Columbia Valley keeps the good wines coming

Mr. Browne comes to town with a great Cabernet.

Mr. Browne comes to town with a great Cabernet.

Sometimes you get on a kick. So I’m not going to deny or ignore my recent love affair with Washington State wines. My latest shout-out is directed towards the 2010 Browne Family Vineyards from Columbia Valley.
This Cabernet dominant Bordeaux-style red has a dash of Malbec tossed in for good measure, but basically it’s an all-out Cabernet wine begging for a slab of the best beef your butcher has to offer.
It’s not everyday that you go dropping thirty bucks on a wine, so let me ease the pain a little bit with this caveat. Mr. Browne is mac-daddy smooth without sacrificing any structure or body. And only the darkest of black fruits shine through. Maybe it’s time to find out what Browne can do for you!

Great red blend from the Pacific Northwest

Enjoy the Upswings!

Enjoy the Upswings!

 Bad cliché warning!

Life is like a pendulum; it swings back and forth between highs and lows. And here’s your unsolicited advice for the day; celebrate the high points.

The 2011 Pendulum Red Blend from Washington State is made for the good times. Polished and sleek, it is a blend of classic Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet and Merlot with a touch of Syrah and Tempranillo mixed in.  Gobs of cocoa, sweet oak accents and a nice medley of black cherry infuse the Pendulum, allowing it to put an upswing in anyone’s day.

The Pendulum Columbia Valley Red Blend retails for $17. Enjoy!

Which wine would you pic … ?

All the components for a little outdoor reprieve.

All the components for a little outdoor reprieve.

I took a little jaunt down one of my local hiking trails during the break in weather last week. With a small carry-on of cheeses, grapes and some of sweet G’s crazy-good soda bread, I started to think about wine pairings and picnic spreads.  A good bottle of bubbly is probably a must-have on most picnic lists, but I wanted to know what other wines people bring along for their picnic adventure.

Here are my top 5 picnic wine picks for this spring and summer:

1      Sparkling wine because nothing says bring on a big spread of food like the Pinot Noir-based Chandon Blanc de Noir

2      Versatile red blend that’s easy and fun. You’ll need something mindless to go back and forth between fried chicken and deviled eggs and all those side dishes.

3      Vinho Verde and the low alcohol of this Portuguese wine means it’ll probably go quick.

4      German Rieslings like St.Urbans-Hof are always food friendly, very versatile and have loads of approachable apple flavors.

5      And finally some Dolce! A honeysuckle-sweet Italian Moscato is a great way to wrap-up a gluttonous picnic feast.

So let us know, which wines are on your picnic list?

 

Angelic Rosé – Montes Cherub 2013 Rosé de Syrah

Bright and Beautiful!

Bright and Beautiful!

It may be the greatest understatement to say that nowadays it seems like everyone is in on the Rosé game. And though my preferences tend to navigate to French producers, I am surprised from time to time by magnificent bottlings of the little pink wine from such unlikely far-away places as Chile.

Montes Winery in the Colchagua Valley of Chile has always been an easy and safe recommendation for value Cabernet and other wines, but it wasn’t until recently (when I was introduced to one of their newer wines) that I had to add Rosé to that list. The brilliant and vibrant color of the Montes Cherub 2013 Rosé de Syrah is a head-turner, kind of like the way a prism catches the eye from afar. You’re going to take a second look. And once you do, the Cherub will reel you in like a wine version of Cupid.

Made from 100% Syrah, the Rosé is all raspberry and strawberry notes with a pleasant dryness and a fuller delivery than many of its European counterparts. Enjoyable and refreshing when served with some spicy Thai noodles, the wine is also a fun warm-weather pairing to zucchini and tomato pasta in a simple white wine and butter sauce. The Montes Cherub is on my list of Rosé wines to look out for this year.  If you love Rosé you’ll want to make sure to get a few of the pink angels this Summer.

Spring tease with Sauvignon Blanc and seafood paella

Seafood Paella with shrimp, halibut and scallops.

Seafood Paella with shrimp, halibut and scallops.

What I enjoy, almost as much as the rich flavors, in traditional seafood paella is its aromatic tour-de-force. As one of the signature cuisines of Spain, seafood paella’s powerful and brilliant presence is made possible through a menagerie of tarragon, saffron and paprika. And its rich and luxuriously creamy texture is the ultimate compliment to a dry, fresh bottle of California Sauvignon Blanc.

Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley produces some of the most vibrant and carefully balanced Sauvignon Blancs with Rochioli and Merry Edwards being perhaps the signature representations of the appellation’s style. You’ll have to pay dearly for a bottle of Merry Edwards but the infusion of apple and pear flavors juxtaposed with more tropical fruits is a remarkable accomplishment. And the tactile sensation of the wine as it dances across the palate is like the Fred and Ginger version of grape stomping; graceful gliding and pointed precision.

Less expensive bottles of Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc can provide a glimpse into this style. Look for Introductions like Stickybeak Vintners and Angeline Vineyards.

Doing what California can’t do for under $20

 

Chasing down a good red.

Chasing down a good red.

Cue Etta James. At Last!

Finally someone gets it. Gets how to make an all-out true Bordeaux blend for under $20 and it actually not be from Bordeaux. After years of California vintners plugging away at prestigious and often OVER-priced attempts at that five varietal Bordeaux blend, a South African winery shows them how it’s done.

Any wine lover's best friend.

Any wine lover’s best friend.

The 2011 Mulderbosch Faithful Hound Red combines the classic Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot) to make a solid southern hemisphere rendition of the iconic French wine and does it all for around $18. So consider this your new best friend.

A slightly cedar note and some Merlot-sponsored green bell pepper shine on the nose. Full bodied, the Faithful Hound begs for a nice chunk of red meat to tear into, so throw a slab of your favorite cut of steak on the grill and fetch a bottle or two of the Mulderbosch.  Your “lonely days are over.”

Oh Baby, Baby… Amarone

Ridiculously good Ripasso!

Ridiculously good Ripasso!

I spoke too soon. Old man winter breathes again and you’re going to need a little something to warm you up tonight, especially if you’re anywhere in the Eastern US.

So with Mr. Winter passing this way again, I figured a rich Italian Ripasso would stir up a little of that mysteriously elusive heat.

If you’ve ever had an Amarone, think of Ripasso as it’s it’s slightly younger, less intense sibling. Ripasso like Amarone is a combination of three all-Italian grapes; Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. And Ripasso imparts some of the characteristics of it’s elder sib by being passed-over the must or dried skins of Amarone grapes. This gives the Ripasso some of the color, intensity and depth of flavor (of the Amarone) without having to mature as long.

Since Ripasso is younger, it’s also much more affordable. And Ripassos like Santi, Accordini and Tomassi are all quality representations that can be found in most markets. My latest discovery is an incredible, under $20 bargain called Recchia Le Muraie Valpolicella Ripasso. With dried cherry aromatics and leather notes, the Recchia Ripasso will also entertain you with some nice acidity, making it a great go-to for red sauces or earthy mushroom dishes.

Quick crispy chicken and three texture red potatoes

Salt, oil and potato.

Salt, oil and potato.

If old man winter had a last meal, this might be it. I borrowed two recipes last night to make his last supper. First, I used this insanely-easy roasted red potato recipe from Food52. You’ll need a cast iron skillet and lid. It created these wonderful spuds with three separate textures, one side with skins, another with a finely caramelized texture and a third that was softer, almost creamy. Tip: Salt and potato are bosom buddies so don’t skimp on the coarse sea salt.

Second, I fried the chicken part of this Jamie Oliver 15 minute meal. It’s a slightly tenderized chicken breast with fresh rosemary, fennel seed, salt and Parmigiano Reggiano. Nicely crispy with only a little cooking oil! The bacon and shiitakes were cooked a little longer to give them some of that firmer texture, too. And it’s hard to beat a bed of spinach that has been sauteed with garlic and drizzled with sweet balsamic vinegar.

Chicken ala Jamie Oliver.

Chicken ala Jamie Oliver.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who was able to scoop up a bottle of Michel Chapoutier’s venture into Australia, then now is the perfect time to pop it. The Tournon “Matilde” Shiraz is a savory meat magnet, so all that crispy chicken and well cooked mushrooms and bacon are a natural partner. Blackberry fruit and a distinct pepperiness abound. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better value for under $20.

ENJOY!

Say Cheese

(L-R) Fourme d'Ambert from Auvergne, Le Chatelain Camembert, Commis Saint Antoine from Jura and Chabichou from Poitou

(L-R) Fourme d’Ambert from Auvergne, Le Chatelain Camembert from Normandy, Commie Saint Antoine from Jura and Chabichou from Poitou

Come onnn…. Just say it!

Cheezzzzzeee! And you can’t help but smile.

Monsieur St. Valentine was a wee tardy last week delivering his gift of love, a wooden crate of fun and funky cheeses from France. The overnight package from Murray’s Cheeses included Fourme d’Ambert from Auvergne, Le Chatelain Camembert from Normandy, Commie Saint Antoine from Jura and Chabichou from Poitou. Talk about twice the mouthful!

MARGAUX? Oui oui!

MARGAUX? Oui oui!

And a surprise delivery from Lotsa Pasta, my favorite deli in Louisville Kentucky, included a nicely imported prosciutto as well as some soppressatta. Not only would the creamy and salty love-foods be enough to bail Cupid out of the doghouse, but they would also serve as a comforting and indulgent dinner.

Outside of the goat cheese-inspired Chabichou (which really needs a dry white), the rest of these cheeses will pair incredibly well with a Cabernet or Cabernet blend from Bordeaux. We enjoyed our improvised cheese-head dinner with a cellared red wine from Margaux, the 2003 Château Prieuré-Lichine. A blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot, the Prieuré-Lichine (unlike some wines from Bordeaux) is not to be aged for an extended time period. It had reached its performance peak, so our timing that night (unlike my Valentine’s Day miscue) was right on the mark.

Stickybeak, a wine to be nosy about

In the knows...

In the knows…

Few wines have the ability to transport us to a warm weather, summertime state of mind like a California Sauvignon Blanc does. The Intense flavors and aromatics of the wine quickly take us away to the juicy and fresh fruits that are so abundant mid year. And with this Yeti-like winter we’re having who hasn’t been dreaming of a break from it all? A sabbatical would be nice, but most of us would probably settle for whatever recess we could muster at this point.

With the snow sticking around just long enough to keep us on guard, I thought it was appropriate to share a recent sample of Sauvignon Blanc that came my way. The 2012 Stickybeak Sauvignon Blanc from California’s Russian River Valley offers up a temporary ticket to ride. Vibrant aromas of lemon and delectable tangerine act as a trigger, sweeping any hot weather dreamer off to a warm shoreline, a sun dried spot of grass or just la-la-land in general.

And in case you didn’t know St. Valentine’s Day, like Lupercalia tomorrow, marks the halfway point between winter and spring. So there are several reasons to pop a good bottle of wine and celebrate that we’re finally on the other side of the Yeti’s mountain.

A not-so-beastly, Super fruit Bomb

The beast is thirsty.

The beast is thirsty.

This past Saturday my bride and I were visiting East Tennessee’s best Italian restaurant. If any of my fellow Knoxvillians haven’t dined at Cafe Roma in Cleveland, it’s well worth the one-hour drive. Roma’s front end manager Angie Schuelke knew I was a fan of Italian reds and recommended two great bottles for our dinner party. One of which was a nice blend of Dolcetto and Merlot.

The 2011 Superboum Langhe DOC carries with it one of those shelf leaping, interest rousing labels. Although you can find out the real story behind the label here, we were envisioning a scaly Grendel monster (from Beowulf) meets Templar Knight scenario.

The 70/30 breakdown of Dolcetto & Merlot, creates a super fruit bomb of a wine that you don’t often see in Italians. The Dolcetto offers up plenty of indulgent cherry fruit while the Merlot plays out its best role as a blending wine, giving the Superboum its structure and depth. Pair it up with any of the lighter sauced pastas at Roma (like the signature pink cream sauce) and watch the smiles of your dinner party rapidly broaden.

Cafe Roma celebrates its eleventh anniversary this year and has one of those rare combinations in the restaurant business; a front-to-back quality staff with a high retention rate and a fantastic wine & food experience.

Bookmark Cabernet and London Broil

London Broil, pearl couscous and sugar snap peas.

London Broil, pearl couscous and sugar snap peas.

My old friend, John Powell, has been dabbling in winemaking for the past decade. This year marks the first time that his wine, Bookmark Cabernet, will be made available for direct shipment to both Connecticut and Tennessee.

John is the kind of guy who’s not afraid to think big and who see things through to the finish. And amnesia aside, I still remember his science project (this elaborate multi-tiered water filtration system) from Mrs. Tuggle’s freshman year science class. Man did I think my inertia project was a flop compared to his. Actually it was; I sucked at science.

So I know that if John put the detail and work into his wines, they way he did his science projects way back in the day, then we’re all going to want to drink a little of the nectar. Much of his wine is sourced from Atlas Peak and Stags Leap, so you know the pedigree is there. And he’s brought on Napa winemaker Tim Milos to lead the charge.

Along with John’s wife Sarah and Tamara & Steve Kalin, their venture is called Contrail Vintners. After reading about his Bookmark Cabernet and other wines here, I decided to do a test run on what I’m going to pair it with. A big chunk of beef was an obvious choice but I wanted to take a stab at a preparation I had never attempted. A quick perusal at the meat counter led to the purchase of a nice two-pound cut of flank steak and a vision for London Broil.

The cook time on London Broil is quick, simply five minutes or so on each side (and under the broiler). And although marinades very vastly, they all work better the longer you can dedicate the marinade to the meat. The recipe I adapted uses garlic, soy, sriracha, lemon juice, oil and thyme. Four hours of marinating yielded one tasty cut of beef. And when my friend’s new Cabernet arrives I’ll be sure to fire away at a second try of London Broil, this time after the marinade sits for a good 24 hours.

I already have the recipe Bookmarked.

Badgers and Barbera

Badger Barbera.

Badger Barbera.

Can you get enough of a good thing? HELLLL no!

If it’s a secret, then it’s the worst secret ever; I AM a Barbera hound. There I said it. It’s on the table. And here’s my litany why: Barbera is…

1) Affordable if not inexpensive considering the level of quality
2) Accessible, most halfway decent shops will have at least one on the shelf
3) Consistent, you seldom hear or read of a crappy Barbera vintage
4) Approachable, pop and pour – it doesn’t take a millennium to mature
5) Food friendly, it is after all on the dinner table throughout northwest Italy

With that said, there’s not much left to debate. Barbera is mostly grown in Italy’s Piedmont region but incredible domestic representations are available. And you’ll almost always see Italian Barbera as coming from one of two Piedmontese cities, Alba or Asti. Sure, there’s a bit of a rivalry there and purists will argue as to which is better, but truly… they both rock it out.

My Barbera of the moment is the Elio Perrone Barbera d’Asti Tasmorcan. Dried cherries, black licorice and some funky cheese notes are the leadoff to an almost afterthought of vanilla (that you might catch not long after the first sip). Look for a grape loving critter on the label. The badger, or tasmorcan in Italian, is perhaps the ideal mascot for any Barbera wine; the little guy just can’t get enough of it. Amen brother!

You REALLY need to try this wine

Rocking good!

Rocking good!

Even the snobbiest of wine snobs will secretly admit, every now and then all they really want is a big, delicious, mindless, do-a-jig fruit bomb. TaaDaa! … introducing Barrel 27’s Grenache from the California Central Coast.

Officially known as Barrel 27 “Rock and a Hard Place” Grenache, the grapes from this indulging wine were initialing obtained from a treacherous hillside vineyard in one of my favorite wine areas, Santa Barbara California.

Cherry, raspberry, vanilla and cocoa all combine to create this tongue rolling, pleasure-loving, almost epicurean wine. Well worth the $18 price tag, Rock and a Hard Place is both a conversation starter (one that usually begins with Damn that wine is good!) and an all too quick opening act for a second bottle (of hopefully the same wine).

Bottoms up!

Where’s the beef…… Bourguignon?

Classic French cooking with Boeuf Bourguignon...

Classic French cooking with Boeuf Bourguignon…

It’s really just more time consuming than it is difficult. Beef Bourguignon, the classic French stew that Julia Child helped to introduce to an American audience, is worth the effort and the time.

...And what to do with any leftovers a la puff pastry.

…And what to do with any leftovers a la puff pastry.

Savory and hearty are mere understatements to a rich mouthful of this wintertime fare – and one needs to look no further than the full bottle of red wine required to just get this pot simmering.

A traditional and young red burgundy wine like beaujolais or a pinot noir acts as both your base and your pairing. But if you’re in a pinch, substitutes like a Spanish Garnacha can work magic during the cooking process. And an all-purpose wine like a Cote-du-Rhone is always a well conducted pairing to the tender beef, the chunks of bacon and the mushrooms that interplay nicely with pearl onions and carrots.

