Vines & Vittles

Saint Patty’s Day Pasta

Saint Patrick’s Day is coming up this week, so I thought I would wow you with a great Irish recipe. So, while I’m not a Bangers and Mash or Soda Bread kind of guy, I am one-half Irish and I feel obliged to celebrate my Gaelic heritage by cooking up a Saint Patrick’s Day meal. However, I just couldn’t find anything that tickled my culinary fancy.

Then I had what I thought was a solution to the problem. Since I am also one-half Italian, why not find a recipe that uses the traditional culinary ingredients of Ireland and Italy to prepare a dish that pays homage to both storied nations.

Unfortunately, as I searched my treasure trove of cookbooks, I was unable to find any Irish-Italian dishes. I suppose I could try and create one. How about something like this: Corned Beef Marinara over Cabbage Fettucine; or Skirts and Kidneys Bolognese in Blood Pudding?

I must admit neither of the above mentioned combos excited my taste buds. So I decided to go in another direction. Since everyone knows that green is the national color of Ireland and that pasta is the national food of Italy, I’ve decided to combine these two characteristics to create a dish I’ll call Saint Patty’s Day Pasta.

Okay, I know, this is a bit of a stretch, but hang with me a bit longer because I think you’re going to love this recipe.

Two of the main ingredients in the recipe are Charleston Bread’s homemade spinach fettucine, and the lovely extra virgin olive oil from locally-owned Villa Ditrapano. Both the pasta and olive oil are green and they share the culinary stage in the recipe with arugula and basil to give this dish a definite emerald hue.

More importantly, this is one tasty dish! Check this out.

Saint Patty’s Day Pasta

One red bell pepper, small fennel bulb, medium onion,
Six Italian Roma or plum tomatoes
One pound spinach fettuccine
Four peeled cloves of garlic
Two links each of Italian and Andouille sausage
One 8 -ounce can of tomato sauce
Two ounces of cooking olive oil
One ounce of premium extra virgin olive oil
One-half teaspoon each of Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Four ounces of grated parmesan cheese
One-half cup of pasta water
Two ounces each of fresh, chopped basil and arugula

Cut bell pepper and tomatoes in chunks; onion and fennel in eighth inch rings
Place vegetables and garlic cloves on an oven pan, drizzle with regular oil and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes
Roast the sausage in another pan in same 400 degree oven for 40 minutes, turning once at 20 minutes
Chop cooked garlic in small pieces and combine with cooked vegetables in a sauce pan
Add tomato sauce to pan, cook at low heat for 30 minutes- add salt and pepper to taste
Cut sausage into half inch rings, set aside; then add to the sauce after 25 minutes
Cook pasta Al-dente and drain in colander
Combine pasta, sauce and half the parmesan to a large sauté pan over low heat
Toss together with fresh basil and arugula then add pasta water if needed
Plate pasta and sprinkle parmesan and drizzle premium olive oil over top of pasta

My wine choice to pair with Saint Patty’s Day Pasta is the 2016 Alexander Valley Vineyards Redemption Zinfandel ($25). This medium-bodied Dry Creek Valley red is round, rich and well balanced with spicy, blackberry flavors and just a hint of toasty vanilla.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. And may all your Leprechauns be green!

Shitake Stuffed Portobellos

I made the mistake of walking past a mirror right after the first of the year. The reflection of a rotund stranger stared back at me, and it took me several seconds to realize that the portly visage I was staring at was – ME!

Unfortunately, I have been having this same New Year’s wake up call for decades. Once again, I am vowing to moderate my excessive appetites in the hope of sculpting a visually more appealing version of myself. In other words, I’m going to try and eat less and choose foods that are healthy – and that actually taste good too.

I’m going to share a recipe with you for a dish that accomplishes both of the above-mentioned goals. Of course, I’ll give you a couple of wine pairing suggestions that will significantly enhance the enjoyment of the dish. It will be up to you, however, to moderate your wine intake. In my case, that means cutting back to only half a bottle.

Spoiler alert: If you do not like mushrooms, you won’t want to read any further.

I’m sure many of you have eaten Portobello mushrooms. You may have cooked them on the stovetop, or oven baked them with stuffing. You might have sliced and sautéed them with onions, garlic and other spices, and used them as a side dish. My recipe, which is meant to be an entrée, uses a little bit of each method just described, and you’ll have the option of making the dish with or without meat. In addition, this recipe also includes shitake mushrooms as part of the stuffing. And since mushrooms are full of vitamins and are a terrific source of fiber, this entree is also extremely healthy. So here you go.

