise with nuances of vanilla from oak aging. It is a rich, but well-balanced wine, that will show best when paired with one of my favorite springtime dishes: pasta with sauteed ramps and asparagus sauced with a half cup of the sauvignon blanc, olive oil, and sprinkled liberally with parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes.

2019 J. Lohr Seven Oaks Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($18) – From Paso Robles along California’s Central Coast, the Seven Oaks cabernet is full of dark cherry and cola flavors. It is deep and rich with noticeable tannin, but it’s still very drinkable right now. I paired the wine with grilled pork tenderloin brushed with a cumin and honey glaze.

2019 Martin Ray Vineyards Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($21)) – This medium-bodied, silky smooth wine has flavors of ripe, red cherries with hints of Asian spices. It also has a lovely balance of richness and acidity which makes it an excellent match to foods with some sweet and heat notes such as Pad Thai or barbecue chicken mopped with a sriracha infused sauce.


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Drunken Short Ribs

You like to drink wine or you would not be reading this column, right? I’ll presume my assumption is correct, and I will also venture to guess you enjoy pairing the fruit of the vine with wine’s best friend – a compatible meal. But what about using wine as an ingredient in cooking your meal?

The most common questions I get from folks regarding the use of wine in cooking relate to: the type of varietal to select; the quantity of wine to use; and the quality of the bottle -which usually relates to price. The main concern people have, though, is that the wine they choose might not work with their menu item, and the meal will be ruined. And sometimes their fears are realized when they assume it’s okay to use that half bottle of Three Buck Chuck’s that’s been sitting on a shelf in the refrigerator for two weeks.

The first rule when using wine in cooking is to make sure the bottle you choose is sound – as in fresh. It should also be something you would enjoy drinking. It doesn’t have to be an expensive wine, but it should be one that has been recently opened (like in the last day or so) and is still tasty. And always bypass those bottles labelled “cooking wine” in the vinegar and oil section of the grocery store unless you want to add a cod liver oil or other medicinal nuance to the meal.

Regarding the amount wine to use in cooking, the best advice is to follow the recipe. Generally, recipes will call for a cup or less of wine. But if you aren’t following a specific recipe, remember the goal is to enhance the dish not to overwhelm it. And don’t worry that cooking with wine will add alcohol to the meal. The reality is that after a few seconds in a heated pan or pot, all the alcohol is dissipated, and only the flavor of the wine is retained by the food.

So, what are some of the foods that are positively influenced by the addition of wine? I would say most foods, but I still haven’t found the perfect wine pairing for cereal. Anyway, there are a plethora of great recipes out there that rely on wine to enhance the finished dish. You can open any cookbook or Google recipes online, but if you can’t wait, check out the hearty wintertime wine-enhanced dish I’ve detailed for you below.

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