We poured a glass of Chapoutier red rhone with our dinner and it was spectacular. The beef bourguignon works well with small roasted red potatoes or in a bowl-formed and carefully filled mound of your favorite mashed recipe. And just like Julia don’t forget to have a glass of wine (or two) while you’re engaged in this epic culinary adventure.

What to pair with your spicy Asian dinner

Thai stir fry!

Thai stir fry!

Load it up… my plate that is! My muse tried her hand at some spicy Thai stir fry with snow peas, broccoli, chicken, rice noodles and chili paste. The result was best exemplified by my empty plate, the empty wok and my very full belly.

When it comes to wine pairing, Spicy Asian cuisine has become pigeonholed by its overly recommended partnering with Riesling. They do work well together, but too often that’s the only choice at restaurants and the frequent advice of wine stewards. I’m guilty as charged, too.

Although Gewurztraminer is another easy match for spicy food, I wanted to find something that doesn’t always come to mind so obviously. Enter Vouvray!

Vouvray is made from Chenin Blanc grapes and grown in France’s Loire Valley. The wine can run the gamut from fruity and sweet all the way to bone-crushing dry. Try to find something left of center… that is leaning to the sweeter side without being cloyingly sweet. The “La Craie” Vouvray is an excellent example of a demi-sec Chenin Blanc. Soft fruit, with some sweetness to balance all that hot and sassy chili paste in the Thai snow pea dish, is the calling card of the “La Craie.”

Made from 100% Chenin Blanc, it retails for around $18.

Pub grub… at home

Classic comfort food with some Asian energy.

Classic comfort food with some Asian energy.

You should do this! Tonight, construct a spicy, zesty, flavorful Asian pork burger. It’s better than most pub grub and a bit more affordable.

First, marinate some thinly sliced cucumbers in rice wine vinegar for a few hours (or a day if done in advance). Stir and then refrigerate a mix of mayo and sirachha (that’s the hot sauce with the rooster on the side). Blend in a little at a time and taste as you go in order to match your heat level.

Next, form a burger patty made from fresh ground pork, a half teaspoon each of minced ginger and garlic, and a tablespoon of hoisin sauce. After the burger is cooked, place it on an onion roll with a big dollop of your mayo/srirachha spread, fresh Asian-inspired pickles and red onions. Tomato is optional.

Finally, sink your teeth into some tasty homemade pub grub and wash down with a light and fruity red wine like a Cru Beaujolais or Dolcetto.

Each bite just gets better and better!

Wookiees and wine

The funny thing about French winemakers is their near universal appreciation and usage of the word terroir. I’m not talking about terror, although it often does strike just that in the heart of wine neophytes. Rather, the phrase terroir (with that often overlooked extra vowel) is used by vintners and wine groupies to reference the environment in which the grapes are grown. And the French love to roll the word terroir off their tongue like a constipated Wookiee.

TEHR – WAHR!

What did he say?

What did he say?

In the simplest terms, terroir translates to the soil, and there are all kinds of microbiological things in the soil that can affect the grapes and ultimately the wine. It’s the reason your average home gardener takes a soil sample down to the local nursery when the tomatoes aren’t so robust. But terroir also acts as a big tent, covering the likes of climate, geology and pretty much anything that the winemaker thinks is influencing the produce. Which means (depending on how the wine ends up tasting) you can simultaneously thank and blame the dirt beneath your feet!

I was talking to the winemaker of North Carolina’s Biltmore wines (who happens to be French and gets his grapes from California) some years back about wine monikers and branding. During the conversation, I brought up the stereotypical thing that California winemakers of Italian lineage often do when naming their wines; that being, are you going to name a wine after your grandfather or some old family ancestor. “It’s not about the wine,” he quickly grunted. “It’s about the TERROIR.”

And so it goes! You can take the Frenchman out of France, but you can’t take the dirt out of the Frenchman.

White truffle and roasted artichoke risotto with Albarino

Creamy, hearty comfort food.

Creamy, hearty comfort food.

My belly has a new favorite comfort food. Yes, risotto has always been a top contender, but the discovery of this new recipe has just pushed it up to numero uno. Plus, it’s pretty damn simple! Following any basic risotto instruction, you’re only going to make two, well-calculated adjustments.

Spain's most exciting white wine!

Spain’s most exciting white wine!

When you first begin to cook down the finely diced onions it is critical to use butter in place of olive oil. And not just any butter. Substitute the normal tablespoon or two of butter with 3-4 ounces of white truffle butter (which is available at most specialty food stores). Second, after giving the arborio rice its initial pearly white gleam (and before ladling in any chicken stock) stir in some roasted artichokes. The fresher, the better. But prepackaged will do in a pinch.

The result is a classical, creamy risotto with some earthy, indulgent flavors. Several red wines like nebbiolo or grenache would make for a suitable pairing with this recipe. However, the white wine that I added during the cooking process still has me smitten. The Columna Albarino from Spain offers both exotic aromas and bags of fruit that added some freshness and balance to the risotto. Enjoy!

The BIG question for 2014

Wine in your grocery buggy: Is it time?

Wine in your grocery buggy: Is it time?

The Tennessee State Legislature appears poised to pass a bill this coming winter that will allow local municipalities to hold referendum votes on the sell of wine in grocery stores. If all goes the way political pundits are foreseeing, then Tennessee will become the 37th state to allow you to purchase food and wine at the same location.

An unofficial poll by the Times Free Press shows that 57% of respondents would like to be able to purchase their wine at the same place they purchase their food. Even more so, the Times Free Press also reminded residents that a recent “public opinion poll conducted by Vanderbilt and MTSU shows that 70 percent of Tennesseans” are in favor of wine in grocery stores.

Although implementation isn’t likely to roll out until 2015, do you think that wine should be sold in grocery stores in Tennessee? And please state why.

Chenin from the South

Sock it to you.

Sock it to you.

If you haven’t enjoyed a Chenin Blanc from South Africa in awhile, now is the time. I’ve had a lucky run of various samples over the past year and that has me thinking the category may take off in the next year or two. Earlier this month, I opened a bottle of the 2012 Badenhorst Family “Secateurs” Chenin Blanc for a holiday cocktail party. It was a big hit within the white wine crowd, especially from the old voice coach who held it like a basso continuo.

When the bottle wasn’t wrapped up like a lover long since seen, it’s contents poured out an unctuous liquid gold. The weight of the wine might be mistaken for something more new world in nature, but the remarkable combination of honey and citrus separate the Secateurs as something all its own. It’s hard not to like this wine.

Winter Salad and something “really nice” from Cousin Eddie

Winter Salad? What the...

Winter Salad? What the…

Here’s an easy winter salad to throw together! I’m guessing the absence of greens is what makes it a “winter salad,” but it does have lots of crunch and that natural pepperiness found in cauliflower.

I came across the recipe on Foodista as taken from an interesting book titled, The Glorious Vegetables of Italy.

They make it look a whole lot better than my pic, but it’d be hard to improve on the spicy taste of onions, peppers, cauliflower and the salty, savory influence of the olives. Uniquely enough, this is a rare salad that can match up with both a red or white wine. A semi-dry Riesling from the Pacific Northwest or Germany matches the slight heat in the mix without burying its herbaceous element.

My second choice is a simple, everyman’s red from France, called Les Hérétiques. Made from forty year old Carignan vines, Les Hérétiques is a soft red with cherry fruit flavors meant for mass consumption. It’s under ten bucks a bottle, and a half case would look REALLY NICE under my tree next week.

It may be heresy, but you CAN drink red wine with your salad.

It may be heresy, but you CAN drink red wine with your salad.

Les Hérétiques is imported by Louis Dressner.

The best Sardinian wine value

Sardinia at its best!

Sardinia at its best!

Maybe the title of this post says it all. But the Argiolas Perdera Monica di Sardegna has just about everything going for it.

First, it’s that good. No seriously, I know that Sardinia isn’t tops on anyone’s list for outstanding wines, except for maybe natives and vacationers. But the Argiolas Perdera is an amazing value, falling snugly in the $12-15 range. The wine is mostly made from indigenous Monica grapes (with a pinch of Carignano) and combines the ripe, fruit-forward and polished style of new world wines with some of the earthiness and depth of old world Europe.

Second, it’s around. With production totaling over 30,000 cases, the Argiolas doesn’t require a road trip to track it down and has in fact been present in Tennessee for years. Of course I bought up more than my fair share, so there may be just a little less lingering about.

Finally, its food pairing prowess seems limitless. We’ve been propping it up next to the likes of pizza, stews and red sauced pasta. And yes, quite often, straight up by itself.

Foodista Featured Drink Blog

Mille Grazie!

Mille Grazie!

Thank you Alisa & Foodista for making this blog your “Featured Drink Blog of the Day!”

If you haven’t been to the Foodista site, it will simultaneously make you hungry and inspire you to get busy in the kitchen.

And you just mind find some great tips or suggestions on what to drink and what to pair with it.

The night before the morning after

Clink clink. Cin cin. Ouch ouch.

Clink clink. Cin cin. Ouch ouch.

Tis the season for a little end of year celebration and sampling of new wines. And unfortunately, ye olde hangover(s). There’s quite a bit of urban legend and mountain medicine myth about what’s best for the inevitable next morning- mourning.

Cheese and portHoliday cocktail party Over time I’ve come to the belief that the hair-of-the-dog or greasy burger approach are only temporary fixes; delay tactics if you will, that essentially act as a placebo gone wrong. We often put great stock in all kinds of concoctions (which is what got us in trouble in the first place).

The answer may actually be a formula as simple as H2O. Two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. WATER. Water (that is) in the form of a pre-emptive strike. Drink lots of water in between all those other things you’re drinking and drink a big glass of water before you call it a night.

Sure mama nature may wake you in the wee hours, but it’s better than the alternative.

Cheese and OlivesWineLineUp

A drink for down the stretch

All the bubbly you'll need for the end of year sprint!

All the bubbly you’ll need for the end of year sprint!

The end of a year is always a sprint; house parties, last minute entertaining, holiday celebrations, New Year’s Eve cheers, work (you’d like to dis) function and whatever else pops up unexpectedly. Indeed the month of December acts as that last hurrah before your resolutions are drawn up, and your gluttony quotient is quartered. So if you’re going to be participating in all that clinking of juice vessels, then you might as well fill them up with something that satisfies.

The non-vintage Conti Riccati Prosecco (from the Valdobbiadene) is Italy’s answer for your go-to seasonal rush. With lively apple and citrus notes, a dry finish and zero sweetness it makes for an all-around aperitif/ better box buy/ food forgiving/ company content-er.

What’s your Turkey Wine this year?

We’ve been charged with bringing dessert pie to Zia Carol’s Thanksgiving Feast on Thursday. If it makes it that long.

My, my, me oh my! Nothing tastes better than homemade pie.

My, my, me oh my! Nothing tastes better than homemade pie.

Since I didn’t write a Thanksgiving and wine column this year, I thought at the very least that I should send out a reminder of some styles that go well with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. These wines tend to be very versatile and solid food supporters.

1 – Syrah & Grenache blends from the Rhone (French)
2 – Rieslings from the Mosel, (German)
3 – Dry Rose from Provence (French)
4 – Pinot Noir from Oregon
5 – Barbera from Piedmont (Italian)

Love to hear back about which wines you’re serving with Thanksgiving this year!

Happy Thanksgiving! – Roger

What’s for dinner: Stracotto

Somebody turned forty-something last week and was surprised with a birthday feast of unimaginable flavor and (because everyone needs thirds) portions.

Say hello to Stracotto!

Mushrooms and the Italian version of the trinity.

Mushrooms and the Italian version of the trinity.

Sort of a savory, tender Italian style pot roast, Stracotto was a five hour (start to finish) commitment to slow cooking that infused the air with hunger-inducing aromas. San Marzano tomatoes, mushrooms, celery, onion, garlic, carrots, a little something-something and red wine all played key, supporting roles in this operatic devotion to an Italian roast.

Reduction Junction what's your function? Concentration.

Reduction Junction what’s your function? Concentration.

Comforting. Succulent. Robust.

The icing on the cake was the last remaining bottle of Cliff Lede from Napa Valley. Intense dark fruit, with some herbal notes and a hint of peppa, the Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon and Stracotto teamed up like knife and fork, poetically orchestrating an indulgent ode to life’s additional candle. Here’s to wishes staying true!

Have you finished your cold weather checklist?

Cold weather, check. Blazing crackling fire, check. Port, check check.

Cold weather, check. Blazing crackling fire, check. Port, check check.

Ahh… the first truly cold night of the fall is slated to occur midweek. And there’s not much of a better matchup for the chill in the air than a warm fire and a bottle of good Port.

A visit last week from Mizz Jackson and her Man, presented us with the impetus to stoke the old outdoor fire pit and uncork a bottle of Warre’s Otima 10 year Tawny Port. The light honey notes of the Otima were rounded out with a simple butterscotch finish, making the Port a great post-game wrap up. Which is exactly what you’ll need to do this week- wrap up, because it’s getting cold quick. And a little Port wouldn’t hurt either.

COLD WEATHER CHECKLIST:

____ Baby it’s cold outside!

____ The fire pit is lit

____ Coat, blanket and a baldman’s lid

____ Port Wine prescription

PB and Chardonnay…

Italian Chardonnay?

Italian Chardonnay?

Leave it to the Tuscans to find a way to dress up Chardonnay. It’s like adding an extra stud to a Liberace belt. But as vanity would have it the swagger of this mighty grape just wouldn’t be enough without a little Etruscan influence.

Enter Pinot Bianco – stage right.

The 2012 Pomino, by Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi, takes the greatest world traveler of whites wines (Chardonnay) and sprinkles in a touch of the lesser known Pinot Bianco (PB) grape. More than just bouquet garni to the soup stock, the PB makes Chardonnay smile in a whole new way- a wry, sly kinda smile.

With noticeable citrus blossom aromas and herbal notes, the 2012 Pomino Bianco presents juicy pear flavors and a well-balanced, slightly creamy texture.

And what I like most about the Pomino Bianco is its versatile nature. Party kick-starter, many-an-antipasti meanderer, flag the host down for another refill of eau-de-easy please-me wine that is both unforgettable and uncommonly Florentine friendly.

Really Good Garnacha!

Load it up.

Load it up.

There’s quite a few foods that go well with Garnacha. And my favorite sandwich is no exception.

I returned from a visit to Louisville, Kentucky this past weekend, but not without securing some of my favorite deli items from the city’s own Lotsa Pasta. As you can see from the pic above, a whole host of those items made it onto my favorite sandwich- including sopressata Calabrese, hot capicolla and some imported prosciutto. And a little spread of Italian pepper relish doesn’t hurt the cause that is my appetite.

Fruit of their labor.

Fruit of their labor.

A nice, rich and fruity red like Spanish Garnacha plays well as a thirst quencher to the heat of the spicy deli meats and peppers. The Zestos Old Vines Garnacha exhibits almost all of the red fruit flavors you can imagine while still having some weight, if not a little chewiness, to it. A perfect bistro wine, it is an unbelievable bargain for nine bucks and super safe case buy.

Throw in some solid national reviews and it’s hard to believe it makes it all the way here and is still so very very affordable. It’s long past time for the West Coast to wake up and take notes. Zestos is 100% Garnacha goodness!

Wine of the People

Wine for the people!

Wine for the people!

There is nothing ordinary about the 2012 Le Cantine di Indie Vino Rosso del Popolo. It breaks Italian wine convention like long thin, brittle pasta hitting a hard floor.

The northwestern Italian region of Piedmont produces three very well known red wines including Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto. But they are almost always wines unto themselves. Nebbiolo makes piggy-bank emptying Barolos, Barberas represent some of the regions favorite everyday table wines and Dolcettos persist on maintaining their “little sweet one” reputation.

I head never heard them mentioned as part of a blend in the same wine the way Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah often are in United States or for that matter the way Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre are in France. Not until, that is, I learned about this very independent minded red from one of Piedmont’s hilly areas, the Langhe.

Vino Rosso del Popolo translates to “red wine of the people” and the Le Cantine di Indie’s flavor profile and shelf price both live up to its campaign promise. For $14-15 you’re given a red wine with fleshy, nearly chewy plum fruit and bright cherry zing. Truly the newest flag bearer of a resurgent populist movement, the wine’s minimalist black and white label may scream “generic” but it’s just the first indicator of its reach for mass appeal and power to please. Wait until you try it!

Alphabet wine- dumbing it down

I heard it through the grapevine, CDR was the preferred wine of the Fogerty Brothers.

I heard it through the grapevine, CDR was the preferred wine of the Fogerty Brothers.

Sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. That could be said for the simply named wine, CDR, from Domaine Select Wine Estates and winemaker Henri Milan. Great wines from the Côtes du Rhône wine region have been abbreviated and affectionately referred to as CDR’s for years now. So, it was only a matter of marketing time before a label came out bearing exactly that.

CDR is a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault, displaying a little brickishness and a whole lot of funky blue cheese. Flavors of dried cherry Luden drops develop into a brighter red berry medley with some lingering violet notes. An exquisite partner for a traditional beef tip southern stew, CDR retails for $13-15.

What do you think the lemon-limecello tastes like?

Lemon and lime never tasted so good!

Lemon and lime never tasted so good!

Fini.

It is finished. Bottled. Chilled. Ready to drink.

The Mayor of Rocky Hill and I were able to pull off some magic with a last minute hit of lemon zest to the limecello we fashioned a few weeks back. It paid off exponentially. The soft green tint of our invention coincided nicely with the surprising taste of the finished lemon-limecello, a light and fluffy slice of key lime pie. No joke.

You’ll have to try it to believe it, I know. But once you do, you’ll be well inspired to delve into the next batch of Italian hooch. As we debated back and forth between a blood orangecello and a pink grapefruit (Ruby Red) version for our next project, we became curious as to which you would vote for?

Alla salute!

Social Lubrication

Over the last few falls and winters, we have taken to hosting more dinner and house parties. Something there is that loves the communion of various friends, the intimacy of the in-house setting and the planning/execution of rich, hearty, savory dinners. If only we had a second dishwashing machine, right?

Your next dinner party red!

Your next dinner party red!

My philosophy on which wines to serve has held a few basic tenets over the years. First, I like to have one choice each for red, white and sparkling. Experience has shown that too many selections will often turn into everyone focusing on that one “amazing” wine that is now empty and irreplaceable. “Too many to chose from” also inevitably leads to a sense of forgetfulness when it comes time to recall all the different wines one has sampled that night. Last, and perhaps more importantly, having a wine that is going to be versatile while simultaneously providing instant gratification will make your hosting duties all the easier.

The versatility assists you by having a wine that can pair up with the variety of foods in the feast ahead. But that instant pleasure, that the right wine can provide, helps your guests to become comfortable with meeting new people and settling into the moment… sort of a social lubricant. If they like what they’re drinking right away, then there’s a good chance they’re going to enjoy the evening altogether.

That’s the long way for saying; I’ve found which red wine I’m serving at my next house party. The 2010 Chateau d’Oupia displays interesting beefy aromas and some pepperiness. Follow that up with a black cherry flavor profile and dash of bittersweet chocolate at the end and you have all the ingredients for a wine with quick strike capability. The Chateau d’Oupia comes from Minervois in France’s Languedoc wine region. Its hillside vineyards account for well maintained Carignan grapes, the chief ingredient in the d’Oupia. The rest of the wine is comprised of Syrah and Grenache, so you know you’re staring at potential winner.

Imported by Louis/Dressner Selections, the Chateau d’Oupia comes in at an amazingly fair $13 price tag, something you’ll appreciate when it comes time to keep the post party-party going a little longer.

Have you met my girlfriend?

My old friend Val!

My old friend Val!

She goes by Val.

Short for Valpolicella, Val is (I must forewarn you) responsible for “locked” shower doors, procreation and the hoarding of hotel towels. Not in that order, mind you, but I think that makes for another story.

I write about Val because I will, from time to time, forget about her. Not her existence merely, but our history. What I love most about Valpolicella is that I fall in love with her, over and over again, often when I’m not thinking of such and more often when time and absence have given credence to love and fondness.

The tricky part about Val is that she has many, almost indiscernible, doppelgangers. And often you won’t know that distinction since the big cursive word – Valpolicella – is almost always written across her sweater as proudly and as obvious as Laverne’s “L.”

And once opened, these mass-produced, poorly cloned wannabe twerkers reveal the inner self, one lacking the internal beauty that was so ubiquitously displayed externally.

So it was with a sense of uncertainty that I wooed Val again: this time in the form of the 2011 Ca’ del Monte Valpolicella Classico. Wonderfully fruity, unpretentious but engaging and good to the last twirl-in-the-glass, the Ca’ del Monte Valpolicella makes for both an ideal way to introduce someone to the wine and a well-received long overdo reunion.

An all-Italian blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes, Valpolicella is located in Italy’s Veneto region. Its lower alcohol level and softness make it a great pairing to white meats, lighter pastas and grilled vegetables.

The Cross of Burgundy: Strong Wine

Mr. Strong Wine at the latest Paulee.

Mr. Strong Wine at the latest Paulee.

With a name that translates to “strong wine,” John Iacovino may be one of East Tennessee’s most enthusiastic wine ambassadors. His role as Seneschal with the state’s chapter of the Ducal Order of the Cross of Burgundy may seem like an intimidating title. But what it simply means is that Iacovino is charged with promoting the wine, food and heritage of France’s esteemed gastronomic and winemaking capital. And in doing so he is also spreading his knowledge and passion for the entire, wonderful world of wine.

With roots dating back to the 1400’s of old world France, the Ducal Order of the Cross of Burgundy has spread from its Dijon birthplace to the likes of California, Texas and its original American foothold in Tennessee. As a social organization that is both non-profit and charity focused, the local Order demonstrates a nice balance of helping others and at the same time enjoying some of the refinements of life.

Iacovino persists in his search for future members to sponsor who will uphold the call to ambassadorship for all things Burgundian. I recently attended a catered dinner or “Paulée” at Willow Ridge Garden Center in Oak Ridge, where dozens of fantastic wines from around the world were being offered. Iacovino is also offering an incredible class on the wines of Burgundy starting in February 2014. Inquiries will be passed on via this blog.

P-P-P-P-P-Prosecco!

Pure and proper, Prosecco at its best!

Pure and proper, Prosecco at its best!

If you’ve been reading and following “What’s in the bottle?” for awhile, then you’re undoubtedly aware that a certain someone in my life is a bit of a Prosecco devotee. Logically I like to keep her in bounteous supply, so my latest wine-haul from Woodland Wine Merchants in Nashville had to contain a few new ones to try out.

Saturday night’s excursion to a remote cabin in the Smoky Mountains proved to be the proper time to pop one. Not that we needed an excuse to enjoy a little Italian bubbly, but it was after all our first overnighter, as we would both be away from our 15 month old for the first time. Yeah it’s obvious, we’re first time parents. But that intense sense of worry went away as soon as our son saw his nonna. He wasn’t going to miss us, at least not the way we would him.

The non-vintage Sommariva Brut Prosecco from Conegliano Valdobbiadene that we packed for our 24-hour outing had a lot going for it. As if a relaxing night away weren’t enough to increase its chances of making the “buy again” list, it was also being opened in the great outdoors, on a beautiful deck overlooking the valley below and the rolling hilltops surrounding us. Perspective could get lost in all of this, but I think we’re in concurrence here.

The Sommariva delivered. Temperate bready notes and plump, orchard-ripe apple flavors would have been enough to convince anyone to return for another, but I think it was both the sense of crispness and layered, lingering finish of the Prosecco that added to its festive spirit.

When so many Proseccos are being bastardized by overproduction and the perceived domestic need for sweeter styles, it’s reassuring to know that not all Proseccos are being muted with the stewed fruit profile that so many bloated wine conglomerates are putting out.

Sommariva is imported through Kermit Lynch and should be available through request in our market as well. For a scant $15-16, it’s worth the 2-3 week wait. Pair it with your muse.

Nashville: Where to shop

Check out my recent haul from Woodland Wine Merchants! Will Motley opened WWM in 2007 on the east side of Nashville. It has become my favorite wine store in NashVegas and a must stop when work brings me to town. As I get deeper into this case, throughout the month of October, I’ll be offering reviews on some of the standouts. Stay tuned.

Some great selections at Woodland Wine Merchants in Nashville.

Some great selections at Woodland Wine Merchants in Nashville.

Zin-sational Value from another Secret City

The other one!

The other one!

There are those moments of peak performance when you catch a certain fruit during the prime of its season and sense that it just couldn’t possibly get any better, even by waiting another single day. So you wistfully sink your teeth into it. And instantly you know from the lusciousness that indeed it is perfectly ripe. The same could be said for the fruit of wine.

The 2012 Oak Ridge Ancient Vines Zinfandel from Lodi reminded me of this. Unfamiliar with this $11 value, my curiosity elbowed me to add a bottle to my purchase last week.

Understandably, when locals see a wine labeled Oak Ridge they may be somewhat judicious – lest the vineyards be a little too close to home. And although there is no need to worry (since it comes from the California cartel and not the local one) this Oak Ridge Ancient Vines Zinfandel is, coincidentally, just as explosive.

A gluttonous wine, that would make any mythological wine god smile, the succulent Lodi Zin struts around with aromas of cardamom and tucked-away cinnamon spice before flashing that self-indulgent rich cherry and red berry fruit. Not to mention that spicy Zinfandel calling card. Giddy up! Start humming “my heart’s on fire.” And go get a case.

Wrapping up the Top Ten at …

* This post is the LAST of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Few owners in the Knoxville restaurant scene work the room as attentively and as well as Brian and Stephanie Balest, the brother and sister combo behind the Northshore Brasserie. Doing so has both ingratiated local foodies to the restaurant and simultaneously helped the Brasserie to keep its finger on the pulse palate.

See you here!

See you here!

And although the authentic and unpretentious hands-on manner keeps the natives from getting too restless, it’s the consistency in food excellence that draws them back. Truly, I have never had a bad meal at the Brasserie, and while my muse and I almost always start our visit with a bowl of their exquisite Mussels Pernod, we are frequently drawn to follow that up with something unexpected.

Of course that might have something to do with an interesting menu; rabbit, foie gras, sweetbreads, escargot, frog legs, oysters, steak tartare, duck, and lamb all grace the lineup. Plus steak lovers must try the steak au poivre… which brings me to my one beef. Though the wine list is extensive for a restaurant of its size, the time has come to start over with a completely fresh one and keep us food and “wine” lovers coming back again and again.

The Brasserie does not shy away from combining the classic and the trendy or from pushing your palate’s comfort level. All this while staying extremely close to the restaurant’s Belgian-French roots.

POST SCRIPT: Although not inexpensive, the Brasserie offers one of the better Sunday brunches in town.

The Mayor of Rocky Hill returns with Lemon/Lime-cello

Organic lemons and limes, ready for a good skinning.

Organic lemons and limes, ready for a good skinning.

Possibly emboldened by the success of our last batch of limoncello this past spring, or more so by the evaporation of our last bottle, the Mayor of Rocky Hill and I set out to top that triumph with an extra dose of creativity. Having tweaked our formula of lemons, sugar, water and alcohol to sheer perfection, the Mayor suggested we do a lime-cello version using the skin of some organic limes instead of lemons in our fall production.

Research from a myriad of online references showed no successful creation of what seemed like a logical, and yet simple, extension of the famed Italian limoncello. And it wasn’t until after we got started on peeling day that we might have discovered (almost too late) what the monkey in the wrench was.

Removing lemon peels without the bitter white pith is one thing, but trying to replicate that same, simple task with limes was a bit more of a challenge. That white pith is the difference between a good limoncello and a sour, almost rancid one.

The Mayor of Rocky Hill shows off the latest batch.

The Mayor of Rocky Hill shows off the latest batch.

Lemons are obviously bigger and often more plush, while limes are not only smaller but oftentimes much firmer. Detaching the piths from those green little suckers was the pits.

Although, we put forth a decent effort, in the end we decided it best not to risk an entire batch of citrus and alcohol by getting to the point of no return and instead settled on a compromise using half lemon and half lime. Thus is born lemon/lime-cello or at least we hope so. Stay tuned as the Phase Two addition of the hooch’s simple syrup takes place at month’s end. The color is developing nicely and it won’t be long before we know if we’ve encountered a Eureka moment or a yucky one.

At number two, Bistro By The Tracks is one of Knoxville’s Best

* This post is part NINE of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Over the years Bistro By The Tracks has had a handful of different owners and popped up in a couple of different locations. Its newer and probably permanent residence in the Brookview Centre has a warm and relaxing bar as you enter, along with an inviting dining area and private “wine cellar” room.

With the closing of Chez Liberty, the Bistro has returned to the number one spot in Knoxville for having the best wine selection. Truly there’s no other wine list in town that is comparable.

One of the best K-town has to offer.

One of the best K-town has to offer.

Plus the restaurant brought in a new Chef this past year and is adding some much needed spark to the menu including phenomenal dishes of quail and duck. Regulars to the Bistro know that the restaurant has two secret weapons, the best and most professional waitstaff in all of Knoxville and a very conscientious and engaging Beverage Director in Lana Shackelford.

Bistro By The Tracks offers the best wine dinners in Knoxville, often pairing up with the West Coast’s preeminent wineries. In fact Liparita Winery will be featured at a Bistro wine dinner next week. Cabernet lovers will remember that Liparita’s Oakville Cabernet was the hit of the 2010 holiday season and their current release is another woo the crowd, bottle of dynamite.

Mission Accomplished

Fresh figs from the late Summer sun.

Fresh figs from the late Summer sun.

An old paisano of mine dropped off some fantastically fresh homegrown figs. These were 40 minute figs … forty minutes from having been picked from the tree in his backyard paradise. The ripeness was not only evident in their color but in the supple, plush texture as I held them in my hand.

My curiosity as to whether or not these were mission figs led me to recall (and expectedly, open) a unique dessert wine I had tucked away in the wine nook.

Years ago while driving through the wine country outside of Santa Barbara our path led us past a weathered hill country where the grass was a lesser green and trees bent over, sideways, like a spitting Paul Giamatti. We drove past wineries named for once famous actors, well treaded tires and fine seated toilets, past not much else and sometimes nothing. Until eventually, we arrived at this old shed off of Santa Maria’s own Foxen Canyon Road. There, we would run through the tasting room’s line-up that was comprised of extraordinary Syrahs and Pinot Noirs and a curiously refreshing, almost too light to believe dessert wine, a petite dolce.

Accomplished mission grapes!

Accomplished mission grapes!

This was Foxen Winery! And the appropriately played pun of the dessert wine’s moniker, ” Mission Accomplished,” drew dual meaning from the (until then, personally-unaware existence) mission grape composition of the wine and a prematurely claimed victory of a not yet post-Iraq War.

The Foxen Boys had fashioned a dessert wine, made from old Spanish plantings of the mission grape. Indeed, the grape’s “mission” name was derived from its own Johnny Appleseed, the Spanish priests who planted them in the nearby mission properties of their assigned churches many, many years ago.

Little did I know that a single taste of Foxen’s 2006 Mission Accomplished would be the beginning of a newfound love that my muse would have for port and port-like wines. A bottle (the one I am waxing about) would fly home with us.

Be sure to pull over @ Foxen Winery.

Be sure to pull over @ Foxen Winery.

Although Foxen’s rendition is much, much lighter than the unctuous, inky ports of their homeland, the wine is seemingly on a personal mission with juicy, almost overly ripe fig and golden sultana flavors. A more natural, more harmonious pairing of whiskey-drizzled, open-faced, roasted figs (topped with a ricotta cream mixture) has never been accomplished.

My paisano would later identify the magical figs, from his backyard, as Black Trianas grown from the cutting of the fig tree that their family brought from Sicily to the new world in the latter part of the 19th century. Mille Grazie!

The finished fig with a little ricotta cream.

The finished fig with a little ricotta cream.

Champagne, Cabernet and Barolo for the triumphs of Fall

* A version of this column was first published in the on-line edition of Saturday’s Knoxville News Sentinel.

This fall, there is any number of reasons why you may find yourself seeking out an exceptional bottle of wine or champagne. Besides the inevitable holiday gift giving, opportunities like a new job, an unexpected victory or a little romance may present themselves. And having these recommendations tucked away, for just such a situation, will serve you well in that moment of selecting the right bottle.

Ferrari Lineup, Perle in the pole position.

Ferrari Lineup, Perle in the pole poition.

Toasting to any of life’s victories is special; doing so in style requires little other than a nice bottle of bubbly. But keep in mind that successes don’t always come easily and enjoying them, without skimping on quality, makes that instant all the more memorable.

Two of the traditional French champagne houses that never seem to fail in delivering both enjoyment and quality are Bollinger and Pol Roger. They manage to convey complexity without being overly bready or yeasty. You’ll know you’re enjoying something distinctive while sharing toasts and congratulations over a fine, foaming flute of either of these French bubblies.

And if you can shakedown your favorite wine-smith for a bottle of Ferrari Perle sparkling wine from Trentino in Northern Italy, your wallet as much as your palate will be just as thankful. Made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, this Italian version of French champagne may come in at half the price, but it does so while still delivering all the style and sophisticated deliciousness you would come to expect from its French colleague.

