Vines & Vittles

Merlot: bad rap, but good rep!

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I know that I am among many wine lovers on this planet who was initially outraged to hear the lead character in the movie, “Sideways, ” brutally disparage merlot. And I think it is more than just a coincidence that merlot sales have hit the skids in the decade since the movie first appeared in 2006.

But soon after Miles uttered that epithet-laced opinion, I began to recalibrate my feelings about his critical remarks. In fact, I guess you could say that I am actually happy that gullible movie-goers/wine lovers actually believed (or suspended disbelief) Miles’ pronouncements about merlot.

Field Stone Merlot

In any event, prices have dropped fairly significantly and, if you are a merlot fan, I suppose you should thank the movie for providing us with an exceptional buying opportunity. Actually, it’s ironic that merlot would face the screenwriter’s wrath since there are certainly more deserving varietals such as pinotage or retsina to avoid. After all, the most expensive and sought after wine on earth is Chateau Petrus which is comprised entirely of merlot.

So let me say for the record that I am a merlot fan. I’m also a pinot noir fan – which the movie praises to high heaven. But today we’re talking merlot, and I want to tell you about some new wines that have arrived in our state featuring this much maligned grape.

I have always been a fan of merlot grown in moderate climates where the finished product can exhibit both strength and finesse. Merlot is a prolific vine and given too much sun, water or heat, the resulting wine can be flabby, alcoholic, watery and out of balance. This was the style of merlot that Miles was savaging in the movie. But that’s not what I will be describing for you today.

Field Stone Winery & Vineyard in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County produces some exceptional merlot as well as other excellent red varietals too. Field Stone is small and family-owned, producing about 9000 cases of wine a year. This is one of the wineries that legendary wine maker Andre Tchelistcheff consulted for in years past. Field Stone also features one of the first underground wineries in California.

I tasted through some of their wines a couple of weeks ago and below are a few you might consider trying, especially with fuller bodied foods like grilled beef and pork as well as pasta dishes such as Cacio e Pepe (black pepper pasta) that I featured in a recent column. The wines are available at the Wine Shop in Capitol Market.

2013 Field Stone Convivio Red ($13) – Comprised of 74% merlot, 19% sangiovese and the rest a combination of malbec and cabernet sauvignon, this value blend is round, rich and full-bodied. In addition, you can sip and feel good about it since a portion of the proceeds from this wine is earmarked for Clinica Alianza – a non- profit medical center serving farm workers and their families among others in northern California.

2013 Field Stone Merlot Alexander Valley ($18) – Deep and full flavors of black cherries and spice are rounded out with light touches of toasty oak. This is a well-balanced merlot that will benefit from aeration in a decanter to soften up the fine tannins and allow the lovely aromas and flavors to express themselves.

2013 Field Stone Staten Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) – This one is a keeper. Deep and rich with extracted dark plum and blackberry notes, the wine was aged 21 months in French oak. Despite its concentrated and full-bodied characteristics, it is is exceptionally well-balanced and will improve with several years in bottle.

You might also try the winery’s 2013 Petite Sirah ($40) and the 2013 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($20). Both wines are exceptionally well made and demonstrate the consistency and quality of the entire Field Stone line.

Ramping up for Springtime

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Ramps! Like snails, buttermilk or sweet breads, you either covet these “acquired tastes” or detest the very thought of them. I know people that would rather experience water boarding than consume ramps. Me? I love these little lilies, but I think I’m genetically predisposed to do so.

Let me explain.

My paternal grandparents hailed from Richwood, a small mountain village on the shores of the Cherry River. In the days before air-conditioning, I spent many happy summer days there, escaping the heat and humidity of my Harrison County hometown.

The legendary stories about Richwood and ramps are many, outrageous and sometimes true. The late Jim Comstock, publisher of the now defunct West Virginia Hillbilly newspaper, chronicled many of these tales in his publication. Here is a story that proves the old saying: “truth is stranger than fiction.” In this instance, Comstock became the lead character in a story that made nationwide headlines.

