Vines & Vittles

A wine bar in Verona

My long time affection for wine has enabled me to eat and drink in some of the best restaurants on this planet. On my recent trip to Italy, I spent a great deal of time in the Valpolicella region of the country near Lake Garda and the city of Verona.

Verona – the fabled home of Romeo and Juliet – is a relatively small city with a population of about 260,000, but the town has an arena that was built in 30 AD and is still used to host operas, plays and even rock n’ roll concerts. The town is also the repository of Valpolicella’s best wines as well as some excellent restaurants.

Our luncheon wines
Our luncheon wines

On a trip to the city more than a decade ago, I was told to visit a wine bar that is considered among the very best in Italy, and with undoubtedly the greatest selection of Valpolicella wines anywhere in the world.

Antica Botegga Del Vino occupies a very narrow and long space along one of Verona’s trendy pedestrian shopping concourses. It is difficult to locate, but worth searching out as I discovered that day years ago. (Check out the website at: http://www.bottegavini.it/)

On a warm day this past June, as my traveling companions toured the arena, searched for Juliet’s home and shopped, I set off to relocate the fabled wine bar. I also wanted to do a little recon to see if the place had maintained its quality status since I had asked my companions to join me later for lunch.

The first thing you notice upon entering the establishment is an oaken bar and above it a chalk board with a listing of that day’s wines by the glass. Using my pigeon Italian, I was able to order a taste of Soave, but unable to make the bartender understand that I wanted to inspect the larger printed wine list.

After an exasperating few moments, I was approached by a nattily dressed gentleman who spoke very good English and who presented me with a Gutenberg Bible-like wine list.

Mirko Favalli, the restaurant sommelier, introduced himself and proceeded to explain that he was re-doing the list to feature bottles representing the myriad wine appellations, not only of Valpolicella, but of all Italy. All the while, Mirko was having the bartender bring me small sips of each of the wines featured on the chalk board that day.

Mirko Favalli
Mirko Favalli

Before long, my wife, brother-n-law and sister-in-law arrived and we were seated for lunch. Mirko sat with us for a while and then asked if he could bring a few wines for us to try with our meal. While what followed was among the best food and wine pairings I have ever experienced, the comprehensive information imparted to us by our host on the Valpolicella region was just as delicious as the meal.

Ah yes, lunch. We feasted on a cornucopia of northern Italian treats from prosciutto and figs, to all manner of pastas, to fish from Lake Lugano, to zabaione for dessert. My brother-in-law actually ordered two different pastas!

Over a period of three hours, Mirko tasted us through seven white and four red wines, mostly from single vineyard properties and all from Valpolicella. The wines were produced from both single varietals and DOCG approved blends.

While many of the bottles featured grapes of the region such as garganega (white) and corvina (red), we also tasted ones produced from obscure varietals like turbiano, a white varietal grown on the shores of Lake Lugano.

While I have always appreciated Valpolicella, particularly the reds such as Amarone and others produced in the ripasso method, I was shocked at the world-class quality of some of the single-vineyard wines of the region we tasted that day in Verona.

Cellar at Botegga Del Vino
Cellar at Botegga Del Vino

After lunch, Mirko guided us down into the catacomb-like cellar stacked from floor to ceiling with wines from all around the world. Here in this subterranean cathedral of the vine, we toasted each other with the House Grappa and said Arrivederci to Antica Botegga Del Vino.

Can you trust vintage charts?

The importance of a quality wine vintage cannot be underestimated.

As a home wine maker, I know first hand what a poor vintage in the hands of someone incompetent can yield. One year, confronted with a half ton of mushy, moldy grapes, I produced a foul smelling liquid that tasted not quite as good as turpentine.

But this year, there’s some pretty good news for California wine lovers. The 2013 vintage is shaping up to be very good or, according to some prognosticators, even excellent. As a matter of fact, the harvest has already commenced with the picking of whites such as sauvignon blanc.

There has been a string of good to excellent vintages in California recently with 2012 being generally regarded as superb. The 2009 and 2010 vintages are also stellar, especially for reds such as cabernet sauvignon.

