The Wines of Summer

~ By RICHARD FOSS ~Originally publisghed in LA CityBeat August 2008

Roberto Rogness, General Manager of Wine Expo, has an admirable ability to refine complex questions to their essentials.

“When you told me what you were looking for, I put the question on one of the largest wine discussion boards on the internet,” he announced. “They have tens of thousands of subscribers all over the world.”

“So how many replies did you get,” I asked.

“Eight, so far” he said with a grin. It seemed like an awfully small response to an easy question – what are the best wines for a summer picnic? Roberto quantified the question better than I possibly could; he asked this august group to suggest California wines that were refreshing, with good acidity, no oak, under 13% alcohol, and under $20, and if they cost under $15 it would be even better. “They were just stunned,” he smirked. “Some of them told me, we don’t make many of those wines here. I got a few good suggestions, some Pinot Gris from Oregon, Chenin Blancs from Mendocino County. Those kind of wines are difficult to make in California because of our climate, so we’ll be tasting European wines today.”

Roberto had assembled a master class in summer wines for us to taste – but first, he started a discussion of just what a summer wine is.

“People ask me about what to serve with summer meals, and I ask, do you want to be refreshed or do you want to be restored? When it’s cold and rainy and you’re eating comfort food, you want to be restored, you drink Amarone, which is 15% alcohol, big and fat and round like a hug from your favorite auntie. When it’s 115 degrees out and you’re doing barbecue or Mexican, you want to be refreshed. What’s more important than the food is the environment… when it’s 100 degrees and 90% humidity, no matter what you’re eating, you want something cold, light, and fruity. People come into this store sometimes when it’s roasting hot and ask for a big, alcoholic red and I wonder what the heck they’re doing with it.”

I had brought a picnic basket from the Marmalade Café in Santa Monica, and as I unpacked it, he poured the first glass – not of wine, but of a Manoir du Parc pear cider. “You have some chips and salsa there, and this will be perfect,” he enthused. “Pears have an amino acid that counteracts the capsicum, so you can eat something very spicy and this will cool it right down.” I noted that the cider has a whopping 3% alcohol, more than Martinelli’s but less than anything else you might buy at a liquor store. The salsa was milder than expected, but the very good spicy guacamole was an apt test, and the cider passed it. We continued with a Rosé Prosecco from Italy, which Roberto rhapsodized about as he poured.

“In Italy, you can’t move without people shoving salty pork products and Prosecco at you. Every wine bar in the Veneto, on the bar are corn nuts, snack food that is divine with prosecco!” Sure enough, the salty chips, salsa, and guacamole brought out the fruit and fizz in this sparkler.

We continued with Lambrusco, a wine I usually think of as one you stop drinking when you come of legal age. Roberto nodded.

“If you ask people if they’d like a glass of a slightly fruity dark red wine that’s cold and sparkling, they’ll run in the other direction. If you just hand it to them, they will pound it and say ‘more, please!” Sure enough, it was excellent with the chips, the peppered beef with horseradish sauce (a favorite from the Marmalade picnic) and with everything but the mango salsa, which had too much sweetness for a good pairing.

The conversation diverted to whether wine is really too fragile for picnics. “I tell people, think of this bottle as a quart of milk or a live kitten, and treat it accordingly. That said, it takes a lot of energy to heat it – if we give you a bottle straight from the cooler, in a box that helps insulate it, it will still be drinkable two hours later unless you leave it baking in your car the whole time.”

We continued through a cavalcade of wines, most of them Italian, while enjoying Roberto’s cheerfully opinionated commentary. There was a Marche Rosso (“Mediterranean sun in a bottle, great with red sauce BBQ”), a Verduzzo from Friuli (“Like biting into a ripe peach. The style is called amabile, which means amiable, because it goes with everything”), and Sangiovese (“A great burger wine. Any Sangiovese that costs more than $20.00 is probably too spoofilated and oaky to work.“) We finished with an amazing dessert wine (“We call Moscato d’Asti the zombie detector, because if you don’t like it, you’re probably dead.”) It was stupendous with a lemon tart topped with berries and a caramel-jam crumble tart, though it didn’t stand up to a brownie-like chocolate cake that was richly creamy (Coffee and brandy, that’s what that needs!”)

As we packed up the leftovers and corked bottles, I asked Roberto about the danger of dehydration while drinking wine on a hot day.

“You need to drink eight ounces of water for every four ounces of wine. Some people come back from Europe saying, I don’t get headaches when I drink there, it must be something in the wine. No, it’s that there, they force-feed you mineral water between glasses of wine. In America, you start drinking adult beverages and stop drinking water – it’s part of the culture.“

So pack a Pellegrino in with that Prosecco and head for the Bowl or the beach. Put as much thought into your beverages as you do to the rest of the experience, and you’ll find that fine wines go with sunshine as well as candlelight.

Wine Expo is at 2933 Santa Monica Boulevard – Phone 310-828-4428. The Marmalade Café has several locations – our picnic came from 710 Montana Avenue in Santa Monica – Phone 310-395-9196.

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