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

WINE ON THE WEB: Natalie Maclean

As I've almost evangelistically proclaimed over the years: "Brothers and Sisters, you got to drink that wine with victuals. Say hallelujah!" Both the wine and the food are enhanced and your sensory pleasure is doubled. One of the best websites I've found to get up-to-date information on matching food and wine is:

Natalie MacLean, awawrd-winning author of the website, is also author of "Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass." The link above is not just a place to find special occasion food and wine matches. MacLean's says her matching tool pairs wines with everyday meals, as well as challenging fare, such as vegetarian cuisine, egg-based sauces, cheese, TV dinners, and even dessert, including Jell-O and fudge (for those who like to layer their vices).

Check it out.

It’s Tare-WAH, Bubba!

'Terroir" as it relates to a wine's creation starts with the place where the grapes are grown and rapidly expands to include anything and everything related to a wine's evolution.
Scanning the national wine blogs and columns provides an interesting perspective on what the wine cognicenti are yapping about. Without getting into the technical details of these mostly pedantic exchanges, suffice it say that there is a modicum of intelligent dialogue taking place on a variety of aspects related to grape growing and wine making.

One such "inside baseball" argument examines the whole experience of creating a wine - from the soil to the sky. It is worth recounting if only for the residual humor it provides as we try to understand the complexities and nuances of the debate. It begins with one of my pet peeves: the almost criminal (and many times hilarious) misuse of language -- mainly French -- by the domestic wine industry.

To be fair, though, this abuse of the King's English is ubiquitous. In fact, I see the Americanized version of English as a moving target full of constantly changing buzz words, acronyms and words borrowed from other languages. (Can't you just visualize a meeting at Webster's New World Dictionary where pointy-headed etymologists gather in a dark room and grudgingly grant official English language status to words such as goober, nerd and bootie?) However, one of the worst offenders of this indiscriminate and abusive practice is the American wine industry.

Take, for example, the confusing issue of terroir. At first glance, you might wonder why there is so much written about the terrier<co > as it relates to wine. Are these grape watchdogs, or what? You might also have misread the word as terror and become quite concerned that an anti-wine terrorist group might be planting IED's in vineyards and wineries.

Fear not, my friends. There are no terrorist plots (I hope) related to wine. However, terroir (pronounced tare-WAH -- I think), is one meaningful word! I wouldn't even bother explaining this word except that some knowledgeable wine folks contend that understanding the complex definition of terroir really is important in appreciating the qualitative differences among wines. But 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, terroir starts with the place where the grapes are grown: the vineyard location, its slope, topography and angle toward the sun, as well as its longitude and latitude. In addition, you add in the soil, climate, average rainfall, fog and temperature, as well as the type of vine or clone of a particular grapevine -- these are all part of terroir.

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WANDERING WINO: Sippin’, Suppin’ and Sleepin’ In California Wine Country

Click to enlarge or click here for link.

If any of you are vacationing in the northern California wine country this summer, you're probably just as much interested in where to dine as where the multitude of tasting rooms are located. I've had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time, particularly in Napa, over the past two decades and I'm always excited to taste through a cornucopia of wines and to sample some of the best food in the world.

I'm not going to recommend a list of wineries and tasting rooms for your visit since there are literally hundreds available in Napa and Sonoma alone, plus you may have some favorites you'd like to explore. No, today, you're wandering wino will provided some dining and lodging recommendations if you're planning a trip to the wine country in the not-too-distant future. But first, let's define what comprises the ever-growing landscape of California wine.

"California wine country" mistakenly gives the impression that there is one region in that vast state where grapes are grown and wine is produced. Actually, there are several major wine-producing regions in California, and more than 100 specific American Viticultural Appellations (AVA's) within these larger geographic areas. In addition to Napa, the other major wine regions include Sonoma, Mendocino, Amador andLake Counties - all north of San Francisco- and Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara - south of San Francisco. The largest growing area is the San Joaquin Valley (or Central Valley) just south of Sacramento.

Now that you're familiar with the geography, you're ready for your excursion to begin. As you make your way north from San Francisco, you'll see a sign along the way for the town of Sonoma, and I suggest you stop there for a walk around this historic and quaint little village. Sonoma has excellent restaurants, a French bakery and a cheese factory in addition to the Buena Vista and Sebastiani wineries that are within the town limits.

Sonoma County has five distinct wine-producing regions: Sonoma Valley, Valley of the Moon, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley and the Alexander Valley. Some of the best sparkling wine and Pinot Noir are produced in the Russian River Valley while great Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc are made in the Dry Creek Valley. The Alexander Valley is known for its superb Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay while the other areas produce everything from the above-mentioned wines to Gewurztraminer and Semillon.

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Summertime is When to Whiten Up A Little ..

Summer’s coming with a fury and, like a creature shedding fur, I’m transitioning from the heavy reds of winter to lighter and more refreshing wines which are better suited to the tropical temperatures to come. I’m also altering my food choices by selecting lighter meals with more fresh veggies and fruits. I am not, however, giving up red meat nor will I forego the pleasure of red wine. This is strictly a seasonal decision having nothing, I assure you, to do with a lifestyle change and everything to do with sating my hedonistic tendencies.

Okay, now that we have that cleared up, today I’m going to tell you about a great summertime meal beginning with a simple salad, followed by a light, spicy, yet rich, seafood entrée. Oh, and by the way, I’m going to suggest a couple of complementary wines that will make this a meal to remember.

First the salad. Some years back, a good friend was kind enough to present me with some arugula seeds which had -- how shall I put this-- somehow found their way into his luggage on his return from a trip to Italy. This was about 10 years ago and arugula was an exotic and highly prized green vegetable. I planted the seeds and fortunately, the arugula flourished, and consequently we have enjoyed this aromatic, peppery and nutty tasting green perennial vegetable in salads and in pasta dishes each spring and early summer.

