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

Pairing Scotch and food - Is it possible?

Pairing Scotch and food - Is it possible?

My good friend and fellow Gazz blogger Rich Ireland is always touting the compatibility of beer with food, and I have to agree there are some pretty interesting brew and grub combos. But for those of you out there who occasionally sip beverages other than the fruit of the vine, you might be interested in a rather unique sipping and supping event featuring some pretty unusual food and beverage pairings. How about full course gourmet meal accompanied by……Scotch? Well, listen up.

Bridge Road Bistro in Charleston and Boathouse Bistro in Morgantown will hold Scotch and related spirits tasting dinners in October. A Scotch master will join guests at the Charleston restaurant Thursday, Oct. 2, and at the Morgantown restaurant Thursday, Oct. 16, as they enjoy a spirited dinner with an appetizer-to-dessert menu that features the Scotch they’ll be drinking. In Charleston, the Scotch tasting will feature The MacCallan Scotch and in Morgantown, the featured Scotch will be The Balvenie.

Both dinners begin at 6 p.m. and cost $100 per person, with a portion of that being a donation to the Appalachian Education Initiative So, if you’re a Scotch lover, call 304-225-0101 and reserve your place

My Purple Passion: Making Old Vine Zin

My Purple Passion: Making Old Vine Zin

For the first time in more than 30 years of wine making, WineBoy has been able to acquire old vine zinfandel for his home winemaking.

I've been a busy WineBoy lately! The annual harvest ritual at the Brown household is officially underway. This past Saturday, I picked up 22 lugs (36-pound wooden boxes) of old vine zinfandel grapes from the St. Albans Kroger store where I had ordered them a few weeks ago. These purple lovelies, transported cross country in a refrigerated vehicle, hail from the Lodi (California) American Viticultural Area (AVA) just south of Sacramento.

I'm pretty excited because this is the first time, in more than 30 years of wine making, that I have been able to acquire old vine zinfandel. The good folks at Kroger have been sourcing grapes for local wine-obsessed amateurs like me for decades. Over that period of time, I have used a number of different varietals to make wine, including cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, petit sirah, grenache, sangiovese and regular ( young vine) zinfandel. Until this year, however, I was never able to acquire old vine zinfandel.

You're probably wondering what's so special about old vine zin? Well, first of all let's define what "old vine" means. One of the most respected zinfandel producers in California is Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood Winery in 1976, who, along with Paul Draper at Ridge, is considered an authority on the grape.

In an article appearing in last year, here's what Peterson had to say about classifying zinfandel:

"I divide it into four categories. Zero to 10 years old are 'Young Vines.' Ten to 50 years old are what I call 'Tour Vines.' They produce good wine, but it takes more work to achieve deep balance. Fifty to 80 years (or vines which produce less than three tons per acre) are "Old Vines." They are balanced, and doing what they are supposed to do. Eighty years and older are "Ancient Vines."

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Why most wine rating systems are incomplete

Why most wine rating systems are incomplete

Look, I know I've always preached that wine appreciation is a very subjective undertaking, and that you should drink whatever you want, with or without food. I still feel that way. Yet you may have noticed that most of my wine recommendations also come with a suggested food pairing. That's because I feel strongly that food brings out the best in wine - and vice-versa.

After all, I'm paid the big bucks (EDITOR'S NOTE: When did your bucks become big? The Gazette specifically ordered you be paid small bucks... ;-0) to render an occasional opinion. And that opinion is that while you may prefer your flagon of Vito's Thunder Mountain Chablis on its own, you might be surprised at how much better it tastes when you try it with a complimentary food (like wolf pancreas). Okay, now that I've got your attention, today's missive involves helping you find the right bottle with your meal even when the wine rating experts don't give you a clue.

At least once a week, I get asked this question: 'What is your favorite wine?' My answer is always the same: "It depends." Now, you may think that's a way of avoiding the question, but to me the question is incomplete unless I'm given some type of food context. For example, if the question is stated in this manner: What is your favorite wine with beef tenderloin? I would ask how is it to be prepared? Will the beef be marinated, dry-rubbed (and rubbed with what spices) or just seasoned with salt and pepper? Will it be grilled, pan sautéed or oven roasted?

Based upon your answers to those questions, I would then recommend several wines that would marry nicely with that particular treatment of beef tenderloin. While many wine experts will strongly disagree with me, I don't believe wine can be objectively and properly evaluated on the merits of its own flavors, aromas and textures - without food.

