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

Monterey County Wines

Monterey County Wines

When most of us think of California wine country our thoughts naturally track to Napa or Sonoma counties- two of the most famous wine appellations in the entire world.

However, if you are unfamiliar with Monterey County, you need to take a trip down the Golden State’s coast (about a 100 miles south of San Francisco) and sample the truly amazing variety of wines produced in this topographically diverse region.

Just recently, I had occasion to re-visit the area and today I’ll try and paint a picture of the region as well as share some of my tasting notes from some of Monterey’s best wines.

In addition, the Monterey Peninsula is also an overflowing cornucopia of fruits and vegetables with thousands of acres of fertile farm land producing everything from artichokes to garlic.

From Carmel Valley and the Santa Lucia Highlands in the north to San Bernabe and San Antonio Valley in the south, Monterey County is an incredibly large wine producing region with more than 40,000 acres of vineyards, 85 wineries and nine distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s). It also features breath-taking vistas of the Pacific Ocean, picturesque seaside villages and the rugged coastal highlands.

Sunset at Big Sur

The variety of soil composition, topography and unique micro-climates allow the county to produce a wide range of wine styles. Probably the most significant influence on grape growing in Monterey is the Pacific Ocean where just off the coast the depth of the sea plunges more than two miles.

This “Blue Grand Canyon” as it is locally known has a tremendous effect on the coastal climate where summertime temperatures on shore can reach triple digits during the day and plunge 40 or 50 degrees F at night. In addition, morning fog delays the heat and combines to give Monterey County a long, cool growing season which is perfect for just about all great varietals, particularly chardonnay and pinot noir.

I had the occasion to taste a fairly wide variety of wines from different AVA’s in Monterey County, and I was pleasantly surprised by their overall balance of fruit, alcohol and acidity As you know from reading these tomes, I value wines that pair well with food and are balanced, especially ones that are subtle and complex. I certainly prefer wines of this style rather than the “in your face” alcoholic fruit bombs that seem to have a gained a cult wine following and which are more suited to accompanying road kill than real food. But I digress.

Along the Coast in Monterey County

My first stop was the tasting room at Robert Talbott Vineyards. Talbott was founded in 1982 and the winery concentrates on pinot noir and chardonnay grapes planted in two distinct estate vineyards – Sleepy Hollow in the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Diamond T in Carmel Valley. I was led through the tasting of the Talbott portfolio of wines by Ross Allen, director of marketing and a wine industry veteran.

Ross Allen Talbott Vineyards

Here are my tasting notes for the Talbott wines. Incidentally, these wines should be available throughout the state.

2008 Talbott Kalie Hart Chardonnay ($24)  Named after Robb Talbott’s daughter Kalin, this wine literally bursts with clean, crisp chardonnay fruit, yet it has roundness on the finish that comes from extended aging on the lees. Nicely balanced with citrus and peach notes, I would suggest pairing it with halibut in a beurre blanc sauce.

2008 Talbott Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay ($40) The essence of what California chardonnay can and should be, this wine is a combination of power and subtly with ripe apricot and peach flavors and a nose of butterscotch and freshly baked bread. Exceptionally balanced with a lingering finish, the Sleepy Hollow chardonnay deserves to be accompanied by either roasted Chilean sea bass or lobster and drawn butter.

2008 Talbott Logan Pinot Noir ($26) This Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir (named after Robb’s son Logan) is a medium bodied wine with jammy, earthy aromas, ripe cherry/cola flavors and a hint of spice and vanilla on the finish. Pork tenderloin roasted and sauced with cherries or blueberries would be a lovely combination with this tasty wine.

2008 Talbott Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Pinot Noir ($40) Spicy, rich and full bodied, the Sleepy Hollow pinot noir is a fairly powerful wine with dark fruit flavors balanced by an acid backbone that pulls the wine together. This one has some aging potential and should reward the patient wine lover with an even better experience with three to five years in bottle. Pair it now with grilled King salmon or apple wood smoked chicken.

Next time we’ll take a look at a few other wines from Monterey County. Stay tuned.

Summertime wines and picnic foods

Last time, I regaled you with my version of wine and food pairings and today I’ll continue along that theme line with a little more emphasis on summertime wines.

