Vines & Vittles

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.

Wines of the Sierra Foothills

I have been a long time fan of wines made from grapes grown in the Sierra Foothills of California, particularly bottles produced from vineyards in Amador County.

The Sierra Foothills AVA (American Viticultural Area) is comprised of five counties in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe and about two hours east of Napa Valley.

More than 100 wineries are located in the AVA and I am particularly fond of zinfandel grown in Amador County. Without giving away my advanced age, I still have a couple of bottles of Sutter Home Amador County zin I purchased in the 1970’s.

Surprisingly, those old bottles have held up well, morphing into wines with similar taste characteristics to mature Bordeaux. I’m sure that comparison is considered heresy by wine traditionalists (can you say snobs) who put zinfandel in that category of beverages fit only for the unwashed masses.

Well, consider me filthy because I dearly love that plebian beverage!

But the Sierra Foothills are no one-trick pony when it comes to producing delicious bottles of wine. Over the past few decades, the area has also developed an excellent coterie of both whites and reds with particular emphasis on Rhone varietals.

Among the most consistently excellent wineries in the Sierra Foothills is Easton and their Rhone-style sister winery– Terre Rouge. Just recently, I attended a tasting of Easton/Terre Rouge wines hosted by the Wine Shop at Capitol Market.

Bill Easton, a California native and lover of Rhone wines, founded his eponymous winery in 1985 after spending years in wine retailing in the San Francisco Bay Area. He chose Amador County and the Sierra Foothills because the region seemed to have many of the same geologic and climatic conditions of France’s Southern Rhone Valley.

It is not uncommon now to find wines such as grenache, syrah, mourvedre (reds) along with marsanne, grenache blanc and viognier (whites) along side the traditional zinfandel, sauvignon blanc and barbera on wine shop shelves.

A Perfect Enigma

Below are notes for some of the wines I tasted. All of them are available locally and are exceptional values given the excellent quality to price ratio.

2009 Terre Rouge Enigma ($26) – This white Rhone blend of marsanne, rousanne and viognier has aromas of anise and peaches and flavors of tropical fruit, minerals and citrus. Very complex and layered, this would pair nicely with chicken cordon bleu.

2011 Terre Rouge Vin Gris Rose ($19) Very pretty salmon colored wine with aromas of fresh strawberries. This blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre is among the best rose`s I’ve tasted in a long while. On the palate the wine exhibits ripe cherry flavors with excellent balancing acidity and finishes dry. Great as an aperitif or for picnic foods such as barbecue.

2010 Easton Amador County Zinfandel ($19) – Deep, dark blackberry flavors are enhanced by excellent balancing acidity to highlight this full-bodied wine best served with fuller flavored foods such as beef stews or roasted pork loin rubbed with garlic, black pepper and olive oil.

2009 Terre Rouge Tete-a-Tete Red ($20) – Don’t let the cute label fool you, this is a seriously good wine made in the style of a fruit- forward Cotes Du Rhone. Plum and blackberries combine with earthiness in this grenache, syrah, and mourvedre blend. Try it with grilled rack of lamb seasoned with rosemary, garlic and black pepper.

2009 Terre Rouge Cotes de l”Ouest Syrah ($29) – Made in the style of a northern Rhone where the emphasis is on syrah, this one has just a touch of viognier added to soften it up a bit. Dark and brooding at first, the wine opens up in the glass with a mouthful of black cherry and cola flavors. I suggest you try this with slowly smoked beef ribs that have been rubbed with cumin, chili powder, garlic and chipotles in adobo sauce.

2007 Easton Old Vine Zinfandel Fiddletown Vineyard ($30) – This one reminds me of the old vine zin I mentioned earlier since it has the staying power to continue to age gracefully for a decade or two. From a legendary California vintage, this wine has teaberry mint and berry aromas along with blackberry, chocolate and coffee flavors. If you drink it in the next five years, decant if for at least three hours and pair it with grilled double-cut pork chops stuffed with chevre and chives.

