In Search of Grapeness: Norton

9 May

The last month of my life has largely been spent huddled over a book or a laptop doing work of some sort.  In that time, I have had few pleasures to call my own except for when I call it quits around 9 p.m. and delve into a glass of wine to cap the end of my work day.  Now normally I am a devoted fan of Pinot Noir, however, my proximity to Missouri wine country piqued my locavore instincts and has driven me to sample Missouri wines exclusively over the last few months.  Now I will be the first to admit, not all Missouri wine is good wine.  Much of it is very sweet and likeable, but the vast majority will not make a seasoned oenophile perk up and take notice.  And then I got into Norton.

A light went off.  WHAT IS THIS?  A dry red wine from Missouri that tastes good?  No, it can’t be.  Oh yes my friends, it can.  In the last couple of months I have been on a Norton sampling kick.  I have sampled Norton wines from the Augusta region, the Ozark Highlands region, the Southeast region, Hermann, Central Missouri, and each time I have been blown away.  I can say with confidence that this isn’t just good wine for Missouri, this is GOOD wine.

So what is Norton?  Well, it is an American grape.  Whereas grapes like the Concord grape or the Catawba grape, which are also native to America, fall into the Vitis labrusca species Norton falls into a separate species called Vitis aestivalis.  Rumor has it that it is a hybrid grape with its European cousin Vitis vinifera.  All I know is that it is excellent.

Norton was invented by a Virginian named Dr. Daniel Norton in the early 1800’s.  In the time following the Revolutionary War, many Americans wanted to reduce their reliance on European wine and begin a wine industry in America.  The problem was that the grapes native to the America were not well-suited to making high quality red wines like the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir grapes were.  In fact, Virginians such as Thomas Jefferson sought to undertake horticultural experiments to make an American grape that could compete with its European cousins.  Where Thomas Jefferson failed, Dr. Daniel Norton succeeded and Norton wine was born.

During the 19th Century, the Norton grape was widely grown in states like Virginia and Missouri, with Missouri being the largest wine producer in the United States prior to Prohibition.  Back then,  drinking establishments in St. Louis would sell barrels of the wine and locals would fill their glasses, pitchers, or other containers with the wine for consumption.  Norton wine was alive and well in America until the advent of Prohibition.  Just as Prohibition spelled the end of an era for many breweries and distilleries, it particularly devastated the American wine industry.  Wine’s resurgence in America was largely pioneered in California during the latter half of the 20th century.  This resurgence began to resonate in Missouri in the 1980s and has continued gathering momentum.  Currently, the wine industry in Missouri is growing rapidly with 4 American Viticultural Areas and almost 100 wineries.

Norton has always been the favored wine of Missouri and it is for that reason that many of Missouri’s wineries have begun to bring this underappreciated grape back to prominence.  So what does the wine actually taste like?

Tasting Notes

Generally, Norton is a big wine.  I have looked at a number of Norton reviews and almost every one features the same two words.  Fruity and Dark.  Norton in a glass is the darkest wine I have ever seen.  It is at once both fruity and spicy.  Many times the first sip of a Norton wine can be overwhelming to those who have never had it before.  It is fruit forward with prominent grape flavors, lots of acidity, a fair dose of tannins depending on the bottle, and a finish that almost always features a host of earthy flavors of coffee or tobacco.
It often amuses me that things from America imitate the American spirit.  Norton is no exception.  It is strong, it is assertive, it is just a big delicious wine that I can never be without again.  This is what I love about Norton.  It is just us and the sad part is that we don’t even know it yet.
If you have ever been a big music fan, you will know that at one point there was a band that you loved and was awesome, but later they “sold out”.  Well, Norton has not been sold out yet.  It is still in the underground stage with a small but loyal fan following.  Even a google search of Norton wine yields an unimpressive set of results in this day and age, so if you are a locavore or a oenophile looking for something new to try, Norton is the next big thing.  Plus, Norton is not easy to grow.  Missouri and Virginia are not exactly widely regarded climates for hospitable weather.  Cold snowy winters, hot humid summers, hail, tornadoes, thunderstorms.  Not exactly easy living.  And Norton takes a gentle touch to show off its best characteristics, so the skill that goes into making a great Norton is truly worth celebrating.

Norton's Natural Food Pairing

Food Pairing

Norton’s fruit forwardness and earthy flavors are a natural match for lamb or beef.  I had St. James’s Winery’s 2006 Norton with a lamb chop and was blown away.  If you are looking for a wine to stand up to a heavy meat course, look no further.

Serving Tips

I have found that Norton wines benefit immensely from a chance to breathe.  Pouring your wine into a decanter or even just a wine glass for 30-45 minutes turns a good wine into a great wine.  I think the problem with many of those wine critics who drink Norton is that they do not give it sufficient time to breathe and are overwhelmed by its power.  While I can appreciate the subtleties from one Norton to another after a couple of months of drinking them, I can imagine that someone accustomed to drinking very fine Pinot Noir, Merlot, or Cabernet Sauvignon would just be overwhelmed by their first taste of Norton.  However, I have found that if I let a quality Norton breathe and put it in a blind taste testing with self-professed “wine snobs” that they are intrigued by it.  It is only after they find out it is a Missouri Norton that they find ways to not like it.  Too bad.  If this stuff was grown in Napa it would sell for $100 a bottle.

Norton also benefits well from aging.  In fact, many of the Norton wines you see on shelves will be aged at least 3 years to allow the wine to smoothe out and become something that is truly special.