Once the weather moderates, some people’s thoughts turn to gardening or even golf. Not mine. Summertime gets me (and my trusty old Weber) fired up to start grilling various hunks of meat and/or vegetables, and accompanying these tasty delights with picnic-style wines that refresh the body and the calm the spirit.

I’m not talking about altar wine here! No sireee Bob. I’m suggesting lighter-bodied whites and reds that fit the casual feel of outdoor cooking as well as pair terrifically with grilled foods. These lighter-style wines also benefit from a little chilling, particularly the reds, which will provide a refreshing counterpoint to the sometimes spicy entrees being prepared.

How about a crisp, herbaceous sauvignon blanc with herbal-suffused foods such as salmon with dill or grilled asparagus, or even a pesto of parsley and garlic over linguine? Look for lively sauvignon blancs from Nobilo, Alan Scott, Caymus, Groth, Estancia, Kenwood, St. Michelle, or Sterling that are wonderful accompaniments to these types of foods.

Sangiovese and pinot noir are my choices for red wines in the warm months, particularly when matched with grilled lamb. Whether you choose a boned and butter flied leg, chops or – my favorite – rack of lamb, these wines do not over-power the food, but rather compliment and enhance the flavors. From Tuscany, try wines such as Villa Banfi Centine and Monte Antico, as well as Chianti producers such as Monsanto, Fossi, Cecchi, Brolio, and Nozzole.

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Some favorite food and wine pairings

Summer is almost here and if you’re like me, you will do almost anything to avoid yard work. One of my  best “get out of yard work” ploys is to offer my services as chef de cuisine  in the Brown household from time to time. I take this obligation seriously regardless of the menu  du jour and make sure that even the most humble meal is accompanied by an appropriate wine. Ah, but therein lies the challenge. Pairing wine with an appropriate menu selection can be an intimidating exercise, particularly when you’ve invited a few friends or business associates to dinner.  However, it can also be fun. Today, I’ll give you a few tips that will hopefully make the experience more enjoyable than daunting. I know you’ve all heard the first commandment in the food and wine bible: Thou shalt not match red wine with white meat or fish, nor white wine with beef, game or other meats. For instance, there is hardly a better wine and food pairing for you carnivores than a thick, juicy steak accompanied by a full-bodied cabernet sauvignon like the ones produced at Franciscan, Silver Oak or Catena (from Argentina). Likewise, it is hard to beat pairing a full-bodied, unctuous Chardonnay such as Chateau Montelena, Talley Vineyards or Falcor with a rich seafood dish like lobster with drawn butter. While these two classic food and wine combinations seem to underscore the tenets of the food and wine bible, I’m going to advise you to break that commandment on occasion. After all, every now and then a little sinnin’ is fun. So let’s start breaking rules.Fish with red wine?  You bet, but here’s a little tip: red wines, particularly medium-bodied ones such as pinot noir or sangiovese, match well with fully flavored fish such as salmon, tuna (not the canned kind) or sword fish. However, using these same wines with delicate seafood like sole, flounder or scallops will provide a sensation akin to running your fingernails down a blackboard. Try matching a grilled fillet of salmon that has been dry rubbed with cumin, chili powder and brown sugar with a pinot noir like Domaine Serene Yamhill or David Bruce, or a sangiovese-based wine from Monte Antico or Cecchi Bonizio.  Lock your lips around a glass of one of these wines after a bite of grilled salmon and you may start speaking in tongues. These same type reds do well with white meats such as grilled chicken, veal or all cuts of pork too.How about a big juicy hamburger with Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio? Nah, it won’t work because the hamburger will overpower the delicacy of these particular wines. But try a medium-bodied white such as 2008 Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay or a Rose (such as Mulderbosch Rose of Cabernet) and it works quite well.Herbal flavored foods like those with sage, basil, rosemary or dill go great with the grassier-styled sauvignon blanc.  Kenwood, Dry Creek and Murphy-Goode come to mind as good accompaniments to herb-enhanced foods like pesto, sage dressings, dill mayonnaise and asparagus - just to name a few.I love fuller-bodied reds with pasta in a marinara sauce. You may be surprised to know that I am not particularly fond of Chianti with this dish because I think it gets rolled over by the red sauce.  I suggest Zinfandel (Renwood Old Vines, Montevina, Ridge Geyserville) or blended wines such as Big House Red and Marietta Old Vines with traditional pasta in red sauce.. Sparkling wines are wonderful paired with  salty or spicy foods. Try Pierre Sparr Cremant Brut or Domaine Chandon Blanc De Noirs with smoked salmon , popcorn or  anchovies along with jalapeno and other hot pepper appetizers.Gewurztraminer ( Hogue, Columbia, Navarro)  and riesling (Ch. Ste. Michelle, Hugel or Clairborne and Churchill) are spectacular with oriental dishes, particularly sushi, maki Thai and spicy Chinese cuisine. For chocolate desserts save a little of that full-bodied Cabernet from dinner and give it a try. I also love Tawny Port  (Taylor or Fonseca) with nuts and blue cheese, and late harvest riesling (Chateau St. Jean) with.... …anything!