Similarly, romantic dinners or feast-like celebrations are accentuated with the mere presence of a prestigious, all-American wine. The 2010 Chateau Montelena is one of the best Cabernets that I’ve ever tasted from this award winning Napa Valley winery. It is remarkably accessible for being so young and has a flavorful fruit profile with heaps of currant and divine black cherry notes. If you’re the type that doesn’t want to have to wait for it to age, this is the one for you. Although with a little more patience, I can only imagine this baby growing up to be even more spectacular.

And if you’re looking this fall to give someone dear a little unexpected something, say for their most recent victory of a new job, new born, new union or new retirement, then offer them something that is both enjoyable on its own or with an extraordinary meal. For me that gift is a nice Barolo from the Italian region of Piedmont or more specifically, the Marziano Abbona Barolo Pressenda. Made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes, the Barolo is brickish in color and wonderfully aromatic with notes of wild flowers and flavors of dried cherries and polished pomegranate. A refined and reputable Barolo will blow them away!

Ease on down the road, to FMC!

* This post is part EIGHT of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

It’s true: number three on my list of restaurants worth trying in Knoxville is technically just outside of Knoxville, in the merry metropolis of Maryville. Foothills Milling Company is located off Washington Street in what use to be Luce’s and is worth the quick jaunt down either Alcoa or Pellissippi Highway.

Rockin' it out, Maryville style.

Rockin’ it out, Maryville style.

Think of it as a great place to take a guest whom you just picked up at the airport; they’ll be impressed with both the Southern style cuisine as well as that regional hospitality.

Some of the menu will probably be transforming into the heartier fall fare, but if you can get over to FMC before the weather breaks, I’m very partial to both the Cornmeal Tempura Lobster Tails as well as the double orange & fennel influenced Sea Scallops.

I’m only somewhat familiar with Maryville, but this has to be the restaurant of choice among locals. The wine list offers more than many of its Knoxville counterparts, including some unique and food-loving Washington State Syrahs.

Better book in advance because Foothills Milling Company is usually full, and it’s a longer drive back to Knoxville on an empty stomach.

Up a Quilceda Creek

Mushroom and cheese topped Filet.

Mushroom and cheese topped Filet.

This may truly be Washington State’s best Cabernet. Quilceda Creek has been making Cabernet and only Cabernet for over three decades now. And it is outstanding!

The Cabernet doing its pregame warm-up.

The Cabernet doing its pregame warm-up.

I had put back a bottle of their famed juice for a few years and just the other week I finally got around to opening it. The 2006 Quilceda Creek Galitzine Vineyard Cabernet comes from one of Washington State’s smaller appellations, Red Mountain. Located on the far eastern part of Yakima Valley, Red Mountain is such a small area that it presently has a little over a 1,000 acres of vineyards in use.

Before its bottling in 2008, the Cabernet was aged exclusively in new French oak barrels. While waiting for a little decanting action, its deep red, almost raven color becomes the starting point of the wine’s appeal. You’ll soon enjoy a flavorful and concentrated black fruit profile and quickly appreciate the Cabernet’s polished structure.

Come sampling time my resistance was weak, so I had to indulge the moment with a chunk of beef and some tortellini. Quilceda is difficult to track down (and Ben Franklin expensive) so cherish the treat with someone special.

Weekend update with my co-host, Tina Fey

So far here’a the run down on restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville. After Labor Day weekend, I’ll begin rolling out the reviews of the final three. And my oh my, special thanks to Shannon Ritzhaupt of Cafe Roma in Cleveland. We finally opened our wedding gift from him (3 plus years later) and it was molto bene. More about Quilceda Creek Cabernet in the near future!

Seven down, three to go.

Seven down, three to go.

The TOP 10, thus far
10 Chez Guevara
9 Anaba Sushi
8 Knox Mason
7 Dead End BBQ
6 Hard Knox Pizzeria
5 Tomato Head
4 Café 4

APOLOGIES: Unfortunately, my good friend, Tina, had to cancel her co-hosting gig with me this week. Actually, she never really was going to co-host. But she is my good friend. Not really. But if she were, she would more than likely say something like “Thanks for reading.”

K-town’s best rolls on: In at number four is Café 4

* This post is part SEVEN of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Lotsa lobster, lotsa pasta at Cafe 4 on Market Square.

Lotsa lobster, lotsa pasta at Cafe 4 on Market Square.

Café 4 hasn’t reinvented the wheel with their menu, but what they have done is selected yummy, comforting and nationally popular items that are easy to prepare and serve in a timely manner. There’s always a bit of a buzz on Market Square and Café 4 is one of those restaurants that adds its fair share of patronage to that overall din.

The gated outdoor seating area provides a great perch for people watching, without being beaten down by the beastly afternoon sun. Hopefully, your view won’t be too distracted by the world’s worst Elvis impersonator, who will make you chuckle briefly and then quickly wonder wtf. And the inside of Café 4 has a big city vibe, both in seating and decor.

Their wine list may be reminiscent of what you’d find at a supermarket in Alabama, but that may have more to do with what they’re being offered then what they actually know. Their original rollout offered mostly organic wines, which Knoxvillians never quite took to even on the retail side, so they may be trying to avoid past hiccups.

If your timing is right or you plan ahead, then you can also checkout some fantastic tunes in their sealed music venue, the Square Room, which is located under the same roof. Café 4 also offers an upstairs coffee/ reading loft and a nice little bakery as you first enter. With a splendid weekend brunch and a neighbor like the Tomato Head, Café 4 has found the right menu and spot to carve out a successful little niche.

Easy Peasy and very cheesy

Cheese and herb stuffed mushrooms, ready in minutes.

Cheese and herb stuffed mushrooms, ready in minutes.

Company is coming? If so, this has become my “go-to” quick recipe for an appetizer. Stuffed mushrooms need not be laborious but they do need to be done right. It helps to broil the mushroom caps upside down for two minutes. Then sprinkle with olive oil, fresh cracked pepper and sea salt before filling with minced garlic, herbs and goat cheese. Or if you’re really in a hurry then sub with some herbed Boursin Cheese. Broil until cheese is bubbling up.

The play between the earthy, woody mushrooms and some warm goat cheese is spectacular! My muse and I especially enjoy the flavors with an inexpensive Rhone red like the Domaine du Couron Cotes du Rhone. The all-berry fruit is well-pronunced and offers a sense of liveliness to the hearty, soul-filling stuffed mushrooms. Plus they’re an easy, savory finger food, almost like biting into a salty pastry.

Respect the Tomato

* This post is part SIX of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The Tomato Head comes in at a respectable number five of Knoxville's Best.

The Tomato Head comes in at a respectable number five of Knoxville’s Best.

Before moving to Knoxville in 2000, I use to come to town and visit friends for the weekend. Inevitably, we would make our way to the Old City for music, drinks and dinner. And at some point during the weekend we would follow ritual and swing into the Tomato Head on Market Square for a sandwich.

What struck me as oddly familiar was just how much Market Square reminded me of what downtown Chattanooga looked like when I was in college. Outside of Jax Liquor Store on Market Street, the downtown Chattaboogie nightlife consisted of counting tumbleweeds and listening to cricket music. That’s all changed. And the same can finally be said for Knoxville.

It’s easy to give kudos to developers and investors and politicians for the resurrection of Market Square and much of downtown Knoxville. But from an outsider’s perspective, I give credit to Tomato Head – for sticking it out, for having a vision, for giving people a reason to come to Market Square for years. Weren’t the two synonymous for the longest time?

And the reason people came to Tomato Head wasn’t merely that they were the one sure thing in the area. No they were better than that. Tomato did then what it has always done; make original, homemade, fresh and tasty sandwiches, salads and pizza. The food is always great and interesting and it’s the only restaurant in Knoxville that I have never heard a negative word about.

The Tomato Head has a remarkably well balanced and seasonal wine menu for a restaurant of its size and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better lunch date then the menu’s much beloved Lucy. So if your appetite takes you out for said food make sure to order something that includes their homemade hummus. It put the nit in the shiz.

It’s going to knock you out; Knoxville’s “must try” Pizzeria is number six on the list

* This post is part FIVE of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Cheese glorious cheese! The D'Amato at Hard Knox Pizzeria.

Cheese glorious cheese! The D’Amato at Hard Knox Pizzeria.

Every Top 10 restaurant list needs a pizza place. And although Knoxville isn’t known for making pizza pies or any Italian food for that matter, there is one pizzeria worth frequenting. Located in Western Plaza, Hard Knox Pizzeria will knock you out. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, Hard Knox is focused on their craft of delivering hot and fresh pizza from their classic wood-burning oven.

"Wood is good" at Hard Knox Pizzeria.

“Wood is good” at Hard Knox Pizzeria.

And the menu reflects that; they have pizza, flatbread and calzones. And if you’re freakin’ lost, they have a salad. That’s it.

For lovers of white pies, I highly recommend the D’Amato pie with loads of mushrooms and some nice dollops of ricotta. Old school red sauce traditionalists should check out the Bonecrusher pizza with its “real deal” Italian sausage and a nice, sweet-meets-heat combination of their divine tomato sauce and crushed red pepper.

Hard Knox is scaled back dining with stools and a few tables. I usually grab a pie to go and take it just down the street to Bearden Beer Market for some beers and revelry. Remember with a 750-degree oven, your pizza cooks in minutes and there’s not much else that beats the smell of all those fresh cheesy, saucy, crusty pies popping out of the oven, one after the other.

Knoxville’s Best Q comes in at a smokin’ hot # 7

* This post is part FOUR of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Winner, winner - chicken dinner.

Winner, winner – chicken dinner.

Woo Hoo Bar-be-Que!

That’s what the guys at Dead End BBQ on Sutherland Avenue could have named their restaurant… it’s that good. If you’ve been following my blog for most of 2013, then you might recall this review I did for the Knoxville News Sentinel over Memorial Day.

Dead End has a lot going for it; clean and open atmosphere, wafting aromas of smoky aphrodisiacs, and sink your teeth into, succulent Q! Actually for a BBQ joint they also have a surprisingly good and perfectly-paired wine list of fun, meat-friendly reds.

But the proof lies in the pudding pork. And brisket. And my favorite, the Competition Chicken!

George’s Competition Chicken rules the roost when it comes to achieving that mixology of art and science. Smoky, savory, seductively sweet . And you may not be the type that likes to add sauce to their Q, but if you do- better make it the Dead End Red. It’s the Hoo in the Woo Hoo!

And I’m willing to bet that their banana pudding is better than your mommas.

Indeed, “the search is over.”

Suffering summer succotash is that a Rock Star in the making?

Somebody has a tasty, easy-peasy recipe to share and one helluva future! I recommend this version with a glass of Prosecco.

Special thanks to WBIR and the Knox County Health Department.

The one thing that’s keeping Number 8 (on Knoxville’s best restaurant list) from moving up…

* This post is part THREE of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Italy meets East Tennessee at Knox Mason.

Italy meets East Tennessee at Knox Mason.

Knox Mason’s fairly recent opening, in the old Harold’s Deli on Gay Street, has been well received in a short amount of time. The restaurant’s renovation offers a sleek and clean atmosphere and finally gave the spot a much needed and updated facelift. Plus the modern artwork commemorates the past with a nice tip-of-the-hat to Harold Shersky.

Focused menus are becoming more and more obvious in Knoxville and KM’s emphasis on combining the locavore trend with some international touches is apparent. You’ll see such influences in their Braised Pork Belly with regional ingredients from Monroe and Grainger Counties. Placed over some provincial but Italian inspired polenta, the entre also has some All-Southern black-eyed-peas tucked away for the ride.

A must keep on the menu at Knox Mason.

A must keep on the menu at Knox Mason.

Likewise, the comfort of both Southern and Italian cuisine has no greater friend than warm, filling potato gnocchi with locally grown tomatoes, squash and basil. And although the ingredients and menu is likely to change soon as we meld into autumn, I’m guessing they’ll keep that bowl of San Marzano tomato soup around for just a little big longer.

Guaranteed belly filler.

Guaranteed belly filler at Knox Mason.

Space and seating is tight so you might make a beeline there right after work. But truly the one knock on Knox Mason (and why it isn’t higher on my list) is the stemware, or the absence of.

He told me that he felt like an interloper.

He told me that he felt like an interloper.

Perhaps, in an effort to be trendy, they went with the little apple juice glass I use to drink out of ‘round about the time I was getting to sit in the big boy chair. Food and drink compliment one another. That’s why over time stemware and those aroma-enhancing bowls were created; to open up the wine and let it dance with the food. It’s the same reason they don’t serve their beer in a coffee mug.

Knox Mason’s service is excellent and the kitchen is rocking it out!

* The Top Ten list continues next week with a look at K-town’s killer BBQ joint and the one restaurant that administered CPR and maintained a pulse in Market Square during the dark ages.

Number 9 on the list of restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, TN – Anaba Sushi

* This post is part TWO of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The world's my Japanese style oyster at Anaba.

The world’s my Japanese style oyster at Anaba.

There are three rules I recommend that you follow when visiting number nine on my list. First, sit at the sushi bar. Service in the dining area of Anaba is often belated, so in order to get that extra attention, you‘ll need to belly up. Second, ask for Sei (pronounced Say). He is the owner and classically trained sushi king of Knoxville.

From Japan, Sei trained at his father’s sushi bar back in his hometown of Osaka. And his wife Tomo owns the sushi bar on Kingston Pike that bears her name.

Finally, make sure to order off the day’s specialty list. You won’t know what you’re missing if your natural instinct is to always bury your nose in the menu book- looking for cleverly named sushi rolls.

Sei knows fish better than anyone else in town and works to bring in unusual and fresh fish. What makes that so special? This is Tennessee after all; and being landlocked doesn’t bode well for us in getting fish that is both straight from the sea and off the beaten path.

The artistic nature of the other sushi chefs at Anaba is a welcoming break for diners looking to request a unique creation. My muse and I always enjoy the arrival of a beautiful culinary dish and getting to see and taste just where the chef’s imagination led them.

Anaba is located in the same parking lot as the Pizza Kitchen off Northshore Drive. Their daily specials will often include fish like kona kampachi, bronzini, and shima-aji, Just don’t eat the shima-aji! It’s limited.… and it’s all mine!

Ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee: Number 10 – Chez Guevara

* This post is part ONE of a series on ten restaurants worth checking out in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Having dinner with Chez Guevara.

Having dinner with Chez Guevara.

Every town has its hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants, its haunts, its dives. And number ten on my list of Knoxville’s restaurants worth checking out might just be a little of all the above.

Tucked away in the corner of Suburban Plaza, Chez Guevara is easily overlooked by plaza giants, Barnes & Noble and Trader Joes. And that might be the point. The Mexican restaurant/bar that was formerly known as La Paz, doesn’t have a lot of tabletops and it isn’t open for lunch or on Sunday. Which means, it’s usually packed to the gills and doesn’t look like it could possibly handle much more traffic.

With lighting like the lounge of an old American Legion, Chez is a dream for the lover of dimmer dining; unless of course you get caught just inside the entryway during sundown.

It has its regulars and something you seldom see in the local restaurant scene – some of the same hustling servers they’ve had for years.

With an all-wall mural of memorabilia that features an extensive amount of Elvis and Miller High Life nostalgia, Chez looks like a quasi mix of an off-beat Graceland meets brewery gift shop. Catholic prayer candles, notorious autographs, Latin American artwork, ghosts in the mirror, and grape clusters that would make Bacchus blush, are all part of the décor and mood.

Like most Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants, you won’t go there for the wine, but their margaritas have a reputation and strong following. Regulars will often recommend the Elvis Burrito or a Zapnin off the menu and for good reason. They’re tasty, filling and a solid indication of what type of food they serve up at Chez Guevara.

There will often be lines (both to get in the restaurant and use the restroom) so be patient and order another Modelo or Pacifico. Take it all in and make sure to try their locally famous salsas.

Mega-value Alert: Finca del Castillo

Tempting Tempranillo.

Tempting Tempranillo.

Mega values don’t seem to come around much anymore. So I was a little more than shocked after trying an inexpensive Spanish red that had plenty of berry fruit to go around. Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, the 2011 Finca del Castillo is a party planner’s dream. When was the last time you bought a case of quality European red wine for $67? And yes that’s a tax included! Walking out the door price! For a case!

The Finca del Castillo is 100% Tempranillo with a cheery cherry flavor, just a hint of cocoa and an inviting, plush finish. “What is that? Velvet?”

Rated high on the gulpability scale, this cheap economical red is going to be ideal for the upcoming tsunami of tailgate parties starting in a little over a month. Imagine versatile red for the catch-all pre-game smorgasbord. Book a box, before they’re gone.

Transition is a ‘coming

says it all ...

