Vines & Vittles

Sicilian Wine and Food: An Offer You Can’t Refuse!

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Ask an Italian what wine they consider to be best, and they will invariably point to a winery down the street or to a vineyard on the hillside adjacent to their village. This is a country around which wine and food are the central components of everyday life, and citizens are justifiably proud of what is grown in the fertile soil of this ancient land.

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. The most famous wine states are Tuscany in north-central Italy and Piedmont in the northwest. In Tuscany, the great wines of 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 Merlot along with crisp whites such as Arneis and Cortese Di Gavi. Both of these regions are in the northern part of the country where the wine produced is considered to be the best.

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chandon.jpgGuys, trust me on this: women take Valentine’s Day very seriously! Hey, I’m no Dr. Phil (and I’m certainly not Dr. Ruth), but I do know that there will be serious consequences if you forget to do something special for your significant other on February 14.

I learned this the hard way a couple of decades ago when I arrived home after a hard day at work to find a candle–lit dinner table with a carafe of red wine, soft-jazz on the stereo and a Hallmark card the size of an armadillo waiting for me when I walked through the door. There was also a heart-shaped gift on the kitchen counter,and the wonderful smells of freshly baked bread. Was I in the right house? Was I in the Twilight Zone?

No, I was in the home of a romantic woman who just happened to be my wife — and I had completely forgotten that this was Valentine’s Day.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: We have even more ‘spirited’ advice for Valentine’s Day over at Rich Ireland’s “Beers To You” gazzblog.

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I know you’re just itching to get to the wine shop this weekend to spend a little hard-earned cash on some serious vinous elixir, so take a look at what I ‘m suggesting below.

melville.jpg2005 Melville Estate Pinot Noir ($30): Melville is a small producer in the Santa Rita Hills area in the cool, Pacific Ocean- influenced Santa Ynez Valley. You may recall this area from the movie “Sideways” or from your own personal experience with the delicious Pinot Noirs produced here. The bright red color of the ’05 Melville may mislead those expecting a lighter-styled version of Pinot Noir. However, once you put the Pinot Noir in your mouth, you realize this is a much more complex wine with layers of flavor. The nose is a combination of cinnamon spice with nuances of caramel and the flavors are of black cherries, spice and just a hint of earth. This wine begs for roasted pork tenderloin in a slightly sweet sauce made from dried cherries or cranberries.

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Let’s face it, not many of us venture outside when the ambient air temperature descends to single digits. This is an exceptionally bleak time of year when the only product selling more than adult beverages is anti-depressant medication. So what can you do to lift your spirits and alter your mood without a prescription?trimbach.jpg

How about this: create your own bacchanalian extravaganza this weekend. Just fire up the grill, put a pot of chili on the stovetop or put together a huge pan of lasagna or baked pasta with Italian sausage, peppers and a couple of pounds of mozzarella! Then wash it all down with your favorite beverage. I know , to some hop-heads it’s almost un-American to drink anything other than that foamy malted beverage with the menu suggestions above — but I suggest you uncork a few bottles of wine instead.

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One of Peter Meyer’s disciples was Bill Sohovich, owner of Soho’s (above) and Blossom and a culinary pioneer in his own right. Photo by Walker DeVille

As a native of Clarksburg, W.Va., I am genetically predisposed to seek out and find good food. It is in my DNA! So when I moved to Charleston a few decades ago, I was shocked to find that the Kanawha Valley was a culinary wasteland. Back then, there were only three fine dining establishments in Charleston. Catering to traveling salesmen on expense accounts, the “Heart of Town,” Ernie’s Esquire and “Top of the Inn” restaurants served up gigantic portions of prime rib washed down with barrels of beer and a mind-boggling assortment of “high balls.” Wine lists consisted of Lambrusco, Lancer’s Rose and Vito’s Thunder Mountain Chablis – and only artsy types or effete snobs ever dared order wine with their dinner.

Yes, there were a whole host of fast food and chain restaurants where most of the rest of us dined (on those once-a-week occasions when our meager budgets permitted a night out). But there were really no fine dining establishments, and hardly any ethnic food restaurants – except for a couple of Chinese places and Joe Fazio’s.

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The label for Michele Chiarlo 2005 Moscato D’Asti Nivole, available at the Capitol Market wine shop

I must admit to an inauspicious introduction to the ‘fruit of the vine.” It was during a time when automobiles had fins, Motown was in its prime and most wine came in large jugs with screw cap closures. Guys were always looking for an angle – if you know what I mean – and so I decided to demonstrate my sophistication to my date at the fraternity party by introducing her to the sensory aspects of a wine called “White Pheasant.”

This beverage, possibly made from grapes, but certainly infused with rocket fuel, was enclosed in a half-gallon green jug with a label featuring a picture of what looked like a demonic white condor. I’m pretty sure my date was impressed because she proceeded to slake her mighty thirst with countless cups of the Pheasant. On the way back to her dorm – in my father’s new Chevrolet- she proceeded to redecorate the interior of the car.