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Washington Wine: old world balance, new world flavor

Washington State is a geographically schizophrenic state, a land of extremes with two distinct personalities. Seattle, situated along Puget Sound with the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Olympic range to the west, is more known for its annual precipitation than its well-deserved reputation as one of the most livable cities in the world.

The other Washington begins once you cross Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade Mountains, just 54 miles east of Seattle. The lush, green Alpine landscape suddenly gives way to beige and brown hues as you travel east away from the Cascades along Interstate 90.

Actually, the metamorphosis is shocking. From rainforest-like conditions in Seattle, you enter a sun-baked, high dessert terrain where sagebrush and sand predominate, and where hot summers and bone chilling winters are the norm. The area also has one of the lowest annual rainfalls in the U.S. Welcome to eastern Washington: one of the most promising and exciting viticultural areas on this planet. It's a place where little-known wineries such as Leonetti Cellars, Quilceda Creek, DeLille Cellars and L'Ecole 41 are making some of the finest wines anywhere.

So how can you grow grapes, or anything for that matter, in a desert area with an average annual rainfall of only eight inches? Well, that problem was solved with an amazing series of canals fed by a giant reservoir on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. The reservoir, replenished each year with rainwater and melting snow, feeds the canals and has transformed the valleys of eastern Washington into a fertile growing plain.

Until very recently, this vast region was best known for producing cherries, asparagus, hops, lentils, apricots and... the atomic bomb. Yes, it was near the town of Richland where much of the research and testing was done in the early 1940's for the first atom bomb.

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Okay’s Needs Your Help - NOW!

One of the most unique individuals I've ever met, Kay Dillon, is proprietor of Okay's at 222 Leon Sullivan Way in Charleston. Kay is not only one of the most informed bar-keeps I've ever encountered, she is also a trained psychologist (which I feel should be a pre-requisite for tending bar), caring mother, devotee of music and all the arts, and just an all around wonderful lady.

Okay's is more than just a bar. It is a state of mind and a little oasis where you can whet your whistle, engage in some great conversation or just sit at the bar and watch Miss Kay flit from table to bar, to table greeting, hugging, serving, schmoozing and generally doing what only she can do at a pace which is at once dizzying and bewildering.

In the short time she has been associated with Okay's (and the predessor business, Blues Barbecue), Kay has served the most comprehensive variety of beers of any place I've visited in this state. And her wine selections are both eclectic and well thought out with an emphasis on quality and value. Oh, by the way, her pizza is excellent too!

Unfortunately, Okay's is in peril of closing. Through a series of personal misfortunes Kay has experienced in recent months, Okay's is in dire need of your immediate patronage if the establishment is to survive. I hope all my readers and friends will come in to Okay's soon, belly up to the bar, drink in the atmosphere (she has live music too), sip a beer or glass of wine and have some really good food.

Our town needs Okay's!

Wine Odds and Ends: Bistro Wine Dinner and Italian Fest Homemade Wine Contest

____________________EVENT: Bridge Road Bistro Wine Dinner, Aug. 25, 2008Those of you who enjoy the culinary artistry of Chef Paco Aceves of the Bridge Road Bistro and the lovely wines produced by locally-owned Napa Valley winery – Falcor – are in for a treat.

A special multi-course dinner with accompanying wines from Falcor will be held on Monday, Aug. 25 at 6 p.m. Ryan Bee, assistant wine maker at Falcor, will provide commentary on the wines. Check out the menu below:

Broiled Blue-point Oysters on the Half Shell, Spinach & Pickled Red Onion Salad, Bleu Cheese Foam

Spiced Duck & Porcini Mushroom Country Terrine, Baby Lola Rosa Greens with Heritage Farm Sour Cherries, Champagne Citrus Vinaigrette.

Slow Roasted Beef Short Ribs, Carrot Mousse & Smoked Asparagus, Truffled Potato Pirogue, Sauce Demi-Glace.

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Wines to please both the carnivore and vegan!

Wines to please both the carnivore and vegan!

A 2004 Montevina Terre d’Oro Amador County Zinfandel ($22) will go great with the recipe below.I must admit: I am a carnivore -- especially when it comes to beef. Give me a piece of red meat and I’ll rub that sucker with loads of black pepper, garlic and a little Kosher salt, and then I’ll build a charcoal fire so big it will create its own micro-climate. Next, I’ll roast the meat until the red inside just starts turning pink, and then I’ll wolf it down with a big, purple wine that will make your lips pucker and your heart sing!

