Vines & Vittles

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.

From Tuscany with love

Every now and then I have a wine reawakening. I’m not talking about reacquainting myself with the wines of my youth like MD 20/20 or the half-gallon jug of California “Burgundy” (where the picture of the old codger on the label looked as if it had been taken post-mortem).

No, I’m referring to a recent dinner where I purchased an inexpensive bottle of red Italian wine from Tuscany and made from sangiovese grapes. The wine was very fruit forward without being sweet. It was also round and ripe and a very good pairing with food, particularly my antipasti followed by pasta in a marinara sauce. It also had aromatic components with aromas of cherries and spices like teaberry. This wine brought back very fond memories of trips I had taken to Tuscany.

The most famous red wines of Tuscany are: Brunello Di Montalcino made entirely from sangiovese grapes and grown around the small town of Montalcino: Chianti Classico (also made from predominately sangiovese); and the Super Tuscans of the region which are blends of varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, sangiovese and even syrah.

Italy has a government office that sets forth regulations determining which grapes can be grown and produced into wine for each viticultural area in the country. Denominazione Di Origine Controllata (“Controlled designation of origin”) or DOC is a quality assurance label for Italian wine. DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) on the label of an Italian wine is an even stronger and higher quality assurance rating.

The government does not prohibit wineries from planting different grapes than those approved by them for a specific region, but in the past, the resulting wine had to be labeled as “vino de tavola” or table wine. For example, cabernet sauvignon was not an approved grape for Tuscany and therefore had to be labeled simply as table wine. That all changed in 1992 when the government, with extreme pressure from influential wine makers, set forth a new classification known as IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). This classification permitted wineries to produce wines from grapes not previously approved by them.

The wines known as “Super Tuscans” – initially in the coastal Maremma region of Tuscany -led the way by producing Bordeaux-type blends such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Ornellaia is perhaps the best known example of a Super Tuscan” and is also considered one of the greatest wines in Italy.

Here are three wines I’ve tasted recently from Tuscany that you might wish to try.

2016 Monte Antico Rosso Toscano ($12) – This is the wine I mentioned above that rekindled my desire to revisit Tuscan wines. Medium-bodied with flavors of ripe dark fruit along with a slight touch of vanilla from oak aging, this is an excellent every day drinking red. Try it with pasta in marinara or a Bolognese sauce.

2015 Frescobaldi Nipozzano Chianti Rufina Riserva ($28) This lovely wine is comprised of 90% Sangiovese and 10% other varieties such as malvasia and colorino. It has flavors of tart red cherries, teaberry and nuances of oak. It is medium bodied, with some noticeable tannin and excellent balancing acidity. The wine was aged in oak for 24 months and for three years in bottle before being released. Grilled Italian sausages or barbecued baby back ribs would be great accompaniments to this wine.

2015 La Massa Toscana ($30) A blend of 60% sangiovese, 25% Merlot, 15% cabernet sauvignon and alicante bouschet, this IGT from the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany is a rich, full-bodied and complex red wine. Aged in French oak, it is silky smooth, has flavors of black cherries and is perfectly balanced. Try roasted pork tenderloin with a port wine sauce for a heavenly pairing with La Massa.

Little Giuseppe: “Sunday is Pasta Day”

It was a very warm and sunny Sunday. Normally, that would mean firing up my old Weber to grill the edible parts of some formerly animate land or sea creature. But dang, “Little Giuseppe” (my Italian alter ego), preempted my redneck intentions and whispered to me: “mangia pasta, mangia pasta, mangia pasta……”

Yes, the weather may be warming up a bit, but you can still enjoy the exceptional satisfaction of a pasta dish whenever you get the urge. And with springtime in full bloom, you might just want to prepare a version of pasta that is a bit lighter, and also more seasonably appropriate for this time of year. So today, I will impart to you a healthy recipe that should not only satisfy your pasta craving, but also mitigate any residual guilt you may have for ingesting a few more carbohydrates.

