Vines & Vittles

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My maternal grandparents landed at Ellis Island in the late 19th Century, following others from their home state of Calabria to West Virginia. After more than 15 years working in the mines, my grandfather built a bakery in the North View section of Clarksburg that, to this day, my cousins continue to operate.

Sunday family dinners at my grandparents’ home, replete with dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles, are happily and indelibly seared in my memory. Those Calabrian-inspired feasts, washed down with jugs of home made red wine, would begin shortly after noon and proceed until early evening.

I think of those family gatherings, particularly this time of the year, as I peruse the family reunion cookbook to select the menus for the holidays to come. Italian-American families can eat and drink like elite athletes run and jump, and the multi-day Christmas season is truly the Olympiad of all gustatory holiday celebrations.

Feast of the Seven Fishes
Feast of the Seven Fishes

I know this because as a youngster, growing up in my little corner of north-central West Virginia, I learned from the accomplished eaters and drinkers in my large family the difference between a sprint and a marathon. You had to be in it for the long haul to enjoy it, so it was essential to savor the feast in moderation, a term with an elastic definition – kind of like spandex.

This was particularly important given the family’s tradition of visiting each other’s homes beginning Christmas Eve and extending through New Year’s Day. In a one- hundred yard block, there were eight separate homes or apartments where my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins lived.

Five of the eight surviving adult brothers and sisters conceived by my grand parents, along with three married cousins lived, loved, argued and (especially) ate with one another in this small space.

It all began with a visit to Grandma’s home where you risked bodily harm (from Grandpa) if you refused to eat something. It really didn’t matter what you ate – an olive, a piece of cheese or a crust of bread – just that you ate it and had something to drink – usually wine.

Then it was off to visit each family abode and that could take several days to accomplish since we were hosting family visitors in our own home during that same time frame. And while each family’s dining room table was heaped with the edible bounty of the season, certain family members were noted for the special dishes they “owned.”

For example, no one would dare prepare squid lasagna. That was one of Aunt Notie’s culinary masterpieces –her piece de resistance – and it would have been considered a serious affront for some other family member to feature the dish, particularly on Christmas Eve when everyone cooked their version of the “feast of the seven fishes.”

That’s not to say that our family was shy about claiming superiority in the preparation of just about any other traditional Italian dish. To suggest to Uncle Frankie, for instance, that your stuffed artichokes could in any way compete with the ones he prepared was to elicit an epithet-laced tirade that could shatter crystal.

Oh, yes, we would argue – and on just about anything! But food topped the list. Who had the most unique dish? Was it Aunt Katie’s braised rabbit in red wine… Uncle Johnny’s home made Italian sausage… cousin Gloria’s spinach and cheese stuffed leg of lamb…?

By the end of the day on January 1st, most of us required the Italian version of Alka-Seltzer – Brioschi – which was prescribed to the rest of us by  the women in the family who practiced a form of moderation less elastic than the rest of us.

Merry Christmas!

It is traditional in the holiday season to give, receive or sip Bordeaux (also known as Claret), Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux-style blend. Here are a few Christmas Clarets for your consideration:

2009 Chateau Palmer; 2012 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon; 2011 Joseph Phelps Insignia; 2010 Chateau La Dominique; 2010 Spring Mountain Cabenet Sauvignon; 2009 Chateau Montrose; 2010 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve; 2000 Chateau Brainaire Ducru; 2010 Merryvale Profile; 2010 Chateau Cos d’Estournel; 2010 St. Supery Elu Red; 2010 Cain Five Cabernet Sauvignon; 2010 Pontet Canet; 2005 Leoville Las Cases; 2009 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; and 2010 Guado al Tasso.

 

 

Wine for Thanksgiving: Anything goes !

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With Thanksgiving just a few days away, it is time to select the wine for this distinctly American feast. And while I will always use a wine or two from the good old US of A among those I uncork, the Thanksgiving meal can accommodate a diverse variety of both whites and reds from all around the globe.

The reason is that turkey is blessed with meat that has a variety of flavors, colors and textures which present opportunities for us to try with a variety of different wines. And, when you add the dishes that traditionally accompany Thanksgiving dinner, things really get interesting.