Nowadays, you can find arugula in many supermarkets and from smaller fruit and vegetable vendors (The Purple Onion in Charleston’s Capitol Market usually has a good supply). Arugula is native to Italy and these folks use it in a number of ways, one of which is to simply clean it, dry it then dress it with olive oil, fresh lemon, sweet onions and salt and pepper. To this mixture, I add thinly sliced fennel (from the bulb), sectioned blood oranges and top the salad off with thinly sliced (one-inch long) pieces of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Next, I drove to my favorite seafood purveyor (Joe’s Fish Market at the corner of Brooks and Quarrier Streets) and purchased several six-ounce fillets of Chilean sea bass. For those of you who have not experienced the exquisite flavor of truly fresh fish, I suggest you travel to Joe’s and let the experts there tempt you with their deep sea goodies. But this entrée would work just as well with grouper, halibut or some other firm, yet mildly flavored fish. However, in my estimation, this dish works best with Chilean Sea Bass.

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Collecting Wine: A Question of Maturity

Aging wine with the hope that it will morph into something sublime is risky, but to me it's worth the gamble.

One of the benefits of surviving youthful excess, war, marriage, physical infirmities, children and several decades of stressful living is that I have accumulated several cases of older wine. As a matter of fact, I continue to collect wines which I feel are age-worthy, despite the real prospect that these bottles will outlive me. Some folks get wiser with old age. I just get more wine! While others were acquiring life skills, maturity, wealth and the wisdom that is evidenced by graying temples, I acquired..... more wine.

Over the years, I have experienced both the ecstasy of sipping liquid nirvana, and the agony of having to discard a wine "too long in the tooth." It can be a wonderfully pleasurable experience when you uncork that special bottle of wine you've allowed to languish for a decade or two in your cellar. Conversely, the experience can be tremendously unpleasant when the stuff from that coveted bottle smells like sewer gas and tastes like slightly spoiled witch hazel with nuances of mold. Yes, aging wine with the hope that it will morph into something sublime is risky, but to me it's worth the gamble. Why? Well, I have been fortunate to have had more good experiences than bad and, believe me when I say that the good experiences are usually wonderful.

In the past year, I have been uncorking some of these older wines and, for the most part, have been very pleased with the results. One particular bottle, a 1978 Borgono Barolo from the Piedmont area of northwest Italy, was a real treat and a shining example of what can result from the appropriate aging of wine. In its youth, Barolo is a purple monster with huge dollops of mouth-puckering tannin and searing acidity which can completely mask the earthy and dark fruit flavors hidden underneath. In the past decade, some Barolo producers have been making wines which are more approachable in their youth. But wines made in the old-world style, like the '78 Borgono, sometimes need decades to reach their potential.

Before opening the wine, I set it upright for two days to make sure that the sediment (which surely had formed over 29 years) would settle to the bottom of the bottle. I then carefully decanted the wine into a crystal carafe and was immediately concerned by the color of the brownish-orange liquid that came out of the bottle. Fearful that the wine had gone over the hill, I quickly poured myself a glass and, with a great deal of trepidation, put it to my nose for the first big test. What emanated from glass was redolent of damp earth, tack-room leather and teaberry mint. Next, I put the wine in my mouth and the first impression was its silky texture followed by a cherry/cola-like flavor with just a hint of caramel. Delicious!

I had planned on pairing the wine with a roasted meat dish, but, because of the Barolo's delicate condition, I decided to sip it with a cheese course right after dinner. While this was a wine worth waiting for, I plan on drinking the remaining two bottles over the next six months because I'm fearful it is on the downside of its peak, and is declining pretty quickly.

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Argentinean Wines: On the Pampas with Evita and Gaucho Marx

"Don't cry for me Argentina!" That musical refrain comes to mind whenever I open one of the lovely wines from that mysterious country. This is a land where the vibrant wine industry is in its infancy, and where the political and economic conditions are as fragile as when Evita captured the hearts of the world 60 years ago.

Argentina has the largest Italian immigrant population of any country on the planet, which may explain the country's love of wine and food and also its whacky political system. The country is known for its world-class beef and it should therefore come as no surprise that the wine production is predominately red.

The major grape-growing provinces are located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains and are producing some exciting wines. You may be surprised by this, but the poor soils, irrigated mainly by snow melt and arid climate, are ideal for the production of fine wine in Argentina and throughout the world. Wine grapes flourish when they are forced to struggle for water and nutrients in the soil and in climates that are warm and dry. On the global wine scene, Argentina has only been a player for a decade or so, yet the wines, particularly the reds, have shown great promise and are slowly making their way onto shelves of wine shops in West Virginia.

Argentina is a very large country with the wine regions in the north on the same latitude as Morocco while the ones in the South are on a plane with New Zealand. Most of Argentina's grapes are grown at altitudes between 2000 and 3000 feet to take advantage of cooler temperatures.

The most prestigious wine province is Mendoza in the west-central part of the country on the border with Chile. Salta province in the north and the Rio Negro Valley in the south also produce wines, but most of the major wine production (80 percent) is located in Mendoza. The main grape varieties are Chardonnay, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Barbera, Tempranillo, and Bonarda. (By the way, Bonarda has its roots -- literally-- in Italy's Piedmont region and obviously was brought to Argentina by Italian immigrant wine makers).

One of the wines that Argentina is producing as a single varietal, and which had formerly been used only as a blending grape, is Malbec. Malbec is one of the five traditional grapes used to make Bordeaux, although it is seldom, if ever, used as the main varietal in the traditional Bordeaux blend.

