Vines & Vittles

Grilling favorites with paired wines

My wife can really turn a phrase. She claims I avoid work as if it was a “four letter” word. I will admit, though, there are certain tasks – like cleaning out the garage or doing the dishes – which I do not willingly seek out. But give me something to cook and I am a diligent, energetic and enthusiastic laborer; give me something to grill and I’m in Nirvana!

And since the upcoming Memorial Day weekend is the official kick-off for summertime, that means we will be enjoying more of our meals in the great outdoors. That also means I can use my grill more frequently and that’s the type of work I truly love.

Over the years I have espoused the virtues of charcoal over gas grilling, but whatever your preference, nothing beats the flavor of outdoor cooking. Whether you’re searing a hunk of red meat, slow roasting a rack of baby backs or smoking a filet of salmon, grilling improves the flavor of just about any food – even vegetables. And there are myriad wine choices to pair with the foods we enjoy this time of year.

Here are a few of my favorite warm weather on-the-grill dishes, and the wines I think will pair especially well with them.

Hamburgers: I love to chop a few slices of bacon into small pieces and add them to a pound and a half of ground chuck. After pressing them into quarter pound burgers, I shake a generous portion of McCormick’s Montreal Grillmates Seasoning on them before placing them on the grill. Try pairing the burgers with zinfandel from producers such as Frank Family, Edmeades or Dry Creek. These California zins are all medium-bodied wines with delicious dark berry flavors that will accentuate the beefy goodness of the bacon-enhanced burgers.

Hot dogs and Sausages: I’m an advocate of splitting my dogs and sausages long-ways in order to get as many surfaces of the meat grilled and crisp. The saltiness and spice of these hearty tube steaks makes them a perfect match with refreshing and thirst-quenching dry roses’ from producers like Elizabeth Spenser (California) Domaine Tempier Bandol Rose (France) and Mulderbosch Rose of Cabernet Sauvignon (South Africa).

Rib eye or strip steak: Nothing is more hedonistically appealing to me than beefsteak grilled to perfection. I’ll have my beef purveyor cut my steak into one and one-half inch thick pieces and then I’ll rub them with a clove of garlic, kosher salt, coarsely ground black pepper and olive oil before placing the meat on the grill and cooking them until medium-rare. No wine is more appropriate to serve with this lovely grilled meat than cabernet sauvignon, particularly ones from northern California. Here are some of my favorite labels: Provenance, Franciscan, Shaffer, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Silver Oak, Heitz, St. Supery and Clos Du Val.

Marinated Vegetables: As an accompaniment to any meat or fish dish or as a stand-alone meal, you must try grilling vegetables. You can use any combination of the following: lengthwise pieces of red and yellow bell peppers; peeled and sliced zucchinis and yellow squash; a large onion cut into quarter inch circles; asparagus spears; hot banana peppers sliced lengthwise; a bulb of sliced fennel; a head of radicchio halved; and Portobello mushrooms cut in half. Make a marinade of extra virgin olive oil, minced garlic, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and basil. Mix and then immerse the vegetables in the marinade for about an hour before grilling. Pair the grilled veggies with sauvignon blanc from La Crema and St. Supery (California) or Whitehaven and Kim Crawford (New Zealand).

Salmon: I love me some salmon on the grill! Brush two eight ounce, skin-off salmon filets (or a whole side of salmon) with a glaze composed of minced garlic and jalapenos, soy sauce, honey, cumin and olive oil. Brush on before grilling and then again when you turn the salmon. Salmon likes smoke and just loves sweet and heat. The perfect wine accompaniment to the dish is pinot noir. Try one of these beauties: Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve and Lange Estate (Oregon); Melville Santa Rita Hills, Domaine Carneros and Etude (California).

Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend and happy summertime grilling!

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at

Restaurants Reopening: a time for celebration

With most of the restrictive, covid-related regulations now lifted on state restaurants, gourmands, including yours truly, are smiling like Cheshire cats. And, with facial masks secured, we’ve also begun to once again sup and sip at our favorite dining establishments.

That’s great news! In fact, I’ve been patronizing some of my favorite local eateries and I can happily report that the quality of the food is as good as ever. Today, I’ll tell you about two restaurants I visited and share my favorite menu items from each establishment. I’ll also suggest reasonably priced wines to pair with the menu items chosen from each of the restaurants’ “by the glass” list. In future scribblings, I’ll review my favorite dishes and wines from other area establishments. So, let’s get started.