A Spring Harvest of Ramps
A Spring Harvest of Ramps

A few decades back, Jim Comstock literally created a national stink when he added ramps to the printers ink for one edition of his newspaper. The Hillbilly had subscribers all over the country and even in foreign lands. The US Postal service was not amused and Comstock almost went to jail, but it sure did put his town and ramps on the map.

I cannot ever remember my grandmother cooking me up a mess of ramps during my idyllic summertime visits to Richwood, and it wasn’t until years later that I tasted them for the first time. But when I did, I was hooked after that first bite. That was years ago when I was home on leave from the Army, and about to be deployed overseas.

It happened late one evening when my next door neighbor brought over a six-pack (or so) of beer and a bundle of ramps. He suggested the best way to enjoy the little buggers was to sprinkle them with salt and eat them raw. Love at first bite? You bet. So we ate the entire bunch of ramps, chasing them down with several brews until the wee hours of the morning.

Well, I awoke that next day shivering. It seems my mother had opened every window and door in the house in a vain attempt to rid the abode of a foul odor permeating the place. I looked out the window and there was mom with a large container of Lysol spraying the stuff into the house from the outside. To put it mildly: there are better, far less offensive, ways to consume ramps- and without violating the EPA’s clean air act.

We are now in the midst of ramp season and many towns in the state, particularly in the mountains, are holding ramp feeds. However, I am not a fan of the traditional manner in which they are prepared. Most cooks fry them in lard or bacon grease and then add them to potatoes or (worse) pinto beans. This can cause folks to leave the events belching and flatulent while vowing never to get within a country mile of a ramp.

I prefer to sauté them in olive or canola oil and then add them to just about any vegetable dish from asparagus to potatoes to zucchini. There are also excellent grilled to accompany steak and can be added to scrambled eggs. I have also made them the key component of a pasta dish in which they are tossed with pancetta, asparagus and parmesan cheese in a white wine and olive oil sauce.

Sauvignon blanc is my favorite wine to accompany just about any ramp dish. I suggest pairing the above pasta recipe with the 2014 William Hill Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($17) or the 2014 Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc ($30).

So give ramps a try, but not at a one of the ubiquitous feeds where their flavor is obscured in pinto beans or fried potatoes. Simply sauté them in small amount of oil and add them to your vegetable dishes or pasta. Like onions and garlic, ramps are much less pungent when cooked and really do enhance the flavor of just about any dish.

Pasta inspiration from Paterno’s at the Park

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There’s a lot to like about Paterno’s At the Park, one of Charleston’s best restaurants, and one with a very extensive and exceptional wine list. I’m fortunate to live within walking distance of this special eatery because I’m usually in need of a postprandial stroll after I dine there.

I visited Paterno’s the other evening and I chose the Sausage and Pea Rigatoni offering which combines Italian sausage with peas and shallots tossed in a parmesan cream sauce. Rich and decadent, this was culinary perfection, particularly since I paired the pasta with a crisp and fruit-forward white – the 2014 Scaia Garganega/Chardonnay. This delicate, but flavorful blended wine from Italy’s Veneto region provided a nice balance and contrast to the richness of the pasta.

Old Barolo

The Scaia is featured on a separate wine list at Paterno’s which has about 30 red and white Italian wines all priced at $20 a bottle. This value list is  designed to encourage guests to experiment with food and wine pairings and at a very enticing and consumer friendly price. And if you don’t finish the whole bottle, Paterno’s can legally bag up any wine leftovers for you to take home.

In addition to this special value list, Paterno’s features a more comprehensive wine list that hits all the right vinous notes. For the veal and beef courses at the restaurant, try the 2008 Travaglini Gattinara. This is owner Andy Paterno’s favorite wine and it is a medium to full bodied red from the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Like its Barolo and Barbaresco neighbors, Gattinara is made from the nebbiolo grape and the Travaglini is rich, rustic and full of black cherry and cola flavors.

After dinner there the other evening, I came away inspired to create a special pasta dish for our regular Sunday family dinner. But instead of trying to recreate Paterno’s sausage and pea rigatoni recipe, I chose to prepare a peasant pasta dish which is a Roman staple: Cacio e Pepe (pronounced Catch -oh –ay- pay- pay) or Black Pepper pasta. And to give the recipe a little color, more heat and a personal touch, I added green peas and red pepper flakes. This is a simple, delicious dish that you can make in about 30 minutes. Here’s the recipe.

