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

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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Charleston’s Culinary Journey: From Wasteland to (not quite) Nirvana

One of Peter Meyer’s disciples was Bill Sohovich, owner of Soho’s (above) and Blossom and a culinary pioneer in his own right. Photo by Walker DeVilleAs a native of Clarksburg, W.Va., I am genetically predisposed to seek out and find good food. It is in my DNA! So when I moved to Charleston a few decades ago, I was shocked to find that the Kanawha Valley was a culinary wasteland. Back then, there were only three fine dining establishments in Charleston. Catering to traveling salesmen on expense accounts, the “Heart of Town,” Ernie’s Esquire and “Top of the Inn” restaurants served up gigantic portions of prime rib washed down with barrels of beer and a mind-boggling assortment of “high balls.” Wine lists consisted of Lambrusco, Lancer’s Rose and Vito’s Thunder Mountain Chablis - and only artsy types or effete snobs ever dared order wine with their dinner.

Yes, there were a whole host of fast food and chain restaurants where most of the rest of us dined (on those once-a-week occasions when our meager budgets permitted a night out). But there were really no fine dining establishments, and hardly any ethnic food restaurants – except for a couple of Chinese places and Joe Fazio’s.Look, I’m really not a food or wine snob, but the restaurant choices were very limited back then. Okay, so Charleston is not quite culinary nirvana yet, but, in my humble opinion, we’ve come a long way, baby! The wine lists have evolved, too. Now, even the chain restaurants have decent lists while the finer dining establishments’ selections provide a variety of choices for the knowledgeable wine consumer.

Unlike the “Big Bang” theory of evolution, the Charleston culinary Renaissance did not just dramatically appear one day. In fact, I give most of the credit to a couple of local pioneers: Otis Laury and the late Peter Meyer. Otis Laury worked his culinary magic at his Laury’s Restaurant, featuring Continental cuisine, and Meyer led the food and beverage operations at the Charleston Marriott’s (now closed) Tarragon Room. Meyer, a classically trained chef and native of Switzerland, took that restaurant and wine list to a whole new level until his untimely death a few years back.

In the last decade or so, we’ve seen an influx of fine dining establishments whose owner-chefs combine quality ingredients, excellent culinary skills and aesthetic presentation, to deliver the kinds of dining experiences one could previously only expect in “the big city.”

One of Peter Meyer’s disciples is Bill Sohovich, owner of the Blossom and Soho’s restaurants and a culinary pioneer in his own right. Sohovich is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and has carried on the traditions of Peter Meyer into the new century. There are others who deserve credit too. Jeremy Stills, chef at Edgewood Country Club and also a graduate at the CIA, has worked with Sohovich over the years and has had a notable influence on the city’s culinary transition from ordinary to exceptional. Tom Grant, whose Wellington's Restaurant at Scarlett Oaks Country Club, still serves excellent cuisine was a local culinary pioneer, too.

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La Dolce Vino. Or how I survived “White Pheasant” and found a sweet wine worth drinking

The label for Michele Chiarlo 2005 Moscato D'Asti Nivole, available at the Capitol Market wine shop

I must admit to an inauspicious introduction to the ‘fruit of the vine.” It was during a time when automobiles had fins, Motown was in its prime and most wine came in large jugs with screw cap closures. Guys were always looking for an angle – if you know what I mean – and so I decided to demonstrate my sophistication to my date at the fraternity party by introducing her to the sensory aspects of a wine called “White Pheasant.”

This beverage, possibly made from grapes, but certainly infused with rocket fuel, was enclosed in a half-gallon green jug with a label featuring a picture of what looked like a demonic white condor. I’m pretty sure my date was impressed because she proceeded to slake her mighty thirst with countless cups of the Pheasant. On the way back to her dorm - in my father’s new Chevrolet- she proceeded to redecorate the interior of the car.

I know. You’re wondering where I’m going with this. Well, here’s my point: don’t be deterred by a negative first experience with wine! Many people look down their respective noses at sweet wine, proclaiming that only college co-eds or winos drink the stuff. This is either a reflection of their own personal experience (see above) or actual inexperience in pairing a delicious sweet wine with a lovely desert. If you are one of those sweet wine nay-sayers, try this combo below and let me know what you think.

There is an Italian dessert wine made from the delicate and delicious Muscat grape which has appealing apricot and melon flavors with just the slightest hint of effervescence. The wine is Michele Chiarlo 2005 Moscato D'Asti Nivole and comes in a half bottle. It retails for about $12 and is a wonderful accompaniment to chocolate-based desserts. “Nivole” means “clouds” in Italian, and its light and billowy texture perfectly describes this wine, which is produced in the Piedmont region of that wonderful nation of vines. You should be able to find it at wine shops in the area, and perhaps even in some grocery stores. I know it is available at the Capitol Market wine shop in Charleston. So forget about those preconceived notions (or bad first experiences) and give “La Dolce Vino” a chance.

Home, home on the range, Where the lamb and the zinfandel play

It's January. Cold, gray, dreary January! Things could get depressing were it not for my penchant to match ugly days with great food and wine. I'm actually thinking about Arizona and the Sonoran dessert. I'm getting inspired! Here it comes...I've got it: Grilled lamb over mesquite coals washed down with a bottle of Zinfandel so big and juicy it'll make your teeth itch! Okay, so I'm taking a few liberties with conventional Southwest cuisine by substituting lamb for beef, but I think you're going to like this.

