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

Pinot Envy: Once you read this, you’ll have it!

The International Pinot Noir Celebration event I attended a couple weeks ago was a marvelous exploration of Oregon wine, the region’s wonderfully fresh produce and the various meats and seafood harvested from the area’s woods and waters.

The event was held at Linfield College – a small institution located in an idyllic setting in McMinnville, Ore., which was wine central for Oregon pinot noir that weekend and hosted the many alfresco lunches, tastings and dinners. My wife and I stayed at the lovely and romantic Mattey House B&B (503-434-5058) situated on a seven-acre farm and vineyard outside McMinnville. We were hosted by Jack and Denise Seeds, the wonderfully accommodating owners, who demonstrated an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Willamette Valley’s wines, wineries and people.

Here’s the agenda for a typical day at the IPNC: alfresco breakfast with fresh berries, croissants/breads, mini-omelets, juices and espresso/coffee/tea; visit to a winery with an extensive tasting of pinot noirs from Oregon and the world and a Q&A with winemakers; lunch in the winery prepared by a chef from the region and paired with that winery’s wines; back to Linfield for afternoon seminars on such topics as “pinot lab” (learn how the stuff is made and play winemaker for a day) and “old vines vs. young vines” (how does vine age make a difference?); and a two-hour tasting of dozens of pinot noirs before an outdoor dinner.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: how can any normal human being survive all this food and wine for two and one-half days without either (a) exploding or (b) calling “Ralph or Buiiiick”? Well, it wasn’t easy (particularly for yours truly) but the key was moderation and a willingness to spit out the wine after rolling it around in your mouth for a quick taste impression.

Yes, the same activity that is normally viewed as uncouth and barbaric in polite society (and even where I am domiciled) is totally acceptable and, indeed, necessary if one is to attempt to taste and evaluate hundreds of wines. So, I was able to get through the days by eating lightly (the hardest thing to do) and expectorating into cups.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘WineBoy’ Web Show Debuts at

EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘WineBoy’ Web Show Debuts at

Click here to view the debut of 'WineBoy, a new weekly 5-minute gazzTV web show hosted by gazz wine blogger John Brown. “WineBoy” is what some friends tagged him as he came to be known as a wine expert. Each five-minute episode features a mix of serious, sometimes silly webcasting on the art of wine along with wine recommendations from local retail outlets. This first episode is part one of a five-part series on “The Five ‘S’ Words of Wine,” beginning with “sight.”

WANDERING WINO: Willamette Valley is Pinot Noir

I had never been to the Oregon wine country. So this past spring as I searched the internet for “Oregon wine events,” the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) popped up and, after reviewing the program, I immediately registered for what turned out to be a spectacular wine and food extravaganza.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting some of the world’s most heralded wine regions but, until last week, I had never ventured to Oregon’s Willamette Valley where the pinot noir produced there is considered among the best being made anywhere. While superb wine and food was the centerpiece of this educational weekend, Oregon is also a feast for the eyes with incredible natural beauty that actually rivals our own right here in “West By Golly.”

But the goal of this trip was to immerse myself ('Come on in, the wine’s fine... ') in Oregon pinot noir and the wonderfully fresh local foods prepared by an all-star lineup of chefs from some of the region’s most highly regarded restaurants.The wine makers and presenters at the event were among the most accomplished at what they do, yet their approach - to what can be a very technical and daunting subject- was very laid back and devoid of the usual wine jargon. (They actually had a session called “International Wine Jargon Jeopardy” where participants were encouraged to match their wine-geek wit against a panel of experts). If this sounds like fun, it was!

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 . That's what is needed – meteorologically speaking – to grow good pinot noir.

The northern Willamette Valley (about 60 miles south of Portland) is where the most famous Oregon wineries are located within several American Viticultural Area (AVA’s) including Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, and Yamhill Carlton. Within these AVA’s, wineries such as Domaine Serene, Argyle, Elk Cove, Ken Wright, Patricia Green Cellars and more than 200 others produce pinot noir in styles distinctly different from wines made from the same grape grown in different parts of the world. Surprisingly, pinot noir from the Williamette Valley seems to have more in common with Burgundy than it does with wine produced from the same grape in California.