Ingredients:

One pound of Fettuccine or Bucatini pasta
One cup each grated Pecorino Romano and parmesan (blended together)
Three tablespoons of freshly ground black pepper
One cup of frozen peas
One teaspoon of red pepper flakes (optional)
Three tablespoons of butter
Four ounces of extra virgin olive oil
One cup of reserved pasta water

How To:

Boil one pound of pasta until al dente
Reserve one cup of pasta water
Drain the pasta in a colander
Place butter and half the olive oil in a large skillet and allow butter to melt
Add two tablespoons of black pepper, the peas and pepper flakes
Pour one half of the water into the skillet and stir in half the cheese
Put the pasta in the skillet and toss until mixture is integrated
Add the remaining water, cheese, black pepper and olive oil and toss
Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary and serve immediately

The beauty of this recipe is that it can accommodate either red or white wine. So give it a try and consider uncorking one of these wines: the 2011 Bertani Ripasso ($25), a medium-bodied red from the Valpolicella region of Italy; or a rich and round white like the 2013 Calera Central Coast Chardonnay ($30). Buon Appetito!

How to become a Rhone Ranger

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With the exception of Chateauneuf du Pape, most of us are unfamiliar with wines from the southern Rhone region of France. That’s a shame because there are so many delicious, value-oriented bottlings readily available to us from this very special wine appellation.

With about the same texture and intensity as Chianti Classico, southern Rhone reds are very versatile wines that are also quite food compatible. Listen up, you’re about to become a Rhone Ranger!

There are 13 grapes that can be used to make red Chateauneuf Du Pape and other wines of the region, but most wineries blend a combination of just three: the ubiquitous grenache; the more famous syrah; and just a touch of mourvedre. This blend produces flavorful, medium to full-bodied wines.

Chateauneuf Du Pape (priced anywhere from about $40 to more than $100 a bottle) can produce truly exceptional wines, particularly from producers such as Beaucastel, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine du Pegaü, Rayas, Paul Autard, Vieux Télégraphe and Clos des Papes. But these same producers and many others also make excellent value wines known by the village names around which they are produced or from the larger region known as Cotes du Rhone.

- Gigondas, Chateauneuf Du Pape & Cotes Du Rhone
Gigondas, Chateauneuf Du Pape & Cotes Du Rhone Villages

Remarkably, there have been a series of exceptional to superlative vintages in the Southern Rhone region over the past 15 years. With the exception of 2002, when many vineyards were inundated by torrential rain and flooding, every vintage that has been released since 1998 has averaged a rating of more than 90 points (on a 100 point scale). And, while there are some good white wines made in the southern Rhone, the major emphasis is on red. Here is some information on the various appellations in the region.

Cotes Du Rhone can be made from grapes grown anywhere in the broader Rhone region and is generally a medium-bodied wine with appealing peppery, spicy and dark cherry flavors. Rated just a little higher in quality, Cotes Du Rhone Villages is produced from grapes within the lager Cotes Du Rhone area.

Both Cotes Du Rhone and Villages are typically priced from $12 to $20 a bottle. One of my favorite wines from Cotes Du Rhone is 2012 Jaboulet Parallele 45. Try it with pizza, chili or an Italian sausage and pepper sandwich.

After Chateauneuf Du Pape, the most notable wine areas in the southern Rhone are around the villages of Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Cotes du Luberon. These wines are labeled by the producer or winery and then the village (i.e., La Vieille Ferme, Cotes du Luberon).

The wines around Gigondas are often mistaken for Chateauneuf Du Pape because of their dark fruit flavors, black pepper aromas and intensity.
When young, bottles of Gigondas can be a little rough around the edges. But these wines are significantly less expensive (priced between $20 and $40) than their more famous neighbor, and they are a great accompaniment to roasted and seasoned meats.

Vacqueyras (pronounced vack-er-as) is a little village right next door to Gigondas, yet the wines seem to be fuller and richer with an earthy character. One of my favorites is 2012 Domaine la Garrigue “La Cantarelle” Vacqueyras ($25). Try it with roasted leg of lamb. Most Vacqueyras wines are priced between $12 and $25 a bottle.