Ristorante Abruzzi, located at 601 Morris Street in the building adjacent to Appalachian Power Park, is a culinary gem. Owned by Mark and Libby Chatfield, Abruzzi features a fine cross-section of menu selections many of which are inspired by dishes from the eponymous Italian region.

Mark’s family (on his mother’s side) hails from Abruzzi and, while he is a college professor during the day, he has always dreamed of owning a restaurant that focuses on offering many of the same foods he relished growing up. Here are two pasta dishes and accompanying wines you might like to try the next time you visit Ristorante Abruzzi:

Radiatore Bolognese – Bolognese is a thick meaty sauce that is a combination ground beef, veal and pork with just a little tomato paste to color it slightly. The radiatore are small, squat pasta that kind of look like tiny radiators and they really absorb the Bolognese quite nicely.

I suggest pairing this with Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano D’Abruzzo. This medium bodied, rich and well-balanced red wine is full of ripe cherry flavors and hails from the Abruzzi region. It is a very compatible partner to the Bolognese.

Wild Mushroom Sagnarelli – This is a lovely blend of wild porcini mushrooms, pancetta and sun-dried tomatoes in a light cream sauce. Sagnarelli is a type of rectangular, flat ribbon-like pasta which holds the sauce perfectly. My vinous choice for the dish is Mer Soleil Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay. From California’s central coast, the wine is round, rich and earthy which makes it a perfect choice to accompany and compliment the wild mushroom Sagnarelli.

1010 Bridge is a restaurant born in the middle of last year’s Covid pandemic. Huh? To say that owners Aaron and Marie Clark were bold might be an understatement. But with their decades of working in the restaurant and catering businesses and with the able assistance of Chef Paul Smith, that confidence to move forward in such a challenging year has been rewarded. And we wine and food lovers are the beneficiaries of their success.

1010 occupies the same physical space as the former restaurant, The Market, in South Hills on Bridge Road. Aaron Clark describes the menu as Appalachian with Low Country influences. I’ve visited the restaurant several times and I believe it is among the best eateries in the state. Here are two of my favorite menu items with recommended wines.

Cast Iron Seared “1010 Cut.” The cut of beef used is terres major and it’s about the size of a pork tenderloin. It is also the second most tender piece of meat on the whole cow – second only to the tenderloin. The dish is sauced with a cabernet Bordelais jus and accompanied by lobster mac & cheese, candied brussel sprouts and a foie-gras truffle butter. Sounds like a weird hodge-podge of ingredients, but it is succulent and delicious.

This complex menu item needs an equally complex wine. I chose Terre Rouge Tete-A-Tete which is a Cote Du Rhone-like red from the Sierra Foothills of California. Tete-A-Tete is a blend of 43 percent each of Grenache and mourvedre and 14 percent syrah and it can stand up to and enhance the flavors of the terres major cut.

Pan Seared Sea Scallops. Perfectly pan seared sea scallops with a sherry-chive pan sauce are atop Hernshaw Farms mushroom risotto and along a side of sautéed spinach. Such an opulent entrée needs a chardonnay that offers richness, but which also has contrasting and refreshing acidity to keep the dish in balance. The St. Supery Oak Free Chardonnay is the perfect choice to pair with this superb entrée.

The restaurant industry is such an important part of our community so I hope you’ll go out to support them and celebrate the end (hopefully) of a very trying time.

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at


Wines for Passover and Easter

It’s beginning to look a lot like ….Easter. That’s right friends, it’s officially springtime and we’re about to ring in this season of rebirth by observing two of our most cherished holidays. Over the next few weeks, Passover and Easter will share the calendar and both holidays will feature special foods. I’ll tell you about those edibles and suggest a bevy of compatible wines to pair with them.

Passover and Easter, of course, are religious holidays and, in addition to their spiritual significance, they remind us that wine has always played an important role in our Judeo-Christian traditions and culture. And today, I’ll provide you with some vinous choices to pair with these important celebrations.

The Seder meal, which occurs on the first day of Passover, can consist of everything from brisket to chicken as well as gefilte fish, potato- type casseroles and other specific Jewish foods. And, if you’re like me, you’ll especially love the Seder tradition requiring each adult to sip four cups of wine with the meal. The problem is finding a diverse selection of Kosher wines in our state.