The Bottom Line

Ladies and gentlemen, I urge you to seek out Norton wine.  Not all of it is good, but I have found more of it is good than bad in my quest.  If you are lucky enough to be in Missouri it is likely that Norton wines are tucked in among the other wines on the rack but are often passed-by due to the name on their label.  I have also heard very encouraging reports that Norton wines from Virginia, such as Chrysalis Vineyards, are also excellent.  I look forward to trying these on my quest to sample great Norton.  So I leave you with this… Support a small local vineyard in the heart of the country that is putting out a great product that most wine snobs scoff at… I did and I will never look back.  Norton I love you.

Some of my favorite Norton wines

Louis P. Balducci Vineyards.  Augusta, MO.  Norton.  $16.99 retail.

St. James Winery.  St. James, MO.  2006 Norton.  $16.95 retail.

Westphalia Vineyards.  Westphalia, MO.  Norton Reserve 2008.  $20.99 retail.

Adam Puchta Winery.  Hermann, MO.  Norton Vintner’s Reserve.  $21.99 retail.

Les Bourgeois Vineyards.  Rocheport, MO.  Norton 2007.  $22.00 retail.

Chaumette Winery.  Ste. Genevieve, MO.  Norton.  $20.99 retail.

Bethlehem Valley Vineyards.  Augusta, MO.  Norton 2005.  $23.99 retail.


Off the Beaten Path: The Blue Owl

7 Mar








The Exterior of The Blue Owl

I had been hearing rumors for quite some time about a bakery and restaurant in Kimmswick, Missouri that supposedly makes some of the best pies in America.  Normally, I take these kind of recommendations with a grain of salt but the sheer number of people who got that wistful look in their eyes when I mentioned The Blue Owl sold me on paying it a visit.

The Blue Owl is located in the historic river town of Kimmswick, Missouri about 20 miles south of St. Louis on I-55.  With a few hours to kill on a lazy Sunday afternoon, my wife and I figured it was the perfect time to give it a try.  After getting off the interstate and making a couple of turns, we found ourselves in Kimmswick.  Although the Blue Owl looks like an unassuming eatery from the parking lot, the number of families with their elders in tow was my first clue that this place was going to be great.

In my experience, I’ve learned that the quality of a restaurant’s bakery increases in direct proportion to the number of patrons who are senior citizens.  To this end, The Blue Owl was no exception.  Once I entered the restaurant I instantly got the good ol’ country kitchen sort of vibe; the sort type of place that the Cracker Barrel tries to copy.  Then I saw it.  A dessert case that contained the biggest collection of pies and cakes I had ever seen assembled in one place and every one of them looked amazing.  If heaven has a bakery, this must be what it looks like.









Inside the Blue Owl

A waitress led us to our table where we scanned the 50 or so varieties of pies and cakes that all sounded delicious.  Not knowing where to start, my wife and I deferred to the waitress’s expertise.  After hearing her recommendations, I ultimately chose the Caramel Apple Pecan pie while my wife went with the Snicker Bar Pie.  Five minutes or so later, the biggest slices of pie I had ever seen in my life arrived in front of us.









Caramel Apple Pecan Pie:  Aerial View









Caramel Apple Pecan Pie Cutaway Shot

The Caramel Apple Pecan pie was hands down the best apple pie I have ever had and believe me, I have had my share.  This particular pie has found fame on food shows like Road Tasted and Pie Paradise and after tasting it I can tell you that it deserves every bit of press it has received.  The cinnamon-seasoned apples struck a great balance between sweet and tart, as well as having the perfect amount of bite (I hate when apples in apple pie get too soggy or mealy).  The pie crust was flaky and tender, but all of that paled in comparison to the caramel topping.  Where do I even start with it?  The caramel coating on top of the pie was sweet, sticky, buttery, rich, and the pieces of pecan scattered throughout really elevated it to another level.   If you are a fan of fruit pies, or apple pie in particular, this is the first one of the Blue Owl’s many delectable pies to try. 10 out of 10.

Warm apple pie with a healthy scoop of vanilla ice cream, does it really get better?  Well in this case, yes.  Yes it does.  Check out this baked beauty.









The Blue Owl’s Snicker Pie

My wife wisely went with our waitress’s second recommendation to try the Snicker Pie.   Both of our eyes grew wide as this gargantuan slice of pie was plopped down on the table.  This is one of those pies where you take a bite, wonder if you’re dreaming, and then say Oh.My.God. as you carve out your next bite. If you have a pulse you will like this pie.  As a matter of fact you will love this pie.  You will ask yourself where this pie has been all of your life, why haven’t you had this pie before, and then start panicking as you wonder when will be the next time you have it again.  This is as good as dessert gets.

We only tried the pie this time around, but the entrees I saw coming out of the kitchen looked fantastic as well.  All in all, The Blue Owl is a must visit.  If you live anywhere near Kimmswick, Missouri or are ever passing by, you would be a fool not to stop in.  We only tried two out of the nearly 100 different varieties of pies and cakes the Blue Owl offers and if the rest of their desserts are even in the same league as what we tried (which I bet they are), you just can’t go wrong with any.  It’s not fancy and it’s not expensive ($4.50 per slice of pie!!!!!!), it’s just good.

The Blue Owl.  Get here.  Now.

Gourmet Gear: The Cast Iron Skillet

4 Mar

A Cook’s Best Friend

What you are looking at is the single most essential piece of cookware any cook should own.  The indispensable, indestructible, absolutely amazing cast iron skillet.  Want to make a perfect omelette?  Use a cast iron skillet.  Need to fry up a bunch of bacon?  Use a cast iron skillet.  Do you have a hankering for a pan-seared ribeye?  You guessed it, use a cast iron skillet.

