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

Tipsy Hot Smoked Salmon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it takes to make good wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wine Recommendations:

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

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

Ramps, bow-ties and wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vinous goodies from Down Under

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So go Down Under for some seriously good wines.

Springtime: bring on the spicy barbecue and wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of vintage years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pour yourself a big glass of Zin and forget the bills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the lamb with Sparky's Revenge

Lamb gets a baaaad rap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wines to give thanks for

Thanksgiving is just a week away and turkey will once again be the centerpiece of this culinary celebration. In the past, I have written about the versatility of turkey to be successfully matched with red or white as well as light or full-bodied wines. The reason this is possible is because turkey has a variety of flavors, colors and textures which can match just about any wine.

Add to these dimensions, the manner in which the turkey is prepared (i.e., roasted, smoked, grilled or fried) and the type of stuffing used, and you have a complex set of flavor components that make matching wine with it fun. Indeed, we should give thanks for this rare opportunity to sample several different wines with the same holiday meal.

Conventional wine wisdom dictates that white meat should be accompanied with white wine. Well, in the case of Thanksgiving turkey, that is only partially true. From an herbal sauvignon blanc (which pairs nicely with a sage-flavored bread dressing), to a medium-bodied, yet rich, Alsatian riesling, to a lighter-styled pinot grigio, to a creamy, full-bodied chardonnay, turkey can accommodate each of these white wines quite nicely.

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

But what really surprises some wine purists is how well turkey matches with red wine, particularly when the bird has been roasted on a grill or smoked. Full bodied reds like cabernet sauvignon, Rhone wines such as Chateauneuf Du Pape, along with zinfandel, shiraz or Amarone go especially well with smoked or grilled turkey.

Check out my grilled and veggie- stuffed turkey  on this page from last Thanksgiving.

The traditional oven-roasted turkey is also very nicely accompanied by a pinot noir, Beaujolais or even tempranillo from Spain. And, given the celebratory nature of Thanksgiving, sparkling wine and Champagne would be an appropriate match too.

And what about a dessert wine with that pumpkin pie? Well, I’ve got a few goodies for your sweet tooth that will pair especially well with this traditional dessert.
So here are some vinous ideas for you to consider as you plan your Thanksgiving dinner.

A Sparkler to prep you palate: Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs, Schramsberg Brut, Iron Horse Russian Cuvee, Segura Vidas, Zardetto Prosecco or Laetitia Brut Rose would tickle and tingle your palate and get you primed for the meal to come.

Whites: St. Supery Virtu, Trimbach Pinot Gris, Kenwood Sonoma Chardonnay, Clairborne & Churchill Dry Riesling, Jean –Luc Colombo Cotes Du Rhone Blanc, Pierre Sparr Gewurztraminer, Talley Vineyards Chardonnay and Medlock Ames Sauvignon Blanc.

Reds for the National Bird: Louis Martini Napa Cabernet Sauvignon; Zonin Amarone Di Valpolicella, Banfi Rosso Di Montalcino, Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel, MacMurray Russian River Pinot Noir; Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir and Georges Duboeuf Morgon Beaujolais.

For Dessert: Rosa Regale Brachetto, Michele Chiarlo Moscato, Navarro Late Harvest Riesling, J Vidal-fleury Muscat de Beaumes de Venise and St. Hillaire Blanquette de Limoux.

Happy National Bird Day!!

Check out the wines to accompany the food at the Wild, Wonderful, Wine Weekend

I just put together the wines to go along with the culinary treats at next week’s Wild, Wonderful, Wine weekend at Canaan Valley Resort. I’ll also be recommending some wines to go with your Thanksgiving dinner celebration too.

Check them all out below and join us at Canaan by calling for reservations at 304-866-4181.

The event begins Friday, November 15 at 7 p.m. with a “taste-around reception” where more than 30 wines can be sampled with matching culinary treats from food stations featuring a wonderful selection of delicious goodies upon which to graze.