Spoiler Alert: this dish contains broccoli!

For those of you who have an aversion to this cruciferous plant, please know that you can substitute any green vegetable that is acceptable to you, including asparagus, peas, scallions or even ramps. Or, if you so choose, you may eliminate the green vegetables altogether and stick with what’s left of the recipe. I think you’ll like it that way too. So bear with me broccoli-o-phobiacs, I think you’re going to love this dish. And guess what? I’ve got two really great wine pairing suggestions that should elevate the dining experience even more.

Fusilli with Broccoli and Italian Sausage

Ingredients:

One pound fusilli or rotini pasta
One-half pound of broccoli florets
Two links of hot or mild Italian sausage
One-half small onion finely chopped
One cup grated Parmesan cheese
Eight ounces of chicken stock
Three tablespoons of heavy cream
One teaspoon each of salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes and minced garlic
Four ounces of extra virgin olive oil
One-half cup of reserved pasta water

How To:

Fry the Italian sausage in sauté pan until done
Slice the sausage into rounds and set aside
Boil one pound of fusilli until al dente
Add broccoli florets to boiling pasta water for two minutes and remove
Drain the pasta in a colander
Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil until translucent
Add salt and pepper and half the cheese to sauté pan and adjust to taste
Put the broccoli, chicken stock and pasta water in pan
Add fusilli and sausage to pan and heat through until mixture is integrated
Stir in the heavy cream and heat for one minute
Serve pasta into dishes and sprinkle each plate with cheese and red pepper flakes

2016 Antica Napa Valley Chardonnay ($30) This Antinori family wine tastes more European than Californian with hints of ripe apple and brioche leading to a long and silky finish. Great balance and elegance and just the right hit of acidity to marry perfectly with the fusilli dish.

2017 Domaine De Montredon Picpoul de Pinet ($17) – From the Languedoc region of Southern France, this crisp, fragrant and fruit forward white has flavors of ripe pear. This wine is a lovely counterpoint to the richness of the pasta.

 

Restaurant Dining: setting the Bar high

I’m not quite sure that I would call this a trend, but I’ve recently noticed that a greater number of restaurant patrons are choosing to dine at the bar of their favorite eateries. Count me among those who prefer to forego the more formal seating in the dining room to roost in close proximity to the wine and other adult beverages being offered.

And hey, it’s not all about the drinks either. Sitting at the bar of a good restaurant has other advantages too, particularly if you’re alone or in a bit of a hurry since meals ordered there seem to be served more quickly. And the bar also offers more intimacy if you are with that someone special.

Yes, there are downsides to bar dining. It’s very difficult to enjoy the experience with more than just two in your party unless you get corner seating where couples can use that 90-degree angle to converse. And noise can be a problem too.

But there is also something special about the feeling or vibe in certain restaurant bars. In these establishments, friends meet regularly to drink, eat and discuss the issues of the day. And even strangers can make new acquaintances in the convivial atmosphere of a good restaurant bar. Of course, these establishments have exceptional bartenders who are knowledgeable, friendly, and loquacious. We are particularly fortunate in Charleston to have several restaurant bars that fill this bill quite nicely. Here are my favorites.

Bricks and Barrels has a very long L-shaped bar that is just about the perfect place to have your meal, or just sip an after work drink. The wine by the glass list is well-conceived and features one of my favorite zinfandels – Easton Amador County – by the glass. The restaurant has recently added some new menu selections and has excellent appetizers. Bricks and Barrels’ bartenders – Drew and Cody- know their stuff and can whip up any drink you can possibly think of. Try the Lightning Bug.

Soho’s U-shaped bar at Capitol Market is one of my favorite places to whet my whistle, meet friends and dine on the extensive Italian selections on the menu. Joey is the bartender and, if you’re a regular, he knows what you want to drink before you do. The wine by the glass list is fairly comprehensive. I love the Zaccagnini Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (red) to pair with the wild mushroom and caramelized onion thin-crusted pizza. You might also sip a glass of Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay to accompany the chicken Alfredo pasta.