Wine Vs. Beer: The Results

Appropriately matching wine with food continues to be a challenging and pleasurable life-long pursuit of mine. It is not, however, an easy task since the flavor of a specific meat, vegetable, fruit or fish is never all one needs to consider.

Think about it. A roasted chicken is never simply a roasted chicken. In order for the bird to taste good, we season it with a multiplicity of ingredients (i.e., rosemary, garlic, cumin etc.). The meat’s flavor is further complicated by the cooking method employed such as grilling, broiling, frying, smoking, etc.

So while the uninitiated might rely on conventional wine advice to come up with a good match (i.e., pairing a lighter-styled white wine with plainly seasoned chicken), that suggestion could be disastrous depending upon the above-mentioned considerations.

I bring this up to underscore the difficulty I had this past weekend in picking wines to go with a menu that was truly delicious. The optimum solution would have been to do a pre-event tasting of the food with multiple possible wine partners and then to select the best.

Unfortunately, this is the real world where time and circumstances seldom offer such opportunities. My advice: make sure you try and match your wine to the most prominent tasting ingredient (i.e., spice, rub, marinade, etc) on the meat, fish or veggie.

As you probably know by now, Rich Ireland (“Beers To You“ blogger) and I squared off in a wine vs. beer throwdown where we each selected our favorite beverages to accompany a five-course gourmet dinner. The good, but perhaps not surprising, news is that wine was the clear-cut winner among the more than 200 folks who attended.

Kudos to Rich for suggesting this event last summer, which raised a whole lot of cash to support Festivall – our city’s multi-weekend entertainment gift to the community. And, while I certainly thought the wine showed well, there were some excellent brews – one of which won the night’s first course pairing.

Here is the course-by-course breakdown.

Course 1 – Roasted Roma tomato with Romano, pan seared polenta wedge and chevre goat cheese
Winner was Mons Abbey Witte Beer over 2010 La Zerba Gavi. I was surprised by this, but not shocked. I expected the Gavi to have a little more acidity, but still thought it was a better choice than the Mons. Oh well, not good form to express “sour grapes.”

Course 2- Sweet potato soup with toasted sunflower seeds
Winner was 2011 Anton Bauer Gruner Veltliner GMORK (versus Pumking Pumpkin Ale) I actually picked this pumpkin-flavored beer over the wine in this course. I expected the grunner to be sweeter to match the richness of the soup.

Course 3- Spicy Calabrian Shrimp with Peppers and Cannelloni beans
Winner was 2010 Busi Chianti over Raging Bitch Belgian Style IPA. Loved this inexpensive Chianti with loads of sour cherry and cola flavors.

Course 4- Braised Pork Loin with seasonal vegetables
Winner was 2010 Domain Brusset Cotes Du Rhone “Laurent B” over Goose Island Mild Winter. I really enjoyed both the beer and wine pairing here, but gotta go with another excellent 2010 Cotes Du Rhone.

Course 5- Chocolate truffle and various artisanal cheeses.
Winner was Domain Rondeau Bugey Cerdon over Mons Abbey Dubbel. The Bugey is a lovely sparkler that is light and refreshing with hints of strawberry. I felt sorry for Rich on this course. I did really like the Dubbel, but it was a little too heavy for this paring.

All in all, this was an excellent evening full of good food ,wine and cheer. I look forward to making this an annual event.

FeastivALL: The first ever wine and beer throw-down

If you have read this column/blog, you KNOW that wine is the ultimate liquid accompaniment to just about every type of food known to man.

Yet, there are heathens out there who deign to suggest that beer is a more appropriate beverage to swill with our daily repast. Heresy, I know, but in an effort to put this issue to rest once and for all, some good folks in our fair city have suggested a contest where wine and beer will be pitted against each other in a five- course gourmet meal.

This good, old-fashioned throw-down will benefit FestiVALL, the multi-week festival that has brought a plethora of top-notch musical entertainment to our region for the past several years. Here’s the skinny on what we’re calling FeastivALL:

A Wine vs. Beer Challenge

On Feb. 23, FestivALL Charleston will host its first ever fundraiser, “FeastivALL”, a five-course gourmet dinner with a wine and beer pairing for each course.
The event will take place at Berry Hills Country Club with food prepared by noted chefs Nick McCormick of Berry Hills and Café Cimino’s Tim Urbanic.