Cool Sippers!

We have experienced a very warm spring here in West By Golly and so I’ve taken extra precautions to keep this delicate body hydrated. As you may know, I consider water a last resort option, preferring instead to slake my thirst with liquids that not only soothe a weary body, but heal the spirit too.

Of course, the most transcendent of all liquids is wine and so I have been sipping a fair portion lately, particularly those that are lighter and more refreshing in style. Here are a couple, you should find particularly pleasing.

2009 Crios Rose of Malbec – ($12) This Argentinean wine, produced from Malbec, is a fuller styled rose, yet it is a delicate mouthful of fresh strawberries with enticing acidity. While the wine is rich and lush, it also finishes dry and would make an exceptional accompaniment to grilled Italian sausages or barbecue chicken.

2009 Emiliana Natura Sauvignon Blanc ($11) From Chile, this organically grown sauvignon blanc is full of citrus aromas with lemon/lime and herbal flavors. It is a light to medium-bodied wine with good balancing acidity and would be an excellent match to pasta in a basil pesto sauce.
***One of Charleston’s most complete selection of wines (and spirits) can be found at The Liquor Company in the Patrick Street Plaza. I’ve mentioned this establishment before along with a few other places in town that not only offer a great selection of wine, but also expert advice.

Other notable shops that provide that added dimension are the Wine Shop at Capitol Market and the Kroger store at Ashton Place. The folks working at these establishments will go the extra mile to assist you in your search for the appropriate bottle to match your individual palate.

The Liquor Company has engaged Sam Uppala as consultant to the store and he has developed a varied program designed with the wine consumer in mind. Sam, by the way, is a certified wine educator and teaches classes on “The Art and Science of Wine” at the Clay Center. His next class will begin June 1st and you can find out more about it and sign up by calling 304-561-3517.

Tastings or “samplings” as they are referred to at The Liquor Company are conducted most Wednesday’s from 5 to 8 p.m. Cost is $5 and up to eight wines are made available for sipping. Upcoming samplings are scheduled for May 19, June 2 and June 16, but wines are available for tasting almost anytime during the day at the store’s “wine station” - which is a bar-like area in the rear of The Liquor Company.

In addition, The Liquor Company offers something called “The Grand Cru Loyalty Membership” that entitles members to special case discounts, free samplings and other goodies to enhance your wine shopping. Call the store at 304-346-6000 for details and pricing.

Wine from the Big House

Remember the days of old when buying jug wine was a normal practice for most of us who wanted to enjoy a daily glass or two, but were constrained by a limited budget? In days of yore, I uncorked (or unscrewed) countless jugs of Carlo Rossi, Hearty Burgundy, Cribari and a host of other unpronounceable (and sometimes undrinkable) wines.

Today, jug wine still exists in the marketplace, but most of us have traded up to smaller sized bottles where the cost per ounce has increased, but the quality is much improved. The other issue with large format bottles is that keeping the wine fresh over a few days (if it is not consumed on the day it is opened) is problematic.

That problem, though, is easily resolved by either wolfing down the entire jug or pouring the remaining wine into a smaller bottle and eliminating the air space in the vessel so it will not spoil. However, you’re still faced with the quality issue. In recent tastings of jugs versus inexpensive wines in 750 ml bottles (e.g. fifths), the clear winners have been the wines in the smaller containers.