It’s hard to top the bar at the Chop House during happy hour. Excellent appetizer and drink prices along with a friendly and competent bar staff, make this a super place to enjoy happy hour or a meal. The Chop House has a broad selection of wines by the glass and two of my favorites are the Erath Pinot Noir and the Chalk Hill Chardonnay. The calamari appetizer is top notch too.

A few other restaurants in town feature bars where it is fun to sip and sup. I love the food and wine at The Market in South Hills where the long bar has ample room for dining. And Howard at The Bridge Road Bistro is one of Charleston’s best bartenders. The Bistro has a very nice bar area with a good selection of wines by the glass. The Block in downtown Charleston is also a great place to eat and drink at the bar or in the bar area. The owner of the restaurant, Des Baklarov, has put together a deep selection of bottles from most of the world’s great wine appellations.

I’ve also enjoyed the wine and food in the bar area at Noah’s where it’s often difficult to score a table in the main dining room. I am also a fan of the food and drink at Bluegrass Kitchen’s bar where you are up close and personal to live music just about every night of the week.

Of course, I must give a big shout out to Haley at the Red Carpet Lounge who has been serving me a varied selection of beverages at the bar for several years. And now, with a new outdoor kitchen under construction at the Carpet, we’ll be seeing more dining options on the menu too.

So the next time you’re going to be dining out, you might wish to consider enjoying your meal at a restaurant that sets a high bar!

Feastivall 2019

Now that I’ve had the opportunity to rest my weary palate after the culinary marathon of Charleston Restaurant Week, I’m more than ready to push the appetite reset button because there’s more good eatin’ and drinkin’ on the horizon! And I bet if you’re reading these words, you’re probably ready to join me. As a matter of fact, there are three events I’m planning to attend next week that you may wish to consider too.

Come Celebrate Galentine’s Day (no that’s not a typo) on Wednesday, February13 from 6:30 to 9:30 pm at the Capitol Market Wine Shop. Galentine’s Day was created for an episode of the “Parks and Recreation” comedy series nearly a decade ago. That particular show was so popular that it became a kind of urban legend that has made Galentine’s Day an unofficial national holiday. It is held the day before Valentine’s Day each year and has become a celebration of friendship, particularly among women. But men are obviously invited too. Several wines will be available for tasting and there will be food as well as music. Cost is $25 a person.

Fellows, believe me when I offer this piece of advice: 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. The good news is that just about every restaurant in town has a special Valentine’s Day menu.

I may take Friday off to recharge my batteries because I will be competing in West Virginia’s signature food and beverage competition on Saturday, February 16 at the seventh annual Feastivall dinner. Feastivall, held at Berry Hills Country Club, is a fundraiser supporting Festivall – the ten-day event in June that brings top-notch musical and entertainment talent to the greater Charleston area.

Feastivall is a good old fashion beverage throw down pitting wine versus beer in a five-course gourmet meal. Attendees will have the opportunity to vote on the best accompaniment (wine or beer) for each of the five courses prepared by Buzz Foods’ Paul Smith and the executive chef at Berry Hills.

The event will begin at 6 p.m. with a wine and beer aperitif bar where guests can sip, mingle and bid on items at the silent auction which will include works of art, as well as restaurant packages, travel opportunities, and other gifts. The evening will also feature performances by local artists and will be hosted by Mountain Stage’s Larry Groce. Cost is $115 a person and an optional up charge (to $150) for those wishing to attend a special VIP tasting before the main event . Get your tickets by going to: http://festivallcharleston.com/ or by calling 304-470-0489.

So come out and root for your favorite beverage. Thus far, wine has won four of the six previous events so there’s more pressure than ever on that lesser beverage (beer) to compete for bragging rights. My good, if misguided, friend Rich Ireland will pick the beer for each menu item. You can check out my wine selections with the menu below. Hope to see you there.

