Here’s the setting: my father, for that moment a laughing, white-bearded patriarch, gleaming with the joy of eating outdoors among all his children and grandchildren, within sight of his beloved Yosemite Valley where he had climbed for decades; my mother, with grandchildren on her knee and a look of satisfaction at having great food hit the table through no effort of her own; my red-headed kid sister, Kelly, worn out from her newborn, Pablo, but happy to be well into her second glass of wine; and Kelly’s husband, Mario, my favorite wine and food buddy, helping me carve the pork shoulder and pass the salad and open more wine. Kids, too, of course … and the point? I’m trying to paint a picture, I suppose, to put wine, as ever, in the key of life.

Imagine a pink evening sky, pine-forested mountains, a wooden deck outside a rental home, and a picnic table brimming with open bottles and seared meats. Smell those pines and feel the soft, dry heat of the mountainous west, and then imagine all the closeness and manic lunacy of a family every bit as loony as any other, happy to be eating a vacation meal together. Settings don’t get any better, I’m trying to say, for the drinking of wine. So when we all came to the laughing conclusion—cut the politeness, please!—that the Prosecco sucked, I had to consider it final.

We’ve been drinking a lot of Prosecco in my family because of a great day I spent with Chef Staffan Terje at San Francisco’s Perbacco restaurant (salumi, Lambrusco, Prosecco, happiness). And we’ve found that you can get an awfully pleasing bottle for about $15. Think of it as a great predinner sparkler, dry and easy, terrific with rich appetizers, and you’ve added a new tool to your pleasures-of-the-table toolbox. But right there in the hot night of the mountains, we also discovered that there’s a limit—to be slightly more precise, I’m talking about the Prosecco being pushed by Trader Joe’s at $5.99 a bottle. It’s about as good as you’d expect a $5.99 Champagne to be, which is to say execrable. So when you’re ready for bubbly, gather your pennies and try a Le Colture Prosecco di Valdobbiadene (about $16) or a 2004 Ruggeri Giustino B. (about $30).

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