Now I admit, I get excited when I walk through a kitchen store and see the latest nonstick Calphalon or All-Clad pans.  After all, they work great, look cool, and signal that you are a serious kitchen master to those in the know.  But… there is the issue of price.  An 8-inch nonstick All Clad pan will cost something in the $75-$100 range, whereas a brand new 8-inch cast iron skillet can be had for less than $20.  If you have the energy and willingness, cast iron skillets are popular garage sale items and you can pick one up for pennies on the dollar.

So what is so great about cast iron?  Well that “even-heating” that all the fancy pans tout as one of their selling points is also one of the chief advantages offered by cast iron skillets.  Cast Iron skillets are damn near indestructible, they won’t chip, warp, or require frequent replacement.  If something does happen to your skillet, all that is required to revive it to its former glory is a scrub down, a quick towel dry, slather some Crisco on it, and bake it upside down in a scorching hot oven for an hour.  The end product is amazing.  And when properly seasoned, no pan has a more non-stick surface than a cast iron skillet.

Makin’ Bacon

Did I mention flavor?  After some preliminary seasoning, a cast iron skillet will begin to take on the flavor of the food that is cooked in it and will actually provide good seasoning and flavor in subsequent cooking sessions.  Ever wonder why Grandma’s fried chicken tasted so good?  It’s probably because she’d been making it in the same cast iron skillet every Sunday for the last 20 years.

In short, a cast iron skillet is the best friend any cook can have.  It can take your abuse and with just a little bit of love you can patch things up and be better than ever.  It will grow old with you and as it acquires that beautiful shiny black patina it is known for, you can recount all the wonderful meals you’ve made with it.
So for a tiny investment of money and a little bit of time and grease you can get the best cookware money can buy.  The next time you find yourself staring daggers at those fancy pans, just remember what Grandma used.

Off the Beaten Path: Archie’s Waeside

24 Feb

Archies Waeside:  My Favorite Steak in America

It’s been forever and a day since I’ve had a new post.  I let life get in the way of my blogging.  My apologies, I’m going to do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

I’d like to talk to you for a minute about Le Mars, Iowa.  Believe it or not, this town of 9000 or so is home to two pillars of American cuisine. The first, Wells Blue Bunny may ring a bell to some of you.  They’ve been churning out some of the best ice cream in the country for quite some time now.  Anyone who has ever tasted Bunny Tracks will know what I’m talking about.

The second pillar, Archie’s Waeside, is a bit more obscure but is home to one of America’s best steaks.  I’m not alone, Everyday with Rachel Ray put Archie’s in the final four out of 128 steakhouses across the United States beating out heavy hitters like Peter Luger’s and a host of other famous steak purveyors in cities like Chicago, New York, and L.A

Have you ever heard a heroin addict talk about what their first time doing heroin was like and how every time after that was just chasing the beauty of the first time?  Archie’s is like that for me.  Ever since I had my first taste of a dry-aged New York strip at Archie’s as a 16 year old I’ve tried to recreate that meat high.  Instead I’ve paid more than twice as much for steak that is half as good.











Archie Jackson:  Master of Meat

So how do they do it?  The restaurant’s namesake, Archie Jackson was a refugee from the Bolshevik revolution who eventually settled in Sioux City, Iowa.  Sioux City was once home to some of the largest stockyards and meat packing operations in the U.S.  It was here that he mastered the art of cutting and aging beef.  In 1949, Archie opened his restaurant just up the road from Sioux City in LeMars, Iowa where he and his family has been turning out some of the best beef in America ever since.









Top Quality Beef Being Dry-Aged to Perfection

Part of the secret to why Archie’s is so good is that they first get a hold of some of the best beef money can buy, dry-age it, and then cook it at a relatively low 450 degrees.  The conventional wisdom is to use heat in excess of 1000 degrees to sear the exterior of the steak and seal in the juices.  Whatever Archie’s does, it works.

If you ever get the pleasure to visit Archie’s you will find a relatively casual environment by most steakhouse standards.  Grab a drink at the bar from one of the friendly bartenders, munch on some of Archie’s famous onion rings or cheese balls as an appetizer and wait for the main event.  The décor of the restaurant is pure nostalgia.  Wood paneling, yellow lights, waitresses pushing carts full of food, and walls adorned with Christmas Village figurines.  It’s the Midwest at its best.









Old School Ambiance

Sit down, pick which steak or chop you prefer (they’re all amazing) and prepare to give in to your inner carnivore.  I am smitten with the peppered New York Strip, but you really cannot go wrong with any cut.  For pork fans, (it is Iowa after all) the pork chops are equally delicious and well worth a try.  In addition to your chosen cut, Archies provides you with a relish tray of carrots, celery, cubed Velveeta cheese, and home-cured corned beef.  Your meal also includes a salad, and your choice of potato.  Now I’ll admit it’s been a couple of years since I’ve been to Archies, but on my last visit a couple of years ago a 16 oz. New York strip with all the fixins’ would go for right around $20.00.  The fact that the best steak I’ve ever hard is also an incredible value only sweetens the deal.

Hungry Yet?

Now most of you may have little occasion to be within even 100 miles of Archie’s, but if you are it is more than worth it.  It’s just that good.

Tea Leaves

2 Nov

As temperatures fall and winter draws near, I’m reminded of the comfort that comes from a nice hot beverage.  While coffee is the undisputed king here in the U.S., tea has been gaining in popularity as the availability of high-quality loose leaf tea grows and its health benefits become known.