And while there’s nothing better in this whole wide world than any type of meat or even fish on a grill, I must admit that I do enjoy my veggies, too, particularly the ones I procure from our own farmer’s market here in Charleston. For the next six weeks, we’ll have the opportunity to choose from a cornucopia of the region’s most wonderful assortment of vegetables.

I am a fan of peppers! Green ones, red ones and especially hot ones. I have prepared peppers in more ways than the normal person can fathom. I roast them, stuff them, fry them, freeze them, can them and, above all, I consume them almost daily. One of my favorite ways to prepare red, sweet peppers combines stuffing, roasting and grilling. I think you’ll love this recipe. Today, I’m going to share a recipe with you for a special summer time meal combining the best ingredients from my favorite food groups – red meat, vegetables and pasta. Oh, and I’ll tell you about a wine or two that will make the whole experience even more pleasurable. This recipe is for two people so you can increase it depending upon the number you’re serving

A MEATY NOTE: I get most of my meat from Sandy Creek Farms in Ravenswood or Johnnnies Meat at the Capitol Market. Sandy Creek Farms raises its own beef and pork, using only natural feeds such as corn, soybean meal, molasses and oats. It’s about as organic as it gets and it is also terrific tasting. They deliver to Charleston once a week right to your door and you can contact them at 800-487-2569 or email them at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Preparing the meat and the peppers1. Use a one and one-half inch rib-eye steak. Put a few drops of olive oil on each side of the meat and then rub both sides with a mixture of one-half teaspoon of kosher salt and minced garlic and one teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper. Set aside for about one hour.

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Sustainable wine-making? I’ll buy it. But biodynamic is balderdash!

Sustainable wine-making? I’ll buy it. But biodynamic is balderdash!

The Willamette Valley is an area in Oregon that produces exceptional pinot noir.Okay, so we all know artists are a bit “out there” or they wouldn’t be able to create the amazing works they produce. In an otherwise mundane, complex, stressful and boring existence, artists provide a break from normalcy and present unique perspectives on the world we all share. I love art- even if sometimes I don’t understand a painting, a treatise, a photograph, a bit of music and, yes, even the metaphysical ramblings of some wine makers.

At the recently completed IPNC (International Pinot Noir Celebration) in Oregon, the title and theme of this year’s event was “Sustainability Without Sacrifice.” This theme was touched on in every IPNC symposium. In layman’s terms, it means you can sustain and indeed improve the vineyard by using more organic methods of farming. For example, instead of using conventional herbicides and other man-made chemical in the vineyards, sustainability depends on using what is in nature to produce the best end product.

So far, so good. I can buy-in to the sustainability way of doing things. I can even imagine that the wine produced from a vineyard farmed in this manner can be superior. But the level after sustainability is something called biodynamics. If sustainability is a practical – if somewhat retro- manner of growing grapes, biodynamic farming is part mumbo-jumbo, part voodoo and part snake oil. I ain’t buying this sack of potatoes!

But first more about sustainability. Some of the more recognizable components of sustainability are using natural fertilizers, composting and the cultivation of plants that attract insects that are beneficial to grape vines. 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. It also involves using bio-diesel for tractors to reduce emissions and doing everything to limit the carbon footprint in the vineyard. Ultimately, sustainability broadens to encompass the whole eco-system surrounding the vineyard so that all the natural elements work in harmony and in a natural way.

Ted Casteel, an owner of Bethel Heights Winery in the Willamette Valley (and a fellow who produces my favorite pinot gris in Oregon), views sustainability this way: “It’s maintaining biological diversity and ecological balance on the whole farm, minimizing the use of 'off-farm' inputs such as fungicides, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and diesel.”

Hey, I’m with you, Ted -- who wants to sip pinot noir that has nuances of Co2?!

But the biodynamic vineyard movement – which seems to have gotten its start in the Burgundy region of France – is sustainability on steroids! It involves some things that are downright looney. 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. Holy Wicked Witch of the West, Batman!

Anyway, a few of the presenters at the IPNC conference actually tried to make sense of this type of agricultural wizardry. Fortunately, most of the wine makers I spoke with privately about biodynamics were as skeptical as me. Some expressed concern that those pushing biodynamic farming were actually harming the acceptance and credibility of sustainability. Others described biodynamics as nothing more than a cheap and confusing marketing ploy.

The purpose of this rant on biodynamics is simply to alert you to the latest wine scam. It is being used by the enemies of ordinary wine drinkers to confuse and make the wine-making process more complicated and mysterious than it already is. So, repeat after me: sustainability is OK, biodynamics is balderdash!

