The grill is on, the fish is cleaned and the crab is cracked, so what are you going to pour?

On a warm summer night under the stars with family and friends, a good glass of wine is essential. But — no reason to spend lavishly on such an event.

Americans are drinking more wine than ever, much to the delight of grape growers everywhere. In fact, by 2010 Americans are expected to exceed the French by consuming some 3.25 gallons per year apiece on average.

I have some great budget-minded wine-and-meal ideas from one of Northern California's top wine consultants, Roxanne Langer of Wine FUNdamentals.

"I know what to serve with a nice sit-down meal in the dark days of November," she says, "but what should I do for a hot summer night?" "Interesting, not too heavy, not too light, and refreshing while still having some substance" is the answer.

Here are some of Langer's recommendations:

Gruner Veltliners

Not exactly a household name, these refreshingly acidic and full-flavored Austrian white wines, known in the trade as "Gru Vees," have a most pleasant aroma.

"Pour a glass, close your eyes, and transport yourself to the Austrian Alps to escape the heat," says Langer. Try a 2004 Gobelsburg Gobelsburger Kamptal Kremstal (yes, that's the name) for $16. Put it together with a white fish dish like sole and you'll enjoy the combination while practicing the pronunciation with your guests.

Pinot Gris

Here's a domestic variety coming on strong in popularity. Elk Cove, an Oregon winery just named Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year, has an assortment of vintages to meet your budget. Try this — pair a young Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio in Italian) with a plate of calamari or barbecued chicken with a mango chutney.

Rieslings

A traditional summer favorite, with classic peach, floral and honey tastes that would go perfectly with a warm backyard evening. So here's a product of a rare international wine-industry alliance: a Washington winery got together with a traditional German producer to produce a series under the unlikely label "Chateau St. Michelle-Dr. Loosen."

Their 2006 "Eroica" is wonderful with a curried chicken salad and a big bowl of Dungeness (or any other kind of) crab.

Sauvignon Blancs

The Sauvignon Blanc wines of France's Sancerre region are elegant, fresh and lively. You can't go wrong with one from Henri Bourgeois, for starters. For something a little different, you can head to New Zealand, where the 2006 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc does the trick for $16.99. Sauvignon Blanc works especially well with citrus foods — it melds well with a big grapefruit and avocado salad, for instance.

Malbec

OK, not all summer wines are light. This one pairs well with such "heavies" like spicy grilled sausages or barbecued pork ribs. Originally a French grape, the Argentines have been producing great Malbecs for 20 years. You can pick up a bottle of 2003 Bordini Malbec for around $10.

If you're the guest, not the host

Invited to someone else's house for dinner? You could bring one of these choices. Or, you could stop at the grocery to pick up one of those new wines with the funny labels — with a kangaroo or something — on the label. But are they any good? What kind of a wine company puts a kangaroo on its label, anyway?

Here's Langer's answer: one that wants to sell more wine to women, that's who. Studies show that women wine shoppers tend to reach for anything with a label that is pretty, or has an animal or a leaf. "Stay away from these marketing gimmicks and you'll get more value for your money," says Langer.

For something clever and universal (because you don't always know what's on the menu), Langer suggests a wine called "Albarino" from the Rias Baixas area of Spain. Sure, this lively choice goes well with fish and seafood. But it also works with poultry, pork and salads, and you'll find a wide selection of labels selling for under $20.

Tip your glass to America

It dawned on me that as consumption rises, we're becoming (once again) part of a much larger world stage. In the beginning, good wines were likely to be either French or German. Then the American wines hit center stage. At first they came from New York or California, then more recently from Oregon, Washington and Virginia. Now good product comes from all corners of the country where grapes grow and entrepreneurs are around to do right with them.

Today, it's gone full circle — globalization has brought choice and economy to the wine business too. Today's store shelves and wine lists feature great and reasonably priced choices from Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Croatia and places beyond.

So, in the interest of pure pleasure and keeping up with change, it's a great summer to try some of the new century's best new choices. Cheers!

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