If you wish to sip only Kosher wines for Seder, you might be able to find a few at your local wine shop, but make sure they indicate they’re “Kosher for Passover.”  However, you’ll probably have better luck by ordering from online retailers like If you are able to choose from non-Kosher wines, I recommend either – or both – of these two wines:

2018 Willamette Valley Vineyards ($26)– This Oregon pinot noir is a very versatile wine with earthy, black cherry flavors and excellent balance. Should pair well with a variety of Seder foods, especially brisket.

2018 Trimbach Reserve Pinot Gris ($24)– From the region of Alsace in eastern France, this crisp white has aromas of freshly cut ripe apple and tastes of nuts, citrus and honey. It would marry particularly well with Seder chicken, matzo ball soup and gefilte fish.

Many other American households will feature baked ham or roasted lamb as the centerpieces of their Easter meal. If that’s your choice, I have a couple of wine suggestions to share with you.
Most hams you’ll find at the local supermarket are pre-cooked and only require you to bake them at a low temperature (usually ten minutes per pound at 325 degrees) before serving them. You’ll probably want to brush on a brown sugar -or some other type of sweet glaze -before baking the ham. I really love to pair these pre-cooked hams with rose’.

Here’s one for you to try: 2019 Vin de Prairie Rose’ ($17) -From Provence in southern France, this pale, salmon-colored wine has flavors of ripe strawberries with just a touch of citrus. This rose’ is also refreshing and thirst-quenching which makes it an especially good match with the (sometimes salty) baked ham.

A boned and butterflied leg of lamb will be the featured entrée at my home on Easter Sunday. Some of you may prefer a rack of lamb or even lamb chops. These are exceptional cuts of meat.

And yet, I know many people who won’t even give lamb a try – they think it has a baaad taste (sorry, I couldn’t resist). But I think just about every carnivore would enjoy the leg of lamb I’ll be preparing. I’ll rub the leg with coarsely ground black pepper, minced garlic and Kosher salt, and then marinate it overnight in a bath of olive oil, red wine, the juice and rind of three lemons along with more garlic and rosemary. Then I’ll roast that sucker to perfection on my trusty old charcoal grill.

Here are two recommendations for Easter lamb:

2016 Allegrini Palazzo Della Torre ($23) – This wine, from the Veneto region of northern Italy, features notes of dried cranberries with hints of dark chocolate and cola. It’s a medium-bodied red that has nice balancing acidity and will make a delicious accompaniment to the lamb.

2017 Provenance Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($38) -Dark cherry and berry flavors are rounded out by a kiss of oak in this rich and full-bodied Napa cabernet that will marry seamlessly with the spicy, grilled leg of lamb.

Happy Passover and Easter!

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at

Wine for everyday meals

If you’ve followed my scribblings over the years, you know that I’ll never tell you about a wine without recommending specific foods with which to pair that particular bottle. However, a friend of mine (who is less than subtle) recently admonished me for always seeming to suggest wine compatible foods that she referred to as “Saturday night” or celebratory meals. You know, special dinners you might prepare for birthdays, anniversaries, or when Uncle Homer gets out of prison.

And you know what? She may be correct. So in an effort to dispel a myth which I may have been unintentionally espousing (that wine is only for special occasions), I want to offer you a sincere Mea Culpa. Let me also make this clear: wine could and, in fact, should be a part of your everyday meals!

I know that most of you don’t drink wine every night of the week. But when you do open a bottle on say, a Monday or Wednesday, you shouldn’t feel like you need to whip up some elegant repast like Beef Wellington or Peking Duck. So today, we’ll concentrate on some of the foods that comprise our everyday meals, and I’ll suggest wine pairings for them.


Meatloaf is a menu mainstay that some families enjoy regularly. Instead of boring yourself with diet cola or iced tea, you might open a bottle of inexpensive and medium-bodied red wine to spark up that meatloaf entrée. Marietta Old Vines, which is a blend of zinfandel and other red varietals, would be a good pick. Or, you might also pair it with malbec from Argentinean producers such as Susana Balbo or Catena.

Macaroni and cheese still graces our table as a main dish at least once a month. Sometimes, we’ll add roasted red peppers or jalapenos to the dish to spice it up. This is a meal that can be paired well with both white and red wine. For plain mac & cheese, try a medium bodied white such as Soave from Allegrini or pinot gris from Oregon’s King Estate. For spicy versions of the dish, I recommend pinot noir from producers such as Cline Family Cellars in Sonoma County or Erath in Oregon.

