IN DAYS OF YORE, WHEN I SMELLED HEBREW Nationals on the grill, the beer center of my brain would awaken. Now, as I enter the ranks of middle-age bourgeoisdom, I rarely find myself reaching for a beer. I want wine, even in the most hellish of dog days. One simple rule I keep in mind: Robust picnic food, like barbecue, demands robust wine. You need something that can stand up to a flavor punch. (If you insist on eating something bland, such as cucumber tea sandwiches, the same rule applies, but in reverse). How to serve wine in the summer? Cool -- probably a lot cooler than you think. The old adage about serving wine at room temperature is nearly meaningless in Los Angeles, where non-air-conditioned room temp rarely drops below 75 degrees in the summer. I think no red wine should be served warmer than 68 degrees, and whites as cool as you like them. The following notes are based on archetypal summer foods, and wines that compare and contrast with their flavors.
Compare: To echo the sweet smoke of a proper barbecue, try a spicy Côtes du Rhône Villages, such as the Domaine les Hautes-Cances' "Vieilles Vignes" '99 Cairanne (the Wine House, $12.95). An alternative to the ubiquitous duo of barbecue and Merlot: 2000 Vistamar Niebla (Topline, $8.99), a well-crafted Chilean wine made from Carmènere, a traditional Bordelaise grape. The Niebla's dark fruit rush dovetails neatly with sweeter barbecue sauces.
Contrast: For something to reset your mouth and prep it for the next bite, there's 2001 Domaine Manoir du Carra Beaujolais-Villages (L.A. Wine Co., $5.99). Typical for Beaujolais, it's low in tannin. Atypically, it's also unfiltered, giving it enough body to talk back to the barbecue. Another option is Charles Joguet's Chinon Rose (the Wine House, $13.99), which is a playpen of floral notes and stone fruit, and also bone dry. Serve both rather cool, around 55 degrees.
Compare: Crisp skin and that gratifying squirt of hot, fatty chicken juice -- 2001 Kerner Estate Pinot Gris (Topline, $11.99), oily and full-bodied but well-balanced, will resonate nicely.
Contrast: Bridlewood's Viognier (Topline, $8.99) offers apricots and sufficient body to cut right through the chicken fat; the flowery fruit is an interesting counterpoint.
Compare: To match the citrus flavors, the 2001 Allan Scott Wines' Riesling Marlborough (the Wine House, $12.89) offers textbook-perfect lime and grapefruit flavors. Served icy-cold, Berger 2000 Grüner Veltliner (Wine Expo, $9.99), peppery-spicy and austere, will slap your tongue into submission.
Contrast: To play off the tartness while harmonizing with the inherent sweetness of the scallops, try the 2000 Muller-Catoir Riesling Kabinett Gimmeldinger Mandelgarten (L.A. Wine Co., $18.95).
ROSEMARY GRILLED VEGETABLES
Compare: Grilling vegetables brings out their sweetness, and also adds smoky notes. To match, try Jean-Max Roger's 2000 Sancerre, "Cuvee Les Caillottes," which is mineraly and only moderately grassy (L.A. Wine Co., $11.95).
Contrast: As a counterpoint to the sweetness, try the moderately bubbly Ruggeri's Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Gentile (Wine Expo, $13.99) or a crisp Paul Cheneau Brut Cava (L.A. Wine Co., $5.49).
Compare: With its soft tannins and cherry-berry flavors, pinot noir in the fruity style is classic with salmon. But with paper plates ä and plastic forks, don't open a bottle of Romanee Conti. Faiveley's 1999 Mercurey "La Frambroisière" is loaded with plenty of bright berry flavors, as promised by its name (L.A. Wine Co., $14.95). Another option is the 1996 Travaglini Gattinara (Topline, $14.99), an early drinking Italian Nebbiolo in an odd, off-kilter bottle.
Contrast: Try King Estate's Pinot Gris (Wally's, $11.99), which offers loads of body and tart fruit-cocktail flavors.
Caesar salad is in itself a study in contrasts, salty, slightly bitter, astringent and pungent all at once. Life is short: By all means, purchase the best-quality anchovies you can afford, and give them a quick soak in cold milk to disgorge some salt. Then open a bottle of 2000 Keller Estate's Sonoma Coast "La Cruz Vineyard" chardonnay; it's opulent and oaky, but not over the top (L.A. Wine Co., $21.95).
L.A. Wine Co., 4935 McConnell Ave., Unit 8, Los Angeles; (310) 306-9463.
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Topline Wine & Spirit Co., 4718 San Fernando Road, Glendale; (818) 500-9670.
Wally's, 2107 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 475-0606.
Wine Expo, 2933 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 828-4428.
The Wine House, 2311 Cotner Ave., Los Angeles; (310) 479-3731.