 

 

Shitake Stuffed Portobellos

Ingredients:
Four to six Portobello mushrooms
One-half pound of sliced Shitake mushrooms
Four ounces of chopped onion, one tsp chopped garlic, one tsp of red pepper flakes (optional)
One-half cup each of shredded mozzarella and smoked gouda or provolone
Four ounces of bread crumbs
Two links of Italian sausage (optional) finely chopped
One half red bell pepper finely chopped, a handful of chopped spinach
Two ounces of extra virgin olive oil and a tsp. each of salt and ground black pepper

Preparation:
Wipe Portobellos clean and scrape and discard gills from the mushrooms
Use one ounce of olive to rub Portobellos inside and outside
Place Portobellos on an oven rack and bake for 5 minutes in a 400F oven
Set aside Portobellos to cool
Discard stems from Shitakes and slice
Fry or microwave the Italian sausage and then finely chop
Sauté onions, garlic, red peppers and spinach using the remaining oil – set aside in a bowl
Add salt, pepper, cheese, bread crumbs and sausage to the bowl – stir and allow to cool
Spread the mixture evenly among the Portobellos and bake in 400F oven for 12 minutes
Serve immediately

My wine suggestions for the dish involve bottles that pair well with the earthiness of the mushrooms, and the overall spiciness of the dish. Pinot noir from Oregon has a ton of earthy nuances and also pairs exceptionally well with spicy food. You might try the 2017 Chehalem (Willamette Valley) Pinot Noir ($37).

My other choice to complement the recipe is zinfandel. I’m recommending a medium-bodied and spicy zin with bright dark berry  flavors. The 2017 Ridge Lytton Springs ($45) will make an excellent pairing with the dish.

Happy food, wine, and family!

Christmas is upon us and I am psyched! So, bring on the seven fishes, the Christmas dinner and even the twelve days because I’m ready and raring to go. And, as always, I will provide you with some vinous choices to enhance your holiday meals.

Of course, my first challenge will be to weather the (sometimes literal) storm of preparing the Christmas Eve fish extravaganza. I will use the outdoor gas grill to heat up the canola oil to 350F and then begin frying cod, smelts, squid and scallops. This can be tricky if the weather is raining or snowing heavily, but I’ll get it done – with the help of my eldest grandchild who has been my sous-chef for most of his post, pre-K life.

I’ll also brine and then hot smoke a side of salmon, while my wife constructs a pasta and clam dish. And there will be cocktail shrimp and other appetizers to get our palates properly tuned up. Since most of the fish will be deep fried, I find it’s best to pair them with white wines that are medium bodied, refreshing and even thirst quenching.

You might give these bottles a try. Italian whites: Arneis; Cortese di Gavi; Greco di Tufo; and Falanghina; California Chardonnay: Cakebread Cellars; Ridge Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains; Far Niente; and Mer Soleil.

There is no standard, traditional Christmas day meal in our country. Depending upon your religious or ethnic background, you might enjoy everything from ham to goose, to turkey to beef. In homes where the ancestral heritage derives from the British Isles, Germany or other northern European locales, we Americans tend to lean toward these culinary options: turkey; prime rib roast or filet mignon ; or baked ham as the featured main course.

If you’re preparing oven-roasted turkey as the main course on Christmas day, these medium bodied wines will pair nicely: Chateauneuf Du Pape; Rioja; California merlot, Chianti Classsico or Cotes Du Rhone.

If your Christmas dinner features baked ham with a honey glaze, you have several more options, including red, rose or even white wine. You might select: Tavel Rose from Southern France; riesling from Alsace; Sonoma Coast pinot noir; or malbec from Argentina.

At our home, my wife will dry rub a bone-in prime rib roast with garlic, kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Then she’ll roast it in the oven until it’s medium rare. Here are the wines I’m considering to accompany the rib roast: 2004 Ducru Beaucaillou (Bordeaux red); 2007 La Massa (Italian super Tuscan red); or 2016 Ridge Lytton Springs Vineyard Zinfandel.

Over the next two weeks, you will drink more than half of your yearly total consumption of sparkling wine. It could be Champagne or other sparklers like those produced using the Champagne method or by other vinous means of eliciting bubbles in still wine. So, whether it’s Brut Champagne, Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy or Cremant from Alsace, the apex of sparkling wine consumption will occur between Christmas and the New Year.

