Summertime means backyard cooking season, and whether that is grilling or smoking, Southern barbecue, hot dogs, steaks, burgers, pork, lamb, chicken or seafood, there’s a wine that will pair perfectly with any outdoor occasion.
Last week I wrote Part 1 of this 2-Part series here at Forbes, Best Whiskey For Your BBQ, on why whiskey is a traditional spirit pairing with slow smoked Southern style barbecue and other grilled meats, and I recommended specific labels, including two new whiskies developed specifically to go with BBQ.
Today I’m tackling wine, which goes with a much broader array of foods cooked outdoors. It’s Independence Day week, so I am slanting heavily domestic. Also, because summer backyard entertaining tends to be fun, casual and often involves a lot of guests, I’ve tried to keep the wine picks more accessible and reasonably priced while still delivering high quality, though there are a couple of splurges. But if you are having a special or fancier outdoor dinner and want to roll out finer wines, check out this holiday entertaining piece I did before Thanksgiving and Christmas on more luxurious red wines that are great with a variety of foods.
Let’s start with some general expert advice on wine pairing for outdoor cooking. I say expert because today I have enlisted the help of a true, bona fide expert on these subjects and on all things wine and all things grilled or smoked, namely Meathead Goldwyn, member of the BBQ Hall of Fame. He is best known to backyard cooks as the founder of website Amazingribs.com and author of New York Times bestselling cookbook Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling (also named one of the 100 Best Cookbooks of All-Time by Southern Living magazine). Amazingribs.com is full of great cooking advice and recipes but it is also – by far – the best critical and detailed review site for hardware, with deep dives into every kind of grill, smoker, pizza oven, griddle and outdoor oven you can imagine. I always check it before acquiring any new backyard gear.
But despite his name, Meathead knows more than meat, and he founded the World Wine Championships, wrote hundreds of articles on wine and beverages for the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, and lectured on wine for more than a decade at the prestigious Cornell School of Hotel Administration. There are many more wine, food and BBQ accolades in his long resume, but needless to say, he is the only person I know who has judged both the biggest BBQ competitions (like the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational) and top wine competitions (Italy’s Banco d’Assagio, Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, California State Fair, etc.). You can learn more about him here.
“On a hot summer day, you need cold refreshing drinks, so for wine, go with rosé wines, orange wines, and white wines with a hint of sweetness like riesling and chenin blanc. I like to serve sparkling wines from the Moscato grape like prosecco and Asti spumante, and I add some excitement with a splash of raspberry liqueur. You can have a few reds, especially if you are serving steaks. Mention wine for barbecue and everybody in California says Zinfandel, and with good reason. They vary so greatly, from rosé to light red, to inky dark robust. But it’s hard to beat a big Cabernet or well-aged Bordeaux with a darkly seared steak, and when it comes to salmon from the Pacific Northwest, get me a Pinot Noir from Oregon.”
Meathead’s advice is spot on, but personally I have also discovered a new favorite secret summer wine that goes with a lot of outdoor cooking because it’s red, but bubbly and cold – Italy’s lambrusco, a lightly sparkling lighter bodied red wine. Not surprisingly, it comes from Italy’s gourmet epicenter and highest quality food region (which is saying something), Emilia-Romagna. As Food & Wine magazine put it, “Lambrusco’s home is the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, northeast of Tuscany. Bologna is its capital, and the region in general is renowned for its rich gastronomic history: Classics of Italian cuisine – balsamic vinegar of Modena, Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, and mortadella – are all from there. It only makes sense, then, that Lambrusco is a wonderfully food-friendly wine, with the ability to pair well with rich and light dishes alike.”
However, because it’s a little-known wine and not a lot gets to our shores, it’s one for which I don’t have a particular recommendation – you’ll be lucky at most wine shops if there is more than one choice. In general, look for one with Italy’s DOC quality designation and give it a try, served chilled.
Otherwise, here are some particular wines I have tried this year that fit well into the backyard grilling and barbecue lifestyle.
Rosé: Meathead makes a good point and rosés are the perfect white/red compromise that can pair well with everything from seafood (especially shellfish), chicken and veggies to lighter meat dishes, including things like pork chops and less heavily seasoned meats. A couple of years ago the popularity of French rosés, the best of which come from Provence and the south, exploded, along with a jump in price and drop in predictability of quality. This year I have been checking out domestic competition and really like Benovia’s Rosé of Pinot Noir from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. In many ways pinot noir might be considered the most food friendly or versatile red wine grape, so it makes sense as a “bigger” rosé that can transfer even more broadly into the spectrum of backyard cooking. It’s crispness goes well with spicier dishes and it’s acidity can handle a little more fat ($34).