In fact, the next time some label boasts of the biodynamic farming methods used to produce the wine, I’m going to buy a bottle of the stuff, take it to a gentlemen’s club, give it a lap dance, then bury it this fall in the nearest landfill under a quarter moon. I’ll check back next spring and report to you on the results.

Oregon Feeds the Beast!

My name is John and I am a hedonist!

This is a declaration I feel compelled to make after attending – for the second consecutive year - the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). The event is held annually the last weekend of July in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley - the acclaimed American Viticultural Area (AVA) where pinot noir is king.

While my affection for pinot noir and its versatility was the primary catalyst for the return trip, I must admit that memories of the “incredible edibles” prepared by a host of talented chefs from all over the northwest made the decision easy.

In fact, in a few short days we participated in and consumed wine and food at three multi-course dinners, two luncheons (all outdoors in perfect weather conditions) and a Champagne brunch featuring food almost too visually appealing to eat – almost! In addition, we attended and sipped wine at four seminars and two evening receptions, featuring more than 100 wineries from Oregon, Burgundy, New Zealand and California.

Now, before you get the impression that this was an out-of-control bacchanalian orgy, let me emphasize that the more than 400 people attending this event were under control. I saw no evidence of stumbling, bumbling or slurring. I did, though, observe many people spitting wine into Styrofoam cups or pouring their wine into dumping vessels. (By the way, spitting is an acceptable practice in wine tasting, particularly when the taster must evaluate multiple wines.)

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Wines From ‘Down Under’

Wines From ‘Down Under’

A few decades ago, in another life, I spent a week “Down Under” courtesy of the US Army. What I remember of that R&R week in Sydney is a bit fuzzy, but one aspect of Australian life was crystal clear: those folks liked their adult beverages! While my beverage of choice that week was beer - (which came in 10W-40-like cans or large mugs called “Schooners”), years later I came to appreciate another consumable liquid ably produced by the Aussies – wine.

Over the last 20 years, I have seen the Australian wine market grow from a few recognizable quality brands like Penfolds, to hundreds of excellent wineries from several growing regions in that vast country. Of all the wine regions in the country, the Barossa Valley in southeastern Australia is the most prestigious and -- meteorologically speaking -- is very much like northern California with vintages that are consistently very good.

While Australia is known mainly for its shiraz (which the rest of the world calls syrah) along with cabernet sauvignon, the Aussie wine makers also produce excellent chardonnay, riesling, semillon and grenache. I particularly enjoy the old vine Australian grenache. While Australian grenache is sometimes made as a single varietal, it is most often blended with shiraz and sometimes mourvedre, a deeply purple grape used to provide color and weight to the finished wine.

I’ve often wondered if the cultural diversity of Australia has played a role in the ubiquitous practice by wine makers from “Down Under” to blend different varieties of grapes to produce their wine. Whatever the reason, I’m glad they continue to blend because the resulting wines are not only very good, they provide complex tasting experiences. Here are some Australian wines you might try along with food suggestions to pair with them.

One of my favorite wineries is d’Arenberg whose wines go by some very strange and humorous names such as The Lucky Lizard Chardonnay, Dead Arm Shiraz (photo at right - click to enlarge) and The Hermit Crab Viognier, just to name a few. Try the old vine grenache from d’Arenberg called The Custodian ($15). This wine is from ancient vines – some more than 100 years old – and yet it is soft, approachable and full of spicy blueberry flavors. It would be a wonderful accompaniment to grilled baby back ribs.

D’Arenberg also makes a delicious blended wine comprised of shiraz with just a small amount of viognier (that’s right, viognier – a white wine) called The Laughing Magpie ($25). This wine has excellent aging potential and is full of dark plum and blackberry flavors that emerge after about one hour in a carafe. Try it with marinated and grilled top sirloin.

An absolutely delicious white is the aforementioned Hermit Crab Viognier ($14), which is a Rhone-like blend of viognier and marsanne. This wine is very will balanced and chock full of ripe pear flavors with a pronounced minerality. Its great as a porch-sipper or with lighter fish dishes such as flounder and sole plainly cooked and sauced with lemon and butter.

Another of my favorite shiraz’ is one produced by Torbreck called The Woodcutter’s Red ($22) This is a spicy, elegant wine with hints of blackberries that is pulled together by excellent balancing acidity. Grilled salmon with a southwest seasoning would be a good choice with the Woodcutter’s.

Hewitson’s Miss Harry ($24) is another great blend of grenache, mourvedre and shiraz that is a stunning wine full of complex dark fruit flavors. It is a full-bodied, round and rich wine that will definitely benefit from two or three years in the bottle, and would be a superb accompaniment to grilled rack of lamb that has been basted with garlic, rosemary olive oil and lemon.