There is nothing quite like Champagne to ring in the New Year. Give one or more of these Champagnes a try: Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésime; Krug Grande Cuvee Brut; Nicholas Feuillatte “Blue Label” Brut; Veuve Cliquot Brut; and Piper-Heidesieck Brut Cuvée.

Sparkling wine from regions other than Champagne: Gusbourne Brut Reserve (England); Mumm Napa Cuvee, Roderer Estate Brut Anderson Valley and Iron Horse Russian Cuvee ( all from California); Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace (France); Segura Viudas Reserva (Spain); La Marca Prosecco (Italy); and Gruet Blanc de Noirs (New Mexico

Have a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah and a prosperous New Year!

November: a palete pleasing month !

November is the most exciting and palate pleasing month of the year for both wine and food lovers. Serendipitously, the most anticipated weekday of the year for both groups falls on a Thursday in November. And since most wine and food lovers are one and the same, it’s prime time for those of us who love to eat and drink

Of course, every living, breathing, epicurean knows that Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of November. And if you’re a living, breathing, wineaux, you know that Beaujolais Nouveau is always released on the third Thursday in November. So let the celebrations begin!

If you haven’t already sampled the 2019 Beaujolais Nouveau, it is now available in wine shops and grocery stores around the state. The Nouveau is made from the gamay grape grown in the. Beaujolais region just south of France’s Burgundy appellation. It is always an easy quaffing wine meant to be a celebration of the recently completed harvest. You can expect Beaujolais Nouveau to be a fruit forward wine with strawberry flavors. It can be paired successfully with brunch- type foods, and you might even consider opening a Nouveau as an aperitif before dinner.

Thanksgiving dinner is a wine lover’s dream feast because the meal can be successfully paired with white or red, as well as light or full-bodied wines. With turkey as the centerpiece of the meal, and with the wide variety of side dishes accompanying the “National Bird,” you’ll have an almost limitless number of vinous options. That’s because turkey is blessed with meat that has different flavors, colors and textures. Add to this the manner in which it is cooked – from traditional oven baking, to deep frying, to grilling and/or smoking, and you have even more wine choices from which to select.

 

 

Stuffing for the turkey adds a whole other flavor dimension which, depending upon the nature of the dressing, opens up even more wine pairing possibilities. I’ll usually feature both white and red wines to go with the dinner, and then open a sparkler or late harvest sweet wine to pair with the pumpkin pie dessert. This Thanksgiving, I plan on using a few wines from a recent tasting at the Wine Shop at Capitol Market. Featured at the event were the wines from American winery Kate Arnold as well as from Spanish winery Torres.

As an aperitif, I’ll open a bottle of 2017 Vina Esmeralda Muscat ($16). This tasty wine is just slightly sweet with a spicy floral aroma followed on by peach and apricot flavors. I always feature both a white and red wine with the main course. This year, I’m opening a 2017 Kate Arnold Sauvignon Blanc ($16). This California wine has aromas of anise and herbs, mouth-watering citrus nuances and good balancing acidity. The wine should be an excellent pairing with my wife’s chestnut, sausage and sage dressing.

The turkey this year at our home will spend two hours on my Weber charcoal grill before being transferred to the oven to bake until it reaches 165 degrees F. This method of cooking the gobbler is the result of detente between my wife (oven) and yours truly (grill). After decades of marriage, I’ve decided to test my hypothesis ( i.e., that compromise is only slightly more satisfying than passing a kidney stone). Anyway, I will pair this culinary experiment with a pinot noir from Oregon. One that I had the pleasure of sipping at the aforementioned tasting.

The 2016 Kate Arnold Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($23) has aromas of spice and earth and flavors of plum and blueberries with hints of vanilla and cola. It is a wine of excellent roundness and depth, with just the right dollop of acidity to make it a perfect match to your Thanksgiving meal. And I’m confident that the wine will do wonders for our détente turkey too.

Here’s wishing you a very Happy Thanksgiving!

For the love of Zin

Benjamin Disraeli, the former British prime minister and novelist, was famously quoted as proclaiming: “The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can never end.”

But I must disagree with the late and esteemed Mr. Disraeli, particularly when it comes to wine. The first grape I ever had the pleasure of making into wine more than 40 years ago was zinfandel. And even though the wine-like result was so over-oaked that it tasted like toothpicks, I still love zinfandel to this day. And, by the way, the latest version of my home made zinfandel, made from Amador County grapes in 2018, was just bottled a few weeks ago and actually does taste like wine!