The last of the summer bounty …

Late summer. There is yet ample time for flashes, in this season of heat, – for us to sweat it out – but the sunflowers from the garden have opened and started to bow down. This is August; this is transition month. The changes are evident in the wilting and drying up of the garden vines, in the back-to-school juggernaut, in the closing of some chapters and the potential for new creations. The beat of autumn is a low, not too slow hum. But the winds, they have come early this year.

Transition like this kind – that is also palpable around New Year’s Eve – requires a little celebration, a little marking of the time, a little acceptance. Toast the change that is coming. A simple Italian Prosecco like the classic Zardetto or even a less familiar one like Ca’Vittoria offer that lively effervescence and elevates the mood. And the fresh flavors of peach, melon and nectarine are a subtle nod of appreciation to the exclusive bounty of the season.

Super wine, super proud

It's good, but...

It’s good, but…

Back in the 1970′s, the Italian wine term “Super Tuscan” was born out of artistic necessity. Some vintners in Tuscany had felt trapped by the strict winemaking regulations of the area and needed a new branding campaign to separate their free spirited wine creations from the Chianti-obsessed old guard.

Their vision first led them to use the Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet and Merlot (along with some Sangiovese) to produce distinct and delicious wines that might have otherwise never been born. And these wines wouldn’t just carry a label designated with the word- “Toscana;” rather, they would require effective branding as seen through the introduction to the wine world of a new term, “Super Tuscan.”

Tignanello. Sassicaia. Ornellaia. Solaia. The first of the Super Tuscans hit wine shops with monikers fit for a Puccini Opera. Almost overnight, their popularity rose to rockstar status. And soon they’d have a price tag to prove it.

Not too long ago, I got my hands on a sample of the 2005 Ornellaia and decided to pop the cork this past weekend. A blend of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon (60%) with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot comprising the rest, the 2005 Ornellaia is unquestionably an excellent wine. Dried cherry fruit and a sense of aristocratic finesse are evident.

But with insanely high prices (most costing hundreds), it’s hard to justify the net return. So seek out alternative Super Tuscans, like the Valdisanti, whose prices are in the twenty-something range and more than likely unnoticeably different from their super proud predecessors.

The Channel: A summer cocktail for England’s southern beaches

* This post is the third and final installment of new cocktails inspired by some of Europe’s best summertime retreats.

Numero Uno by Pimm's.

Numero Uno by Pimm’s.

Sun drenched beaches and summery cocktails aren’t usually the first thing to come to mind when one brings up merry ole England. That being said, they do exist and sometimes those lesser known spots are the best. Inspired by the golden-kissed color of its sandy beaches, Bournemouth Beach is our English destination. Located on the English Channel, this Dorset County gem is one you probably won’t catch through major media outlets. Bournemouth’s “in-the-know” status is simply spread by word of mouth.

The following cocktail known as The Channel is dedicated to my Anglophile friends, Robert & Kelly.

The Channel is all English; cucumbers, limes, ginger soda and the old-school libation, Pimm’s Cup No.1. Softly muddle some generous cucumber slices in the bottom of your glass and fill with ice. Shake 3 parts ginger ale and 1 to 1.5 parts Pimm’s Cup as well as a splash of fresh lime juice. Pour the shaken concoction into your glass until full. Garnish with sweet mint, cucumber and lime wedge.

Now chase it with a warm beer, kick back, enjoy your fish and chips and try to relax before the weather changes!

The Amalfi

With neighbors like Pompei, Sorrento and Positano, you know the Amalfi Coast is in good company. This southern Italian getaway brings the best of Italy together: breath-taking scenery, oceanic daydreaming, fresh cuisine and tourist-pampered indulgences. That was the inspiration behind this next drink, The Amalfi; I wanted to bring together some of the best that the boot has to offer, from the Venetian popularized Prosecco, to an old guard Amaro, to some of the continent’s best produce.

Italian sunshine in a glass!

Italian sunshine in a glass!

Amaro is a classic herbal spirit (often used as a digestivo) that can be both fruity and bitter. The Amaro Bolognese produced by Montenegro is my personal choice because it tends to show off more dried fruit flavors while escaping the nasty side of other Italian bitters like a Fernet Branca. One sip (if you can get past the smell) of Fernet Branca and you’ll swear off such liqueurs forever. Actually you’ll just swear a lot and wonder who dipped your tongue into iodine. Luckily, Montenegro is nothing like that.

Combine three parts Prosecco, one part of the Amalfi Coast’s famed limoncello (in this case I used the batch I enjoyed making this spring with the mayor of Rocky Hill) and a splash or two of Montenegro Amaro – depending on your herbal aptitude. Shake well and gently pour over several blood orange slices and ice.

The Prosecco will cause a little bubbly action so take it slow. The combination of limoncello and oranges create a nice sunshine like glow in the glass while simultaneously producing a popping citrus-like prowess.

Cocktails for the second side of summer- welcome to The Riviera!

Beach front view, the French Riviera on the rocks.

Beach front view, the French Riviera on the rocks.

If you didn’t already know it, summer has passed its halfway point. So? So, get busy. Enjoy a lake or ocean of cathartic waters! Enjoy those extended citrus and vegetable aisles at the market! Enjoy some travel-inspired summer time cocktails!

Today’s post is part one, of a three part experiment with creating new summertime cocktails, which were inspired by a little daydreaming of the beaches in France, Italy and yep – even England.

Wednesday’s inspiration comes from the Côte d’Azur, a name designated by the blue coastline of the French Riviera. Think of the cooling hues of aqua, azure, teal, lavender and seafoam. Add the glitz of Monaco, Saint-Tropez and Cannes and you have the backdrop for this all-French libation, The Riviera.

The Riviera combines two parts of the contemporary French Gin, Magellan and one (to 1 and ½) part St. Germain Liqueur. You can learn more about Magellan and its flavorful grains from my Gin review for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Non-gin drinkers will enjoy adding a splash more of the St. Germain to the drink as its elderflower sweetness provides a counterbalance to the strong presence of juniper berry in the Magellan.

Mix these two beautiful French spirits over ice and garnish with lemon and lime. The result is an elegant cocktail, with some strikingly blue and cool colors, that will have you ready to dive right in.

Nigella’s Mughlai Chicken Pilaf with Trimbach Riesling

Chicken and rice and zippy, zippy spice!

Chicken and Jasmine rice; cardamom, clove & cinnamon spice.

You have to treat yourself good. That was the mid-week subplot for me taking an impromptu day off from my action-packed consulting business. Besides the personal benefits of sleeping in, reading the entire newspaper while enjoying some Mystic Brew coffee and brunch and getting to take a beautiful hike, the self-imposed day off meant that my bride got to enjoy having an aromatic and very tasty dinner waiting for her when she got home.

Nearly 400 years of vineyard dedication.

Nearly 400 years of vineyard dedication.

I was channeling some good friends whose culinary feats are nearly irreplaceable and decided to pull up some familiar recipes from Nigella Lawson. The featured dinner is a combination of two different recipes that play well with one another, Nigella’s Mughlai Chicken and her pilaf for a curry banquet. You can probably do both in about two hours. But I recommend adding an extra dried chili and cooking the chicken a little bit longer.

Paired up with a classic and cool Riesling like the Trimbach 2010 Riesling from Alsace, this spicy and flavorful Indian dish is complimented by the wine’s juicy apple flavors and delightfully sleek finish.

You better cool it!

One of the few things growing well this summer.

One of the few things growing well this summer.

IT’S ON!

Momma Nature has flicked on the heater switch and if you’re stepping outside for a mere minute (in this East Tennessee summer) it’s like having been in a sauna for an extended period of time. Hell, just yesterday I started to melt. And there’s nothing pretty about a bald man melting.

My venture outside to harvest some garden-challenged Japanese cukes and awkwardly swelled tomatoes produced a sweaty deluge that needed a quick, refreshing fix. Tired of the Rose’ and Vinho Verde wines of spring, I popped a bottle of the once beloved, now often maligned Pinot Grigio.

About ten years ago, Pinot Grigio began its surge on the American stage as the next great white wine contender. And outside of Chardonnay, it ruled the roost for a fair amount of time before becoming overplanted, over produced and water-like. Sound like Merlot? Or Pinot Noir for that matter? History repeats.

But there are still plenty of producers, particularly in Oregon and Italy, who make quality Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris). Yesterday’s foray into Pinot Grigio nostalgia was all about a northeastern Italian bottle, called Conti Formentini.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, the Formentini avoids the pratfall of being watered down. Its luscious banana and tropical notes are a formidable challenger to the new reality of increasingly heat-enveloped seasons. And its youthful flavors of green apple bubble gum are sure to bring a smile to any weary weathered wannabe gardener. It’s like hugging the AC unit.

Barbera & Bucatini

Pre-cooking ingredient round-up

Pre-cooking ingredient round-up

When summer just isn’t summer, pretend it’s something else. Hell, what else can you do when it’s been raining like the Asian sub-continent for the past few months!

So, last night I did just that and pulled out an old sample of one of my favorite varietals from the wine nook. Barbera is that everyday red wine from the Northwest of Italy with bright red cherry fruit flavors; an all-around pleasant drink. The region of Piedmont is where most Barberas come from, but attractive examples can be found stateside as well.

The Terra d’Oro and Montevina Wineries in California’s Amador County produce my favorite illustrations of domestic Barbera. And although the competing Piedmont cities of Asti and Alba will argue as to who makes better Barbera, I find them both to be solid, enjoyable wines.

Since this rain had recalibrated my food mood into something more fall-like, my preference last night was to create a heartier dinner. Join what you can’t beat, right?

That meant pairing the Barbera with a tomato based red sauce and stirring in some black olives, Italian style sausage, capers and a northern Italian cheese like Piave (Oro del Tempo). Choosing thicker long pasta like bucatini, which is also tubular, made for an appropriate and warm, belly-filling bowl of noodle indulgence.

The very tubular Bucatini -  totally!

The very long and tubular Bucatini – totally!

What does that bottle of wine really costs?

Have you ever considered what the price of a store-bought bottle of wine originally was? Could you be purchasing that bottle of wine at two and half times the original cost?

In the larger scheme of things it may not be that big of a deal, at least not when you compare it to a restaurant’s 300% markup on a bottle of wine. But you still may be interested to know that your $12-13 bottle of store-bought wine actually started out a whole lot cheaper.

What does that bottle cost? The math might make you crazy in the head.

What does that bottle cost? The math might make you crazy in the head.

Let’s start with the premise that a winery sells a load of wine to a supplier at $5 per bottle. That supplier must then sell the wine to various local or state distributors across the Country. With designs on selling it to those distributors at a 25% markup, a new price of $6.25 is established.

Distributors will then warehouse and sell the wine to local retailers with a 25% markup (and sometimes up to 30%), boosting that original $5 bottle of wine to at least $7.81. If you live in Tennessee, the state automatically levies a 5% alcohol tax that retailers must then pay on the purchase order, making the new price $8.20.

In our neck of the woods, retailers will almost universally add a markup of 40%; or more, if they’re the only ones selling a certain product. That reflects a new price of $11.48. Or as you might guess, a nicely rounded-up number that conveniently ends in “9.” In this case that’s $11.49 and more often than not $11.99.

And we’re not quite done yet. Many municipalities and states, including Tennessee, also have that nasty sales tax. Last I checked it was still hovering around a dime on the dollar or 9.25 cents in Knoxville.

Which at the end of checkout…. drum roll please…. means that a consumer is paying between $12.55 and $13.10 for what started out as a $5 bottle.

Now imagine just how inexpensive a similarly priced bottle from Italy, Argentina, South Africa or New Zealand originally costs.

Succotash

Ostertag Riesling

Ostertag Riesling

While I’m on this kick of running through some magnificent models of the Wines of Alsace, I thought I’d close out the weekend with one last refreshing Riesling for these steamy summer afternoons.

The 2011 Domaine Ostertag Riesling is yet another silver bullet from the Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant portfolio. Unctuous and heavenly golden, the Ostertag shows off some beautiful dried apricot aromas with an assortment of stone fruit flavors and a dry finish. A familial note of cooked fruit rests mid-palate. Here’s an ideal pairing for a fresh cucumber salad or even a little summer succotash; with corn, grape tomatoes, zucchini, basil, red onion and apple cider vinegar. Enjoy!

Soul satiating Southern fried chicken and Riesling ala Alsace

Beauty lies in the tongue of the eater; it's not pretty but it is oh so good!

Beauty lies in the tongue of the eater; it’s not pretty but it is oh so good!

Earlier this week, I wrote up a quick review on pairing Mahi-Mahi with an Alsatian Riesling sample. Towards the end of that blog post, the Meyer-Fonné Riesling that I was waxing about got me thinking about how I’ve almost always enjoyed and paired such Rieslings (both from Germany and Alsace) with the conventional Thanksgiving cornucopia of flavors. There’s so much going on between the dark and white turkey meat, the sweet potato casserole, the cranberry sauce, et cetera, that you truly need a wine such as an Alsatian Riesling to meander through the totality of the meal.

The next day, one of my favorite chefs was at the house cooking up an annual soul satiating Southern style dinner. Besides getting to enjoy buttermilk battered fried chicken thighs, skillet cornbread, cheesy macaroni, sliced beefsteak tomatoes and fresh-cut fried okra, my only assignment was to pair and provide a wine to enjoy with it.

Domaine Weinbach Riesling Cuvée Théo

Domaine Weinbach Riesling Cuvée Théo

If you’ve ever read Dr. Vino’s wine blog by Tyler Coleman, then you probably came across one of his “impossible food-wine pairings.” His latest had to do with what pairs with anchovies. Good luck with that! And after first thinking that a fried plate of Southern love might be impossible to match a wine with, I soon remembered the Meyer-Fonné, the Thanksgiving foreshadowing and the way a great Riesling magnificently traverses over varying flavors. Likewise I was now speculating that when it came to this quintessential Southern stable, a solid Riesling from Alsace would be the ticket to ride. My premise became palate positive.

So let me introduce you to one of Domaine Weinbach’s Riesling, the amicably dubbed Cuvée Théo. Another great representation of what the wines of Alsace have to offer, the 2011 Weinbach Riesling Cuvée Théo exhibits an apple joy aroma with a silky rendition of cider that is both delicate and indulging. A picnic basket of Southern fare with some fresh fruits has no greater friend.

Sink you teeth into this midweek masterpiece of Mahi-Mahi and Meyer-Fonné Riesling

Mahi Mahi with Orzo

Mahi-Mahi with Orzo

Hump day is tomorrow and here are your marching orders dinner plans.

Pop in on your local fishmonger (like the Shrimp Dock) and request some Mahi-Mahi. Season it with some fresh Meyer lemons, S&P, and a nice olive oil before sliding the broiler pan into the oven. Boil up a little orzo that you’ll drain and mix with peppadew goat cheese, toasted pine nuts, lemon juice, olive oil and fresh cut spinach.

Meyer-Fonné 2011 Reserve Riesling -

Meyer-Fonné 2011 Reserve Riesling

VOILA! Your mid-week masterpiece is ready for the world, or at least your belly.

And don’t forget the vino! After a short hiatus from having some great wines from Alsace, I sunk my teeth into an elegant and juicy Riesling last night. The Meyer-Fonné 2011 Reserve Riesling is a great all-rounder for first time inductees into the wonderful world of Alsatian wines. Its lovely, spicy aromatics and liquid gold color are all the bait you’ll need to become fast friends. The plush pear and racy apple flavors are pleasantly approachable and make for a likely candidate to pair with lighter fare like the Mahi-Mahi as well as dinners in which you have a smorgasbord of flavors and components. You’ll want to remember this around Thanksgiving time, when you have that symphony of flavors playing out your traditional Turkey Day plate.

Meyer-Fonné is part of the Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants portfolio, whose French imports never disappoint.

Mischief & Mayhem

Mischief & Mayhem: one thing leads to another

Mischief & Mayhem: one thing leads to another –

There are two words that are seldom seen together when someone references a red wine from Bourgogne; value and quality. Seems like purchasing an amazing red Burgundy (Bourgogne) first requires the vending of one’s arm or leg or both. And the cheap ones? We’d all rather guzzle down an overly fruity domestic Pinot Noir than wonder why the wine taste like nothing. There is no there, there.

And then, the dust clears (from the un-purchased bottles on the lower rows of the French wine section) and what emerges is a havoc wrecker for the complacent “old guard.” The 2009 Mischief & Mayhem Bourgogne finally set things straight. Its a wine with a soft tannic structure and dry finish, whose flavors are balanced by the presence of both red berry fruit and some ambrosial earthiness. Plus this Johnny-come-lately winery doesn’t pull any punches with a stooopid $40-80 retail price. Try about $20-something for a 100% Pinot Noir from old world Bourgogne!

