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Apr 16, 2008
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Wine With Chicken with Tomatoes and Olives

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas    


When we were in California a few months ago, we stopped in at 'Sip! Mendocino,' a unique wine shop and tasting room in Hopland, an alluring little outpost a couple of hours north of San Francisco.  What makes 'Sip!' unique?  Well, for one thing, it's open 7 days a week (11 to 6), and with 18 different wines available for tasting every day it's a great place to sample a comprehensive selection of Mendocino wines.  'Sip!' owner Bernadette Byrne is a living encyclopedia of knowledge about the 180 or so wines she carries, and will happily share tidbits of information with all interested visitors.  Another thing we liked about Bernadette is her firm belief in the notion that wine forms one side of a great triangle: 'When good friends and great wines come together it's a wonderful experience.  When dinner is there too, something almost magical occurs,' she says. 


Bernadette loves to cook, and is always on the lookout for exceptionally wine-friendly recipes.  A current favorite is a baked amalgam of chicken, tomatoes and olives.  The recipe is mostly in her head, but she did give us the list of ingredients and a vague outline of how to construct the dish.  Consulting the notes we took in California, we recently recreated it our own kitchen.  Remembering Bernadette's conviction that this dish is inherently compatible with a wide range of wines, we opened an across-the-board collection of whites, pinks, and reds to sample with it.  Most of them were, indeed, good with the chicken dish, and a couple were real standouts.  Our least favorite matches fell at each end of the style spectrum: an Italian Arneis that was so lightweight its charm disappeared under the onslaught of the acidity in the tomatoes, and a big, brutish California Merlot that smothered most of the food's flavors.   The wine we both liked best (and incidentally, we don't compare notes until we've tasted all the wines with the food) was a red Syrah-based blend from-drum roll-Mendocino.     



Bernadette Byrne likes to serve this on top of whole wheat pasta, but we just spooned it into bowls and sliced up a loaf of crusty bread for sopping up the juices.


8 chicken bone-in thighs (skinless or with skin, according to personal preference)

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Red pepper flakes (optional)

1 medium onion, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced

1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced

1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 sun dried tomatoes (optional)

1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes

1 cup chicken stock

2-3 tablespoons dried thyme

1 cup pitted olives (preferable niçoise)

2 tablespoons minced parsley


Preheat oven to 375. Arrange the chicken thighs in a single layer in a shallow baking pan that has been brushed (or sprayed) with about 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.  Season the chicken with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes if using.  Bake for about 15 or 20 minutes, or until chicken is just beginning to brown.  Meanwhile, in a large oven-proof skillet or pan, cook the sliced onion, fennel and red pepper slices in the remaining olive oil over medium heat, until they begin to soften.  Add the garlic and cook another couple of minutes.  If using the sun dried tomatoes, cover them with boiling water and let sit for a few minutes until they begin to soften, then chop them coarsely and add to pan.  Add the canned tomatoes, pour in the chicken stock, stir in the olives, add the thyme and taste the mixture, adding more salt and pepper if necessary. 


When you remove the chicken from the oven, reduce the oven to 325.  Place a folded kitchen towel or other object under one side of the pan to allow the chicken fat to collect on the other side of the pan (discard the fat unless you want to save it for frying potato pancakes or other dishes that require schmaltz). Arrange the chicken pieces in a single layer on top of the vegetable mixture, cover the pan and bake the chicken for about 45 minutes, or until it is very tender.




Approx. Price



Castello di Gabbiano, Chianti Classico (Tuscany, Italy) Riserva 2005

(Imported by FEW Imports)




The earthy, almost dusty note in the finish of this dark cherry-flavored Chianti Classico Riserva served as an attractive counterpoint to the sweet tomatoes in the dish.  The wine married especially well with the olives.




Christian Moueix, Saint-Émilion (Bordeaux, France) 2005

(Imported by Kobrand Corp.)






A negociant Saint-Émilion, this young Bordeaux's secondary flavors-cedar, tobacco and dark spice-proved especially appealing.  It made the dish seem somehow deeper and richer.




Norton, Mendoza (Argentina) Rosado Malbec 2007

(Imported by TGIC Importers)






A youthful so bright and vivacious rosé, this value-priced wine enlivened the dish.  It had just enough depth of flavor not to be overpowered by the olives, fennel and tomatoes.




Truchard, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Chardonnay 2006






A beautifully balanced Chardonnay, this wine was by far the best white we tried.  It had enough stuffing to hold its own with all the different flavors in the dish, and its spicy, vanilla-tinged finish provided an exciting new element.




Wattle Creek, Yorkville Highlands (Mendocino, California) 'The Triple Play' 2004






This Syrah-dominated blend offered ripe berry fruit enhanced by echoes of black pepper and even a hint of bacon-a California version of a Côte-Rotie.  Those non-fruit flavors made it taste delicious with this meal, as they helped bring out the pungent, earthy flavors in the dish.