You be the judge

A reception with a silent auction begins at 6pm with dinner following. Guests will enjoy five courses, each paired with a craft beer and fine wine chosen by Charleston’s top beverage consumers, Rich Ireland (beer) and yours truly (wine).

After each course, guests will vote for the beverage pairing they like best. By the end of the night, one will emerge the winner. (Is there really any question, Rich?)

In the spirit of FestivALL, the night will be a celebration of artistic expression hosted by Mountain Stage’s Larry Groce and featuring brief performances between courses. Guests will also get a first look at schedule highlights and headliners for FestivALL 2013.

There will be a silent auction with items including, a stay at Cafe Cimino Country Inn, high-end art by local vendors, autographed movie memorabilia from West Virginia celebrities and more.

Tickets are $100 per person, $40 of which is tax deductible. All donations above the ticket price are completely tax deductible. Tickets are now on sale and you can purchase them online at  http://www.festivallcharleston.com/content/feastivall  or at Taylor Books (which adds a $2 sales fee). You may also call (304)389-4873 for additional information.

Seating is limited and no tickets will be sold after February 20 so that the chefs will have a final count. All proceeds from the event will go toward FestivALL 2013 which will celebrate the arts, the city and West Virginia’s 150th anniversary.
Special thanks to FeastivALL sponsor Kanawha Scales and Systems of Poca, WV, Cafe Cimino Country Inn and Berry Hills Country Club.

Join me in tastefully demonstrating the superiority of wine.

Making good wine: Is it location or weather?

Most of us want simple answers to the questions that perplex us. Take wine appreciation for example. I am often asked to describe the most important qualitative aspect in producing good wine. Well, unfortunately there is no simple answer, but there are two basic conditions that must exist for good wine to be made.

The two most important influences in the cultivation of grapes are the geographic location of the vineyard and the weather. Assuming these two variables are in place, then other influences such as soil composition, topography, orientation of the vineyard to the sun and a whole host of additional esoteric factors come into play.

You don’t have to be a horticulturist to know it’s impossible to cultivate a vineyard at the North Pole, in Death Valley or at the top of Mount Everest. We all know that grapes require a moderate climate in order to grow and ripen to full maturity before being turned into wine.

What, then, is more critical to the production of good wine? The vineyard location or the weather? The obvious answer is both, but reality is a bit fuzzier. For example, take the world famous appellations of Bordeaux and Burgundy in France.

The best wines from these two regions are among the most expensive on earth, some of which cost more than a thousand dollars for a single bottle. The French proclaim loudly that wines produced in these places are superior because of the soil in the respective geographic locations.

What they don’t tell you is that less than five out of every 10 vintages is average to awful in quality. Why? Simply put: Mother Nature. Weather in both Bordeaux and (particularly) Burgundy can be less than ideal for grape growing.

A perfect year can quickly morph into disaster when a sudden hailstorm in the spring or torrential rains during harvest wreak havoc on the vineyards. Just this past vintage, weather reduced the Burgundy crop by almost 70 percent.

Conversely, wine makers and growers in California and Southeast Australia tout the consistently good weather as the reason for the outstanding wines they produce. It is not often that weather causes problems in these regions. Yet, too much of a good thing (e.g. long, hot growing seasons) can result in a vintage of out of balance, insipid and overly alcoholic wines.

2011 Borsao Tinto

So how do winemakers in the most prestigious appellations around the wine world deal with an imperfect geographic location or intemperate weather conditions? A lot of different ways actually.

Let’s look at how some deal with the issue of location. For years, wine makers in California struggled to make decent pinot noir and consistently failed. It was widely held that the state was just too warm to successfully produce this fickle grape which requires a long, cool growing season.

Then along came wineries such as Calera and Acacia who began planting the grape in cooler locations and using rootstock from Burgundy. Consequently, by adapting their vineyard practices to what the grape required, California has been making excellent pinot noir for the last thirty years.