It is always safe to use a white wine for the main course. Whether you use a light, slightly sweet German riesling, Alsatian pinot gris, a fruit forward Gruner Veltliner, an herbal sauvignon blanc or even a rich and full-bodied chardonnay, you will find that traditional oven- roasted turkey will pair nicely with each of these white wines.

The type of stuffing you use adds a whole other flavor dimension which — depending upon the spices and ingredients used in the dressing — opens up even more wine possibilities.

But what really surprises some 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 red wines. In fact, the “national bird” can go quite well with even fuller bodied red wines, particularly when the bird has been grilled or smoked. We’re talking cabernet sauvignon, Chateauneuf Du Pape, zinfandel, syrah, malbec and even Barbaresco can be an excellent match to turkey prepared in this manner.

Grilled turkey needs fuller-bodied
Grilled turkey needs fuller-bodied wines

While the traditional oven-roasted turkey with sage-flavored dressing does wonderfully well with the whites mentioned above, lighter to medium bodied red wines like Beaujolais, Chianti Classico or cabernet franc are also good choices and do not overpower turkey prepared in this manner.

My mother would oven-roast her turkey, but her dressing recipe excluded the use of sage. Rather, she would season with salt, pepper and garlic and then add roast chestnuts and Italian sausage to her bread dressing. In years past, I have used a full, rich chardonnay or a medium-bodied pinot noir to accompany this meal, and both have worked exceptionally well.

But this year, I’m going to place the bird on the grill and concoct a stuffing with southwestern flavors. Here’s how:

Ingredients

One 15-pound turkey
One large container to hold turkey and brine
One cup each of kosher salt, brown sugar and one gallon of water, one quart each apple cider and/or beer for the brine
One large package of corn bread stuffing
Two 12-ounce cans of turkey or chicken broth
Two rehydrated and diced dried ancho peppers (optional)
One tablespoon each of cumin and chili powder
Two finely chopped chipotles in adobo sauce (available in small cans)
Eight ounces of shredded sharp cheddar cheese
One-half pound of cooked and chopped chorizo sausage
One-half stick of butter

How To

Mix brine (water, beer, apple cider, salt, sugar) and place turkey in brine
Allow turkey to soak in brine for at least four hours or overnight
Mix stuffing (cornbread stuffing, sausage, broth, spices, etc)
Pat turkey dry, rub butter over all turkey inside and out
Stuff turkey or place stuffing in a separate pan to cook in oven
Light charcoal fire, place coals to either side of grate,
Place a pan of water on the grate in between coals
Put grill over the grate, place turkey over water, affix lid to grill and cook
Add charcoal to grill as necessary to maintain heat
Grill for three to four hours or until turkey reaches 165 degrees

This grilled turkey and spicy dressing would overpower lighter styled wines and requires varietals that can stand up to intense flavors. And while I plan to use red wines this year, I could easily have chosen an Alsatian gewürztraminer or riesling to tame and complement the spice and smoke in the dish.

So here are the wines that will complement my Thanksgiving dinner this year. To toast the holiday before dinner, I plan to open a bottle of Domaine Carneros Brut Rose. With the main course, I will uncork two different red wines: 2002 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel and a 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf Du Pape. And at the conclusion of dinner, we will pair the pumpkin pie dessert with a bottle of Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Riesling.

Then it’s off to the recliner for football and a tryptophan-induced nap.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wines to cure the cold weather blahs

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The abrupt change in weather from relatively comfortable – if wet – days to frigid,
windy conditions has prompted me to adjust my consumption of that elixir we all love from lighter wines to fuller bodied whites and reds.

Hearty foods = full-bodied wines
Hearty foods = full-bodied wines

I also need an attitude adjustment due to the almost depressing diminution of daylight. So here’s what I’m doing to lift my spirits and alter my mood – without a prescription.

My over the counter solution involves selecting wines that go with the types of hearty meals that late fall and early winter demand. With stews, soups and casseroles along with roasted meats accompanied by potatoes, squash and root vegetables on the menu, you will need wines that stand up to and enhance these heavier dishes.

The wines I am suggesting below should meet the requirements of this culinary transition quite nicely and also allow you to smoothly segue into the even more substantial foods and wines of the holiday season to come.

2011 Jean Sigler Gewurztraminer ($21)- From Alsace, this gewürztraminer is a full-bodied wine with a complex flavor profile showing tropical fruits and spices like anise. Very aromatic with hints of flowers and melon, this gewurztraminer pairs beautifully with spicy dishes and strong cheeses. It is particularly good with Vietnamese, Thai and Indian cuisines.