 

Menu

Aperitif: 2016 Acrobat Pinot Gris

Course #1
A goat cheese tartlet with greens, beets and herb buttermilk dressing

2016 Trimbach Pinot Blanc

Course #2
Smoked Salmon and Smoked Trout Nicoise

2015 King Estate Pinot Noir

Course #3
Mushroom and Sherry Soup with Crostini

2017 Clos Pegase Chardonnay

Course #4

Waygu short rib with Farro parmesan risotto and
Roasted root vegetables

2016 Artezin Old Vine Zinfandel

Course #5
Chocolate Ganache Tartlet with salted caramel and stewed berries

Taylor Fladgate 10-Year-Old Tawny Port

New Year’s Wine Resolutions

It’s a new year and while many of you are struggling with resolutions involving body weight, finances or personal relationships, I’m resolving to explore new wine horizons in the hope of reinvigorating my relationship with the fruit of the vine.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m still in love with wine. But like any long-standing love affair, there needs to be, from time to time, a spark to reignite the ardor and excitement I experienced when I first realized that I was in this relationship for the long haul.

But my connection with wine was not love at first sip!

As a child in my Italian-American family, I was expected to consume a small glass of wine (that had been diluted with water) at the regular Sunday family meal attended by an army of aunts, uncles and cousins. But I hated the sour-tasting stuff.

 

After faking a sip of the awful mixture during the traditional family toast at the beginning of the meal, I always poured the remainder in dribs and drabs under the table where the family cat, with a much less discriminating palate, bailed me out by slurping up the vile concoction.

So my first experiences with wine were not exactly positive. Later in college, my encounters with the fruit of the vine were less than memorable. As a matter of fact, the flagons of the high octane swill I consumed back then often rendered me memory-less. So it wasn’t until I was married and gainfully employed that I began to appreciate that wine actually had qualities beyond precipitating inebriation.

My actual wine epiphany occurred at a meal when the perfect compatibility of a certain food and wine combination was an almost ethereal experience for me. In this instance, it was the heavenly marriage of a black cherry glazed pork tenderloin and a Ridge Lytton Springs zinfandel. That exceptional pairing made me understand that wine can truly be a magic elixir.

Okay, so what will once again excite my obsessive interest in the world of wine? Well, I’m going to start my exploration by seeking out wines from unfamiliar viticultural areas. Not just countries where I have little or no experience, but also appellations within those nations. Take, for example, New Zealand. While I’ve enjoyed the wonderful sauvignon blancs from that distant land, I hope to try the pinot noirs from Central Otago well down the South Island of New Zealand.

I’m also going to try and find the excellent red wines of Croatia and Slovenia, two countries that share the northern extension of the Adriatic Sea with Italy. While many of the grapes in these two countries are almost impossible to pronounce and spell, I am going to seek some of them out.

Plavic Mali is perhaps the best red produced in Croatia. I visited the island of Hvar in that small country and was scheduled to have a tasting of Croatian wines. While our group enjoyed the rose and white wines of Croatia, the winery that was to supply the Plavic Mali did not show up. Yet, I’ve heard this is a very special wine and I am determined to find it.

The wines of Sicily have always intrigued me too. Most wine lovers have tasted the ubiquitous nero d’Avola and primitivo reds of that country, but I want to try the nerello mascalese and syrah of the region along with the malvasia white wine.

And those are just a few of my resolutions for the New Year. That’s the beauty of wine appreciation. You can appreciate that the journey never ends.

Wines for your holiday shopping

It’s beginning to look a lot like… time to go holiday shopping for wine. And in an effort to assist you in your search for that perfect vinous gift, I have listed some of my favorite wines from the past year with, of course, food pairing suggestions. I wish you all a very happy holiday! Here you go.

2017 Izadi Blanco Rioja ($20) –From Rioja in northern Spain, this white, comprised of 80% Viura and 20% Malvasia, was barrel fermented for three months in French oak and features flavors of ripe apples and citrus. Round and ripe, it would be excellent paired with Paella or grilled monk fish.