Australia also does a wonderful job with non-traditional white wines like semillon. Semillon originated in the Graves region of Bordeaux and is blended there with sauvignon blanc to produce an austere and dry wine that is a great match with simply prepared seafood dishes.

In Australia, semillon (which, often as not, is blended with chardonnay or sauvignon blanc) is made in a much richer style, yet it exhibits a mineral quality that allows it to go quite well with oysters on the half shell as well as pasta dishes with a pesto or asparagus sauce. Try the Semillon from Simon Hackett, Rosemount and Peter Lehmann all of which retail for under $20 a bottle.

Riesling is also a good choice from Down Under and the following wines are in the $10 to $20 range: Pikes Clare Valley Riesling, Wolf Blass Adelaide Gold and Grant Burge. Slightly sweet, these are great aperitif wines or good matches to lighter foods like seafood salads or brunch grub such as omelets.

Wine and Roses Event: Sipping for a good cause

As you know, I really enjoy the sensory aspects of wine appreciation. Observing the beautiful hues and shades of wine and the myriad aromas and tastes of the fruit of the vine is truly a blessing. I also love trying to match a specific wine with a complimentary dish because, in my estimation, a good combination provides greater enjoyment than either the food or wine by itself. I count my self fortunate to have the time and resources to engage my passion for good wine and food.

Others in our town, state and nation are not so fortunate. Each day is a challenge for them. Many of our fellow citizens are dealing with debilitating physical, emotional and mental issues that make each day a struggle to survive. Their goal is simply to find food to eat and a place to sleep. Fortunately, there are agencies in our communities that exist solely to assist these people, many of whom are homeless.

One such agency is the Roark-Sullivan Lifeways Center (RSLC) with facilities in Charleston and St. Albans. RSLC and other such organizations exist because of state and federal programs funded by your taxes and through your generous personal contributions.

As a board member of RSLC, I can tell you this is a special organization with a great group of dedicated employees and volunteers. The center assists individuals experiencing homelessness with services that help them become self-reliant. RSLC operates the 60-bed Giltinan Center on Leon Sullivan Way (formerly the Charleston Men’s Emergency Shelter) and the 16-bed Twin Cities Center in St. Albans and provides comprehensive services such as healthcare maintenance; substance abuse and mental health assistance; outreach; and transitional and aftercare services. RSLC is also building a Veterans Transitional Center adjacent to the Giltinan Center that will be completed later this year.

Wouldn’t it be great to help programs like Roark-Sullivan and enjoy good wine and food, too? Well, you can. Join me and about 100 other thirsty wine lovers at the third annual Roark-Sullivan Lifeways Center Wine and Roses event. Wine and Roses will be held indoors at the Capitol Market from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 17. Partnering with RSLC is the Capitol Market, Soho’s and the Wine Shop at Capitol Market.

There will be wines from all over the world which are once again being donated by area wine distributors. I’ll be there to answer your wine questions (even if I don’t know the answers). If you find a wine you like at the event, you can purchase it immediately from the nice folks at the Wine Shop.

Tickets are $25 in advance or $30 at the door. You can call RSLC at 414-0109 and give them your credit card or send a check to: RSLC, P.O. Box 8957, South Charleston, WV, 25303.

I hope to see you there.

August 8-10: Taste of the Mountains Food, Wine & Jazz Festival
Looking for a great getaway wine and food weekend? Travel up to Snowshoe in August, take in the cool mountain air and partake of great wine, food and music. This wine and food weekend (Aug. 8-10) offers wine tastings, excellent food and live jazz entertainment. I’ve attended a couple of these festivals in past years and can tell you it’s a whole lot of fun. Bring your palate ready to taste some of the area’s finest foods complimented by wines from around the world.

The highlight of the weekend for me has always been Saturday’s Grand Tasting from 2-6:30 p.m. You’ll have access to 100 different wines from around the world matched with delicious edibles and you’ll hear some great jazz too. Prices for tastings, receptions, etc., can be purchased individually, or you can purchase a two-night all-inclusive package. Call Snowshoe for pricing and more information: (877) 441-4386

You Might want to dock at this PORT!

You Might want to dock at this PORT!