Pot Roast is a great wintertime dish. Slow cooked with onions, potatoes and carrots, I love the hearty beef flavors that can be greatly enhanced when the dish is accompanied by a full-bodied red wine like zinfandel. Among my favorites zins, Easton from Amador County and Seghesio from Sonoma pair wonderfully well with pot roast.

Chicken and dumplings are also on the menu at our home in the colder months. I just love the light and fluffy dumplings and tender breast meat all immersed in rich chicken broth. You will need a white wine with sufficient acid to pair well with this dish. Try these two sauvignon blancs from New Zealand: Kim Crawford and/or Whitehaven.

Pan fried pork chops are a staple in many kitchens, but the dish can be significantly elevated when paired with a simpatico red wine. Seasoned simply with salt and black pepper and dusted with flour, this all-American dish goes exceptionally well with Cotes Du Rhone from producers like Saint Cosme and Guigal. These supple reds from the Rhone region of southern France have black pepper aromas and dark fruit flavors.

Chili, with or without beans, is a hearty, spicy dish that would seem to pair better with that other (frothy) beverage more than it would from the fruit of the vine. But I’m going to suggest that you trade that hoppy carbonated brew for an upgrade to a scintillating, effervescent and delicious alternative – sparkling wine. And you don’t have to plunk down big bucks either! I suggest you try these inexpensive, but excellent sparklers with your pot of chili: Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava from Spain and Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noir Rose from Sonoma County.

So, there you have it: wines for the meals you’ll fix on just about any day of the week – even Saturday. But make something special for Uncle Homer and pour him a nice glass of wine. There weren’t many food and wine pairings in the Big House.

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at

Meatballs in America

I grew up in a largely ethnic neighborhood in Clarksburg where the adults were very direct. Subtlety and nuance were not among the tools in their communication toolbox. So, when I really screwed up, I heard about it sometimes in language that would make a Mafia Don blush.

However, if my transgression was minimal, the verbal remonstration would likewise be less vociferous and profane. For example, when I did something that only slightly offended my Italian immigrant grandfather, he would often shake his head and begin his criticism with the words: “Hey Meatball.”

I fondly remember those days of yore and the great family gatherings that always revolved around meals which many times featured – you guessed it – meatballs. Notwithstanding this rather awkward segue, today I’m going to explore the world of meatballs, give you my own recipe and tell you about my favorite wine to accompany this all-American dish!

And while some of you may think the meatball has its origin in Italy, it really is an Italian-American culinary creation. The great Italian immigration to America began around 1880 and lasted until the mid 1920’s. These hardy souls were predominately poor and they came to our country to find work and a better life for their families.

They left a nation where meat was not plentiful and also very expensive, particularly beef. There was no culinary tradition for the meatball as we know it. In Italy, meatballs are called polpettes and can be made with just about any kind of meat or seafood. They’re usually eaten as a separate dish or added to soups, but none of them resemble our American version that are submerged in marinara sauce and ladled onto pasta.

My recipe is one that I inherited from my mother and grandmother and, while a combination of beef and pork comprise the meat component, the other ingredients are just as important in the creation of the meatball. My only deviation from the original recipe is that I substitute Italian sausage for the pork portion. Here’s my recipe.

– One pound each of ground chuck and Italian sausage (I like the hot version)
– One loaf of day old bread with crust removed
– Three cloves of minced garlic and one cup of chopped Italian parsley
– One cup of grated parmesan cheese and two eggs
– One cup of diced onions, a tablespoon each of salt and black pepper
– One cup of milk

In a large mixing bowl, combine the milk and bread for ten minutes and then squeeze and discard all the liquid from the bread. Add the remainder of the ingredients to the bowl and mix together with your hands. Take a small portion of the mixture, sauté it and then taste, adding salt or seasoning if necessary.

Form the mixture into meatballs (mine are usually two inches in diameter). While many recipes call for frying the meatballs until done, I prefer to bake them in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes, turn them and cook for another 20 minutes. Then I add them to a steaming pot of marinara sauce to simmer at a low temperature for two hours before serving them with pasta.