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Under the South Side Bridge: Bringing closure to wine

Blogger John Brown has fond memories of imbibing screw-cap wines beneath the South Side Bridge. Photo by Walker DeVille for the DowntownWV blog

Some of you seem shocked many wineries are now using screw cap closures instead of the more traditional cork to finish their wines. With all due respect to tradition and the desirability of using corks to seal the deal in our wine bottles, there is both a serious shortage of corks and a major problem with defective corks. I'll go into this a little later, but first I should let you know that I have conducted serious research on the subject with a group of very discerning wine drinkers.

As the founder and a charter member of the Southside Bridge Tasting Club (SBTC), I'm here to testify that what goes around truly comes around. Those of you old enough to remember my weekly wine columns in the 1980s, may recall that I asked the SBTC to act as a kind of tasting panel. The group would help me evaluate products for that segment of the wine drinking public that was -- how shall I put it -- more plebian in their tastes. Monthly, in the dead of night, I would visit the great bridge under which my expert panel would gather to sip and then critique the various wines of the time. White Pheasant, Vito's Thunder Mountain Chablis, Wild Irish Rose... nothing was too good for the SBTC!

Anyway, the wines I brought for evaluation were required by the group to meet certain minimum standards: a stratospheric alcohol content to help tasters ward off the cold and screw cap for easy access to the product. Well, here we are 20 years later and, while it is now not politically correct to discuss the relative merits of rocket-fuel enhanced beverages, there is an attempt by some wine makers to re-introduce screw caps to a whole new generation of wine drinkers.

And we're not just talking about jug wines, either. Randall Graham, that off-the-wall, existentialist wine maker at Bonny Doon who brought us the "Rhone Ranger" wines, was one of the first (screw balls) to feature screw caps on many of his 750ml bottlings. Other wineries are experimenting with screw caps as well, including more than a few in New Zealand and, shockingly, even some in France.

Why are some wineries going to screw caps? Well, it's mainly an economic decision brought on by a diminishing number of cork oak trees from which the cork is made. Actually, the corks are made from the bark of the trees - most of which grow in Portugal. With fewer trees producing, demand causes the price to rise. Add to this issue the problem of wines which are "corked." This is a phenomenon where mold gets in the cork and negatively affects the taste and smell of the wine. While a "corked" wine won't make you sick, it certainly destroys the flavor of the product.

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D.C. eating and drinking: A Capitol experience

As a former Congressional employee, I get nostalgic when I reflect on the District of Columbia, particularly as it relates to my two favorite passions: great restaurants and exceptional wines. Back in those post-Watergate days, my income was insufficient to support the sybaritic yearnings I harbored; therefore I was not a frequent patron at the finer eating and drinking establishments in our nation's capitol.

However, I experienced just enough of the city's culinary virtuosity to know that it was a special place. Ditto, the beverage shops which were (and still are) permitted to directly import wines from all around the world, thus eliminating a step or two in the chain of commerce -- and consequently providing consumers with great variety and value.

Thankfully, over the past few decades, access to quality food and wine have only gotten better in and around the environs of Washington, DC.

Unfortunately, I would venture to guess that most folks' impressions of Washington restaurants are of vast steakhouses with glitzy martini bars where lobbyists wine and dine the political elite, and where the quality of the food and wine are secondary considerations to pomp, pomposity and pretense. While there is certainly some truth to that stereotypical image, you might be surprised to know that there are many excellent restaurants and a very large number of superb wine shops in DC.

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Matching Wine and Food: From Aardvark To Zinfandel

Try blue cheese with Port and Zinfandel.
You may have noticed that I rarely write about wine without mentioning what I consider a complementing dish. In my humble estimation, drinking a glass of wine without food is like listening to a concert while wearing ear muffs. This is particularly true for red wine where the not-so-subtle flavors and harsh tannins can assault the palate and literally leave a bad taste in your mouth. But add a matching dish and the wine, like the music, reaches its full sensory potential.
This is usually a good thing -- however, it can just as easily be a disaster if you pick a clashing food-and-wine combination. Today, I’m going to suggest some favorite wine and food pairings and, conversely, a few to avoid. Like all subjective endeavors, these recommendations are tainted by my own quirky tastes for which I make no apologies. How’s that for a disclaimer? While I have on occasion experimented with some rather exotic pairings (i.e., Gruner Veltliner with curried aardvark, Brunello Di Montalcino with deviled wolf pancreas, etc. ), I will confine my suggestions to more conventional, if prosaic, food and wine matches.
And while there is some legitimacy to the old adage of 'red wine with red meat' and 'white wine with fish and white meat,' pairing food and wine in this manner is kind of boring. It ignores some exciting possibilities. So how do you make good judgments on pairing food and wine when the answers are not obvious? Well, you can rely on “experts” to provide advice and/or you can use common sense and be adventurous. Here are some tips that may help you out if you choose to go it alone.
PERFECT MATCH: Are there any nearly perfect food and wine matches? How about a full-bodied, rich red wine such as Cabenet Sauvignon, with grilled or roasted beef steak? One of my all-time favorite meals is marinated and grilled rib-eye steak smothered in sautéed onions and mushrooms, washed down with a Napa Cabernet such as Groth, Louis Martini or Silver Oak. Another almost perfect combo is to pair a Chardonnay or White Burgundy with lobster and drawn butter. The richness of the lobster along with the oiliness of the butter is married spectacularly well to the ripe, tropical and butterscotch flavors of a full-bodied chardonnay.
NOT SO PERFECT: While there would be virtually no disagreement on the above two food and wine pairings, more generalized statements can be dead wrong. For example, if you assume chardonnay is always the best choice with lobster and drawn butter, or that all cabernet is perfect with steak you'd be making a big mistake. Here’s why: a Chardonnay from Chablis in France is usually austere with crisp acidity and mineral qualities. It is best paired with oysters and plainly cooked seafood. It would be overwhelmed if matched with lobster and drawn butter. The same goes for pairing an older Cabernet or Bordeaux with a grilled steak. The Cabernet or Bordeaux develop layers of delicate flavors and aromas over the years that would be destroyed by, say, a grilled strip steak.
BALANCING ACT: Think of the flavor, texture and weight of the food and wine pairing. You wouldn’t logically pair a full-flavored red wine with a delicate broiled seafood such as Dover Sole. Think about it. The flavors, textures and weight are all out of balance. Try a delicate White Bordeaux, an Italian Pinot Grigo or Soave or a Washington State Semillon.
ACID TEST: Here’s the closest to an absolute wine and food no-no: vinaigrette salad with any wine. Why? The vinegar based dressing clashes with the acid in wine and destroys the flavors of both the salad and wine. Creamy or cheese dressings work fine with Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling or Viognier, but nothing works with vinaigrette. Well, maybe an inexpensive sparkler with lots of fizz.
TIME FOR A CHANGE: Here’s one to break the rules. Try a Pinot Noir, Chianti, or even Beaujolais with grilled salmon, tuna or chicken. Pinot Noir also pairs greatly with spicy foods, particularly Southwestern fare. Ditto, Gewurztraminer. It goes especially nice with Asian dishes, especially Thai food.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER: Roasted turkey can handle just about any white or red, but I particularly like Rhone wines, Alsatian Pinot Gris and Merlot-based Bordeaux with the “national bird.”
SWEET, CHEESY IDEAS: Chocolate desserts just love – are you ready for this – Cabernet Sauvignon. Ices and sorbets are great with Muscat and sweet sparkling wines. Try blue cheese with Port and Zinfandel. Sweet late harvest Riesling and Sauterne with, believe it or not, liver pates are also odd couple pairings.
So now that you have a few suggestions, go out, be adventuresome and try some of these tasteful experiments. Report back. And with regard to the aforementioned aardvark and wolf dishes- Forgetaboutit!