When I say tea I’m not talking about popping a teabag into a mug and dousing it with hot water.  If your tea experience is limited to bagged tea, then hopefully this post will open your eyes to how good tea can really be.  Now there are some good bagged teas out there, Tazo and Stash do a pretty good job.  That being said, there is just no replacement for loose-leaf tea and it costs only a few dollars to set yourself up for a lifetime of tea enjoyment.

First step, find a tea store that will be your one stop shop to get started.

Teavana is found in many malls and they do a pretty good job stocking a wide-selection of  teaware and a variety of teas.  I think they tend to be on the expensive side, but if you don’t have access to another tea store, Teavana is a fine choice.  Teavana has a greater emphasis on blended teas and many of their teas are good for someone who may not like the taste pure tea without other flavors added in.  If you are already a tea fan and really want to expand your beverage horizons,  my all time favorite tea shop is based out of Omaha, Nebraska and is called The Tea Smith.  The Tea Smith features a huge selection of teas from around the world which are personally selected by tea master Tim Smith.  They do a great job with online sales and are less expensive than Teavana, so give them a try.

Second, get the teaware.

Making proper tea requires a few pieces of equipment.  A kettle to get your water hot, a teapot to steep your tea, a thermometer to check the water temp, and a timer.  There are a few options depending on how serious you think your tea drinking will become.  If you are willing to put a bit more work in but save some money, a good old-fashioned stovetop kettle which will whistle when its done will work fine, provided you use a thermometer to ensure that the water is the proper temperature.  If you’d rather spend a bit more money but save yourself the guesswork, one of my favorite kettles is the Adagio utiliTEA adjustable kettle.

Next comes the most important piece of equipment, the teapot.  I am partial to the Beehouse brand which make stylish teapots and include a built-in mesh strainer for steeping loose leaf tea.  They come in 2, 4, and 6 cup versions and a number of different styles.  You can get them here, Whole Foods, or at your local tea store.

Third, the tea itself.

True tea comes only from the Camellia sinensis plant.  It can be processed into a number of different styles including black tea, oolong tea, green tea, or white tea.  Other teas which come from plants other than Camellia sinensis are widely referred to as tea or herbal tea, but technically fall into the category of tisanes.  I say whatever gets the point across works just fine.









To keep this post from getting too long, I’ll break down the individual tea categories later.  But here is what you should remember for now.  The three “T’s”

Type.  Temperature.  Time.

Remember these three words, make them your tea-making mantra.  The type of tea you have will dictate the temperature they steep at and how long they steep for.  Below are general guidelines for the different varieties of teas.


Black Tea:  (Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Assam, Darjeeling, etc.)

Temperature:  205˚-208 ˚

Time:  4-5 minutes.


Oolong Tea

Temperature:  180 ˚

Time:  3-4 minutes


Chinese Green Tea:  (Dragonwell, Gunpowder, Mao Feng, Blended Green Teas, etc.)

Temperature:  175 ˚

Time 2-3 minutes


Japanese Green Tea:  (Sencha, Genmaicha, Kukicha)

Temperature:  175 ˚

Time:  1-2 minutes


White Tea:

Temperature:  175 ˚

Time:  5-7 minutes


One more important thing.  How much tea should you use?  Well, find yourself a set of measuring spoons and locate the teaspoon (tsp).  The size of the teapot will dictate how much tea to use.  Generally, use as many teaspoons as are cups in your pot, plus one extra.  So a 2 cup teapot will require 3 teaspoons, for a 4-cup teapot use five teaspoons, you get the gist.  Experiment with this, if the tea is too strong use less or if it is weak use another teaspoon.

Oh yeah, don’t throw the leaves away!  Loose-leaf tea will withstand multiple infusions.  The flavor profiles and taste of each infusion will change, in fact, some black teas and oolongs are at their best on the second or even third infusion.  So make sure to get the goody out of each batch of leaves.

Fourth, post-steeping preparation.

Depending on who you ask, there may be a proper or civilized way to drink your tea.  I am a firm believer in the “make it however you enjoy it” approach to tea-making.  However, there are some general guidelines that most people adhere to.

Black Tea:

With most black teas it is perfectly appropriate to add milk or sugar to taste.  Anyone who has been to the UK will understand that there are as many approaches to a proper cup of tea as there are stars in the sky, but if you intend to drink your tea like a Brit, milk is a necessity and sugar is optional.







Earl Grey and Darjeeling are the exceptions to the milk and sugar doctrine.  Proper Earl Grey is served either unadulterated or with a squeeze of lemon.  Darjeeling is a black tea from a specific part of India that is often referred to as “Champagne of Teas” so its subtle flavors are best enjoyed by itself.

Some studies have shown that adding milk to tea cancels out some of its health benefits, so if you’re drinking exclusively for health reasons make sure to enjoy your tea without any additions.

Oolong Tea:

Oolong is always enjoyed in its pure state without any additions.  Depending on the type of oolong you are enjoying there may either be delicate floral notes or dark roasted flavors.  Hold the milk and sugar on these and enjoy their delightful taste.



Green Tea:

If you’ve taken a liking to sipping on 20-ounce bottles of sweetened Lipton green tea, it’s time to kick the habit.  The flavors of green tea are delicate and are best appreciated without any sweetener.  Japanese green teas are known for their grassy character and natural sweetness whereas Chinese green teas are widely varied and tend to have stout vegetal flavors.  Green tea is one of the healthiest drinks out there so enjoy the delicate flavors while getting your daily dose of antioxidants.

