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

Charleston’s Culinary Journey: From Wasteland to (not quite) Nirvana

One of Peter Meyer’s disciples was Bill Sohovich, owner of Soho’s (above) and Blossom and a culinary pioneer in his own right. Photo by Walker DeVilleAs a native of Clarksburg, W.Va., I am genetically predisposed to seek out and find good food. It is in my DNA! So when I moved to Charleston a few decades ago, I was shocked to find that the Kanawha Valley was a culinary wasteland. Back then, there were only three fine dining establishments in Charleston. Catering to traveling salesmen on expense accounts, the “Heart of Town,” Ernie’s Esquire and “Top of the Inn” restaurants served up gigantic portions of prime rib washed down with barrels of beer and a mind-boggling assortment of “high balls.” Wine lists consisted of Lambrusco, Lancer’s Rose and Vito’s Thunder Mountain Chablis - and only artsy types or effete snobs ever dared order wine with their dinner.

Yes, there were a whole host of fast food and chain restaurants where most of the rest of us dined (on those once-a-week occasions when our meager budgets permitted a night out). But there were really no fine dining establishments, and hardly any ethnic food restaurants – except for a couple of Chinese places and Joe Fazio’s.Look, I’m really not a food or wine snob, but the restaurant choices were very limited back then. Okay, so Charleston is not quite culinary nirvana yet, but, in my humble opinion, we’ve come a long way, baby! The wine lists have evolved, too. Now, even the chain restaurants have decent lists while the finer dining establishments’ selections provide a variety of choices for the knowledgeable wine consumer.

Unlike the “Big Bang” theory of evolution, the Charleston culinary Renaissance did not just dramatically appear one day. In fact, I give most of the credit to a couple of local pioneers: Otis Laury and the late Peter Meyer. Otis Laury worked his culinary magic at his Laury’s Restaurant, featuring Continental cuisine, and Meyer led the food and beverage operations at the Charleston Marriott’s (now closed) Tarragon Room. Meyer, a classically trained chef and native of Switzerland, took that restaurant and wine list to a whole new level until his untimely death a few years back.

In the last decade or so, we’ve seen an influx of fine dining establishments whose owner-chefs combine quality ingredients, excellent culinary skills and aesthetic presentation, to deliver the kinds of dining experiences one could previously only expect in “the big city.”

One of Peter Meyer’s disciples is Bill Sohovich, owner of the Blossom and Soho’s restaurants and a culinary pioneer in his own right. Sohovich is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and has carried on the traditions of Peter Meyer into the new century. There are others who deserve credit too. Jeremy Stills, chef at Edgewood Country Club and also a graduate at the CIA, has worked with Sohovich over the years and has had a notable influence on the city’s culinary transition from ordinary to exceptional. Tom Grant, whose Wellington's Restaurant at Scarlett Oaks Country Club, still serves excellent cuisine was a local culinary pioneer, too.

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La Dolce Vino. Or how I survived “White Pheasant” and found a sweet wine worth drinking

The label for Michele Chiarlo 2005 Moscato D'Asti Nivole, available at the Capitol Market wine shop

I must admit to an inauspicious introduction to the ‘fruit of the vine.” It was during a time when automobiles had fins, Motown was in its prime and most wine came in large jugs with screw cap closures. Guys were always looking for an angle – if you know what I mean – and so I decided to demonstrate my sophistication to my date at the fraternity party by introducing her to the sensory aspects of a wine called “White Pheasant.”

This beverage, possibly made from grapes, but certainly infused with rocket fuel, was enclosed in a half-gallon green jug with a label featuring a picture of what looked like a demonic white condor. I’m pretty sure my date was impressed because she proceeded to slake her mighty thirst with countless cups of the Pheasant. On the way back to her dorm - in my father’s new Chevrolet- she proceeded to redecorate the interior of the car.

I know. You’re wondering where I’m going with this. Well, here’s my point: don’t be deterred by a negative first experience with wine! Many people look down their respective noses at sweet wine, proclaiming that only college co-eds or winos drink the stuff. This is either a reflection of their own personal experience (see above) or actual inexperience in pairing a delicious sweet wine with a lovely desert. If you are one of those sweet wine nay-sayers, try this combo below and let me know what you think.

There is an Italian dessert wine made from the delicate and delicious Muscat grape which has appealing apricot and melon flavors with just the slightest hint of effervescence. The wine is Michele Chiarlo 2005 Moscato D'Asti Nivole and comes in a half bottle. It retails for about $12 and is a wonderful accompaniment to chocolate-based desserts. “Nivole” means “clouds” in Italian, and its light and billowy texture perfectly describes this wine, which is produced in the Piedmont region of that wonderful nation of vines. You should be able to find it at wine shops in the area, and perhaps even in some grocery stores. I know it is available at the Capitol Market wine shop in Charleston. So forget about those preconceived notions (or bad first experiences) and give “La Dolce Vino” a chance.

Home, home on the range, Where the lamb and the zinfandel play

It's January. Cold, gray, dreary January! Things could get depressing were it not for my penchant to match ugly days with great food and wine. I'm actually thinking about Arizona and the Sonoran dessert. I'm getting inspired! Here it comes...I've got it: Grilled lamb over mesquite coals washed down with a bottle of Zinfandel so big and juicy it'll make your teeth itch! Okay, so I'm taking a few liberties with conventional Southwest cuisine by substituting lamb for beef, but I think you're going to like this.