Cotes du Luberon wines are made mostly with grenache. Soft, round and flavorful, you should be able to buy them for around $10 -$20 a bottle. I recently matched a Cotes du Luberon – the aforementioned La Vieille Ferme – with beef stew and it was yummy.

So the next time you’re looking for an alternative to zinfandel, shiraz or some other juicy red, saddle up, channel your inner Rhone Ranger and choose a wine from the southern Rhone. You won’t be disappointed.

A tasteful exercise: getting the most out of wine

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A friend of mine approached me the other day with a kind of sheepish look on his weathered brow and asked: “I want to learn how to like wine. I’ve tried it several times and I just don’t like it. Is there some way to learn to like the stuff?”

I must admit I was momentarily flummoxed. Why would anyone want to learn to like something that they have tried and don’t like? I’ve always preached that wine appreciation is a very subjective undertaking, and that you should drink whatever type of wine you choose.

And if you don’t like wine, try something else. There are plenty of options out there. However, it may be that people who claim -like my friend –to have repeatedly tried and failed to enjoy wine, just need to approach the whole wine appreciation process differently.

Let me explain. I asked a few probing questions of my friend and concluded that his problem was mainly related to how and where he tasted wine. He explained that his negative experiences almost always occurred at cocktail parties or bars, and the wine offered or ordered was usually a full-bodied red such as cabernet sauvignon. He also said the wine was almost always tasted without food

Hey, I am an avowed wineaux, but I will not drink any red wine without at least some kind of food. Give me a piece of bread, a hunk of cheese, or some type of fare that has at least a modicum of texture and substance. Drinking red wine without food is like taking a bite of an unripe pear – it’s hard, sour and makes you pucker.

Food and Wine Synergy
Food and Wine Synergy

Further, someone new to wine appreciation should never begin the process by starting with red wine. You should always begin with a light, white, slightly sweet wine such as riesling or chenin blanc. You can accompany these lighter wines with a cracker, some cheese or even a piece of fruit. It’s a good way to introduce yourself to the pleasures of pairing food with wine.

The next step is to graduate to a fuller flavored white wine such as chardonnay and pair it either with a vegetable, chicken or fish dish. At this point, you should be enjoying the white wine experience so it’s time to move up to reds.

Beginning red wine drinkers should always start with light to medium-bodied wines such as pinot noir which is compatible with a variety of foods. Try it with pork tenderloin, grilled salmon or roasted chicken.

Once you’re comfortable with lighter style reds, you’re ready to transition to fuller bodied ones such as zinfandel, syrah, merlot or cabernet sauvignon. However, make sure you accompany these biggies with full-flavored, garlicky or spicy foods such as steak, pasta, stews, chili or some other substantial food.

At this point, I have to assume you’ve discovered the pleasures of wine. So, now that you are an official wineaux, here are some general suggestions for wine and food pairings.

To be successful in finding that perfect match, you need to consider flavor, texture and weight of the food and wine pairing. Lighter-bodied foods go best with lighter style wines while heavier flavored foods are best paired with fuller-flavored wines. Makes sense, right?

For instance, a poached white fish would go best with a lighter styled white wine such as a pinot grigio, white Bordeaux or Albarino from Spain. Conversely, it would take a robust red wine such as cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel to stand up to and enhance the flavors of a well-marbled strip steak.

The addition of sauces or spices to a dish can add a flavor dimension that can also affect the wine you select. For example, sauvignon blanc is an excellent choice with poached salmon in a dill sauce, but grilled salmon that has been dusted with cumin, black pepper and chili powder needs a medium-bodied red such as pinot noir.

So it really is quite simple: to get the most out of that special bottle of wine, pair it with a compatible food partner to discover the real meaning of synergy!

Okay, let’s face it. The holidays are in the rear view mirror, the Christmas tree is on the curb and a cold, gray winter is just starting to chill our weary bones. My advice? You need an attitude adjustment and the best way to do that is to treat yourself to some good food and wine.

