Vines & Vittles

A festive summertime picnic menu with wines

Is there any better time of the year than summer? I don’t think so, and today I’m going to regale you with a delightful summertime four-course menu, with accompanying wines, that you can enjoy on the deck or even at your Fourth of July picnic. So, fire up the grill, put a chill on the wines (even the reds) and relish the fruits of your labor.

Appetizer: Spicy Pimento Cheese and Veggies – Add a few splashes of tabasco to pimento cheese spread and slather it onto flatbread crackers or crostini, and/or serve it as a dip with olives, celery, carrots, sugar snap peas and other raw veggies.

Wine: Mirabeau la Folie Sparkling rose’ ($25) – From southern France, this pale pink sparkling rosé is a dry bubbly with notes of bright peach and tropical fruit flavors. A great match to the spicy pimento cheese appetizer, this lovely and refreshing sparkling wine would also be a great accompaniment to brunch food or as a porch-sipper.

Salad course: Tri-color Rotini Pasta Salad. Cook rotini until al dente and, when it is cool, add green peas, cherry tomatoes, green onions pine nuts and chopped basil. Mix together and sauce the pasta salad with a creamy Caesar dressing, top with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and serve after a few hours in the refrigerator.

 

 

Wines: 2023 Santa Julia (plus) Viognier ($12) – From the Mendoza wine appellation in Argentina, this herbal, fruit-forward viognier seamlessly enhances the veggie pasta dish with flora and mineral flavors.

2021 Monte Carbonare Suavia ($32) – This Soave-style white from Veneto region in northern Italy has been awarded a 95-point score from a major winer critic. Light gold in color, the wine has uncharacteristic depth and intensity for wines produced in the Soave appellation. Its creamy texture makes an exceptional pairing with the pasta salad.

Main Course: Mixed Grill of Sausages. Grill a combination of Italian, Kielbasa and Bratwurst sausages along with onions, red and yellow bell peppers and jalapenos. Serve the sausages and veggies on grilled and toasted hoagie buns or soft sandwich rolls.

Wines: 2022 Colosi Nero D’Avola ($17) -With aromas of ripe cherries and spice, this cardinal-colored red from Sicily provides a crisp and fruity counterbalance to the robust and spicy flavors of the sausage and peppers.

2022 Elizabeth Spencer Grenache ($35) – From grapes grown in Mendocino County, this deeply purple grenache is both rich and brightly refreshing with a nice zing of acidity that cools and complements this grilled sausage dish. Serve this one slightly chilled.

Dessert: Cherry Pie Al La Mode. If you’re not a baker, get this pie from your favorite bakery and top it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Wine: Rinaldi ReDream ($20) – This slightly sparkling red wine from Piedmont in northern Italy is a lovely, frothy, sweet dessert wine that is a perfect picnic or outdoor wine to sip with dessert. Made from 100% malvasia red grapes, this is a low alcohol (7%) wine with loads of cherry and apricot flavors that marry exceptionally well with cherry pie a la mode.

Enjoy!
John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book, Augie’s World, is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. Both novels are available in print and audio at Amazon. You can find out more about his novels and wine columns at wordsbyjohnbrown.com

When I find compatible wine and food combinations, I have to force myself to try different pairing options and think outside the box… er…bottle. I suppose it’s because I’m a firm believer in the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” so I am very reluctant to risk suffering through, heaven forbid, a meal where the wine and food pairing is not simpatico. That would be as devastating and unpalatable as a loss to Pitt on Homecoming Day in Morgantown.

It’s all about priorities, and mine are rooted in hedonism and the endless search for gustatory nirvana. So, it is sometimes difficult for me to pass up tried and true combo’s like: grilled ribeye paired with a full-bodied, robust cabernet sauvignon; or lobster dunked in drawn butter and accompanied by a glass of rich and oaky chardonnay; or how about a silky pinot noir with roasted salmon or even a refreshing glass of sauvignon blanc with capellini slathered in a basil and pine nut pesto?

You get the picture, right? Well, I’m here to tell you it’s time to live a little on the wild side and try some wines that are not in your vinous wheelhouse. Today, I’ll suggest a few whites and reds that you might not have sipped, but which can serve as tasty alternatives to the old tried and true wines mentioned above.

White Wine Alternatives

If you are a chardonnay aficionado, you might try a wine called aligoté’ (Al-ee-go-tay). The aligoté grapes are planted in the Burgundy region of France where the more famous and expensive white (chardonnay) also grows. Like chardonnay, aligoté has ripe apple flavors, excellent acidity and a rich finish. Try it with roast chicken or pan sauteed white fish like cod.

