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

RECIPE: Doin’ the Spicy Chicken!

RECIPE: Doin’ the Spicy Chicken!

Inspiration is a wonderful thing! After attending a spectacular wine dinner at the Bridge Road Bistro recently, I was inspired by the culinary virtuosity of chef Paco Aceves to create my own plebeian version of gastronomic heaven. It's a dish I’ll call “Doin the Spicy Chicken.”

If you’re old enough, you probably remember doing the “Funky Chicken.” While that dance required a few nimble moves, laying down steps for the Spicy Chicken is a lot easier, and today I’m going to tell you how. I’m also going to suggest a few wines that will not only tame that chicken, but also enhance the flavors of this nifty little dish. If you haven’t done so already, it is definitely time to dust off the old grill and get ready to barbeque some de-feathered edibles! Here’s how:

Doin' the Spicy Chicken Recipe 1. Buy two frying chickens, remove those unspeakable parts from the cavity and cut off any excess chicken fat.

2. Then work a long, thin, boning knife under the skin of the chicken (all over if possible) and create pockets between this skin and the meat.

3. Now mix together a teaspoon each of chili powder, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cumin. Add to this mixture three tablespoons of olive oil and three finely chopped garlic cloves. This should have a pasty consistency.

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The Whites of Spring

The Whites of Spring

Photo (at right): Arneis, which is produced in the Piedmont region of Italy, is a crisp white with green apple flavors and a sprightly touch of fizz A note to “Red Wine Nation:” White wines are good and getting better!

I feel the need to make this declarative statement because there is a growing sentiment among some wine drinkers (mostly those who are new to the fold) that white wine is an inferior product and, except for the occasional bottle of chardonnay, is not to be considered seriously.

Those of you who read my words on wine know that I will never tell you what you should drink. If you want to match that hunk of filet mignon with a jug of Vito’s Thunder Mountain Red, so be it. However, if you think Vito’s elixir has no peer, you might want to buy a bottle of witch hazel which is probably slightly better. The point is: if you think you’ve found wine Nirvana, you haven’t because there are always pleasant surprises to be discovered in the world of wine.

That’s why I get upset when someone claims to be a “red wine only” advocate. For instance, these folks are happy to slurp down a bottle of full-bodied, high alcohol, young California cabernet sauvignon (without food ) as a pre- dinner cocktail. They revel in their “trophy” wines and rationalize their overindulgence by proclaiming the healthful effects of drinking red wine (their credo: if a little bit of red wine is good for you, then a lot of it must be even better).

Health issues aside, if you’re limiting yourself to just red – or just white – or just cabernet… well, you’re missing out on one of the most important, enjoyable and enlightening aspects of wine appreciation: the exploration and discovery of new wines.

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WINE EVENT: Cinnabar Bistro Bash, April 20

This is definitely the season to enjoy special wine dinners hosted by some of the best chefs in our state. I just returned from an excellent wine and food event at Canaan Valley Resort, where Chef Nemat Odeh worked his culinary magic. I’m happy to report that your next opportunity to sup and savor is on April 20, at Bridge Road Bistro in South Hills.

The Bistro is the culinary brain child of renowned chef Robert Wong, who seems to be on an evangelical mission to bring good food and wine to West Virginians in just about every hamlet and holler in this wild and wonderful state. (In addition to the Bistro, he has opened restaurants at Snowshoe, Glade Springs, Charleston, Beckley and Morgantown.) The April 20 event will feature a specially prepared menu by Bistro chef Paco Aceves and the wines of Cinnabar Vineyards in California. Rob Crandall, representing Cinnabar, will provide commentary on the wines selected for the dinner. If you’re interested in attending, contact Amy Sue Gates at the Bistro at 720-3500 for pricing and reservations. Here is the menu with accompanying wines.

