Steven Grubbs of Atlanta's Empire State South recommends bottles for every August scenario, from a fantasy sailing vacation to less-than-competent beach volleyball (his specialty). 

By Ray Isle
Updated May 24, 2017
© Amber Fouts

You love to sail in the summer. What are you drinking onboard?

Beer is probably the easiest thing to bring on a boat just because it’s in cans, but one day I decided that dry sherry would be a good idea—I’m not sure why. I was totally surprised by how it transformed the sailing experience. There we were, slugging manzanilla out of the bottle and eating snacks, and it blew my mind that you could be drinking a wine that tastes like the ocean and could be on the water at the same time. Everybody went crazy over it. Though we weren’t actually on the ocean—we were out on a lake. But still.

Do you have any fantasy summer dream trips involving wine?

If I could sail down the Italian coast, that would be it. Or around Sicily, or Sardinia, or up near Liguria. The coastal whites from those places, particularly Liguria, are total sailboat wines, by the way—briny, savory and perfect for drinking with a whole grilled fish.

In lieu of a 10-day sailing trip, how about an afternoon at the beach? What would you drink there?

One problem with beaches is that many won’t allow glass containers. But my all-time favorite cider producer, Eric Bordelet, makes an aluminum mini keg of his ridiculously pure and delicious Normandy cider, and that’s something I would totally waterfall into my face all day long. I admit I’ve sneaked wine onto the beach, too, like liter-size bottles of Grüner Veltliner. That cold spiciness and touch-of-fruit thing that entry-level Grüner does is just perfect for activities like incompetent volleyball or poor-form football toss, both of which I excel at. Ecker, in Austria’s Wagram region, probably makes the best liter out there.

What about reds for summer?

Honestly, if I’m hanging outside, I don’t drink much red. It warms up too quickly. A simple crisp rosé is one option. On the other hand—and this is sort of counterintuitive—if I do have red, I want one with some fleshiness. Salice Salentino, from the extreme south of Italy, is a good example. It’s this lusty young red, totally casual, and during the summer in Puglia they drink it all the time. For hot weather, that’s what you want: a good everyday red that has density and sluggability at once. Basically a wine you can drink out of a Solo cup and not feel guilty about it.

So warm wine regions, then, are a great source for summer reds?

In many cases, yes. It’s similar to how you can pair wines from a region with the cuisine of that region. Like with tomatoes. Down in the South we enjoy some pretty awesome tomatoes in the summer, but they’re tricky with wine. So just think about where people eat tomatoes, like Sicily, and that leads you to a wine like COS’s Cerasuolo, which is terrific with tomatoes. With a puttanesca sauce, that wine just explodes. Or Campanian whites, like Greco di Tufo; again that’s a region where tomatoes are an inescapable part of the local cuisine. Sometimes Greco can even smell a bit like tomatoes, a kind of yellow-tomato aspect.

Summer in Atlanta is certainly hot. What about the food of the American South? Does it go with wine?

I think really traditional Southern food and wine can be delicious together. It’s just that none of us ever grew up exploring those combinations. My mom and grandmother are both old-school Southern cooks, and no one in our family ever drank wine with dinner.

What’s something your mom would make that would be great with wine?

She’s always done this really weird dish that I love. The basis of it is her corn bread, which is awesome—savory, really crispy outside. Then she puts kidney beans on top of that, and pork chops. I mean, that, with some Barbera from Italy? That would be so fun. Even in a Solo cup. In fact, now that I think of it, if wine drinking had been a tradition in the South, a lot of it would have been in Solo cups. On ice.

What got you into wine in the first place?

I started working with Hugh Acheson at Five & Ten. I think I was 21, and he hired me to be a busboy. He was handling all the wine for the restaurant then—and being chef, and maître d’, and maintenance man; he gets more done than anybody I’ve ever seen. But even back then he’d let me try wines. One day someone brought in a bottle of ’82 Pétrus and sent half a glass back to Hugh. And he let me try it! I was like, “Wow—that is crazy and delicious and so good.” That’s how damn cool he was. I mean, if someone sent me back a glass of ’82 Pétrus, I might hide it. Though if Hugh were around, I’d let him have some.

Steven Grubbs's 10 favorite beach & BBQ wines

1. 2014 La Chablisienne Saint-Bris ($12)

“These guys are a co-op, but they’re a very good co-op. And this is their wine from Saint-Bris, the only Sauvignon Blanc area in all of Burgundy. It has an oyster-shell, Chablis-like saltiness, but at the same time also has all that citrus character of Sauvignon Blanc. And the price is awesome.”

2. 2013 Kuentz-Bas Alsace Blanc ($13)

“This wine became a standby for me early in my wine-drinking life. The estate goes back to the 1700s, and this is their basic blend of Sylvaner, Auxerrois and Muscat. It doesn’t ask too much of you; it has just enough nuance to make it fun, but it doesn’t force you to pay attention to it.”

3. 2014 Mauro Molino Barbera d’Alba ($13)

“The 2014 vintage for Barbera is a change from 2013, which was a little rough. The ’14s are punchy and generous, but they’re not overripe—really good wines. And Mauro is this amazing grandfatherly fellow. It’s like, ‘Oh, man, how did I not have you as my grandfather? Is there an adopt-a-grandfather program or something?’ ”

4. 2014 Garofoli Macrina Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi ($14)

“Garofoli has been really instrumental in elevating the quality of Castelli di Jesi, an area in Italy’s Marche region. Its entry-level Macrina bottling is really bright and crisp—just spot-on for immediate drinking.”

5. 2014 Michel Delhommeau Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Cuvée Harmonie ($14)

“Delhommeau is such a nice guy, and his vineyards are unusual because rather than being on granite, like most of Muscadet, they’re on a kind of pure form of hardened lava. It gives his wines great complexity, and a more stark mineral character that I love.”

6. 2014 Von Winning Winnings Riesling ($15)

“It’s a great Riesling at a really good price, and it glides right past the whole sweetness issue. It’s pretty much dry, but you taste it and you don’t think to ask if it’s dry or not dry or what; it just tastes like pure, gorgeous Riesling.”

7. NV El Maestro Sierra Fino Sherry ($16)

“José Antonio Sierra, El Maestro Sierra’s founder, was originally a barrel-maker for the big sherry houses. His fino, to me, is a benchmark: salty, savory and complex.”

8. 2015 Le Morette Bardolino Chiaretto Classico ($17)

“This is a style of Bardolino you find around Italy’s Lake Garda. Chiaretto means light, more or less, so this wine is basically a rosé. It’s pale, pretty pink, beautifully aromatic. I’ve always liked the fact that there are so many different styles of rosé; this one is in a neat little unknown corner.”

9. 2014 the Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris ($21)

“Eyrie was one of Oregon’s pioneering wineries, and the first to plant Pinot Gris in the US. This wine has great texture, a little weight, but still this wild soul about it. It’s like if you’ve been fishing and you’ve caught your snapper and you’ve roasted it whole, this is what you’d drink with it.”

10. 2013 COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria classico ($39)

“The ultimate tomato wine. Mario Batali makes a raw tomato sauce with garlic and herbs that’s just great with this Sicilian red. Plus it’s 100 percent organic, and from one of Sicily’s best producers.”