If you regularly enjoy the flavors of sauvignon blanc, you probably would relish sipping falanghina (Foul-en-geen-uh). Falanghina is grown in the southern Italian region of Campania near Naples, and it has some of the same flavor characteristics as sauvignon such as herbal, floral and tropical notes. An excellent pairing to dishes like Frito Misto (fried seafood), or meals that feature asparagus and other herbs, falanghina is also a superb accompaniment to the aforementioned pesto pasta.

If you enjoy sipping pinot grigio on the deck or paired with appetizers and lighter seafood dishes, you should give picpoul de pinet (Pick-pull-da-pee-nay) a try. The wine is a mouthful to pronounce, but it is chock full of citrus flavors with a lovely nuance of minerality that pairs especially well with dishes like bouillabaisse or lighter flavored cheeses. This wine from southern France is also a great value with retail prices around $15 a bottle.

Red Wine Alternatives

Most wine lovers enjoy cabernet sauvignon and other full-bodied reds with hearty dishes like beef and pork roasts or full-flavored stews. If you’re tired of the same old, same old, switch things up with Chinon (She-non.) This red hails from the Loire region in France and is made from cabernet franc – a genetic relative of cabernet sauvignon. Chinon has many of the same flavor profiles found in cabernet sauvignon with a bit more herbal tones. Cabernet franc is often combined with cabernet sauvignon and merlot to create a supple blend. Chinon, however, is made with one hundred percent cabernet franc, and it’s a lovely accompaniment to roast pork tenderloin and grilled lamb chops.

I probably consume more pinot noir than any other type of red wine. That’s because of its suitability to a wide variety of foods from meat to fish and even spicy dishes. However, when I need a great red alternative to pinot noir, I often select Aglianico (Al-yawn-ee-ko). This southern Italian grape has earthy, smoky aromas with black cherry and blueberry flavors. It is, like pinot noir, a great accompaniment to spicy barbecue as well as smoked salmon and grilled burgers.

If you’re a fan of full-bodied California zinfandel and/or syrah, grenache might an excellent alternative to those purple monsters, especially ones grown and produced in either Spain (where it is known as garnacha) or in Australia. Like zinfandel, grenache is a very versatile grape. Depending on the whim of the winemaker or the geographic location where it is grown, grenache can produce a medium-bodied wine or a really full-bodied, lush and dark berry flavored whopper. I usually seek out the fuller-flavored ones and, if that’s your preference too, be sure to have your wine shop salesperson know what youi’re looking for. My two favorite wines are Alto Moncayo Garnacha from Spain and Clarendon Hills Grenache from McLaren Vale in south Australia.

So, live dangerously and take a chance on alternatives to your everyday go-to bottles. You might be pleasantly surprised. If you’re disappointed, it still won’t be as bad as losing to Pitt.

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book, Augie’s World, is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. Both novels are available in print and audio at Amazon. You can find out more about his novels and wine columns at wordsbyjohnbrown.com

 

Perfect Wines for Rack of Pork Agrodolce

Homo sapiens are complex beings. We like to think that we know what we like, and then we change our minds and make choices that surprise us. Take wine for example. For years, I had an aversion to drinking  any type of sweet wine. But I  know that was  the result of too many traumatic youthful experiences with sugary, high-octane liquids pretending to be wine. And then, low and behold, I had the occasion to sip a late harvest riesling with dessert at a fancy restaurant and I realized that sweet wines, in moderation, can be truly enjoyable.

Yin and yang,  ebb and flow, hot and cold:  seemingly incongruous terms that oftentimes can complement each other. How about sweet and sour? “Agrodolce” (Ag-row-dole-chee) is a sweet and sour sauce that is featured in many Italian recipes to enhance meat and fish dishes. Today’s menu showcases a rendition of agrodolce that combines its sweet and sour components to enhance the delectable flavor of roasted pork.

Recently, I purchased  a center cut pork rib roast (also referred to as rack of pork) from the great folks at General Steak and Seafood in Charleston. This roast is the pork equivalent of a standing beef rib roast or a rack of lamb. I used the agrodolce, like an Italian barbecue sauce, to baste each piece of meat that I cut from the roast once it was cooked. And, while I paired the roast with an Italian Chianti Classico Riserva (see below), pinot noir would make an equally good pairing with the dish. Pork roast, unlike beef or lamb, does better with light to medium bodied reds like sangiovese and pinot noir. You could also use white wine such as sauvignon blanc, viognier or a lighter-styled chardonnay to pair with the pork roast, but without the pungent agrodolce sauce.

This  pork roast was cut from Berkshire hogs –  a heritage breed originally imported from England in the early 1800’s. Berkshire meat is considered more juicy, flavorful and tender than meat from American bred pigs. However, I’ve also enjoyed the same type of roast from domestic animals, and the price per pound is about half of what you’ll pay for Berkshire pork. Regardless of what type of meat you choose, it’s important to note that pork roasts are significantly less expensive than beef or lamb. So Enjoy!