It may seem odd , but this fine summer day we’re going to examine the qualities of Port - that sweet Portuguese nectar which is usually consumed after a hearty meal or by a roaring fire to ward off the chill of winter. Why? Well, the other night after a special meal on the patio, I decided to open a tawny port to complete this lovely evening. As I sipped and enjoyed  a relatively inexpensive version of this sometimes very expensive wine, I was inspired to tell you about the pleasures of Port. Sotoday, we’ll look at the wonderful world of port.

First a little history lesson. Back in the 1700s, the English dearly loved the wines of Bordeaux, but because of their constant wars with the French, our British cousins were forced to look to Portugal for vinous sustenance. As they began to import red wine from Portugal, some enterprising folks added brandy to the barrels so the wines would be fortified to survive the arduous sea journey.

The practice of “fortifying” the wine was refined by the Portuguese wine makers who began to add distilled spirits to their wine during fermentation. This had the effect of stopping the fermentation and leaving the wines sweet. It also made the wines higher in alcohol. The British loved the sweet, high alcohol wines and the Portuguese were more than happy for the significant trade that ensued. Since that time, port has been exported all over the world and has become the staple after dinner drink for many wine lovers.

Some would suggest that port, like scotch, is an acquired taste. I can assure you that, from my perspective, port is a lot easier to enjoy than Scotch. True, there is a “baked” quality to the taste of this sweet wine that some folks take a while getting accustomed to, but once you try the stuff with a good blue cheese or a handful of walnuts, you’ll be hooked.

Port or 'porto' (as it is called in Portugal) is made from a variety of (unpronounceable) grapes grown along the steep slopes of Douro River. The river flows toward the town of Oporto, where the wine is sold to companies (called” Shippers”) who age it, label it under their house name and then export it all over the world.

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The Willamette Valley’s WVU connection

What do WVU, pinot noir and Oregon have in common? Read on and you’ll find out.

So there I was on the campus of Linfield College in Oregon last summer, rushing to get to class on time. I had to chuckle at the irony of it all. Me, worried about being tardy for class? Any of my former WVU professors –if they’re still breathing – would certainly need to “suspend disbelief” in order to accept the absurdity of that image.

Well, I have to admit this was not your ordinary boring lecture by some pedantic, patch-on-the-sleeve liberal arts lecturer. Rather, it was a seminar which required the class to assess the various taste characteristics of pinot noir produced in Oregon and Burgundy. This “class” was one of many such explorations of pinot noir as part of the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) held in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

So what’s so special about pinot noir produced in Oregon? Simply put, it’s about location. The vast Willamette Valley begins near the Columbia River Gorge on the Washington border and stretches about 100 miles south to the city of Eugene. It is approximately 60 miles across at its widest point, and is an incredibly fertile area which produces a virtual cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, including wine grapes.

The valley lies between the coastal mountains on the west and the Cascade Range to the east. The weather in this area consistently produces long growing seasons with warm days and cool nights which is what is needed – meteorologically speaking – to grow good pinot noir.

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Give your wine a little breathing room

Give your wine a little breathing room

To breathe or not to breathe? That is a question I am often asked by perplexed wine lovers. No, I’m not referring to the actual act of breathing, but rather to a term used in the wine lexicon to describe the somewhat controversial practice of aerating or decanting wine to improve both the aroma and taste of the stuff.

While it is undoubtedly true that 99 percent of all wine produced is ready to be drunk when it becomes available in the market place, what you won’t know until you try it is whether or not the wine will actually drink better if you allow it to “breathe.” Yet some people think that merely removing the cork will suffice in allowing enough oxygen to aerate the wine. Unfortunately, removing the cork allows only a miniscule amount of air into the bottle. Properly aerating a wine in this manner would take about two weeks.

Knowing when and how long to aerate a wine is a matter of judgment and experience. The idea is to decant the wine into a larger, more open container to allow a generous amount of oxygen to aerate the liquid and release the aromas and flavors that have been locked up in the bottle.

In reality, oxygen can be both friend and enemy to the wine we drink, depending upon the varietal type and age of the product. For example, I believe that young red wines always benefit from aeration. The process of decanting and letting these wines  breathe for an hour or so can transform them from virtually tasteless and inert liquids into delicious beverages with pleasing aromas. On the other hand, aeration will also expose and magnify any flaws in the way a wine will taste or smell.

For older wines (20 years plus), my rule of thumb is to stand the bottle upright for a day before opening to allow the sediment -- which is a natural by-product of the aging process --  to settle on the bottom of the bottle. Then the question is: should I decant it and, if so, how long should I allow the wine to “breathe” before consuming it?Most times, I decant older wines right before serving to preserve the delicate flavors and complexity that have been bottled up over time. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of allowing a 30-year old California cabernet (which tasted wonderful right after decanting) to sit in a carafe for an hour before drinking it only to find that it had turned into something akin to Drano.

