The Labels are Pretty but Where Do I Start?

Today is the day, something special is happening and finally, it’s time to stop driving by the store and go on in to help yourself to a bottle of wine. The neighborhood shop displays rows of neatly racked bottles sorted by country. There are six-pack individual serving size-bottled wines too. Hmm, what do I want? The artwork on the labels entices the customer’s eyes. French? Chilean? Australian? Californian? The prices start at $10 and go as high as $100. The clerks are ringing up sales at the counter and there’s no one to ask. Which country? What brand? What’s good? It’s a little intimidating when the moment comes to buy that first bottle of wine.

There are four (4) categories of wine: sparkling, white, red and blush. Wines have a taste range from dry, medium dry, semi-sweet to very sweet. Wine is made from a variety of fruits, grapes and honey. There are old world and new world wines. Small wonder that making a selection can cause hesitation.

The flavor and quality of wine is predicated on multiple factors. Wine ages in a variety of containers including wood and stainless steel. The climate, soil and environment will affect the fruits. The production will affect the quality. The technique and science behind winemaking is extensive and complex. The taste will be different on every tongue and change when paired with different foods. Wine should complement the food and enhance the taste in the mouth.

At Dinner

Depending upon the level of service at the restaurant, ask the waiter to recommend a glass of wine with the meal order. If there is a wine steward or sommelier, take advantage of the opportunity and say you are a novice with wine selection. Ask them why they served a particular variety. The wine with the meal may be more expensive per glass, but, it allows for a variety of samplings without committing to an entire bottle. When in doubt, ask for the House Red or White. In general, red meats and Italian dishes have a dry red wine. White meats and cheeses generally serve a dry white wine.

At Wine Shop

Check in your area for a store that specializes in selling wines. They may have special tastings or events for the public. Before sampling any wines, listen to the presentation if there is one. An informal public event with wine and crackers may not be helpful. The cracker may help clear the palate, as will water, but as the wine is without the meal, it will not taste the same when you serve it with the dinner. Also, if you are not used to drinking wine, and there is no food consumed, you might run the risk of driving inebriated. Wine can be strong if you are not used to it.

Perhaps ask the clerk for advice on the first bottle. The owner, depending on the size of the shop, may be the clerk and could be happy to talk to you about this. This also may or not be helpful, depending on their level of salesmanship. I went into a shop looking for a specific name brand and when it was not available, the owner did not make an alternative suggestion. At this moment, ask what their best seller is and consider that as a guide to purchase.

At Wine Tasting – Public Event

A larger spirit, beer and wine seller may offer special opportunities for public tastings. This type of event can be crowded, noisy and confusing. The servers at the table may be sales rep for the distributor and not have much information to share. This type of event might be best for an experienced buyer.

However, asking a customer in the same aisle what they are buying can be a best bet. Most people are happy to talk for a few minutes about what they like. Hopefully, they will take you right to the bottle and show the recommendation. This may be the best opportunity to try something new.

Private Tasting

Some establishments may have the estate owners sell their wines at private events. This is a fine opportunity to learn about the production, family history, and the intangible quality of suggestion by association. If they seem like nice folks, the wine will follow suit. Perhaps this sounds whimsical, but it is how I narrowed down two selections of estate wines from Italy. The seller/owner said you would know it’s a good wine by how fast the bottle is empty. If it does not empty, it was not so good.

At Vineyard

Check in your area for a vineyard that produces and sells wines. They will typically have an afternoon set aside just for tasting and sales. This can be an exciting day out including a small tour with the owners. They can talk extensively about the fruits that make up the wine and how it is made. The occasion will have other shoppers in the store and offer a chance for a quiet conversation about their choice. Remember to ask what they didn’t like and learn from their experiences.

Tour Guide

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts publishes a Wine & Cheese Trails Guide. The booklet lists Wine and Cheese Makers as well as Direct Market Dairy Farms. Each establishment is listed by name, website, complete address, and hours of operation with tasting times, description and grapes grown. The most interesting inclusion was:

Wine & Cheese Trails

Green River Ambrosia, Greenfield MA

Founded in 2007, is a small artisanal meadery making the finest honey wines with local honey. Containing fresh water, raw honey, yeast and the occasional local and/or organic herb or fruit.  Green River Ambrosia meads provide the taste of a season of hard work by their bees.

So check with your local or state agricultural office, county extension service, or a CSA for more information on local wineries.

Italian Wine Suggestions

I tried all of the above when I began my quest for my first bottle of wine. The selections I make now are directly related to the wine tasting events held by the estate owners. The sincerity of the sellers and the reaction of the other tasters helped me decide what was best for me. The majority of the people at this event knew or seemed to know what they were drinking and what to say. I listened and learned.

Italian wines are regulated in country. Bottles with the DOC or better the DOCG label will be of superior quality.

I have two favorite vintners: Pieropan from the Veneto region of Italy and Tenuta delle Terre Nerre from Sicily.

If you are relying on this article for a selection, I would suggest Pieropan Viticoltori in Soave. This is a light-bodied dry white wine paired well with fish and chicken. I have this with macaroni and cheese and found it quite nice.