Only in 2011, where rains fell during peak harvest periods, was the vintage considered poor. However, some wineries, that had the foresight to pick before the rains or the patience (and nerve) to wait until late in the season, made good wines in 2011.

So how much should you pay attention to vintage reports in deciding which wines to buy? In general, these reports are helpful to use as a starting point. However, a region as large as California is full of very different appellations, microclimates and terroirs.

MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir
MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir

What is terroir (pronounced tare-wah) you ask? Terroir starts with the place where the grapes are grown. The vineyard location, its slope, topography and angle toward the sun are all part of terroir. So is the soil type, climate, (including rainfall and other precipitation) as well as the type of vine or clone of the vine used.

There really is no simple answer to the vintage date question because there is so much variability from wine region to wine region. As a matter of fact, there are usually significant differences among wine producing regions from within the same small geographic area. Vintage disasters in one area can be mitigated in another by Mother Nature, vineyard practices or good wine makers.

The individuality of vintages reminds us not to take things for granted in the wine world. It is a good lesson, and vintages like 2011 serve as reminders for us to dig a little deeper and find good wines in “bad” vintages.

So the next time you wish to know about the quality of a particular vintage, consult one of the many vintage charts available, but be aware that these guides can be general in nature and somewhat misleading. Always remember to trust your own palate.

Here are a couple of wines from two distinctly different vintages you might wish to try.

2011 MacMurray Ranch Russian River Pinot Noir ($25) – An example of a wine produced from a “poor” vintage that is very tasty. From a very cool region, this pinot noir has cherry and cola flavors along with an earthy toasty oak aroma. Pair it with roasted salmon that has been brushed with soy, Srircha and ginger.

2010 Cantine Colosi Rosso Sicilia ($13) From Sicily, this nero d’Avola red is full of ripe plum nuances and is a medium-bodied but rich wine. With excellent balancing acidity, try this with grilled Italian sausage and fried sweet and hot red peppers.

Gallo: Still tasty after all these years

I have an abiding interest in all aspects of wine, particularly the historical and cultural components that make drinking the stuff all that more pleasurable. I am especially interested in how the wine industry developed in the good old US of A.

There were several wine pioneers in the industry that really provided the impetus for the breadth and quality of the products that we enjoy today. Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant and self-proclaimed “Count,” established the first premium winery in Sonoma in 1857 and Buena Vista Winery continues to make excellent wine today.

Since that time others, including Charles Krug, Karl Wente and Jacob Beringer helped establish the northern California wine appellations before Prohibition and were followed by more recent wine entrepreneurs such as Robert Mondavi, Joseph Heitz and a whole bevy of others who put California (and American) wine on the world map.

But I count Ernest and Julio Gallo as the most influential individuals in transforming wine from a mysterious, elitist beverage into something that began to be accepted by just about everyone. Ernest and Julio not only knew how to make good and affordable wine, they were master marketers who changed the way we viewed the product.

I first tasted the wines as a college student decades ago, discovering the pleasures -on numerous occasions -of Gallo Pisano and Hearty Burgundy. According to my fuzzy recollection, the Gallo wine portfolio of the 60’s and 70’s consisted primarily of 1.5-liter jugs that were produced from grapes grown on thousands of vineyard acres in California’s San Joaquim Valley.

While that area was not known as a great wine appellation, the fertile vineyards produced millions of cases of drinkable, inexpensive wines. In the late 70’s and early 1980’s, the Gallo’s focused on developing a market for inexpensive “fighting varietals” such as sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. At three to five dollars a bottle, these varietals created a whole new generation of wine drinkers who could afford to trade-up from the jugs and from that frothy stuff.

Gallo

At about that same time, the family began purchasing vineyards in northern California’s Sonoma County. Quietly, the Gallo’s began acquiring huge vineyard tracts all over the county in such appellations as the Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander Valleys.