Malbec meets Tempranillo – Urban style

 Picture this

Picture this

The 2011 Urban Uco is a fifty-fifty combination of Malbec and Tempranillo from Mendoza, Argentina. Here you have an old world Bordeaux varietal in Malbec (that has become Argentina’s flagship wine) blended with Tempranillo (that the Rioja region of Spain popularized). Together they make this ultra-modern, new world style exemplified by its “everyman” flavor profile and immediate gratification. There’s no need to wait, to age, to breathe… just pop and pour. A rare South American treat from famed Spanish importer Jorge Ordonez, Urban Uco retails for a very reasonable $13.

What’s for dinner?

How about some bowtie pasta, tomato sauce, basil and sausage with an affordable red wine from Toscana!

Farfalle pasta with pomodoro, basilico and salsiccia

Farfalle pasta with pomodoro, basilico and salsiccia

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, then you’ve probably surmised that my mom is Italian. Which means I ate well growing up… also that I’m pretty damn picky when it comes to Italian food, really just most food. Actually it’s more like most everything. So, when my bride decided she was going to start making and jarring her own tomato sauce, I was excited.

Facing China

Facing China

Bullshit!

Supportive? I tell myself I was.

Apprehensive? Uh huh.

And my trepidation, what happened to it? It switched, from how bad could it be to oh shit, this tomato sauce is even better than my mom’s.

My bride’s soon-to-be-famous tomato sauce (like I’m going to share it with anyone else) took this everyday dinner of bowtie pasta, garden basil and sausage to a higher level. It’s rich sweetness beams from the fruit of legendary Grainger County tomatoes. And her additional smattering of anise is the bee’s knees.

Pair it with a very affordable $14 super Tuscan by Renzo Masi called Erta e China. This fifty-fifty blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet offers the depth of color and body of Cabernet with the dried cherry and licorice finish of Sangiovese. These two were meant to be together.

A must have for Zin lovers

"Swelling and puffing and almost due"

“Swelling and puffing and almost due”

It is mid year and 2013 already has its mega-value Zinfandel. If you’re a Zin fanatic, then it’s compulsory for you to try the Old Zin Vines 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi. Yep, that’s a mouthful to say… but one you’ll relish tasting.

The OZV is all-out succulent fruit, a real tongue teaser… waiting to be bathed in more. Lodi juice is always some of the best for Zins, and the OZV jams with the best of them. Think nectar-like hot blackberries swelling, nearly popping on the vine, from the blazing heat wave. And then there’s the ladles of black cherry fruit. Top the finish off with a sprinkling of cocoa flavor and you have a very self-indulgent glass of wine. At a scant $12.99, you’re not going to find a better value in Zinfandel this year. Zincredible!

Interested in buying an Italian Ferrari?

Revved up Rosé

Revved up Rosé

Seven years ago the Champagne house of Louis Roederer thought it made good business sense to insult African American rappers, many of who were some of the biggest vocal supporters of the winery’s flagship champagne, Cristal. If you’ve ever heard of Cristal or seen it on a retail shelf, then you know that IT AIN’T CHEAP!

So when the hip-hop community began a boycott of Cristal, distributors and retailers were left with a languishing number of bottles they couldn’t sell, at least not at the rate or price they were accustomed to. Many a headline of that time read something like, “Frenchman fills mouth with foot.” In the champagne world it was nearly on par to the shake up with foie gras and animal rights groups.

Throw in the fact that another recent and popular bottling of French Pinot Noir didn’t actually have any Pinot Noir in it, as well as the post “nina leven“ American boycott of all things French and it seems like the French gastronomical community hasn’t gotten a break in quite awhile.

WARNING: Here comes the flag for piling on!

I’ve always considered French Champagne to be waaaaaay too expensive. And unfortunately the domestic versions often fell short when it came to flavor and/or complexity. Of course there are always exceptions, but when a decent bottle of the French stuff usually means $60 and a like-minded sparkling rosé (at $90-100) can force a second mortgage, it’s time to look elsewhere.

Lucky for me, that moment of divine intervention came last week in the form of me – looking at a fresh sample of sparkling rosé from Italy. Enter the Ferrari Sparkling Rosé. A blend of mostly Pinot Noir (or Pinot Nero in Italian) along with Chardonnay, the Ferrari has aromas of wheatberry bread with supple strawberry notes.

The cap of the enclosure (seen above) offers a wonderful prelude to the salmon pink almost copper-ish color of the Ferrari Sparkling Rosé. And when it comes to descriptors of such wines, we’ve heard them all; finesse, elegance, etc. But how about the word “finally?”

Finally! Finally someone gets it. Great sparkling wine doesn’t have to require a lay away payment plan. In fact, the Ferrari Sparkling Rosé is almost a third the price of its French neighbors and delivers a consistently enjoyable flavor of strawberries and other wild berries with that unambiguous clean, dry finish. Your favorite shellfish dish is now summoning.

Wanna try something new tonight?

Play that funky music

Play that funky music

You’ve probably heard of the famed Spanish wine – Tempranillo. But how about an off-shoot clonal, called Tinta de Toro?

For lovers of the higher alcohol content and extracted fruit richness, the 2009 Monte Hiniesta Tinta de Toro may be for you. A hefty plum presence in the Monte Hiniesta finishes with a punchy, alcohol supported swirl. Not as thick as some of those crazed Aussie Shirazes from six years ago, it still has that same inky color but without being bossy. Ode to the grill as the Monte Hiniesta has plenty of smokiness.

A solid value for $13, it was still rocking on day three.

Fartisan Pizza Rewind

* This is a re-post of the blog’s most popular post for the first half of 2013. Enjoy!

The one thing I loathe the most about the modern “food movement” in America is the trite use of the word artisan or artisanal. Really, I’m just adverse to the word in general. It’s crap. Fartisan crap!

I first heard the word used in a food context about four or five years ago at a wine dinner. Some guy was waxing on about how the food was artisanal and the chefs were artisans and their artwork (food) was better than a regular chef’s food because well, once again, it was artisanal. Blah, blah, blasé.

I love Frito Lay brand chips. They now have “Artisan” chips. Haaah! And, quite possibly, the crust in tonight’s dinner and wine pairing might just have been made from mis-purchased “artisanal” dinner rolls. Artisan is the new black. So much, in fact, that it’s almost been worn out and faded to gray.

Fartisanal Pizza

Nonetheless, this evening I used my wife’s five hundred pound marble rolling pin to re-roll the dough of a half dozen dinner rolls into a Fartisanal shaped pizza crust. Looks pretty good, after all it isn’t perfectly square or round or rectangular. Must be artisanal!

Picpoul

My Fartisan pie was topped with some of my Nonna’s recipe white sauce as well as a mixture of the “six super greens” like kale, spinach, chard, and romaine. Finish with mozzarella, parmesano and a few strategically placed but artisanally hatched hen eggs and you have a protein and fiber rich pizza that would have been done half an hour earlier if I’d only paid attention and purchased the desired rectangular pizza crust that rolls out a whole helluva lot easier.

To pair with it, I chose the new vintage of a French wine I fell for last year. The Guillermarine Picpoul de Pinet has simple citrus notes and some delicate apple flavors that don’t overwhelm the eggs and greens in the pizza. Plus, it’s French and different and hard to pronounce. If only it were artisanal.

Pascal Jolivet is a fun guy

Hungry for the Funghi

Hungry for the Funghi

Borrowing some more inspiration from Mario Batali, my bride and I put together another of his recipes, the Funghi Marinati which involves marinated and grilled shiitake mushrooms with spinach, red onions, Anaheim chiles and lemon zest.

It produces a lively fusion of properly prepared purplish/pink onions, lime-green colored Anaheims and lightly sautéed spinach leaves that is distinctly balanced in color and flavor by the earthy, marinated mushrooms.

There’s some delicate flavors in the mix here, namely greens. And then there’s some mild pungency from the red onions and peppers, along with the heartiness that the mushrooms provide. It’s not an easy pairing so look for a white wine with versatility like a Grenache Blanc blend from the southern Rhone. A second superb choice is a French Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre in the Loire Valley. The dry, clean finish of a Sancerre, with its grapefruit and citrus flavors, plays nicely with the zest in the dish. We pulled out a bottle of the Pascal Jolivet Sancerre. Probably the most readily accessible Sancerre in the States, the Jolivet is generally one of the more affordable ones as well. Plus, it’s a slam dunk when it comes to versatility in salad type pairings.

Burger Night with the Big Guy

Burger's best friend

Burger’s best friend

Budget week wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the all-American hamburger (and what to pair with it). And although the scope of what goes on that burger continues to change, the central ingredient is customarily beef. From there, interpretation seems to be limitless, including this version of goat cheese, avocado, bacon and egg; all ready to join a chimichurri mixed beef patty.

And that’s the thing with the evolution of the iconic American burger; there’s a whole lot going on between the buns. Selecting one, all encompassing wine to match perfectly is a bit of a challenge.

That being said it’s usually a safer bet to fall back on a well-established red blend that has some combination of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. The Cabernet and Syrah are experienced partners for beef and the Merlot brings more fruit and a softening element to the wine.

Washington State is a great place to start in your search for a $10-12 red blend for burger night. They have a host of choices and should be readily available at your local shop.

But if you have a little extra coin left over at the end of the week, grab a bottle of Bell Wine Cellar’s 2010 Big Guy Red from California. This Syrah and Merlot blend (with a touch of Cab and Sangiovese) has a remarkably well polished texture, especially considering its under-$20 price tag. The Big Guy ranks high on the gulpability meter and when it comes to chowing down on a great burger, the land of all beef patties has no greater partner.

Build a better burger

Build a better burger

Pasta Night

* ‘Pasta Night’ is part four in a series of recommendations for budget wines and what to pair with them.

Time to prep

Time to prep

The Umbrian town of Orvieto, in central Italy, is home to one of the classic Italian white wines. Named for the city Orvieto, the wine is a blend of grapes whose obscurity outside of the boot or outside of Italophiles can be attributed to the simplicity of remembering the city’s name compared to the names of the grapes themselves.

Tonight’s budget wine is the Sergio Mottura Orvieto, a blend of 50% Procanico, 25% Verdello and 25% Grechetto. Its vineyards lies on the Umbria/ Lazio border and boasts a small hotel, the La Tana dell’Istrice or Porcupine’s Lair. You’ll see the prickly little mascot on all the labels.

Orvieto is typically a safe perennial pick, as it’s light body and soft fruit offer the profile needed to ensure mass appeal. The Mottura Orvieto entertains with an aromatic display of mellow fruitiness and a flavorful finish of herbaceous minerality. And its delicate golden color makes for an attractive and appealing wine for under $15.

Our Orvieto was chosen to act as a refresher to a spicy but simple pasta dish, Fettuccine al Limone with jalapenos and pecorino romano cheese. We borrowed this recipe from Molto Italiano and that means when you see the word “limone” you better believe the lemon flavor shines through. Throw in the pizazz of some hot peppers and the saltiness of some pecorino romano and you have the basis for one very simple but intensely appetizing pasta dish.

Fettuccine al Limone

Fettuccine al Limone

Together, the Orvieto and lemon fettuccine pairing make for a colorful and flavorful ode to simplicity.

Dinner Party Night

Budget week rolls on…

Curry Night: Bengali Style

Curry Night: Bengali Style

Our Bengali connection invited us over for dinner the other night; what better way to save during Budget Week than a full thrown East Indian throw-down at a friend’s house!

Longer readers of this blog will recall that last year I started admiring the combination of spicy, zippy California Zinfandel with a like-minded dinner of Indian cuisine. And there’s a not so small segment at your local wine shop in which any number of these California Zins would serve as suitable pairings. Here’s a refresher from Mama Desai.

But since it’s a dinner party (and more than likely a weekend) your selection needs a small step up in price and quality. The $15-20 dinner party wine is well worth the cost of not having to shop, cook or do the dishes at the end of the evening.

Knowing the parameters of the night’s menu in advance, I set out to test whether I could stretch my Zinfandel model into the Italian variety, a grape known as Primitivo. Doing so might accomplish two goals.

Primo Primitivo

Primo Primitivo

If the Primitivo pairs just as well as the California version (with this spicy East-Indian fare) then not only do I have more wines to choose from for future such dinners, but I also have a wine (in Primitivo) that I already know pairs well with beef, wild game, and red sauce recipes. And that means I’m covered when picking the right wine for several other dinner party menus.

The 2011 Cantine Baldassarre inPrimis nailed it. This Primitivo from Salento, in the southern Italian region of Apulia, has just enough of that alluring spiciness that we savor in California Zins but with darker fruit notes of fig, black cherry and prunes. So whether your next dinner party requires a BBQ friendly wine, a wine with an acidity level that sings the praises of a good tomato/red sauce, a selection that holds up to red meats (without being just another Cabernet) or a spicy paring for Indian food, then a Primitivo like the Baldassarre inPrimis will make you the Bollywood star of the next dinner party.

Special thanks to Ranjan and Nita!

Budget Week: In for the Night

*This week you’ll be getting the 411 on some inexpensive wines and their easy, every day pairings.

2012 Arca Nova Vinho Verde

2012 Arca Nova Vinho Verde

The older we get, the less we cringe when we hear or say the words, we’re – “in for the night.” And more often ‘late in the evening’ seems to come, well … more and more earlier.

This time of year when the night air is just right and the outside light persists much longer, it’s all the excuse we need to swap a night out on the town for a night on the patio.

My choice for such an evening remains Vinho Verde. The 2012 Arca Nova Vinho Verde contains that sprightly dazzling effervescence that the wine is well-known for without the heavy, often headache inducing amount you get from some all-out sparkling wines. Comprised of a blend of Portuguese grapes like Treixadura, Loureiro, and Arinto, the Arca Nova resembles an old school lemon/lime spritzer sans the sweetness.

Its approachable and crisp nature cooperates well with garden fare, and I recommend (though not essential) seeking out a fresh vintage. The trapped gas in Vinho Verdes helps a little with ageing, but not much. And although the non vintage dated Vinho Verdes (a blend of multiple years) are fine, some of the brighter citrus flavor can become muted.

The 2012 Arca Nova goes for about $10, which means you’ll have all the more money saved for your next night out on the town.

Budget Week: Pizza Night

Tempranillo, the next shooting star?

Tempranillo, the next shooting star?

*This week you’ll be getting the 411 on some inexpensive wines and their easy, every day pairings.

Lunch at my preferred mom-n-pop Thai noodle shop went from seeking advice from a younger, hipster friend about social media to the reciprocity that she needed some advice as well. What does the budget strapped, just starting out, young professional (or any of us savers of an extra buck) with plenty of bills do for finding inexpensive wines… say for a quick take-out pizza or other typical any-day fare?

I think I have your answer. When it comes to pizza, your wine search should probably begin with what not to drink. Unless your local wine steward really knows their wines and your tastes budget, avoid the go-to pairing of cheap Chianti. Cut-rate Chianti became overly acidic and fruitless about the same time Merlot become flabby and herbaceous – overnight. Both Chianti and Merlot were once shooting stars that streaked across the sky before getting lazy (quality plummeted) and flaming out. Something about laurel-sitting probably sums it up best.

Sure there’s still some fine Chianti finds for around $10; they’re just more rare and need some relationship building for you to get that introduction. In the meantime (of that wine steward romance), grab a bottle of Spanish Tempranillo. The Spanish juggernaut has an armada of choices that are unassumingly flavorsome and unashamedly economical.

I was in a local shop this weekend looking for some inspiration when finally I decided I was going to do what many wine initiates inevitably do (or at least what I did back in the 19$?’s) and that is to label shop. I could have dated myself here but that would’ve required some carbon.

Luckily, my shopping-by-label choice for “pizza wine” wasn’t all cover; it had some book to back it up. The Senda 66 may sound more like a Japanese filling station then a Spanish red wine, but it easily demonstrates both the quality and value that Tempranillo brings to the table. And although it’s not overly acidic, it still has enough to hold up to the tomatoes in a traditional red sauce pie.

Likewise, the Senda 66 Tempranillo manages to keep in line with the $10 budget conscious while offering plenty of red berry and cherry fruit. Something you’ll find magical with that star anise-studded Italian sausage, peppering your pie on pizza night.

Guest blogger Kris Chu shares her wine and food moment

I’m usually an incredibly social person who loves conversation and parties, so it may be a bit of a surprise to hear that one of my favorite food and wine memories was of luxurious solitude.

It was 2000 and I was in Denver on business. Having recently celebrated my new marriage and my even newer dream job, I took some local advice and my generous expense account to Fourth Story, a charming restaurant above an independent bookstore.

These were the halcyon days of dotcom startups and well before the personal and public distractions of e-readers, smartphones and social media. I settled into my table with a good book plucked from the shelf in the bar.

For a warm-up, I ordered a salad of arugula and mixed greens with roasted figs and a slab of goat cheese with a balsamic reduction. Peppery, sweet and creamy, it all blended for a lustful salad.

My entrée included the selection of a 1997 Flora Springs Merlot to pair with lamb chops, seared medium rare and served with a hearty couscous that was carefully seasoned with mint.

