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

Canaan Valley Wild, Wonderful Wine Weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Reception ($40.00 per person)

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

Lunch with Wine Pairings ($35.00 per person)

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

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

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

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

Wine Availability in West Virginia: from Mad Dog to Mouton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smooth and silky St. Supery

My affection for wine is rekindled each time I visit a working winery and observe not only the amazing process of transforming sweet grape juice into wine, but also the passion of the people who grow the grapes and make the finished product.

At St. Supery Estate Vineyards and Winery in the Napa Valley, that passion endures and is, indeed, infectious - due in large measure to the vision and enthusiasm of the winery’s founder.

Inspired by legendary wine maker Robert Mondavi, St. Supery owner Robert Skalli fell in love with the Napa Valley in the early 1970’s and searched for nearly a decade to find the perfect vineyard site to establish his own winery.

Skalli, whose wine roots go back three generations from Algeria to Corsica and then to France, found a remote ranch in the eastern mountains of Napa Valley in 1982. This 1500- acre property known as the Dollarhide Ranch became the primary vineyard site for St. Supery, now renowned as one of the shining stars of Napa Valley.

With nearly 500 acres of vineyards, the majority of the site is planted to sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon with a substantial planting of chardonnay along with Bordeaux blending grapes such as merlot, malbec and cabernet franc. There is also 12-acres of Semillon, a grape which is a particular favorite of mine and of which St. Supery has no domestic peer in my humble opinion.

To round out the St. Supery estate, Skalli purchased a 35- acre vineyard along the Napa Valley floor. Known as the Rutherford Estate, the vineyards are predominately cabernet sauvignon and merlot with a sprinkling of petite verdot and cabernet franc. The Rutherford Estate also houses the winery, tasting room and visitor center.

[caption id="attachment_827" align="alignleft" width="195"] Tasting from barrel at St. Supery

I have always enjoyed the wines of St. Supery, especially their world –class sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. This Napa Valley winery produces a consistently exceptional portfolio of wines that are characterized by supple and silky smoothness.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the winery and tasting my way through the estate’s portfolio of wines. I came away very impressed with St. Supery’s offerings. The good news for state residents is that most of the wines are available at local wine shops and restaurants. Here are my tasting notes for your perusal.

2011 Estate Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley ($20) – Crisp flavor of citrus is balanced by hints of honeydew melon in this stainless steel fermented wine. One of my favorite sauvignons in California. Excellent accompaniment to pan sautéed grouper with a touch of butter and lemon.

2011 Estate Virtu ($30) – This complex white blend of 60% semillon and 40% sauvignon blanc is round, rich and partially barrel fermented. It has lime and apricot flavors with just a touch toasty oak on the finish. Pair this with roasted chicken that has been rubbed with rosemary, garlic and olive oil.

2011 Dollarhide Estate Semillon ($30) There are very few wineries in the US producing semillon and none does it with more precision and elegance than St. Supery. With aromas of green apple and flint along with flavors of anise and citrus, the wine is supple yet balanced. I suggest trying this with capellini in a basil pesto sauce.

2009 Rutherford Merlot ($40) – This complex and layered offering has more in common with wine produced in Pomerol (Bordeaux) than it does with domestically made merlot. Blackberry fruit and mocha flavors along with tack room aromas give way to a silky smooth texture and make this a lovely mouthful of wine. Open up a bottle and sip it with braised beef short ribs.

2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) – Ripe cherry and blueberry flavors highlight this tasty cabernet that is balanced by just the right touch of acid. Fruit forward and medium -bodied, this wine should be paired with a grilled flank steak. 
2008 Estate Estate Elu ($65) –This red Meritage is a blend of Rutherford and Dollarhide vineyards and is comprised of cabernet, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Complex aromas of mocha and leather lead to black cherry and cola flavors in this exceptionally balanced wine. Try this one with grilled rack of lamb that has been basted with Dijon mustard, lemon, garlic and rosemary.

2009 Dollarhide Estate Elevation ($65) – This blend of 88% cabernet with just about equal parts cabernet franc and malbec was aged in French oak for 22 months and exhibits a nice toasty note. Ripe dark fruit and coffee flavors are supple yet lend structure to a wine that will age gracefully for years to come. Marinated and charcoal grilled leg of lamb would be an excellent accompaniment to this wine.

[caption id="attachment_829" align="alignleft" width="300"] Lunch in the Vineyard

2007 Dollarhide Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($85) – From an exceptional vintage, this 100% cabernet is aged for 33 months in French oak. While smooth and full of ripe currant and berry flavors, the wine is age worthy and should continue to improve for a decade or two. This special wine should be accompanied by a standing rib roast that has been rubbed with peppercorns, garlic and sea salt.

Ask your local wine purveyor to order any of the above mentioned wines not on the shelf or check out the St. Supery website at: and have them shipped to you.

DisclaimerMy brother is a wine broker in North Carolina and he represents St. Supery on the East Coast.

Good for any occasion: a sparkling idea

While rooting around for something to pair with the spicy baby back ribs we were going to enjoy for Sunday dinner, I grabbed a bottle of sparkling wine. And not just any sparkler, but a bottle of Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Champagne.

But doesn’t true Champagne deserve to be paired with foie gras or caviar - or at least be used to celebrate a special occasion such as a birthday, anniversary or holiday? Well, in my estimation, every day spent above ground is a reason to celebrate.

And, hey, don’t you think that that if they could, the baby backs would be thrilled to be consumed with something other than beer? Anyway, my surprised meal mates were certainly happy and I was too.

There is no question that sparkling wines are underused. We seem to forget how good they are with everyday meals, especially those that are spicy, rich or salty. And you really do have a wide variety of reasonably priced domestic and international wines from which to choose such as Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy and Champagne-like wines from just about every wine-producing country including the US.

You may have heard the mythical story of the monk Dom Perignon who is credited with inventing Champagne. If not, here is how that story goes.

As a Benedictine monk and winemaker living in the Champagne region of France in the late 1600’s, Dom Perignon noticed that many of his wines would re-ferment in the bottle when the weather began to warm in the spring.

Instead of allowing this second fermentation to be completed, Dom Perignon came up with the idea of corking the wine and capturing the resultant effervescence. After years of experimentation, which included developing the blend of wines comprising the final product, he is credited with creating Champagne.

The process supposedly developed by Dom Perignon and still used today is called methode champenoise or the Champagne method. Every truly great sparkling wine employs this costly and labor intensive process.

The three grapes making up the traditional Champagne cuvee (blend) are pinot noir, pinot meunier (both reds) and chardonnay. These grapes are used to make three separate wines, which are then blended by the winemaker into his final cuvee.

[caption id="attachment_817" align="alignleft" width="165"] Nicolas Feuillatte - great with baby backs!