PINOT NOIR: Oregon’s Domaine Serene is where it’s at

So there I was at Paolo’s in Georgetown, chillin’ at the bar with a glass of Chianti Classico after a long day of doing my bureaucratic thing for the state. It was the early 1990s, Bill Clinton was about to be inaugurated and Washington was pretty electric.

As I sat at the bar, I overheard a conversation between the restaurant manager and a wine salesperson who happened to be sitting next to me. This attractive young woman was pitching the manager on a new Pinot Noir from Oregon. Back in those days, Oregon had not yet established its reputation as America’s premier Pinot Noir producing state so the salesperson was working the manager pretty hard. It was obvious to me that this discussion needed an impartial opinion (and I was anxious to get a freebie) so I immediately volunteered to provide one. After a quick recitation of my qualifications (“I’m from West Virginia and I drink wine and, oh, by the way, look at my new shoes...”), the two were duly impressed and agreed to allow me to evaluate the Pinot Noir.

Well, to put it succinctly, the wine was nectar! It was absolutely the best Pinot Noir I had ever tasted and I was effusive in my praise of the stuff. I was so taken with the wine that I persuaded the salesperson to sell me a case of it -- which she did right out of her Volkswagen Beetle parked outside the bar.

The wine was an obscure Pinot Noir from the northern Willamette Valley known as Domaine Serene. To my knowledge , that 1990 Domaine Serene was the first vintage for the winery, now considered to be year in and year out among the best Pinot Noirs produced in Oregon and, indeed, in the US. Since that fateful day, I have made it a point to seek out this wine and buy a few bottles (or more) of each vintage, even though the price of the stuff has quadrupled from the $15 a bottle I paid for it back in 1992.

The winery was established by Ken & Grace Evenstad (Evenstad, incidentally, is the name given to one of their premium Pinot Noirs, which I will tell you about a little futher on). The Evanstad’s were passionate Pinot Noir lovers and selected the now famous Willamette Valley of Oregon to work their magic. Now, while I love Pinot Noir from California, particulary those made in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, the Carneros District and the Santa Ynez Valley, Oregon Pinot Noir has a different taste profile. It is generally less fruit forward than the wine produced in California, featuring more earthy flavors, and it is a deeper, fuller style of Pinot Noir.

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Wild and Wonderful Culinary Tales

The 18th hole at Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, W.Va. Stonewall photo
Your traveling wino has been crisscrossing West-By-Golly, sampling the food and wine wares of some fine establishments. I can happily report that the state of sipping and supping is improving in these here hills. Today, I’m going to regale you with my experiences in two diverse culinary venues: a fine restaurant in Davis, W.Va., and Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, W.Va.

Starting in the wilds of Tucker County, my first stop was Davis. This is a town where the early 20th century architecture houses some very interesting nooks and crannies, including an establishment known as Mutley’s. What, you ask, is Mutley’s? A fine dining restaurant, of course. Mutley’s owner, Becky Bunner, along with Chef Randy Columbo are a great team of creative and slightly off-beat hosts who work hard to make sure you not only eat well, but also have fun.

Randy works his grilling magic in the kitchen of this century-old tavern (named after his dearly departed canine- Mutley). The menu features Angus beef steak such as filet, porterhouse and rib-eye, along with other grilled selections, including lamb chops, chicken, pork tenderloin and grilled breast of duck. They also have a $1-an-ounce steak night each Thursday (when it is wise to call for a reservation to 304-259-4858). Menu selections, which also include pasta dishes, are mostly priced under $20.

The night I was there, I opted for the marinated and grilled “Jerk” boneless and skinless chicken thighs. What a treat! I washed this repast down with a few glasses of the house pour – Yellow Tail Cabernet and Merlot. Okay, wine snobs, no tacky comments. I actually like the stuff. (Remember, I’m a home wine maker so my standards may be suspect). While Mutley’s wine selection is somewhat limited, it has the main red and white essentials with wines such as Beringer, Robert Mondavi, Raymond, Kenwood, Black Opal and Rodney Stong, to name a few labels you will recognize. Wine pricing is very reasonable and Mutley’s is one of the few West Virginiarestaurants I’m aware of that actually has invested in a wine temperature-control storage cabinet.