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A Heartfelt Ode to Mixing Red Wine and Chocolate

A Heartfelt Ode to Mixing Red Wine and Chocolate

When I was growing up in an ethnic family back in the 1950s, wine was considered an appropriate beverage to be consumed with meals on a daily basis. However, conventional thinking back then held that only reprobates or winos regularly drank wine. These were the moral police of the time whose idea of moderate drinking consisted of consuming three martinis at lunch. Thankfully, things have changed.

Even so, I’m always looking for ways to justify (my wife would say rationalize) my indulgences and wine is always at the top of the list. Years ago, a study known as “The French Paradox” suggested that regular and moderate consumption of wine (especially red) with meals was the reason the French experienced significantly fewer heart attacks than Americans. This despite the fact that the French diet is extremely high in fat.

We Americans eat a lot fat, too, but we don’t consume enough wine to mitigate the negative effects. Therefore, our rates of cardiac calamities are significantly worse than the French. So while you may disagree, I think there is a pretty strong correlation between regular consumption of wine and cardiac health - and I believe in taking care of my heart!

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RECOMMENDATIONS: Affordable Wines Worth a Taste

RECOMMENDATIONS: Affordable Wines Worth a Taste

So, back to the “written” version of my wacky world of wine (see post below on the whereabouts of "WineBoy, the Webcast"). I’ve been cleaning out my recent tasting notes and have come up with several goodies that should provide you with a blend of red, white and rose wines for your consideration. Here are some goodies:2005 Vincent Giardin Cuvee Saint Vincent Bourgogne Rouge ($25) – The 2005 vintage in Burgundy was a sensational success for both red (pinot noir) and white (chardonnay) wines. It is very rare for Burgundian pinot noir to have both finesse and richness, but the ’05 Cuvee Saint Vincent is a wine that should please both the European and American palate as it is light-bodied, yet round with sweet fruit flavors. This beauty blends the vinification styles of both Burgundy and California to produce a wine with aromas of It would make a superb accompaniment to roasted pork tenderloin in a light mustard crème sauce.

2006 Gramona Gessami ($18) – This unique Spanish wine (from Catalonia) is a blend of 70 percent muscat and 30 percent sauvignon blanc. With aromas of spice and ripe pear, this golden wine is chock full of slightly sweet citrus and apricot flavors that are balanced out by good acidity. It would be a delicious match to spicy oriental foods like Thai curry.

2007 Sierra Cruz Carmenere ($10) -As a member of the cabernet sauvignon family, carmenere (pronounced car-men-yare) originated in Bordeaux as one of the grapes permitted for use in the red blends of that storied region. While it is not now used in France, Chilean winemakers have embraced it and several wineries in that country produce it as a single varietal. The ’07 Sierra Cruz is a very pleasant, soft, medium-bodied wine that has fresh cabernet-like aromas and flavors of spice, dark fruit and black pepper. It is a great value and also would be a nice match with marinated and grilled skirt or flank steak.

2007 Marques De Caceres Rose ($12) – A lovely, fruit-forward and bone dry rose from the famous Rioja region of Spain. The '07 Marques De Caceres is a blend of tempranillo and grenache and has aromas of strawberry and hay. In the mouth, this wine has a dried cherry and spice flavor profile that gives it a richness that is balanced by crisp acidity. Great for a picnic and it is especially simpatico with grilled chicken.

2007 Sierra Cruz Sauvignon Blanc ($10) This Chilean sauvignon blanc just oozes with bright citrus flavors and a nose of herbs and grass. Stylistically, it is a cross between the herbal, grassy wines so prevalent in Sonoma County and the riper, more fruit forward products of New Zealand. Match it with pasta sauced with arugula, pine nuts, mushrooms and parmesan.

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Wherefore Art Thou, WineBoy (the Webcast)?!

Let me address a question I’ve gotten from a whole lot of you regarding the status of WineBoy – the webcast. As many of you have noted, it has been quite a while since we’ve abused the Internet with the rantings of Spud Dumplin, Umberto Lupini and Sir Reginald Winesot Clydesdale. The simple reason is resources. It takes considerable time to shoot, edit and present these exquisite productions and my good friends at the Gazette must prioritize how these resources are allocated.

In the larger scheme of producing a daily newspaper, WineBoy takes a back seat to the need for the Gazette to produce news-related video. I hope at some point we’ll be able to resume a somewhat regular schedule of Webcasts in the future, but that depends on a whole lot of considerations out of my control.