I consider zinfandel America’s wine even though it is genetically identical to an unpronounceable Croatian vine ( crljenak kastelanski) and the more widely known Italian primitivo grape. But the good old US of A is where the wine has achieved stature and a world-wide following. The vine was first planted in Sonoma County in the 1850’s and, according to the California Wine Institute, zinfandel is the third-leading grape variety planted in California with nearly 45,000 acres planted in the state.

 

But still, most novice wine drinkers think zinfandel is a white, slightly sweet wine best suited for quaffing at picnics. And there is a reason for this impression many of us have of the grape. When one particular winery could not find a market for his over-produced zinfandel in the 1970’s, he decided to use the excess grape production to make a wine in a slightly sweet rose’ style. The rest is history. The new wine was called: White Zanfandel and it became a sensation. To this day, White Zinfandel still retains a huge market share among American wine drinkers. And while I will occasionally chill a bottle of Beringer White Zin for porch sipping, red zinfandel is still among my favorite wines of all time.

 

I suppose my fondness for zinfandel stems from the versatility of the vine to produce wines that range in intensity from the aforementioned white zin to full-throttled, purple monsters. I also love the wine because it is so malleable and can complement such a wide range of dishes. And with the arrival of fall, my thoughts turn to richer textured wines like zinfandel and fuller-flavored edibles, including all manner of grilled meat dishes that just seem to go so well with the wine. So, when I cook for friends and family this time of year, the food is usually straightforward, down-home, meat and starch type meals such as grilled thick-cut pork chops, leg of lamb, baked lasagna or red beans and rice.

So what are the flavor profiles of zinfandel? Well, regardless of the intensity of the finished product, most zinfandel does share some general flavor characteristics such as dark berries, black cherries along with briary and peppery nuances. However, the easiest way to pick the right zin for dinner is to categorize the wine according to its weight and intensity of flavor. That way you can decide which style to use with the food you’ll be preparing. Below are some of my favorite zinfandels rated by intensity and weight, along with some matching food suggestions. Incidentally, these wines range in price from about $20 to no more than $50 a bottle.

Lighter-Bodied Wines: Peachy Canyon Incredible Red; Marietta Old Vines Red; Pedroncelli Mother Clone; Sobon Estate Old Vines; Ravenswood Lodi; Bogle; Try these wines with pizza, grilled hamburgers, Italian sausage or meatloaf.

Medium-Bodied Wines: Rancho Zabaco Heritage Vines; Sebastiani Sonoma; Seghesio Old Vines; Dry Creek Vineyards; Ridge Geyserville; Renwood Old Vines; Easton Amador County; and Rosenblum Paso Robles. Good with roasted pork tenderloin, grilled salmon or barbecued baby back ribs.

Full -Bodied Wines: Ridge Lytton Springs; Renwood Grandpere; Montevina Terre D’Oro; Chateau Montelena; Grgich-Hills; Turley Juvenile; 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 marinated and stuffed flank steak.

John Brown is also an author and his novel, Augie’s War, is available online and at at bookstores.

A tasty and tasteful visit to Tucker County

Tucker County, West Virginia is a special place. That statement doesn’t qualify as an epiphany for any of you who have had the pleasure of spending time in that region of the Potomac Highlands. But in addition to experiencing the many and varied recreational options in this wild and magnificent place, there are also several tasty and tasteful creature enhancements, particularly in the towns of Davis and Thomas.

I’ve been a part-time resident of Tucker County for three decades, and I still enjoy a sense of happy anticipation during the three-hour trip from Charleston. When I arrive, I’m content to just sit on the deck and gaze at the multi-colored leaves of fall while puffy white clouds glide across a robin’s egg-colored sky.

But a person DOES need to eat and drink too!

First stop is in Davis for a glass of suds from a West Virginia Craft Brewery of The Year award winner-Stumptown Ales. Stumptown has a stable of tasty brews to be sure, but they’ve also created a friendly gathering place for both visitors and locals alike. And they’ll even let you bring your dinner in to pair with their brews. You might try a sandwich from the Farm Up Food Truck that parks near Stumptown several times a week.

Just up the street is one of the state’s best pizzerias – Sirianni’s Café. Sirianni’s also serves sandwiches and pasta along with the absolute best antipasti salad (get the white garlic dressing) anywhere. The wine list is small, but well thought out and there is an extensive selection of beer, including local draft from Stumptown or from the other local brewery- Mountain State.