My favorite wine to accompany this dish is barbera. From the Piedmont region in northern Italy, barbera is a medium-bodied red wine full of bright cherry flavors and excellent balancing acidity. It pairs exceptionally well with meatballs in marinara sauce. Barbera is widely available and also very reasonably priced (usually between $15 and $25 a bottle). Among the best barbera producers are Vietti, Chiarlo, Prunotto and Pio Cesare.

You’re going to love this food and wine pairing.

Take it from a real Meatball!

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at

A wine for every holiday taste

I’m really looking forward to this Holiday Season! Many of us have suffered and all of us have had to hunker down and endure a year unlike any other. And one of the ways I plan on enjoying the spirit (s) of the season is to give a gift of wine to family and friends as we celebrate Christmas and the New Year, and as we look forward to a much better 2021.

One of the greatest attributes of wine is the almost limitless variety of grapes from vineyards around the world that produce bottles with an incredible diversity of aromas and flavors to please the palates of just about everyone. Whether you’re just an occasional sipper, someone who drinks a glass or two each day or a wine-obsessed individual, you’re probably always on the lookout for a good bottle, especially this time of year.

With that premise in mind, I’m going to suggest several bottles of wine you might consider giving to family or friends that fall into the classifications I mentioned above. I’ll suggest red, white and sparkling wines for each of the groups so you’ll have a variety of purchasing choices and prices. And keep this snarky thought in mind: giving the gift of wine, particularly to someone close to you, can have an ancillary benefit since there is a chance you’ll be invited to sip along once that particular bottle is uncorked.

For the occasional sippers: White: Martin Codax Albarino (Spain); Anselmi San Vincenzo (Italian, Soave-like); and Hess Select Monterey Chardonnay (California). Red: Allegrini Valpolicella Classico (Italy); Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (California); Foris Rogue Valley Pinot Noir (Oregon); and Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel (California); Sparkling: Chandon Brut (California); Nicholas Feuillatte Blue Label Champagne (France); and Dibon Cava Brut (Spain).

For the daily wine drinker: White: Chalk Hill Chardonnay (California): Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc (Australia); and Pierre Sparr Pinot Blanc (France); Red: Easton Amador County Zinfandel (California); Franciscan Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (California); Torbreck The Woodcutter’s Shiraz (Australia); and Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape (France). Sparkling: Iron Horse Brut (California); Segura Viudas Reserva (Spain); and Veuve Cliquot (The Widow) Brut Champagne (France).

For the wine-obsessed: White: Kistler Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay (California); Joseph Drouhin Puligny Monrachet Premier Cru (France); and Dr. Loosen Urziger Wurzgarten Mosel Riesling (Germany). Red: Chateau Lynch-Bages (Bordeaux); Chappellet Prichard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa); Altesino Montosoli Brunello di Montalcino (Italy); and Domaine Serene Evanstad Reserve Pinot Noir (Oregon). Sparkling: Krug Grande Cuvee Brut Champagne (France); Taittinger Comptes De Champagne Rose’ (France); and Roderer Estate Brut (California).

Most of the wines listed above are available locally, but you may need to order a few of them online. As I approach the Holiday Season and the New Year, I do so with a sense of hope, anticipation and optimism: hope that we can see light at the end of the Covid tunnel; anticipation that 2021 will restore us to some sense of normalcy; and optimism that we will be free once again to roam the planet and experience the gift of human interaction without constraints.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year!

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at


Thanksgiving is next Thursday! Under normal circumstances, our family would be gathering to stuff ourselves with all manner of goodies including, of course, a varied selection of wines to pair with – not only the “National Bird” – but with the multitude of delicious side dishes such as chestnut dressing and pumpkin pie.

But this year, Mother Nature has morphed into the “Wicked Witch of the Earth” with a dark and catastrophic menu of her own. She’s been conjuring up hurricanes, floods, wild fires and other global weather anomalies as side dishes to accompany the main course, Covid 19.

So, what can we do to celebrate Thanksgiving  this year, and still stay safe and virus free? Well, in our family that means limiting the number of guests at the holiday table to two: my wife and I. Oh, we’ll probably Face-Time with our kids and grandkids, but we will not be able to share food and wine or have any physical contact with them.

But the biggest problem for many of us in similar circumstances will be how to scale back on the Thanksgiving meal. Creating meals for two is not difficult under normal circumstances, but preparing the menu for the best food-centric holiday of them all will be a challenge, especially with regard to the main course – turkey.

