Sommelier Steven Grubbs of Empire State South in Atlanta has a 1982 Catalina 25 that he sails on Georgia's Lake Lanier less often than he'd like to. Here, he shares 12 wines that are better than beer for an all-day boat excursion.

Steven Grubbs
Credit: © Jordan Noel

“It’s actually in pretty good shape for being 34 years old,” says Sommelier Steven Grubbs, of Empire State South in Atlanta, referring to his vintage sailboat. “But there are so many shi**y boats on our dock that I'm always reminded of that Jimmy Buffett cover from Living and Dying in ¾ Time.” It may seem an unlikely setting for enjoying a mixed case of wine, and, he argues, that's precisely why it's so perfect.

Traditionally, Grubbs and his friends would procure cans of beer when planning a day out on the lake, and they keep a few bottles of rum stashed on board as the ‘house beverage.’ Then one day last season, he threw a bottle of Lustau Manzanilla Sherry into the mix to see if it could be equally as thirst-quenching for the boating crowd. “So here we were, slugging Manzanilla out of the bottle and eating snacks,” he says, “and it blew my mind that you could be on a lake, drinking wine that tastes like the ocean and have that transportative feeling of actually being on the ocean. Everybody went crazy over it.”

He’s since upped his game in terms of the selection of wines he brings on board, but he notes that there are certain rules. “Bringing expensive bottles doesn’t make sense, and one doesn’t go sailing with Zalto glasses, either,” he says. “You’re probably drinking out of a vessel that’s not ideal, so you don’t want the wines to be the most complex you can find, but acidity is crucial, because you want them to have a delicious, refreshing character.”

Here, the 12 bottles Grubbs deems boatworthy:

1. 2015 Commanderie de la Bargemone Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé
“This is a great example of classic, easy Provençal rosé that smells kind of salty and has great lift. This estate has crazy history too; it goes back to the 13th Century and the Templar knights, so there may some Illuminati involved… For me, rosé is a quintessential spring beverage, and Bargemone is one that every year is awesome. It has that sea air-meets-ripe strawberries thing going on.”

2. 2014 Domaine Pichot ‘Le Peu de la Moriette’ Vouvray Demi-Sec
“This is Pichot’s entry-level Vouvray. It’s from three different vineyard sites that are then blended together. I’ve worked with it a lot in the past, and the value aspect is incredible (it retails for about $15). There’s a few grams of residual in there – just enough to make it really juicy and drinkable but not sweet. It also has great acidity – which is so important when you’re hot and sweaty out there on the water – plus that stony-salty Loire Chenin Blanc thing. It even tastes great out of a plastic cup.”

3. NV Bodegas César Florido Fino Sherry
“The César Florido bodega is in Chipiona, right next to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, so their style of Fino is a little like a Manzanilla. It’s also one of the most unusual Finos I’ve ever had. It has the sea air salty thing, but it also has this great pear skin kind of softness on the nose. I love the Florido stuff in general; they’re really beautiful, interesting wines. They make a Moscatel in a similar style that’s really cool.”

4. 2014 Claude Riffault ‘Les Boucauds’ Sancerre
“So, Riffault has always been kind of a pet favorite of mine, and the wines have gotten better and better over the years. Stéphane Riffault, Claude’s son, took over the estate a while back, and since then the quality has just skyrocketed. His style is very much this razor-like, rocky-salty expression of Sauvignon Blanc. He changes how he handles it in the cellar depending on the vineyard site and makes 5 or 6 cuvées, each with a different attitude. Les Boucauds comes off of plots near the cellar, right there in the northwest section of the Sancerre appellation. There’s some neutral wood on it to open it up a little bit, because it would be really stern otherwise. The 2014 shows such a great balance of that acid and chalk with enough fruit to keep it juicy.”

5. 2014 La Nevera ‘Selección Especial’ Gran Vino Tinto
“This is a really fun one. It’s a little specialty project put together by Olé Imports. It turns out: not only are they great at nerdy Galician wines; they’re also great at everyday value-based stuff, and that’s the category this falls under. It’s actually box wine! The juice is declassified Rioja from Rioja Alta made from Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano and some Viura. It’s insane how delicious it is for being so inexpensive. You can draw off of it, maybe throw it in the cooler to chill… put some ice cubes in it, why not? People are so obsessed these days with unicorn wines and expensive stuff and impressing their friends that we’ve lost the ability to just have something to drink every once in a while. So, having a great box wine that is actually from a respectable winemaker, packaged by people who really know what they’re doing, is totally awesome. I gave my dad two boxes of it for his birthday.”

