FOR DECADES, beer, soda and bottled water have been the beverages of choice for beach parties, picnics and backyard barbecues. The approach is a no-brainer and low-hassle—grab and go, pop the top, slurp an undistinguished wet product without thinking, and recycle. Lasting memories of what you consumed? Unlikely. Instead, you have ventured into the black hole of outdoor-party gastronomy. You are full, but empty.
Far better: Think of every meal as having the potential for both a wonderful social and organoleptic experience, no matter what the location. Match wines to enhance every bite, from the most delicate salads, seafood dishes and light pastas up to Uncle Fred’s famous flank steak flambé. Adding taste-bud titillation and memories to your summer escape or backyard soirée can also be accomplished without much effort, and at reasonable cost. The shelves of wine merchants and grocery stores everywhere are lined with wellmade, food-friendly wines in the $9 to $22 range that can stand up to sauces, spices, sun and sand.
As a starting point for your planning, the following list divides wines into four loose categories related to how they complement different types of outdoor fare. Choose bigger reds for barbecue, ribs, burgers, steaks and pastas with hearty sauces. More refined reds match up with beef, veal and pasta with less intense sauces (or none at all). Crisp whites, such as Sauvignon Blanc, go well with shellfish, salads, seafood and lighter pasta dishes. Try bigger whites, such as Chardonnay, with more complex fish or pasta dishes. The refined reds also go well with deli fare.
All of the above can work well with a classic French picnic—a selection of cheeses, breads and charcuterie. As the good host or designated summer sommelier, select one from each category to provide variety and spark discussion (when was the last time you had an intelligent discussion about the nuances of sodas or light beers and how they complemented Cousin Carrie’s cassoulet?). Cautionary note: Red-hot chili dishes, chips with jalapeño and other spicy dips and fast food can deaden taste buds; switch to beer with those foods.
For beach-party logistics, take four times as many plastic cups as there are people and increase the amount of wine allocated per person 25 to 50 percent to allow for spillage and spoilage from inconsiderate kelp flies, errant Frisbee throwers and beer-drinking bullies who would rather kick sand in your Sauvignon Blanc than your face. (Figuring a third of a bottle per person in a party of 12 equals four bottles; bring five or six bottles since you don’t want to send Uncle Doug to the supermarket in weekend traffic and have him lose his prime parking spot.)
At beaches or any adventure or travel destinations where glass is verboten or where weight is a problem, simply transfer your wine to a rugged, collapsible plastic container lined with polyethylene, such as the Platypus, used for backpacking, or a lined flask designed for bicycle bottle cages (1- liter bottles range from $4.95 to $12).
WineHere are some suggestions. Prices are approximate and can vary widely among merchants.
Crisp Whites2004 Beringer Dry Riesling, Napa Valley, California, $12.
2004 Chateau St. Jean Fumé Blanc, Sonoma County, California, $13.
2004 Don Olegario, 2004, Albarino, Rias Baixas, Orixe, Spain, $16.
2004 Hawk Crest Chardonnay (second label for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars), California, $10.
2005 Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand, $9.
2004 Turnbill Sauvignon Blanc, Oakville, California, $12.
2005 Wishing Tree Chardonnay, unoaked, Western Australia, $8.
Bigger Whites2003 Laird Chardonnay, Carneros, California, Family Estate, $14.
2004 Screw/Kappa/Napa Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California, $9.
2004 Buena Vista Chardonnay, Carneros, California, $18.
2004 William Hill Estate Chardonnay, Napa Valley Estate, California, $18.
2004 Wattle Creek Chardonnay, Mendocino, California, $26
Bigger-Body Reds2003 Abundance Old Vine Zinfandel, Mencarini Family Vineyard, Lodi, California, $10.
2004 Barrel Monkey Shiraz, McLaren Vale, Australia, $15.
2004 Casa Lapostolle Merlot, Colchagua Valley, Rapel, Chile, $16.
2004 Hahn Meritage, California Central Coast, Red Table Wine, $10.
2003 Montes Cabernet Sauvignon (70 percent, with 30 percent Carmenet), Apalta Vineyard, Colchagua, Chile, $9.
2004 Rosenblum Zinfandel, San Francisco Bay, California, $15.
2004 Tamari Malbec, Mendoza Reserve, Argentina, $9.
2004 Wynn’s Estate Shiraz, Coonawarra, Australia, $15.
More Refined Reds2002 Artessa Cabernet Sauvignon (76 percent Napa, 24 percent Sonoma), $13.
2001 Beringer Alluvium, Knights Valley, California (blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Merlot and Malbec), $16.50.
2003 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon, Founders’ Estate, California, $10.
2003 Chateau St. Jean Merlot, Sonoma County, California, $22.
2004 Hahn Meritage, Central Coast. Bordeaux blend (42 percent Merlot; 38 percent Cabernet Sauvignon; rest is Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec), $10.
2001 Hartman Lane Pinot Noir, estate bottled, Russian River Valley, California, $22.
2004 Ridgefield Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Washington. Bordeaux-like nose (blended with Cabernet Franc), $9.
2004 Sebastiani Alexander Valley Merlot, California, $20.
2003 Vietti Nebbiolo, appellation Langhe, Italy, $14.