Just about the time I was about to declare the case closed, I had the opportunity to sip a jug style wine from a re-packaged version of an old idea – the “bag in the box.” This particular wine, 2008 Big House Red, is packaged in a 3-liter Octavin (a octagonal box) and is a blend of … get this… 23% syrah, 14% petite sirah, 9% grenache, , 6% mourvedre, 17% sangiovese, 6% algianico, 6% tannat, 5% nero d'avola, 4% sargentino, 3% touriga, 3% barbera, 3% petit verdot.

I’ve actually heard of most of these grapes!

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Artichokes and wine: Peeling back the mystery!

You may have noticed that the produce section in your local food market is chock full of great deals on artichokes this time of year. Most of these semi-obscure vegetables are grown and harvested in California or Florida, and I covet the little buggers about as much as I do our wild and wonderful ramps, which are also at their peak in springtime.

Now artichokes (and certainly ramps) are not on everyone’s favorite foods list. In fact, I surmise that most people eat artichokes less frequently than ramps and about as often as they might consume … say… chicken lips - which is less than never.

Those who do like artichokes, though, have one overriding complaint: they can’t find a wine that gets along with these spiny cylindrical balls. The overwhelming complaint is that artichokes make all wine taste sweet. My own experimentation initially resulted in the same impression. Neither white nor red worked.

Most people who do take the time (and it does take a considerable time commitment) to prepare artichokes use the standard butter/garlic/lemon bathe, or some version of an aioli whereby the leaves of the vegetable are dipped into the sauce and then consumed by sliding them between the upper and lower teeth.

Try as I might, I had been unsuccessful in finding any wine that would do anything other than turn overly sweet when sipped after eating artichokes in this manner. Now, the artichoke heart is another matter. No problem with using this in salads or in an omelet and finding a white wine- particularly sauvignon blanc – that matched it. But the leaves are another matter.

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Some wines for your consideration

I’ve been all over this wonderful state in the past few weeks engaging in what some would refer to as work. Of course, work requires energy which depends upon sustenance that is fueled by food and enhanced by liquids - especially those produced from fermented grapes.

In other words, I made a point of eating and drinking well. And, as always, your intrepid wineaux sought out opportunities to evaluate wines that you might find appealing. So without further ado, here are some goodies for your consideration.

2007 Bridlewood Viognier ($14)While viognier originated in France's Rhone Valley, the grape is grown especially well in California, and particularly along that state’s central coast. The Bridlewood is an extremely aromatic wine with aromas of ripe peaches and apricots. Round, lush and slightly sweet, it has mango and tropical fruit flavors with a nice touch of acidity enabling it to pair well with foods such as stir fry pork and veggies in a honey/soy sauce.

2007 Emmolo Merlot ($25)This is a Napa Valley merlot made in the style of Duckhorn at about half the price. Deep, dark fruit and mocha flavors along with mid-palate tannin and excellent acidity make this a wine that needs to be decanted for a couple of hours if it is to be consumed in the short term. However, I’d buy a few bottles to hold for three to five years and taste this baby when it is at its peak. This wine needs full-flavored roasted meat like prime rib or sirloin of pork infused with plenty of garlic and black pepper.

2008 Villa Pozzi Nero D' Avola ($10)Nero d’avola is the ubiquitous red of Sicily and Villa Pozzi’s 2008 version of the wine is a good one. Ripe cherries and spicy cola flavors predominate in this medium-bodied wine that is exceptionally well balanced. Like most Italian wines, this one is made to be paired with food and my choice would be grilled lamb chops that had been marinated in lemon, olive oil, garlic and rosemary.

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Canaan Wild,Wonderful Wine Weekend: A mountain of wine and food

Spring.  A time of rebirth and renewal, with daffodils blooming and sunshine making a regular appearance.  I would like to enjoy springtime, particularly after the REAL winter we just experienced. Unfortunately, my incessant sneezing and wheezing overwhelm and interrupt any ideas I might have about enjoying the great outdoors.

There is one place, though, where spring is delayed for a couple of months and I can enjoy something that is even more appealing to me than sunshine and blue skies: The Wild and Wonderful Wine Weekend at Canaan Valley Resort. 

Every six months, I have the pleasure of participating in and presenting at a wine weekend event at Canaan Valley Resort in the mountains of wild and wonderful West Virginia.  The sixth version of this semi-annual mountain gourmet extravaganza will take place April 9th and 10th at the resort.