While Ernest and Julio are now gone, the Gallo empire has expanded even more by purchasing wineries all over California (and the world) and has taken a quantum leap in quality while still maintaining very reasonable prices. Today, Gallo is the largest winery in the world.

Spearheading the Gallo portfolio of wines is a third generation of the family, Gina (wine maker) and Matt (her brother and grape grower). Today, they are responsible for producing Gallo’s premium line of wines most of which are available statewide.

I recently tasted three of the Gallo Signature Series wines from the premium appellations of Napa Valley, Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands. Here are some tasting notes for the wines.

2010 Gallo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) This round, rich and robust red has just a touch petit verdot and is a blend of grapes from three different vineyards in Napa. A nose of teaberry and mocha with just a hint of vanilla is followed by flavors of black raspberries, cola and chocolate. Pair this wine with a pan seared and oven roasted double cut pork chop that has been rubbed with sea salt, green peppercorns and rosemary and stuffed with herbed goat cheese.

2011 Gallo Russian River Chardonnay ($29) – 2011 was a cold and rainy year, but this wine is none the worse for it and, in fact, displays Burgundy –like balance. Crisp pear and citrus highlight the taste components that are rounded out nicely by soft oak notes. Excellent balancing acidity make this a tasty accompaniment to sautéed Chilean Sea Bass seasoned with ground fennel, a touch of garlic and lemon.

2011 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir (($35) – Earthy and ripe black cherry flavors highlight this spicy pinot noir from vineyards in the mountains overlooking the Pacific in Monterey. Nicely integrated oak gives the wine a floral nuance on the nose and complements this earth and fruit-driven pinot. Try it with grilled King Salmon that has been dusted with cumin, brown sugar and chili powder.

Sipping Valpolicella: a tasteful experience

After three days of feasting, sightseeing and navigating the waterways of Venice, my crew of intrepid wineaux (e.g. the plural of wino) set off for the Veneto in our rented Auto Europe Van. Though our stomachs were distended, our spirits were hungry for more.

It is only an hour and a half along the A-4 autostrada to our first stop of the day in the tiny village of Fumane di Valpolicella where we were to spend an interesting half-day with the folks from Allegrini.

I have written about my affection for Pallazo Della Torre – one of Allegrini’s Valpolicella red wines that is made in the ripasso method. Valpolicella is made from corvina, rondinalla and molinara grapes, all of which produce light to medium-bodied red wines that can be very pleasant quaffs.

Valpolicella becomes something more, though, when the grapes are planted in select vineyard sites and when a process called ripasso is employed during wine making. First though, it is necessary to tell you about Amarone which is like ripasso’s bigger brother.

Amarone is produced from the same Valpolicella blend, but instead of taking the grapes from the vineyard to the crusher, the little buggers are put in buildings and on trays and allowed to shrivel up and dry out like raisins. This exercise increases the sugar content so that the resulting wine is a powerful, dark and very alcoholic brute that is then aged in wood for a couple of years before it is bottled.

La Grola Vineyard in Valpolicella

To make a ripasso, new Valpolicella wine is refermented by combining it with the pressings or pomace from the Amarone, and sometimes with the addition of dried grapes. The resulting ripasso wine is considerably darker and fuller bodied than Valpolicella, but not as powerful as Amarone. The well-respected Valpolicella producer Masi invented the ripasso process in the early 1960’s.

So I was excited to be at Allegrini where my favorite ripasso (Pallazo Della Torre) is produced. However, after visiting the vineyards and tasting through the entire Allegrini portfolio as well as sampling the vinous wares of many other producers, I had an epiphany: Valpolicella is one of the most underrated wine appellations not only in Italy, but in the world.

I know that is a pretty bold statement and certainly will elicit some scorn from those who view the Veneto as a second tier appellation, but the proof is in the palate and mine was blown away by the quality and diversity of the wines – both red and white. But back to my visit at Allegrini.

The patriarch of the clan – the late Giovanni Allegrini – was among the most influential voices in the emergence of Valpolicella as a premium appellation. Much to the chagrin of the majority of producers back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, he began to employ viticultural practices such as limiting the quantity of production, planting on hillsides and planting the proper varietals on specific vineyard sites. Until that time, producers were content with planting in the valleys and getting the maximum production to market where quantity counted more than quality.

