As cool weather gives way to warm, and hot not far off, many people feel the need to switch gears in their wine-drinking. Room-temp red becomes less interesting than chilled, crisp white, and picnics conjure up stuff that's soft, slightly sweet and quaffable.
Stocking up wine for summer takes just as much thought as buying wine for those dinners by the fireplace, yet few wine shops are savvy enough to suggest the right warm-afternoon wines. There is these days a mania in America for Chardonnay, and since so much of this wine is white (thus chillable) and soft and slightly sweet, one might assume Chardonnay would be a great picnic quaff. Many wine shop owners still recommend it.
Bad thinking. After Petite Sirah, Chardonnay is my least-favorite picnic wine because of the high alcohol (above 13% in most cases) and the heavy oak flavor the wines often have. And in cheaper wines, that oak flavoring is not derived from aging in a barrel, but from the winemaker's latest trick: dipping in a huge teabag filled with oak chips.
What I look for in picnic and patio wine is good, strong, fruity flavor--something to compete with the charcoal briquettes burning in the firepit--and alcohol low enough not to intrude on the taste of the fruit.
Stocking up doesn't require a cellar. In the few months you will have the wine before it's consumed, nothing will happen to it if it's kept relatively cool (70 degrees is fine) and out of direct light. And I do suggest buying at least a case of wine to be sure you'll get good wine before it all sells out, and to have a few extra bottles around in case of emergencies, such as friends popping by unexpectedly, which always seems to happen.
If you look at the summer as comprising 12 weekends during which you and your friends will consume a bottle per weekend day, you'll need two cases of wine at minimum. So with that in mind, here are my suggestions for what to buy. Note that you may have to replenish the supply faster than you might think, especially if the wine is so good people drink it faster than you expect.
* Chenin Blanc: This grape makes the great wines of Vouvray in France and, in California, a wine with a softer, more melony aroma and taste, perfect for picnics. Four bottles.
* German Riesling: A must for the summer. Try various producers of Kabinett or Spatlese wines, which are not totally dry but offer marvelous acidity and balance with less alcohol than most wines--about 10%. Four bottles.
* Gewurztraminer: I am smitten with this usually off-dry white wine. I prefer it drier so it matches with canapes and sandwiches. My summer buying pattern calls for a whole case of various producers' Gewurztraminers, but unless you have the same sort of fetish for it that I do, I'd recommend three bottles.
* Sparkling wine: Light, crisp and a perfect summer beverage. Bubbly is always in fashion, and it is a great substitute for heavier white wines. Three bottles.
* Sauvignon Blanc: You need not pay much more than $7 for some of the best of these wines, and usually you can find excellent wines in the $5 to $6 range. A great all-purpose wine, excellent with food. Three bottles.
* Rose: Here we have the true all-purpose wine, usually made with enough flavor but still dry enough to match with food. Chilled, it is appealing to cool off with all by itself at poolside. Buy only the best ($9 a bottle or so) to make sure you're getting a high-quality rose, though Grenache Rose is being made better these days and may be found at $7 to $8. Three bottles.
* Beaujolais: Great light red wine such as this is a real treat, especially when chilled and served with hearty foods. Three bottles.
* Lighter-styled Zinfandel: Buy one bottle of a good Zinfandel for those moments when the evening air suddenly chills and demands a better, richer, heartier wine.
One final tip: Buy only the youngest vintages of any of these wines, and from producers whose names you know.