I’ll select wines from around the world that will be paired with delicious selection of  culinary treats prepared by Canaan Valley Resort’s executive chef Nemat Odeh.  Chef Odeh, who received his culinary training in Europe, knows a thing or two about gourmet food. He is also willing to work with dilettantes like me in preparing exquisite  wine friendly menus. 

Here’s the schedule: Friday, April 9 at 7 p.m.: Guests will kick-off the weekend with a "taste-around reception" where more than 20 wines from the world's most prestigious regions can be sampled with matching culinary treats at food stations all around the ballroom. This wine and food “graze around” is a wonderful way to evaluate wine with a wide variety of dishes.    

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Thank You Nelson Mandela !

Nelson Mandela’s achievements have been widely and deservedly heralded, but his ability to exhibit magnanimity to people who kept him incarcerated for decades, and to the government he inherited is truly remarkable. In choosing to rise above the inclination to seek revenge on his oppressors, he also demonstrated his wisdom and practicality.

So what does any of this have to do with wine? Well, one of the beneficiaries of Mandella’s benevolence during his tenure as the first democratically elected president of South Africa was the wine industry. Like most other businesses in the country back then, wineries were part of the white power establishment and, like other enterprises, saw their exports drop significantly during the years of Apartheid.

With the defeat of Apartheid and the ascension of Mandela, the ban on South African wines was lifted, and the product began to appear ever so slowly on American wine store shelves. Here in West Virginia, we’re just beginning to enjoy the wide variety and surprising quality of South African wines.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event at the Bluegrass Kitchen which featured about 20 South African wines and a variety of small plate dishes created by chef Gary Needham. The wines were from importer Cape Classics and ran the gamut from lighter- styled whites to full bodied reds. The common thread among the wines was their uniform quality and incredible value.

However, my first sip of South African wine – more than 30 years ago – was not an experience I remember fondly. In fact, the red wine made from the pinotage grape (a cross between pinot noir and cinsault) tasted like something that had been aged in oil barrels. To be fair, the quality of pinotage has been improved substantially over the years, but this native South African wine is certainly not among my favorites nor was it featured at the Bluegrass Kitchen event.

There are nine principal wine regions in South Africa, and most surround Cape Town where the influence of cool ocean breezes and diverse soils combine to create ideal grape growing appellations. The most well regarded region is Stellenbosch just a short distance east of Cape Town where the best reds and whites are produced.

The other exemplary note about these wines is that they are made to be enjoyed with food with none of the overblown, high extract and stratospheric alcohol levels so popular with some new world wine makers.

While I was particularly impressed with the cabernet sauvignon blends, the 2009 Indaba Merlot ($10) is a delicious bargain with ripe plum and cola flavors and excellent balance. It would be wonderful with grilled flank steak stuffed with roasted red peppers and provolone cheese.

Dessert wine fans absolutely must try the 2005 Kanu Kia Oro Late Harvest Chenin Blanc ($20 half bottle). This wine is chock full of apricot, pineapple and honey flavors that would love to be “peared” with poached pears topped with a dollop of whipped crème.

Another wine from South Africa that is exceptional is chenin blanc. Made in a variety of styles from light and slightly sweet to round, rich and chardonnay-like, wine makers in the country know how to squeeze the best from what many consider a humble grape. Of course, the chardonnay is superb, and the riesling and sauvignon blanc are distinctive too.

The wines listed below were my favorites at the tasting and should be available at a wine shop near you. If not, ask your wine purveyor to order them. I think you’ll like them and I hope you’ll raise a glass in thanks to Nelson Mandela!

Under $15 - 2009 Excelsior Chardonnay; 2008 Buitenverwachting Riesling; 2008 Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc; 2008 Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc; 2009 Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rose; and 2009 Indaba Merlot.

2009 Rustenberg Chardonnay ($22); 2005 Mulderbosch Faithful Hound (a Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec and merlot $32); and 2006 Rustenberg John X Merriman (another Bordeaux blend $40).

Describing wine: it’s easy to exaggerate

Sometimes it’s laughable. Other times it makes me crazy! Please read the description below of a wine being pitched to customers by an online wine retailer. This description takes hyperbole to a new level.