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WINEBOY: Watch John Brown’s new wine webcast at


A wine glass and computer is a good image for this announcement: You can now catch John Brown's wine advice on his new web TV show at called "WineBoy." Find the show at: "WineBoy" is what some friends have called Brown (along with some other names) as he has come to be known as a wine expert.

Each 5-minute episode of "WineBoy" features a mix of serious, droll and sometimes silly webcasting on the art of wine along with wine recommendations from local retail outlets. This first episode is part one of a five-part series on "The Five 'S' Words of Wine," beginning with 'sight.' The show will be produced online every week.

Tell us what you think of the show and suggest future topics in the 'Comments' section of this blog.

Travel Notes From Your Wandering Wino

So here I am sitting in this neat coffee bar in McMinneville, Oregon - the heart of the Willamette Valley - sipping coffee instead of pinot noir, and trying to clear my head enough to post this little ditty.  And, although I've certainly slurped my share of pinot noir, I have never ventured to this neck of the wine woods where they produce some of the best pinot on the planet. 

I arrived in town last night from Portland via the Oregon coast  (a round about,  but visually satisfying way, to get here) and enjoyed a superb  meal at the Joel Palmer House - one of Oregon's most famous restaurants  where the emphasis is on wild mushrooms and - what else - Pinot Noir.

Owner/chef Jack Czarnecki actually wanders the hills of Oregon searching out and picking wild mushrooms, and then creates spectacular menu items using these little fungi as the centerpiece. He and his wife Heidi bought the historic Joel Palmer House in 1996 and began to create one of the most unique restaurants in the US. According to local lore, Joel Palmer was a pioneer who settled in the area in the mid-1800’s after supposedly ascending Mount Hood in the winter wearing moccasins (and I assume other clothing). He later built the house in which the restaurant is now housed.
The goal of Jack and Heidi was to match their passion for mushrooms with their love of wine – particularly pinot noir -to which the earthy nuances of the wine marry incredibly well with the woodsy flavors of all manner of mushrooms. They have succeeded and here is a case in point: my appetizer course consisted of wild morels in a rich brown sauce with flecks of chili pepper flakes accompanied by a clump of crispy Phyllo dough strings (my apologies to the chef - my clumsy description of this course does not do it justice).
The wine – suggested by a very knowledgeable (and unpretentious) sommelier – was a delicious accompaniment. With earthy, dark cherry fruit flavors and perfectly balanced, the 2004 Methven Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir is a special bottle of wine. While this wine is unavailable in West Virginia, you may call the winery (503-580-1320) and order it, but keep in mind that it is very limited. Also, while the wine is drinking well now, it should continue to improve for another decade.
Suffice it to say that the remainder of the meal was terrific and I am looking forward to sharing with you in coming posts what promises to be an interesting and tasteful weekend here in Oregon.

State restaurants lauded for their wine lists

Each year, Wine Spectator Magazine singles out restaurants which it rates as having the best wine lists around the country and world. The 2007 Wine Spectator "Best Restaurants For Wine" this year includes 10 West Virginia eateries.

Eight of the state establishments received an "Award of Excellence" and two others -- The Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown and the Greenbrier Main Dining Room -- received the even more prestigious "Best of Award of Excellence" rating. Only 76 restaurants, of the more than 4000 rated by the magazine worldwide, achieved the highest ranking "Grand Award" designation.

Obviously, each of the award-winning restaurants must also produce exceptional cuisine to go along with their well-conceived wine lists. The recognition is a tribute to the culinary skills of the winners in the Mountain State, and we lovers of the vine should do our best to patronize these restaurants. We should also encourage our other favorite restaurants to upgrade their lists and to submit them to the magazine in the future for consideration.