We visited one of Allegrini’s single vineyard sites La Grola situated on a hillside overlooking the Valpolicella plain. La Grola is planted to corvina which is known to be the best red grape of the Valpolicella region. Later, we tasted the entire Allegrini portfolio at the actual medieval palace – Pallazo Della Torre.

Allegrini’s Pallazo Della Torre

This incredible pallazo, constructed in the 1300’s, is a treasure trove of antiquity and has some pretty startling stone work, including fireplaces constructed to look like lions and other beasts. Our tasting room had one of those fireplaces and I couldn’t help but think how scary they must have been to the kids living in the place way back then.

While we tasted several excellent white wines, the stars were the red wines. Prices range from a low of about $12 for the Valpolicella Classico and $22 for the Pallazo Della Torre to up to $80 for the single vineyard La Poja and around $40 to $50 for the Amarone wines. Most are blends of the Valpolicella varietals with La Poja made entirely with corvina and planted in the La Grola vineyard.

Valpolicella Classico – Deliciously fruity light to medium bodied wine that would be excellent with antipasti or grilled Italian sausage.

Palazzo Della Torre – medium to full-bodied – almost zinfandel like- with black cherry and toasty oak flavors. This would be hit with double-cut, pork chops stuffed with herbed goat cheese, pan-seared and oven baked with a soy-honey glaze.

La Grola   – Full-bodied and long-lived, this wine demonstrates that Valpolicella can be a serious wine. Ripe and rich with blackberry and cola flavors, this would pair nicely with a grilled bone-in ribeye.

La Poja – Slightly more elegant than the La Grola, the La Poja is a 100% corvina that is aged in new French oak for more than 20 months. It has licorice and plum flavors and is one you will want to lay down for a few years. Try this with a butterflied veal chop that has been marinated in red wine, garlic and rosemary.

Villa Giona – A blend of cabernet sauvignon 50%, Merlot 40%, Syrah 10%, this wine shows how well Bordeaux varietals take to the soils of Valpolicella. Aged for about 18 months in French oak, Villa Giona has aromas of tea and leather and flavors of ripe cherries. Marry it with oven roasted pork tenderloin that has been rubbed with kosher salt, coarse black pepper and fennel seeds.

Fireplace lion at Pallazo Della Torre

Amarone – Ripe, but not overripe, this Amarone is full of sweet and sour cherry flavors. Very intense, but not raisiny as some Amarone’s can be, this wine would be a lovely accompaniment to a sweet (dolce) gorgonzola with roasted walnuts. Great by a roaring fire around a campsite or at the fireplace during winter.

The wines of Northern Italy

I just returned from a trip to Italy and I’m in a self-imposed food and wine de-tox program with the goal of deflating my dirigible-like countenance to something less frightening to small children. And, of course, I will have many experiences to share with you over the next few months.

I love visiting wine regions whether in this country or other viticultural regions of the world because there is always something new to discover. On this recent trip, I was privileged to not only taste a substantial number of different wines, but also to explore the variety of local foods that were paired with the indigenous wines.

I concentrated most of my time in the Veneto region north of Verona in Valpolicella, and in Trentino -Alto Adige (on the border with Austria and in the southern Alps known as Dolomites). These two areas presented distinctly different types of wine to explore – many of which were blends of two or more local grapes.

Like France, 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.

View of the Dolomites from my hotel window

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. Unfortunately, that designation was viewed as inferior by the wine cognoscenti.

For example, cabernet sauvignon was not an approved grape for Tuscany and therefore had to be labeled as table wine regardless of the quality of the product.This all changed about 30 years ago when the government, with extreme pressure from influential wine makers, set forth a new classification – IGT (indicazione geografica tipica) allowing wineries to produce wines from grapes not approved by them.

The wines known as “Super Tuscans” in the 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.