The wine’s earthy currant and black cherry hit my nose first. But it was the blackberry note that complimented the savory, juicy lamb. The Flora Springs had an amazingly soft finish that left no doubt; I’d found myself a new treasure.

The service was indulgent and the relaxed pace of reading and feasting made the night feel like a vacation. As they say “nothing gold can stay” and Fourth Story has closed its doors. I’ve enjoyed my share of Flora Springs and other Merlots since then, but none can compare to that single glass, that single pairing, that luxurious moment of splendid solitude.

* Kristine Chu is a freelance writer and the owner of 3C Communication, a professional writing service. You can find her at 3ccommunication.elance.com.

A beastly wine for vegetarian night

Eat your greens!

Eat your greens!

Winemaking in Italy is anything but complacent. The historical production of leading white grapes like Trebbiano in the Veneto or Cortese in Piedmont’s Gavi region, may at times be overshadowed by the transatlantic call for Pinot Grigio, Moscato and more recently Prosecco. But that’s not the end-all to what’s going on in the Italian countryside.

I’ve noticed more and more that Italian winemakers are dabbling in the world of Sauvignon Blanc. True, that puttering experimentation may mostly be in small production lots, but the results of Sauvignon Blanc by producers like Herbert Tiefenbrunner and Stefano Antonucci are netting an array of aromatic and approachable wines.

I think that white spot is suppose to be a Milky Way like galaxy

I think that white spot is suppose to be a Milky Way like galaxy

Most notably, Antonucci’s Animale Celeste could be a springboard that emboldens other Italian producers to stomp into the Sauvignon Blanc game. Animale Celeste roughly translates to heavenly animal or with a little imagination- celestial beast. If its strangely intriguing label (featuring an animal with the hooves and wiggly tail of a swine on top of a winged looking hell cat) isn’t enough to coerce the cork pull from the drawer, then imagine a Sancerre-like Sauvignon Blanc that is more flavorful, less acidic and very food friendly.

And since vegetarian was on the menu Monday night, prep quickly developed into a gamut-like-run of baking, sautéing, boiling and tossing. The colorful finish was a platter full of Mexican sweet potatoes, garlic sautéed spinach, vegetarian spaghetti Carbonara (maybe it had a wee, tiny, little bit of pancetta) and mixed leaf lettuce with orange bells, Gloucester and almonds.

But it was the Italian Sauvignon Blanc that brought it all together. The Animale Celeste from Antonucci’s Santa Barbara Winery proved to be a palate cleansing wine with rare tropical notes, the right amount of acidity – to wade through the assortment of veggie flavors and more body than I would expect to find in a white wine from Italy’s Marche region. Something the pasta didn’t seem to mind at all.

Earth shattering news…

What's in the Bottle?

What’s in the Bottle?

Well maybe not earth-shattering, however a strange but inspirational moment did materialize today as I was headed in to have my doctor tell me that I probably needed to get my cholesterol level down….again.

This blog, What’s in the Bottle, has become a finalist for two North American Wine Blog Awards. What’s in the Bottle is one of five finalists for the Best Original Photography category and one of six finalists for the Best New Wine Blog category.

So, for the first time since running for public office as a way-too young, right-out-of-college, going to save-the-world candidate some 20 years ago, I’m once again asking for your vote.

I ask that you click on this VOTING LINK and vote for What’s in the Bottle under:

Category 1. Best Original Photography

and under:

Category 7. Best New Wine Blog.

I appreciate your vote and more importantly your readership, comments and support.

Thank you Apple iPhone

Thank you Apple iPhone

Special thanks to my muse- Katharine, Russ, Jigsha, WordPress and Brent along with Kelly, Cathy, Gloria, Skip, David, Mr. Horton, Ashley, Iacovino, Jim, Mike, Carla, Jeff, Jerry, Teresa, Todd, Al, Arun, HL, Wally, Janet, Edward, Mom, Sharon, Carol, Andrew, Richard, Patrick, Terri, Tracey, Tony, Don, Lee, Doug, Mr. Hillegas, Ricardo Burnelli, Jack, Scannapiego, Lauren, Patrick, Deanna, AJ, Krissy, David, Sheldon, Maria, James, Nini, Angie, Penny, Tara, the O-Clan Eight, Dr. Henley, Susan and the Knoxville News Sentinel, Sheree, Pam, Brittany, Chris, Dick, Eric, Rich, Bill, Rachel, Rob, Shannon, Lou- the Mayor of Rocky Hill, the Wine Blog Award creators and judges and all of the blog’s readers and followers.

Extra special thanks to Anthony, Layla and Max.

All good wine stories …

Cumberland Macaroni circa 1933

Cumberland Macaroni circa 1933

All good wine stories have some component of food intertwined within them. Mine started with a passion for pasta and was linked well before my time, perhaps to the old photo above. It features the team of the Cumberland Macaroni Company which includes my grandfather, Ruggero Pisaneschi.

What’s in the Bottle would like to feature one wine and food story written by a follower of this blog. If you’re interested, please contact me at vinemeds@gmail.com. Cheers!

Chocolate Cioccolato

Hurry, before they're gone!

Hurry, before they’re gone!

Pairing up these plump spring strawberries and other fruits is generally quite easy. And although it is a bit of a cliché, strawberries and champagne are often “set up on a date” for the simple reason that they are magical together. Kind of like attached-at-the hip dance partners, it all seems sleek and effortless; slide strawberry into flute and cover with champagne.

Similarly, the coupling of chocolate and wine is often expressed best in a bold but dark fruit-laden red like a Cabernet Sauvignon or possibly Merlot. It, too, is almost like an equation: CHOCOLATE + RED WINE = MMM HMM!

But dip those mouthwatering strawberries or tropical bananas inside of dark chocolate and you quickly realize that you have a pairing challenge.

So, I had to go off the radar in my search for a wine that hits the right stride with both dark chocolate covered strawberries and dark covered bananas, that are also topped with shaved almonds. And for me “off the radar” turned out to be an oft forgotten, old school wine.

Sandeman's Rainwater Madeira

Sandeman’s Rainwater Madeira

My quest led me to Madeira. Named for the Portuguese island from where the wines are made, Madeira is a blend of indigenous grapes like Verdelho and Malvasia, and is fortified (higher alcohol content) giving it a longer shelf life. Over time Madeira has become its own cliché, suffering the pretense that it is singularly a cooking wine.

Fortunately, that image is changing; Madeira isn’t just for pasty, weathered-looking British chefs, anymore.

Served slightly chilled, Madeira like the Blandy’s Rainwater or Sandeman’s Rainwater is an unctuous wine, with a liquid gold color. It manages to walk the fine line between being sweet and cloyingly sweet. The nutty and rich caramel flavor of the wine pulls off the two-step with the chocolate and almonds, while it’s orangey, citrus flavors mingle nicely with the strawberry and banana fruit … like tropical expatriates doing the cha cha at a long overdue reunion.

Peaches and Prosecco

Cheese, glorious cheese!

Cheese, glorious cheese!

Ahhh, mid Spring! The evenings are still cool, the bugs yet to annoy and these vibrant moments in May are some of the best times to sit outside and enjoy a little cheese and vino. When my bride and I were still dating, we’d slip outside almost every evening to feast on some of our favorite cheeses, walnuts, figs and fresh fruit. Last night was a nice reminder of those free and pristine evenings.

Likewise, it gave us the perfect scenario to enjoy one of our favorite drinks, the Venetian Bellini. A simple half and half mixture of authentic, dry Italian Prosecco and peach purée, the Bellini is sunshine in a glass. With the fragrant south Georgia peaches arriving soon, be sure to treat yourself to this classic cocktail. And when shopping for a bottle of Prosecco, make sure to look for one from either Valdobbiadene or Conegliano; the nowadays knock-offs tend to be too sweet when mixed with those sweet, succulent peaches.

Cin. Cin.

Before the coming of the heat

Before the coming of the heat

Mas tacos por favor

More tacos, please!

More tacos, please!

About ten years ago, I was giving a political speech (in Spanish) to a very patient and ultimately forgiving group of local Latino-Americans. In the middle of trying to inspire and call to action, I somehow inadvertently mispronounced a word. Rather than rhetorically asking the group what something was worth, I instead referred to one of body parts… and no, it wasn’t my arm. Ever since then I’ve made it my public policy to limit any foreign language endeavors to just a few words; and in this case it’s “mas tacos por favor.”

More tacos, please! That’s exactly what you’ll be saying or asking for after trying this recipe and wine. There are two make-or-break ingredients to these addictive tacos. First, you have to get down to your local Indian shop for a jar of coriander chutney. The bright green spread is not only visually appealing, but it’s also a concentrated zip of spiciness and fresh cilantro. In Knoxville, you’ll find it at the India Market off of Downtown West Blvd. And my son, Anthony, can’t wait until he’s a little older to try some with his Jigumasi.

Second, you really need to use Japanese panko crumbs when frying your preferred fish. There’s something about the crunch. Plus it doesn’t overwhelm the delicacy of the fish like a beer-battered version does. Add diced onions, fresh lime juice, sour cream, and yes more cilantro to the mix and you’ll be putting these away like popcorn.

As of late I’ve been on this white Rhone kick. If you’re looking for an easy to find and yet affordable one, then grab a bottle of the Chapoutier Bila Haut Blanc. Although white blends have become ubiquitous, this Cotes Du Roussillon mix of Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Macabeo grapes sets itself apart from the pack because of its simplicity, food friendliness and gulpability. Its salty, mineral penchant makes it a natural for fish foods, while its pink grapefruit and touch of lime finish will have you eyeing the bottle for a quick refill… and more tacos to down it with. Please!

More pics from Vini d’Italia

Here are some extra Vini d’Italia pics from Tuesday’s trade show in Nashville.

Another Amazing Arneis (from Ceretto)

Another Amazing Arneis (from Ceretto)

Killer Chianti

Killer Chianti

Trebbiano from Lake Garda

Trebbiano from Lake Garda

The Allegrini table (Great view from the top of their vineyard)

The Allegrini table (Great view from the top of their vineyard)

Chef Shannon (Cafe Roma), the wonderful Wendy Watts (formerly of Winebow) and myself

Chef Shannon (Cafe Roma), the wonderful Wendy Watts (formerly of Winebow) and myself

Winebow’s Vini d’Italia Tour comes to Nashville

Winebow's Vini d'Italia tour comes to Nashville

Winebow’s Vini d’Italia tour comes to Nashville

Vini d’Italia 2013 rolled through Music City this week. Presented by the Italian import company, Winebow, the event travels through four U.S. cities (Orlando, Nashville, Phoenix and San Francisco) to showcase its outstanding portfolio of wineries along with the opportunity to talk with several winery owners, esteemed winemakers and even Winebow front man, Leonardo Locascio.

I was able to meet up and tour taste through the line-up with my Nashville connection and old colleague, Russ Wright, as well as one of my clients, Chef Shannon Ritzhaupt of Café Roma in Cleveland, TN.

The Nashville leg of Vini d’Italia was hosted at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center and featured hundreds of fine Italian wines, grappa and a few spirits. Keeping in mind that events like these are a marathon and not a sprint, we tasted through some old favorites from the forty plus wineries that were represented on the tour, including Castellare, Allegrini, Montevetrano, Ceretto, Tiefenbrunner, Di Majo Norante and the list goes on.

Winebow has a strong portfolio so it’s never easy choosing which wine or wines were showing the best. Getting through the tasting in a limited amount of time can be daunting enough, but a consensus for which wines were “Best of Show” winners did arise.

Valle Reale Although there wasn’t as much competition in the rosé wine category, we did try one that blew the socks off any other rosé we’ve had this year. The 2012 Valle Reale Vigne Nuove Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo was magic in a bottle and our pick for “Best of Show – Rosé Wine.” I had first discovered this wine about six years ago doing a review for the Knoxville News Sentinel and the 2012 vintage is proof that the vintners at Valle Reale have nearly mastered rosé vinification.

Rich flavors of extra-ripe strawberries and a lengthy finish are remarkable for a rose made from 100% Montepulciano grapes. The watermelon aroma is a wonderful surprise as well. Located in the central Italian region of the Abruzzo, Valle Reale and the Pizzolo family have done an impressive job of mastering Montepulciano especially when you consider that the winery was started just thirteen years ago.

Competition was a little fiercer when it came to “Best of Show – White Wine” Category with a wine from Piemonte edging out great whites from the Veneto, Alto Adige and a neighboring competitor. The 2012 Monchiero Carbone Recit Roero Arneis reminded us just how special the Arneis grape is.

Arneis at its best

Arneis at its best

The uniqueness of the Recit Arneis is in being both a well-structured, beautiful wine and concurrently a simple and approachable one. Its layer upon layer of stone fruit flavors and peculiarly alluring bouquet, make this 100% Arneis wine charming, interesting and repetitively drinkable.

The “Best of Show – New Wine” in the Winebow collection comes from the Lake Garda area. Winebow’s long time partner – Zenato (and more specifically in this case, Nadia Zenato and her mother Carla Prospero) have a relatively newer venture called Sansonina.

The lovely Nadia Zenato with Sansonina Lugana

The lovely Nadia Zenato with Sansonina Lugana

The release of the 2010 Sansonina Lugana shows you just how far Trebbiano wines have evolved. This golden bottling of one of Italy’s most taken-for-granted grapes simultaneously shows off orchard-fresh fruit flavors and a well-balanced mineral complexion. Let’s hope these last two white wines come to market and soon.

Trying to select a “Best of Show – Red Wine” from any Italian portfolio, let alone those selections of Leonardo Locascio, is like to trying to pick a winner from an international beauty pageant. I must say that the Barolo Zonchera from Ceretto was beyond impressive and the Castellare I Sodi di San Niccolo out of Toscana made one wonder if cuisine could actually come in liquid form.

Gaetano Saccoccio presents the Il Bosco Syrah Cortona

Gaetano Saccoccio presents the Il Bosco Syrah Cortona

However, we kept coming back to an un-traditional find from a winery located in Southern Tuscany, near the Umbrian border. My Nashville connection referred to the 2009 Il Bosco Syrah Cortona as a stunner – “this wine exemplifies a new level of terroir-focused plantings combined with a modern styling and structure. The result is a complex yet refined bottling that can rival the best Syrah offerings from around the world.” I couldn’t agree more; this wine from the Tenimenti Luigi d’Alessandro winery is like grafting a historically Cote Rotie vineyard to that fine Siena style.

And finally if you’re looking for a mega-value (and safe case purchase) then you have to lay your hands on a box of the 2012 Di Majo Norante Sangiovese. At $9 a bottle you’ll have an inexpensive wine to both serve and impress your guests with at the next big cookout.

What to take: Conde Villar Vinho Verde

Vinho Verde: Green wine is beach wine

Vinho Verde: Green wine is beach wine

“I came to the sea to see; the future, the past, the magnificent sea.” – Anonymous

Our annual trek to Saint George Island off Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” yielded several discoveries of beach appropriate wines, including the Conde Villar Vinho Verde. Vinho Verde (or green wine) remains the most widely known Portuguese white wine. A blend of several indigenous Portuguese grapes, the wine is meant to be consumed young thus obtaining its “green” moniker. And quite often, Vinho Verdes will have similar styles and characteristics comprising of a lower alcohol content, a slight fizz and a mineral-laden flavor profile.

Although the Conde Villar follows this pattern, it also possesses a little more depth of flavor and complexity than your run-of-the-mill Vinho Verde. With a quick flash of cotton candy aroma and a low-key pineapple/ guava essence, the Conde Villar Vinho Verde adds a little of that tropical note that makes the salty air, the soft sands and the sea front views all the more fitting.

What’s for dinner? Spicy Paella and Petite Sirah

Paella from the grill

Paella from the grill

So… after a few sketchy attempts at paella earlier this month, we decided to invest in an authentic paella pan. In this case, the word authentic meant two things to me. First, the label had to at least make me believe that it was actually made in Spain. And second, the label could not bare the word “artisan” anywhere on it. Yes there does exists a little contempt for the word “artisan!” Click this post link for a quick reminder.

Since we were having company over for a little outdoor early Spring dinner, I was also looking for a grill-friendly paella pan. The traditional all steel pan in the picture above cooked up one spicy and filling paella of grilled chicken, three beans, saffron rice, Andouille, chorizo and as you can see… a handful of plump shrimp.

Conventional wisdom pairs spicy Spanish paella dishes (like the one we grilled) with a Garnacha or Tempranillo based wine. It is an appropriate choice, but if your local shop is sluggish in the Spanish wine category then a rich, fruit-loaded Petite Sirah from California can pinch-hit well.

And truly when it comes to Petite Sirah the best place to start is where the varietal actually got its famous American beginning; the Livermore, CA based winery of Concannon Vineyards. Last year Concannon’s Petite Sirah blend, Crimson & Clover, was runner-up for best red blend in my annual “Best Wine Values” review for the Knoxville News Sentinel.