2014 Collefrisio Confronto Bianco ($36) – This Italian white from Abruzzo is a chardonnay-like blend of pinot grigio and pecorino (the grape not the cheese) that is a rich and round, medium to full bodied wine. With almond and brioche nuances, this white would be a perfect match to veal saltimbocca.

2015 Mer Soleil Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay ($30) This is a rich, yet perfectly balanced, chardonnay that has hints of vanilla on the nose and a creamy mouth feel with ripe apple flavors and refreshing acidity. This would be lovely paired with chicken cordon bleu.

2016 Mastroberadino Fiano di Avellino ($30)- One of the characteristics of this white wine from the Campania region of Italy (in the hills above Naples) is the nutty, round and rich flavors of Fiano. It also has some citrus and mineral notes and should be a perfect match to the complex flavors of rigatoni with peas and Italian sausage in an alfredo sauce.

2014 Montefalco Sagrantino ($40) – From Umbria just north of Rome, Sagrantino is a rich, medium-bodied red wine and is also the name of the grape from which it is made. Ripe black cherries, tea and hints of smoke characterize this tannic red. This would be a delicious accompaniment to veal osso buco.

2015 Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel ($44) – This wine, with flavors of blackberries, cola and spice, is round, rich and silky. It’s an elegant zin that would be heavenly paired with a butterflied leg of lamb that has been rubbed with coarsely ground black pepper, kosher salt and garlic, and then marinated overnight in a bath of red wine, olive oil, lemons and rosemary before being grilled over a charcoal fire.

2013 Sant’Antonio Paradiso ($30) – From Italy’s Veneto region, this medium-bodied red is full of ripe cherry flavors with just a touch of oak on the finish. Try it with barbecued baby back ribs that have been dry-rubbed with black pepper, kosher salt, brown sugar and cayenne pepper.

2013 Luna de Esperanza Super Premium Malbec ($39)- This malbec from the Mendoza region of Argentina has hints of blackberries and coffee. The medium tannins mask the silky texture of this lovely bottle that would be a perfect accompaniment to grilled hanger steak with a green chimichurri sauce.

2015 Anderson’s Conn Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – ($60) –Rich, ripe and chock full of chocolate, mocha and cola flavors, this wine is a keeper. The wine offers aromas of currants and spice with hints of toasty oak. Decant the wine for at least an hour and then serve it as a delicious accompaniment to roasted prime rib.

2015 Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir ($75) – My all-time favorite Oregon pinot noir, the Evenstad Reserve is consistently excellent year after year. Ripe dark cherries, spice and tea combine on the palate and are enhanced by a kiss of oak. Drink this wine with a Christmas ham or roasted turkey.

Wines for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of our most cherished national holidays. It is a time to remember the sacrifices and contributions of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock nearly 500 years ago. We’ll celebrate our national heritage with a feast like no other replete with foods that are produced or grown in the good old USA.

With turkey (our “National Bird”) as the centerpiece of the meal, we will consume, among other culinary delights, a cornucopia of uniquely American dishes such as sweet and/or mashed potatoes, cornbread or chestnut stuffing, cranberry relish and pumpkin pie.

So you might be surprised to know that the first wine I’ll lead off with to toast Thanksgiving dinner this year will be from … France!

Why, you might ask, would I not celebrate this uniquely American meal with wine produced in our own country? Well, before you get your red, white and blue undies in a tangle, please know that I will be using American wines too – just not to begin with.

You see, there is another date – Thursday, November 15 -that should have particular significance for wine lovers everywhere. That’s when Beaujolais Nouveau – the first wine of the 2018 vintage – was released in France and is now available in the US- even here West Virginia.

Beaujolais Nouveau is a fun sipper full of fresh strawberry and cherry flavors that is produced from the gamay grape, and it’s only two months old when it arrives in wine shops and cafes around the world. I plan on using the nouveau this year as an aperitif before our Thanksgiving dinner.

