There's nothing like going on vacation to put life into perspective. I just spent two weeks at the beach with my wife, Sara, and her side of the family, and learned some new lessons about the relationship of quality and context, and how sometimes the desire to have the very best can get in the way of appreciating the truly good.
Every summer, we rent a big house on a scruffy island near Charleston in South Carolina and fill it with friends and relatives. We spend most of our waking hours in three places: riding waves in the ocean, playing cards on the screened porch and telling stories around the dinner table. Sara's family motto is "We live to eat; we fight to cook," and during the vacation, everyone takes turns trying to top each other's meals. As a way of life, it's pretty close to perfect.
This year, in an effort to get closer yet, I added another goal: to find the perfect summer wine. It would have to be refreshing enough to beat back temperatures in the 90s, delicate enough to marry with the shrimp that stars in almost every meal down there, and casual enough to be appropriate with swimsuits and sandals. When we arrived, I picked up a mixed case (average bottle cost $12) from the very good wine selection at a Harris Teeter grocery store in Charleston, and figured I'd buy more as necessary at the down-home Piggly-Wiggly on the island. Here's a record of the experiment.
Saturday: On the way to the house, we stop at Thomas Bessinger's ("Voted South Carolina's Best Barbecue") and pick up chopped barbecued pork, potato salad and cole slaw. A fruity Rosemount Shiraz 1997 is a good match with Bessinger's signature mustard-based sauce, but the wine seems a bit thick and heavy on the palate, and we leave the bottle half full.
Monday: The Bell family has been fishing off the island for 30 years, and the catch--mostly shrimp, with a few big fish--is sold at Bell Buoy Sea Food. We boil up three pounds of shrimp with potatoes and corn.
A Castello d'Albola Pinot Grigio 1997 from Friuli, in northeastern Italy, is clean and fresh, with light appley fruit; it makes a perfect spritzer, but gets lost with the meal. A 1997 Honig barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley has more character, but the toasty oak notes clash with the clean flavors of the food.
Wednesday: After hearing my stories of eating in Paris this past spring (watch for my report in Wine Spectator's Oct. 15 issue), the family demands a taste, so I recreate a squab dish I enjoyed at Michelin two-star Apicius. I stuff chicken breasts with onions, mushrooms and bread crumbs, then wrap them in prosciutto and bake them in white wine.
An Estancia Chardonnay 1996 from Monterey County makes a real impact, rich with tropical fruity and spicy oak, but it's too exuberant for the dish. A Castello di Gabbiano Chianti 1996 seems light and thin at first, but its smoky and bitter cherry flavors fit perfectly with the salty ham and earthy stuffing, and at the end of the meal the bottle is empty.
Friday: The first official "Children's Dinner." My niece, Anna Belle, and nephew, Zack, have been happily eating all these years, but now they're teenagers, and they decide to take their turn at the stove, along with Mari Catherine, a friend making her first visit. They create shish kebabs of shrimp, chicken, pineapple, Vidalia onions and green bell peppers, grill them and serve them over rice simmered in coconut milk and jalapeno peppers. To use the teens' terminology, the dinner is "extreme."
A Michel Lynch Sauvignon Blanc Bordeaux 1997 has good, citrusy varietal character, but tastes washed-out next to the vivid flavors of the shish kebabs. So I try something more powerful--a Bernardus Chardonnay 1996 from Monterey. It's full-bodied, rich with toasty oak, luscious with honey, melon and tropical fruit flavors. But it doesn't jell with the food, turning almost bitter against the sweetness of the coconut and the Vidalias. Oh, well.
Saturday: Sara's younger sister Carrie loves NASCAR racing and throwing darts and driving a pickup truck. She always cooks a traditional Southern dinner. This year, she makes roast pork, macaroni and cheese, steamed corn and cole slaw. The Bernardus still doesn't work, tasting hot and harsh. A 1994 barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon from Gallo of Sonoma tastes almost Australian in the sweetness of its vanilla oak and the ripe intensity of its core of fruit. It's a better match with the food, but, like the Rosemount, rather heavy for the weather.
Sunday: My mother-in-law, Nancy, puts an elegant spin on her meal by serving two courses: first, traditional shrimp cocktail on chopped iceberg lettuce (the way her mother served it, she told us) and her own spicy cocktail sauce, followed by grilled red snapper with steamed new potatoes and sauteed zucchini.
An Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio delle Venezie 1996, fresh and light, served almost iced, is perfect with the shrimp, an almost neutral backdrop with a snap of acidity like a squeeze of lemon. And a Louis Latour Montagny Premier Cru 1996, full-bodied yet austere, is just as good with the smoky, meaty snapper. I'm beginning to draw some conclusions: look for acidity, avoid excessive oak.
Wednesday: Rebecca, Sara's older sister, is an artist who takes a creative approach to life and cooking. She dreams up her own version of gumbo, with shrimp, snapper, tomato, okra and a rainbow of assorted spices, from jalapeno and Tabasco to ketchup, mustard and Jamaican Pickapeppa sauce. Only the heat of the dish forces us stop eating long enough to taste the wines.
A Kendall-Jackson Sauvignon Blanc 1997 is round and fruity, and it goes down easy. But a better match is a light, unoaked, barely fruity Georges Duboeuf Chardonnay Vin de Pays d'Oc 1997, which is clean and refreshing. Somehow, the lesser wine is the better match for the dish.
Thursday: Sara, who has made grilling her specialty, cooks her whole meal over charcoal: sirloin strip steaks, shrimp marinated in orange juice and jalapenos, portobello mushrooms, zucchini and summer squash. The red wine drinkers lean toward the turf, the white wine lovers toward the surf, but by the end of the meal we're all picking off each other's plates.
The wine selection is a true odd couple. I have one bottle left from the original case: a Paul Jaboulet Aine Crozes-Hermitage Les Jalets 1995, a racy and elegant red from France's northern Rhone Valley. For whites, I've had to rely on the local Pig, which clearly sells more beer than wine. The selection is heavy on big jugs and blush wines. I take a flyer on a Beringer Chenin Blanc 1997. As it turns out, the pair makes two delicious matches. The fruity, slightly sweet Chenin picks up the citrus and pepper notes in the shrimp, while the smoky Crozes has just the right mix of fruit and tannin for the steak and the mushrooms.
Friday: Our last night, and we go back to the basics, with another boiled dinner of shrimp (we've spent $200 at Bell Buoy since we arrived), new potatoes and Silver Queen sweet corn. We put it all on big platters and eat most everything with our fingers.
Trying to learn from experience, I serve a Louis Jadot Macon-Villages 1996, a clean, fresh Chardonnay with good body and little oak. It's fine, but tastes a bit austere against the light flavors of the dinner. Much to my surprise, a Beringer White Zinfandel 1997 is much better. It's light enough to match the weight of the meal, and its fruity sweetness echoes nicely against the sweet corn and shrimp. And to keep the correspondences coming, the pink wine is the color of our faces after a day in the Carolina sun.
What conclusions can I draw from this savory experiment?
First, white wine is generally more summer-friendly than red. But red isn't out of the question. It just needs to be light and clean, without too much heavy tannin or rich fruit. A slightly bitter or peppery note is an asset when it comes to matching grilled foods.
Second, simpler wines are easier to match with summer foods than more complex ones. But elegance counts, too--the more refined Crozes-Hermitage worked better than the jammy Shiraz, though both are made with the Syrah grape.
Third, a light, fruity sweetness is more adaptable to summer conditions than the more conventional virtues of complexity, oakiness or full body. Many summer dishes feature either sweetness or heat, and sweet wines such as the Chenin Blanc make nimble partners, quenching thirst without getting in the way of the flavors.
Finally, I realized that sometimes the best wine isn't the best wine for the occasion. Most of the wines I liked the most during the vacation were inexpensive and uncomplicated. Average wines that might only rate 75 to 79 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, they are too often unfairly maligned as thin or neutral or simple. But when you're tingling with the heat and salt of high tide and the shrimp is turning pink on the grill, these simple wines hit you where it helps.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised. After all, the whole point of a beach vacation is to leave life's trappings behind. When you're floating in the ocean, you don't need fancy clothes or expensive toys. Even ambitious goals seem like excess baggage. So why uncork a 95-point wine? My advice: Hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your wine-cellar door, slather on the suntan lotion and head for the shore.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from New York bureau chief Thomas Matthews. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.