After dinner, I spent some time with the owners at the bar where you can sometimes find a life-like female mannequin as your seatmate. According to Randy, some fellows have been known to carry on long conversations with these Stepford Wives knock-offs in hopes of….what? Randy’s reply: “Winters can be long in Tucker County!”

Next on my whirlwind tasting tour was a visit to Stonewall Resort. Stonewall – that bastion of “New-South” cuisine under Chef Dale Hawkins– opened its public spaces recently to host the 4th annual “Culinary Classic." During the first night of the Classic, chefs from some of the state’s most prestigious restaurants and resorts prepared their specialties for more than 200 hungry and thirsty guests. Among the famished and parched that night was yours truly as I supped and sipped until my not inconsiderable appetites were sated. At this "Taste of West Virginia" dine-around, guests had the opportunity to sample signature dishes from each chef while enjoying a selection of specially chosen wines provided by the Country Vintner of West Virginia.

Those who stayed for Saturday’s activities were treated to culinary demonstrations conducted by guest chefs along with a luncheon of “tiny bites.” The evening festivities began with a Champagne reception followed by a multi-course food and wine dinner.

One of the exceptional wine selections that tickled my palate was the 2005 Tomassi Pinot Grigio Le Rosse ($14). From Northeastern Italy, this straw-colored beauty may surprise you with its supple and round flavors of ripe pear and melon. The Le Rosse single vineyard wine is produced in the normally red wine area of Valpolicella which may account for why its flavors are so much more intense than other Pinot Grigio’s. Unlike the majority of Pinot Grigio produced in northern Italy, this wine is a spicier, rounder version with more depth of flavor and yet still well balanced. This would be a wonderful accompaniment to linguine and mussels in a garlic and white wine sauce. Kudos to Stonewall Resort for hosting this superb event.

ZINFUL MUSINGS: Trying to earn a little respect for Zinfandel

Among the many full-bodied red wines that can nicely enhance foods such as beef stew, gumbo, chili, roasted meats and pastas, my favorite is Zinfandel. I’m talking seriously purple Zin -- not the pink stuff that makes Aunt Lavinia feel like she’s a clever conversationalist. This is wine that will leave an indelible stain on your table cloth, and a lasting impression on your palate.
Sadly, Zinfandel is the Rodney Dangerfield of red wines. Why? Everyone enjoys it, but very few people want to take it home to dinner! In addition to getting no respect, the truth is Zinfandel has an identity problem. In fact, it has multiple identities. (Are you listening, Dr. Freud?)

The grape is so versatile that winemakers produce it in a variety of styles. From white to blush, from lighter-styled to medium -bodied, and from full-throttle to purple monster, zinfandel can be a confusing wine to buy. And therein lies the problem.Everything about the grape is mysterious and confusing - even its origin.
Zinfandel is commonly referred to as “America’s grape” even though its original home has been the subject of some heated debate. Zinfandel vine cuttings were brought to California in the 1850s and the first plantings were made in Sonoma County near the town of Sonoma. While everyone agrees that Zinfandel belongs to a European classification of grapes known as vitis vinifera, experts have argued over the country of origin. Some contend that Zinfandel is really a grape variety known as Primitivo from southern Italy. The most recent research into the DNA of Zinfandel indicates, however, that the grape is Crljenak (I’ll give you one of my coveted old Zinfandels if you can pronounce this) and is actually from Croatia.
Regardless of its origin, everyone accepts the fact that California is where the grape has been planted and where it has flourished. Unfortunately, in the hierarchy of winedom, Zinfandel has always been disrespected, particularly when it is compared to Cabernet Sauvignon or other red varietals such as Pinot Noir, Merlot or even Syrah. While I always resist comparisons of grapes which are dissimilar in flavor and texture, it is my opinion that the best Zinfandel being made today is qualitatively equal to the best California Cabernet being produced. And, despite what some wine experts contend, the stuff can age gracefully, too. I opened a 1981 Sutter Home Amador County Zinfandel recently and was amazed by the complexity of the wine, which exhibited teaberry mint aromas and rich, chocolate flavors.
One important benefit of Zinfandel’s Rodney Dangerfield reputation is that you can still find a superb wine for under $20. So how do you know which Zin to pick for tonight’s dinner? Well, the wine does share some general characteristics (such as dark berry, spicy, briary and peppery flavors) that cross all stylistic permutations. However, the easiest way to pick the right Zin is to categorize the wine according to its weight and intensity of flavor. Below are some of my favorite Zinfandels rated by intensity and weight and some matching food suggestions. Incidentally, these wines range in price from about $10 to no more than $30 a bottle.
LIGHTER-STYLED WINES: Peachy Canyon Incredible Red; Red Truck; Marietta Old Vines Red; Bogle; and Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend. Try these with pizza, grilled hamburgers or meatloaf.
MEDIUM-BODIED WINES: Rancho Zabaco Heritage Vines; Sebastiani Sonoma; Seghesio Old Vines; Dry Creek Vineyards; Ridge Geyserville; Renwood Old Vines; Folie A Deux Amador; and Rosenblum Paso Robles. Good with roasted pork tenderloin, grilled salmon or barbecued chicken.

FULL-BODIED WINES: Ridge Lytton Springs; Renwood Grandpere; Montevina Terre D’Oro; Chateau Montelena; Grgich-Hills; Storybook Mountain Eastern Exposure; and Hartford Russian River Valley. Try these purple monsters with pasta in marinara sauce, hearty stews, grilled rack of lamb and garlic flavored and roasted meats.