Appetizers: Cinnabar, Mercury Rising Blanc, California, 2006Smoked Salmon, Avocado & Sprouts with Wasabi Aioli Lemon-Dijon Tuna Tartare , Kiwi Citrus Grilled Scallop and Mini Crab Cake on Toasted Focaccia1st Course: Cinnabar, Chardonnay, Monterey County, 2005Soft Shell Crab wrapped in Prosciutto, Morgan Country Honey and Lavender Aioli Baby Celery

2nd Course: Cinnabar, Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2005 Vanilla Apple Brined Muscovy Duck Breast, Plum Tart, Baby Lettuces Blackberry Vinaigrette

3rd Course: Cinnabar, Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2003Cappuccino Crusted Venison Loin, Smoked Forest Mushroom and Leek Flan, Tomato Relish & Black Truffle Risotto stuffed Baby Squash

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The French: You don’t have to like their attitude to like their wine!

The French:  You don’t have to like their attitude to like their wine!

French wine map from this website. Click for more info.I often poke fun at the French for their superior attitude when it comes to anything having to do with wine and other gastronomic treats. In fact, some of our Gallic friends seem to think the term connoisseur (which is a French word after all) should only be used to describe their fellow countrymen.While these traits could be described as arrogance, I prefer to give the French the benefit of the doubt ( even though my sometimes guest on the WineBoy webcast -- Pierre N’Cest Pas -- seems to embody the snobby, overbearing French wine bore that we all love to hate. Check out the latest WineBoy (episode 26) and you’ll see what I mean.

But to be fair, we should acknowledge the tremendous contributions the French have made to wine. Their innovations in the vineyard and cellar for the past several hundred years have been the foundation and catalyst for the dynamic growth of the wine industry in the rest of the world. And their many world famous wines continue to command the greatest respect of wine lovers everywhere.

So today, we’ll take a quick look at the major wine -producing regions in that land of vines and tell you about the principal grape varieties that produce some of the world’s greatest wine. There are ten distinct wine appellations in France and hundreds of smaller sub-regions within those broader areas.

Bordeaux In this most famous of all wine regions in the world, you’ll find the most sought after wines anywhere. The reds are usually blends of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec while the whites are comprised of sauvignon blanc and semillon.

BurgundyIn days of yore, we thought Burgundy was a big red wine in a big green jug. Of course, Burgundy is a very renowned wine region where some of the greatest red and white wine is produced. In the northern part of Burgundy, the red wine is pinot noir and the white is chardonnay and just a small amount of pinot blanc. In southern Burgundy in the Beaujolais region, the red grape is gamay.

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WINEBOY 26: Decoding the wine regions of France

WINEBOY 26: Decoding the wine regions of France

Remember when you thought Burgundy was a red wine that came in big green jugs? Watch WineBoy 26 and you'll get the skinny on Burgundy (a place in France where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay rule) and the other distinct wine appellations in that country that some Americans love to hate -- except when they order wine.Brown will also tell you about the principal wines in each of those regions after which WineBoy nemesis, Pierre N'Cest Pas, will offer his scathing critique of his performance. Tune in and be both educated and entertained.

RECOMMENDED: Palate-pleasing goodies you may wish to try…..

RECOMMENDED: Palate-pleasing goodies you may wish to try…..

I’ve had the pleasure of sipping a lot of really good wines lately, some of which I’ve recommended on the WineBoy Webcast. So, as your ever- accommodating wineaux, here are some vinous goodies for your consideration:

2006 Falesco Vitiano ($14)From the Italian state of Umbria, this blend of sangiovese, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, is a medium-bodied red with loads of bright cherry flavors and nice balancing acidity. Year in and year out Vitiano is one of my favorite value-priced Italian wines. It should pair well with roasted meat dishes or pasta dressed in a light tomato sauce.

2006 Rombauer Napa Valley Chardonnay ($30)In recent years, I must admit to avoiding what I perceive to be “over-done and over-oaked” California chardonnay. It’s not that I don’t occasionally appreciate over-ripe, high alcohol chardonnay that has been aged in heavily toasted oak barrels. Well…. yes it is. And so when I put a glass of Rombauer Chardonnay to my lips recently I was expecting to dislike it. After all, it was from Napa and had been aged in oak for an extended period of time.

Surprise! It is a well-balanced chardonnay with -- yes -- a toasty oak component. Yet the wine is also full of ripe tropical fruit flavors that are balanced by excellent acidity. As a matter of fact, we drank this wine with pasta tossed in a sauce of scallops, arugula and pine nuts, and the combination was heavenly. This wine, produced from the cooler growing region of Carneros in southern Napa, has restored my faith in fuller-flavored chardonnay. Say hallelujah!