In Bordeaux and Burgundy, growers and wine makers now use advanced weather forecasting to protect their vines and to know exactly when to harvest. In addition, they employ new world techniques in the winery to improve the quality of their wines. And Voila (That’s “hot damn” in West Virginian), they are able to mitigate some of the most vexing problems.

If you are still reading this and just about to fall asleep, the take away is to do a little homework before you go on a wine-buying spree. Check out vintage reports and tasting notes for the wines you are interested in, particularly those, like Burgundy, that require a serious investment. You can also use Google, Ask.com or any Internet search engine to get the latest information.

In the meantime, you might search your local wine shop for this gem. The 2011 Borsao Tinto ($11) from Spain is one of the best inexpensive wines I’ve tasted in a long time. Rich and full of blackberry and cola flavors, this grenache (85%) and tempranillo (15%) blend is delicious and would pair very nicely with braised beef short ribs in a bath of red wine onions and mushrooms.

A dish for the New Year

With the dawn of a new year, it is not uncommon for many of us to experience a touch of melancholy, guilt or both. Melancholy – in my case – because I cannot physically or fiscally sustain the incessant consumption of excellent food and wine ad infinitum.

But even if I had the wherewithal to keep it going, my old companion – guilt – is always present to remind me that my wanton appetites are approaching cardinal sin status.

So, I suppose it’s time to back it off a bit, bite the bullet and adopt a more ascetic lifestyle. No more multi-course meals with multiple wines (for a while). After all, Lent is only a month away and I’ve got a plan.

Now don’t get me wrong- there is no cold turkey on this menu. And, I will allow myself a sip or two of that purple or golden elixir we all love. But moderation is my new mantra this winter.

Eating the appropriate food is key to any successful lifestyle modification, and I know just the food to get me on the straight and narrow. Menasha (pronounced men-nay –sha) is a dish that my grandmother, mother and aunts prepared with great regularity, particularly in the cooler months of the year.

The dish is also known as minestra and is a cross between a soup and a stew. The main ingredient is any type of green vegetable. Our family used everything from spinach, dandelion greens, kale, and cabbage, to green beans, broccoli and collards.

They also flavored the dish with a piece of meat boiled in water. Now don’t gag, but it was not uncommon for Grandma to use a pig’s foot, chicken feet or even a pig’s ear in Menasha. Sounds strange, I know, but the resulting dish was delicious and nutritious.

The recipe below uses a more acceptable pork part, but you may eliminate the meat completely and make this  vegetarian if you like. To spark up the dish, I also always add hot vinegar pepper rings to the bowl right before serving.

To complete this hearty and warming meal, pair it with a big, rough around the edges red such as Marietta Old Vine Red, Antinori Santa Cristina Sangiovese or Martin Codax Tempranillo to name a few of my favorite vinous accompaniments.

So if you’re feeling a little fat and guilty about now, try on my recipe for New Year’s Menasha.

The Ingredients

Two pork ribs with bone (optional)
One-half pound of cleaned kale
One head of Napa cabbage
Two medium onions chopped in large pieces
Three cloves of garlic
Three tablespoons of olive oil
One tablespoon of fennel seeds
One teaspoon of red pepper seeds (optional)
Four medium potatoes quartered
One tablespoon each Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
One quart of water

The Cooking

Sauté the ribs in a large pot with one tablespoon of olive oil until brown
Add one quart of water to the meat and allow to boil for 15 minutes
Add all the vegetables, salt, pepper, red pepper and fennel to the pot
Sauté the garlic in two tablespoons of olive oil in a separate pan until lightly brown
Discard the garlic and add the olive oil to the pot.
Cook for approximately 45 minutes or until the potatoes are fork tender
Serve in large bowls with crusty bread and enjoy

Some Christmas Cheer

Is this fun or what? The holiday season, I mean.

It’s not often you get a pass to cast prudence and caution to the wind and plunk down some serious green for a little red or white.

I‘ve already been perusing the shelves of my favorite wine shops (and online too) in search of that special bottle. The good news is that there is an incredible selection of wine from all over the world available in any number of price ranges to meet just about any budget.