One of the best breakfast and brunch restaurants in the entire county is Bright Morning Inn which doubles as a B & B. All the menu choices are exceptional, but the peach pancakes are beyond good. Then wander right across the street to the WV Highlands Artisans Gallery to view the works of local artists while you walk off those pancakes.

Just up the road is the Billy Motel. The owner bought a former “No-Tell” motel a few years back and completely upgraded the rooms, added a bar and lounge, and has just opened a tapas-like restaurant there. When I heard the bartender at the Billy tell a tipsy bar patron that the next bus to Mars would be leaving soon, I knew I was in the right place. Really though, if you’re looking for the perfect cocktail, great conversation and an eclectic vibe, you must visit the Billy Motel in Davis.

Three miles north on Rte. 32 is the town of Thomas which has re-created itself over the past decade into a hip, art-centric little village with galleries, a coffee shop and bar, antique stores and music venues. There is also Cottrill’s Opera House, built in 1911, that is being restored into a performing arts center. Next door is Thomas Yard, a business featuring a very good wine shop where you can also buy fresh flowers and small gifts. About a mile outside of town, you might also wish to visit the Buxton Landstreet Gallery where artwork, stained glass and artisan furniture are available for purchase.

I love wandering into and browsing at The Creature, Bloom, The Gradient, and the White Room Art Galleries all along the same block (on the lower street) in Thomas. A little further down the street, you can book a room at The Cooper House Bed and Cocktail lodging facility that is right next door to the Purple Fiddle. The Fiddle features live traditional music almost seven days a week.

Top off your visit to Thomas by slipping in to Tip Top Coffee where the baristas brew up seriously good java, and the bartenders create tasty specialty cocktails. Tip Top also bakes pastries, makes sandwiches and, on Friday evenings, serves up delicious hamburgers made from locally sourced beef. And the wines by the glass and bottle at Tip Top feature quality and value, and represent a broad cross-section of wine appellations from around the world.

And I haven’t even mentioned what’s available for you to experience in Canaan Valley and other communities of Tucker County like Parsons and St. George. That’s for another time.

So whether you’re a skier, mountain biker, art and music lover, gourmand, hiker or just someone who enjoys observing the wild side of Mother Nature, take a trip to the mountains of Tucker County. Oh, and if you stop by The Billy, ask when the next bus leaves for Mars.

 John Brown is also an author and his novel, Augie’s War, is available online and at at bookstores.

 

 

The magic of Brunello Di Montalcino

If the wine world ever establishes a Hall of Fame, Brunello Di Montalcino will be a charter member! It would share center stage with the planet’s greatest wines such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and a few others considered to be among the best.

What makes the wine so special? Well first of all, just pronouncing the name can make you thirsty (brew-nell-oh dee mon-towel-chee-no). And that’s good because I can’t think of any better way to slake your thirst than by sipping the silky elegance that is Brunello Di Montalcino. And for me, silky is the word I always associate with the wine.

I know you’re probably thinking that “silky” is a feeling – a texture if you will – and not a taste. But the aroma that precedes the texture and the flavors that follow it are also exceptional too. I’ll get to those other sensory aspects later, but first here is some information on the grape that’s used to make Brunello, and the region where the wine is produced.

Sangiovese is the grape vinified to make the wine. It’s the same varietal and primary grape used to produce most of the reds in Tuscany, including Chianti. Sangiovese can also be a component of “Super Tuscans” which are blends of non-traditional Italian varietals such as cabernet, merlot and syrah. But the sangiovese grown around the small town of Montalcino is considered superior to wines made from the same grape in other parts Tuscany.

And according to the experts, it’s all about the terroir of the vineyards around Montalcino, especially the soil. Terroir (pronounced tare-wah) is defined as the combination of soil, climate and geographic location that determine the quality of a wine appellation. While the climate and the geographic location of vineyards in the Montalcino appellation are ideal for producing excellent Brunello, the varied soils of the region are given most of the credit for the exceptional quality of the wine.

 

On a visit to Brunello producer Castelgiocondo last month, their wine maker Filippo Manni took me to an area where several feet of exposed vineyard showed limestone, clay, schist, and volcanic soils stacked on top of each other. He said the complexity of the soils is the major reason for the superior quality of the sangiovese produced in the Montalcino region.

