Now's the time to get drunk. Urban dwellers, cultured lushes that they are, have oft regarded rising temperatures as an indication that it's time to drink excessively. Wheat beers and mimosas. Mojitos and sangria. Frozen margaritas and a bottle of vodka unloaded into a ripe watermelon. Despite our penchant for drinking the dog days away, most of us still stray far, far away from the vino during the heated months. Red wine lovers are especially guilty of this. But you don't have to silence your inner sommelier just because the heat is on; some bottles work best when the mercury rises. My favorites:
BYOB-baffled? Head to Whole Foods (citywide)
Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot 2005 ($8.97)
Screw "Sideways," Merlot's day has come again. A Sonoman winemaker recently explained to me that the phenomenon of the "Sideways" penchant for Pinot Noir has led to no less than dozens of crappy pinot varieties springing up over the last decade, but Merlot has been quietly biding its time, the vines getting better with each passing season. I couldn't agree more—and this cheap bottle from Whole Foods is proof positive that Merlots can be just as complex, adaptable and high-quality as the ever-haute pinots. An earthy red with deep spice, oak and cocoa profiles, this vino also comes bursting with ripe cherry and black fruit notes. Tote this bottle to wherever steak, lamb or Italian red sauce hits the table.
Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling 2007 ($12.99)
Aside from rockin' a gorgeous bottle—an inky black depiction of a Kung Fu Girl, or course—this single-vineyard Washington Riesling is perfect for just about any BYOB table you might happen upon this summer. Why the funny name? According to the winemakers, "Because Riesling and girls kick ass!" Crisp flavors of Asian pear and peach meet you at the front of each sip, with a dry, mineral-laced complexity bringing up the rear. The effortlessly drinkable wine pairs perfectly with anything spicy: Korean barbeque, wasabi-loaded sashimi, and dim-sum do especially well. Moderate alcohol content, a crispy citrus profile and residual sugar to taste make this fresh and fruity one a sunny-day session wine.
Going to a party? Stop by Que Syrah Fine Wines
Primaterra Sangiovese 2007 ($12)
Nothing says "leisurely Tuscan meal" quite like a good bottle of Sangiovese, but this one also happens to be a workhorse with other foods. When you're invited to a summertime shindig, but aren't quite sure what will be served, picking out a wine can be a nightmare. Let the food-friendly Primaterra Sangiovese 2007 makes things easy for you. One hundred percent sangiovese grapes are actually grown in the Veneto region of Italy, in mixed clay soil (clay soil helps add a wonderfully deep, "earthy" profile to red wines). On the first sip, that familiar Italian cherry flavor rushes to the forefront and is filled out with subtle spices and an impeccably balanced acidity. Whether your host serves up grilled steak, sauce-slathered barbecue or a hearty Italian meal, this bottle fits the bill.
Crios de Susana Balbo Rose of Malbec 2007 ($12.95)
As if bringing along a bottle that will pair with a menu you know nothing about isn't tricky enough, what to do on a sweltering hot day when everyone just wants to pop open canned domestic beer and cool down? Enter the Crios de Susana Balbo Rose of Malbec 2007. Built for poolside sipping, this pink dream bursts with strawberries, cherries and enough acidity to cut through the August heat. Many people still associate rose wines with the saccharine syrup of certain boxed California varieties, but this has the bright and juicy fruit and rich, cigar-like finish to stand on its own (without the killer sugar hangover). This blushing Argentinean pairs surprisingly well with a host of foods—almost anything that screams "eat me with red wine," or "white wine for me" mingles great with this versatile vino, but bust it out for appetizers and cheese and you'll look like a viticulture genius.
Spending the evening in? Hit up Kafka Wine Co.
Hahn Estates Central Coast 2006 Syrah ($14.99)
So you just want a lovely, leisurely meal at home but are hoping to find a cheap bottle to make it special? Hightail it to Kafka for this incredible Syrah. This oft-overlooked varietal is finally getting its due for an almost otherworldly ability to pair well with summertime favorites. Basic rule: If it came off of a grill, wash it down with a glass (or four) of this. Ripe, jammy fruits show up in full-bodied form, while more complex notes of oak, cocoa and chocolate ground this red. What makes it so special? The impressive complexity and interesting dynamic of fruit vs. earth brings out the magic of fresh garlic like no other. So when you're making your marinade, don't skimp on the stinky stuff. This one also works remarkably well with spicy Southern dishes—gumbo, jambalaya and even chili don't stand a chance.
Burgans Albarino 2007 ($14.95)
Having trouble deciding which bottle to uncork with your midweek fish dinner? Be it scampi, shrimp stir-fry or a flaky filet of salmon, the Burgans Albarino 2007 brings out seafood flavors without overpowering. The deep yellow (almost green in the glass) color of this wine suggests a dab of lemon zest, and one taste confirms it. Refreshing citrus, balanced acidity and a nose-full of minerals let this Spanish vino work for your fish in much the same way that final squirt of fresh lemon does. If you're just looking to lounge on the patio and listen to the El plow by, a glass of this celebrated Albarino (90 points from Wine Advocate) is the only accompaniment you'll need.