Once blended, yeast and sugar are added to each bottle which is then secured with a crown cap. The wine is allowed to ferment a second time in the bottle and, depending upon the quality of the cuvee, it is usually aged from two to four years.

Before the sediment arising from the second fermentation can be disgorged from the wine and a final cork secured, each bottle is turned, shaken slightly (this is called riddling) and put in a successively more vertical position for several weeks.

Once the solids are in an upside down position and in the top of the bottle, dry ice is used to freeze the sediment in the neck, the crown cork is popped and the solids are disgorged. A small amount of sugar, wine and brandy are then added back to the bottle ( this is called the “dosage”) and the Champagne cork is secured.

Other, less expensive ways of making sparkling wine have been developed, but none can compare with the complexity and quality of the traditional Champagne method.

Champagne is priced from the mid twenties to upwards of hundreds of dollars a bottle while sparklers from other places can be acquired from around $10 to $30 a bottle.

Here a few of my favorite Champagnes priced under $50: Nicolas Feuillatte; Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut; Moet & Chandon White Star; Veuve Cliquot (Yelow Label; and Perrier Jouet Grand Brut.

Sparkling wines (those made outside France, but using the Champagne method) priced under $30: Gloria Ferrer Brut; Schramsburg Brut; Domaine Carneros; Mumm Cuvee Napa; Domaine Chandon Reserve; Piper Sonoma Brut; Ste. Michelle Brut; Freixenet Cordon Negro; Dibon Cava.

Grilled Nirvana: release your inner-ogre

I am flawed human being. I know this because I am married to a brutally candid woman who reminds me daily of my myriad imperfections.

Hey, I’m not complaining. If she were not critical of some of my more my aberrant idiosyncrasies, I would probably be living in a cave, wearing an animal skin and reduced to yodeling – u-da-lay-ee-o!

However, the older I get, the more I have come to the conclusion that some of these imperfections are acceptable. No, let me rephrase that: they are essential!

I’m not endorsing really obnoxious behavior like flatulence, profanity or – heaven forbid –rooting for Pitt. And while I may have (once or twice) lapsed with regard to the first two infractions mentioned above, you may be assured that I would rather go streaking through St. Peter’s Square than root for Pitt.

No, the oft-criticized behavior I am endorsing involves eating red meat on a regular basis. I know it’s not politically correct to admit this, but I am addicted to red meat, particularly steak. I must consume the roasted flesh of a steer or cow at least once a week or I turn into my alter ego - the ogre just waiting to emerge.

Okay, so maybe I’ve engaged in a little hyperbole here, but I do really love a good steak, preferably one grilled over blazing charcoal. So while too much of a good thing like beef can be a health risk, I mitigate that problem by flushing my arteries regularly with a steady stream of red wine.

Today, I’m going to share my mouth-watering recipe for grilled steak nirvana and provide you with a few nice red wine recommendations that will please your palate and transform the meal into an other worldly experience. I prefer to use rib eye, but strip or porterhouse steak work just as well.

Grilled Nirvana
1 one and one- half inch thick bone-in rib eye
1 tablespoon of Kosher or sea salt
1 tablespoon of fresh coarsely ground black pepper
1 small clove of garlic finely minced
1 teaspoon of olive oil

[caption id="attachment_810" align="alignleft" width="300"] Grilled Nirvana

Cover steak all over with the olive oil
Rub the steak with salt, pepper and garlic
Allow to sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes
Prepare a hot charcoal fire or turn one side of a gas grill up to the highest setting
Place steak on grill, close lid and cook for two minutes a side
Move steak off direct coals (or direct heat on grill)
Cook indirectly for 8 minutes for medium rare
Remove from grill and allow to sit for 10 minutes and then serve

Any full-bodied red wine will go well with the steak, but I prefer cabernet sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend (cabernet, merlot, cabernet franc, etc.). Here are some of my favorite labels priced between $15 and $30 a bottle: Franciscan, Sebastiani, Alamos, Alexander Valley Vineyards, St. Supery, B-Side, Robert Mondavi, BV Rutherford, William Hill, Clos Du Val and Newton Claret.

So go ahead and give it up for a little grilled nirvana and release your inner-ogre.

Your choice: Saturday night special or everyday sipper

I oftentimes refer to bottles of that elixir we all love as either Saturday night specials or everyday sippers. Saturday night specials can also morph into holiday or celebratory wines when the occasion dictates. So, doing the math, you will have significantly more opportunities to experience the everyday sippers.

I know. I am the master of the obvious, but that’s why I spend so  many words telling you about wines that are both excellent and usually priced under $20 a bottle. I’m just explaining (rationalizing?) my predilection to concentrate most of my tasting research and recommendations on less expensive wine.

Okay, I’m a cheapskate too.

That’s why – of the wines reviewed below – all but one are everyday sippers. Also, I am a firm believer that there is a whole lot of buried treasure at the bottom of the sea of wine we are all adrift in - and I was put on this planet to find it for you.

So, I hope you will try a bottle of two of the vinous booty below – even it’s the Saturday night special.

2010 Bridlewood Pinot Noir ($15) –Bright black cherry and spicy flavors highlight this smooth, supple pinot noir from Monterey County. The medium-bodied texture is balanced out with a touch of vanilla and ample acidity. Try this one with grilled chicken spiced with black pepper, garlic and kosher salt.

2008 Sebastiani Cherryblock ($80) – This is definitely a special occasion or celebration wine. Earthy aromas with a hint of cigar box lead to a silky smooth Bordeaux-like wine with complex flavors of cola, plums and dark fruits. It is an elegant wine that will continue to develop for a decade or more. Try it now with filet mignon in a mushroom demi-glace sauce.

[caption id="attachment_799" align="alignleft" width="72"] A great Saturday night special

2011 Conde Villar Vinho Verde Rose ($10) – Strawberries and raspberries co-mingle to produce a refreshing and slightly spritzy rose which is just the right wine to open on the patio. Just a touch of sweetness is balanced out nicely by citrus-like acidity. You might also pair this with brunch type food.

2009 Treana White ($18) A great alternative to rich and full-bodied chardonnay, this blend of 50 percent each Viognier and Marsanne has a creamy, toasty and floral component. From the Central California coast, Treana would be an excellent accompaniment to broiled lobster with drawn butter.

Bugey Cerdon Sparkling Gamay ($16) –From the foothills of the Alps in the Jura Mountains of eastern France, this sparkling rose is comprised of 80% Gamay and 15% Poulsard -which is an indigenous regional grape.

There is just a touch of chardonnay added to provide some body to the strawberry and cherry flavors. Sip it as an aperitif before dinner or with chocolate based desserts. This is a very pretty and tasty wine.