So what should you expect when you put that glass of Brunello to your lips for the first sip? The aroma of Brunello can be varied, but I usually get dark fruit, spice and sometimes leather. And like most other quality red wines, Brunello produced in a good to exceptional vintage will have two flavor profiles. The first, when the wine is under 10 years old, will have dried cheery or cranberry flavors along with fairly noticeable tannins and bright acidity. As the wine matures, the flavors get richer with caramel nuances to the fruit while the tannins and acid soften. And here’s where you’ll begin to feel the silkiness of the wine.

Castelgiocondo is one of several wineries owned by the renowned Italian wine family, Frescobaldi. After visiting the winery, cellars and vineyards of Castelgiocondo, my wife and I sat down for an elegant outdoor lunch with winemaker Manni. We tasted through the winery’s entire portfolio, including three Brunello’s, a Rosso di Montalcino (Carpo Al Sassi) and a merlot (Lamaione).

We enjoyed each of the wines, but the 1998 Castelgiocondo was everything I love about Brunello. The aroma was redolent of tea and leather and the flavor of dark cherries with nuances of caramel and herbs went on and on. Of course, the texture was pure silk.

Brunello is not inexpensive. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $150 a bottle. You might wish to start out by trying a bottle of Rosso Di Montalcino. Rosso, which is produced from young vines or wines that do not meet the strict standards of a winery, are usually priced between $25 and $50 a bottle. These “Baby Brunello’s” can be delicious wines too, and can give you a tasty hint of what to expect once you trade up.

While Brunello Di Montalcino is usually very good in just about any year, here are vintages that are rated among the best in the past two decades: 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2015.

Enjoy!

Italy – A destination for all generations

PUNTA ALA, ITALY – My wife and I had already visited the country where my family originated just a few generations back. Now we faced the challenge of a trip that would have to offer something for everyone: it was time to travel with the entire family, with a wide range of ages and interests.

I hoped our sons and daughter-in-law, along with grandkids, Ellis, 16; Palmer, 13; and Barrett, 11; would find Italy as magical as we did.

How could they not? It’s an ancient land where – over the last thousand years – culture, art and history have converged to create civilization, and where visitors can now walk, observe and taste this living, breathing encyclopedia of life.

However, I was forewarned by You Know Who that on this trip I would need to devote more time to walking and observing, and less time on the tasting components of Italian culture. And while I reluctantly conceded the point to my spouse, I also knew that my kids and grandkids had, thankfully, inherited my fondness for food and drink.

They know, as I do, that food gives us strength and that thirst is a terrible thing. So off we went.

Part of our strategy was to divide and conquer: while all three branches of the family arrived in Rome on the same day, each branch headed out in different directions. Son Bryan and his family would spend three days touring and exploring Rome while son Aaron went south to Naples and the Amalfi coast.

For our private getaway, Debbie and I decided to spend a couple of leisurely days at the beach. We had been looking for a coastal resort favored by Italians, and one that was within easy driving distance of Tuscany. It was our plan to meet there later and spend five days all together exploring the region and visiting the towns, castles, churches, vines and art in that storied part of Italy.

The Gallia Palace, a Relais & Chateaux resort hotel, was perfectly situated two-and-a-half hours north of Rome near the seaside port town of Punta Ala, along the Mediterranean coast in a region of Tuscany called Maremma.

This same area is home to vineyards that produce crisp white wines such as Vermentino, and superb red wines called “Super Tuscans.” These blended wines, made from grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and sangiovese, can rival the great reds of the world such as those produced in Bordeaux and Napa.

The Gallia is a small but very pretty property, set on a hillside in a spectacular natural setting. From our balcony, we could look down across the grounds to a stand of stately Stone Pine trees) that resemble umbrellas. And beyond the stone pines, just a kilometer away, was the sparkling blue Mediterranean with the Gallia’s private beach.

But the highlight of the resort for me is the superb restaurant back at the hotel. Some of the dishes are like art on a plate, almost too pretty to eat, and the wine list features selections from all the major Italian regions. In fact, one of the most delightful wines of our entire trip (and there were many) was the 2014 Col D’orcia Brunello Di Montalcino made just an hour from the Gallia resort.

While we were enjoying our beach getaway, Bryan and family spent their days touring the antiquities of Rome and Aaron visited and explored the stony beaches and steep hills of the Amalfi Coast.

Then it was time for all of us to meet in Tuscany.

My daughter-in-law, Ericka, used VRBO to locate a large country home near (delete:Siena in ) the small village of Sovicille [so-va-CHIL-ah], that served as our base. La Dimora di Teresa (residence of Teresa) features four bedrooms and four baths along with a fully equipped kitchen and a large great room with cable TV and internet. It is also completely air-conditioned, which is not common everywhere in Italy, especially in large homes.