Doin’ The Butt

Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva is one full-bodied red wine that won't be butted out when served with the dish described below.With the last vestiges of winter quickly retreating, you still have some time to prepare meals that require full-bodied red wines and hearty appetites. Of course, you have many choices, but today I’ll give you a recipe for one of my all-time favorite cold-weather dishes. Ironically, as I write this, the sun is shining, flowers are beginning to pop out of the ground and the temperatures are in the mid 60’s. Oh well, you can always grill the sucker!

Remember the obnoxiously salacious dance a couple of decades back called “The Butt?” Well, I call this meal “Doin’ the Butt!” since the main ingredient is pork shoulder which is incongruously called the butt. This humble piece of pig meat is used to make sausages of all types as well as that American culinary staple – barbecue. Today, I’m going to share a recipe with you which involves brining and slow roasting a pork butt so that the meat literally falls off the bone You may wonder why I suggest taking the extra step of brining the meat. Well, brining not only moistens and tenderizes the meat, it also adds wonderful flavors throughout the entire roast...

1. First thing you’ll need to do is to buy a four- to six-pound pork butt with the bone in. These are usually pretty plentiful around this time of year and you may find them on sale for around $1.50 to $2 a pound. For the brine, you’ll need to combine one-half cup each of kosher salt and brown sugar, one bottle of dark beer, and three quarts of cold water in a large bowl. You may also use half a bottle of leftover wine (does anyone ever have any leftover?) or even apple juice or cider in place of the beer. Stir until the mixture is dissolved, and then either place the butt in the bowl or transfer to a gallon plastic bag. In either case the roast should be covered and allowed to absorb the brine for three hours.

2. After brining, pat the roast dry and rub all over with a combination of one tablespoon each of coarsely ground black pepper and chopped garlic, along with one teaspoon of freshly chopped rosemary. While yours truly is not deterred by cold temperatures and therefore would suggest using your outside grill, most of you will probably prefer to use an indoor oven. You can place the roast in an oven bag or a covered roasting pan and cook at 250 degrees for about five hours. If you decide to use your outside grill, cook the roast at a low temperature for about the same amount of time. If you’re using charcoal, keep the grill air vents only slightly open and cook it indirectly in a foil pan so you can baste the drippings. You will need to replenish the fire with a few charcoal briquettes from time to time and grill for about four hours.

3. I prefer to accompany this dish with a potato and onion casserole. Thinly slice six medium sized Yukon Gold potatoes along with two large onions and combine in a casserole dish with one-half cup of extra virgin olive oil. To this add a tablespoon of coarsely ground black pepper, a tablespoon of kosher salt and one cup of grated parmesan cheese. Cover the dish and bake for about 75 minutes in a 375 degrees oven.WINE PAIRINGS: There are myriad red wines that are just dying to “do the butt” with this dish, and here are some suggestions for your sipping pleasure: Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva ($20); The Stump Jump ($13 - Aussie blend of Shiraz, Mourvedre and Grenache); 2005 El Portillo Malbec ($11); and the 2003 Bogle Petite Sirah ($12).

Grape Expectations: Or How A “Gourmanseur” Was Born

In this Wild and Wonderful wine backwater, I am hailed by many of my friends (?) as THE West Virginia wino. So it always comes as a shock when folks consider me an expert. This aversion to any type of recognition is probably the result of my Catholic school education, where guilt was the only attribute held in higher esteem than humility. Anyway, several years ago I was introduced, by the overly exuberant host at a wine dinner, as a connoisseur and a gourmet. After smiling uncomfortably and bumbling through the event, I quickly excused myself and rushed to the nearest dictionary to find out just how those terms are defined by Mr. Webster. Webster's New World Dictionary defines connoisseur as "one who has expert knowledge and keen discrimination, especially in the fine arts." A gourmet is described as "one who likes and is an excellent judge of fine foods and drinks." In looking up 'gourmet,' I spotted the word 'gourmand' right above it in the dictionary and quickly decided that term more accurately describes my approach to eating and drinking.

A gourmand is defined as...

"one who enjoys good food and wine, often to excess." I suppose a gourmet might take a bite food or a sip of wine and then render a critical opinion. A gourmand, on the other hand, would salivate at the very sight of food and drink, and would wolf down great quantities of the fare, declaring his or her satisfaction with the experience by issuing a resounding belch. A gourmet is discriminating and exhibits exemplary self-control while a gourmand will eat and drink everything in sight and ask for more.

Even though I may be rationalizing, I'm still not comfortable with accepting that label to describe my approach to wine and food. If I am neither a gourmet nor gourmand, then the 'connoisseur' moniker misses the mark completely. Having keen discrimination in the fine arts is not one of my strong suits. The only artist I know does sidewalk murals in wine and chalk under the South Side Bridge. Stained glass - isn’t that what happens to your fine crystal if you let wine stand in it overnight? Just a few years ago, someone spending as much time as I do tasting and then writing about wine and food would have been labeled a hedonist or even a dipsomaniac. So, I guess I should be pleased someone described me in more flattering terms. But I'm not! The late Justin Wilson, noted Creole and Cajun cook, had some of the best advice on matching food and wine, and on the snobbery sometimes associated with the endeavor. As you may know, Wilson had a long-standing cooking show on PBS, and he used a thick Cajun accent to spice up his recipes and his stories. After sitting down to sample the lamb dish he had just prepared, Wilson grabbed a big jug, poured himself a glass of white wine and proclaimed: "You all probably wonderin' why I'm drinkin' white wine wit’ ‘dis here lamb. You ‘tink ‘dis lamb care what color ‘da wine is? If it don't matter to ‘da lamb, I s'pose it's up to me to drink what I want." Well then, I s'pose it's up to me to decide too. I’m not comfortable with gourmet, connoisseur or gourmand so I guess I’ll need to find a new term to describe my affliction. How about gourmanseur? Frankly, you can all me whatever you want. Just don't call me late for good food and wine!