White Tea:

White tea comes from not from the leaf of the tea plant, but from the bud itself.  These teas are light, sweet, and have amazing floral character.  Putting milk or sugar in these teas would be a crime.  If you are lucky enough to find a great white tea, just sit back and enjoy nature’s handiwork.

Why drink tea?  Don’t get me wrong coffee is great, but it tends to be heavy, its taste assaults your palate, and it sticks with you throughout the day.  Think about it, when was the last time someone got accused of having tea breath?  Tea also provides a nice calm caffeine lift.  A coffee buzz is a frantic thing and it lends itself to an on-the-go sort of lifestyle.  Coffee is what I reach for after hitting the snooze button three times and I have 10 minutes to get out the door.

Tea has a different role.  Where coffee is running out the door with a to-do list a mile long, tea calmly walks down the street saying hello to everyone it sees.   Tea’s flavors mingle on your palate making you work to appreciate it’s subtlety.  Tea will gradually lift you up while coffee will leave you with shaky hands.  Tea is a lazy weekend morning or a cozy afternoon.  Coffee is best on a red-eyed Monday morning.  They each have their time and place.

The best part about tea is that it is incredibly diverse and is unique due to the wide variety of flavors it produces.  One plant can create 4 different varieties of tea which in turn create hundreds of unique teas depending on where they are grown, when they are harvested, whether they are allowed to oxidize, and on and on and on.  When you get tired of black tea drink a green one, then change it up with a nice Taiwanese oolong, your choices are nearly endless.

Well that’s it for now.  Check back soon for more specific posts on individual teas.  Now go to your kitchen cupboard, pitch those Lipton bags and prepare to have your mind blown by some quality loose-leaf tea.

In Search of Grapeness: Balducci Winery

31 Oct

If I had to rate my favorite Missouri Winery, Balducci would be the one wearing a gold medal.  I think Balducci has the most space, best setting, and the most beautiful view of any of the wineries on Highway 94.  A classic Midwestern farm turned winery, the atmosphere here has a nostalgic Norman Rockwell feel that gets better with each passing glass of wine.  Although Balducci is a bit farther out than the majority of the other wineries (it is past Augusta), but the extra driving is more than worth it.









Unlike other wineries, Balducci offers both food and drinks on-site so skip on bringing your own stuff with you.  That being said, both the food and wine are exceptional.  The natural starting point at the winery is the tasting bar where friendly staff will pour you free samples of any wines and help guide your choice.









A lean-to turned wine tasting bar


The Wine

With the exception of Balducci’s Norton and Vidal Blanc, the remainder of their wines are blends of various grapes.  However, the blended wines are wonderful.  Here were some of my group’s favorites:

Sonata:  Balducci’s Sonata wine is a semi-dry wine which is made from a blend of Vidal, Seyval, Raydon, and Chardonel grapes.  Like other Missouri wineries, a semi-dry Missouri wine would be a sweet wine anywhere else.  If you are looking for a wine with a dryness to match a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, stick with the Vidal Blanc.  The wine is a good replacement for a Riesling since it is light-bodied, has crisp acidity, and features wonderful floral aromas and melon favors.

Dolce Bianco:  A sweet easy-drinking white.  This wine goes down so smooth that the woman pouring samples at the tasting bar told me to be careful with this stuff since it was so easy to drink fast.  The wine had lots of fruit with subtle notes of pineapple and passion fruit.  If this is the bottle you choose good luck pacing yourself, this wine is like candy (in a good way).

Chiaretto:  This was the unanimous favorite among our group.  Balducci classifies the wine as a semi-dry red wine full of berry flavors.  The wine is made from Chambourcin and St. Vincent grapes which are aged in stainless steel.  It has a cloying sweetness, much like a Sangria but without the fruit or sugar.  In fact, our group agreed that this wine was a great match for food and it was the perfect companion for Balducci’s exceptional pizza.  If you have to get one bottle of wine here, this is the one I would recommend.  Have it chilled and enjoy!

The Experience

Of the wineries I have visited, Balducci was by far the most fun and free-spirited.  The day my group and I visited there was an amazing cover band which did one of the most convincing Michael Jackson renditions I have ever heard.  People were dancing, having fun, and enjoying a beautiful fall day to its utmost potential.  If calm and relaxed is more your style, worry not.  Just grab your bottle of wine, head down the hill, and sit down at one of the tables while taking in the leaves changing color, the vineyards, or the hills in the distance.








The Food

Don’t miss the pizza at the winery.  Eating great pizza outside with a perfect glass of wine was the highlight of the day.  Balducci’s pizza comes in 2 versions, a deep pan pizza and a thin-crust.  We opted for the thin-crust and stumbled upon some of the best pizza I’ve had in St. Louis.  The crust was thicker than the typical St. Louis style and I didn’t detect any provel, but man this stuff was good.  The crust had a great crunch, matched by a sweet sauce, mozzarella cheese, and fresh toppings.  Given how good the thin-crust was, I can’t wait to try the deep pan version. Match the pizza with a chilled glass of Chiaretto wine and you have the makings for a truly wonderful meal.

I recently found out that the same pizza is available at Balducci’s Resturant in Maryland Heights, so if you don’t have time to drive out to the winery you can get it in the metro too.