“The nose is redolent of dark Bing cherries, hints of black and white pepper on meat roasting in a wood oven, memories of English plum pudding steaming at Christmas, a touch of saddle leather, warm spice and tobacco at a distance. The nose continues to build and unfold with hints of violets and Portobello mushrooms, blackberries, minerals and sweet earth. It envelops the palette, almost to the point of overwhelming, then opens up to show beautiful balance and sophistication, and an elegant, glycerol texture. Explosive on the palette, it transforms midway into every red berry you’ve ever tasted. The finish lingers uncovering a wisp of anise, blackberry honey, and golden pastry roasting in the oven…Cherry Pie. “Holy obfuscation! How can you possibly glean anything useful about this wine from this exaggerated drivel? Saddle leather, Portobello mushrooms, explosive on the palette, plum pudding steaming at Christmas along with hints of white and black pepper on roasting meat?

No need to have dinner with this wine. It is dinner: appetizer, main course and dessert all rolled into one!

I must admit I have, on occasion, let my enthusiasm for a good wine cause me to use overly flowery language to describe a particularly memorable bottle. But in the main, I try to use common taste and aroma descriptors to which you can easily relate.

For example, if I recommend a wine that has flavors of cherries and an aroma of cinnamon, just about everyone has had those sensory experiences, and can therefore relate to them in evaluating whether or not to buy the wine.

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Wine and food events abound!

Tis’ the season of multiple wine related events and I can think of no better way to shed the winter blues than by enjoying the restorative power of good food and wine. In the next two weeks, you’ll have opportunities to do just that.

Bridge Road Bistro The Bridge Road Bistro prides itself on using locally produced foods whenever possible and Chef Robert Wong is planning a gourmet meal featuring Swift Level Farms beef from Greenbrier County.

Swift Level Farms is a 150-acre property featuring historic buildings, premium lodging facilities and a working farm producing spectacular Angus beef. The farm’s natural and organic beef program is based on Angus weanling calves purchased locally which are grain fed and then placed on winter grass with hay and supplemented with kelp.

On Thursday March 4, at 6:00 pm the Bistro will present a multi-course meal with accompanying wines featuring Swift Farms Beef. Yours truly will select and discuss the wines during the dinner, which is sure to be an excellent gustatory experience.The menu will include a Swift Level Slider, Asian Skirt Steak Roulade, grilled New York Strip Steak and & Braised Short Ribs among other culinary delights.

Price is $69 per person (plus tax and tip) and reservations are required by calling the Bistro at 304-720-3500.

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Tuscan Stuffed Pork Tenderloin

One of the leanest, most tender cuts of meat is the pork tenderloin. Today, the boy of wine is going to share a great dish with you featuring the little piggy’s tenderloin. I will also recommend a pair of absolutely perfect wines for this dish!

But first, a few thoughts on cooking pork.

As delicious as roasted pork tenderloin can be, it can also be a boring dish unless you spark it up with a good dose of seasoning, stuffing, or saucing. The recipe below will take care of this problem. However, the most common problem associated with preparing this delicate cut of meat is over cooking.

Most of us have been taught by our mothers and grandmothers that you must always cook pork until the center of the meat is completely devoid of any color. Why? Well, when mom and/or ma-ma were growing up, trichinosis, a disease contracted by eating under cooked pork, was a serious problem.

The solution was to cook the meat until it was DONE – in other words until it was stiff, dry and had the flavor and texture of leather. When I was growing up, fried pork chops could have been used as body armor.

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And the winner is…..

Last week I discussed a recent blind tasting I conducted where tasters were asked to evaluate six cabernet sauvignons (or cabernet blends). I suggested that you might wish to sip a few of the wines and judge for yourself before I revealed how our group viewed the order of preference.

So far the only feedback I've gotten has come from a few disgruntled wine lovers who have taken me to task for not letting you know which wines were judged best.

Okay, okay, I get the message. Here are the results along with the country of origin and the retail price:

1. 2006 Marques Casa Concha (Chile $19)

2. 2003 Falcor Le Bijou (Napa Valley $32)

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Tasting Cabernet Blind!

From time to time, I have the opportunity to attend or conduct a tasting where the wines are evaluated before anyone is shown what they’re tasting. These events are known as “blind” tastings.

Don’t get the wrong idea. We’re not talking about drunken parties where the tasters are blind from overindulgence. Rather, since the identities of the wines are kept hidden from the participants, the wines are being tasted “blind.”