2012 La Bastitde Cotes du Rhone Blanc ($17)– Comprised of mostly viognier and marsanne, this southern Rhone white is medium to full bodied. Citrus and apricot flavors are buttressed by good acidity and make this wine a great match to Bouillabaisse or other hearty fish stews.

2012 Steele Cuvee Chardonnay – ($22) This medium-bodied chardonnay has everything – fruit, oak and acidity – in balance. From three different vineyards in three distinct appellations (Sonoma, Mendocino and Santa Maria Valley), you should pair this baby with Chilean Sea Bass basted with a beurre blanc sauce and roasted in the oven.

2011 Easton Monarch Mine Cabernet Franc ($19) – Cabernet franc has not been a very successful wine in California with a few exceptions and this is one of them. Grown in the Sierra Foothills at about 2500 feet, this wine has peppery, ripe plum flavors, a slight hint of vanilla from the oak and good balancing acidity. I would serve it with roast pork tenderloin in a mustard crème sauce.

2010 Mercer Estates Columbia Valley Merlot ($22) – Full-bodied, but very balanced, this Washington State merlot is more akin to the Right-Bank wines of Bordeaux than to anything in the new world. Ripe dark cherry and minty cola flavors combine to make this a good match to a spicy Chicken Cacciatore dish.

2012 Penfolds Hyland Shiraz ($16) –From the Barossa, McLaren Vale and Upper Adelaide regions of Australia, this shiraz is not at all like some of the high alcohol versions of the syrah grape produced Down Under. The wine is made in a fresh style with juicy berry flavors, soft tannins and just a touch of oak. Oven slow -cooked beef brisket slathered with a spicy red barbecue sauce is just what the gourmand ordered for this shiraz.

2011 Frescobaldi Nipozzano Vecchie Viti ($31), Produced from old vines in one of the best regions of Chianti, this silky red is rich, yet structured, with black cherry, tea and cola flavors. Just enough tannic background to justify additional aging, I would allow it to breathe in a carafe for a couple of hours and serve it as an accompaniment to roasted rack of lamb that has been brushed with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, coarsely ground black pepper, Kosher salt, Dijon mustard and lemon.

So this week, warm your body, lift your spirit and adjust your attitude with some hearty food and really good wine!

This Weekend is Wine and Wonderful

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The annual “Wild, Wonderful Wine Weekend,” which has become an annual gourmet rite of fall, will be held from October 24-26 at Canaan Valley Resort. I have been privileged to lead the wine component of the weekend while working with the exceptional culinary team at the resort to put together a great food and wine event set in the majesty of one of our state’s most beautiful outdoor settings.

The event begins Friday, October 24th at 7 p.m. with a “taste-around reception” where more than 50 wines can be sampled with matching culinary treats from multiple food stations featuring a wonderful selection of delicious goodies upon which to graze.

Sip wine in these mountains!
Sip wine in these mountains!

On Saturday morning, I will conduct a tasting and lead a discussion of several wines from the world’s greatest wine regions. Immediately after the tasting, guests will be treated to a five-course, five-wine-paired luncheon with commentary by yours truly. After lunch, folks will be free to hike, bike, nap or- in my case – watch WVU whip up on and Oklahoma State.

Saturday evening’s activities begin at 7 p.m. with a six-course, six wine grand gourmet dinner. Here’s a preview of the grand dinner:

Chilled Banana Bisque -2013 Gunderloch Kabinett
Sweet Potato Gnocchi -2013 Stags Leap Hands of Time Chardonnay
Diver Scallops over an English Pea Puree -2013 Granbazan Etiqueta Verde Albarino
Malback Marinated Lamb Chop – 2010 Mercer Estates Columbia Valley Merlot
Lobster Stuffed Beef tenderloin- 2012 Evesham Wood Eola Cuvee Pinot Noir
Smoked Dark Chocolate Ganache Campfire Tart- Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto

Guests have the option of attending the entire weekend for a package price ($359 for a single attendee and $599 per couple) or choosing to participate in individual events ala carte (i.e., $50 per person for the Friday night reception, $54 for the Saturday lunch and $99 for the gourmet dinner.). For additional information or reservations call 800-622-4121 or visit online at www.canaanresort.com.