2004 Ferrari-Carano Sonoma Merlot ($25)I know it’s popular now to bash merlot, but I’ve never been one to kick a good wine when it’s down, particularly when the stuff is as good as this. First of all, 2004 was a very good vintage year for northern California reds. The Ferrari-Carano folks selected merlot from several different appellations in Sonoma County, including Alexander Valley, Russian River and Dry Creek, to make its wine. The result is a round, rich, full-flavored wine full of spicy, chocolate flavors with medium tannins that is enjoyable now, but will get better over the next five or so years. This baby just begs to be married to a large slab of grilled, peppercorn encrusted red meat!

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WineBoy 25: Vote for Change in Your Wine

WineBoy 25: Vote for Change in Your Wine

Change is good. That's all the more reason to check out the latest five-minute Webcast of "WineBoy," where host John Brown recommends tasty alternatives to the same old red wines you've been sipping for, like, ever. Says Brown: "These purple lovelies will reinvigorate your palate and clue you in to the fact that there's more to wine than pinot noir, cabernet and merlot."

The Greatest Bordeaux ever? I thought it was Zinfandel!

The Greatest Bordeaux ever? I thought it was Zinfandel!

The estate of Château Cheval Blanc in St Emilion. Home of one of the greatest wines ever? From Bordeaux is perhaps the most storied region in all of winedom. Perched in southwestern France and close to the Atlantic Ocean, this famous appellation produces wine that is the benchmark upon which all great red wine, particularly cabernet sauvignon, is measured.

In 1855, the wines of Bordeaux were classified according to quality by a ranking that still exists today. The best of these wines are called "Grand Crus" and are categorized into five classifications or “growths.” The greatest are called “First Growths” and they include Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Ch. Latour, Ch. Mouton Rothschild (which was added in 1973), Ch. Margaux and Ch. Haut Brion.

Two other wines, Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Petrus, were not rated in the 1855 classification, but are also considered First Growths. The thousands of Bordeaux wines not rated among the first five growths are called Crus Bourgeois, Crus Artisans, St. Emilion and Graves.

Bordeaux is a region that inspires great debate among wine lovers. Most recently, that discussion has focused on the stratospheric price of recent vintages, particularly those wines made in 2005. That vintage is considered great by wine critics around the world and, if you can afford them, the cream of the 2005 crop can range from several hundred to thousands of dollars a bottle. Since there are more than 7,000 Chateaux (wineries) in the Bordeaux region, it is possible to find an ample supply of good wines in the $20 to $50 a bottle range, but the ones with the best reputations are prohibitively expensive. And, while some of the lesser known Bordeaux are beginning to appear on wine shop shelves, most of the expensive wines have not arrived yet. In fact, most of the “best of the best” or First Growths, have been purchased as “futures” by well-heeled collectors who hope to get them at prices significantly less than when they hit the shelves later this year.

My experience with First Growths is limited and has not been particularly successful (with one notable exception which I’ll tell you about later). My problem has been discovering the optimum time to drink them. So far, each of the wines I’ve tasted has been too young and tannic, and has not reached full maturity. However, my experience with other highly classified wines has been, for the most part, wonderful.

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EVENT: A “Culinary Classic” returns to Stonewall Resort, March 7 to 9

Dale Hawkins, Executive Chef for Stonewall Resort, is known for his focus on what he calls New Appalachian Cuisine. You cantaste what he means on March 7-9 at Stonewall near Weston as he, and a whole host of other West Virginia celebrity chefs, prepare their goodies for you at one of this state’s premier food and wine events – The Culinary Classic.