The outdoor spaces include a long covered porch, a swimming pool, an outdoor fireplace and even a pizza oven. Naturally, on our first night together, we took full advantage of this particular amenity and arranged to have a local chef, (delete: Chef Giulia) make custom pizzas for us in the outdoor, wood-fired oven. Our hungry group (delete: of eight ) ate, and ordered, and ate some more. What a treat!

Each of our days in Tuscany was spent exploring a different town, historical site or museum.

In Florence we were led on a private tour of the Uffizi and the Academia Museums, viewing priceless Renaissance artworks such as The David, along with the paintings of Michelangelo, Botticelli and DaVinci among others. We also visited the old walled city of Siena, marveled at the towers of San Gimignano and watched artisans carve alabaster into bowls, grapes and vases in the hill top town of Volterra.

And even the most modest restaurants served us amazingly fresh and delicious meals. We dined at two small eateries within five minutes of La Dimora di Teresa that were exceptional.

La Compagnia featured exquisite, mouth-watering pasta choices, including the best ever cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) and carbonara dishes I’ve ever eaten.
The traditional Bistecca alla Fiorentina (or beef steak of Florence) served at the other local establishment – Il Grillo Morro – is a giant, four-inch thick, bone-in rib eye that will melt in your mout

We ended our five-day tour of Tuscany with a visit to Il Borro, a relatively new winery owned by the Ferragamo family, more widely known for their famous namesake famous fashion and clothing company. The entire family toured the cellars, tasted the wines and had a very special lunch at Il Borro. You just knew I had to get a little more wine-time in, right?

When we departed our lovely Tuscan digs, Aaron headed to the airport and back to the U.S. while Bryan and family traveled just up the road to Lucca to attend an Elton John concert under the stars. They spent two more days exploring the canals of Venice before making their way to the airport and the long flight home.

We took the fast train to Rome and checked into the Palazzo Cinquecento Hotel in the center of the city. From this exceptional hotel, we were able to conveniently visit the most important Roman landmarks, as well as savor those last delicious bites of Cucina Italia before heading back to the mountains of home.

Photos from Top to Bottom:

1.  Grandkids marvel at the frescos in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel 
2. Sommelier at Gallia Palace pours us Brunello Di Montalcino
3. Chef making us pizzas at our Tuscan Villa
4. Bryan, Ericka and children tour Venice in a gondola

Opening old wine: the perils and pleasures

A couple of weeks back, my long-suffering wife and yours truly celebrated a signature wedding anniversary that I decided to designate  our “Penultimate 50th.” Actually, it was our 49th — but who’s counting?

For really seminal events – like our Penultimate 50th – I try to amp up the celebratory liquid several notches. So I wandered down to where I store a few special old bottles of wine to see if there might be one with a vintage date close to 1970 – the year of our wedding.

Lo and Behold! I found the perfect bottle of Bordeaux red wine – 1970 Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou (pronounced do-crew bow- kii- you).

Sounds great, right? Well maybe not. Because when you’re dealing with wine older than most of the people currently occupying Mother Earth, a lot can go wrong. So here are a few tips you might find helpful in case you’re considering purchasing an old bottle of wine, or opening one you’ve had in your cellar for a while.

First of all, you’ll need to consider the vintage date and the reputation of the winery. I knew that 1970 was considered a very good vintage in Bordeaux. Also, Ducru has a historically excellent reputation for quality. And, I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that esteemed wine critic, Robert Parker, rated it 92 on a 100-point scale. So far, so good.

But what about other considerations such as how and where the wine was stored for all those many years. Well, I had purchased the wine from a state ABCC store in the early 1980’s, and I had stored it in a cellar where the temperature and humidity were fairly consistent. In this instance, the temperature and humidity did not vary more than 10 degrees from summer to winter. So I felt pretty good about this aspect of the evaluation.

But how about the wine itself? How could I be comfortable that the wine would still be palatable after almost five decades? One positive indication that this particular bottle might still be good was that it had not “ullaged” much over time. Ullage is a term wine experts use to describe the amount of wine in the bottle that has been lost over time due to leakage or evaporation. Some amount of ullage is expected in older wines. But if the wine level has dropped down below the shoulder of the bottle, the air that has replaced the liquid could cause the wine to oxidize- and that’s not good.

And while the level of wine in my bottle had ullaged somewhat – about one-half inch – I felt pretty good about this component of the evaluation process. So now all that remained was to open that baby up and give it a good sniff and sip- right?