Here are my two wine recommendations for “Rack of Pork Agrodolce.”

2019 Castello di Bossi Berado Chianti Classico Riserva($30) This Brunello-like, ruby red, medium-bodied Sangiovese is replete with dark plum, chocolate and spice flavors with a kiss of oak. It also features a nice dollop of bright acidity that makes it a perfect match to the savory richness of the agrodolce-enhanced rack of pork roast. 

2021 Brewer-Clifton Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir. ($50) One of the coolest climates on the west coast, Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County has a very long growing season and a place where pinot noir flourishes.  With aromas of  strawberries and spice and flavors of ripe cherries and nuances of vanilla and earthy mushrooms, the wine stands up and enhances the rich roasted pork agrodolce.

Rack of Pork Agrodolce

Ingredients:

One four or eight rib pork roast

Two tablespoons ground black pepper, kosher salt, minced garlic, rosemary and tomato paste

One quarter cup each balsamic vinegar, plain white vinegar and dry red wine

Three tablespoons: honey and pan drippings from pork roast

One half cup of chopped onions

One teaspoon red pepper flakes and  chopped parsley

One mashed anchovy

Preparation:

Mix one tablespoon each, salt, black pepper, garlic, olive oil and rosemary

Score the fat side of roast with a knife and rub the mixture all over the meat

Allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least eight hours or overnight

Remove meat from refrigerator one hour before roasting

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and roast meat for 15 minutes

Lower oven to 325 degrees and roast until internal meat temperature is 145 degrees

Determine cooking time based on 20 minutes per pound

Remove meat from oven and tent up with foil for 20 minutes

Slice the meat into individual pork chops, and baste agrodolce over each piece

For the Agrodolce:

Saute onions, parsley, anchovy and garlic in a small pan, adding salt and pepper

Add vinegar, tomato paste, pan drippings, wine, honey and red pepper flakes

Simmer agrodolce for about 15 minutes until liquid is reduced and thickened

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book, Augie’s World, is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. Both novels are available in print and audio at Amazon. You can find out more about his novels and wine columns at wordsbyjohnbrown.com

 

Bravo Marcello! Grazie Mille

Discovering the symbiotic relationship between wine and food is one of life’s exquisite pleasures. While I’ve always enjoyed eating, I was not always a fan of wine. As a matter of fact, it took me several years to realize that wine could be more than just an inferior substitute for beer or hundred proof vodka. It wasn’t until after I returned from an all-expense paid tour of southeast Asia (courtesy of the US Army) that my plebian palate experienced the alluring, complex and addicting characteristics of wine.

At that time, I was pursuing a graduate degree at WVU, and my wife and I were celebrating a special occasion at the Montmartre – Morgantown’s fanciest restaurant of the day located in the basement of the Hotel Morgan. I had ordered a beer to accompany my filet of beef, but the waiter suggested a glass of red wine instead. I was about to decline until he said that if I didn’t like the wine, I wouldn’t have to pay for it.  I accepted his offer, fully expecting to be disappointed. I was not. The wine by itself was tasty, but in combination with my steak, the dining experience was sublime. That epiphany changed the way I thought about wine – and food. As a result, I’ve been on a life-long mission to find and experience exceptional food and wine pairings.

A couple of weeks ago, I experienced one of those rare times when the entrée and accompanying wine were a perfect match. My wife and I were having dinner in Sarasota, Florida at a small Italian restaurant. Marcello Ristorante is located along a busy highway in small strip mall, and in a non-descript building. The place is the embodiment of the phrase, “looks can be deceiving,” because Marcello is one of the finest Italian restaurants in which I have dined. The owner of the eponymous restaurant, Marcello Aquino, is a self-taught master chef who perfected his culinary skills at his mother’s small Italian eatery in Sarasota, and then later in New York City restaurants.

Marcello is open for dinner service only, and the menu (which changes daily) is featured on a chalkboard that is rolled up to each table for patrons to view and make  selections. There are nine tables in the main body of the restaurant along with a 12-seat table in an adjacent glass enclosed wine room where guests dine next to a wall of bottles. The chef is just a one-man show toiling in a small, open kitchen to create edible masterpieces such as Bahamian Lobster Tail Fra Diavolo, Florida Rock Shrimp with Gnocchi and Sage Cream along with a host of other mouth-watering delights.