After the Beaujolais Nouveau I plan to open a bottle of Trimbach pinot gris from Alsace for those at my dinner table who prefer white wine. I will also open an Oregon pinot noir for those who would like red. (I’ll have a little of each). For dessert, I will chose a bottle of Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest riesling to accompany the pumpkin pie, and then I’ll plop down on the couch to watch some NFL team hand the Detroit Lions THEIR lunch.

You can really have fun selecting wines for Thanksgiving because the meal can be successfully paired with white or red, as well as light or full-bodied wines. 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, to smoking (with hardwood such as apple) -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 vinous pairing possibilities.

Here are a few wine-pairing suggestions, based upon cooking methods, for your Thanksgiving Day feast:

The traditional oven-roasted turkey with a mild sage dressing is very nicely accompanied by whites such as Alsatian riesling, California sauvignon blanc or a steely chardonnay like Chablis. For reds, you might try a Washington State merlot, Brunello Di Montalcino from Tuscany, or a Bordeaux blend from Napa.

For those intrepid souls who choose to smoke or charcoal grill the National Bird, I suggest pairing this spicy, smoky meal with pinot noir from either California or Oregon, petite sirah or zinfandel from California or Chateauneuf Du Pape from France.

And with dessert – whether it’s pumpkin pie and whipped cream or some other belly-buster- you might select a California late harvest riesling or a moscato from the Piedmont region in northern Italy.

Here’s wishing you a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Malbec – better than ever!

I had never been a great fan of malbec, a grape that traditionally served as one of the five vinous components in red Bordeaux. Malbec is used to add weight and color to the Bordeaux blend, which may also be comprised of varying amounts of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot.

But, in the past few decades, malbec has helped put Argentina on the world wine map as a single varietal. Malbec was first planted there in the late 1800’s, but it languished for decades as just another red wine. However, in the 1990’s vintners began to adopt better vineyard practices and started using up-to-date wine making equipment to produce a malbec that quickly became an international favorite.

But I had never been fond of the wine. It seemed to me to be a bit over done, too rough around the edges and too tannic for my palate. I tried several different producers’ wines, but most of what was being made was just “too in your face” for me.

But a few years back, things began to change for the better. Some producers, particularly those in the high altitude Mendoza region of Argentina, began to make malbec that was significantly more drinkable. For me, the improvement can be expressed in one word: balance.

That had always been the missing ingredient in Argentinean malbec. In the Mendoza region where vineyards are planted at altitudes exceeding 3000 feet, malbec benefits from not only warm sunny days, but also from very cool nights that give the grapes enough natural acidity to balance the ample sugar, and assist in producing a very drinkable wine.

But of all the good Malbec I‘ve had in the past couple of years, none compares with three wines I had the pleasure of sipping recently at one of the JQ Dickinson Salt-Works’ farm to table dinners. The dinner, exquisitely prepared by Chef Paul Smith of Buzz Food Service, paired three Argentinean courses with three malbecs from Luna De Esperanza, a small American-owned winery.

Luna De Esperanza is located in the Uco Valley of Mendoza at more than 3700 feet above sea level. The tiny three-acre vineyard produces three wines that are deep, rich, full-bodied and age worthy. They are also wonderfully balanced and definitely show their best when paired with complementary foods such as the dishes prepared at the JQ Dickinson dinner. The three wines are available at the Wine Shop at Capitol Market.

2014 Luna De Esperanza Grand Blend ($49) – This blend of 70 percent malbec along with 10 percent each of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah is aged for 18 months in new French oak. With flavors of mocha and spice and nuances of licorice and cola, this is a very tannic, but well-balanced, wine. The Grand Blend was deliciously paired with two types of grilled sausages.