Next time, I’ll tell you about some of the wines I experienced during my trip to that boot full of wine, but in the meantime, here are two wines (available right here in good old West Virginia) from northern Italy to tease your palate for what’s to come.

 2011 Abbazia di Novacella Lagrein ($24) – Great to find this relatively obscure red grape from Trentino in the foothills of the Italian Dolomites.  I just returned from that breathtakingly beautiful land and tasted several different lagrein wines.  Lagrein (pronounced lah-graw-heen) is a deeply colored medium to full bodied wine and the Abbazia is chock full of ripe, red cherry flavors with a mineral-like finish. Excellent balance in a wine that would marry well with a pork roast basted a port-cherry sauce.

2009 Matteo Correggia Rosso Roero ($19) – From northwestern Italy in the Piedmont, this wine is made from nebbiolo – the noble grape from which the world famous Barbaresco and Barolo are made. Grown in an area of Piedmont known mostly for the fresh and sprightly white called Arneis, the wine has a nose of cola and leather and ripe plum flavors.  This is a great and inexpensive introduction to nebbiolo and tastes like a baby Barbaresco.  Pair it with grilled flank steak spiced with black pepper, olive oil, garlic and kosher salt.

 

B.S. Chicken – a great recipe – no BS

Summer is on the way and, while I don’t need a warm weather excuse to roast animal parts on the grill, I am fired up to fire-up the old Weber Performer in clement (as opposed to inclement) weather.

Shucks, I’m like a dedicated athlete. You know the type. Nothing gets in the way of our mission to be the best regardless of whether (or weather) the contest is imminent.
While you were warming your tootsies by the fireplace last winter, I was out back trying to start a charcoal fire in a blizzard. Hey, frostbite is a small price to pay for the culinary treats I created.

Today, I’m going to regale you with a recipe for one of those cold weather creations and suggest two really nice wines that match this food just about perfectly.

When I was a tyke (before R&B – aka Rocky and Bullwinkle), my Italian grandfather would lead a few cousins and myself to his chicken coop where he would select a fat hen or two for the guillotine. Then he would revel in our pasty-faced reactions as the little critters pranced around headless for a few seconds.

After dispatching the birds to chicken heaven, he would present them to my grandmother and assorted aunts for de-feathering and cooking. The usual method was frying or roasting in the oven. I’m sure if grandpa had a charcoal grill he would have approved of my iteration of grandma’s roasted stuffed chicken.

I call this B.S. Chicken. No, I’m not disparaging my own recipe since the B.S. simply refers to Barbecue -Stuffed Chicken. Here goes.

B.S. Chicken

1 three to four pound chicken (fryer)
4 tablespoons of garlic chopped finely
1 tablespoon of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper (optional)
1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon of Kosher salt
1 half teaspoon of oregano
1 teaspoon of ground mustard
3 ounces of olive oil
1 teaspoon of ground fennel
1 red pepper chopped
I cup of wild rice (healthy minded folks can sub brown rice or quinoa)
1 Italian sausage patty
4 ounces of mozzarella cheese shredded

Mulderbosch Rose

Make a wet rub by mixing 3 tablespoons of garlic, the black pepper, salt, oregano, mustard, paprika, cayenne and one ounce of the oil.
Discard the unmentionable parts inside the chicken cavity
Rub the chicken all over – inside and out -with the wet rub placing some under breast and leg quarter skin
Sauté the onions with the red pepper, garlic and add the Italian sausage and cheese
Cook the wild rice until fluffy and add salt and pepper to taste
Mix the onions, peppers, sausage, cheese and rice together
Allow mixture to come to room temperature
Stuff the chicken with the mixture
Make a charcoal fire and spread coals to either side of grill for indirect cooking
Or, heat one side of a gas grill so chicken can be cooked indirect
Place the chicken on the grill but not over the coals
Cover the grill and cook one and one –half hours (or to 175 degrees F.)
Allow the chicken to rest for 25 minutes and serve

Purists might insist on a full-bodied white to accompany this dish, but I recommend a medium to full red- no B.S. Here are a couple that should make this chicken cluck.