Why? Well, tasting wines blind takes away the bias you may have toward a particular label because of past experience with the wine, or because of the reputation or price of a specific product. Without any idea of the wine’s identity, you’ll find you’re also better able to concentrate on the qualitative aspects of the wine such as color, aroma and taste.

I encourage you to attend one of these events or, better yet, conduct your own blind tasting with a few friends at home. It’s pretty simple. Just ask everyone to bring a bottle of wine which has been covered with a paper bag (be sure to tape the bag around the neck of the bottle).

I suggest using a specific type of wine such as zinfandel or sauvignon blanc so that you’re comparing different wineries’ versions of the same varietal. Most grape varieties, regardless of where they are grown around the world, produce wines that have defining aroma or taste characteristics that are universally recognizable.

Take cabernet sauvignon for example. Cabernet produced in such geographically diverse regions as the Napa Valley in California, Bordeaux in France or the Barossa Valley in Australia share varietal characteristics with which most wine drinkers can identify.

Some of the aroma and taste characteristics I find in cabernet are cola, leather, eucalyptus, tobacco, mocha, currants, green pepper and green olives. I don’t mean to suggest that every cabernet sauvignon has all of these components, but I can usually detect one or more of them in this world famous wine.

I had the pleasure of conducting just such a tasting recently where cabernets and cabernet blends were tasted blind. The blends are wines with cabernet and/or other traditional Bordeaux blending grapes (merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec).

This tasting consisted of six wines hailing from California, Bordeaux, Chile, Argentina and Australia. To make sure I was unaware of the order of the wines, I asked a person not in the tasting to bag and number the ones we were going to sip.

The wines ranged in price from around $11 to $35 a bottle and I asked the assembled group of wine lovers to taste each wine against all of the others and then to rate them. You may be surprised to know that the number one rated wine was far from the most expensive. In addition, I can honestly say that I would buy any of the wines we tasted and be happy with them.

So what were the wines and the results? Well, I’ll list the wines, but you’ll have to conduct your own tasting to determine which you prefer. After all, that’s what wine appreciation is all about – your preference after careful consideration. Incidentally, all the wines are readily available in wine shops around the state.

The wines tasted blind (in alphabetical order): 2007 El Portillo Cabernet – Argentina ($14); 2003 Falcor Le Bijou – Napa Valley ($32); 2007 Guenoc Victorian Claret – California ($15); 2006 Larose De Gruaud – St. Julien, Bordeaux ($35); 2006 Marques De Casa Concha Cabernet - Chile ($19); 2007 McWiliams Hanwood Estate Cabernet – Australia ($11).

Let me know what you think of the wine (s).

Wine is an acceptable water substitute !

Over the millennia, wine has proved to be an able and essential substitute for water. The Romans would regularly send troopers to plant vines and make wine years in advance of their invading armies to insure that they would have a safe and plentiful supply of wine (which is comprised mainly of water).

Remember the Biblical parable about the wedding feast where the attendees very quickly drank up all the hooch and one very special guest saved the day by changing large vats of water into wine?

Well, several years ago , I was a judge– now get this – at a water contest. Seven hours of drinking and judging municipal tap water, bottled water and sparkling water left my indelicate stomach even more distended than normal. Between frequent trips to the restroom, I longed for a miracle similar to the one performed 2000 years ago.

But really folks…. the town of Berkley Springs in the Eastern Panhandle puts on a first-class event that not only showcases waters from around the world, but also provides visitors with a hospitable experience second to none.

In a former life where I had the privilege of promoting West Virginia tourism, the good folks of Berkley Springs were a passionate group, always touting the virtues of the town, the springs and water that have made the place a magnet for weary travelers for hundreds of years.

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Bubbles for the New Year!

It’s almost 2010 wine lovers! As you get ready to toast the New Year, I have some last minute sparkling suggestions to help you celebrate the end of the first decade of the new millennium in style.