The Bavarian Inn (304-876-2251) has always placed an emphasis on fine wine to go along with their excellent German-inspired menu, but they have taken the list to a new level under innkeeper and wine director, Christian Asam. Christian follows in the footsteps of his mother and father who have been leaders in the hospitality industry in our state for decades. When I served a sentence as State Commerce Commissioner in the early '90s, I had the pleasure of meeting the Asam's on several occasions, and have always been impressed with their dedication to providing guests with superb accommodations as well as great food and wine.

What more can anyone say about the crowning jewel of the state's tourism industry - The Greenbrier - except they have been consistently focused on improving, not only the food and wine at this world-class resort but also the accommodations. The resort recently embarked on a major renovation and facilities upgrade program which included additional dining facilities. I'm looking forward to sampling the fare and liquid nirvana at their new restaurant - Hemisphere (800-453-4858) - where diners will have the opportunity to choose from three tasting menus of either five or seven courses.

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Serving wine: Room temperature ain’t what it used to be!

Here is a universal and unfortunate truth: White wine is served too cold and red wine too warm.

When summer temperatures soar, many discerning beverage consumers choose cooling liquids to soothe their heat-induced misery and slake their mighty thirsts. Personally, after hydrating with water, I prefer sipping (surprise) wine. However, my vinous choices are decidedly lighter whites and reds which I cool to a pleasing temperature before drinking.

So today’s sermon, boys and girls, deals with the absolute necessity of serving both red and white wine at the proper temperature. This is so they will be not only pleasantly cool to the taste, but also to insure that the wine will provide a pleasing counterpoint to the heat of the food with which it is paired.

Here is a universal and unfortunate truth: White wine is served too cold and red wine too warm. In my estimation, the culprits are refrigeration and the propensity on the part of wine drinkers and restaurants to be confused by the definition of “room temperature,” particularly as it relates to serving red wine.

Let’s start with white wine and the almost fervent belief that if we have the capability to make something cold, then we should therefore serve our liquids – including white wine - at Arctic temperatures. I’ve had whites served to me at temperatures so frigid they’ve needed a de-icing truck to render them drinkable. The good news here is that if you wait 10 or 15 minutes, the wine will warm to the proper temperature.

Drinking wines that are served at just above freezing will not only give you a headache, you will be unable to taste them. I’m sure that many flawed wines benefit from this chilling effect, but the delicate flavors and nuances of taste in a say, Riesling, Gavi or Chardonnay, will be absolutely neutered by excessive chilling.

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RECIPE: Pesto Pasta and Sauvignon Blanc

When my herb garden begins to yield bunches of fragrant and delicious sweet basil, I know it's time to prepare one of my favorite summertime meals. With this lovely herb as the centerpiece, I created a wonderful -yet simple- meal that you may want to try sometime soon. Not surprisingly, I also have a few wine suggestions for these basil-infused dishes. So here goes. Many folks use basil as a seasoning for salads and one of my favorites is an old family recipe. Today, I'll provide you with this salad recipe and also with one of my favorite summertime culinary masterpieces: pesto pasta.

First the salad.

1. Start with six or so sweet and ripe tomatoes which should be cut into one-inch wedges.

2. Prepare the basil: I had picked a small basket full of basil leaves, being careful to snip the larger of them with my fingers at the base of the plant in order to insure continued growth. (You can buy basil at most grocery stores, but it's a lot cheaper to grow your own.)

3. Next, finely mince one garlic clove, chop one medium-sized sweet onion into one-inch pieces and add this to the tomatoes. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper (to taste) to the tomatoes and onions and then pour about three ounces of extra virgin olive oil to the dish. Now take a hand-full of sweet basil and chop it into small pieces and add this to the mixture. If you have fresh oregano, put the leaves from one sprig into the salad.

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WINE TALES: Falcor Building “Boutique” Winery in Napa

When Napa Valley lawyers and winery owners Mike Bee and Jim Peterson wanted to start their own winery in the valley, a lot of folks scoffed at the idea. After visiting Napa and talking to many people in the trade, the men were encouraged to modify their idea of building a full-fledged winery and decided to take a more modest approach.