2010 L for Lyeth Merlot ($16) –Merlot has been catching a bad rap lately from the snobs, but this little lovely from Sonoma has just the right combination of ripe black fruit and balancing acidity to marry nicely with the chicken.

2012 Mulderbosch Rose ($15) This cabernet sauvignon rose from South Africa is about as full-bodied as you’ll find with the crispness and liveliness you expect from a rose. The wine is full of bright ripe cherry and strawberry nuances and delivers enough backbone to stand up to the full flavors of the B.S. Chicken.

The Taste of Parkersburg

Area food, wine and beer lovers should mark their calendars for the weekend of May 31-June 1 and seriously consider attending the annual Taste of Parkersburg (TOP).

This event features gourmet edibles from local restaurants, West Virginia farm to table foods and a whole host of wines from around the world. You will also be able to taste a good sampling of craft beers too. In addition, TOP will feature local artisans and crafters as well as excellent music.

The weekend kicks off with a special Bordeaux wine tasting from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday May 31, at the Blennerhassett Hotel. Parkersburg native and Bordeaux’s U.S. wine ambassador Robert Cavanaugh will share his knowledge of the famous French region, and lead attendees through a tasting of eight wines.

Cavanaugh is a master sommelier with certifications from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust of London (WSET), the Court of Master Sommeliers and Le Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux as part of the International Bordeaux Ambassador program.

From all accounts, Cavanaugh sounds like my kind of wine guy. He says he got his start in the beverage industry at Parkersburg’s North End Tavern where, I assume, he was inspired to move beyond that frothy amber fluid to the fruit of the vine.

On Saturday June 1, there will be several events taking place simultaneously – all from about 5 to 11 p.m., including tasting the wares of several restaurants, sampling wine and beer from a multitude of vendors – all the while being entertained by several different musical groups.

In addition to the public events, there will be a trade wine tasting on Friday afternoon where those involved in the wine industry are invited to taste and interact with winery representatives.

Events will take place in and around the Blennerhassett Hotel located at 3rd and Market Streets in downtown Parkersburg. For ticket prices or other information, you may call 304-865-0522 or email carrie@downtownpkb.com.

Sounds like a great weekend.

I have often suggested to friends that my obsession with wine and food can be attributed to at least one-half of my genetic composition – the Italian half. I suppose I should credit the other half (Irish) with my penchant for exposition – or blarney – as those Celts would describe my usually long-winded descriptions of things most normal people just simply consume.

But what the heck. To quote that world famous sea-faring philosopher, Popeye: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”

Ask an Italian what wine they consider to be best, and they will invariably suggest a local bottle produced from the vineyard on a hillside adjacent to their village. This is a country around which wine and food are the central components of everyday life.

As a wine-stained graduate of Whatsamatta U, I am understandably partial to the vino made in Italy. As a matter of fact, what I love most about Italian wine is its tremendous diversity. Within the geographic confines of its 20 states, Italy produces a virtual sea of wine from a dizzying array of grapes.

La Scoloca Gavi available at Paterno’s

The most famous wine states are Tuscany in north-central Italy and Piedmont in the northwest. In Tuscany, great wines such as Brunello di Montalcino and Ornellaia share the stage with the ubiquitous Chianti, and whites such as Vernaccia Di San Gimignano.

In Piedmont, the prestigious vines of Barolo and Barbaresco (made from the nebbiolo grape) reign supreme, and are joined by Barbera and Dolcetto along with crisp whites such as Arneis and Cortese Di Gavi.

While these regions are the most famous, there are others with wonderful wines. Be sure to try the vino of the Veneto – famous for Valpolicella, Soave and Amarone, or Apulia where the zinfandel-like primitivo grape is a superb quaff. And Sicily has really come on strong as a quality wine-producing area too.

But you cannot mention Italian wine without mentioning the exceptional and varied cuisine of Italy as well as the influence Italian food has had on the rest of the world – even here in Charleston.

