The Wines of Summer
Everyone knows that summer reading is a genre that owes more to page quantity than to quality, that summer attire is something few bodies are flattered by and that a summer house is one of the best ways of guaranteeing you'll never lack for friends. But what constitutes a summer wine? Is it red? Is it white? Does it sparkle like Champagne or glow pink like a sunset?
In search of consensus (and a recommendation or two), I turned to the Hamptons, that impossibly chic collection of towns on eastern Long Island where people have been known to spend more than $100,000 for the privilege of a single month's stay, a place where summer is not merely a season but a way of life. Here, I thought, I'd surely find an answer.
I began with an East Hampton wine shop, Wines by Morrell. The manager, David Mikan, readily informed me that his clients were drinking dry full-bodied rosés, preferably from the south of France: "Rosés from Provence and Bandol are big sellers in the summer, particularly from producers like L'Estandon, Domaines Ott and La Bastide Blanche. Domaines Ott is especially hot among the Hollywood set." (Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger are among those who have spent summers in the Hamptons.)
The advertising impresario and Hamptons restaurateur Jerry Della Femina agreed. "A glass of Domaines Ott rosé, or even a bottle or two, with a lobster salad for lunch is my idea of a perfect summer afternoon." However, he noted, it was a choice that was subject to change with the setting of the sun: "I don't think I've ever drunk a rosé after dark."
The novelist Jay McInerney, a Hamptons regular, was equally rapturous in his praise of rosés. "Domaine Tempier is my standard, the wine I most associate with summer," he told me, though he said that he would also "happily drink" such rosés as Domaines Ott and Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare if they were offered to him. But few of his friends share his preference for pink. "When I serve a rosé to my friends," he lamented, "I have to spend a lot of time reassuring them that it's actually really cool."
McInerney's friends seemed to be in the majority, I discovered as I extended my survey to some of the hottest restaurants in the Hamptons: Nick & Toni's, East Hampton Point and the Laundry, the sort of places only the likes of Billy Joel, Martha Stewart and Barry Diller can get into on a summer Saturday night. Not a single restaurateur I spoke with could recall a successful rosé season. It seems that most restaurant wine drinkers still expect anything pink to be sweet. Even Carol Covell, the manager of Della Femina's eponymous restaurant, admitted that the clientele "just doesn't go for rosés." Ted Conklin, the proprietor of The American Hotel in Sag Harbor, was more specific: "My regularcustomers never drink rosés." The only exception anyone would grant was a rosé made by SagPond, a local vintner. "It's a really well-made wine, dry and crisp," Robert Fairbrother, the general manager of the Laundry, observed. "It's as close to a French rosé as I've ever tasted in this country." B. J. Calloway, the manager of East Hampton Point, allowed that it's "very popular by the glass."
But if Hamptonites weren't consuming rosés--at least not in public--what were they willing to be seen drinking? The answers I got were somewhat surprising: not the ubiquitous, universally beloved Chardonnay but crisp, clean Sauvignon Blanc, in both its French and California incarnations, and that old standby, simple, light-bodied Pinot Grigio.
"The magic words for most people are still Pinot Grigio," Eileen Morrissey, the owner of Southampton Wine & Liquor, told me. "No matter what price you put on it, Pinot Grigio keeps selling," marveled Bob Schmitz, the owner of Sag Harbor Liquor. Eric Peele, the manager of the 95 School Street restaurant in Bridgehampton, reported, "People scream for Pinot Grigio in the summer. It's a wine that sells itself." Yet, he added, sophisticated drinkers looking for more flavor and body were likely to choose Sauvignon Blanc, especially from producers like Chalk Hill and Matanzas Creek in California and Cloudy Bay in New Zealand. "They are crisp, dry wines with a fair degree of acidity that pair perfectly with summer food, particularly seafood."
Fairbrother attributed the popularity of Sauvignon Blanc to both its versatility with food and the anything-but-Chardonnay mentality that has taken hold among wine drinkers: "People are tired of Chardonnay, especially in the summer. Instead of a big, heavily oaked Chardonnay, they're drinking California and French Sauvignon, like Pascal Jolivet Sancerre and Didier Dageneau Pouilly-Fumé." On the other hand, he told me that one of his own favorite summer wines is an Albariño, a crisp white from northern Spain. "It's dry and aromatic with a fairly high level of acidity, a wine that goes well with a variety of dishes. I always tell customers who order it that if they don't like it I'll take it back and have it with my own dinner."
And what of red wine? In a place as seemingly homogeneous as the Hamptons, were there wine drinkers who remained seasonally separate, refusing to relegate red to the winter months? "There is definitely a group of people who drink big expensive red wines throughout the summer," Bonnie Munshin, the manager of Nick & Toni's, acknowledged. "When men like Ron Perelman [the owner of Revlon] and Larry Gagosian [the art dealer] come out here then, they'll drink super-Tuscans like Tignanello and Sassicaia with big porterhouse steaks. And Turley Zinfandel! That's a wine I can't even keep in stock in the summer."
Red is likewise the color of choice for James Brady, Hamptons resident, journalist and author of two novels set in the Hamptons, Further Lane, from 1997, and Gin Lane, which St. Martin's Press will publish this month. But hisfavorite summer wine is the seasonally versatile Beaujolais. "I like a good Brouilly like Château de la Chaize," he says. "It's not expensive and it goes well with barbecued steak." It's a wine, careful readers will note, that appears several times in both Brady novels. But don't call him a wine expert, he cautions: "Whenever I want one of my characters to sound sophisticated about wine, I crib completely from the ad copy of the Sherry-Lehmann catalog."