The wine list at Marcello is voluminous with bottles from every Italian region, and with a special emphasis on Brunello di Montalcino. The Brunello portfolio alone features more than 300 different labels, making it one of the most extensive lists of that fabled Tuscan wine on the planet. Just as amazing is how reasonably the wines are priced. Most wines can be purchased for what you might pay for that same bottle in a wine shop, and some are actually priced below retail. For the superb quality of the wine list and the exceptional cuisine, Marcello Ristorante has earned the Wine Spectator’s coveted  “Award of Excellence.”

For my entree, I chose a bottle of 2015 Le Potazzine Brunello di Montalcino. The wine was pure silk! With smoky, earthy aromas and spicy, ripe cherry flavors, this velvety wine was a perfect match to the chef’s hand-made pappardelle. The noodles were bathed in a white wine and olive oil sauce with asparagus, and topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano and shaved black truffles. If you would like to dine at Marcello Ristorante, be sure to call well in advance of your planned visit to book a reservation (941-921-6794) at this small, exquisite restaurant.

If you won’t be travelling to Sarasota any time soon, and if my description of the culinary gems at Marcello’s makes you hunger for an Italian food and wine fix, there are several excellent local establishments in the Charleston-Huntington region from which to choose. My go-to Italian restaurant here in Charleston is Ristorante Abruzzi which is adjacent to Go-Mart Ballpark on Morris Street. I also love to “mangia” Italiano at Rocco’s Ristorante in Ceredo-Kenova – just an hour down the road past Huntington.

Ciao Amici!

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book, Augie’s World, is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. Both novels are available in print and audio at Amazon. You can find out more about his novels and wine columns at wordsbyjohnbrown.com

 

Valentine’s Day: Forget it at your peril!

I’m issuing a critically important alert to folks who share my gender: Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and you better be ready!

Men, believe me when I say that special person in your life takes this annual holiday VERY seriously. I learned this the hard way several years ago when I arrived home from work one day to find the house dimly lit with candlelight, and the rooms suffused with heavenly aromas of freshly baked bread. On the dining room table was a carafe of red wine, a rose in a vase with a Hallmark card the size of an aardvark leaning against it. Could I have entered the wrong home? Was I in a parallel universe?

Unfortunately, I had arrived at the correct address, but I had forgotten it was Valentine’s Day. For the next several weeks there was a definite chill in the air, and it was especially frigid in one particular room in the house. It took me quite a while to earn my “get out of the doghouse card.” So now, February 14th is forever indelibly etched into the recesses of my feeble mind.

I know you won’t make the same mistake and you’ll probably shower your significant other with jewelry, flowers or candy. However, I also suggest adding a bottle of tasty (as well as tasteful) romance-enhancing wine to your card or other Valentine gift. And, since the traditional Valentine’s Day colors are red and pink, I’m recommending wines that highlight those particular hues.

Whether you celebrate the day with a nice dinner at home or at your favorite restaurant, you should start the celebration with a sparkling wine or Champagne to set the mood and make the event even more effervescent. Give one or both of these bottles a try.

Mumm Napa Cuvee M ($30) From the famous Champagne house of Mumm, this slightly sweet Napa Valley sparkling rose’ is chock full of raspberry and strawberry flavors. It also has nuances of toast, vanilla and honey, and it would be an equally good aperitif or dessert wine.

2020 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs ($45) Produced from pinot noir grapes, this sparkler is made in a classic Brut Champagne style. It is a complex and layered wine featuring flavors of peach, apricot and lemon zest. It would be a lovely accompaniment to appetizer foods such as smoked salmon, or main course dishes such as pan-seared halibut.

Another excellent wine choice for Valentine’s Day dinner is rose’. There are a great number of food friendly rose’s, including this one from Mendocino County California. The 2021 Elizabeth Spenser Rose’ of Grenache ($25) is a medium bodied wine that has subtle hints of pineapple and other tropical fruit flavors. The wine has excellent balancing acidity making it a great food wine. It pairs well with brunch type dishes as well as baked ham, pork tenderloin or even grilled salmon main courses.

If your Valentine date prefers red wine, you should try the 2021 Quilt Cabernet Sauvignon ($50). This Napa Valley full-bodied and rich cabernet has flavors of dark chocolate, blackberries and cola. It would be a perfect match for hearty meat dishes such as grilled beef tenderloin or roast prime rib.

For dessert, I would treat my Valentine to the decadently rich and sweet Dolce Late Harvest Semillon ($100). This 375 ML (half bottle) is a truly special treat with amazing flavors of apricot, honey and spice. It also features the unique flavor of botrytis-affected grapes that add a lovely tang of acidity to the wine known colloquially as the “Noble Rot.” Spectacular by itself, it would be an amazing pairing with crème brulee or cheesecake.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book, Augie’s World, is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. Both novels are available in print and audio at Amazon. You can find out more about his novels and wine columns at wordsbyjohnbrown.com

 

In Vino Veritas

I recently visited California and the vineyard that annually provides the grapes I use to make homemade wine. For the last five years, the quality of those wines has far exceeded anything I’ve ever made before, and I wanted to meet the people that grow the grapes. The Lanza family vineyards are in Solano County just a quick 30- minute drive east of the Napa Valley. More specifically, the Lanza property is located in the Suisun (pronounced Sue-Soon) Valley.