There is no better way to spend a fall day than to make the drive out to Balducci Vineyards and Winery.  The combination of setting, wine, and food makes Balducci one of the best all-around winery experiences in Missouri.  Add in the fact that you can almost always find a place to sit, there is enough space so that you aren’t piled on top of others, there is no cover charge, and you have a winning recipe for a great winery.  Make the trip out to Augusta and give Balducci a try.

Photos Courtesy of Kyle Gisbrecht.

In Search of Grapeness: Sugar Creek Winery

31 Oct










Happy Halloween Everyone!  Sorry for the delay between posts, unfortunately, the school gig has been getting the best of me lately so to make up for the dry spell and as a Halloween gift Sip & Snack is going to give you a 2 for 1 special on winery posts.  Some friends and I had the good fortune to get out and enjoy fall at some Missouri wineries and we highly recommend you do the same!

Sugar Creek Winery

After a brief jaunt on the Missouri Highway 94, often referred to as the Missouri Weinstrasse, you will find yourself in Defiance, Missouri.  Defiance is a pleasant small town that marks the beginning of the wine road and serves as the gateway to Missouri wine country.  Here you can mingle with the local townsfolk, rent a bicycle to ride on the Katy Trail, or watch as bikers ride by on their Harley Davidsons and quench their thirst at Terry & Kathy’s Inn Bar.  However, don’t stay too long because the best places lie outside of town on the stretch of Highway 94 between Defiance and Washington, Missouri.

One of the first wineries (and one of my favorites) on the trail is Sugar Creek Winery.  As you leave Defiance and get a couple miles out of town you will find yourself passing through some fields and approaching Sugar Creek Winery.   Pay attention because the entrance to the winery is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss it affairs.  Look for the 500 foot warning sign, hit the brakes, make a right turn, and prepare to shift into low gear as you climb the steep hill to the winery.  Oh yeah, and beware of bicyclists as you pass by the Katy Trail.

The next task will be finding parking, which can sometimes be a difficult if you visit on a busy fall weekend.  We drove to an open spot on the grass near some of the vines which provided the very wine we would be enjoying.  Rest assured, there is a spot open but you may have to drive around a bit to find it.











Sugar Creek’s Grape Vines

Now for the winery itself.  The winery sits high on a hill overlooking fields.  The whole scene makes for a great vista to enjoy as you sip your wine.  Also, Sugar Creek is exceptional in that the vines themselves are located on-site and provide great scenery to look at while sitting in the winegarden.  After parking, we made our way towards the winegarden and found an empty table to sit at.  Sugar Creek allows outside food so we chose to make the most of our experience by having a picnic with some local sausages, cheeses, and crackers to accompany the wine.  Just a note for all you oenophiles out there, plastic cups are the standard drinking vessel at most wineries so bringing along your own glassware might be a good idea if the thought of drinking out of clear Solo cups repulses you.

When we arrived in the wine garden we were greeted by the hum of conversation and laughter, as well as music from a cover band which had set up in the gazebo.  The atmosphere was picnic-like and everyone seemed to be having a fun time.  The music was also great and featured a wide assortment of classic acoustic covers (think Jimmy Buffet, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, etc.).  It’s a real pet peeve of mine when live music is so loud that you can’t talk to the people sitting next to you, so thankfully the PA settings were set to the background music level that allowed for a great ambiance without intruding into your fun.  After settling down at a table it was time to get what we came for, some quality Missouri wine.

Sugar Creek’s Wine Store

On the day we went, there was a free tasting tent outside where you could sample a variety of Sugar Creek’s wines before going into the house pictured above where the wine was being sold.  The staff pouring the wine is very helpful and does a great job matching a wine to your taste preferences, providing you with the closest Missouri wine approximation to the better known European grapes, or answering any other wine-related questions you may have.

Sugar Creek’s Boone Country White

The Wines

Of the Missouri wineries I have visited, Sugar Creek has some of the better white wines.  Here are the ones we tried.


The Whites

Vidal Blanc:  This dry white wine was absolutely wonderful and reminded me a lot of a Sauvignon Blanc.  This wine undergoes a stainless-steel fermentation and has some French Oak chips added during the aging process for just a touch of oak to round out the flavor.  The wine is light on the palate with prominent citrus notes, especially lemon.  In addition to the crisp acidity and citrus flavor, the wine also featured some grassy vegetal character which made for an overall great glass.

Boone Country White:  This crisp and sweet white wine blended from a mix of Chardonel and Delaware grapes was our group’s favorite white wine of the day.   The wine undergoes a stainless steel fermentation with no oak treatment.   Although Sugar Creek places it in the semi-sweet category, anyone accustomed to drinking wines made with European grapes would think of this as a sweet wine.  This is a great substitute for a Riesling since it has a crisp texture with floral notes, as well as the presence of honeydew and cantaloupe flavors.  If Sugar Creek has a wine that keeps me coming back, this is the one.


The Reds

Chambourcin:  Sugar Creek’s Chambourcin is a dry red wine aged in American Oak.  Sugar Creek describes it as a soft red with strong fruit up front.  The medium-bodied wine features a dark ruby color with prominent cherry notes that finishes with leather, spice, and a hint of earthiness.  If you are unsure what I meant when I described American grapes as having a musty or foxy flavor, this wine will help you understand.

Cynthiana:  Cynthiana may be called Norton depending on what winery you are at, but the two are the same thing.  Sugar Creek’s Norton is a blend of 40% Cynthiana and 60% Chambourcin which is aged in French Oak.  According to the employee I spoke to at the tasting booth, 100% Cynthiana “can be too much of a good thing” so they blend Chambourcin in to provide better balance.  It tasted a lot like the Chambourcin to me, but a bit drier and with more raisin cherry peel flavor.  I’ve had 100% Norton wines from other wineries which I really enjoyed, so I’m not sure if I really liked the blend as much.  Nonetheless, the wine is a good example of a Missouri dry red.