On Saturday morning, there will be a tasting featuring wines that I will suggest for Thanksgiving dinner. Immediately after the tasting, guests will be treated to a four-course wine-paired luncheon with commentary by yours truly. After lunch, folks will be free to hike, bike, nap watch football or just enjoy Mother Nature’s purple mountain majesty!

Saturday evening’s activities begin at 7 p.m. with a five-course, six wine grand gourmet dinner. The main course, which will be accompanied by two specially selected reds, will feature two portions of beef rib-eye prepared both braised and roasted.

Tasting of Wines for Thanksgiving:
Korbel Extra Dry Sparkling Wine (California); 2012 Acrobat Pinot Gris (Oregon); 2012 Paitin Arneis (Piemonte Italy); 2011 Pedroncelli Russian River Pinot Noir (California); 2011 Banfi Rosso Di Montalcino (Tuscany, Italy); 2012 Blenheim Cabernet Franc (Virginia)

Saturday Lunch
Port Pear with Saga Blue Cheese, Chardonnay, Blanched Walnuts & Baby greens
2011 Dreaming Tree Chardonnay

First Entree
Bread Crusted Sea bass with a Lemon Shallot Butter
2010 St. Supery Virtu (semillon and sauvignon blend)

Second Entree
Pork Caprese with Red pepper Corn Fritters and a Sweet Potato Puree.
2009 Falcor Sangiovese
Chocolate Ganache Cake with Banana Foster and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Rondeau Bugey Cerdon Sparkling Rose

Saturday Dinner
First Appetizer
Smoked Salmon Smorrebrod
2012 Medlock Ames Sauvignon Blanc

Cream of White Asparagus & Butternut Squash
2011 Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

Second Appetizer
Bacon Wrapped Seared Duck
2010 Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir

Lemon Sorbet

Duet of Roasted and Braised Beef Rib Eye
2007 St. Supery Cabernet Sauvignon & 2010 Ch. Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon

Chocolate Fabergé Egg
2010 St. Hillaire Blanquette de Limoux Sparkling Wine

A wild and wonderful wine weekend at Canaan Valley Resort

It’s that time of year when the frost is on the pumpkin and the good folks at Canaan Valley Resort are preparing to host the annual “Wild, Wonderful Wine Weekend.” And those choosing to stay at the resort will be housed in a beautiful new 180-room lodge with grand views of this awe-inspiring mountain valley.

The “Wild, Wonderful Wine Weekend,” which has become an annual gourmet rite of fall, will be held from November 15th through 17th.

It’s always fun to work with the gastronomic professionals at Canaan Valley Resort and their managing company operator Guest Services, Inc. Once again, I will have the privilege of selecting and commenting on the wines to accompany the multitude of culinary treats throughout the weekend.

[caption id="attachment_780" align="alignleft" width="300"] Canaan Valley Morning

The event begins Friday, November 15 at 7 p.m. with a “taste-around reception” where more than 30 wines can be sampled with matching culinary treats from food stations featuring a wonderful selection of delicious goodies upon which to graze.

On Saturday morning, there will be a tasting featuring wines that I will suggest for Thanksgiving dinner. Immediately after the tasting, guests will be treated to a four-course wine-paired luncheon with commentary by yours truly. After lunch, folks will be free to hike, bike, nap watch football or just enjoy Mother Nature’s purple mountain majesty!

Saturday evening’s activities begin at 7 p.m. with a five-course, six wine grand gourmet dinner. The main course, which will be accompanied by two specially selected reds, will feature two portions of beef rib-eye prepared both braised and roasted.

The menus (see below) should get your collective mouths watering in anticipation. I haven’t completed selecting all the wines yet, but you can rest assured that I will do my best to please the palates of those attending.