I have tried, without success, to find a small turkey (under ten pounds) and there is just no availability. Apparently, the problem lies in the way commercial turkeys are grown and harvested. And this year, because of the pandemic, the demand for smaller turkeys greatly exceeds the supply. Among other issues, turkey farmers didn’t correctly anticipate the huge demand for smaller birds.

So this year, we’ll be oven-roasting a five pound boneless turkey breast instead of our normal 15 to 20 pound whole turkey. Even though we’ll miss sharing the holiday meal with our extended family, we will still enjoy the dinner- and the accompanying wines. And while I won’t limit the number of wine accompaniments with the meal, I will take more care in selecting them to match the more subtle flavors of the turkey breast .

In normal years, the beauty of using a whole turkey is that it is blessed with meat that has different flavors, colors and textures. And when you consider the manner in which the bird is cooked – from oven baking to grilling to deep frying or smoking – you can choose to use a great number of widely diverse types of wine from white to rose’ to purple monsters. But not this year. So, here’s my plan for this weird Thanksgiving Day.

I’ll submerge the turkey breast overnight in a brine of apple cider, beer, water and one cup each of kosher salt and brown sugar. On Thanksgiving Day, I’ll pat the turkey dry and then mix together one-half stick of (soft) butter, a teaspoon each of minced garlic, rosemary, cumin, black pepper and crushed sage leaves. Then I’ll rub the entire turkey breast with the mixture – even up under the skin – and bake it at 325 degrees until the internal temperature of the breast reaches 165 degrees (between two and three hours). I will allow the turkey to rest under tented aluminum foil for a half hour before serving.

I’ll use these three wines with Thanksgiving Dinner this year:

2020 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau ($17) – Beaujolais Nouveau is always a fun sipper full of fresh strawberry and cherry flavors. The first wine of the 2020 vintage arrives in wine shops this week and the Duboeuf is always one of my favorites. This is a great fruit forward celebratory aperitif to get you in the mood for the dinner to come.

2019 Kate Arnold Columbia Valley Riesling ($17) – Light and flinty, this dry riesling from the Columbia River Valley in Washington state has ripe apple nuances that should meld quite well with my herb and butter-rubbed turkey breast.

2018 Evesham Wood Pinot Noir Willamette Valley ($32) – This well-balanced pinot noir has bright cherry and spicy tea elements along with earthy notes that are subtle, but complex. This wine should complement the richness of the turkey breast and provide a little zing to the pairing.

Have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at

Wine Appreciation: keeping it simple

I know you’ve heard the term: “Harder than Chinese arithmetic,” right? Well, I’m here to tell you that wine appreciation doesn’t need to be that hard. Despite what some folks would like you to believe, it’s not necessary to have a degree in oenology, be a romance language expert or be wealthy to enjoy a glass or two of good wine.

For instance, some critics get way down in the weeds and use obtuse words to describe the sensory characteristics of wine. What, for example, do the terms precocious, unctuous or assertive have to do with the way a wine smells or tastes? Sometimes when I find myself slipping into what I call “snob-speak,” I harken back to an old Waylon Jennings song. In “Back to the Basics of Love, ” Waylon’s words give me swift rhetorical kick, knocking me off my high horse so I can explain in plain English the qualities of a particular wine.

So, when I describe a particular chardonnay as having ripe green apple flavors, you will immediately use your own memory of the taste, smell and texture of ripe green apples to understand how the wine might actually taste. If I wanted to be more specific, I could say that chardonnay also has the taste of ripe Honey Crisp apples. Well, you get the point.

In evaluating wine over the years, I have detected the flavors of blackberries, cherries, vanilla, cinnamon and countless others. And I have experienced the aromas of toast, grass, butterscotch and leather as well, unfortunately, as mold, Limburger cheese and vinegar too. These are descriptions that are based on solid sensory memories.

But what defines a good wine? Many of us struggle with another major consideration: price versus quality. Most of us assume there is a direct correlation between what you pay for a bottle and the way it should taste.

If you could afford to pay $100 or more for a “trophy” wine, wouldn’t you expect that bottle to be memorable? I had a friend who recently plunked down $150 for a bottle of Bordeaux that, indeed, was memorable, but for the wrong reasons. He described it as “rancid and musty.”

Since that description could fit any number of animate organisms, including cheese, old socks and/or a bevy of over-the-hill  politicians, my friend assured me that he was describing wine. The obvious lesson here is that expensive does not always equate to quality when it comes to buying wine.