If you are interested, you will need to move pretty quickly.

Give your chops a little Seoul

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Sometimes it ain’t easy being me. Just the other day I caught a peripheral glimpse of rather rotund chap as I passed what I thought was a glass door. Unfortunately, the glass door turned out to be a mirror and the corpulent image turned out to be ME.

So here is my dilemma: While I try to exercise restraint at the table and exercise more at the gym, I am still obligated to cook, eat, drink and evaluate so I can enlighten you hungry and thirsty rascals about a world full of exceptional food and wine combinations.

Okay. So I will try and moderate the intake a bit, but as Curtis Mayfield so righteously sang in his tune of the same name, I’ll just have to “Keep on Keepin’ on.” And today that means letting you in on a food and wine combination that is a staple in my home, particularly during grilling season.

When I cook for friends and family, I try to use fresh ingredients I can purchase locally and then accompany the meal with inexpensive, no-nonsense wines that taste good and help de-clog the arteries. But with the dish below, you may want to pop a Statin, too.

Seoul Chops
Seoul Chops

I love to one-stop shop and our excellent Capitol Market in Charleston has just about any consumable ingredient needed to put together a great meal. In this case, the good folks at Johnnies Fresh Meats provided the protein for the dish while the liquid inspiration came from the Wine Shop at Capitol Market.

The pork chop is the centerpiece of this recipe and features a Korean marinade. Have your butcher cut thin (one-half inch thick) pork blade chops which are a bit fattier than other cuts. You can also use the leaner pork center loin chops that have a T-shaped bone, but I find that these do not absorb the marinade as well as the blade chops.

These grilled chops are great when paired with a medium-bodied red wine. In this case, I am suggesting a northern Italian red along with a pinot noir from California. Check out my recommendations below.

Seoul Chops

What you will need:
(4 servings)

Eight one-half inch thick pork blade chops
One cup of light soy sauce
One-fourth cup each of white sugar, and Mirin (a sweet rice wine)
Two tablespoons of rice wine vinegar and sesame oil
Six cloves of garlic finely chopped
One small chopped onion
Three chopped scallions
One tablespoon of grated fresh ginger
One teaspoon of red pepper flakes
One-gallon plastic baggie

How To:

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and stir marinade
Reserve one quarter of marinade and use to baste the pork chops later
Place pork chops into gallon baggie
Pour marinade into baggie, seal and place in the refrigerator for at least four hours
Prepare a charcoal fire or gas grill
Grill chops directly over heat source turning regularly to prevent flare-ups
Baste the grilling chops with the reserved marinade until cooked – approximately five minutes
Serve and accompany with roasted red skin potatoes or wild rice

Wine Suggestions:

2012 Tenuta Sant’Antonio Scaia Corvina ($12) I first tasted this wine last year in Verona on a trip through the Alto Adige region of northern Italy. Made from 100 percent corvina – the primary grape used to make Valpolicella and Amarone – this is a delicious mouthful of medium bodied red wine that has flavors of tea, cola and ripe dark cherries. While it flourishes as an accompaniment to the dish above, it goes equally well with other grilled dishes such as chicken, salmon and Italian sausage.

2012 Adler Fels “The Archivist” Pinot Noir ($20) This is a juicy, spicy, and earthy Monterey County Pinot Noir. With just a touch of new oak, this well balanced wine has flavors of ripe plums and makes a great partner to the Seoul Chops.

Describing Wine

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Describing the sensory characteristics of wine is an inexact science. Rooted, as it is, in subjectivity, accurate descriptions detailing the taste and aroma components of a wine are dependent on the reader (you) sharing some common experiences with the writer (me).

I’m often asked why wine writers feel compelled to go to such great lengths and use sometimes obtuse terms to describe the sensory aspects of wine. My stock answer is that wine has such multi-dimensional qualities that it is helpful to give readers as much information as possible.

On the other hand, if I use non-traditional language to describe the wine, you may end up scratching your head and wondering what “precocious, assertive, or unctuous” have to do with the way a wine smells or tastes.

This all came to mind the other day as I was trying to describe the attributes of a particularly good red wine produced in California’s Sierra Foothills – the 2012 Easton Amador County Zinfandel.