In terms of Sugar Creek’s wine offerings, their reds are OK but their whites are outstanding, so I would recommend sticking with that side of the equation.

All in all, Sugar Creek is a great winery with a solid selection of wines.  The atmosphere was great and the view of the vines is superior to most other wineries.  Sugar Creek also gets kudos for friendly staff, ample parking, great music, and a beautiful view of the valley below.  If you want to get a great winery experience with minimal driving, this is the winery for you.

Photos Courtesy of Kyle Gisbrecht

In Search of Grapeness: A Trip to Missouri Wine Country

18 Oct

A vineyard near Defiance, Missouri


Wine?  In Missouri?  Is it any good?

If you have ever talked to anyone about Missouri wine there is a fair chance that you were hit with the questions above.  Let me be clear, Missouri is not the Napa Valley, or Bordeaux, or Tuscany.  You see, we here in Missouri sweat profusely in the summer months, shiver our way through the winter months, and do our best to enjoy ourselves in the seasons in between.  It takes a hearty constitution to live in the Midwest and the grapes which thrive here reflect those same character traits.

Wine aside, visiting a Missouri winery is the true pinnacle of the experience.  For me, it is less about engaging in wine snobbery and more about giving us scenery-starved Midwesterners a chance to live the good life, to drive on a beautiful winding road, look at the leaves change color, and take a break from our otherwise busy lives by spending a gorgeous fall day outdoors sipping a glass of wine.

Now this isn’t to say that Missouri wine is bad.  In fact, Missouri has a rich wine history and some of the wines grown here have placed or even won national and international competitions.  Regardless, you aren’t going to see a Missouri wine pop up in the pages of Wine Spectator anytime soon.


Missouri wines are usually hybrids of grapes native to the Americas, Vitis labrusca, and the better-known French grapes, Vitis vinifera. American grapes are usually regarded as inferior to their European counterparts on account of the foxy or musky flavors present in many of the native American grapes.  While discerning palates can detect the foxiness of labrusca grapes, the wines which use them have been improving and with proper blending any musky flavors are either minimized or elminated completely.  So before we talk about the different wineries, let’s break down the types of grapes grown in Missouri and the wines you will find.

Red Grapes

Norton (Cynthiana):  The Norton or Cynthiana grape is often compared to Shiraz.  It makes for a robust, deep colored, and full-bodied wine that features a complex mix of fruit, spice and oak flavors.  Norton also happens to be the official grape for the state of Missouri.

Chambourcin:   Charmbourcin makes a wine with an intense ruby color, lots of fruit, and a slight hint of spice.  Some compare it to a Syrah, but a lot depends on the individual winery.  Some wineries do Charmbourcin as a dry red, while others leave some residual sugar in for a semi-dry wine.  Take advantage of a free tasting to determine which one is which.

White Grapes

Vidal Blanc:  Another French-American hybrid, the Vidal Blanc grape is known for providing strong fruit flavors, often with grapefruit, pineapple, or even melon notes.  Vidal Blanc is a versatile grape and can produce a wine that ranges from a drier almost Sauvignon Blanc style wine to sweet dessert wines.

Seyval Blanc:  The Seyval Blanc grape is a French-American hybrid known for producing a dry or semi-dry white wine with notable citrus flavors and a fair degree of minerality.  The wine’s fresh flavors and medium body may be compared most closely to a Chenin Blanc.

Chardonel:  Chardonel is a cross between the French-American hybrid grape Seyval Blanc and the Chardonnay grape. It produces a dry wine with crisp flavors.  Green apple notes and some vegetal character are characteristic for this wine.

Vignoles:  The Vignoles grape is most often utilized for the floral character it adds to a wine.  Vignoles often produces pineapple flavors and produces crisp sweet wines that are comparable to Rieslings.

Many of the wines you will find in Missouri are blends that bring out the best character of each grape for a superior wine.  However, Norton and Vidal Blanc are often left unblended and with the proper care can make a very fine wine.

Photos courtesy of Kyle Gisbrecht.

St. Louis Neighborhood Spotlight: Gioia’s Deli on The Hill

14 Oct

In many ways sandwiches define a city.  Philadelphia has its Cheesesteak, New York has Pastrami on Rye, Chicago the Italian Beef, and New Orleans of course has the Po’ Boy.  What about St. Louis though, what is our sandwich claim to fame?  To find the answer to that question, look no further than the Hot Salami sandwich at Gioia’s Deli in St. Louis’s quintessential Italian neighborhood, The Hill.

The story of Gioia’s (pronounced joy-ahs) began in 1918 when Challie Gioia, an immigrant from Marcallo, Italy bought the building at 1934 Macklind Street with the hopes of starting a grocery store.  However, it wasn’t until years later when Challie’s sons Steve and Johnnie Gioia added a lunch counter to the store that St. Louis’s signature sandwich was truly born.  In 1980, the Gioia family sold their store (and their Hot Salami recipe) to the Donley family who expanded Steve and Johnnie Gioia’s lunch counter into the deli Gioia’s is today.

The Hot Salami Sandwich

Salam de Testa, better known today as Hot Salami, is a thick-sliced yet soft-textured salami that has more in common with terrine than the genoa, cotto, or hard salami most of us are accustomed to.  The flavor of the salami itself carries hints of pepper and garlic with an earthy undertone.  Trust me when I tell you it’s delicious.