Thinking of this dish reminds me of an old Johnny Cash song about cowboys and their feelings about shepherds and sheep. These lines say it all: "A sheep herder come once and put up a fence/ We seen him that time, but we ain't seen him since/ But if you're needin' mutton, we got mutton to sell/ 'cause we're cow-punchers and we're mean as hell."

Thatt line is from a mid-1960's album by Cash called "Ballads of the Old West." Goes great with grillin'. But I digress.

Anyway, here are the marching orders (note that marinade time!):
1. Begin with a six-pound boned and butterflied leg of lamb. Make sure you trim most of the fat from the leg and then rub it all over with coarse ground black pepper, finely chopped garlic and ground cumin.
2. Next, make a marinade of one-half cup of extra virgin olive oil, one-third cup of fresh lime juice, one tablespoon of ground cumin, two tablespoons of chili powder, one teaspoon of dried oregano, one teaspoon of salt and seven chopped garlic cloves.
3. Put all the ingredients into a food processor and process until smooth. Cover the meat with the mixture either in a bowl or a gallon freezer bag and allow it to marinate, from 12 hours to 24 hours. Most normal human beings would then place the lamb on a roasting pan and inject it into an oven heated to 375 degrees F, where it would roast for about 45 minutes to one hour. Me? I'm grilling that sucker over a hot charcoal fire onto which I will have liberally sprinkled water-soaked mesquite chips.
4. You want to baste the lamb with the leftover marinade and turn it at least once while grilling. Grilling should be completed in about 30 minutes. Slice the lamb and serve it over grits baked with jalepeno peppers and Monterey jack cheese. This dish will warm the cockles of even the blackest heart!
The absolute best wine for this meal is a big red Zinfandel. Uncork a Marietta Old Vines, Ravenswood, Ridge Lytton Springs or Renwood Old Vines. You might also try Red Truck or Marietta Old Vines Red which are Zinfandel blends.

DEFINING TERMS: (and ‘orgasmic’ is not one of them)

"The nose is quite developed, the tannins are still hard, but the fruit seems overripe and flabby, and the finish is a bit short."


While conducting a wine tasting recently, it was pointed out to me that I had begun to sound a little too 'winesy-cutsey. ' It was a polite reminder I was using wine jargon instead of English to explain attributes of the wine. While I deplore wine snobs and other bores, I must admit to falling into the occasional habit of using "winespeak" to describe the sensory aspects of wine. I guess it comes from reading a great deal from other wine writers or experts who liberally sprinkle around such terms as "tannin, acid, flabby, robust, " even "orgasmic" when describing their tasting experience.

Below, I have listed several terms regularly used in describing wine qualities (but not orgasmic). There are obviously many more, but we'll start with these:

Tannin(s) – A naturally-occurring chemical substance present in wine (particularly red wine) which can allow the wine to age. It manifests itself in the mouth as that sensation which makes you want to pucker.

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Moving Outside Your W.C.Z. (Wine Comfort Zone)

You're probably wondering about my qualifications to write this blog. So here's all I can say about my credentials – such as they are. After a trip to the California wine country in 1981, I was asked to write a wine column for the Charleston Daily Mail. I wrote that weekly column until 1989 and also did a wine commentary gig on West Virginia Public Radio during that same time period.

The commentary, which lasted only a few months and was produced by Mountain Stage's Andy Ridenour, was cancelled when one person wrote to say that Public Radio should not be advocating the use of alcoholic beverages. That was it – one person. Who says a single voice can't make a difference?

Since 1989, I have written a monthly wine column for a weekly West Virginia business publication. I've also conducted hundreds of wine tastings, MC'd countless wine dinners and have traveled fairly extensively to some of the world's most famous wine regions. But before you get too overly impressed with my wine-stained resume, keep in mind that I am also a home wine maker. In other words, I have a great tolerance for mediocre wine. I actually think my wine, which I've been making from California grapes since 1977, is pretty good. If that's not enough to make you stop reading right now, you must really be desperate for wine information.

Okay, so here's what we're going to do: I'm going to write about wine and sometimes food, and hope that you will occasionally respond with your own feelings about the information I impart. Let me say up front that I don't expect you to like every wine I recommend. Wouldn't that be boring?

However, I do taste a pretty substantial number of wines in the course of a year. And I'll bet (unless you're as wine-obsessed as I am) that I might get you to try something other than what you drink regularly. I might even be able to get you to move outside your wine-comfort zone. If so, then I will have succeeded.

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INTRODUCING: Wine and Dine

Welcome to 'Wine and Dine,' a new Charleston Gazette blog about wine selection and advice, along with tips on pairing wine with food. John Brown is a seasoned wine columnist, whose writing on wine will also be seen in the Sunday Gazette-Mail on a regular basis. Also, we will be rolling out some wine tips on video and taking some multimedia journeys in search of the best places to enjoy wine in the West Virginia region. We welcome your feedback on this new blog, either in the 'Comment' section below each post or by sending your comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Douglas Imbrogno | editor