The stuff was so pleasing to me that I was having difficulty describing it without becoming overly exuberant. However, I think there is a difference between using what I will call traditional language to describe wine versus using non-traditional terms.

Easton Amador Zinfandel
Easton Amador Zinfandel

For example, if I describe a 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 particular chardonnay has the taste of ripe Granny Smith apples. Well, you get the point. In other words, the more specific the language used to describe how the wine looks, tastes and smells, the better you will be able to make a decision on whether it appeals to you.

There are descriptors I try and steer clear of because, first and foremost, they sound like words an officious wine snob might use. And secondly, the terms don’t really provide any good information that can be used to evaluate whether or not I should purchase the wine.

That’s not to say I haven’t ever succumbed to the temptation. The rationalization I once used to defend my description of an exceptionally good wine as being “orgasmic” was that most people have some sense of what that word means. Hey, I could have described the experience as having been “ethereal,” but then how many of us have a working knowledge of that transcendent term.

The moral of the story here is that you can benefit from descriptions that are based on solid sensory experiences. In evaluating wine, I have experienced the taste of blackberries, cherries, vanilla, cinnamon, etc. And I have smelled toast, grass, butterscotch, mold, or Limburger cheese.

But when you get right down to it and the adjectives are stripped away, wine is either good, okay, or unpleasant. So here are a few adjectives to describe in –hopefully- understandable language a couple of wines you might wish to try.

2012 Paul Mas Estate Picpoul De Pinet ($12)

From Languedoc in southern France, this ancient grape (picpoul) is grown along the Mediterranean Bay of Thau near the village of Pinet. A clean and refreshing white with fresh tropical fruit flavors, try this with plainly cooked seafood or as an aperitif with fruit and cheese.

2012 Easton Amador County Zinfandel ($18)
This zinfandel has chocolate and teaberry aromas with rich, blackberry and plum notes. It is full-bodied, yet balanced and is a serious mouthful of wine. Aged for 10 months in French oak barrels, this Zin begs to be matched with a pork roast rubbed with garlic and black pepper.

Fried Peppers Calabraze

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We are very fortunate in our little part of the world to have some of the most accomplished creators/purveyors of essential consumable products that allow us, along with our friends and family, to experience simple pleasures in our every day lives.

In addition to a bevy of excellent restaurants in our town, we have a superb bakery in Charleston Bread, outstanding access to fresh seafood at Joe’s Fish Market, hand cut fresh meats at Johnnie’s in the Capitol Market and several fine wine shops including Kroger’s Ashton Place, the Wine Shop at Capitol Market and the fine sippers available at Drug Emporium.

And this time of year, we have access to world-class, homegrown vegetables at the amazing outdoor Capitol Farmer’s Market. A literal cornucopia of locally grown goodies, I graze almost daily through the aisles and stalls, selecting fresh vegetables for the dinner table.

Local ingredients from Capitol Market
Local ingredients from Capitol Market

Today, I am going to share with you my recipe for “Fried Peppers Calabraze. ” This nostalgic dish brings back fond memories of my Calabrian grandmother frying peppers just picked from the garden and placed on slices of hard-crust Italian bread. The bread, freshly baked and still warm, came from our family bakery just across the street.

The beauty of the recipe is that you can adjust it to accommodate your tolerance for spiciness. Since you will choose how many – if any – hot peppers to use in the dish, you can control the heat. I use Hungarian wax peppers which range in color from light green to red and which approximate the heat of a jalapeno.

For the sweet (non-hot) peppers, I use red, green, yellow and orange bell peppers. You may also use sweet Hungarian Wax peppers which have the same flavor as their spicy cousins, but without the heat.

This fried pepper recipe can serve as a spicy accompaniment to any meat or fish dish, and makes a sensational sandwich when heaped on slices of baguette or ciabatta from Charleston Bread. And of course, I’ll also give you suggestions for a couple of wines that pair nicely with the dish.