Conversely, inexpensive wines are not always inferior. As a matter of fact, in my never-ending quest for excellent wine at bargain prices, I am often pleasantly surprised by the quality of wines I did not expect to be very good. The point here is that often our expectations are colored by the price of wine.

Here are a few tips when you’re looking for a good inexpensive bottle of wine. First, pick the wine that lists the grape varietal (i.e. cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel, etc.) on the label. Given the choice of choosing an inexpensive wine labeled as “Red” or “White,” or one described as chardonnay or merlot (for example), choose the one with the grape name.

Next, look for wines with a recent vintage date to insure freshness. With most inexpensive wines, producers concentrate on trying to make wines that exhibit bright fruit and freshness. Unfortunately, these are the flavor components that disappear first as most inexpensive wines age. This is particularly important with white wine which is more prone to losing fruit and freshness as it ages. My general rule (and remember, there are always exceptions) is to pick lower-priced whites with vintage dates no older than three years. With most inexpensive reds, vintage dates should be no older than four years.

There is another very important way to determine the quality of lower-priced wines. You should always try to select wines where the label indicates the specific origin of the grapes. For example, a 2018 merlot that indicates it was produced in Monterey County would be preferable to a 2018 merlot simply labeled as having been made in California. The more geographically specific the appellation of origin is on the label, the more likely the wine will be the better choice.

So that’s it for now, but in future columns, I’ll try to present you with more of the basics of wine appreciation. And a special shout–out to the late and great Waylon Jennings for reminding me to keep it simple.

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at

Pesto Rosso Pasta: a spicy harvest dish!

It’s harvest time all across the “Fruited Plain.” In California, the grape harvest is in full swing while, in other parts of the country, bountiful crops of fruits and vegetables are literally ripe for the picking. I’ve been spending a good bit of time at our local farmer’s market loading up on everything from peaches and apples to peppers and tomatoes.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been canning hot and sweet banana peppers rings as well as roasted and peeled red bell peppers. Soon I will purchase a bushel of green tomatoes, fresh fennel bulbs, onions and more hot banana peppers to prepare the stacked and aged Italian vegetable concoction called saliata (I’ll provide the recipe for this complicated, but delicious, vegetable medley in a future column).

But today I’m going to pass along a recipe that combines roasted ripe tomatoes and peppers, along with garlic and onions, to create a red pesto and pasta dish. You’re probably wondering if that’s a typo because you’re certain that pesto is green -right? Well, normally it is and that’s because the traditional pesto recipe is made from handfuls of fresh basil. However, pesto can be made from other herbs or vegetables, and the term is more broadly defined as a sauce.

The main ingredients of this crimson version of pesto are roasted red peppers and Roma tomatoes yielding flavors that are rich, spicy, smoky and robust. And because the roasted veggies will be processed through a food mill, I suggest you use either capellini or rotini as the pasta noodle of choice. I call this dish: Pesto Rosso Pasta. To put this dish into the culinary stratosphere, you’ll need to pair it with a medium to full-bodied red wine like the ones suggested below. So here you go!

Pesto Rosso Pasta


Three red bell peppers cut in half
Twenty Roma tomatoes or 10 regular size sweet tomatoes – cut in half
One hot banana pepper (optional) cored and sliced in half long-ways
Three cloves of peeled garlic
One large sweet onion sliced into quarter inch rounds
One-half cup of fresh basil
Three tablespoons of slivered almonds
One cup of pecorino romano or parmesan grated cheese
One-quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil
One or more tablespoons of kosher salt and ground black pepper (to taste)
One pound of capellini or rotini pasta

How To

Coat peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic in olive oil
Roast in a 350 degree oven for one hour
Turn roasting vegetables over in the pan(s) after 30 minutes
Allow vegetables to cool and peel any skins that are loose on the peppers and/or tomatoes
Place the mixture in a food processor with cheese and blend until smooth
Put almonds into processor, pulse a couple of times so nuts are integrated but not pulverized
Boil salted water in a large pot and add pasta
Put the pesto in a large sauté pan over low heat while pasta finishes cooking
Chop the basil finely
Cook pasta until al dente and retain one half cup of pasta water
Add water to pesto in the pan and stir
Place pasta in sauté pan with pesto, mix well and heat over low flame for five minutes
Plate the pasta and sprinkle the fresh basil over each dish

Wines for Pesto Rosso Pasta

2015 Castello di Bossi Chianti Classico ($28) This ruby red, medium-bodied Chianti is chock full of dried cranberry and cherry flavors with hints of tea and a nuance of vanilla from the oak aging. Just the right wine to pair with the hearty flavors of the Pesto Rosso Pasta.

