Wine Notes by Brian Plebanek

Pairing Wine & Food

My wife, Gail, and I are former owners of Vino Amore Wine Shop in Freeland on South Whidbey Island (2002-2015). The retail wine shop featured over 1,300 wines from around the world including hundreds of wines from Washington, Oregon and California as well as a handful of wines from other states. A very large selection of International wines, primarily from Italy, France, Spain South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Eastern Europe, and some obscure locations rounded out the shop’s inventory of ever-changing interesting wines.

While most retail wine locations work with only a small handful of large distributors, we did business with 17 distributors, some available to only a couple of retail locations on the island. Most of the distributors visited the shop each week to show their portfolios, which provided great opportunities for our community to sample and learn about wine. Attendance at trade events, winery and vineyard visits over a 13-year period has afforded Gail and me the opportunity to taste over 35,000 wines. This experience and the constant study of grapes, terroir, vineyard management, and all aspects of wine making techniques has helped us develop refined palates and a broad knowledge of this wonderful subject.

With a passion for pairing interesting and delicious wines with food (and just about anything), I would love to share my experience with you, give you suggestions to expand your palate, and offer a better understanding of how wine and food complement each other. It really is fun, and it doesn’t need to be an expensive treat. There are thousands of wines available in the $8-$20 range to get a taste of something new with your favorite recipes.



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Wines to go with your Thanksgiving feasts

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One of our favorite things about being in the wine trade was learning about food and wine pairing -- what goes well together, what really doesn’t and why. It has been a constant curiosity for many years and is a very fun and delicious experience. It is great to be surprised with interesting combinations and new favorites.

If you know me and have visited Vino Amore Wine Shop during our 13-year tenure, you know how excited I get when I am given the challenge of matching up food and wine. I would ask questions like: “How will the food be prepared? What seasonings and spices are involved? What are the sides and how will they be seasoned? Can you show me the recipes?” The more information, the better. Then there are the White/Rosé/Red choices and price ranges. We would zoom around our shop’s selections and pick the wines with you, always asking for your feedback to learn your palate. I can “talk wine” for hours and I haven’t even gone down the terroir road yet!

However, with this first post to all of you LivingWhidbeyIslanders, I am going to keep it simple and just give you some of our personal favorites for the myriad of flavors that we typically enjoy during this holiday. I’m also going to include recommendations from local island wineries.

Note: The prices I’m stating are estimates

Sparkling Wines

French Champagne is always great for starting a celebration: Deutz Brut Classic, Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut, and Louis Roederer Brut Premier are all delicious with tiny “Jacuzzi in a glass” bubbles. A wonderful flavor and palate cleanser as you’re sampling the holiday starters! These are the over $35/bottle sparklers.

Less expensive and very delicious options are: Roederer Estate Brut from Anderson Valley, CA; Lucien Albrecht Cremant Rosé and Delmas Cremant from France ($14-$28) as well as delicious Spanish Cava and Italian Prosecco ($10-$15).

White wines

With the white meat, candied yams, green bean casseroles and cranberry sauces, our “go-to” whites are the delicious Washington Rieslings or Gewürztraminers. You can’t go wrong with Chateau Ste. Michelle as this Washington icon winery has been doing it right for decades (Available for under $10). We also highly recommend a few local whites: Whidbey Island Winery and Vineyard Siegerrebe is very similar to Riesling and a little bit dryer with nice acidity to cleanse the palate. . Greg Martinez, co-owner and winemaker at Holmes Harbor Cellars, makes dry versions of Riesling or Gewürztraminer from Eastern Washington grapes which give you the flavor and a whoosh! clean finish. Another terrific selection is Bloom’s Viognier I love this wine with poultry and especially when fruit is involved with the meal (All of these island wines are under $20).


No – I’m not talking “white zinfandel” (that’s not a real rosé, anyway) or something super-sweet. We love Rosés and there are many available still. Americans usually consider these delicious wines “out of season”, but they are very versatile and food friendly; especially, when there is a buffet with lots of variety. I am sipping a French Campuget Rosé ($12) as I’m writing to you!

Now, with Traditional Thanksgiving fare where the spices and fruit/berry flavors are more common, one favorite is a local Pasek Cellars (Mount Vernon) Cranberry Wine ($12). This wine is more off-dry than sweet. Founder and Winemaker Gene Pasek, raised on Whidbey Island, unfortunately passed away in September so a bottle of his last vintage would be a nice homage.

Another great local selection is Whidbey Island Winery’s Rosato ($15), primarily made from the Italian varietal Sangiovese.


Here is where it gets fun and interesting! I will toss some ideas at you that will be traditional to some and bizarre to others, but might just be the hit of the day. I’ll go in the order of light to dark here:

  • Beaujolais Nouveau (Bo-szho-lay nu-vo) has just been released! It is the traditional first wine of the year’s harvest and there are truckloads of it on the way to Paris. Made from the Gamay grape and not meant for aging, it is made using a traditional carbonic maceration winemaking technique in which whole grapes are fermented in a carbon dioxide rich environment prior to crushing (conventional alcoholic fermentation involves crushing the grapes to free the juice and pulp from the skin with yeast serving to convert sugar into ethanol). This whole grape fermentation results in a low alcohol, fruity, slug-it-down light to medium bodied wine, perfect for the flavors of American Thanksgiving meals. Look for a reputable wine shop that carries quality French wines. They would likely have ordered their stash months ago. By the way, Gamay is the “other” grape from the Burgundy region of France.

  • Another Gamay option is a Cru Beaujolais or Beaujolais Villages. These wines are made with the regular crush method and are fuller-bodied than a Nouveau.

  • Pinot Noir is my favorite Thanksgiving red. Medium bodied wines with cherry/spice notes are more common from the Willamette Valley in western Oregon and are so delicious and food friendly without being overpowering. There are many to choose from but here are a few that come to mind:

Argyle, Elk Cove, J. Christopher, Rex Hill ($25 +/-)

Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene, Ken Wright ($50-$60 +/-)

California Pinots from the recently acclaimed Santa Barbara Hills (Fess Parker for example) to the rich Russian River Valley are delicious and tend to be full bodied. Watch out for that alcohol content, which is always somewhere on the bottle. Try to stay under 14.5% — best in the 13% area.

And, of course, French Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region. One that we love is Drouhin Laforet Pinot Noir for around $17.

Pinot Noir also goes great with ham.

  • Zinfandel — A nice California or Washington Zin has fruity-peppery pleasing flavors that are great with dark meat of the turkey or ham and if you fry or smoke your turkey, a bold Zin would be delicious! Thurston-Wolfe from Prosser makes a great WA Zin and Seghessio, Ridge, Renwood and other California producers are very good and affordable.

  • Syrah — This is another full bodied rich and peppery gem that would be a nice choice with dark meat turkey, smoked turkey or ham. WA and CA make several of these and most of our island wineries do too.

Two dessert wine recommendations (if you are still awake after all of the food and beverages I mentioned) would be a Tawny Port with pumpkin or pecan pie and Ruby or Vintage Port with cherry/berry pie.

Happy Thanksgiving!