Gioia’s pairs the hot salami with a sandwich roll baked at Fazio’s Bakery, located on The Hill just down the street from the deli.  Fazio’s bread is a perfect match for the salami, ensuring that any juices get soaked into the bread but without losing its perfect crusty texture.  The choice of cheese is yours, spice it up with pepper cheese or keep it an authentic St. Louis eat by going the provel route.  Garnish it or go simple, whatever it takes to make your Hot Salami sandwich sing.

A perfect Hot Salami Sandwich

Interview with the Owner

As part of this Sip & Snack feature and to learn more about this St. Louis institution, I recently had the chance to meet with Alex Donley whose family has been running Gioia’s since 1980.

Alex Donley putting together Gioia’s Signature Hot Salami Sandwich.


S&S:  So Donley, that name doesn’t sound very Italian.  What is it like being an Irish guy owning a business on The Hill?

Alex:  It’s not really a big deal today, but back when my family first took over the business it was more of an issue. For awhile some people even boycotted the deli.


S&S:  Judging from the line at the counter the boycott must not have gone over very well.

Alex:  Nah, the Hot Salami prevailed.


S&S  How long has Gioia’s been around exactly?

Alex:  My family has been running it as a deli for about 30 years now, but the business itself has been around for 92 years.


S&S:  What kind of deli would you describe Gioia’s as?

Alex:  Well the Italian connection is definitely there, but more than anything I like to think of us as a St. Louis deli.


S&S:  What do you mean by St. Louis deli?

Alex:  Being on The Hill is an important part of our identity, but we like to think of ourselves as serving the entire city.  We try our best to get to know our customers and if we can’t remember a customer’s name we’ll at least try to remember their sandwich.


S&S:  So let’s talk about your signature item, the Hot Salami.  How do you make it?

Alex:  Well the exact recipe is a secret, but we make it here at the deli twice a week and cook it fresh everyday.


S&S:  Do you make your other items from scratch?

Alex:  Everything we can we do ourselves and anything we can’t pretty much comes from other businesses here on The Hill.  Besides the Hot Salami, we make our roast beef and turkey ourselves.  There are 4 customers who come in everyday and order a turkey sandwich. We also make our soups in-house and have a soup following of about 30 guys.  Also, for dessert we also have homemade gelato.


S&S:  Now for the most important question I’ll ask you today, what is your favorite thing to eat on the menu?

Alex:  When I splurge I get The New York Philly Beef with cream cheese and peppers, add a layer of Hot Salami, and dip it in au jus.  Then I take a nap.


S&S:  Any plans to expand business or open another location?

Alex:  Opening another location would be nice but we would only do it if we can make sure that the new location maintains the same quality.  We can’t lose what makes Gioia’s… well Gioia’s.  So, right now I’m working on building a catering business.


S&S:  Is there a big rivalry between Gioia’s and other local sandwich shops?

Alex:  People in St. Louis are very loyal to their delis, but I don’t know that it would really be a big rivalry between the delis themselves.  I think any rivalry is less about us trying to take business from each other and more about getting customers to eat at a local sandwich shop instead of Subway.


S&S:  Since this is the neighborhood spotlight, what would you like to see happen to The Hill in the future?

Alex:  I think a neighborhood festival would really be good for The Hill.  Soulard has Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest, Dogtown has St. Patrick’s Day, so I’d like to see The Hill do something similar.


S&S:  Anything in mind?

Alex:  Doing something similar to the Taste of the Central West End in the Hill would work well.  Closing down Daggett Avenue for a weekend, getting the vendors on The Hill together, and having entertainment could be a great way to get the community together and promote our neighborhood.

We would like to give special thanks to Alex Donley for taking the time to talk to the good foodies at Sip & Snack, not to mention putting together one hell of a sandwich.  But as always don’t take our word for it, get to Gioia’s Deli and try St. Louis’s favorite sandwich, the Hot Salami.

Photos courtesy of Ben Fjellanger Photography.

Wine Picks of the Week-October 4th, 2010

3 Oct

This week’s wine picks highlight a pair of Washington Rieslings.  When it comes to easy drinking wines, Rieslings reign supreme and few Rieslings drink easier than these two, especially for the price.

1.  2009 “Kung Fu Girl” Riesling by Charles Smith Wines.  Columbia Valley, Washington.

A fellow blogger/kindred spirit over at the wine snob. reviewed the wine and found it “A lovely, aromatic riesling with a nose of white peaches, tangerines, flowers” and just the right touch of minerality.  Couldn’t have put it better myself.  The wine has a pleasant sweetness without being sugary.  Just right for a warm summer day or as a great pairing with spicy Asian flavors such as Thai food.  My favorite Riesling anywhere, try it and it could be yours too.

2.  2009 Pacific Rim Sweet Riesling.  Columbia Valley, Washington.

While I don’t live and die by wine ratings, this particular wine received 89 points from Wine Spectator.  Not too shabby.  The Wine Spectator review describes the wine as “Sweet and succulent, this is light in texture, offering a juicy mouthful of minty pear and floral flavors that linger on the open finish.”  This bottle is smooth, sweet, and very drinkable.  Like most Rieslings, it is a great match for Asian cuisine, or other spice-heavy cuisines like Mexican.

I picked up my bottle of Kung Fu Girl for $13.99 at Whole Foods and the Pacific Rim at World Market for $12.99.  If you’re a fan of Rieslings or sweet whites in general, I promise you won’t be disappointed in these two.