2017 Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandel ($25) A blend of 77 percent Paso Robles zinfandel and small amounts of petit sirah, alicante and primitivo, the wine has dark berry and spicy cola flavors. It is well balanced with a nice dollop of acid to marry well with the red pesto.

John Brown is also a novelist.  His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at


Charleston: a good place to ride out the pandemic

If you’re a food and wine junkie like me, this pandemic has really altered your lifestyle. My wife and I enjoy eating in and opening a good bottle of wine at home more than just about anybody, but we miss those restaurant or bar date nights where we can let someone else prepare our meal and serve us our beverages.

However, visiting restaurants or bars now, though, is not nearly as much fun as in the past. Social distancing, limited seating arrangements and facial coverings – while understandably necessary, present impediments and obstacles to having a relaxing and enjoyable dining experience. And if you are in the geezer demographic or are physically compromised, the fear of contracting the virus in public places – like restaurants -is an even more inhibiting factor.

But guess what? I have come to the conclusion that Charleston is a pretty good place to shelter in place for a while, especially for foodies and wine geeks. Why? Well, in our little corner of the world, we are blessed to have access to purveyors who provide us with some of freshest and highest quality victuals you can find just about anywhere in this region of the good old US of A.

Let’s start with the basics like bread, vegetables and proteins.

I have travelled in some of the most famous epicurean capitals of Europe where the local bread is spoken of reverentially, but none of those bakeries is any more accomplished than Charleston Bread located on North Capitol Street in our fair city. Their baguettes, ciabatta, multigrain, honey whole wheat, sour dough and other breads are delicious while the salt, pepper and olive oil focaccia is otherworldly. They even crank out delicious and varying styles of pasta noodles you can buy right there at the bakery. Oh, and the pastries are the real deal too, especially the cakes, brownies, cinnamon rolls and biscotti.

But man does not live by bread alone, right? If you love to consume locally grown produce, you’ve been to the Capitol Market’s outdoor farmer’s market to buy tomatoes, fresh corn, beans, peppers and just about anything else that grows in the fertile soil around these parts. Just last week, I bought a bushel of locally grown red peppers which I promptly roasted, peeled (and packed with basil) and then put in the freezer for use as a taste of summer in the dead of next winter. Inside the market, you will also find excellent produce at the Purple Onion.

Of course, the Capitol Market also features a wine shop where you can pick up a few bottles of vino to accompany your home cooked feast. I recently purchased a bottle of 2018 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay (see the description below) to accompany a home made dish of linguine (from Charleston Bread) with broccoli and Italian sausage in a béchamel sauce. Also, in the market, you’ll find a great selection of fresh meat at Johnny’s. Everything from chicken to just about any cut of steak and pork is available or can be cut for you while you wait.

And if you’re a seafood lover, you’ve probably been to General Steak and Seafood (formerly known Joe’s Fish Market) on Quarrier Street in downtown Charleston. This place is an institution and the home of the freshest seafood you’ll find just about anywhere. They even hot smoke whole salmon filets over apple wood! And in the past several months, the business has added meat to the array of fresh goodies – hence the name change. Brothers Joe and Robin Harmon have owned the place for years and remain in charge. The new butcher shop is amazing! I’ve ordered (and grilled) Berkshire pork chops, prime filet, dry-aged steaks and free-range chickens.

So, while all of us are doing our level best to survive these weird times in good health, we’re very fortunate to have exceptional businesses that provide us the opportunity to purchase and prepare quality meals in the safety of our own homes – and sip a little wine too. It certainly makes this pandemic more tolerable!

2018 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay ($24) From Santa Barbara County, this wine is Burgundian in style, but with California ripeness and intensity – a chardonnay of structure and restraint melded with richness. In the glass, a touch of vanilla enhances the ripe apple flavors to produce a very full, but balanced wine. The wine was a very compatible pairing with the linguine, broccoli and Italian sausage meal we enjoyed in our semi-isolation.

John Brown is also a novelist.  His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at