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It’s January. Cold, gray, dreary January! Things could get depressing were it not for my penchant to match ugly days with great food and wine. I’m actually thinking about Arizona and the Sonoran dessert. I’m getting inspired! Here it comes…I’ve got it: Grilled lamb over mesquite coals washed down with a bottle of Zinfandel so big and juicy it’ll make your teeth itch! Okay, so I’m taking a few liberties with conventional Southwest cuisine by substituting lamb for beef, but I think you’re going to like this.

Thinking of this dish reminds me of an old Johnny Cash song about cowboys and their feelings about shepherds and sheep. These lines say it all: “A sheep herder come once and put up a fence/ We seen him that time, but we ain’t seen him since/ But if you’re needin’ mutton, we got mutton to sell/ ’cause we’re cow-punchers and we’re mean as hell.”

Thatt line is from a mid-1960’s album by Cash called “Ballads of the Old West.” Goes great with grillin’. But I digress.

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“The nose is quite developed, the tannins are still hard, but the fruit seems overripe and flabby, and the finish is a bit short.

Huh?

While conducting a wine tasting recently, it was pointed out to me that I had begun to sound a little too ‘winesy-cutsey.It was a polite reminder I was using wine jargon instead of English to explain attributes of the wine. While I deplore wine snobs and other bores, I must admit to falling into the occasional habit of using “winespeak” to describe thewineglasstipped.jpg sensory aspects of wine. I guess it comes from reading a great deal from other wine writers or experts who liberally sprinkle around such terms as “tannin, acid, flabby, robust, ” even “orgasmic” when describing their tasting experience.

Below, I have listed several terms regularly used in describing wine qualities (but not orgasmic). There are obviously many more, but we’ll start with these:

Tannin(s) – A naturally-occurring chemical substance present in wine (particularly red wine) which can allow the wine to age. It manifests itself in the mouth as that sensation which makes you want to pucker.

Acid – Refers to the sharpness in the taste of wine. Good acid is balanced by alcohol or sweetness or both.

Rich – Wine is rich when it is mouth–filling, smooth and luscious.

Mellow – An absence of harshness or tannin or smoothness characterizes a mellow wine.

Robust – Describes a full-bodied or possibly heavy wine.

Crisp – Refers to the acidity in the wine, as in a “crisp white wine.”

Short Finish – When a wine leaves little or no aftertaste. Conversely, a “long finish” describes a wine that has a pleasant aftertaste and feel.

Nose – A general term which describes the aroma and bouquet of the wine.

Balance – A wine is balanced when the sugar or alcohol and the acid are in harmony with no one element overwhelming the other.

Fruity – Wines which exhibit fruitiness either in the nose or in the taste. Wine is sometimes even described as tasting like a specific fruit such as “this wine has green apple flavors.”

Flabby – This term not only describes a wine which has too little acidity, too much alcohol and is out of balance, it also describes your wine writer.

Today’s Wine Suggestion: Try the 2004 Graham Beck Cabernet Sauvignon. Gamekeeper’s Reserve ($15). This lovely, soft and approachable South African Cabernet is ready to drink with that grilled steak or roasted pork tenderloin flavored with garlic and rosemary.


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You’re probably wondering about my qualifications to write this blog. So here’s all I can say about my credentials – such as they are. After a trip to the California wine country in 1981, I was asked to write a wine column for the Charleston Daily Mail. I wrote that weekly column until 1989 and also did a wine commentary gig on West Virginia Public Radio during that same time period.

The commentary, which lasted only a few months and was produced by Mountain Stage’s Andy Ridenour, was cancelled when one person wrote to say that Public Radio should not be advocating the use of alcoholic beverages. That was it – one person. Who says a single voice can’t make a difference?

Since 1989, I have written a monthly wine column for a weekly West Virginia business publication. I’ve also conducted hundreds of wine tastings, MC’d countless wine dinners and have traveled fairly extensively to some of the world’s most famous wine regions. But before you get too overly impressed with my wine-stained resume, keep in mind that I am also a home wine maker. In other words, I have a great tolerance for mediocre wine. I actually think my wine, which I’ve been making from California grapes since 1977, is pretty good. If that’s not enough to make you stop reading right now, you must really be desperate for wine information.

Okay, so here’s what we’re going to do: I’m going to write about wine and sometimes food, and hope that you will occasionally respond with your own feelings about the information I impart. Let me say up front that I don’t expect you to like every wine I recommend. Wouldn’t that be boring?

However, I do taste a pretty substantial number of wines in the course of a year. And I’ll bet (unless you’re as wine-obsessed as I am) that I might get you to try something other than what you drink regularly. I might even be able to get you to move outside your wine-comfort zone. If so, then I will have succeeded.

— By John Brown