A WV wine worth the search

I am a locavore. I love to eat locally grown produce and meat that has been raised on nearby farms. I also love wines produced in our state and I am constantly on the prowl for good Mountain State sippers. And there are a number of them being produced among the 20 state wineries scattered throughout these here hills.

So why don’t we see more of the European varietals - like cabernet, chardonnay and pinot noir – being grown in the state? There are practical reasons which are explained below, but one state wine maker is proving that it can be done.

Vitis Vinifera is the official classification of grapes native to Europe and the Middle East and it produces the world’s greatest wines. In addition to the famous vinifera grapes such as the ones mentioned above, there are literally thousands of other varietals in the classification.

There are two other classifications of wine grapes produced in the US. They are: vitas labrusca, a native American vine producing grapes such as concord and Catawba; and French-American hybrids such as seyval blanc, vidal blanc and chambourcin.

Labrusca can make decent, but distinctly flavored wines while French-American hybrids (which are French vines grafted onto American rootstock) can produce wines closer in quality to Vinifera.

So, in the quality hierarchy, vinifera grapes produce the best wines followed by French-American hybrids and then labrusca varietals. Why, then, don’t more West Virginia wine makers produce vinifera grapes if these make superior wines?

Well, the fact is that labrusca and French-American hybrids are considerably more hardy and prolific than vinifera. They are also less susceptible than vinifera to mold, diseases and the sometimes harsh realities of West Virginia weather. That’s why you see wineries in the state growing mostly labrusca and French-American Hybrids.

While there is no question that vinifera is extremely difficult to grow in West Virginia, it is not impossible to do so and one winery in particular has been successful at it for years.

Potomac Highland Winery

A few weeks back, I wrote about several eating establishments and purveyors of fine wine in the Canaan Valley and Potomac Highlands of West Virginia. Domiciled in that same region of the state is the only West Virginia winery growing and making a significant amount of its production from vinifera.

Charles Whitehill is the owner and wine maker at Potomac Highland Winery in Keyser and has proven that it is possible to produce good wine from vinifera. His cabernet, pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay vines, planted on his Fried Meat Ridge Vineyard, somehow survive the harsh winters and hot summers of the eastern West Virginia mountains. And the results, as far as I am concerned, are well worth the effort. Here are some worth searching for.

2009 Potomac Highland Meritage ($14) This medium bodied blend of 68% cabernet sauvignon, 17% cabernet franc and 15% merlot is full of sweet black cherry flavors with just a touch of vanilla from the light oak aging. Try it with marinated and grilled sirloin.

2011 Potomac Highland Riesling ($12) Slightly sweet green apple flavors highlight this refreshing, exceptionally balanced wine. Great as a porch sipper or as an accompaniment to brunch foods like omelets and quiche.

2011 Potomac Highland Chardonnay ($12) – This wine has a creamy mouth feel with hints of ripe pear, anise and nutmeg spice. Lightly oaked, it finishes dry and would be excellent to pair with smoked WV trout.

You can look for Potomac Highland wines around the state or call (304-788-3066) for shipment. You can also visit their website at

Exercising your palate: a cure for the wine blahs

My not so wine-stained palate got a much-needed workout recently after a few weeks of less than vigorous exercise. I guess I’ve been in a wine funk, but a sip of delicious purple elixir has renewed my passion for all things made from spoiled grapes – which is, after all, the essence of fermentation.

Anyway, I am reinvigorated and that’s because of not only a specific wine, but because of a region of the wine world that has had an incredible run of excellent vintages over the past 14 years. I speak of the Rhone and particularly the southern most appellations in Provence upon which Bacchus has smiled for such a long time.

There has been an incredible string of good to superlative vintages in the Rhone region from 1998 through 2011. With the exception of 2002, when many vineyards were inundated by torrential rain and flooding, every vintage that has been released since 1998 has been highly rated.

Provence, of course, is home to Chateauneuf Du Pape, the most famous and expensive wine of this southern Rhone region. However, there are several other sub-appellations in the area such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Cotes du Luberon and Tavel that are producing exceptional value-priced wines.

While there are some excellent white wines made in Provence, principally from marsanne, rousanne and viognier, the emphasis here is on red produced mainly from grenache, syrah and mourvedre. The aforementioned wine that re-invigorated my palate is a Cotes Du Rhone which is a red blend produced from grapes that can be sourced from anywhere in the Rhone appellation.

Cotes Du Rhone is usually priced from $10 to $20 a bottle and is especially good with barbecued hamburgers, ribs or casseroles and is generally a medium-bodied wine with appealing peppery, ripe fruit flavors

09 Kermirt Lynch Cotes Du Rhone

The 2009 Kermit Lynch Cotes Du Rhone ($13) is the most recent (in a long string of wines) to take my breath away and leave my tongue purple. This particular wine has aromas of leather and black pepper and flavors of black cherries and cola.

I grilled a skirt steak that had been rubbed with ancho chili powder, cumin, brown sugar, cayenne and black pepper to act as an accompaniment to the wine and the combination was spot on.

There are a number of exceptional importers that you should look for in seeking out your own version of Provencal wine nirvana. Among the best are: Kermit Lynch, Kysela, Guigal, Beaucastel, Chapoutier, Olivier Cuilleras, Paul Autard and Rayas.

For those of you who love dessert wines, you will find one of the best in Provence. Look for a Muscat Beaumes de Venise. Produced in the village of the same name from Muscat grapes, this sweet elixir is full of apricot aromas and rich, round melon flavors and it is great with chocolate!

Off the beaten track: Potomac Highland Eateries

You would not be reading this if you didn’t have an appreciation of the artistry and acumen required to produce exceptional and delicious cuisine to match the sea of wine available to us.

From time to time in my travels around our glorious state, I am reminded of the dedication and diligence of those who enrich our experiences with their culinary skills oftentimes toiling in obscurity in out of the way locations.

West Virginia is a state full of out-of-the-way places and getting from point A to point B can sometimes involve a non-linear route that results in pleasant diversions and discoveries. That’s how, on a trip back to Washington, DC more than two decades ago, I discovered Canaan Valley and subsequently some very cool restaurants, cafes and holes in the wall.

Many of these establishments happen to be in the Potomac Highland towns of Davis and Thomas just north of Canaan Valley. A recent trip to that stunningly beautiful part of our state renewed my faith in the creativity of mountaineer entrepreneurs.

Muttley’s Downtown in Davis has been around for many years, featuring excellent steak and other grilled meats and providing guests with a very well thought out and value-oriented wine list.

Owners Becky Bunner an Randy Colombo have now joined with Meyer House B&B proprietor Cindy Robeson to add a wine specialty shop - Shades of Grape. The shop is adjacent to the restaurant and patrons can choose from a small, but very selective list of wines and edibles from around the world.