And giving the gift of wine, particularly to someone close to you, can have its own reward since there is a good likelihood you’ll be invited to sip along with the giftee once that special bottle is uncorked.

And of course whenever I consider a wine, I always ruminate over what type of food will present the best opportunity for gastronomic synergy. In my particular situation, I’m thinking about Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals and the wines that will make the feasts memorable.

In my household, my wife and I divide up responsibility for the two meals. I take Christmas Eve and she is chef de cuisine for Christmas Day. As one who was raised in a Catholic Italian family, I will spend all day Christmas Eve preparing and cooking seafood (ala the feast of the seven fishes).

After five or six hours of frying, boiling, steaming, smoking and poaching fish, I will be worn out, cranky, smelly and in serious need of a sip or two of wine. My choice to soothe my weary body and reinvigorate my spirit is Champagne or sparkling wine which is also an excellent accompaniment to all manner of seafood.

On Christmas day, my wife will prepare a more traditional American holiday meal featuring a standing rib roast. After working her culinary magic for a couple of hours, she will emerge from the kitchen smiling broadly, full of Christmas cheer, and smelling of lavender. Of course, this meal demands a big red wine such as cabernet sauvignon or even a Christmas Claret (Bordeaux).

So today, I’m going to share a list of wines I would love to find under my Christmas tree and which just happen to include bottles that would go particularly well with our holiday meals. I think you would like them too.

Cabernet sauvignon /Bordeaux Red or Bordeaux -style blends (i.e., blends which might consist of any combination of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, Malbec, or petit verdot):

2005 Chateau Lynch Bages; 2007 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon; 2008 Joseph Phelps Insignia; 2007 Dominus; 2005 Harlan Estate The Maiden; 2005 Chateau La Dominique; 2007 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve; 2000 Chateau Brainaire Ducru; 2008 Merryvale Profile; 2005 Chateau Cos d’Estournel; 2007 Saddleback Cabernet Sauvignon; 2009 Pontet Canet; 2005 Leoville Las Cases; 2008 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; and 2007 Ornellaia.

Champagne and Sparkling wines:

Nicholas Feuillatte “Blue Label” Brut; Mumm Napa Cuvee (sparkling); Paul Bara Brut; Veuve Cliquot Brut; Roderer Estate (sparkling); Krug Grande Cuvee Brut; Perrier Jouet Grand Brut; 2003 Taittinger Comptes De Champagne Rose; Iron Horse Russian Cuvee (sparkling).

Happy Holidays!

Is decanting wine beneficial?

At dinner the other evening at a local restaurant, I asked the waiter if he could decant the rather full-bodied red wine that I had selected to accompany our meal. One of my tablemates looked quizzically at me and inquired why I felt the wine needed to be decanted.

To air or not to air. That is the question I am often asked by perplexed wine lovers. No, I’m not referring to one’s wine-stained undergarments here, but to the somewhat controversial practice of decanting wine.

The air we breathe can be both friend and enemy to the wine we drink. Depending upon the wine type and its age, oxygen can transform a tight, tannic, young wine into a mellow and more appealing nectar, or it can turn an old, valuable, complex wine into salad dressing.

Most of us will agree that before we open a bottle of old wine, we should stand it up for a day and then decant the wine so that the sediment (which is a natural by-product of the aging process, particularly in red wine) can be left in the bottom of the bottle. The burning question here, though, is how long we should allow the wine to “breathe” before consuming it.

Most wine makers will tell you that their wine is ready to drink right out of the bottle and they’re probably right. What they don’t tell you is whether or not the wine will actually improve after an hour or so in a decanter.

And hey, you don’t need a crystal decanter to aerate your wine. I’ve used a fruit pitcher. As long as the decanter is clean and free from off tastes or smells (hint: don’t use a pickle jar), any open container will do.

Some “experts” suggest that merely removing the cork will suffice in allowing enough oxygen for the wine to benefit. That’s patently ridiculous since only a miniscule amount of air actually touches the top-most surface of the wine.