Fried Peppers Calabraze

Ingredients

Seven multi-colored bell peppers, sliced into five-inch long by one-inch wide pieces
Three hot banana peppers (optional) sliced the same as above
One large onion sliced into approximately three-inch lengths, a quarter-inch wide
One large ripe, red tomato, peeled and coarsely chopped
Three garlic cloves coarsely chopped
Three ounces of olive oil
Two tablespoons each of freshly chopped basil and oregano
One teaspoon of salt and coarsely ground black pepper

Fried Peppers Calabraze
Fried Peppers Calabraze

How To

Heat olive oil in a large frying pan (I use a cast iron skillet) to medium high heat
Add onions and sauté for about three minutes, then add all peppers, salt and pepper
Use a spatula to stir the peppers regularly to prevent ones on bottom from burning
Add garlic and tomatoes to the mixture after about 15 minutes and continue stirring
Lower heat and cook until most of the liquid evaporates
Continue to sauté until the peppers and onions begin to caramelize
Remove from the stove (cooking usually takes 25-to 30 minutes)
Place in a large bowl and mix in the basil and oregano and then serve

This dish needs a wine that can stand up to the spiciness of the peppers. My choices are a sparkling wine from Argentina and an Italian Valpolicella.

Reginato Rose of Malbec NV ($15) – What a nice surprise! Lovely strawberry and cherry flavors highlight this crisp and dry sparkler from Argentina made from malbec. Not only stands up to and complements the peppers, but also adds a thirst quenching component to the whole equation.

2013 Allegrini Valpolicella Classico (16)- Bright red and full of black cherry flavors, this wine from the Veneto in northern Italy is a medium-bodied wine with a smooth texture and good balance. Refreshing with just enough body to pair well with the peppers and cool the spiciness just a bit. Serve it slightly chilled.

Sipping Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley

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I’m just back from my fourth trip to the Oregon wine country and participation in the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). If you like pinot noir and superb cuisine, I encourage you to put this event on your bucket list.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting some of the world’s most heralded wine regions and Oregon’s Willamette Valley is among the most revered, particularly for pinot noir. (Incidentally, Willamette, often mispronounced, rhymes with Willdammit).

Oregon's Willamette Valley
Oregon’s Willamette Valley

The event was held at Linfield College – a small liberal arts institution located in an idyllic setting in McMinnville, Oregon. This town is wine central for Oregon pinot noir and is where most of the alfresco lunches, tastings and dinners are held. Each day, half the attendees stay on campus for seminars, tastings, etc., while the other half bus to different vineyards to participate in wine-related learning exercises and tastings. The next day, the two groups switch venues.

Here’s the agenda for a typical day at the IPNC: alfresco breakfast with fresh berries, croissants/breads, mini-omelets, juices and espresso/coffee/tea; visit to a winery (or stay on campus) with an extensive tasting of pinot noirs from Oregon and the world and a Q&A with winemakers; lunch in the winery or alfresco on the campus prepared by a chef from the region and paired with wines; post lunch afternoon seminars and more tastings; and a two-hour tasting of the pinot noir offerings of the participating wineries before a gourmet wine dinner under the stars.

The wonderfully fresh local foods were prepared by an all-star lineup of chefs from some of the Pacific Northwest’s most highly regarded restaurants, and the servers included sommeliers, wait staff and restaurant owners. One of the two evening gourmet extravaganzas featured an incredible and visually striking Northwest Salmon Bake.  The event winds up Sunday morning with a spectacular sparkling wine brunch.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: how can any normal human being survive all this food and wine for two and a half days without exploding? The key, of course, is moderation and understanding the necessity of spitting the wine after tasting. Paper cups were provided for just such a purpose at all activities. I saved the swallowing for the dining events.

Enoying an IPNC Sip
Enjoying an IPNC Sip

While enjoying superb wine and food is the happy result of the weekend, there is always an educational theme for the event and this year’s was: “The Doors of Perception.” In other words, what forms our preferences for the wines we choose to drink, and how do various influences such as weather, geography and the components of the wine itself affect our perceptions.

Thought provoking? Yes, but the real learning experience was tasting wines from not only Oregon, but also from geographically diverse vineyards including those in Argentina, New Zealand, France, California, Italy, Germany and Canada. More than 80 wineries participated in the event and attendees got to interact with wine makers as well as sip and dine with them throughout the weekend.

While it is always fun to compare and contrast pinot noir produced in different parts of the world, the focus of this event is on Oregon. The northern Willamette Valley, just south of Portland, is where the most famous Oregon wineries are located within several American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) including Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, and Yamhill Carlton.