If you’re a regular reader of these scratchings, you know I will never just give you my impression of a particular wine without mentioning a food that is enhanced by it. Finding a compatible food and wine combination makes the whole dining experience so much more pleasurable.

And while we all love to cook, I suspect that the folks in your household need a break from the kitchen. After a month of chopping, boiling, sautéing, roasting, grilling and cleaning up after a herd of hungry and thirsty holiday celebrants, don’t you think we all deserve a night out?

Well, I do, and so I’m going to share with you today two of my favorite meals and accompanying wines from a couple of excellent local restaurants. We are blessed in this small, but beautiful valley, with several fine dining establishments that deserve your patronage. In future columns, I will tell you about other special culinary experiences I’ve had in and around our community.

Let’s begin with South Hills Market and Café. Chef Richard Arbaugh and wife Anne have done an exceptional job at this small restaurant with an inventive and eclectic menu which also has a Wine Spectator award wining wine list. Here is a three-course menu that I have enjoyed there on a few occasions.

Strip steak with Bordelaise sauce at So. Hills Market
Strip steak with Bordelaise sauce at So. Hills Market

I start with the Roasted Bone Marrow with gherkins, pickled onions, whole grain mustard, and grilled crostini. I love the huge (about eight inch long) caveman-like bone in which the marrow is served. Next, I opt for the Artisan greens with cucumbers, pickled onions, tomatoes and asiago cheese.

And for the main course (especially for you red meat lovers), I recommend the 12-ounce New York Strip Steak with Bordelaise sauce. Make the meal even more special by ordering a glass or a bottle of the Grochau Cellars Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. This medium-bodied wine from Oregon is full of black cherry flavors that can stand up to the meat, and also marry well with the Bordelaise sauce.

Bricks and Barrels across from Appalachian Power Park is not yet a year old, but the upscale restaurant has weathered the slings and arrows of many passionate and discerning local diners. Owners Matt and Nikki Holbert have hung in there and, in the past few months, have made several positive changes, not the least of which is hiring a new chef with excellent credentials.

The improvement in both the quality and consistency of the menu at Bricks and Barrels has been a pleasant surprise. I have always been pleased with the nicely conceived wine list, the classy bar and (don’t tell Rich Ireland)  the extensive selection of West Virginia craft brews.

Here’s a three-course menu at Bricks and Barrels that is worth giving a try. I have always enjoyed Crab Louie Napoleon, but the version at this restaurant is about the best I’ve ever eaten. Baby Bibb lettuce is stacked with layers of jumbo lump crab, a slice of tomato, asparagus, hard-boiled egg and avocado. Yum!

Next, I suggest The Beet and Goat cheese salad which is a delicious combination of roasted beets on a bed of summer greens with warm walnuts all tossed in Italian dressing. For the main course I suggest the melt-in-your-mouth filet of butter-basted salmon served with sweet potato puree, deep-fried Brussel sprouts and parmesan risotto.

To accompany the meal, I chose a glass of Ladera Chardonnay, a Napa Valley wine that has medium intensity, flavors of ripe honey crisp apples and a light kiss of oak that marries especially well with the butter basted salmon. Bravo!

Holiday Wines: ‘Tis better to give AND receive

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It’s that time of year again! You know what I’m talking about: Rudolph with his nose so bright; Folks dressed up like Eskimos; and Jack Frost nipping (hopefully a sip or two of vino). Yes siree, I’m ready and raring to get my Yuletide on.

So, in the spirit of the Season, I’m going to provide you with some red and white wine recommendations for your holiday gift giving because I believe in the old saying: “Tis better to give than receive. ” This is even better if the giver and receiver is you (or if the recipient is someone who is willing to share).

And depending on your budget, the sky is truly the limit when it comes to finding a wine to give that special person. Shopping for wine any time is a labor of love, but during the holidays it is a lot more fun because wine shop shelves are chock full of a wide and varied selection of vinous products.

The great thing about the holidays – especially Christmas – is that we also have a perfect opportunity to choose wines that pair well with the cornucopia of special foods we’ll be eating. Following that theme, I have selected for your consideration a list of wines below that would make great gifts, and also be excellent accompaniments to some of the more traditional holiday foods we will be enjoying over the next few weeks. So here we go.