Thinking of this dish reminds me of an old Johnny Cash song about cowboys and their feelings about shepherds and sheep. These lines say it all: "A sheep herder come once and put up a fence/ We seen him that time, but we ain't seen him since/ But if you're needin' mutton, we got mutton to sell/ 'cause we're cow-punchers and we're mean as hell."

Thatt line is from a mid-1960's album by Cash called "Ballads of the Old West." Goes great with grillin'. But I digress.

Anyway, here are the marching orders (note that marinade time!):
1. Begin with a six-pound boned and butterflied leg of lamb. Make sure you trim most of the fat from the leg and then rub it all over with coarse ground black pepper, finely chopped garlic and ground cumin.
2. Next, make a marinade of one-half cup of extra virgin olive oil, one-third cup of fresh lime juice, one tablespoon of ground cumin, two tablespoons of chili powder, one teaspoon of dried oregano, one teaspoon of salt and seven chopped garlic cloves.
3. Put all the ingredients into a food processor and process until smooth. Cover the meat with the mixture either in a bowl or a gallon freezer bag and allow it to marinate, from 12 hours to 24 hours. Most normal human beings would then place the lamb on a roasting pan and inject it into an oven heated to 375 degrees F, where it would roast for about 45 minutes to one hour. Me? I'm grilling that sucker over a hot charcoal fire onto which I will have liberally sprinkled water-soaked mesquite chips.
4. You want to baste the lamb with the leftover marinade and turn it at least once while grilling. Grilling should be completed in about 30 minutes. Slice the lamb and serve it over grits baked with jalepeno peppers and Monterey jack cheese. This dish will warm the cockles of even the blackest heart!
The absolute best wine for this meal is a big red Zinfandel. Uncork a Marietta Old Vines, Ravenswood, Ridge Lytton Springs or Renwood Old Vines. You might also try Red Truck or Marietta Old Vines Red which are Zinfandel blends.

DEFINING TERMS: (and ‘orgasmic’ is not one of them)

"The nose is quite developed, the tannins are still hard, but the fruit seems overripe and flabby, and the finish is a bit short."


While conducting a wine tasting recently, it was pointed out to me that I had begun to sound a little too 'winesy-cutsey. ' It was a polite reminder I was using wine jargon instead of English to explain attributes of the wine. While I deplore wine snobs and other bores, I must admit to falling into the occasional habit of using "winespeak" to describe the sensory aspects of wine. I guess it comes from reading a great deal from other wine writers or experts who liberally sprinkle around such terms as "tannin, acid, flabby, robust, " even "orgasmic" when describing their tasting experience.

Below, I have listed several terms regularly used in describing wine qualities (but not orgasmic). There are obviously many more, but we'll start with these:

Tannin(s) – A naturally-occurring chemical substance present in wine (particularly red wine) which can allow the wine to age. It manifests itself in the mouth as that sensation which makes you want to pucker.

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Moving Outside Your W.C.Z. (Wine Comfort Zone)

You're probably wondering about my qualifications to write this blog. So here's all I can say about my credentials – such as they are. After a trip to the California wine country in 1981, I was asked to write a wine column for the Charleston Daily Mail. I wrote that weekly column until 1989 and also did a wine commentary gig on West Virginia Public Radio during that same time period.

The commentary, which lasted only a few months and was produced by Mountain Stage's Andy Ridenour, was cancelled when one person wrote to say that Public Radio should not be advocating the use of alcoholic beverages. That was it – one person. Who says a single voice can't make a difference?

Since 1989, I have written a monthly wine column for a weekly West Virginia business publication. I've also conducted hundreds of wine tastings, MC'd countless wine dinners and have traveled fairly extensively to some of the world's most famous wine regions. But before you get too overly impressed with my wine-stained resume, keep in mind that I am also a home wine maker. In other words, I have a great tolerance for mediocre wine. I actually think my wine, which I've been making from California grapes since 1977, is pretty good. If that's not enough to make you stop reading right now, you must really be desperate for wine information.

Okay, so here's what we're going to do: I'm going to write about wine and sometimes food, and hope that you will occasionally respond with your own feelings about the information I impart. Let me say up front that I don't expect you to like every wine I recommend. Wouldn't that be boring?

However, I do taste a pretty substantial number of wines in the course of a year. And I'll bet (unless you're as wine-obsessed as I am) that I might get you to try something other than what you drink regularly. I might even be able to get you to move outside your wine-comfort zone. If so, then I will have succeeded.

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INTRODUCING: Wine and Dine

Welcome to 'Wine and Dine,' a new Charleston Gazette blog about wine selection and advice, along with tips on pairing wine with food. John Brown is a seasoned wine columnist, whose writing on wine will also be seen in the Sunday Gazette-Mail on a regular basis. Also, we will be rolling out some wine tips on video and taking some multimedia journeys in search of the best places to enjoy wine in the West Virginia region. We welcome your feedback on this new blog, either in the 'Comment' section below each post or by sending your comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Douglas Imbrogno | editor