I met with Ron Lanza, the oldest of four brothers, that manage the business, and who have sold their grapes for decades to some of the most prestigious wineries in northern California such as Caymus. In fact, because of the quality of the grapes in the Suisun Valley, Caymus built a tasting facility adjacent to the Lanza vineyards. The Lanza’s also have their own winery, Wooden Valley, and four generations of the family have been making wines there for 90 years. The wines are only available for sale at the tasting room, or through their online tasting clubs. If you’re interested, you can go to their website at: woodenvalley.com. Their wines are uniformly excellent.

Meeting with the Lanza family reminded me of my own immigrant roots and the importance of wine to the culture and tradition of the Italian family. There was always a jug of homemade vino on the family table, especially during family meals at my Grandparents’ home in the North View section of Clarksburg. So, I suppose it’s not surprising that I followed the wine-stained trail blazed by my Grandfather decades before. I know that memories of Grandpa and my uncles making wine left an indelible imprint in my mind. One particular vintage stands out.

My uncles and older cousins gathered in the side yard of Grandpa’s home to make wine. The grapes, mostly reds like zinfandel and petite sirah, came from vineyards in California’s Central Valley, and were then transported by train across the country. I remember helping unload the boxcar full of grapes, packed in 36-pound wooden boxes called lugs. The annual winemaking ritual was a joyous occasion for the whole family. There would be tables next to the old wooden grape crusher that held platters of Italian food and jugs of homemade wine. However, there were certain traditions that had to be observed before the winemaking festivities could begin. First, our parish priest would appear in the yard to bless the new vintage. He would pick up a small vial of holy water, sprinkle and then bless the grapes in the first lug to be crushed. Next, Grandpa would point to the only person among us who was not a member of the family and ask her to come forward. Lucia Carmaletti provided a service that was deemed necessary before winemaking in our family could commence.

Lucia, who was thought to be a gypsy, was hired to perform the ritual “pigiatura” or stomping of the grapes. The woman chosen to do the stomping was traditionally required to be a young maiden, but as my Uncle Frankie said, “the grapes can’t wait for maidens, or they’d never get crushed.” Lucia was neither young nor a maiden, but she was always ready, willing and able to assume the role of Vestal Virgin if called upon, and if she was compensated for her time.

So, Lucia walked up to where Grandpa stood next to a square wooden box filled with grapes. She was dressed in an ankle length, colorful dress, and she wore a purple headscarf, silver necklaces and copper bracelets on each wrist. She smiled at Grandpa, flashing two gold-capped front teeth and said with enthusiasm: “Salvatore, Che muscoli, bell’uomo!”

All the adults there howled in laughter, but Grandpa’s face turned beet red, and he looked sheepishly over at Grandma. She was not smiling. I looked at Uncle Frankie and asked him to translate. My uncle explained that Lucia said, ‘Salvatore, what muscles. You handsome man.’”

Lucia ignored the laughter, removed her leather sandals and stepped into the box. She put her hands on her hips and began dancing the Tarantella while delicately stomping on the grapes with her bare feet. She then invited the kids in the family to join her.

Memories such as these make me appreciate and cherish the culture and traditions associated with wine. They transcend the simple physical act of making it, and they are the foundation for my long and happy love affair with wine.

I am also an ardent disciple of the Roman philosopher, Pliny the Elder, who said: “In Vino Veritas” (In wine there is truth)

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book, Augie’s World, is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. Both novels are available in print and audio at Amazon. You can find out more about his novels and wine columns at wordsbyjohnbrown.com

 

Tips for holiday wine shopping

Every autumn, just before Thanksgiving, Wine Spectator Magazine releases its “Top 100” wines of the year. This year the bottle chosen as the best wine of 2023 comes from Italy. It’s the 2018 Argiano Brunello Di Montalcino that retails for $90 a bottle. The Argiano was one of 9200 wines blind-tasted and rated by the editors of the magazine. Of those 9200, 5819 bottles were rated 90 or better on the magazine’s one hundred 100-point scale, and from those wines the top 100 were selected. You can check out the entire list in the current issue of Wine Spectator.

In looking over the selections, I was pleased to see that there are 44 wines in the top 100 that cost $30 a bottle or less. The wine rated number 31 (2022 Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc) was the least expensive bottle on the list and is priced at $12 a bottle. The most expensive wine is a Napa Valley red blend (2020 Cathiard Family Estate) rated number 98 and going for $225 a bottle.