Jospeh Jewell is another top California winery making a food friendly 2022 Rosé of Pinot Noir from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. The salinity and minerality remind me more of Provence, meaning seafood and shellfish are perfect with it ($30).
Another higher-end Sonoma option is Bricoleur Vineyards 2022 Kick Ranch Rosé of Grenache. 2022 was a great harvest and this one is lower in alcohol and quite elegant, better paired with seafood, veggies and the white meat end of the buffet ($36).
If you are looking to save some cash while entertaining a crowd, I finally found a boxed rosé I can get behind – probably because it is from Italy. Rosie Giovese Vine Rosato is oddly named because of its sister red wine, Sandy Giovese Vino Rosso, in turn a play on words from Tuscany’s famous grape, Sangiovese, which makes Chianti. The red was just named one of the 10 Best Boxed Wines on the Market by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov. The new company behind them is dedicated to producing premium, sustainable boxed wines, and these both come entirely from organic, chemical-free, native Italian grapes (for the rosé mostly from the Marche region). One 3-Liter box (under $35) contains the equivalent of four glass bottles but claims to have just one-tenth the carbon footprint of a single glass bottle. This moderate alcohol rose is unusual in that it has no residual sugar, resulting in a bone-dry yet fruity wine that pairs great with fatty fish (aka salmon or halibut) and all sorts of grilled/ roasted vegetables.
Whites: Riesling is a varietal famously good with foods but one that gets overlooked in this country, in part because it’s a confusing wine and the great Austrian and German labels are very difficult for U.S. consumers to understand. But if you’re looking for an easy-drinking wine that goes very well with the flavors of grilled summer veggies, try Hillick & Hobbs 2020 Estate Dry Riesling. This is the New York Finger Lakes label from acclaimed winemaker Paul Hobbs, and the Finger Lakes are especially renowned for Rieslings. It is best with oil and vinegar Mediterranean dishes such as grilled eggplant, zucchini, squash, peppers, often hard to pair asparagus and salads with oil and vinegar-based dressings. ($35)
I’m a fan of Cliff Lede wines from Napa’s prestugious Stag’s Leap district,, especially the big reds, but I could not leave out their sauvignon blanc, probably my personal favorite white food grape, able to handle spicier, more robust foods as well as delicate seafood and chicken. The 2022 Cliff Lede Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc takes an Old-World approach and includes some rich Sémillon grape, for a wine that has a lot of layered fruit that can move from seafood into white meats. ($34)
There’s good reason why sauvignon blanc (aka Sancerre in the Loie Valley) is one of the world’s most planted varietals, because it makes delicious wines that go well with food, and for the grill this runs the gamut from shellfish and white fish to poultry and pork. If your dish or side dish has green herbs (parsley, basil, etc.) it’s also probably going to work.
So, if you want to splurge for a standout white, check out Lail Vineyards Blueprint 2022 Sauvignon Blanc ($60). It’s got everything you could want, minerality, citrus fruit, apple, pear, melon, crispiness and creamy texture. This is the real deal, and one I would gladly drink it on its own savoring each sip, but it goes so well with food it would be a waste. In France, sauvignon blanc gets paired with goat cheese, and this would be a perfect bottle for a pre-dinner cheese plate in summer. Winemaker Robin Lail is a fourth-generation vintner, the great grandniece of Inglenook Vineyards founder Gustav Niebaum, and the family has been making wine in Napa since 1879. Lail Vineyards make nothing but sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, and the three reds run $185-$1200 and are mostly sold to their mailing list. The excellent 2022 Blueprint is the “entry level,” while the still available 2019 Blueprint got 96-points from Wine Enthusiast and is worth seeking out ($90). The 2021 Georgia, entirely made with fruit from a 3-acre estate vineyard, is $170.
My new favorite label discovery this year has been Grounded Wine Co., ever since I fell in love with their great value cabernet sauvignon (more detail below) but they also make a seriously good white buy, the 2021 Grounded by Josh Phelps Sauvignon Blanc ($15). It’s 100% California sauvignon blanc with citrus and green apple, easy drinking, easy on the wallet and while I often pair crisper sauvignon blancs with spicier Asian dishes, this one is solidly a seafood choice.
I’m not a fan of California chardonnay with food, they tend to be oaky in a way that overpowers other flavors rather than complementing them, which is maybe why Meathead did not mention it. But white burgundy or Chablis is the king of chardonnay wines, and the French style tends to be unoaked, more delicate – and much better with food. One pairing rule of thumb for unoaked Burgundian style chardonnay has always been that it goes with just about anything you would squeeze lemon on, like white fish and raw fish dishes such as ceviche, so if I was serving that, I’d look at the superstar lineup from Sonoma’s Benovia, the same winery that makes the Rosé of Pinot Noir from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley I recommended above. Their lineup includes four premium labels, three of which have scored 94, 95 and 95 points from Wine Enthusiast. The Three Sisters is the most Burgundian and you can still find the 95-point 2019 ($55) – and you should. There’s also the 2020 release and the more affordable 2019 Sonoma County Chardonnay ($30).