Sparkling wine and Champagne are delicious and appropriate wines to sip as you bring in the New Year and today I’ll share with you some of my favorite bubbly picks. While many sparkling wines are made in the Champagne method, none can be called by that famous moniker unless they are produced from grapes grown in region of Champagne in northern France.
If you recall, the Champagne method (or methode champenoise) is a process where still wines (traditionally pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier) are blended and then put in a bottle to which yeast and a small amount of sugar are added. This causes the wine to go through a secondary fermentation and the result  is a bubbly wine like Champagne.While Champagne is regarded as the gold standard, many other countries produce excellent sparkling wine using this method.
So here are a few of my favorites you might consider sipping New Year’s Eve and any time you get a hankering for a little bubbly:
Champagne under $40:  Perrier Jouet Grand Brut; Moet & Chandon Imperial; Veuve Clicquot Brut; and Michel Arnould Grand Cru Brut.
Sparkling wines under $25: 2005 Domaine Carneros Brut; Vigna Dogarina Prosecco; Roderer Anderson Valley Brut; 2005 Vilarnau Brut Nature (Spain); Parxet Cuvee 21; Domaine Chandon Brut Rose; and Gloria Ferrer Brut.

Happy New Year!!

Some wines (and stuff) for your holiday gift giving

Well, here we are again faced with that most enjoyable of all dilemmas: what wine to get for that loved one, friend or you this holiday season.


Normally, the pressures of holiday shopping are both frustrating and exceedingly difficult for me, but not when it comes to wine gifting!  Why?  Well, for me, securing a quality selection of top wines for the holidays is a labor of love and today I’ll share my top picks that should meet just about every budget.  


Let’s start, though, with some non-vinous gift recommendations for those in need of wine accoutrements (that’s French for “stuff”), or other goodies that are not liquid.   

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Sippin’ wine older than Howdy Doody!

Sippin’ wine older than Howdy Doody!

After rummaging around my very disorganized cellar for a suitably mature wine to pair with a celebratory meal, I came upon a bottle  which had obviously been lying in repose for quite some time. After blowing the dust off the label, I was incredulous to discover that the wine was a 1947 Borgono Barolo!


Say what?  That’s older than … Howdy Doody! (By the way, there is no truth to the rumor that Howdy Doody was the illegitimate result of a union between Little Orphan Annie and Pinocchio).


Anyway, it turns out my brother, who had prompted me to look in that particular area of the cellar and with whom I share a passion for the fruit of the vine, had years before slipped the Barolo into a nook instead of a cranny, and I was unaware I possessed this museum piece.   

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Thanksgiving WineBoy Picks

When I was growing up, one of our faithful family traditions involved enthusiastic discourse around the holiday dinner table. To the rare outsiders who were infrequently invited to our large family repasts, the decibel level of this “enthusiasm” must have been a bit disconcerting.


No subject was too grand, obscure or off limits. We would debate everything from presidential elections to the color of Aunt Agnes’ moustache, and those who prevailed usually did so through din rather than  eloquence.


So in keeping with family tradition, my brother and I have debated for decades the best wines to pair with Thanksgiving dinner. After exhaustive and sometimes heated discussions, we have come to the conclusion that almost every wine can marry nicely with some part of the Turkey Day meal.   Why? Listen up.

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How to conduct a wine tasting and FAQ’s on wine

One of the small pleasures of my life is conducting wine tastings. I really enjoy imparting information to eager learners, and wine lovers are perfect students. You ask good questions, are usually very attentive and truly want to learn more about the wine you drink.

My tastings go something like this: I’ll usually give you a short history of wine and then demonstrate how to get the most out of the tasting by teaching you how to use your senses to fully appreciate wine.  

Think in terms of the ‘five S.’s of wine appreciation: (1) sight – observe the wine and judge its clarity, color, etc; (2) swirl- rotate the wine in the glass to unlock the flavor and aroma; (3) sniff – place your proboscis deeply into the glass and smell and try to describe what you are smelling; (4) sip – my favorite part of the tasting where you roll the wine around in your mouth allowing it to touch all the surfaces; (5) swallow – judge the impressions the wine leaves when you swallow it.

Generally, a wine tasting will consist of examining six or seven wines beginning with lighter and sweeter wines and moving to fuller-bodied and dryer ones. Tasters should receive about one ounce of each wine so the total amount you drink over the course of the tasting approximates one full glass of wine.  

Tasters are encouraged to critically examine the color as well as the aroma and taste of each wine, and to render an opinion as to what they liked or disliked about a particular bottle.

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