Guests have the option of attending the entire weekend for a package price ($290 for a single attendee and $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

Friday Taste Around Reception ($40.00 per person)

Taste of ItalyMini Veal Oscar
Olive Tapenade
Greens, Beans & Sausage

Asian / MediterraneanBeef Lo Mein
Pork Fried Rice
Red Curry Chicken
Chilled Trout Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette
Mahi Mahi with Mango salsa

From The BayouAlligator Gumbo
Frog Legs
Fried Boudine

Apple Fritters
Chocolate Dipped Fruit
Assorted Pastry’s and Filled Chocolates

Demystifying Wines for Thanksgiving ($20.00 per person)
I’ll share my picks for Thanksgiving Dinner

Lunch with Wine Pairings ($35.00 per person)
Port Pear with Saga Blue Cheese, Chardonnay, Blanched Walnuts & Baby greens
Bread Crusted Sea bass with a Lemon Shallot Butter
Pork Caprese with Red pepper Corn Fritters and a Sweet Potato Puree
Chocolate Ganache Cake with Banana Foster and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Grand Gourmet Dinner with paired wines ($75.00 per person)
Smoked Salmon on Pumpernickel with a Dill Sauce
Cream of White Asparagus & Butternut Squash
Bacon-Wrapped Seared Duck
Duet of Roasted and Braised Beef Rib Eye
Chocolate Fabergé Egg

Hope to see many of you at this Wild, Wonderful Wine Weekend.

Try this dish just for the Halibut

With the onset of fall, I usually segue from lighter wine and food choices to the more hearty fare this cool season seems to demand. But just not yet.

Since I was unable to shed my winter coat (i.e., blubber) this summer, I’m forcing myself to eat lighter for the next few weeks. Yes, I hope to shed a few pounds, but I resolutely refuse to deny myself (and those within my ample shadow) the flavorful food or fruit of the vine we so rightly deserve.

And while it may seem oxymoronic to say this, I am going to provide you with a recipe for some healthy comfort food along with a couple of wines that match up to them quite nicely. Yes, that’s right, low calorie, wine-friendly food that is not only delicious, but healthy too!

The dish I’m going to share with you today uses a filet of firm white fish – in this instance halibut - as the lean protein component. Those of you who wish, however, can substitute boneless, skinless chicken breasts or any other mild white fish. I will also recommend both a white and red wine to pair with the meal. I call this recipe:

(Just For The) Halibut

The Recipe (feeds four)

Four six-ounce halibut filets
One cup of wild rice
One tablespoon of butter (optional)
Two ounces of extra virgin olive oil
Two large tomatoes chopped
One-half cup of Kalamata olives pitted
Two tablespoons of capers in brine
One tablespoon of minced garlic
One shallot chopped
One tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
Four ounces of dry white wine (I use the stuff I will drink later with the meal)
One-half teaspoon of red chili flakes (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

[caption id="attachment_991" align="alignleft" width="161"] Pairs nicely with the halibut

Putting it together
Cook the wild rice, add salt, pepper and butter (or oil) to taste – set aside
Sauté the garlic, tomatoes, shallots in olive oil for five minutes at high heat
Add the wine, vinegar, olives, capers and chili flakes to the sauté pan
Cook for five minutes more at medium heat and set aside
Rub the fish all over with salt and pepper
Sauté fish in a tablespoon of olive oil for 4 minutes (2 minutes per side)
Spoon half the sauce onto the fish and roast in a 400-degree oven for 15 minutes
Reheat the rice and mound on plates
Place the fish over the rice and spoon the rest of the sauce over each filet
Serve immediately

Here are two excellent wines to accompany the meal.

2012 St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc ($20) – Citrus and melon flavors highlight this fresh, well-balanced wine. Excellent acidity and a long finish make this the perfect accompaniment to the halibut.

2011 Allegrini Valpolicella Classico ($14) – This northern Italian red has bright cherry flavors with a spicy tea-like nuance. This is a light to medium bodied red that pairs well – especially with the sauce in the halibut dish.

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:

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.