The Wine Spectator ratings substantiate a view I’ve long held that the price of wine does not guarantee the quality – good or bad -of what’s inside the bottle. In other words, if you pay $100 for a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, you can’t be certain that it will be superior to one costing $25. The converse is true also.

So obviously, you should use criteria other than price to judge the quality of wine. That’s why lists like the one from Wine Spectator, other wine rating publications or websites, along with recommendations from wine critics, all provide a valuable service (can’t you just visualize me reaching over my shoulder to pat myself on the back?). Some of us also use rating systems such as the 100-point scale where wines rated 90 and above are considered to be excellent. Others depend on buying wine from exceptionally rated vintages, and/or from specific wine regions like Bordeaux or Napa.

Aside from using these external wine evaluation options, the most failsafe way to judge the quality of wine is to taste it yourself, and then decide what to buy. However, there are more economical ways to evaluate  wine that don’t require you to buy individual bottles. One option is to attend tastings that wine shops or wine appreciation groups regularly sponsor and conduct. At these events, the sponsoring organization usually provides, at a nominal fee, several different wines for attendees to taste and judge.

Here in Charleston, The Wine Shop at Capitol Market has been conducting wine tastings for decades. This shop also has knowledgeable staff who can guide you in your buying decisions. In addition, wine appreciation groups such as Les Amis Du Vin (The Friends of Wine) conduct regular tastings, most of which also feature dinners where food courses are paired with specific wines. I love events like these where the focus is on the symbiotic relationship between wine and food.

Another very cost effective and fun way of evaluating wine is to host or participate in home tastings. Each person at the tasting provides a bottle and each wine is then tasted, discussed and rated by the group. I always suggest tasting the wines blind. You do this by covering the label (by placing the bottles in plain bags) which eliminates any possibility of label bias (i.e., familiarity with certain wines and their prices).

Here’s another strategy you can employ to improve your chances of selecting a quality wine when you’re out shopping. Regardless of price, you should always try to select wines where the label indicates the specific origin of the wine. For example, a 2019 pinot noir that indicates it was produced in Monterey County, California should be superior to a 2019 pinot noir simply labeled as having been made in California. The more geographically specific the appellation of origin is on the label, the more likely that wine will be the better choice.

Now you’re armed with the tools to go out and find just the perfect festive gift for that special wine lover in your life. Happy Holidays!

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book, Augie’s World, is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. Both novels are available in print and audio at Amazon. You can find out more about his novels and wine columns at wordsbyjohnbrown.com

 

When I first started writing about wine for the Charleston newspapers a few decades ago, my goal was to educate folks that wine should be an everyday accompaniment to meals.

Unfortunately, back then, the prevailing view of most beer-swilling and cocktail-imbibing Americans was that wine was an elitist product only consumed by ascot wearing, Hugh Hefner look-alikes with fake British accents.

It was my ardent goal to change that ubiquitous view. To poke fun at those widely held stereotypes, I created a mythical tasting panel comprised of people who were qualified in evaluating a certain category of wine. I named the group “The Southside Bridge Tasting Club,” and they were to evaluate wines for that segment of the wine drinking public that was — how shall I put it — more plebian in their tastes.

The group would gather monthly in the dead of night under the great bridge to sip and then critique various product specific wines of the time such as White Pheasant, Vito’s Thunder Mountain Chablis, Wild Irish Rose and many other popular octane-enhanced beverages. These wines had to meet only one condition: they must have screw caps so tasters would have quick and easy access to them.

Well, here we are 40 years later and, while wine is now socially accepted by just about every demographic group, there is still a controversy over which is the better wine bottle closure: corks or screw caps?

One of the first wineries in the US to adopt screwcaps on most of its wines was Bonny Doon back in the 1980’s – and not just on jug wines. Randall Graham, that off-the-wall, wildly entertaining wine maker and writer at Bonny Doon, was one of the first California vintners to feature screw caps on his premium 750ml bottlings. Since then, most US wineries now use them on at least some of their offerings, and almost all Australian and New Zealand wines are topped with screw caps.

Why do wineries consider using screw caps over corks? Well, it’s mainly an economic decision because screw caps are significantly cheaper than corks. At one time there was a concern (since debunked) that the trees from which corks are made could not meet world-wide demand. Actually, corks are made from the bark of trees and, while supply is not a problem, corks can sometimes cause wines to be “tainted.” This is a phenomenon where mold gets in the cork and negatively affects the taste and smell of the wine.

Some research suggests about one in 20 wines is corked. With that many wines potentially being returned, you can see why some wineries are going to screw caps and some even to plastic corks.