I’ve been to the Culinary Classic on a couple of occasions and it’s a blast! Sumptious food, lots of wine and like-minded people enjoying the stuff we all love. The events begin at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 7, with an evening reception and taste-around , featuring signature dishes from the chefs and accompanying wines to wash it all down.  Saturday is a day full of events for gourmets and gourmands, including chef-led demonstrations, workshops and wine tastings. One of the events features a presentation by Slow Food  USA (a cause to which I ascribe) and a luncheon featuring a chef “throw down.” That evening, guests start with a wine reception and then move into the ballroom for a multi-course food and wine pairing created by the guest chefs. Here is a list of the foodies that will be doing their culinary thing: Steve Mengel and Frederick Montei, The Greenbrier (White Sulphur Springs); Paco Aceves, the Bridge Road Bistro (Charleston); Tim Urbanic, Café Cimino (Sutton); Anne Hart, Provence Market (Bridgeport); Melanie Campbell, Graceland Inn (Elkins); Hall Hitzig, The Crazy Baker (Renick); Logan Springston, Marriott Town Center (Charleston); Jeff Kessler, Jeff’s Breads (Renick).

Jay Vetter, Main Street Grille (Moorefield); Gourmet Central (Romney); Dale Hawkins, Stonewall Resort (Weston); DeFluri’s Chocolates (Martinsburg); Nemat Odeh, Canaan Valley Resort (Davis); Brian Ball, Ember (Snowshoe); Sal Carmona of Carmona’s (Buckhannon); Jim Anderson, Glade Springs Resort (Daniels); Ben Mule, the Blennerhassett (Parkersburg); Jay Mahoney of Pierpont Community and Technical College (Fairmont); Mountaineer Brewing Company (Martinsburg) and Gallo Family of Wines.If you’re interested in participating, the two-night package is $314 per person. It includes all lodging, Culinary Classic events and breakfast both mornings. For additional information or to make reservations, contact the resort at 888-278-8150 or visit the Stonewall Web site.

WINEBOY 24: Getting out of a winey rut

WINEBOY 24: Getting out of a winey rut

Click to watch 'WineBoy' WebcastEver get in a wine-drinking rut, sipping the same old, same old same old - chardonnay, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc? Join 'WineBoy' John Brown for some tips on three alternative whites that will reinvigorate your palate and provide a nice change-up to the wines you usually select. Then WineBoy's cowboy pal - Spud Dumplin' - makes a guest appearance to show his displeasure over the abrupt departure of a certain football coach. Watch as Spud serves up some chuckwagon wisdom by sharing his poem: "Owed (Ode) to Coach Rod. "

1978 Chateau Fortia: Better than peanut butter!

1978 Chateau Fortia:  Better than peanut butter!

"In defense of my decision, it helps to know a little about the wine I chose over my children’s need for nutritional sustenance. " -- John Brown
One of the advantages of advancing age is that you can sometimes live long enough to see youthful acts of irresponsibility redeemed later in life (though probably never forgiven). Let me explain. In the early 1980’s, when I was just beginning my life-long affair with wine -- and when I had little or no disposable income -- I made a profligate, yet fateful, buying decision. That decision caused me great initial pain, but over the long haul, I feel, has turned out quite well.

The year was 1983 and I was on my way to buy the weekly groceries when I stopped by the local state liquor store to check out the wine selection. Back then, the State ABC store was the only place where you could purchase wine. As I casually browsed the aisles searching for any wine not bottled in big green jugs, I came across three bottles of 1978 Chateau Fortia. At that time, Fortia was considered the best producer of Chateauneuf Du Pape, and the ’78 had gotten great reviews.
Unfortunately, the wine cost $18 a bottle, a stratospheric price to pay for wine back then. I agonized over the decision for all of five minutes before using our weekly grocery money to buy the wine. When my wife asked why I had not gotten all the items on her grocery list, I sheepishly presented her with the three bottles of wine and, as I recall, some peanut butter, bread and lunch meat. To put it mildly, she was not happy, and I heard the words “selfish” and “irresponsible” used repeatedly to describe me over the next several months.

In defense of my decision, it helps to know a little about the wine I chose over my children’s need for nutritional sustenance. Chateau Fortia is a storied property and it’s late owner -- Baron Le Roy de Boiseumarie -- not only produced among the best Chateauneuf Du Pape, he developed a system of governmental regulations to insure the quality for everything associated with making wine. This system was the foundation for the Appellation Contrôlée system for all France. I had read about the exploits of Baron Le Roy and the legendary wines he was making so when I saw the opportunity to acquire a few bottles of this monumental wine…well you know the rest.