Canaan Valley Morning

From time to time, wines featured in Shades of Grape will be available on the restaurant’s wine list at the same price as in the shop, and that is an excellent bargain. The restaurant is full of offbeat artwork, life-like mannequins and assorted esoterica that will have you smiling and /or scratching your head.

The wine shop and restaurant are open Tuesday through Saturday. You’ll need to call for dinner reservations (304-259-4848) but a trip to Muttley’s Downtown should definitely be a part of your itinerary.

In the mood for some very unique burritos? Then you’ll need to cross the street from Muttley’s and visit Hellbender Burritos. These are not your mother’s burritos, but owners Rob and Melissa Borowitz guarantee that they are definitely good for you and very large too. In addition, Hellbender’s also has a very excellent selection of craft beers on tap and by the bottle.

Cross the street again and you’ll find Sirianni’s Café – one of the state’s best pizza restaurants. Owners Walt Ranalli and Sandra Goss have catered to the pizza and pasta addictions of visitors for decades and a trip to the mountains would not be complete without a stop at Sirianni’s.

Sirianni’s, which also has a restaurant in Canaan Valley right off of Rte. 32, features a modest (but good) wine list and a bevy of craft beers that will help you wash down the spicy vittles. Like Muttley’s, Siranni’s wall art and pictures will keep you amused while you’re waiting on the excellent pizza. You can call for takeout at 304- 259-5454.

Two miles north of Davis is the town of Thomas where art galleries such as Mountainmade and the White Room share Front Street with The Purple Fiddle (a music club and sandwich emporium), antique shops and The Flying Pig restaurant.

The latest addition to Front Street is Tip Top Coffee. Tip Top is a coffee shop on steroids with ambitions to be much more. Owner Cade Archuleta has sandwiches, pastries and cookies, and recently added a small, but excellent, selection of wines by the glass. The shop will begin offering a full menu and a bar service soon. The coffee is excellent and the staff is always smiling.

For those of you who wish to go over to the dark (or pilsner) side, both Davis and Thomas boast craft breweries where you can sip that lesser beverage on the premises. The Blackwater Brewing Company in Davis and Mountain State Brewing in Thomas provide visitors with some very good craft beer.

So take a trip off the beaten track and visit the Potomac Highlands where mountain biking, fishing, skiing, kayaking, hiking, hunting and rafting will leave you ravenous, and where you’ll find some pretty accomplished folks that know how to feed the beast.

The Smokey Clucker: A real coop de gras

The ubiquitous chicken. It’s probably the most overused and abused protein in the civilized world and yet – when prepared with a little imagination – that little feathered critter can be transformed into a culinary lip smacker.

Chicken is the Rodney Dangerfield of meats: it gets no respect. Yet it is one of the world’s most versatile foods, and can be cooked in a mind-boggling number of ways.
And with a little creativity, the bird can be married to a wide variety of both white and red wines.

However, cooking the meat of the chicken in a minimalist manner with token spices (say salt and pepper) can result in a dish that is best paired with tepid water. Regularly consuming chicken prepared this way may cause you to start watching C-Span’s coverage of Congressional proceedings for hours each day.

Do not fear loyal Wineaux’s! As you know from regularly reading my wine stained words, I have an affinity for outdoor cooking and an addiction to smokey and spicy foods. The recipe I am going to impart to you today will have you clucking for joy.

We’ll start with a whole fryer which is a relatively small and young chicken. I recommend you ask the butcher to remove the backbone of the fryer so it will be able to better absorb the brine, accommodate the special rub and cook quickly. Here goes.

The Smokey Clucker
The Brine

1 three to four pound chicken (fryer) with the backbone removed
1 plastic gallon bag
1 quart of water
8 ounces of dry white wine such as sauvignon blanc
6 cloves of garlic chopped finely
1 third cup of Kosher salt
3 tablespoons of dark brown sugar

The Rub

1 tablespoon of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons of chopped garlic
1 teaspoon of Kosher salt
1 teaspoon of chili powder
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
2 ounces of canola oil
1 tablespoon of dark brown sugar

Put everything but the chicken in the plastic bag and stir to mix the contents
Place the chicken into the bag, seal and put in refrigerator for 2 to 3 hours
Remove the chicken from the plastic bag, pat dry and lay it on a cutting board
Add the contents of the rub in a bowl and mix together making a paste
Rub the paste all over chicken and placing some under breast and leg quarter skin
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 so it lays spread (eagle?) on the grill but not over the coals
Cover the grill and cook 45 to 50 minutes
Allow the chicken to rest for 15 minutes, cut in pieces and serve

And while the usual accompaniment to chicken is white wine, the recipe above requires a red. Here are two choices for your consideration that will leave you smiling.

2007 Terra d’oro Amador County Zinfandel ($18) I admit my fondness for Amador County zinfandel and this one has what I love most about wines grown in that hot and dry area two hours east of Napa. Rustic and earthy, the aroma is a combination of teaberry mint and chocolate while the blackberry and cola flavors make this a great match to spicy, smoky foods.

2010 Concannon Selected Vineyards Petite Sirah ($12) – This blend of Central Coast vineyards’ petite sirah is full-bodied with a flavor profile of plums and black cherries. Nicely balanced and rich, this has an excellent value to quality quotient and is a tasty pairing with the chicken dish.

Pairing wine with sports

I’m making my annual transition from the heavier wines of winter to the more approachable and somewhat lighter wines of spring and summer. Most of us are more active now so the foods and wines we choose should match this lifestyle. Here are some wines you might want to try that fit this bill.

2009 Anselmi San Vincenzo ($15) Robert Anselmi wanted to produce a wine in the Soave district of northern Italy, but he wanted to blend some chardonnay into the approved whites from the region. His delicate San Vincenzo has ripe peach and citrus flavors, excellent balancing acidity and depth provided by a substantial dollop of the chardonnay. Pan sauté a filet of grouper or other white fish in a little butter, lemon and tarragon and pair it with the San Vincenzo.

2011 Badenhorst Chenin Blanc Secatuers ($16) – South Africa produces some of the world’s greatest chenin blanc and the Secateurs is a delicious, medium-bodied wine that is just a tad sweet. Similar to a Vouvray from the Loire Valley, this chenin blanc is round and rich with nuances of apricot and lemon, and can be used as an apertif or as an accompaniment to Asian stir-fry.

2009 Chateau De Saint Cosme Les Deux Albions ($20) – At first glance, this Rhone red blend of mainly grenache and syrah looks like it would be better suited to winter foods, but it is silky with flavors of ripe blackberries with just a touch of mocha. The wine is also well balanced and would be an excellent match to grilled short ribs basted with a KC Barbecue type sauce.