But their mastery isn’t limited to one wine. From their entry level “Selected Vineyards” Petite Sirah (with its punchy, cherry drop profile) to their “Reserve” Petite Sirahs (whose range can show off blueberry and plum notes as well as a touch of cinnamon or mocha), Concannon has this wine covered.

What a little wine can do …

Ottella Le Creete

Ottella Le Creete

Journey back in time, some 500 years ago, and you’ll become astonished at how history can (uncannily) repeat itself.

Envision an old Italian vineyard. The farmstead lies quietly, just off the banks of Lake Garda, in the northeast region of the Veneto. The manicure of the Roman Empire has long since been windswept. The land here is flatter, but a jaunt up the coast reveals a lake nearly encapsulated by the southern arms of the rugged and mountainous Italian Alps. Arguably, Lake Garda is the birthplace of the Violin, the love poem and poignantly (on this ancient farm) the original Octomom.

It seems wine, music and poetry span timeless generations. Probably due, in no small part, to the notion that when properly mixed they lead one generation to make the next. And so it was with the original, nameless Octomom of lore. The winery, now named Ottella in honor of the multiple birth folktale, was the Renaissance era birthplace of eight (otto in Italian) little bambinos.

And what greater way to honor a woman that has probably just labored for the better part of a week, than to name a winery after her legend? She’s probably going to need a drink or two and it sure beats giving her a “movie” gig.

Pasta Primavera

Pasta Primavera

The Ottella Winery has been home to my favorite Italian white wine since a visit to Lake Garda seven years ago. Subsequently, I’ve made sure when Spring rolls around to order a six-bottle case of their turbo-charged Trebbiano wine, the Ottella Le Creete. A refreshing minerality and snappy citrus essence are what distinguishes Le Creete from other Trebbiano wines that tend to be flat or one dimensional in nature.

Paired with orecchiette pasta, cherry tomatoes, zucchini and Parmigiano-Reggiano, the Ottella Le Creete makes for an agreeable evening outdoors, perhaps overlooking you’re favorite new bluff view, the cool water below and a kaleidoscope-like spring sunset.

And speaking of birds-eye water views, perhaps an aerial map of Lake Garda might explain all that fertility.

Travolta, pork bellies and one wine you shouldn’t overlook

The other white meat

The other white meat

“Fat is flavor, flavor is fat.” Or so goes the old culinary expression and defender of all things related to swine. Actually, maybe Vincent Vega said it better in Pulp Fiction: “Mmmm, bacon taste good, pork chops taste good.”

If the slight sweetness or savory saltiness of pork isn’t enough to make you a complete fanatic of the other white meat, then perhaps a little red wine or a little white wine will help. And that’s the real beauty of pork; not only is it salty and sweet but it also pairs well with a host of different wine varietals.

Typically, you’ll find the tried and true pork pairing of Pinot Noir to be the safest bet, as the lighter bodied red is a natural pairing for white meats in general. But the fatty, salty side of pork also allows it to be a solid counterpart to several California Chardonnays.

The 2011 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay was a sample I received a few months back. It was, coincidentally, one of the first nicer Chardonnays I tried upon entering the beverage industry almost thirteen years ago. A good mix of apple and pear fruit flavors, the Landmark bares all of the creaminess and oak influences that lovers of this style of Chardonnay seek out. Plus, it has a wonderful butterscotch note tagging along.

Paired with the perfectly pan-seared pork loin and shallot sauce pictured above, the Landmark provides an optimal choice for white wine drinkers. Think caramelization meets creaminess.

Look to pay in the mid-twenty range. Just don’t overlook this Chardonnay.

the 2011 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay

the 2011 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay

Rosso Piceno

Stefano Antonucci Rosso Piceno and Boccadigabbia Rosso Piceno

Stefano Antonucci Rosso Piceno and Boccadigabbia Rosso Piceno

Stefano Antonucci wines have finally made it to the South, and more importantly they’re in our own backyard of Knoxville. The first arrival landed this spring and it’s one of the real workhorses of his Santa Barbara Winery.

The 2011 Rosso Piceno comes from the Central Italian region of the Marche and is a snappy blend of Montepulciano and Sangiovese. Its food pairing versatility runs the gamut from prosciutto topped pizza and spicy Asian pork burgers to pasta with red sauce or a Mediterranean influenced menagerie of grilled vegetables like zucchini, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes.

The Sangiovese shines through on the dry finish with enough cherry and dried plum favors that any professor of wine acumen could appreciate. And for around $13 retail, I’m guessing even the winemaker had no clue of just how good this wine really is. They could – so very easily -charge more.

Thank you for the Nomination

Wine Blog Awards Really the only way to say it is…. Thank You!

Thank you to all of this blog’s followers and readers. What’s in the Bottle has been nominated for a handful of wine blog awards including Best New Wine Blog via the North American Wine Blog Awards.

I’ll keep researching, sampling, cooking, pairing and writing and you keep reading, experimenting and enjoying! Finalists for the awards will be announced in early May. Special thanks to an old friend in Nashville and to my very svelte bride.

- Roger

You say Qupé (kyoo pay)

Central Coast Syrah

Central Coast Syrah

My muse and I have been on a soul searching Syrah kick for the past five months. So before we totally committed to the cyclical wine changes, we had to explore one more from the Central Coast. The 2010 Qupé Central Coast Syrah starts as a firm, gripping wine that you surmise won’t let go of your imagination anytime soon.

Over in the food-explorative and restaurant-friendly city of Nashville, my aesthetics aficionado compares the Qupé’s aromatic infusion to a big city steak house. You’ll know what he’s talking about when you catch that first whiff… or if you’ve had it, then ooh la la… lucky you. It offers vine ripe blackberry undertones and an inimitable flavor of an old-fashioned (but properly Southern) rhubarb pie – not overly sweet but lustrous and appetizing.

Part two of my interview with Ronnie Sanders

This is part two of my interview with Ronnie Sanders, owner of Vines Street Imports.

RK: What wine trends do you see for 2013 and into the next year or two?

SANDERS: There is no question that the Australian wine category is coming back, but what I think is most interesting is in the style of wines coming out of Australia that are becoming popular. They are wines from singular sites, that are bio-dynamically or organically farmed and are generally lower in alcohol. These are wines of balance and finesse rather than wines that club you in the head. Also there seems to be more adventurous winemaking including whole bunch ferments, longer maceration times with more skin contact, less formulaic winemaking and more thoughtful winemaking.

RK: What are you drinking tonight? What would you pair it with?

SANDERS: Tonight it’s a fish night and it’s looking like a Lethbridge Riesling from Geelong. A beautiful, crystalline wine.

Rich Dixon of Knoxville Beverage with Ronnie Sanders of Vine Street Imports at "Defend Australia" in March.

Rich Dixon of Knoxville Beverage with Ronnie Sanders of Vine Street Imports at “Defend Australia” in March.

RK: What is your favorite wine country to travel to and explore?

SANDERS: That’s pretty easy and I guess as an Australian specialist this is not the politically correct answer, but its Piedmont and Barolo specifically. Damn I love Barolo!

RK: What is the hottest super-value that you have in your portfolio this year that consumers should be trying and why?

SANDERS: Two wines. The first is Boxhead Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon both from South Australia and the second would be any of our Poggio Anima wines, which are all mono-varietal wines from their indigenous place of origin in Italy. I personally like the Primitivo from Basilicata the best: it’s made by rock star winemaker Emiliano Falsini.

RK: What was the wine “wow” moment that first peaked your passion for wine and started you on the path as a wine importer?

SANDERS: My father was a great wine Enthusiast with a passion for Bordeaux, so I tasted a lot of great wine when I was a kid but it was really a 1954 DRC La Tache and then a 1961 Gaja Barbaresco. I tried them both around 1994 and that really got me hooked.

RK: What advice do you have for young wine-enthusiasts who are eager to break into the business?

SANDERS: Be prepared for a ton of work and to not make a ton of money.

RK: What is your “deserted island” wine varietal or specific bottling?

SANDERS: It would be Barolo and anything from Bartolo Mascarello, Edoardo Sobrino or Roberto Conterno.

RK: If you had the power to change one thing about the wine industry, what would it be?

SANDERS: It would have to be the reliance on the major press channels and that seems to be already happening

RK: What’s the hardest thing about the importing business?

SANDERS: That’s easy, the US Dollar which has been brutal for us with the Aussie dollar being at all time highs in the last couple of years.

Let go my Breggo

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

Anderson Valley has always been my chosen home for tremendous Pinot Noir. Unfortunately a few years back, massive wildfires put a layer of ash and smoke in or around the vineyards. The resulting influence was dubbed “smoke taint” and anyone who opened a bottle of the 2008 vintage (and some may argue 2009) would easily catch a scent reminiscent of an old ashtray or used matchstick.

The good news is that the Pinots in the 2010 vintage from Anderson Valley have shown a return to their polished, urbane style. The 2010 Breggo Pinot Noir is the pudding’s proof with rich black cherries and that marvelous cola-like mouth feel. Say goodbye to poopie Pinot; Anderson Valley has found its mojo and it’s time to start strutting again.

Guest Blogger: The Mayor talks Cava

* The final post of Spanish Week features guest blogger, Lou Arpino – The Mayor of Rocky Hill

The Spanish came to the New World in search of sparkling gems and metals. Today, they are returning the favor by sending us a sparkling liquid in the form of Cava wine.

Poetry in a glass

Poetry in a glass


In the US, Cava has become a very acceptable, economical alternative to French Champagne. The Spanish produce Cava using the same “traditional” fermentation method used in the French Champagne industry, but they have added a unique automatic riddling process which eliminates the costly hand process used by the French to slowly remove yeast sediment which builds up in the bottle during the fermentation process.


Cava is produced in a number of regions in Spain, with Catalan being the largest producer. Three grapes are blended to produce Cava. Referred to as the “holy trinity” by Spanish winemakers, a blend of Macabeo, Xarello and Perllada are blended in varying degrees (depending on annual growing conditions and the personal preferences of each winemaker) into each bottle of Cava.

Just like its French cousin, Cava comes in a range of dryness depending on its sugar content. 
Cava has an alcohol content of between 12 and 14 percent and can be generally described as having an aroma of light yeast and biscuit, a flavor of orange, pear or green apple and a smooth, slightly acidic finish. Cava, when poured, treats you to lively, youth full bubbles and a creamy mousse.


Keep in mind that Cava is a younger wine compared to Champagne, so it has a shorter shelf life, usually one to two years. 
You may be surprised to know that because Cava is inexpensive and very approachable it has become the largest selling sparkling wine in the world.

So, what are you waiting for? Your wine retailer should have a selection of Cavas in his or her sparkling wine section, give one a try the next time you are about to grab that bottle of Champagne or Prosecco.

Tempting Tempranillo

Old vine, good wine

Old vine, good wine

Spanish Week wouldn’t be complete without recommending more than one Tempranillo based red wine. And although most people automatically think of the Rioja region for their Tempranillo fix, the nearby region of Ribera del Duero produces some stiffly competitive ones. You can’t go wrong with the classic selection of Tinto Pesquera, but for Spanish week I wanted to introduce one that I was previously unfamiliar with, Finca La Mata.

Imported through the Grapes of Spain, Finca La Mata is 100% Tinta del Pais.

Wuh? …..I thought you just said it was a Tempranillo based wine?

And herein lies the tricky part if you don’t have your smart phone with you at the wine shop. Let’s just say that the Spanish do things…. a little differently.

I’ve discovered this week, for instance, that they cook backwards. You’ll know what I mean if you tackle any of the main dishes I feature this week. And as I was familiar with going in, they use lots of local names for various grapes varieties. So, simple old Tempranillo is called Tinta del Pais in Ribera del Duero and confusingly enough it’s called Tinta Fina in several other regions. Simpatico.

So what about the Finca La Mata?

Located directly north of Madrid (in the wine region of Ribera del Duero) Finca la Mata is made from 100% Tinta del Pais (Tempranillo) and comes across as a less-fruity, meatier version of what I usually taste in like-priced Riojas. Aromas of bacon fat and flavors of prunes and dried black fruits persist from start to finish. All this wine really needs is some chorizo and peppers, tagging along for an upbeat lunch date.

Salsa Barbacoa Catalana

Spanish Week rolls on

Spanish Week rolls on

Just saying Salsa Barbacoa Catalana will probably make you hungry!

The Spanish dinner (pictured right) not only looks and tastes good, but it also sounds pretty damn appetizing! That’s Pollo con Salsa Barbacoa Catalana, Maíz Español and Espinacas a la Catalana. Or for us bilingually challenged, that very roughly translates to grilled Spanish chicken topped with Catalan Barbecue Sauce, Spanish Corn and Spinach with raisins, pine nuts and anchovies. Probably had you hooked until you read anchovies!

The Spanish region of Catalonia is home to the Spanish cultural juggernaut of Barcelona and lies to the northeast, rubbing shoulders with the Pyrenees and France. Catalonia plays host to two of the recipes above, as well as being ground zero for delectable Spanish sparkling wines and their Cava houses.

Uncorked and reporting for duty

Uncorked and reporting for duty

The garlicy, nutty BBQ sauce and baked corn casserole needs a wine that is very food friendly, especially when you throw in a cooked spinach dish. And since we’re dealing with a Catalonian recipe then a home turf wine (like a Priorat) is an ideal source to draw from.

The 2004 Ardévol Priorat Coma d’en Romeu comes at you with a distinct and appetite building aroma of high dollar olive oil that is both earthy and smoky. And if you’re lucky enough to have a little left over on day two, then you’ll also notice a developing plum jam element in the flavor.

Predominantly a blend of Carinena and Garnacha (with a smidgeon of bordeaux varietals added), the Ardévol’s small production level and cha-ching price tag may make it a little more difficult to track down… but well worth the endeavor.

The bottle was dusty (and label jacked up) but the wine was spot on

The bottle was dusty (and label jacked up) but the wine was spot on

Albariño and Paella Alicantina

Zoom in a little closer

Zoom in a little closer

That’s Spanish for closeup, as in you better scroll to the bottom of the post and see the closeup pic of the paella.

Over the past few years, Albariño has slowly become one of my favorite white wines. And I know I’ve waxed about it poetically a hand full of times on my blog. This article makes for a little refresher course: All about Albariño.

The only thing better than getting to enjoy one of your favorite white wines in early Spring is getting to enjoy it twofold. This is where my muse and I found ourselves last night, with two affordable and accessible bottles of Albariño to accompany a seafood paella recipe.

First, the time-honored and old school- Martin Codax Albariño- provided lively aromas of peaches. It is one of the more acclaimed and historic Albariño producers. In fact you’ll see it recommended in several of the more venerable books about wine.

Dos Albarino

Dos Albarino

And while the Eidosela Albariño is more of a neophyte, its flavor profile of fresh pear and honeydew melon means that it probably has some staying power.

Albariño’s simplicity and freshness makes for a natural partner for seafood dishes. And it being Spanish Week, I knew that eventually I would have to delve into the unchartered waters of paella. So, I sought out a paella recipe with a seafood component and GOT AFTER IT.

The key to good paella is getting the rice just right – a perfectly crusty bottom that’s neither dry nor fluffy. We added prawns, crawfish and mussels to the Paella Alicantina mix and although the rice wasn’t as “just right” as it should be, the melding of seafood and saffron probably could have made cardboard taste good.

Paella Alicantina

Paella Alicantina

The “W-word” of the wine world

Back in my retail days, there was a winery rep who use to come ‘round promoting his wares. Without fail, he would always refer to his (really below average) wines as having “that wow factor.” All I could really think was yes – they sure do have that wow factor, as in WOW these wines really suck! From that point on I promised myself not to use the W-word lightly.

I had forgotten all about the swill peddler and that moment until just a few weeks ago when I popped open a very inexpensive wine for the first time. It went something like this:

Symphony of Raspberries

Symphony of Raspberries

Pop cork.
Pour glass.
Bend neck.
Raise stemware.
And before the wine could reach my lips…
Wow!
Damn!

And so the symphony began for this 100% pure Spanish Tempranillo.

The 2011 Sinfonia grabs your attention like Mrs. G-Clef getting down to a clash of cymbals. Its bouquet, not only offers that W-moment, but also provides enough captivation to keep you coming back for a discovery of lovely cedar notes, woodsy cigar box aromatics and peppy dark fruits.

The Sinfonia’s juicy texture flowed over with crazy-good raspberry flavors and a thirty-second finish. This deep, dark purple Tempranillo is produced by Bodegas Abanico and imported to the US through the Grapes of Spain. And if you didn’t catch enough the second whiff around, then upon subsequent visits the mysterious and elusive spice-box menagerie will truly amaze you.