Within these AVA’s, more than 200 wineries produce pinot noir. From a taste perspective, Oregon pinot noir combines the fruit and richness of California pinot with the earthiness, balance and elegance of Burgundy.

Northwest Salmon Bake
Northwest Salmon Bake

For example, California wines are generally more fruit-forward, rounder and many times have less balance and acid than their Oregon counterparts. Burgundian wines can be balanced and earthy, but are sometimes less fruit-forward and can be overly acidic. So, in my opinion, Oregon pinot noir exhibits the best of both worlds.

So which of the 80 or so wineries were my favorites. From Oregon: Argyle; Archery Summit; Anne Amie; Bergstrom; Benton Lane; Domaine Serene; Domaine Drouhin; Harper Voit; Hyland Estates; Patricia Green; Seven Springs; Cristom, Stoller; Westry; and Chehalem.

From California: Drew Family Cellars; J Vineyards; Knez Winery; Navarro Vineyards, Patz & Hall; Red Car Winery; and Talley Vineyards.

Other Standouts: Bodega Chacra – Argentina; Maison Ambroise, Domaine Marc Roy, Joseph Drouhin – Burgundy; J. Hofstatter – Italy; and Akarua and Mt. Beautiful Wines -New Zealand;

If you love wine and particularly pinot noir, you should check out the IPNC website (http://www.ipnc.org/) or call them (800-775-4762). It’s not too early to book reservations for next year’s celebration to be held July 24-26, 2015.

Selecting the right wine

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I am always fascinated by how we make choices regarding the wines we choose to purchase and drink. Whether for every day consumption or for special occasions, we can all agree that quality wines that offer great value are worth seeking out.

So how do we determine what is not only an acceptable wine, but one that is also exceptional?

Of course, the easy answer is that wine, like art, food or any other aesthetic thing, is evaluated subjectively so that judgments on quality must be evaluated in a quantitative context before they can be accepted.

In other words, if I claim that “Uncle Rupert’s Rustic Rose” is a superior wine and 500 others (or at least a reputable wine critic) rate it as something akin to witch hazel, then the majority or the critic’s views would logically prevail.

Many of us depend on rating systems such as the 100- point scale used by The Wine Spectator or by wine critics such as Robert Parker or Steven Tanzer to guide us through the purple maze, while others will purchase wine from exceptional vintages or from acclaimed regions like Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Still others focus their choice on wineries that consistently produce excellent wine. And unfortunately, a large number of folks with too much money to spend think there is a direct correlation between quality and very expensive wine.

In my opinion, the best way to judge a wine’s quality is to taste them blind. Be assured this has nothing to do with using blindfolds or drinking to excess. A blind tasting involves obscuring the wine label by having another person place the bottle in a bag before you taste. This will eliminate any possible price or winery bias so that you can truly judge the product on its quality.

Blind tastings are something I do regularly so I can objectively evaluate the aroma, taste and visual qualitative elements that are the basis for whether I recommend a wine or not.

While all these evaluation methods have merit (except for basing your selection solely on price), there is one consideration we often overlook that can sometimes cloud our judgment. I’ll call it context.

Here is an example of what I mean.

On a beautiful early fall evening, my wife and I were dining al fresco at a small restaurant overlooking Lake Garda in northern Italy. The food was simple, but delicious. And the wine? It was made by the family that owned the restaurant and I swear – at that time and place – it was among the best wines I had ever tasted.

That entire multi-course meal with wine did not exceed $45, but this was one of the best wine and food experiences of my life. Why, you ask? Well, simply put, it was the context under which I had the experience, and I believe it is one of the most important, and underrated, elements of food and wine appreciation.

You cannot underestimate how the setting or context of your wine tasting affects your perception of its quality. Why? Well sometimes it has to do with whom I am forced to consume the stuff, the location of the tasting or even my mood.

Business dinners, where tensions are high and where the food and wine are secondary to accomplishing some corporate objective, are, for me, among the most difficult times to enjoy and objectively evaluate wine. At such dinners, I am tempted to order a wine that I actually dislike so that it will pair well with the sometimes distasteful subjects under discussion – but, of course, I don’t.

So the next time you ‘re using your critical wine appreciation skills to determine the quality of a specific bottle, think about the external influences that just might cloud your judgment.

Try these two –context-neutral- but excellent wines for your sipping pleasure.