Now, fast-forward 25 years. (Incidentally, despite even more egregious acts by yours truly over that quarter century, I am still married to the same long-suffering wife). Anyway, this year on Valentine’s Day my wife asked me to go to our cellar and surprise her with a nice bottle of wine to accompany a special meal she had prepared. You can probably guess what I selected. Suffice it to say, I did surprise her - with 1978 Chateau Fortia. But the biggest surprise was magnificence of the wine itself!

As I decanted it, the wine’s orange-brown color did not bode well for its drinkability. There was also about one inch of sediment in the bottom of the bottle (which I expected) and when I put my nose to the carafe, there was very little aroma. At least it didn't have any off odors, I thought to myself.

I set the wine aside for about one hour while dinner was being completed and then, as we sat down to eat, I poured it into our glasses. It had been transformed. As I sniffed and then sipped, the wine had morphed into an aromatic, complex and delicious elixir. Aromas of mint and leather were followed by layered flavors of cherries, caramel and white pepper. What a spectacular wine and one which, surprisingly, held up well to the fillet of beef it accompanied.
After we leisurely consumed the bottle, I went online to Robert Parker’s website ( and this is what that esteemed critic had to say about the wine (he rated it 95 out of 100) when he last reviewed it in 2000: “This has always been my reference point for Chateau Fortia (until I tasted the 1970). It remains a prodigious, full-bodied, spectacular Chateauneuf du Pape possessing a deep ruby/purple color with only a hint of amber at the edge. A stunning nose of blackberries, pepper, smoke, dried herbs, and licorice is followed by a full-bodied wine with a seamless personality, a multi-layered texture, and a fabulous wealth of fruit. While fully mature, it is capable of 5-7 additional years of life.”
Well, here it is eight years later and still holding, though for how much longer I cannot predict.

So, did my wife forgive me for that act of profligacy 25 years ago? She’s not willing to go that far, but I may be able to get closer to redemption since I have two more bottles of the 1978 Chateau Fortia lying in repose in the cellar.

Braciole and Vino: Turning SAD into GLAD

Braciole and Vino: Turning SAD into GLAD

The answer: Comfort food and hearty wine! But what's the question? What do you need to ward off that psychological malady brought on by gray skies, cold weather, a general lack of sunshine and the end of football season?

Clinically known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), Doctor Feelgood -- me -- has just the prescription: Braciole or Italian beef roll-ups with penne in a thick tomato sauce. This past weekend, after preparing and then consuming this dish (with a full bodied red I’ll tell you about later), my outlook on the week ahead was definitely brighter.

So, here’s what I put together that should feed four to six hungry and depressed friends.

Tomato Sauce Recipe1. First, the sauce. Here’s one of my favorite quick red sauce recipes. You’ll need:3 ounces of extra virgin olive oil1 large onion, chopped4 cloves garlic, chopped1 red pepper chopped1 carrot, chopped2 (32-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes (try San Marana or Red Pack)Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2. In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat and add onion and garlic and sauté until soft.

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WINEBOY: Decoding European labels

WINEBOY: Decoding European labels

If you’re not a Romance language specialist, you probably have trouble understanding the gibberish on the label of a bottle of European wine. Join “WineBoy” webcast host John Brown in show 23 as he deciphers the information so you can make better buying decisions.

The show also features cameos by two of WineBoy’s alter egos — Sir Reginald Winesot Clydesdale and the Marcrazi Umberto Lupini — not to mention, a solid wine recommendation or two. Watch it at the WineBoy blog at

WINEPICK: 2003 Monticello Crianza ($12)

WINEPICK: 2003 Monticello Crianza ($12)

Map of Rioja region of Spain from I have always been a fan of Rioja (pronounced Ree-OH-hah). It's a famous wine region in north-central Spain that produces red wine in a style similar to the more famous reds of Bordeaux. The connection with Bordeaux grew out of a vine disease which devastated those world-renowned French vineyards in the 1800's. Faced with having to completely replant their vineyards, many Bordelais ventured over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain to grow grapes and make wine unaffected by the blight.

Settling in Rioja, the French passed along their wine-making techniques to the Spanish. While the grape varieties comprising Bordeaux red are completely different from the main Rioja grape (tempranillo), the Spanish vintners began adopting many of French viticultural practices, including using oak barrels to finish their wines. Today, the Rioja wine makers use French and American oak extensively to soften and age their wines.