6. NV Marc Hébrart Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Champagne
“Sommeliers pretty much need to travel with Grower Champagne all the time or else we get grumpy. So, it’s definitely necessary on a boat. I also envision this big dramatic moment when someone nearby has a new boat they need to christen. It could be useful for that. But: I love this Blanc de Blancs. It has the acidity. It has that refreshing quality you want. There’s a little degree of opulence, a little bit of fruit – more in the apple zone of Chardonnay than just citrus – but there’s also great mineral detail too. The Hébrart wines are great at bridging the gap between the really cerebral Champagnes and the more opulent, sensual stuff.”

7. 2014 Marcel Lapierre Morgon
“Red wine probably shouldn’t be your focus on the boat, but if you’re going to have just one or two reds, this has to be in there. Put it in the cooler, pull it out at around 55 degrees, and drink it out of a solo cup. It’s just terrific. Of all the big name important cru Beaujolais producers, Lapierre gets that vibrant, mouthwatering red fruit quality better than anybody. The wines are so remarkable because they’re beautiful both young and with some age on them. And in their youth they don’t even feel young; they just feel comfortable, drinkable.”

8. 2014 Garofoli ‘Macrina’ Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi
“Garofoli is one of the bigger, more benchmark producers in the Marche, and the family is associated with elevating the style of Verdicchio. This is their entry-level bottling, so it’s really accessible but also delicious for the money. It’s a really versatile white. Being from Castelli di Jesi, it has that coastal freshness, but it can really show its weight and power with the right dishes. So, it feels big when you need it to be big, and it feels crisp and refreshing when that’s what you need it to be, with that bitter almond phenolic thing that’s so nice about whites from that part of the country.”

9. 2014 A.J. Adam Mosel Riesling Trocken
“I always try to snag bottles of A.J. Adam Riesling when I can find them. I would argue they’re some of the best wines being made in the Mosel, period. Adam is a young renegade guy. He started the estate when he was 24… kind of a prodigy. And in terms of the boat scenario: I always want margaritas on the boat, but it’s such a pain to make them, get them to the boat, and keep them cold. So I almost feel that the Adam Trocken is like the wine version of margaritas at a very high level. It has a limey citrus thing and a beautiful floral component, then racy, dry, mineral. Drinking it on a boat rather than decanting it and taking your time with it is slightly a disservice to the wine, but whatever. This is the one I would drink myself and maybe not share with the friends.”

10. 2013 Ameztoi ‘Hijo de Rubentis’ Extra Brut Sparkling Rosé
“This is about as good of a rosé Champagne impersonation as you can get. It’s a blend of Hondarribi Zuri and Hondarribi Beltza, but using the Champagne method rather than the Txacoli style. The bubble structure is more like Champagne than Txacoli spritz: tighter, more refined. And there’s a distinct Cabernet Franc-like character that it gets from the Hondarribi Beltza grapes. So, it’s incredibly interesting to drink something that looks and feels like Champagne and then has that unexpected sort of green herb note. It’s just plain fun.”

11. 2014 Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko
“I mean, come on. Greek wine and boats? You don’t need any more reasoning than that. The Greeks brought wine to the world and they brought boats to the world. This is also another bottle that makes you feel like you’re on the ocean just by drinking it – salty, mineral, crisp, refreshing. In terms of the producers on Santorini, Sigalas is kind of widespread and widely available, but they’re so benchmark. This is one of those examples where the biggest producer is also the personal favorite.”

12. 2014 Lioco Sonoma County Chardonnay
“This is one of the rare California Chardonnays that has tons of white rock minerality. When you do come across them, they can be pretty expensive, which is why it’s impressive that O’Connor and Licklider can achieve that in a wine at this price point. And once John Raytek became involved as winemaker, the quality somehow got even better. The wines became so good. The ’14 in particular… it just delivers.”