2013 Luna de Esperanza Super Premium Malbec, Uco Valley ($39)- Slightly lighter in texture than the Grand Blend, this malbec (90 percent) along with equal parts of cabernet franc and syrah has hints of blackberries and coffee. The medium tannins mask the silky texture of this lovely bottle. Paul Smith matched this wine with grilled hanger steak with a green chimichurri sauce.

2013 Luna de Esperanza Barrel Fermented Malbec, Uco Valley ($69) –This massive, 100 percent malbec was fermented in older oak barrels before spending 24-months in new French oak. With decadent flavors of rich dark chocolate and toasty oak, the wine paired seamlessly with Dulce de Leche – a bitter sweet chocolate and heavy crème concoction that was truly over the top!

Grandma’s Marinara

It’s almost Columbus Day and in a tribute to that intrepid (if flawed) explorer, and to all things Italian, I will share with you a simple, but exquisite, recipe for making the perfect marinara sauce.

But first, let’s take a candid look at Christopher Columbus. Columbus spent most of his adult life trying (unsuccessfully) to convince the Italian government to underwrite a voyage to India where he promised to procure all manner of exotic spices. Undaunted, Columbus then went to Portugal where he lobbied King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

He pestered the king and queen so relentlessly that they finally gave in, secretly hoping that he, along with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, would sail out of their lives and off the end of the world – which, of course, was flat back then.

You have to give it to Columbus, though. He was persistent and ultimately successful. But you also have to admit he was directionally challenged. Here’s a guy who traveled west to find a quicker route to the east and ended up discovering north…. AMERICA? But thanks to Columbus, my Italian grandparents also took the voyage from Europe to America, and I exist because of them – and him.

I have a multitude of wonderful memories of my Italian-American family, and of growing up in the North View section of Clarksburg. One of my most cherished and enduring recollections, though, is of my Grandma in her kitchen, lovingly making her delectable marinara sauce. The recipe below is a close approximation of her simple, yet delicious, creation.

One quick note about wine pairings with pasta marinara: You don’t necessarily need to use Italian wine. Any medium to full-bodied red will marry nicely with the spicy tomato sauce featured below. Here are two wines – one from Italy and one from France, you might consider.

2015 Domaine Lafage Bastide Miraflors Rouge ($17) – Composed of 70% syrah and 30% old vine grenache, this southern French red has loads of ripe blueberry and blackberry flavors. It is also spicy and a perfect match to the flavors in the marinara.

2014 Castello Di Albola Chianti Classico Riserva ($22) –This medium-bodied red has scents of new oak, and is an elegant and ripe sangiovese-based wine. Paired with Grandma’s marinara, the combination is truly simpatico.

Grandma’s Marinara

Two 28-ounce cans of San Marzano Italian whole tomatoes
One medium onion diced
One red bell pepper and one carrot diced
One hot Hungarian banana pepper diced (optional)
Four cloves of minced garlic
Two ounces each of fresh chopped basil and Italian parsley
One tablespoon of kosher salt
One teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper
One-half teaspoon of ground cayenne or red pepper flakes (optional)
One-quarter teaspoon of dried oregano
One-quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil
One medium sized Hollywood pork boneless rib
One-quarter cup of Balsamic vinegar
One pound of linguini or fettuccine pasta
One half cup of grated pecorino romano cheese
One cup of grated parmesano reggiano cheese

How to:

Sauté the pork rib in olive oil in a large pot until browned on all sides
Remove pork from pot, add onions, peppers, carrots and sauté until translucent
Add garlic, salt, black pepper and dry oregano to pot
Open cans of tomatoes, add to pot and use a large fork to break up tomatoes
Add the fresh basil and parsley along with cayenne or red pepper flakes
Add Balsamic vinegar, pork rib and pecorino romano to the sauce
Cook over medium heat for 1/12 hours, stirring regularly
Place pasta in boiling water, cook until al dente and drain in a colander
Add half the marinara and all the pasta to a large sauté pan
Over low heat toss the pasta in the marinara to mix completely
Plate immediately adding more marinara sauce
Top the pasta marinara with grated parmesano reggiano