Restaurants such as Soho’s Fazio’s and Leonaro’s are prime examples of local establishments that have consistently provided us with quality Italian cuisine. Add to this list Paterno’s At The Park.

Paterno’s, located at Appalachian Power Park in downtown Charleston, is the latest addition to the Italian restaurant scene here in the Capitol city. Andy and  Mary Jo Paterno along with daughter Niki Paterno  Kurten have produced an excellent menu and a very good wine list with an emphasis on Italy.

The menu has a northern Italian flavor. The Veal Chop Picata, which is a butterflied and sautéed 14-ounce bone in veal chop sauced with morel, cremini and shitake mushrooms, capers and lemon butter on a bed of risotto, is my favorite so far. My wife and I split this generous entrée and shared a tasty bottle of 2010 La Scoloca Gavi di Gavi Black Label.

Gavi is a crisp and fragrant white produced in Piedmont and it married well with the veal dish. Also represented on the wine list are Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti, Barbera and an assortment of quality California reds and whites.

Paterno’s is just one more tasty and tasteful example of how Italian food and wine have had a positive influence on our little part of the world.

Salute !

Wine leftovers: keeping them fresh

From time to time, friends ask me how to keep wine not consumed at one sitting fresh for later drinking. I must admit this is not a situation I have ever personally experienced, but I do have some suggestions.

In other words, how do we preserve the freshness and drinkability of wine  over time once the bottle has been opened?

Wine is usually bottled in a 25-ounce glass container with an average alcohol content of between 10 and 15 percent. This amount of alcohol serves to protect the wine from spoilage in the first few hours after the bottle is opened, but is not sufficient to keep the stuff fresh over an extended period.

This is particularly true for white wine where only the grape juice is fermented. Red grapes, which are fermented with the skins and seeds, has a longer shelf life before giving way to the ravages of oxidation.

A real life experience proved that point for me. On the occasion of a multi-course wine dinner, I decanted bottle of Barolo and forgot about it until the next day. To my surprise and delight, the wine was heavenly. Unfortunately, wines with less body and staying power (both red and white) would have been transformed into something tasting like turpentine.

Unlike chili, beef barley soup or meatloaf, fine wine does not improve over several days in the refrigerator. In fact, wine will deteriorate rather quickly if you don’t take certain precautions. Here’s why.

An open bottle of wine has a schizoid visitor: oxygen. When a wine is un-corked, the oxygen that invades it initially does wondrous things for the aroma and can actually serve as a catalyst to unleash the complex flavors that have developed over time in the bottle. Like a good friend, oxygen (Dr. Jekel) has a positive influence on wine – up to a point.

Half full bottle with Vacuvin insert

Unfortunately, after several hours of uninterrupted contact with oxygen (enter Mr. Hyde), most wines begin to fall apart rather quickly – even if you put the cork back in the bottle. So, here are a few tried and true tips that should help keep that un-drunk wine tasty for a day or two.

If you’re going to drink the wine the very next day, you can sometimes get away with simply re-corking the bottle and putting it in the refrigerator. Young red wines seem to tolerate contact with air much better than older reds or any white wine. However, leaving any wine with significant air space in the bottle for more than one day is courting disaster.

Since the major problem is too much oxygen, you must reduce the air space in the partially consumed bottle. You can do this by pouring the wine into a smaller container (such as a half-bottle). It is safe to leave about one inch of air space at the top of the bottle which, of course, must be secured by inserting the cork or affixing the screw-cap. Then, either put the wine in the refrigerator or store it in a dark, cool place to drink another day.

Another tip is to keep different size containers (with accompanying lids) in your kitchen cabinet so you’ll have them when the need arises. Be sure also to save a couple of empty fifths and their corks to store wines from 1.5 liter bottles or jugs.

One other method of preserving your partially used wine is to pump the air out of the bottle by using something like a Vacuvin wine saver. Vacuvin employs the use of a rubber stopper that is placed in the bottle opening and then a device that is placed on the stopper to pump out the oxygen. These are widely available at wine shops and grocery stores for around $15.

