Serious Grape: ZEST, a Simple Mnemonic for Choosing Cookout Wines

On Fridays Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 joins us to talk some Serious Grape. Take it away, Deb! AK


Summer cookout season starts in earnest this weekend with Memorial Day picnics and entertaining.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started if you are in the market for some wine to go with your chicken, burgers, or barbecue, with an easy-to-remember acronym to help you make selections in the store.

All you need to know when you're looking for cookout wines is this: ZEST. It stands for Zinfandel, Easy on the Oak, South America, and Tempranillo. And in my recommendations below, not a single bottle has a suggested retail price of more than $20.


Zinfandel is a terrific grape for grilled foods, with its berry flavors and peppery spice. It's marvelous with steak, hamburgers, or lamb, and I think tomatoey barbecue sauce and Zinfandel is a match made in taste-bud heaven. Ravenswood makes excellent, widely available, and affordable Zinfandel. Try the 2006 Ravenswood Zinfandel Old Vine from the Napa Valley with its distinctive plum, raspberry, pepper, and smoke aromas and flavors (find this wine), or the 2006 Ravenswood Zinfandel Old Vine from Lodi with its classic cherry and blueberry aromas and flavors and a spicy aftertaste of clove, pepper, and allspice (find this wine).

Easy on the Oak

If you're serving grilled chicken and don't want to go with a red, get yourself a medium-bodied, unoaked white. Why go easy on the oak? You've got enough char going on in the meal already, and I think the oak in the wine can clash with the grilled taste of the food.

I'm really enjoying unoaked Chardonnays these days, like the 2008 Clos LaChance Chardonnay Glittering-Throated Emerald from Monterey County. It has citrus, peach, and floral aromas and a zesty core of stone and orchard fruits (find this wine). Another option that I recommend is the 2008 Kim Crawford Chardonnay Unoaked. You may be more familiar with this maker's well-known Sauvignon Blanc, but this beauty from New Zealand is full of creamy apple flavors and has a lift of lemon peel (find this wine).

South America

Grilling is a way of life south of the equator, and South American wine represents some of the best values in today's market. Don't be afraid to try grapes you've never heard of—I've yet to have a South American red wine I didn't like.

Try the 2007 Diseño Malbec from Argentina if a wine with complex flavors of blackberry, black tea, and violets appeals to you (find this wine). If you're serving steaks or burgers, the 2006 Espiritu de Chile Carménère may be your wine with its Old World taste of currants and green pepper and smooth, integrated tannins (find this wine).


I've said this before, but it's worth saying it again, Spain's Tempranillo goes beautifully with grilled food and barbecue. I recommend the earthy, herbal, and black cherry flavors of the 2005 Bodegas Montecillo Rioja Crianza (find this wine), the 2006 Martín Códax Rioja Ergo with its black cherry, mint, and chocolate notes (find this wine), and the 2007 Tapena Tempranillo with its abundant blackberry fruit and milk chocolate aftertaste (find this wine). Any one of these wines will pair beautifully with hamburgers, steak, chicken, or lamb.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as samples.