Aside from aesthetic concerns, I think screw caps are fine for wines which you will be consuming in the short term, particularly if the little suckers help keep the price down. And the reality is that more than 95 percent of all wines are made for short-term consumption.

For years it was thought that the problem with screw caps, or any enclosure which forms an airtight seal, is their inability to permit aging. More recent survey research proves that screw cap closed wines can also age well. So, while most of the older wines I have in my cellar are cork-finished, I would not shy away from aging any wine that has a screw cap closure.

To conclude, I don’t have a problem with screw caps. In fact, the first wine I ever opened was a 1.5 liter screw cap jug of Mad Dog 20/20. I sipped that wine from a paper cup under the Third Street Bridge in Clarksburg. (I have this thing about bridges and wine, don’t I?) Suffice it to say, I have a fondness for traditions – particularly those that are making a comeback

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book, Augie’s World, is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. Both novels are available in print and audio at Amazon. You can find out more about his novels and wine columns at wordsbyjohnbrown.com

 

Celebrate Columbus Day with a Super Tuscan!

There’ a nip in the air, multi-colored leaves are falling from the trees and football season is in full swing! It’s officially autumn, and I’m ready for a hearty dinner with full-bodied wine to celebrate my favorite time of the year. And also, with Columbus Day here, I’m going to recommend two Italian wines to accompany the tasty recipe for bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin I’ve provided for you below.

I know the Columbus Day holiday has been widely critiqued for the cavalier manner and heavy-handed actions of the explorer for whom the holiday is named. Christopher Columbus does deserve criticism because he was, at best, directionally challenged. Here’s a guy who traveled west to find a quicker route to the east and ended up discovering North…. America. But Columbus did introduce our continent to Italian wine, and I’m grateful to him, at least, for that.

Most of you probably know about Italy’s Tuscan wine appellation. The region is noted for producing Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino, both of which are made from the ubiquitous local grape, sangiovese. However, the Tuscan wines I’m suggesting to accompany the recipe below lean heavily on a blend of Bordeaux-style grapes.

The primary grapes used in this blend are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and even syrah – or some combination of them all. Some of the blends include small amounts of sangiovese, but the resulting wine is fuller-bodied and more age-worthy than most other Tuscan red wines. Legendary wine critic, Robert Parker, called the wine a “Super Tuscan,” and the term stuck.

Acceptance by the Italian government of the non-traditional blend that comprises a Super Tuscan came only after years of wrangling. The government did not prohibit wineries from using different grapes (like cabernet or merlot) than those approved for a specific Italian region, but the resulting wine had to be labeled as “vino de tavola” or table wine. That designation was viewed by the Super Tuscan winemakers as indicating that the wine in the bottle was simple and ordinary, and they insisted on a new label classification.

With extreme pressure from many influential Italian winemakers, the government finally established a new classification – IGT (indicazione geografica tipica) allowing wineries to produce wine from grapes not approved by them- as long as the label featured the “IGT” logo. The rest, as they say, is history and Super Tuscans are now considered to be among the most coveted of all Italian wines. Some Super Tuscans are also among the most expensive wines anywhere, but the two wines I’m recommending are delicious examples of providing exceptional quality for a reasonable price.

You might want to try one of the two Super Tuscans below with the bacon wrapped pork tenderloin recipe. I accompanied the dish with a medley of grilled onions, asparagus and yellow squash.

2021 Ornellaia Le Volte ($30)– The wine is comprised of Made merlot with smaller proportions of cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese. It has bright fruit flavors of ripe, red cherries with notes of cola and tea. The balanced acidity makes it a perfect accompaniment to the bacon wrapped pork tenderloin.

2019 Guado al Tasso “Il Bruciato” ($35) Antinori is one of the Super Tuscan pioneering wine families and Il Bruciato is a rich, jammy blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. With flavors of blackberries and chocolate and a touch of vanilla, this full-bodied wine should pair well with smoky, rich, meaty flavors of today’s recipe feature.

Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin

Ingredients

One pound pork tenderloin
Six (or more) slices of thinly cut bacon
One-fourth cup of shredded mozzarella
One tablespoon each of chopped parsley and rosemary
One-quarter cup each of diced onions and red bell peppers
Three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, Balsamic vinegar and minced garlic
One teaspoon each smoked paprika, kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper
Ten (or more) wooden toothpicks

Preparation

Cut pork tenderloin lengthwise to create a deep pocket
Rub interior and exterior with salt, pepper and paprika
Mix balsamic, olive oil (half )and garlic and rosemary in a bowl for marinade
Place pork tenderloin in container or plastic bag and marinate for at least four hours
Use remaining oil to saute onions, parsley and red pepper and allow to cool
Remove tenderloin from marinade and place on a work surface
Mix sauteed veggies and cheese together and place in tenderloin
Wrap tenderloin completely with bacon strips
Use toothpicks to keep bacon wrapped tenderloin from falling apart
Place tenderloin on oven rack and set temperature t at 400F
Bake for 20 minutes or until internal temperature of pork is 145F

Remove the toothpicks, slice into quarter inch rounds and serve

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book, Augie’s World, is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. Both novels are available in print and audio at Amazon. You can find out more about his novels and wine columns at wordsbyjohnbrown.com

Teala

During winters when I was growing up in the Northview section of Clarksburg, I remember being forced to eat food I thought had been grown in tin cans. When I refused to eat the limp and tasteless vegetables and fruit that oozed from these metal containers, I was required to sit at the dinner table until I relented, and choked down a forkful of the despicable stuff.

I suppose there was some sort of nutritional benefit to consuming canned veggies and fruit back then, but I would have preferred starvation, a paddling from Dad or even being whacked on the knuckles again by Sister Grimalda for talking during class at St. James Grade School – a medieval, penal institution where I served more time in detention than in the classroom.

But summertime was a different story because all the adults in my Italian American family had vegetable gardens and fruit trees. None of my twenty or so first cousins – or I – had to be forced to eat freshly grown family produce. But we preferred to poach the tomatoes, cherries, peppers and apples from the plantings my family members so lovingly tended, and then had to protect from the horde of hungry and larcenous kids who refused to wait for the bounty to ripen.

Kids today, though, don’t have to eat anything from a can – even in winter. With internationally transported fruits and veggies available year-round, the only thing worth consuming from a can now is a cold beverage. And with everything currently at peak harvest in our neck of the woods, there is no better time than now to enjoy the cornucopia of freshly grown edibles. So today, I’m going to provide you with a recipe that takes advantage of many of these fresh and abundant vegetables.

Teala (pronounced Tea-aa-lah) is an Italian vegetable casserole that is a spicy, delicious, one-pot, no-meat meal that is taken to another level with an accompanying bottle of wine. And Teala is an equal opportunity dish when it comes to wine since it pairs equally well with both reds and whites. If I’m using a red wine to accompany Teala, I prefer to sip light to medium-bodied bottles such as Valpolicella or Barbera.

But Teala really shines when it is paired with white wine that features herbaceous and citrus flavors with a touch of minerality. Those flavor components are especially present in many California sauvignon blancs, and in Arneis, a white wine from northern Italy. Here are two of my favorite white wines to accompany Teala.

2022 St. Supéry Estate Vineyards Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($26) – I visited this winery a few years back and was very impressed with their entire portfolio. However, I was especially pleased with the St. Supery Napa Sauvignon Blanc. The wine is bright and crisp, and features flavors of citrus with nuances of herbs and grass. It stands up to, and enhances, the savory summer casserole we call Teala.

2020 Damilano Lange Arneis ($24) – This northern Italian white is a fresh, herbaceous wine with flavors of ripe pears and citrus, and aromas of minerals and grass. It’s a lovely mouthful of wine that is not only a seamless match to the Teala, but also refreshes the palate and tames some of the zesty, spicy flavors in the dish.

Teala

Ingredients

Two medium sized zucchinis, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch thick rounds
Two medium sized yellow squash cut into 1/8-inch thick rounds
Three medium sized potatoes peeled and cut into 1/8-inch thick rounds
One medium sized onion, hot banana pepper and red bell pepper cut into thin vertical slices
Two ripe red tomatoes sliced thinly
One small bunch of parsley and one handful of basil chopped together
Four cloves of minced garlic
One third cup of unseasoned bread crumbs
One half cup of grated pecorino-romano cheese
One cup of grated mozzarella
Four ounces extra virgin olive oil
One teaspoon each of salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preparation

Drizzle olive oil on the bottom of a casserole dish and rub all over
Layer the potatoes to cover the bottom of the dish
Top with salt, pepper, herbs, onions, garlic, peppers, breadcrumbs, cheese and drizzled oil
Layer zucchini and repeat the step above
Layer yellow squash and repeat toppings
Repeat above, including potatoes, until the casserole is full
Top layer should be drizzled only with olive oil, breadcrumbs and cheese
Cover with aluminum foil and place in a 375F oven
Bake for 1 hour 15 minutes covered and last 15 minutes uncovered to brown top
Allow Teala to rest for 20 minutes before serving

*The dish will make a lot of liquid, so you may wish to drain some before servin

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book, Augie’s World, is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. Both novels are available in print and audio at Amazon. You can find out more about his novels and wine columns at wordsbyjohnbrown.com