2013 Raptor Ridge Pinot Gris ($20) – From Oregon’s Willamette Valley, this round and refreshing pinot gris is full of citrus and melon flavors and finishes with nice acidity. Sip it on the porch before dinner or pair it with grilled chicken thighs with a lemon, rosemary and honey glaze.

2013 Sierra Cruz Carmenere ($9) – This medium -bodied cabernet franc from Chile is a black cherry, fruit forward wine that finishes fairly dry. Chill it for 20 minutes and then drink it with grilled flank steak that has been rubbed with coarsely ground black pepper and marinated in soy, olive oil, and garlic with a dash or two of red wine vinegar.

It’s okay to chill red wine

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After a winter when I wondered whether the weather would ever warm up, summer has come and now I feel obligated to complain about the temperature- not outside- but rather the temperature at which my favorite beverage is being served to me in restaurants.

It is extremely important any time of the year to serve wine at the proper temperature, but in summer it is especially critical so that both whites and reds are not only cool to the taste, but also provide a pleasing counterpoint to the warmth of the accompanying food.

Here is a universal and unfortunate truth: White wine is served too cold and red wine too warm.

In my estimation, the problem is twofold: for whites it is the ubiquitous convenience of refrigeration; and for reds it is our confusion over the term “room temperature.”

Let’s start with white wine and the almost fervent belief by some that if we have the capability to make something cold, then we should therefore serve our liquids – including white wine – at Arctic temperatures. Drinking wines that are served at just above freezing will give you a headache and, worse, you won’t even be able to taste them.

Martini Cab

I’m sure that many flawed wines benefit from this chilling effect, but the delicate flavors and nuances of taste in say, a riesling, gavi or sauvignon blanc, will be absolutely neutered by excessive chilling. The good news here is that if you wait 10 or 15 minutes, the wine will warm to a reasonable temperature.

So what is the proper temperature to serve white wine? Whites served at between 48 and 53 degrees Fahrenheit are about ideal. However, since most of us don’t carry thermometers with us, the easiest way to judge the proper temperature is to drink them when they are cool, refreshing and you can actually taste the flavor nuances of the wine.

There is one exception to this rule and that is Champagne or sparkling wine. These “fizzers” actually benefit from colder temperatures (around 45 degrees F), where the chilling effect blunts some of the carbonation yet still allows you to enjoy the complex flavors of these wines.

Red wine is a bit more complicated. In fact, you can trash the old axiom that proclaims red wine should be served at “room temperature.” Why? Well, that room temperature rule was adopted in the middle ages when the average castle, lean-to or hut’s temperature was about 55 degrees F. – in the summer.

Unfortunately, some individuals and restaurants assume room temperature means somewhere between 70 and 80 degrees. When you are at home, this problem is easily resolved by simply refrigerating the wine for 15 to 30 minutes, which should bring the temperature down to around 60 degrees.

But what if you are in a restaurant and you’re served red wine that is too warm? While there are a few establishments – Noah’s Eclectic Bistro in Charleston comes to mind –  that actually keep their reds at the proper temperature both summer and winter, the overwhelming majority do not. In this case, you should simply ask for an ice bucket to chill the wine for a few minutes.

However, don’t be surprised if you’re lectured by some clueless waiter on the “proper” serving temperature of red wine. Don’t laugh, there are restaurants with award-winning wine lists where hundred dollar bottles of red wine are served lukewarm.

So, while dinning at your favorite restaurant this summer, insist on reds and whites served at a temperature that is both refreshing and also complimentary to the food you are eating. And don’t be embarrassed to ask for an ice bucket to chill your red if it is served to you at “room temperature.”

Here are two wines I think you will enjoy this summer:

2012 Buty Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc/Muscadelle ($33) This complex white blend is from Washington State. It’s a medium-bodied wine with aromas of ripe pear and slate, and a rich, creamy mouth fill with anise and citrus flavor nuances. Try this wine with ripe tomatoes drizzled with the best Tuscan extra virgin olive oil you can find and topped with fresh mozzarella and basil.

2011 Louis Martini Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) – Ripe blackberry and cola flavors highlight this balanced and very approachable cabernet. Decant and chill this tasty wine in the refrigerator for 15 minutes before serving it with a grilled rib eye rubbed with garlic, coarsely ground black pepper and kosher salt.