2010 Duckhorn Decoy Pinot Noir ($21) – This Mendocino County pinot noir is chock full of black cherry flavors with just a hint of cinnamon on the finish. Some earthiness in the aroma and good balancing acidity make this a wine to pack in your picnic basket. Pair it with smoked sausages or hamburgers on the grill.


Since this is the season when we are inclined to participate in physical activities, do you suppose it is okay to sip wine while engaging in a sport? How about the wines mentioned above? I think they would be perfect matches to some sports.

Now, I would agree that using wine to hydrate between plays in football or between innings in baseball would not be advisable nor would sipping the fruit of the vine while competing in a NASCAR event. However, I think that moderate wine consumption would enhance the experience of certain more – shall we say –sedentary sports.

For example, many people drink a beer or sip a glass of wine while playing golf. Personally, I find that wine provides the only pleasure I derive from a sport that is otherwise dreadfully frustrating.

But there are other sporting activities. How about Bocce, Croquet, Shuffleboard or even Horseshoes (you might wish to avoid this one if you have more than a glass or two)?

What wine goes with Croquet ?

I recall as a kid growing up one particular sport where the sole purpose of the game was to earn the right to sip some wine or drink a beer. This was an Italian numbers game called Mora which some older Italian men pronounced as “Mooda.”

Mora is played with as few as two or as many as five persons per side lined up across from each other. The first player engages their opponent and if that player wins, he or she moves on to the next person in line. Players throw out a single hand, showing zero to five fingers, and calling out loudly their guess at what the sum of all fingers shown will be.

The first team to vanquish all their opponents wins the game. And here is the catch: only the winning team is permitted to sip their preferred beverage during the next game while the losers must abstain. As you might guess, I’ve changed the rules so that there are no losers.

Even if you choose not to sip a little Vito’s Thunder Mountain Chablis while competing in outdoor sporting activities, you might still want to give the wines previously mentioned a try.

Wine and ramps: a tonic for springtime

We’ve had an earlier spring than normal which has prompted me to lighten up on the body of the wines I’m drinking now. For the time being – at least – I am switching to lighter textured wines that fit more with the increased activity level the nice weather has precipitated for even a lummox like me.

 While I am not one to forgo use of my charcoal grill even when snowflakes are falling, I find it much more comfortable to stoke up the old Weber Performer when Mother Nature smiles on us. Lately, I have been grilling a wide variety of animal parts and also as many veggies as possible, including that lovely little lily of the mountains – ramps.

 Yes, I said ramps.

 Most folks smother the flavor of these wild leeks by covering them up in dishes like pinto beans or fried potatoes, but not this mountaineer. No siree, Jim Bob. I simply toss them in a little olive oil, sprinkle them with salt and pepper and throw them on the grill being careful not to set them ablaze.

 Then, I use them to spark up whatever grilled meat or vegetable comprises the main entrée for the meal. It may surprise the uninitiated, but cooked ramps, like their leek and onion cousins, shed a lot of their eye-watering pungency.


West Virginia's Mountain Treasure

I am not suggesting that ramps become sweet when cooked or grilled, but they sure are tender and marry really well with roasted meat. Cooking them will also eliminate the rather odoriferous effects of consuming the little buggers raw.

 If you ever do eat them in their natural state, make sure the people who live within a mile of you have fair warning. This is to prevent them from: a) losing consciousness; b) murdering you; or c) calling in an airstrike on your home. The first time I consumed ramps, I was still living with my parents. Home from college for the weekend, I ate a mess of ramps raw and washed them down with several cold ones.

 For once in my post adolescent years, my mother allowed me to sleep in (she actually locked me in my room) while she proceeded to fumigate the premises. She was not amused and when I emerged stealthily from my bedroom window, she was waiting with hose in hand. After de-lousing me, she sent me packing, back to torture my classmates at WVU.

 So what wine goes with cooked or grilled ramps? That largely depends on what main course with which you accompany them. Actually, sauvignon blanc is an excellent pairing for ramps, especially if you are mixing them with veggies like asparagus, green beans or broccoli and pasta.

 Regardless, here are a few lighter styled wines for you to sip with your springtime meals. Enjoy!

 2010 Remy Pannier Vouvray ($15) – This lovely chenin blanc from the Loire region of France can be enjoyed as an aperitif or with brunch foods such as omelets, roasted vegetables or creamy salads. It has just a touch of sweetness and is very well-balanced with flavors of tropical fruits.

 2010 Buil & Gine’ Joan Gine Blanco ($26) – This rustic white wine from Spain’s Priorat region is round and ripe with just a touch of (good) funkiness. How’s that for a descriptor? Anyway, this blend of mostly grenache blanc is a complex wine with orange rind and lemon peel flavors, and great minerality to balance the finish. Excellent accompaniment to roast cod or Chilean Sea Bass in a lemon butter sauce – with a few sautéed ramps on the side.

 2011 Domaine Sorin Cotes de Provence Rose ($15) – What a delicious strawberry and cherry flavored wine from the southern Rhone. Excellent fruit, slightly orange color and ripe – yet dry – flavors, this wine will make a great porch sipper or a nice match with grilled sausages.

 2010 Santa Rita 120 Carmenere (($12) – This semi-obscure red from Chile is a smooth, medium-bodied alternative to cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Blackberry flavors and mocha tones give this wine just enough body to marry well with roasted pork tenderloin.

The Greenbrier and Opus One

Opus One at The Greenbrier
Wine lovers will get a unique and tasteful opportunity to whet their respective wine whistles Easter weekend when the Greenbrier Resort showcases the renowned Opus One Winery. While the grapes for the wine are grown in Napa, the finished product is a collaboration intended to stylistically feature the influence of both Napa and Bordeaux.

For those of you who may not be aware, Opus One was the brainchild of Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild - two of the most legendary vintners of the 20th century. Rothschild was the owner of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, which is one of only five First Growth wineries in Bordeaux. Robert Mondavi was the respected founder of the winery in Napa which bears his name. While both men have since passed on, Opus One continues to produce highly sought after cabernet-based wines.

Opus One

Michael Silacci, winemaker at Opus One, will lead Greenbrier guests through two days (April 6 and 7) of tasting both current releases as well as older vintages of the wine. In addition, Greenbrier Executive Chef Rich Rosendale will prepare a multi-course meal on Saturday evening to match the wines.

Incidentally, Rosendale was recently the winner and recipient of the prestigious Bocuse d'Or award after a cooking competition in January at the Culinary Institute of America.