The 2003 Monticello Crianza was aged in oak for 18 months. The government requirement for a wine to be called Crianza (which loosely translated means “age-ing of wine") is that it must be aged in oak for at least one year. The Monticello is round and richly flavored with hints of ripe cherries and anise, along with a toasty oak component which adds complexity to the wine. It is an excellent value, too! Pair it with cheeses such manchego or asiago or have it with grilled and marinated flank steak.

If you haven’t uncorked a bottle of Rioja red lately or ever , I highly recommend this wine for your sipping pleasure.

How to buy (good) cheap wine

How to buy (good) cheap wine

If you could afford to pay $100 or more for a “trophy” wine, wouldn’t you expect that bottle to be memorable? I had a friend who recently plunked down $125 for a bottle of cabernet that, indeed, was memorable, but for the wrong reasons. He described it as “rancid, overbearing and lacking character.”

Since that description could fit a plethora of animate organisms, including cheese, over-the hill rock stars and the entire French Parliament, my friend assured me that he was describing wine.

I suppose the lesson here is that expensive does not always mean quality when it comes to buying wine -which is why I always do a little research (usually online) before I spend more than $20 for a bottle.

Conversely, inexpensive wines are not always inferior. As a matter of fact, in my never-ending quest for excellent wine at bargain prices, I am often pleasantly surprised by the quality of wines I did not expect to be very good.

The point here is that often our expectations are colored by the price of wine.

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WINEBOY 22: Be Sure to Read the Label

WINEBOY 22: Be Sure to Read the Label

The latest edition of "WineBoy," our 5-minute Web show on the art and craft of wine appreciation, features part one of two programs on deciphering wine labels. Host John Brown first takes a look at what you can learn from a close look at California wine labels. A future program will take a gander at European wine labels, an entirely different read. Click here to view the program.

EVENT: Cast-off this weekend for a cast-iron good time

Hey foodies and... um, wine-ies (wine-o's?): Want to spend a cold winter's weekend eating, drinking and living large in the lap of luxury? If so, you might want to cruise up I-79 to Stonewall Resort and take in the festivities known as the Cast Iron Cook-off this weekend.

This third annual Cast Iron Cook-off is an opportunity to not only sup on gourmet delights and sip a vast array of great wines, it's also a chance for you to pick up a few culinary pointers from some of this state and region's most accomplished chefs who will be competing for the grand prize (What else? A commemorative cast iron skillet). Here's a rundown of what you can expect at the event:

Friday, Jan. 25 6:30 p.m.: Dinner reception with several wines and hors d'oeuvres that feature Stonewall Resort Executive Chef Dale Hawkins's New Appalachian Cuisine.

Saturday, Jan. 269:30 am until 2 pm.: Cast Iron Cook-off Teams spend 1 1/2 hours preparing and then one hour in actual competition. Start times are staggered, so cook-off competitors and their guests can observe other teams when they are not competing. Interspersed with all these activities are wine and food tastings along with an event where you can actually have your cast-iron ware appraised.
6 p.m.: Sparkling wine reception with entertainment provided by Colleen Anderson in concert.
7 p.m.: Dinner features a 5-course gourmet meal with accompanying wines. An awards ceremony will celebrate the day's work and include the presenting of The West Virginia Pioneer Award.

Sunday, January 27A true country breakfast with your favorite goodies completes the weekend.

If you're interested in attending, contact Stonewall Resort (304-269-7400) for rates and packages.

WineBoy Recommends: ‘05 Newton Napa Valley Claret

WineBoy Recommends: ‘05 Newton Napa Valley Claret

WINEBOY RECOMMENDS: 2005 Newton Napa Valley Claret ($25)Claret (pronounced Clair-it) is the term the British use to refer to the red wine of Bordeaux. The Newton Claret is a Napa Valley blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and syrah. It is a rich, chocolaty, minty, mouthful of wine that -- while it should benefit from a few more years in the bottle -- is ready to enjoy now. I matched it with thick, oven-broiled pork chops glazed with a delicious, roasted raspberry chipotle sauce. (I must confess – the glaze is from a bottle, Fischer & Wieser, and I ordered it from The ’05 Newton Claret is a pleasure to enjoy over a long winter’s dinner with someone special.