First, they set about finding the right wine maker which led them to Ray Coursen, then the winemaker at Napa Valley's Whitehall Lane. Coursen, a giant of a man with a prodigious appetite for red wine (more about this later), was not only a fine winemaker, but had worked many years in the vineyards so he was aware of where the best grapes were being grown. After some coaxing, Coursen took on the task of producing Falcor wines and produced the first vintage in 1996 with a Burundian-style Napa Valley Chardonnay.

Mike and Jim were very pleased with the result. That led to a stable of limited production wines (about 500 cases for each varietal) including two Chardonnays, Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Le Bijou ( a Bordeaux-style blend) and a Rose. Mike's son, Ryan, is Falcor's general manager and works out of a small Napa office. In addition to his duties, which include criss-crossing the country to open new markets, Ryan is overseeing the building of Falcor's small winery and upscale tasting room which is scheduled to open in August in the southern portion of the Napa Valley.

I had the pleasure of visiting with Mike, Jim and Ryan a few years ago in Napa and tasted through their line of wines with wine maker Ray Coursen. After tasting the Falcor wines, Ray opened a bottle of his Elyse Morisoli Vineyards Zinfandel which we proceeded to empty in short order. Ray then took me next door to a long metal building chock full of Elyse wines, many of which were in l.5 liter bottles. When I asked what his plans were for this fortress of wine, he looked at me and said, "I plan to drink it all myself." I don't think he was kidding. Later, we took a few l.5 liter bottles of Falcor and Elyse to accompany a wonderful leisurely, three-hour lunch at Bistro Jeaunty in Yountville. You can find the entire line of Falcor wines at fine wine shops around the state. The best way to purchase Elyse wines is through the winery online or by searching the Internet for merchants that will ship it to you.

Whine-ing about beer

A reader asked me where he could find the wines I had suggested in the June 24 Gazette-Mail "Main Ingredient" piece. Good question. The majority of wines I recommend for your sipping pleasure can be found either in local wine shops or grocery store wine areas. When I'm reasonably sure the wines are not available in the area, I will let you know that fact. In that case, you have a couple of choices to get the particular wine.

First, you can ask your local wine merchant to order the wine for you. State wine distributors (wholesalers who sell the wine to your retail outlet) have access to thousands of labels and can probably get the wine to your wine shop. If you don't want to wait the weeks (or possibly months) it will usually take to get the wine, you have the option of ordering it - via phone or Internet - from a wine shop or winery out of state.

Yes, West Virginia is one of the more progressive states when it comes to wine laws. Thanks to some wine-bibbing legislators several years back who passed a good consumer-oriented law, you are legally permitted to order up to two cases of wine per month from out of state retailers or wineries. Simply "Google" the wine in question and voila! (that's pronounced 'Vi-ole- lah!' where I come from), a dad-gum passel of opportunities to purchase the stuff will be presented to you.

In defense of a beverage which truly needs no defense ( when it comes to tastefully matching just about every known edible food), I feel compelled to respond to my good friend and fellow blogger, Rich Ireland, who has once again made less than flattering (dare I say disparaging?) statements regarding the fruit of the vine.

I've let the snide comments slide in the past, but no more. See if you agree that I must defend the honor of Bacchus after what Rich had to say in a recent "Beers To You" blog regarding people who don't seem to like beer - and don't want to give "craft" beer a try:

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Que Syrah, Syrah …

Syrah grapes on the vine. Wine made with the same grapes is designated Shiraz in Australia.
Most grape varieties, regardless of where they are grown around the world, produce wines that have a defining aroma or taste that are universally recognizable. Take Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. Cabernet, produced in such geographically diverse regions as the Napa Valley in California, Bordeaux or the Barossa Valley in Australia, share varietal characteristics with which most wine drinkers can identify.
The same is true of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc's sensory attributes. Sauvignon Blanc produced in New Zealand seems to emphasize more of a melon or ripe fruit component while those made in California can exhibit more of a citrus nuance, yet both seem to share an herbal or grassy quality

WINE TERMS: 'Varietal' --(in U.S. winemaking) designating a wine made entirely or chiefly from one variety of grape. (from
Zinfandel is another wine that is pretty easy to identify if you drink the wine on a regular basis. I am a "zin-fanatic" so I tend to obsess over the variety and I can usually identify (in a blind tasting) not only that the wine is indeed zinfandel, but sometimes the area of California where the grapes were grown.The list could go on and on with the majority of wines - at least the ones we seem to consume on a regular basis - sharing one or more common characteristics regardless of their viticultural appellation. However, there is one wine that, for me anyway, proves the exception to the rule.