Great Holiday Gifts!
Great Holiday Gifts!

For the celebratory sparkling wine aperitif: Taittinger Comptes De Champagne Rose; Nicholas Feuillatte “Blue Label” Brut Champagne; Mumm Napa Cuvee (sparkling); Paul Bara Brut Champagne; Segura Viudas Reserva Cava; Veuve Cliquot Brut Champagne; Roderer Estate Anderson Valley Sparkling Wine; Krug Grande Cuvee Brut; Perrier Jouet Grand Brut; Iron Horse Russian Cuvee (sparkling).

For the traditional Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, you might search out these lovely bottles: Tenuta Sant’ Antonio Scaia Garganega; d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Marsanne-Viognier Blend; St, Supery Sauvignon Blanc; Falcor Chardonnay; Castello Banfi Principessa Gavi; Montinore Estate Riesling; L’Ecole 41 Semillon; Cakebread Chardonnay; Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay; and Talley Arroyo Grande Vineyard Chardonnay.

For Christmas Ham or Turkey: Newton Claret; Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir; Banfi Brunello Di Montalcino; Marques de Caceras Rioja Reserva; Chapoutier Bila-Haut Cotes Du Roussillon; Ferraton Tavel Rose’; Easton Amador County Zinfandel; Raptor Ridge Atticus Vineyard Pinot Noir; and Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti.

For the traditional Prime Rib Roast: Chateau Lynch Bages; Joseph Phelps Insignia; Falcor Le Bijou; Chateau La Dominique; Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve; Chateau Brainaire Ducru; Merryvale Profile; Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon; Chateau Cos d’Estournel; Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon; Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon; Leoville Las Cases; Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; Antinori Tignanello; and Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon;

Have a great holiday season, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Talking Turkey : a fowl (or foul) affair ?

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It’s that time of year again when all talk turns to turkey. However, I must admit I have mixed feelings about the “national bird.” In my decades long association with Thanksgiving, I have both feasted on spectacular fowl, and, on occasion, have been subjected to very foul experiences.

On the one hand, Thanksgiving is a holiday of which I have very fond sensory memories, particularly of being awakened on that special morning by the delicious redolence of a butter basted turkey roasting in the oven. My mom was artfully adept at marrying the classic all-American recipe for roasted turkey with a nod to her ethnic heritage by creating a bread dressing that featured chestnuts and spicy Italian sausage.

That she was able to bridge this culinary and cultural gulf and please both ardent WASPs as well as charter members of the Son’s of Italy was probably influenced by her desire to please my father – a gentle wood tick from the mountains of West Virginia who, before he met my mother, thought black pepper was an exotic spice.

And to be fair, some of my negative experiences involved positives. Do I speak with forked tongue? Well, not really, because sometimes the turkey would be cooked to perfection and the dressing would be inedible – or vice versa. But why can’t everyone get it right – like my mother.

Well, let’s be honest. Thanksgiving dinner is a complex undertaking (eat too much and you’ll end up in the undertaker’s complex – couldn’t resist this). Anyway, when you consider the degree of culinary minutia involved, it is understandable that something might go wrong.

Paired with Domaine Serene Pinot Noir
Paired with Domaine Serene Pinot Noir

Preparing and properly cooking a large turkey over a period of several hours can be a daunting experience. And when folks choose to try brining or marinating and then grilling or smoking the bird, chances that something bad will happen increase dramatically. Add to that the plethora of choices for dressing along with traditional side dishes and then pumpkin pie for dessert, and about the only thing you can truly count on being good is the wine.

Which brings me to the point of all of this angst over Thanksgiving Dinner: simplify your chores by preparing as many of the courses as possible ahead of time, and then stock up on both white and red wine. That way you will guarantee you’ll have a tasty vinous treat that is bound to match one or more of the items on the Thanksgiving menu.

This is possible because turkey has a variety of flavors, colors and textures that can match just about any wine. Add to this, the manner in which the turkey is prepared (i.e., roasted, smoked, grilled or fried) and of the type of stuffing used, and you have a complex set of flavor components that make matching wine with the meal both easy and fun. Indeed, we should give thanks for this rare opportunity to sample several different wines with the same holiday meal. So here are a few wine recommendations to match your Thanksgiving turkey and associated dishes.