Vintage Assessment: Reading Between the Vines

The headline on a November, 2007 press release from the (California) Wine Institute states: “California vintners praise high quality 2007 wine grape harvest.” While I don’t doubt the veracity of the winemakers assessing the vintage, it is very difficult to make broad generalizations regarding the harvest of any geographically large and diverse region such as the state of California.

To their credit, the Wine Institute folks then interviewed vintners from most of the major growing regions for their individual assessment of the harvest in their particular areas or appellations. Reading these individual reviews provides a better gauge of how the wines will actually show when they are released in the next few years.

I bring this to your attention so you will be better equipped to sort through the marketing hype regarding the various vintage assessments around the world, and so you can make better decisions regarding wine selection in the future.

As the resident wine guy (boy?) for our fair state, I am often asked for my assessment of various vintages as in: 'How was the 2004 vintage for cabernet sauvignon?' I usually fire right back with a few questions of my own like: to which country -- and which wine region or sub- region of that country -- are you referring?

I’m not trying to be difficult, but there really is no simple answer to the vintage date question as there is so much variability from wine region to wine region. As a matter of fact, there are usually significant differences among wine-producing regions from within the same small geographic area. Take Sonoma County in California for example.
Sonoma has about 10 distinct
appellations or wine growing regions within its boundaries. Each of these regions has different soils, elevations and climates, and specific grape varieties are planted to take advantage of these horticultural, topographical and meteorological vagaries.

The Carneros, Russian River and Sonoma Coast appellations of the county are very cool regions where morning fog gives grudgingly away to warm afternoons with a return to cool evenings. Therefore, the grapes that seem to do the best in these areas are the ones which like cooler weather such as chardonnay and pinot noir. In the Knights Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley appellations, the afternoon sun blazes and the warm weather varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and merlot abound.

Add to this the effect of soils, which range from volcanic to chalky, as well as the influence of elevation, which rises from sea level to more that 1,500 feet, and you can see how many different influences can affect a particular vintage. And this is just for Sonoma County, California.

Remember that infamous wine word terroir (pronounced tare-WAH)? Terroir, which is a combination of all of the above, may actually be the most important factor affecting a vintage. Terroir’s meaning in the wine lexicon is so loosey-goosey (now there’s a good non-word for you) that defining it as “all-encompassing” would be too restrictive.

Okay, so what does it mean? Well, as near as I can tell, terroir starts with the place where the grapes are grown. The vineyard location, its slope, topography and angle toward the sun, and its longitude and latitude are all part of terroir. So is the soil type, the climate, rainfall and other precipitation in the vineyard, as well as the type of vine or clone of the vine used.

And what about the ability of the winemaker? Trust me when I tell you (from personal experience) that even an excellent vintage can be ruined by an incompetent winemaker.

So where are we? Well, since I was asked about the quality of the 2004 vintage for cabernet sauvignon, I suppose I would have to research all of the vineyards of the world that grow the variety and then apply the above-mentioned rating criteria to come up with an answer. However, in the interest of time, I could simply advise you to consult one of the hundreds of vintage charts which are available in magazines, online and in books that have already done this for you.

Checking my vintage chart, I find that 2004 proved to be an excellent vintage in northern California and produced very high quality cabernet sauvignon, which could be drunk now. But it will probably benefit from several additional years of bottle aging.

So the next time you wish to know about the quality of a particular vintage, consult one of the many vintage charts available, but be aware that these guides can be general in nature and somewhat misleading. In the end, it’s really up to you and your trusty palate.

WineBoy 21: Does Oak Make Wine Taste Better?

WineBoy 21: Does Oak Make Wine Taste Better?

CLICK HERE TO VIEW the latest 5-minute "WineBoy" webcast. Gazz wine blogger John Brown is often asked about whether he supports adding a flavor dimension to wine by aging it in oak barrels. Does the oak actually improve the taste? His answer to that question goes all the way back to his grandfather's wine cellar. View the latest "WineBoy" webcast -- and see Brown's own oak barrel-- at the "WineBoy" blog at For more ruminations on the art of oak and wine, see the "WineBoy" post below.