Wine Recommendation: 2005 L’Ecole 41 Columbia Valley Semillon ( $18 ) This delicious, food-friendly Washington-state wine is comprised of 86% Semillon and 14% Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose, the wine has a slate-mineral quality with just a hint of vanilla. In the mouth, the flavors of melon, apricot and citrus are overlain with a creamy texture. I matched this wine with sea scallops wrapped in lean bacon and sautéed in a little butter and about two ounces of the above-mentioned wine. Terrific!

Spicy Pork Roll-Ups – Or, how I learned to cook and avoid the Honey –Do’s

Over the years, I’ve discovered that one of the very best excuses for getting out of “real” work (such as shoveling snow, moving furniture or cleaning the basement) is to cook dinner for the family. My wife, who must have been a hostage negotiator in a former life, made it clear to me that the only way this would be an acceptable trade-off was if I agreed to clean the kitchen up after working my culinary magic. So, after formally signing an agreement witnessed by my children, our local clergyman and the family cat, I am now permitted kitchen privileges once a weekend.
Here’s what I concocted on recent Sunday. I truly love to match full-flavored, spicy foods such as stews, pot roasts or stuffed meats with full-flavored red wines. Today, I’m going to share a recipe with you that is absolutely delicious, particularly if you can tolerate a good dose of garlic and a little heat.

1. Start with two one-half pound pieces of pork tenderloin. With a sharp knife, cut each piece length-wise in half. Then, butterfly the remaining pieces (length-wise) and put a sheet of wax paper under and over each piece. With a mallet, pound the meat to about one-eighth inch thickness (if you have trouble waking your teenage children, this will do the trick).
2. Next, roast a tablespoon of cumin seeds over medium heat in a sauce pan, stirring regularly for about one minute until the smoky flavors are released and wonderful smells permeate the kitchen. Then, in a mortar and pestle, grind the cumin fine and add one-quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper, a teaspoon of black pepper and salt and a tablespoon of chili powder. Rub this mixture into the pieces of flattened pork and let meat sit in the refrigerator over night or for at least three hours.
3. For the stuffing, sauté (in three tablespoons of olive oil) one green and one red bell pepper (cut in one-half inch long strips), one-half chopped onion, three cloves of minced garlic and one small can of chopped green chilies. Remove from the heat when vegetables begin to soften. Then salt and pepper to taste and add one cup of diced Monterey jack cheese and one-half cup of unflavored bread crumbs. Microwave or cook two links of chorizo or Italian sausage, drain off fat, chop into small pieces and add to the mixture. Allow the mixture to cool in the refrigerator.
4. When the stuffing is cool, portion it evenly on the flattened pork tenderloin and roll them up, securing with butcher’s string or toothpicks. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and roast the pork rollups in a covered pan for about 35 minutes. Remove the meat and deglaze the roasting pan with a half cup of red wine, and then spoon over the sliced tenderloin rolls. Serve the meat with spicy rice or garlic mashed potatoes.

You’re going to need a fairly full-bodied red wine to accompany this dish. Here are some that I would consider: 2004 Infinitus Tempranillo (inky-purple and rich from the Jumilla region of Spain - $14); 2004 Marietta Old Vines Zinfandel (the big brother to Marietta Old Vines Red - $17); 2002 Allegrini Palazzo Della Torre Valpolicella (not your usual lighter-styled Valpolicella – this one is full and rich - $20); and 2002 d’Arenberg Laughing Magpie (this Australian Shiraz-Viognier blend is a spicy mouth-full - $22).


Sicilian Wine and Food: An Offer You Can’t Refuse!

Ask an Italian what wine they consider to be best, and they will invariably point to a winery down the street or to a vineyard on the hillside adjacent to their village. This is a country around which wine and food are the central components of everyday life, and citizens are justifiably proud of what is grown in the fertile soil of this ancient land.

As a wine-stained graduate of Whatsamatta U, I am understandably partial to the vino made in Italy. As a matter of fact, what I love most about Italian wine is its tremendous diversity. Within the geographic confines of its 20 states, Italy produces a virtual sea of wine from a dizzying array of grapes. The most famous wine states are Tuscany in north-central Italy and Piedmont in the northwest. In Tuscany, the great wines of Brunello di Montalcino and Ornellaia share the stage with the ubiquitous Chianti, and whites such as Vernaccia Di San Gimignano. In Piedmont, the prestigious vines of Barolo and Barbaresco (made from the Nebbiolo grape) reign supreme, and are joined by Barbera and Merlot along with crisp whites such as Arneis and Cortese Di Gavi. Both of these regions are in the northern part of the country where the wine produced is considered to be the best.

But what about the wines of the south and, more specifically, of Sicily? In the recent past, the cognoscenti would regularly heap praise on the wines of northern Italy, while those south of Rome were, at best, marginalized, and those of Sicily were dismissed as barely drinkable. Unfortunately, when most of us ruminate on Sicily, we conjure up images of the Mafia or Don Vito Corleone – a literary invention of the late American novelist Mario Puzo in his book "The Godfather." To butcher a line from that storied work: Sicily made me an offer I couldn't refuse - great food and wine!

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How I Forgot Valentine’s Day And Learned To Live The Monastic Life

Guys, trust me on this: women take Valentine’s Day very seriously! Hey, I’m no Dr. Phil (and I’m certainly not Dr. Ruth), but I do know that there will be serious consequences if you forget to do something special for your significant other on February 14.

I learned this the hard way a couple of decades ago when I arrived home after a hard day at work to find a candle–lit dinner table with a carafe of red wine, soft-jazz on the stereo and a Hallmark card the size of an armadillo waiting for me when I walked through the door. There was also a heart-shaped gift on the kitchen counter,and the wonderful smells of freshly baked bread. Was I in the right house? Was I in the Twilight Zone?

