We find ourselves at the end of another summer, marked by Labor Day – declared a national holiday in 1894, and declared by the retail industry as the second largest day of sales of the year – topped only by Black Friday.
In between alternately honoring the hardworking men and women of this country and attempting to unclench our collective fists at the ever-expanding grift (SPACE FORCE, bitches!) of our not-so-hardworking Glorious Leader, many of us will be indulging in another Labor Day tradition: outdoor dining.
The traditional accompaniment to most backyard barbecues large and small is, of course, beer of some sort – but why neglect your vinous desires? There’s no best wine for a cookout – that’s all contingent on the menu, the company, and just how much of the stuff you need. Regardless, keep three simple rules in mind when you’re shopping and you’ll be fine:
Rule #1 – Your wine is a side dish. Outside of lifestyle commercials on HGTV or Food Network, few of us are going to be driving through idyllic scenery to a secluded location lit by fairy lights where our top chef friends are preparing four-course meals. More of us will be slapping at mosquitoes while aggressively picnic shelter hunting. Don’t go high-end. Your mind’s going to be on socializing, so simple wine that tastes good enough is best.
Rule #2 – Follow the features. If you’re tasked with bringing wine, try to find out what’s going to be served as a main course. Don’t worry about pairing something with Auntie Alice’s special guacamole with peas. What’s the main course? Burgers? Brats? Grilled cauliflower? Paella? Is this a more buttoned-up affair, or are you going to a backyard boozefest? Ask around and base your purchase along those lines.
Rule #3 – Chill EVERYTHING. One of the saddest sights you’ll see at any outdoor party are an array of bottles of red, slowly cooking into vinegar atop an outdoor bar. People instinctively chill white wine and rosé, but our usual habit is to leave reds at room temperature. If you’re outside, “room temperature” quickly becomes “an 85º mouthful of tannin.” Just no.
Re-useable chilling sleeves ($10-15) work like a charm here. Alternatively, when you pack your cooler, bury the beer and white wine in ice and just lay the reds on top – or just chill everything together. If anyone complains about drinking cold red, just tell them to leave their glass in the sun for two minutes.
What kind of wine to serve, though? Let’s consider where you might find yourself this Labor Day:
Scenario #1: Picnic in the Park
I’m still a big fan of loading up a basket or cooler, heading to a park with my nearest and dearest, spreading out a blanket, and going low-stress. With no grill to hover over, you’ll probably have cold salads, charcuterie, and cheese mixing with the slight tang of SPF 30.
What to get: chilling sleeves to start – but slap those sleeves on bottles of light, fruity white wines that taste summery. I like Vinho Verde from Portugal for this purpose – they’re slightly effervescent, acidic, and crisp. Alternatively, Sauvignon Blanc (maybe a white Bordeaux) or Pinot Grigio make good choices here. For reds, Pinot Noir or a Dolcetto from Italy.
Scenario #2: That Foodie Couple You Know
OK, so maybe you did get an invite to that fairy-light picnic. Your hosts probably gave you specific instructions on some kind of side to bring, because they’ve got something special to wheel out that will undoubtedly be delicious and have an ingredient list the length of your arm. Chances are, this isn’t going to be a huge gathering (after all, free-range pheasant and squid ink pasta can be hard to locate) – so how to be classy without breaking the bank?
What to get: My secret weapon at a time like this is good ol’ Chardonnay -- preferably unoaked or lightly oaked. Almost all white wines from Burgundy in France are Chardonnay, and they pair nicely with almost any food. California Chardonnay – if you skip the oak and butter bombs that were once all the rage – also works well. If you’re a fan of red wine, go with something light, flexible, and low in tannin: Beaujolais, relatively inexpensive Pinot Noir, Spanish Garnacha, or Italian Valpolicella. You can’t go wrong with dry rosé, either. Remember to chill before you go.
Scenario #3: Brats and Burgers
The traditional cookout/barbecue/all your rowdy friends event. Chances are, nobody’s going to much care what’s in the ol’ Solo cup, so long as the drink keeps flowing.
What to Get: First off, keep it simple. For a red – if the main is straight grilled meat, go California cabernet or merlot. If there’s something sauced like pulled pork or ribs, red Zinfandel. If brats are on the menu, there’s few things that go better than a slightly sweet Riesling. Germans have gone that route for centuries.
Also, consider quantity over quality. Don’t be afraid to bring box wine. Don’t go for the super-cheap stuff like Vella, but for $15-20, you can get a perfectly decent 3 liters of red, white, or rosé. I’m a fan of Folonari Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, La Vielle Ferme White and Rosé, and Vina Borgia Garnacha. Pop the box in the fridge the night before and keep the wine drinkers happy.
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