The weekend package, which includes two night’s lodging, a vertical wine tasting on Friday evening, dinner at Howard’s Creek Lodge on Saturday evening and a $100 resort credit, is $1410 for two or $1075 for single occupancy. There are also a limited number of ala carte tickets for both the Friday tasting ($85 per person) and the Saturday dinner ($250 per person).
This is a great opportunity to experience one of the world’s most storied wines. Call 888-781-0528 for reservations.
Opus One, Chili and Me
Opus One’s first vintage was 1979 and I can truly say that it had a profound effect on yours truly. I was on my first visit to Napa in the fall of 1981 that was the culmination of a rather interesting week for me and the coterie of friends who were in my party.

And believe me – party was the operative term.

Earlier that year I became the inaugural winner of the WV Chili Cook-off at Snowshoe Resort which continues to host the event annually. The International Chili Society sanctions the cook-off and my win entitled me to compete in the World Chili Championship held that year in Los Angeles at Hollywood Race Track.

While I did in fact cook chili that day, I can assure you of three things: I did not win, I did not drink wine and I don’t remember much else.

My attending sous-chefs included my long-suffering wife and two other couples who came along to participate in a skit that we were to perform in an attempt to win the “Best Skit” award at the event.

Our skit was entitled: “Hillbilly Chili – The Real McCoy,” and was a take-off on an old TV series “The Real McCoy’s.” For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it featured a family of goobers from Smokey Corners, WV who moved to California to set up dirt farming.

To put it mildly, the skit would not have been approved by the West Virginia Commerce Department as a way of changing widely held stereotypes of our beloved state.

I reprised the role of Grandpa McCoy (played in the series by a limping, whiny-voiced Walter Brennan) and my cohorts took on the personas of Luke, Little Luke, Pepino, Hassie and Kate respectively.

We had rehearsed the skit many times and felt confident that we would wow the judges with our acting skills and creative prowess. Alas, someone (me) forgot their lines and began to adlib. This completely screwed up the skit and left our audience of several hundred onlookers unamused and embarrassed for us.

Hillbilly Chili- 1981

With the failed World Chili Cook-off in the rear view mirror, we drove our van all the way up to the Napa Valley where we visited several winery tasting rooms and where we had a fateful visit at Robert Mondavi Winery.

One of my friends was a state senator at the time and through his influence we were actually met at the winery by Robert Mondavi himself who led us through a tasting of his impressive wines. At one point, we were ushered into a subterranean cavern where Mr. Mondavi pulled the bung out of an impressive looking barrel and extracted a deeply purple wine.

This was – in fact – the 1979 Opus One which was still being aged in barrels. We were privileged to be given a taste of this wonderful wine by the legendary winemaker.

While I had begun to make the transition away from beer and John Barleycorn to wine, tasting this glorious elixir was an absolute epiphany. It was a seminal moment and launched my life-long interest in the wonderful world of wine.

And I have chili to thank for it!

Meatballs, wine and the big hit

I am often asked what prompted my interest in wine. The answer goes back to my childhood and the influence of my Italian immigrant grandparents and relatives. As I have recounted in this space before, wine was a part of everyday living back then, and an integral component of family meals, particularly the large gatherings after Mass on Sundays at Grandma Iaquinta's home.

Since my family produced their own homemade wine each year, I was able to observe and sometimes assist in the menial labor aspects of wine making.  These experiences certainly formed the foundation for my life long affair with the vine.  However, one particular (almost magical) incident involving wine, food and sport may have been the catalyst.

A stroke of genius! That’s what I like to think it was that sunny afternoon in the fall of 1956.

I had been trying to find something that would provide just the right weight to form the core of a tape ball. Stones or rocks were simply too heavy, paper too light and soft. I had just stroked the tape ball we had been using along the ground and into a curb storm drain. In rather colorful language, my two older cousins graphically described the consequences that would ensue if I did not immediately replace the lost orb.

A golf ball would have been perfect but, because the socio-economic roll of the dice had not favored our fathers and uncles, Maxflies or Titleists were not an option. No sireee. If it wasn’t a baseball, softball or bocce ball, we weren’t playing it.

This was beer drinking, homemade wine-swilling and parlay betting country where Mickey Mantle and Rocky Marciano were the heroes of the day, and where kids like us spent warm afternoons playing our version of the National Pastime along the streets of North View, the working class and ethnically diverse neighborhood of Clarksburg, West (By God) Virginia.

A Tape ball game required only one pitcher and one batter, but no more than two persons per side.  The rules mimicked  baseball with a few caveats.  Cleanly fielded grounders and caught fly balls  counted as outs as did one swing and a miss. There were three outs to an inning, but no bases.

It was simply a nine-inning game of pitching, hitting and keeping score with disputed calls settled by the loudest and largest players.  Hitting the ball over Mrs. Mazza's five foot hedge was an undisputed  home run. A minimalist and inexpensive sport, the game only required  a homemade ball, a broomstick and players.

So as I  struggled to resolve the problem and avoid bodily harm,  I was struck by an idea so novel that I was confident I had the perfect solution. Sneaking into the kitchen of my Aunt Notie’s apartment, I opened the small freezer compartment of the old Kelvinator and extracted the perfectly cylindrical answer to my problem.

Aunt Notie was a gifted cook whose meatballs were the stuff of culinary legend. It was said, she could make a garlic clove sing. Surely, she would not miss one frozen meatball, I thought, and sacrilegiously snatched the circular little treasure that had sealed my aunt’s reputation in our neighborhood as the “meatball queen.”

It felt just right and, as I wrapped the white adhesive tape around the frozen meatball, I realized that with stealth, cunning and courage I could provide our gang with an endless supply of tape ball cores. Proudly, I returned to the game where the new tape ball was an immediate and literal hit. For an hour, we pounded it, smacked it and sent it soaring through the air, and it performed flawlessly.

But then fate stepped in. Standing at the plate, I whacked a hanging curve (meat) ball with a tremendous stroke and lofted it at least 100 feet in the air. At the apex of its trajectory, the ball began a rapid descent toward earth.  Like some miniature asteroid with my future etched on it, the small round object streaked into a vat of fermenting red wine.

My grandfather, who was stirring and punching down the cap of the fermenting grapes, was startled by the impact which immediately splashed and stained his upper torso purple. Reaching into the vat, he fished out the broken, meatball- oozing tape ball, sniffed it and said in his broken English:

“Eat-sa rain meat-a–balls!

The rest is history.

Wine for heat seekers !

Wine for heat seekers !

There must be capsaicin in my DNA because I have an insatiable addiction to spicy foods!

Peppers are my crack cocaine, the monkey on my back and the refuge I seek when I am forced, over an extended period of time (say, one day), to eat foods prepared by aliens from the planet of Bland.

So concerned am I about the prospect of having to endure Casper Milquetoast meals, that I regularly and surreptitiously carry a miniature (one ounce) bottle of Tabasco with me at all times. Sometimes those mashed potatoes need a little zing, don’t you think?