The traditional oven-roasted turkey with sage-flavored dressing does wonderfully well with sauvignon blanc (St. Supery or Ladera), Alsatian riesling (Trimbach or Pierre Sparr) and gewürztraminer (Chateau St. Jean or Navarro). Red wines such as pinot noir (Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee or Freestone Sonoma Coast), Meritages (Falcor Le Bijou or Mercer Canyons Red Blend) and Rhone wines (Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape or Kermit Lynch Cotes du Rhone) will also marry well with oven roasted turkey.

Ridge Lytton Springs
Or Ridge Lytton Springs

For smoked or grilled turkey with spicy dressing, I prefer fuller bodied red wines. Try Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, Carparzo Brunello di Montalcino or Alto Moncayo Garnacha from Spain. You might also try an intensely flavored chardonnay such as Beringer Private Reserve, Mer Soleil Reserve or Cakebread.

And for dessert, I’m going to suggest a few festive sparkling wines that will pair quite nicely with that pumpkin pie and whipped cream. Try one of these invigorating sparklers: Paul Bara Champagne, Segura Viudas Brut Cava or Domaine Carneros Brut Rose.

Happy Thanksgiving!

I love this time of year. Football season is in full swing, the leaves are painting the mountains with blazing colors and I’m in the process of turning purple grapes into about 70 gallons of home made wine. And just last weekend, I completed the final rite of fall by roasting, peeling and bagging one of the most delightful treats imaginable.

Every autumn for the last three decades, I have waited anxiously with bated anticipation for locally grown green bell peppers to turn large and red. Some years, because of too much heat or too much rain, the harvest can be less than bountiful and replete with small, gnarled red peppers. But even mal-formed, diminutive peppers can be transformed into the delicious Italian antipasto treat my mother lovingly made and passed on to me so many years ago.

This year was- and still is -(at least for the next week or so) a banner year for red peppers of a size and shape that make the sometimes long and arduous task of processing them a lot easier. You can check out the recipe below for the routine detail, but mere words cannot describe the agony (sometimes) and ecstasy (always) associated with turning these red lovelies into edible bliss!

Ready to roast

Let me explain.

The agony is related to working with small peppers which can take two or three times as long to process as larger ones. But even this extra work is validated when you pull a baggie full of sweet red peppers out of the freezer in January, and experience a little taste of summer in the dead of winter.

And while you can get sweet red peppers all year round at just about any super market, I eagerly await the ones I can procure locally. You may have noticed how expensive red or yellow bell peppers can be when purchased at grocery stores (sometimes as much as $2 a piece). I love to support our own Capitol Market where you can comparison shop among the many vendors and select just the right peppers at a very a reasonable price.

I prefer to work with at least a bushel of peppers at a time,  however, you may wish to start with a more modest number for your first effort. As a matter of fact, you can experiment with roasting just one or two on your stovetop and then follow the steps below.

You can serve the peppers with small slices of crusty bread or even crackers, but you will need a medium to full- bodied red wine to make the perfect food and wine marriage. I suggest pairing the peppers with any of the following three wines:  2010 Antinori Peppoli Chianti Classico ($26);  2012 Easton Amador County Zinfandel ($18);  or 2013 Bila-Haut Cotes Du Roussillon Villages ($14). The Bila-Haut is a terrific bargain for a wine rated 91 points by Robert Parker.

What you will need:

Red bell peppers (as many as you wish)
Several fresh basil leaves
Quart size sealable plastic freezer bags
Grill, oven or stovetop
Large grocery paper bags
Dinner plates (such as Fiesta ware, etc.)
A colander with a bowl underneath, a small knife, a large cutting board, a large bowl
One garlic clove, salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil and Balsamic vinegar

How To:

Wash the peppers under cold water and dry
Place on a grill, in the oven or on the stovetop on high heat
Turn the peppers often to expose all surfaces to the heat until the skins are scorched
Place dinner plates in the bottom of the paper bags
Stack the peppers (about five or six) onto the plates and then close bags tightly
Allow the peppers to steam in the bags for at least one hour
Remove them from the bag and place over the colander with the bowl underneath
Cut the peppers from top to bottom and catch the pepper juice in the bowl
Peel the skins from the peppers and cut them into large pieces (about three per pepper)
Fill bags ¾ full, add a couple of pieces of basil, seal and place in the freezer or use
Freeze the accumulated pepper juice for use in sauces

Ready to eat or freeze
Ready to eat or freeze

Final Preparation:

Thaw the peppers and cut them into small strips
Place them in a small bowl
Chop one clove of garlic finely and add to the bowl
Add one teaspoon each of extra virgin olive oil and Balsamic vinegar
Put salt and pepper to taste and stir all ingredients
Allow the mixture to sit for one hour and serve the peppers on bread or crackers

Beam me up, Bacchus!

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One of the most fascinating aspects of  wine tasting is the way you can almost be instantaneously transported from one part of this planet to another by simply sipping a few different wines.

Beam me up, Bacchus! The first taste of that lovely Italian chardonnay is like being immediately teleported to the hills of Piemonte’ where you find yourself sipping a creamy, fruit forward and exquisitely balanced white from a region more known for big reds like Barolo and Barbaresco.

And moving to the next wine might take you across the world to Oregon or to South Africa. As a matter of fact, the three wines reviewed below are from those three countries I just mentioned. So many wines from so many geographically diverse regions provide us with so many opportunities to literally taste the products of a different culture.

So why not invite a few friends over and conduct your own wine tasting? It’s really easy, fun, inexpensive and very educational. Whether you’re tasting all one varietal, such as cabernet sauvignon, or different types of both whites and reds, it is important to remember to taste lighter, sweeter wines first and then move on to more full bodied ones.

Here is a typical example and order of a tasting of six different white and red varietals: riesling, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The wines are arranged from lighter to fuller bodied to prevent the stronger flavored ones from overpowering and masking the flavors the less intense wines.

Give these three a try
Give these three a try

Since you will want to get the most out of the tasting, you need to learn how to use your senses to fully appreciate wine.  One way of doing this is to use what I call the
“Five S’s” of wine appreciation: (1) sight – observe the wine and judge its clarity, color, etc; (2) swirl- rotate the wine in the glass to unlock the flavor and aroma; (3) sniff – place your proboscis deeply into the glass and smell and try to describe what you are smelling; (4) sip – my favorite part of the tasting where you roll the wine around in your mouth allowing it to touch all the surfaces; (5) swallow – judge the impressions the wine leaves when you swallow it.

Generally, a wine tasting will consist of examining five to ten wines and tasters should receive about one ounce of each wine. Ask each taster to critically examine each wine, and to render an opinion as to what they liked or disliked about a particular bottle.

You can take the tasting to a whole different level by eliminating the bias of seeing the wine labels. This is known as a blind tasting and involves obscuring the wine label by having someone place the bottles in bags before you taste. This will eliminate any possible price or winery bias so that you can truly judge the product on its quality.

Here are three wines that were among my favorites in a recent wine tasting. You might want to give them a try.

2013 Mullineux Old Vines White Blend ($28) – An elegant South African blend of chenin blanc (80%) along with clairette blanche and viognier, this has flavors of ripe pears and melon. Rich, yet very balanced, the wine is one to pair with a whole roasted chicken that has been basted with olive oil, rosemary and a little of the Mullineux Old Vines.

2012 Chehalem Stoller Vineyards Pinot Noir ($45) – This Oregon and Willamette Valley wine is exceptional. Delicious black cherry and cola flavors and excellent balancing acidity are the highlights of this beautifully crafted example of pinot noir from a truly historic vintage. While I would lay this one down for a few years, those unable to wait should decant it for a couple of hours and then serve it with grilled wild salmon or roasted pork tenderloin.

2014 Marco Capra Chardonnay ($20) – More like a very good Pouilly Fuisse from Burgundy, the Marco Capra Chardonnay is a creamy, round yet very balanced wine with scents of anise and citrus. This wine, from the Langhe’ region of Piedmont in northwestern Italy, would make an excellent accompaniment to veal saltimbocca.