In the meantime, you can still catch some of the WineBoy webcasts at the links in past posts. After all, most of the shows have timeless content related to the world of wine. We might even index the shows we’ve already produced and make them available at the WineBoy website. Let me (and the Gazette) know what you think.

Remembering Robert Mondavi

Remembering Robert Mondavi

Robert Mondavi’s enthusiasm for all things related to wine and his own winery was both heartfelt and infectious.

One of the icons in the world of wine died last week. Robert Mondavi, 94, passed away at his home in the Napa Valley after a lifetime of literally and figuratively toiling in the vineyard to insure the growth of wine appreciation around the world. Wine to Mondavi represented more than just a pleasant beverage to enjoy with friends and family around the dinner table.

In his 1998 autobiography, “Harvests of Joy,” Mondavi said: “My passion for bringing wine into the American culture was motivated by a desire to plant deep into the soil of our young country the same values, traditions and daily pleasures that my mother and father had brought with them from central Italy: good food, good wine and love of family.”

He was born to Italian immigrant parents in Virginia, Minnesota, in 1913 where his father had a business supplying wine grapes to other immigrants who worked in the iron ore mines of the region. The family moved to Lodi, California and then later to the Napa Valley. During this time, Robert worked with his father and brother at the Sunny St. Helena Winery. In 1936, he graduated from Stanford University with a degree in marketing.

During World War II, he and his brother Peter convinced his father to purchase the Charles Krug Winery. At Krug the brothers managed the moderately successful winery until family differences forced Robert to establish his own winery in 1966.

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Evaluating Wine: Your Mood Does Matter!

Evaluating Wine: Your Mood Does Matter!

One of my favorite blogger/columnists is Eric Asimov of the New York Times. He has a weekly blog called The Pour, where he explores broad issues relating to the fruit of the vine. One of his recent blogs dealt with the premise of a new book, "The Wine Trials" by Robin Goldstein.

The introductory paragraph to Asimov’s April 11 blog reads: “In yet another anti-intellectual effort to take fancy-schmancy wine down a peg or two, a new book purports to demonstrate that price bears little relation to quality and that the experts don’t know what they are talking about. The evidence? Blind taste tests of 540 wines by 500 volunteer tasters.”

That blog and the comments it elicited got me thinking about how we all make choices regarding the wines we select for every day drinking and for special occasions. Certainly, we can all agree that quality wines that offer great value are worth seeking out. So how do we determine what is not only an acceptable wine, but one that is exceptional? Well, let me take a crack at it.

Some of us depend upon rating systems (such as Robert Parker's 100 point scale). Others depend on buying wine from exceptional vintages and from specific wine regions like Bordeaux. Still others focus on the wineries that consistently produce exceptional wine or (heaven forbid!) on the supposed relationship between ascending price (of wine) and quality.

How do you judge the quality of a wine? I’ve advised people to taste them blind. In other words, cover the label (by placing the bottles in plain brown bags) to take away any possible price or winery bias so that you can truly judge the product on its quality. Blind tastings are something I do regularly so I can objectively evaluate the aroma, taste and visual qualitative elements that are the basis for whether I recommend a wine or not.

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W.Va. Wines: There’s grapes in them there hills!

W.Va. Wines: There’s grapes in them there hills!

Each year about this time, I join a group of West Virginia wine lovers who are called upon to select the best wines produced by state wineries in seven different categories (e.g., dry red; semi-sweet white; dry white; dessert, etc.). This annual tasting gives me a pretty good indication and historical perspective on the quality of Mountain State wines since we've been judging the competition for about 15 years. I'm happy to report that West Virginia-made wine has improved steadily over the past decade. I'm also happy to report that the number of wineries has increased from just a few to 17 in the past ten years.

While many of these wines can be good to exceptional, wine makers in the state face very difficult growing conditions that force them to use vines that can limit their ability to make great wines. Why? There are many key elements to producing a good bottle of wine, including soil, climate, geography and wine making competence. But the most essential component is the grape itself, and the family of vines to which it belongs.

The world's most famous wine grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling, sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and a thousands of others belong to a class known as vitus vinifera. Two other classes of wine grapes are vitus labrusca, native American vine-producing grapes such as concord and catawba, and French-American hybrid grapes such as seyval blanc, vidal blanc and chambourcin.

Labursca can make decent, but distinctly flavored wines while French-American hybrids (which are French vines grafted onto American rootstock) produce wines significantly better than labrusca but not as fine as vinifera vines.

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