Summertime and the sipping is easy...

Pairing wine with outdoor dining

(written for the Los Altos Town Crier)

My neighborhood is buzzing with the sounds of summer these days. I’m not talking about ice-cream truck melodies or Marco Polo games. I mean the hefting of newly filled propane tanks from car trunks, the gentle spreading out of ash-laden, glowing-hot coals and the sizzle of “What’s for dinner?” hitting the grill. It’s time to dine outdoors, and that means stocking up on wine.

While Memorial Day may officially kick off grilling season, outdoor cooking hits its stride around July 4. And thanks to our enduring California summers, we can make good use of the barbecue well past September.

This is a great time of year to practice your wine-pairing skills. Grilling and barbecuing provide opportunities to celebrate regional and seasonal foods, and pairing that food with local wines can truly amplify the pleasure of your outdoor meals.
grilled vegetables and chardonnay is one of the many spledid summer pairings

What you drink with your food should be considered an ingredient of the meal. Thoughtful pairing can have as much impact on the joy of food as any other key element of the dish.
To help with your pairing endeavors, below I list some of the great varietals produced in California and the foods they complement.

The reds

When it comes to cooking techniques, barbecuing, grilling and smoking do more than just cook the food. They are transformative because they impart flavors – smokiness into chicken or sweetness into beef, for example. The flavors they infuse make many would-be white-wine foods cry out for red. I like serving young reds that aren’t too complex.
  • Unabashedly adept at going well with food, Pinot Noir has ample spice and fruit characteristics that allow it to break traditional rules of wine pairing, meaning that Pinot Noir goes equally well with meat or fish. It is especially suited for summertime sipping, with its light body ideal for the season.

I use Pinot Noir as my go-to wine when I’m invited to a friend’s for a barbecue. And a California Pinot, with earth and floral notes, is what I open when serving grilled sausages or salmon.
Worth a try: 2009 Clos LaChance Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir
  • Zinfandel can be paired with a variety of red meats and does amazing things to smoky flavors. Plus, because it can be slightly sweet, Zinfandel is the wine you want to serve if you are a barbecue-sauce lover or have a baked-bean recipe you’re planning to feature.

Worth a try: 2011 Peachy Canyon Incredible Red Zinfandel
  • A medium-bodied, fruit-forward Merlot finds its perfect match in barbecued pork chops and chicken. It’s a great varietal to pour if you’re having burgers, too.

Worth a try: 2010 Buena Vista Merlot Carneros

The whites

Outdoor eating weather generally means rising temperatures. As the mercury edges up, the pleasures of chilled wine beckon. In addition to working well with many side salads, white wines can elevate the main course of barbecues.
  • Sauvignon Blanc in all its citrusy glory is wonderful with grilled white fish, shrimp and other shellfish prepared over a flame.

Worth a try: 2011 Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc (remember that in California, Sauvignon Blanc is sometimes called Fumé Blanc)
  • Unoaked Chardonnay served alongside a platter of grilled vegetables will please backyard diners. Chardonnay is full-bodied enough to complement the caramelized and charred deliciousness of the veggies.

Worth a try: 2011 Mer Soleil Silver Unoaked Chardonnay
  • If you’re using a spicy marinade, open a bottle of Riesling. An off-dry Riesling would both lift and tame the spices in jerk chicken.

Worth a try: 2012 Trefethen Dry Riesling
Each suggestion under the “Worth a try” wines is under $30 and should be easy to find in local markets.


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