Knowing when to aerate the wine (allowing air to interact with a substance) by decanting it into a larger, more open container is a matter of judgement and experience. Generally, I think that young red wines (under 10 years old) benefit from being decanted.

With older wines, I will also generally decant the stuff right before serving to preserve the delicate flavors and complexity that have been bottled up over time. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of allowing an older wine (a 30-year old California cabernet) to sit in a carafe for as little as 15 minutes and have literally tasted the wine lose its flavor.

On the other hand, I once mistakenly allowed a 25-year old Barolo to sit for 18 hours in a decanter and the result was a wine with an aroma of violets and spice, and flavors of chocolate and currants. Go figure.

To breathe or not to breathe?

So, here are three factors to consider in weighing whether or not to aerate your wine: the type of wine; the age and vintage date; and the manner in which the wine was stored.
Most fuller bodied red wines such as cabernet sauvignon (to include Bordeaux), zinfandel, Rhone varietals such as syrah and mourvedre along with Italian reds like Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello and Amarone will benefit from at least an hour’s worth of decanting.

Decanting white wines is a little trickier. Some white wines such as chardonnay, young sauvignon blanc and Alsatian varietals such as gewurztraminer, pinot blanc, riesling and pinot gris will also improve from a half-hour to an hour in a carafe or decanter. But delicate whites such as pinot grigio are better left undecanted.

One other factor to consider when contemplating decanting is the particular vintage year of the wine. If wines from a specific vintage were known to be fuller-bodied, for example, they might require even more aeration than ones from lesser vintages (see my example regarding Barolo).

Finally, the conditions under which the wine was stored will have a great bearing on how well the wine will stand up to air. Poorly stored wines will generally accelerate the aging process and thus be less tolerant of aeration. One quick clue to how a wine is stored is to check the level of the wine in the neck of the bottle. If the level is lower than normal, that could mean the wine has not been stored properly.

One fun way to test whether or not a wine benefits from aeration in a decanter is to purchase two bottles of the same wine, decant one for an hour and then open the other and evaluate the wines.

To breathe or not to breathe: you be the judge.

Thanksgiving: a wine lovers dream meal!

I’ve proclaimed this many times before, but it bears repeating: Thanksgiving is truly a wine lover’s holiday!

Why? Simply put, it’s the culinary versatility of the Thanksgiving dinner and the way turkey and all the “fixins” can be successfully paired with just about any type of wine.

The turkey by itself possesses meat that has a variety of different flavors, colors and textures which can match nicely with any medium to full-bodied white or red. And, when you add the dishes that traditionally accompany Thanksgiving dinner, things really get interesting.

Whether you use a light, slightly sweet German Riesling or Alsatian Pinot Gris, a fruit forward Gruner Veltliner or an herbal and dry Sauvignon Blanc (which pairs nicely with a sage-flavored bread dressing) or a rich and full-bodied chardonnay, you will find that oven- roasted turkey will pair nicely with each of these white wines…

However, what surprises so many folks (particularly those who adhere to the rigid view that you should only pair white wine with white meat) is how well turkey matches up to big red wines, particularly when the “national bird” has been charcoal -grilled or smoked. Full bodied reds like syrah, cabernet sauvignon, Chateauneuf-du-Pape or even zinfandel go especially well with smoked or grilled turkey.

Oven-roasted turkey is also very nicely accompanied by medium-bodied reds such as Chianti Classico, pinot noir or tempranilo from Spain. Several years ago, I even opened older Bordeaux to celebrate the holiday.

But this year, I’m not going to cook “no stinking, ordinary oven-roasted bird.” No siree Pancho! I’m going for a semi-smoked, charcoal -grilled turkey.

Here’s how I’m doing the National Bird this year. After soaking my 15 -pound turkey in a brine of kosher salt, brown sugar, water, apple cider and beer for about three hours, the bird will be stuffed with bread dressing to which Italian sausage, chestnuts, onion and celery will be added.

I’ll prepare a charcoal fire, move the coals to either side of the grill, place an aluminum pan half filled with water between the coals and then place the bird directly above the water and grill for about three and a half hours.