Not so fast my friends! There was still the issue of opening the bottle and dealing with the real likelihood that the cork would disintegrate during removal. The only way I’ve ever been able to successfully remove the cork in an old bottle of wine is by using a two-prong metal contraption called an Ah-So. To use the Ah So, you must insert the prongs on either side of the cork and rock them carefully down as far as they will go in the bottle. Then you gently twist and slowly pull the cork out.

But I didn’t have my Ah So with me at the time and I had to rely on a traditional waiter’s corkscrew to open the bottle. Unfortunately, most of the cork fell into the wine. But all was not lost. I used a wine funnel with a metal screen (that I had purchased online) to pour that old elixir through and into a crystal decanter. Ah…the moment of truth had arrived!

So I carefully poured the wine into our glasses. Then I sniffed. The aroma of leather, tea and damp earth filled the glass. The color was a kind of burnt cranberry with just a slight tint of orange around the edges. I swirled the wine and let it sit for a full five minutes before taking a sip. On the palate, the first sensation was of sour cherries, then cola and then tea. The wine was also silky, and over a period of one hour, both the aroma and the flavors became more complex and refined. To say the least, the bottle exceeded our expectations and we were both very pleased.

I’m saving one more bottle of 1970 Bordeaux for the half-century celebration next year. I can only hope that the owner of the wine ages as gracefully as the wine we’ll be drinking. Cheers!

On Monday, we will observe Memorial Day to honor the sacrifice of those Americans who have paid the ultimate price so that we might be able to enjoy this holiday with our friends and families. So I hope you’ll join me in recognizing and appreciating this solemn occasion.

And since this weekend does mark the unofficial start of the summer season, I’m going to recommend a few tasty choices for your picnic menus, as well as some deliciously compatible wines to pair with them.

The dishes I’m suggesting below have all been previously prepared on my trusty old Weber Performer charcoal grill. There just aren’t many primary food sources (I’m talking meat, fish and vegetables here} that won’t benefit from charcoal or even gas grilling. Okay, so let’s begin with some simple, but delicious picnic options.

Hot dogs, as well as Italian sausages, Kielbasa, Chorizo and Bratwurst are especially tasty when grilled, and then served with simple garnishments like relishes, onions and condiments. And try splitting the wiener or sausage down the middle to flatten it out on the grill. You’ll expose more meat to the heat, and that’s a deliciously good thing.

Two types of wine go particularly well with these bun-encased tube steaks: Rose’ and light to medium bodied reds like Rioja, grenache, Beaujolais and/or Cotes du Rhone. These are excellent picnic wines, and should be served slightly chilled to provide a refreshing and thirst quenching counterpoint to the spicy dogs or sausages.

There are few seafood dishes that benefit more from the grill than a filet of salmon. Since salmon loves sweet and heat, I’ll rub my fish with chili powder, salt, black pepper, cayenne and brown sugar, and then grill it over a hot fire for about four minutes per side. My favorite vinous accompaniments to grilled or smoked salmon are pinot noir or cabernet franc.

Are you a vegetarian? Then try this: In a bowl, squirt a little olive oil and red wine vinegar, along with salt pepper and garlic powder, onto your choice of sliced vegetables. Asparagus, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, spicy poblanos or jalapenos, Vidalia onions, green beans or even corn do especially well on the grill. Then pair them with crisp and refreshing, chilled white wines such as sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, arneis and verdicchio from Italy or albarino and verdejo from Spain.

Barbecue baby back ribs are a picnic staple at Chez Brown. To each side of the rack of ribs, I’ll apply a dry rub consisting of one tablespoon each of cumin, chili powder, kosher salt, coarsely ground black pepper, brown sugar, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper (optional). And, if time permits, let the ribs sit in the refrigerator overnight or at least for a few hours before grilling.

If you’re using charcoal, place the coals to either side of the cooking grate and grill the ribs indirectly at temperatures ranging between 250 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit for about three hours. You should be able to control the cooking temperature by adjusting the vents on the grill. If you’re using a gas grill, just cook the ribs indirectly. For those of you wishing to add a sauce to the ribs, you’ll want to slather the glaze onto both sides of the meat, turning the racks several times during the last 15 minutes before serving. My go-to wine choices for baby back ribs are medium to full bodied reds such as zinfandel, syrah, sangiovese or merlot.

So have a great holiday weekend, but also take a few moments to ponder the real and somber significance of Memorial Day.