No, I was in the home of a romantic woman who just happened to be my wife -- and I had completely forgotten that this was Valentine’s Day.

To my wife’s credit, she seemed to understand and accept my heart-felt apologies as we enjoyed the fruits of her culinary skills. However, for the next several weeks, there was a distinct chill in the air at home, particularly in certain rooms. I now know how difficult it must be to live a monastic life.

You can avoid a similar fate by simply remembering this special date and you can actually win favor by giving the gift of wine along with the more pedestrian card, candy and flowers. Wine is an especially good choice if you plan to 'cook in' for Valentine’s Day. I plan on seasoning a couple of beef filets with kosher salt and black pepper and grilling them over charcoal. I’ll accompany the beef with sautéed mushrooms and shallots in a little butter and the same red wine I’ll have with the meal. A baked potato and some steamed asparagus will round out the meal. For dessert, I’ll cheat and buy a tray of heavenly pecan bars from the fine folks at Charleston Bread. For you chocolate lovers, I recommend the wonderful offerings at Holl's Chocolates at the shop on Bridge Road or at the Capitol Market.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Wine– and Beer — Suggestions for Valentines Day

EDITOR'S NOTE: We have even more 'spirited' advice for Valentine's Day over at Rich Ireland's "Beers To You" gazzblog.

LIQUID ASSETS: This week’s wine-buy recommendations

I know you’re just itching to get to the wine shop this weekend to spend a little hard-earned cash on some serious vinous elixir, so take a look at what I ‘m suggesting below.

2005 Melville Estate Pinot Noir ($30): Melville is a small producer in the Santa Rita Hills area in the cool, Pacific Ocean- influenced Santa Ynez Valley. You may recall this area from the movie “Sideways” or from your own personal experience with the delicious Pinot Noirs produced here. The bright red color of the ’05 Melville may mislead those expecting a lighter-styled version of Pinot Noir. However, once you put the Pinot Noir in your mouth, you realize this is a much more complex wine with layers of flavor. The nose is a combination of cinnamon spice with nuances of caramel and the flavors are of black cherries, spice and just a hint of earth. This wine begs for roasted pork tenderloin in a slightly sweet sauce made from dried cherries or cranberries.

Cakebread Chardonnay ($40): This Napa Valley Chardonnay is the essence of power and finesse in a grape that can sometimes be abused in the winemaking process by producers who err on the side of too much oak, alcohol and richness. The 2005 Cakebread is a very balanced wine with a yeasty, toasty aroma and bold, ripe apple flavors with just a hint of vanilla from new oak.over the next two years. This is a wine that would shine with a dish like chicken cordon bleu or Chilean Sea Bass pan sautéed in a little butter. I know something about the 2005 vintage, because I actually made 20 gallons of Chardonnay from a vineyard in the Carnerous region of southern Napa and Sonoma. While I would not dare compare my finished product with this world-class Chardonnay, my wine exhibits some of the same balance and finesse that is a characteristic of this excellent vintage.2005 Rock Rabbit Sauvignon Blanc ($11): This Central California Coastal wine has an herbal-grassy aroma very typical of Sauvignon Blanc grown and produced in California. In the mouth, the wine explodes with bright fruit notes of melon and citrus. Try this is an aperitif or with an oven roasted cod or other delicate white fish that is flavored with dill. Great value!

2004 Earthquake Zin ($28): This Lodi District appellation Zinfandel is produced from very low-yielding old vines. Right out of the bottle, the first thing that is apparent is a sweet new oak aroma masking just about everything else. Once the oak aromas blow off, the blackberry and dark fruit flavors are surprisingly soft and approachable. This is a serious mouthful of wine and at 15.9 percent alcohol this baby needs some serious food. I’d try this with roasted Italian sausage with sweet red peppers and onions over a marinara sauced -pasta dish.

Hearty Food and Wine: A Tasteful Alternative To Anti-Depressants

Let’s face it, not many of us venture outside when the ambient air temperature descends to single digits. This is an exceptionally bleak time of year when the only product selling more than adult beverages is anti-depressant medication. So what can you do to lift your spirits and alter your mood without a prescription?

How about this: create your own bacchanalian extravaganza this weekend. Just fire up the grill, put a pot of chili on the stovetop or put together a huge pan of lasagna or baked pasta with Italian sausage, peppers and a couple of pounds of mozzarella! Then wash it all down with your favorite beverage. I know , to some hop-heads it’s almost un-American to drink anything other than that foamy malted beverage with the menu suggestions above -- but I suggest you uncork a few bottles of wine instead.

The only time I plan on leaving the house this weekend will be to smoke a brisket of beef that I will have dry-rubbed first with copious amounts of crushed garlic, black peppercorns, ground cumin and kosher salt. I’ll then prepare a sweet and sour barbecue sauce or “mop” to pour over the sliced brisket before serving it with a baked macaroni and (four) cheese casserole that’s flavored with chopped chipotle peppers.

So what wine goes with such hearty fare? If you guessed full-flavored reds, you’re right, and in a moment, I’ll make a few recommendations. But how about trying a big ‘ole Alsatian Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer? That’s right, I’m talking white wine made from grapes grown along the Rhine River in eastern France.

Before you send the guys in the white jackets to my house, give me a chance to state my case. Go to your favorite wine shop/grocery store and look for Pierre Sparr or Trimbach – both widely available Alsatian producers that make exceptional Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer in the $15 to $20 a bottle range. What you’ll find is that both these wines are surprisingly full-bodied and rich. Pinot Gris will give you pear and melon flavors underlain with hints of minerals. It has a wonderfully long finish that just keeps on, keeping on.

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