Grilling the National Bird

There will also be the usual Thanksgiving dinner accompaniments of mashed and sweet potatoes, giblet gravy, peas and mushrooms and pearl onions along with freshly baked rolls and pumpkin pie. Of course, cranberry relish will also make an appearance as will the following special wines.

To get everyone in the proper mood, I’ll open a bottle or two of Domain Chandon Blanc De Noirs as an aperitif. Then I will decant into separate carafes a 2007 Schulmberger Alsatian Riesling along with a 2008 Domaine Serene Evenstad Pinot Noir to accompany the meal. I think it’s fun to experiment with both wines and discuss the relative merits of each with various components of the meal.

For a dessert of pumpkin pie, I will open a bottle of 2005 Two Hands For Love or Money (a late harvest semillon from Australia). This wine rivals the storied Sauternes of France and is infused with apricot and honeyed sweetness and just a touch of the “Noble Rot” so sought after in great late harvest wines.

By the way, all of the wines mentioned here were purchased locally.

After such a meal, it is prudent to take a slow walk around the neighborhood before plopping down on the couch in a tryptophan- induced coma to watch football or old James Bond movies.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Canaan Valley Wild, Wonderful Wine Weekend

One of the state’s premier food and wine events will once again be held in beautiful Tucker County at Canaan Valley Resort. The “Wild, Wonderful Wine Weekend,” which has become an annual gourmet extravaganza, will be held this year from November 9th thru 11th. Once again, I will have the privilege of selecting the wines for the event and providing commentary on those delectable sippers throughout the weekend.

I’m in the process of choosing wines from some of the world’s greatest wine regions to be paired with a cornucopia of culinary delicacies prepared under the direction of Canaan Valley Resort’s Food and Beverage Manager Lawrence Walkup.

It’s always fun to work with culinary professionals in pairing wines with their scrumptious creations, and the folks at our state’s most scenic resort always hit the mark at this signature event.

The weekend begins Friday, November 9 at 7 p.m. with a “taste-around reception” where more than 20 wines can be sampled with matching culinary treats from food stations featuring a wonderful selection of foods upon which to graze (see below).

On Saturday, there will be a tasting featuring wines that I recommend with the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner celebrations. Guests will also be treated to a four-course wine-paired luncheon led by yours truly. After lunch, guests will be free to hike, bike, nap (what I plan to do) or just enjoy Mother Nature’s purple mountain majesty!

The menus below should precipitate a surge in endorphins and get your collective palates watering in anticipation. I haven’t completed selecting all the wines at this writing, but you can be assured that I will do my best to make you happy.

Guests have the option of attending the entire weekend for a package price ($290 for a single attendee & $499 per couple inclusive of room, taxes and fees) or choosing to participate in individual events ala carte (see prices below). For additional information or reservations call 800-622-4121 or visit online at www.canaanresort.com.

Northern Canaan Valley

Friday Reception ($40.00 per person)

Chicken En Croute
Bacon Wrapped Bread Sticks
Smoked Trout Dip with Crostini
Smoked Pork Stuffed with Savory Meatloaf
Fish Tacos
Mini Potato Cakes with Crème Fresh
Marinated Cheese Trays and Antipasti
Artisan Chocolates
Chocolate Fondue Fountain

Lunch with Wine Pairings ($35.00 per person)

Spinach, Apple, and White Cheddar Salad
Trout Cake with Lemon Caper Butter Sauce
Blackened Chicken Pasta
Carrot Cake with Maple Crème Cheese Icing

Demystifying Wines for Thanksgiving ($20.00 per person)
I’ll share my picks for “National Turkey Day.”

Grand Gourmet Dinner with paired wines ($75.00 per person)

Sliced Pork Belly and Apple Fritters
Potato Ramp Soup with Cracklin’ Bread
Black and Blue Pear Salad
Filet Mignon with Gnocchi topped with a Morel, Tomato, and Herb Ragout
Pumpkin Crème Brûlée with Caramelized Maple Sugar