At this point, you’re probably wondering how the incessant assault of spicy foods affects the wine judgments of a cultured and sensitive palate. Obviously, you would be asking the wrong person since I cannot remember a time when I did not consume spicy foods (nor am I in any manner cultured or sensitive).

However, I do admit to toning down the heat a bit over the past several years to what might be considered moderate on the Scoville scale (which is a measure of the heat or piquancy of peppers). Still, I readily acknowledge that my predilection toward spicy foods does influence my wine suggestions.

Ah, but that’s the point of today’s lesson, class! There are indeed wines that enhance and compliment spicy foods.

This past weekend, I prepared a dish made famous by David Chang. Chang is a Korean-American chef who has taken the culinary world by storm over the past few years with his all-inclusive brand of “new” American cooking. To be sure, he leans heavily on Korean and Asian foods as a base, but he applies those influences to standard American fare like slow cooked pork or fried chicken.

And while his style is not particularly spicy, I did up the heat-ante on his Bo Ssam roast port shoulder recipe and on his sauces. Incidentally, the sauces are magnificent and easy to prepare. Many of the ingredients for the sauces are available in grocery stores or at the Asian Market on 7th Ave. in South Charleston.

Oh, by the way, this is not a food choice for the sodium or sugar averse folks out there.

In a nutshell, the Bo Ssam recipe calls for an eight to ten pound pork shoulder which is rubbed all over with a cup each of white sugar and Kosher salt. The roast is then covered in plastic wrap and placed over night in the fridge. I spiced up the recipe by adding one teaspoon each of cayenne pepper and smoked paprika.

Bo Ssam Pork Shoulder

The next day, the pork is slow roasted at 300 degrees for about 6 hours, allowed to rest for an hour and then rubbed with seven tablespoons of brown sugar and one of salt before placing it in a 500-degree oven to carmelize for about 10 minutes. The meat is then pulled apart, placed in bib lettuce wraps, drizzled with sauce and consumed. Spectacular !

Check out Susan Filson’s article and Chang’s recipe in the “Daily Loaf” at:

Okay, so what’s this have to do with my jaded and heat-infected palate, and how is it possible to match wine to spicy dishes? Granted, you could take the easy way out and pour yourself a cold one (which I have often done), but, hey, this is a wine blog and anyway I believe wine offers a broader selection of liquid alternatives.

For the pork shoulder with two different spicy sauces, I actually paired the dish with an Alsatian gewürztraminer that was slightly sweet. The sweet, tart and flowery flavors of the gewürztraminer melded with and enhanced the salty and spicy pork dish. Look for Alsatian gewürztraminer from Trimbach, Pierre Sparr or Hugel.

You might also try riesling or gewürztraminer from Washington State such as those produced by Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Valley or Pacific Rim.

Pinot noir and rose are also good accompaniments to spicy foods. For the dinner, we opened a 2009 Concannon Central Coast Pinot Noir ($15) and a 2009 Crios Rose of Malbec ($14) from Argentina.

I would also suggest sparkling wines for heat-infused foods. I love the flavor and value of Spanish Cava’s such as Freixenet Cordon Negro ($11), Dibon Cava Brut ($12) or Segura Viudas Brut Reserva ($11).

So, the next time you need to feed ten of your most rabid heat-seeking foodies, try the Bo Ssam recipe with a flagon or three of the above-mentioned wines.

Alternative wine choices

Alternative wine choices

I admit it.  I’m easily bored.  So the other evening when I descended to my cellar to pick out a wine for dinner, I searched for something other than the same old, same old. I gotta say, it was tough finding something other than cabernet, pinot noir, zinfandel, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, etc.

After considerable rooting around, I found a dusty bottle of 2004 Vietti Barbera D’Asti and paired this little lovely with meatballs and faro in marinara sauce.  What a great combo!  Barbera is the lesser-known little brother of Barolo and Barbaresco  - the more famous reds from Italy’s Piedmont region  - and it is the perfect match for spicy, tomato-based dishes.

At about $15 a bottle, barbera is also a great value. Rich, medium-bodied and chock full of dark cherry flavors, barbera also has a good dollop of acid to balance it out. In addition to Vietti, look for producers such as Chiarlo, Prunotto and Pio Cesare.

If variety is the spice of life, then changing up your varietals can spice up your wine life too.  Here are some other alternatives for your consideration which are not only excellent in their own right, but will also make your palate fonder for the usual wine suspects when you return to them later.

Valpolicella can be a light to medium bodied wine full of bright fruit flavors that can successfully be paired with chicken, veal or pasta dishes.  However, Valpolicella made in the Ripasso style, is a fuller-bodied version of the wine. Ripasso is produced by adding the left over skins and seeds from Amarone into the fermenting Valpolicella producing a wine similar in body to zinfandel.

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Examining the natural wine movement

Examining the natural wine movement

I actually put my money where my palate is when it comes to supporting traditionally grown and produced foods. Some people may refer to these types of victuals as “organic” or “natural” products, but I don’t like labels nor do I wish to be associated with food fanatics who assail anyone who produces or consumes food products available in the commercial marketplace.

Hey, I’ll admit it, every now and then I love to wash down a bag of Uncle Homer’s Chipotle Pork Rinds with a 20-ounce Diet Dr. Pepper!

While I am not an organic foodie zealot, I truly do believe in buying locally, particularly when the producers use natural methods to grow fruits and vegetables, as well as to raise and feed their animals.

What does any of this have to do with wine? Well, there has been a big brouhaha over the past couple of years regarding the supposed differences between commercial vineyard/winery practices and those who claim to produce their product using only natural or organic processes.

This “natural wine” movement is particularly popular in France where the true believers have lifted their Gallic noses up even higher than normal to proclaim their practices superior to the overwhelming majority of operations around the world who use modern techniques in the vineyard and winery.

In a nutshell, natural wines use very little or no manipulation in the vineyard or winery. They claim to use no sulfur to prevent oxidation of the wines, will not add any yeast cultures to insure a stable fermentation and would never allow oak aging. The natural wine advocates are also extremely disdainful and critical of the vast majority of wineries using modern methods to produce their wines.

As you might expect, this has drawn the ire of many wineries around the world and has stirred up the wine press. The doubters believe the natural movement is more about establishing a marketing niche among those to whom the words
natural or organic appeal, rather than in any holy crusade to produce pure, unadulterated wine.

But, as wine lovers, you need to decide for yourself so you may make informed buying decisions. Is there really any qualitative or health reason for seeking out these self-proclaimed “natural” wines?

I can buy into the sustainability practices of the natural movement that was defined for me by an Oregon wine producer. He said sustainability means using natural fertilizers, composting and the cultivation of plants that attract insects that are beneficial to grape vines.