Some folks have suggested putting marbles into a partially empty bottle of wine to take up the air space. Not only is this an impractical solution, you’re sure to lose your marbles over time.

Here are two bottles you’ll most likely consume at one sitting.

2011 Acrobat Pinot Gris($13)
This pale straw colored Pinot Gris from Oregon opens with a bright citrus and pear bouquet. On the palate, the wine is medium bodied and crisp and would be a superb match to halibut brushed with soy and hoisin.

2011 Chateau St. Roch Cotes Du Rhone ( $15)
From the southern Rhone, this young wine has a nose of dark fruit and leather. Ripe blackberry and cola flavors and excellent balancing acidity make this the perfect accompaniment to short ribs braised in a tomato and red wine bath

Flank Steak Gourmand

Two weeks ago, when it was 75 degrees, I was grilling animal flesh over charcoal and toasting the emergence of spring with a flagon of purple elixir. Now it’s late March, 32 degrees and there is snow on the ground.

What happened to the weather and that groundhog’s prediction for an early end to winter ? I hope that phony rodent prognosticator – Punxsutawney Phil – has burrowed himself deep underground because there are lot of folks who would like to turn him into road kill about now.

But what the heck. I’ve decided to ignore the weather and prepare one of my favorite go-to picnic dishes anyway. So who cares if there’s a blizzard raging outside? That’s why L. L. Bean invented the slicker, Weber invented the covered grill and someone (God Bless them) invented the flask.

The recipe I am about to divulge to you today transforms a boring, tough piece of inexpensive beef into a luscious, tender, mouth-watering steak that can become the repository for an other worldly stuffing. Sounds a bit hyperbolic, right?

Well, after you give this dish a try, I think you’ll understand my enthusiasm. And when you open a full-bodied red wine to accompany it, you’ll be one step closer to becoming the gourmand you never knew you could – or would want – to be. Okay, so let me elaborate.

There is a big difference between a gourmet/connoisseur and a gourmand. A gourmet is discriminating and exhibits exemplary self-control while a connoisseur is defined as one who has expert knowledge and keen discrimination, especially in the fine arts. Together, this combination is a formidable – if stiff – “gourmanseur.”

A gourmand, on the other hand, is defined as one who enjoys good food and wine, often to excess. In other words, a gourmand will eat and drink everything in sight and ask for more. A gourmand will also ignore the disdainful looks of the gourmanseur.

So, heed this disclaimer: if you consider your self a gourmanseur, you may not want to risk devolving into a gourmand by trying the recipe below.

Just what the Gourmand ordered

Flank Steak Gourmand

Shopping List

One 1 to 2 pound flank steak *
One-half cup of cooked brown or white rice (can substitute quinoa)
Quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil
One cup of shredded mozzarella cheese
One link of Italian sausage cooked and chopped (optional)
Two garlic cloves finely chopped
One sweet red pepper and one small onion chopped
Two cups of fresh spinach or half box of frozen spinach
One teaspoon each Kosher salt, dried mustard and black pepper
Three tablespoons of red wine vinegar
One gallon size plastic storage bag

Preparation

Make marinade with olive oil, vinegar, one chopped garlic clove and dried mustard
Place meat in storage bag with marinade over night or for at least six hours
Sauté garlic, onion, pepper then add sausage, spinach, rice and cheese and cool
Put stuffing inside the flank steak before grilling
Prepare a charcoal or gas grill and cook meat indirectly for about 20 to 30 minutes
Allow to sit for 15 minutes then slice and serve

Wine Recommendation

2011 Chateau St Roch Cotes Du Rhone ($15) This southern Rhone red has a nose of leather and tea with flavors of black cherries and cola. A blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre, the wine is full-bodied and rich with just enough tannic backbone to marry seamlessly with this gourmand’s delight.

* Ask your butcher to cut a small opening in the flank steak and then hollow out the inside. You can try this yourself using a sharp knife. Alternately, you can cut the steak horizontally into one or two pieces and then roll the meat with the stuffing inside and tie with butcher twine.