Reds: I’ve been a fan of Frank Family Vineyards reds for years. They make one of your classic big, blockbuster steakhouse-style Napa cabs, and while it is not cheap ($60), the 2019 Frank Family Napa Valley Cabernet. still sits a notable price point below many of its peers in this section of the wine list (like Silver Oak and Caymus, both of which I love) and is reliably good with any kind of steak. But this year I’ve expanded my horizons and have been drinking the 2019 Frank Family Napa Valley Zinfandel, which is less expensive ($45), just as delicious, and while it still goes great with every kind of steak, zinfandel has long been my choice for crossing over into the world of slow smoked BBQ. This goes well with BBQ sauces and dry rubs, great for brisket and also works wonders with pork spareribs.
Meathead likes his pinot noir with Alaskan salmon but I like it with just about everything that involves meat, as it is the most versatile food red. Sonoma’s Joseph Jewell 2020 Panther Ridge Pinot Noir is a premium choice ($55), and would be perfect for when you are having a small dinner party with something fatty bn but not heavy like salmon or lamb. It is fruity and has a greet mouthfeel/texture for food, full bodied for pinot but not bold like bigger reds, both easy to drink and compatible with heavier foods, which is unusual. The traditional pairing for pinot is lamb and this would kill it, but I would drink it with the entire white and lighter red meat spectrum, including pork chops. Joseph Jewell is the same winery making the excellent 2022 Rosé of Pinot Noir above, and you also won’t go wrong with their more affordable ($40) Eel River Valley Pinot Noir, with a little more red berry fruitiness matching well with white and red meats.
The best buy of summer this year for me has been the thankful discovery of Grounded by Josh Phelps 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon. I love this wine, it has all the food pairing characteristics of big California cabs but it’s softer, less tannic, doesn’t need to sit for years, is ready to drink right now. The flavor profile makes it perfect for the usual cabs suspects, thick Prime steaks, but the softer approach also favors everything from burgers, hot dogs and sausages to lamb and I’ve had it with pork chops as well. At an MSRP of just $18 you simply cannot beat this label, and if I didn’t know I would think it cost twice as much – at least. With this price tag it is officially my burger night wine.
Winemaker Josh Phelps grew up in California wine country, his father was a winemaker, and he founded Grounded Wines with the mission statement “to create wines that evoke a sense of place. Intriguing, clean, balanced, and accessible, Grounded Wine Co. produces terroir-driven wines with an emphasis on quality and experience.” He is not a grower, and sources from California and the Pacific Northwest. Grounded also makes a more traditional “older” style cab, with all Napa Valley grapes, Steady State, and it is also a great choice – and definitely worth trying if you are a California cab lover – but it’s $65 and personally I’d rather have three bottles of the Grounded by Josh Phelps.
It’s not a varietal that gets a lot of press, but there is certainly something to be said for cabernet franc as a summer food wine, especially with smoked meat and barbecue sauces. The latter tend to be sweet or a bit spicy, while the meats tend to be rich, smoky and generally high in fat. That can be a tough combination, you want something on the bigger side, full-bodied enough to stand up but not too tannic, as this tends to make spicy foods taste bitter. I’ve enjoyed a lot of success drinking Lang & Reed’s 2021 North Coast Cabernet Franc ($45) with the strong flavors of barbecued meats and sauces. It’s got just the right amount of tannin, while the predominant cherry and berry fruit flavors are a perfect match for the typically sweet BBQ sauces. At the same time, it’s got a subtle spiciness that goes well with the black pepper many grilled or smoked foods are seasoned with. This is really flexible but high-quality food-friendly wine from the Napa Valley. In general, Americans serve and drink red wines too warm, not realizing that the idea of “room temperature” comes from room temperature in a castle several centuries ago, where it tended to be basement cool all the time, closer to chilled. This is a red wine that you can actually pop in the fridge before serving in summer.
Thanks to the explosion of affordable, quality outdoor pizza ovens in recent years, a LOT more people are making pizza. I love Italian wines and when I cook pizza outside, I often serve chianti, but when I recently paired Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro with steaks, my guests were like “This is chianti? It’s sooo good.” Ruffino is a well-known producer, but it only makes the Riserva Ducale Oro label in outstanding vintages, mostly from Ruffino’s Gretole estate in Tuscany. Lots of dried red fruit, have it with beef, grilled vegetables – or pizza, and it’s a high-quality value proposition at just under $40. Don’t forget that this region gave the world one of its greatest grilled steak specialties, Bistecca di Fiorentina, and I’d serve this with it.