Further, he noted, sustainability practices in the vineyard also extend to actions you would not suspect have a relationship to the quality of the vine such as providing areas for wildlife to flourish and allowing weeds to grow between the vines.

But I draw the line at the bio-dynamic aspect of the natural movement. Here’s what I said about it a couple of years back:

‘ Bio-dynamic farming is sustainability on steroids! It involves some things that are downright loony. It can include practices such as stuffing cow horns with manure and burying them in vineyards over the winter, fermenting flowers in stags’ bladders, and timing these unorthodox methods of farming with the phases of the moon and the location of the stars in the night sky.’

Beginnings of a biodynamic prep - cow horns filled with manure.  Photo taken by Jeff Weissler,

As I stated earlier, I believe in supporting naturally produced products. We’ve been buying meat from Sandy Creek Farms near Ravenswood for more than two decades. Sandy Creek has used organic methods in raising and processing their meats well before “organic” became an overused and overhyped marketing term.

We also purchase more than half of the vegetables we consume from locally farmed produce or reputable retailers like the Purple Onion in Charleston’s Capitol Market. In addition, we regularly buy from a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Fish Hawk Acres in Rock Cave, West Virginia , and from a Monroe County farm co-op.

To be sure, we still shop at supermarkets and love the produce supplied by reputable local wholesalers like Corey Brothers in Charleston. But it is somehow very satisfying and reassuring to eat food produced nearby, particularly if the stuff is grown in a sustainable manner. I also support our state wineries, many of which are using sustainable practices to produce their wines.

So what’s the answer? Well, I guess it’s a personal decision. I certainly have tried some of the wines that claim to be “natural” and some are good. Some aren’t.

However, I am not convinced that anyone is compromising their health by drinking the 99% of other wines produced without the application of “natural” techniques such as stag’s bladders, cow horns or phases of the moon.

Cow horns filled with manure. Photo: Jeff Weissler,

The bargain wines of winter

The bargain wines of winter

January has roared in with a frigid dose of reality as the profligacy of the holiday season has come home to roost in the form of credit card debt. Time to pay the piper and recommit to the principles of moderation and even (dare I utter the word)… frugality.

Hey, but you still have to eat and drink, right? While I am not averse to mac and cheese, stews or meatloaf, I’ll still need to pair those tried, true and hearty staples with a sip or two of the grape. And, believe it or not, there are a plethora of good, inexpensive wines from which to choose.

From my point of view, tasty wines priced between $8 and $20 a bottle represent a bargain and are a justifiable and necessary cost of helping ward off the ruinous effects of SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Good food and wine always seem to lift my spirits and shine some much needed light on this gloomy time of year. The only real issue is finding the good to excellent bottles in this price category and that is where your intrepid wine hound excels.

The list of goodies I am providing below is generally available at most wine retailers. If you cannot find them, simply request that your shop order them from their distribution chain. I have selected wines that are especially complimentary to a wide variety of wintertime dishes including, in addition to those mentioned above, soups (especially pasta fagiole), pot roast, pasta as well as chicken and dumplings, gumbo and, of course, chili.

Reds: 2009 Alamos Malbec; 2008 Easton Amador County Zinfandel; 2009 Delas Freres Saint Esprit Cotes Du Rhone; 2009 Hahn Pinot Noir; 2009 Montes Cabernet Sauvignon; 2008 Banfi Centine Rosso; 2008 Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel; 2009 Columbia Crest Caberne3t Sauvignon and 2009 Martin Codax Rioja.

Easton Amador County Zin

Whites: 2010 Pacific Rim Riesling; 2009 Benzinger Family Chardonnay; 2010 Sitious Con Class Verdejo; Alamos Chardonnay; 2009 Pierre Sparr Pinot Gris; 2009 Trimbach Riesling; 2010 King Estate Pinot Gris; 2009 Clos Du Bois Chardonnay; 2010 Luna Di Luna Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio; 2009 Gini Soave Classico; 2010 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc and 2010 St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc.
Kudo’sI’m always on the lookout for restaurants that not only provide excellent cuisine, but also price their wines fairly. Laury’s in Charleston is to be commended for having an excellent list that is priced very fairly. In most instances, wines at Laury’s are marked up one to one-point five times their retail price, and that is about as good as you will find anywhere in the state.

Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston’s East End also prices their, small, but well thought out list, very reasonably. Other establishments around the state should follow suit which would encourage more diners to add a bottle of wine to the tab. And that’s good for both the customer and the restaurant.

Storing your special wines

Now that you've received those special holiday gifts of wine from your adoring friends and significant others, you're probably wondering how to store them if you don't own a temperature controlled wine cellar.

Well, fear not intrepid wino's, for today I shall enlighten you.

People are always asking me for suggestions on how to build or establish a wine cellar in their homes. Today, I’ll explain how you can find the proper place to store wine in your home or even in an apartment.

First of all, you needn’t be concerned about a major construction project unless you have the cash, inclination or the requisite carpenter skills to accomplish the task. Actually, folks living in homes or apartments with no basements can effectively create wine cellar- like environments in other types of spaces.

Before you begin, try and think ahead and make a determination on how many bottles you intend to store. It’s probably a good idea to come up with a generous estimation and then double it. That way, you’ll have plenty of room to grow the collection.

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Wine and related holiday gift ideas

Depending upon your budget, the sky is virtually the limit when it comes to finding a wine to give (or receive from) that special person. Today, I’ll provide you with a listing of some of my favorite cabernet sauvignons from the exceptional 2007 vintage (note to my friends: please feel free to pass this along to my wife).

However, before I get to the wine recommendations, here are some wine-related gift ideas, including a stocking stuffer or two , for the wine-stained person in your life.

Wine ReferenceI’ve noted it before, but in my opinion, the absolute best wine reference book is the “World Atlas of Wine” by Hugh Johnson. It is a compendium of everything you need to know about wine, including information on specific grapes, wines and regions, as well as label descriptions, and the culture and history of wine. Check for it at your local bookshop or online.

Wine Buying ClubsJoining a wine-buying club is a unique way to explore a variety of wines from around the world with the convenience of regular door-to-door shipping or shopping. There are clubs geared for a variety of wine lovers from beginners to collectors. Talk to your local wine retailer about offerings they may have or go to: to find the best club and price for you.

Wine StorageFinding a place to store your special wine is always a challenge. One pretty neat option is the Wine Enthusiast Six -Bottle Touchscreen Wine Refrigerator. This adjustable, temperature- controlled wine refrigerator is a great gift for those who don’t have a lot of storage space, but want a reliable place to keep their special bottles. Check it out at: $100 with free shipping.

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