Shiraz, which is the name the Aussies have given to Syrah, shares no common bond with the wine produced in the most famous place the grape is grown - which is the Rhone Valley of France. Ditto, the Syrah produced in the US: it bears no resemblance to French wine made from the same grape.

Australia has been making Shiraz for over a hundred years. As a matter of fact, one of the greatest wines of Australia, Penfold's Grange Hermitage, is made from Syrah and pays homage to the Rhone by its very name. But that's where the similarities end.
In the Rhone, Syrah is the most highly valued of all the red varietals. The most famous wine of the Rhone is Chateauneuf Du Pape. Grown in the very southern area of the Rhone, this wine is a blend of as many as 13 grape varieties with Syrah added to give it character and aging potential.
Surprisingly, the most sought after Syrah is produced in the northern Rhone and particularly around the towns of Cote Rotie, Hermitage and Cornas. The wine produced here is a tannic "full throttle" whopper with black pepper, tar and leather aromas and ripe plum and other dark fruit taste characteristics.

Nowhere on the label will you see the word Syrah, but any red wine from the above-mentioned villages will be predominately made from the grape. Some of the best producers are E. Guigal, Paul Jaboulet Aine, M. Chapoutier, J. Vidal-Fleury and Delas Freres.

So how do Syrah from the Rhone and the Shiraz from Australia differ? While the Rhone can be a backward and very tannic wine in its youth, Shiraz is full-bodied, but usually very forward and easy to drink when it is young. With rich, ripe berry flavors, Shiraz, to me at least, has more in common with zinfandel than the Syrah grown in France. The best of these wines are grown and produced in the Barossa Valley of southeastern Australia. Some of my favorite Shiraz producers are: Longview, Clarendon Hills, D'Arenberg's Laughing Magpie, Greg Norman's Limestone Coast, Torbreck Woodcutter's Red, Elderton; Fox Creek Reserve; Kay Brothers Hillside and Rosemount Balmoral.
Syrah produced in California is just as rich and unctuous as the stuff made Down Under. As a matter of fact, these wines can be "fruit bombs" with sometimes stratospheric alcohol levels. Many of the most sought after are produced along California's central coastal areas such as the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Barbara County. These latter two wine regions were featured in the movie "Sideways."
To be sure, California Syrahs
share more common taste components with the Aussies than with the French, yet there are still some differences. Here are some of my California favorites: Melville, Qupe; Babcock; Blackjack Ranch; Sanford; Fess Parker; RH Phillips; Alexander Valley Vineyards; Beckman; Frei Brothers; and, locally owned, Falcor.
I guess you'll just have to pick your favorites. As the French say: "Que Syrah, Syrah..."

West Virginia Wine Events This Summer

Below are a couple of worthy wine events around West Virginia this summer that combine vino and victuals.

THURSDAY, JULY 19: "Wine and Roses"

Join me and about 100 other thirsty wine lovers at the third annual Roark-Sullivan Lifeways Center (RSLC) Wine and Roses event. Wine and Roses will be held indoors at the Capitol Market from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 19. Partnering with RSLC is the Capitol Market, Soho's and the Wine Shop at Capitol Market.

I'll be selecting a whole passel of wines which are once again being donated by area Wine Distributors. If you find something you like, 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 304/414-0109 and give them your credit card or send a check to: RSLC, P.O. Box 8957, South Charleston, WV, 25303

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.

Come out and sip for a good cause.

JULY 27-29: Taste of the Mountains Food, Wine & Jazz Festival

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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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