Another superb dry white wine is Montenidoli Carato, Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Of all the wine, purchased thus far, this had the higher cost. However, everything about the wine is superior even to the use of natural cork to cap the bottle.

The Tenuta delle Terre Nerre, Aetna Rosso 2012, a full-bodied dry red wine is another suggestion. This is a stronger wine and best with pasta, spiced dishes, game and dark meats. This wine goes well with hot chili.

Another top quality dry red wine is La Botte dell’Abate Riserva Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

At some point in your sampling, you will find the grape of preference. I like Nero d’Avola. A grape native to Sicily. The fragrance of this wine is as delicious as the liquid. The flavor is strong, spicy, smooth and thick.  I find the brands Colosi Rosso and Cusumano are a modest price and consistently good.

All the wines mentioned have a sale price between $15 – $35.

I hope this has been helpful. I am still exploring wines and have started cooking with them. I often pour a small amount of the red wine into my home-made marinara or pizza sauce. That along with a dash of fennel does wonderful things to a tomato-based sauce. The wine truly does make the meal. Each enhances the flavors and textures of the other. Wine and food are grounding and uplifting at the same time. They taste good and make a body feel good inside and out.




Italian Meat Loaf

So winter is in full season now with plenty of ice, snow and cold temperatures. Tis the season for cooking! Recipes can be found in all kinds of fun places, including in a little packet on the top of a bottle of sun-dried tomato pesto.

Italian Meat Loaf

2 1/ lbs. lean ground beef
1 lb pork sausage
2 cloves of garlic
*1 small finely diced shallot
*2 medium shredded carrots
1 tsp basil
1 tsp oregano
*dash of fennel seeds
*1 tsp dried parsley
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups of bread crumbs
*1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
3 eggs
*1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/2 cup dry red wine
4 ounces Bella Sun Luci Sun Dried Tomato Pesto

dash fresh cracked black pepper and/or red pepper flakes

Serves six adults

italian-meatloaf-with-chunky-tomato-sauce-600x441I strongly recommend a fine shred for the aromatics: garlic, shallot and carrot. The reader may substitute onion for a stronger taste. The Parmesan cheese is an improvisation as are other items on the list with this symbol * before the ingredient.

All the ingredients should be at room temperature when this dish is being prepared for cooking. Put everything out on the kitchen counter at least a 1/2 hour before preparation.

A cooking tip I brought back with me from Sicily, finely grind all the spices and herbs together in a mortar and pestle. No one flavor dominates a Sicilian dish, there is a blend of several subtle flavors well minced together. In fact, it might also be to advantage to precook the aromatics, allowing them to cool completely, before blending all the ingredients together.

Place in a meat loaf or bread size pan brushed with olive oil. Cook in the oven at 375 F for about 60 minutes.

I used Stemmari Wine 2015 Nero d’Avola variety in the recipe. The reader should be certain the wine is dry red. Serve this dish with fresh Italian bread, green beans and a glass of this Sicilian wine for a lovely mid-winter evening meal.

Si Mangia Bene e Vive Bene! Buon Appetito!

Destination Sicily ~ Planeta Winery

At this time of year, people may be making plans for travel in the next several months. A best destination for lovers of art, ancient history, food, and wine is Sicily. The island is a little Eden with mile upon mile of neatly cultivated fields. Some farmers build dry mortar stone walls around their property. In the spring months, nature plants a live border of red poppies and broom.  Both have a fine sense of order with straight lines curving over and around hill and dale. There are delightful vistas of citrus and olive groves. It is not possible to visit Sicily and not drive by vineyards. Sicily is well-known for growing and bottling superb dry red wines. An excellent destination is Planeta Winery.


The Planeta family have several estates in Sicily. The winery near Noto is called Buonivini which means good wines. The grapes cultivated include: Nero d’ Avola, Frappato, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Grecanico, Chardonnay, Fiano, Viognier, Carricante, and Moscato Bianco. Besides wine they also have acres of olive and carob trees. Visitors can tour the underground wine making facilities at Noto. The family uses modern and traditional techniques. Buyers can purchase wines and olive oil during the tour. Of course, there will be a sampling to find the right one for the dinner table. My favorites are Santa Cecilia and Plumbago. The wood casks at Planeta are sealed with a large plug of beeswax. The entrance to the production areas are graced with enormous rosemary shrubs. The dry Sicilian air is sweet on the estate. The breezes mellow and pleasing. The eye enjoys a sweeping panorama of green. Every inch of this property feels special.


There are six Planeta cantina’s on the island. Cantina La Baronia near Messina. Cantina Feudo di Mezzo near Taormina. Cantina Buonivini near Noto. Cantina Dorilli near Vittoria. Cantina Dispensa and Cantina Ulmo near Marsalla. This travel route takes the visitor around the island through some of the most scenic landscapes of Sicily. There are wonderful Greek ruins to visit and baroque cities waiting to be seen.

Click on this link to the website Planeta family and plan a visit. Planeta wines are available at fine wine shops in the United States. Yankee Spirits in Sturbridge Massachusetts offers several varieties for sale. Enjoy good food with good wine.