Wine on Thanksgiving: A Critic Answers All Your Big Questions
Everyone knows Thanksgiving is not as relaxing as it pretends to be. But the drinking part should be easy—the antidote to any stress about relatives or kitchen snafus. So how did Thanksgiving become such a source of wine-related anxiety?
I get more calls from friends stressed about what they should pour on America’s quintessential holiday than I do for life-changing celebrations such as weddings. Some wine shops even try to reassure customers by offering wine tastings alongside bites of turkey, mashed potatoes, and all the fixings.
Surely the fuss is because this holiday is all about family and friends and the meaning of gathering them around a table spread with comfort food. That’s a recipe for anxiety right there.
But I’m here to help. In this advice column, I’ll give you no-nonsense answers to your most pressing Thanksgiving wine questions.
Since this is an American holiday, shouldn’t you choose American wines?
This is a loaded question. Two wine critics actually battled over the answer on Twitter a couple of years ago. I serve all-American not out of political correctness, but because it’s fun and appropriate. After all, Thanksgiving originated as a harvest festival of the country’s bounty. And hey, American wines are better than ever.
I hate making selections. Isn’t there a one-perfect-wine solution?
No. Not even the all-purpose, when-in-doubt-choice, pinot noir (which could be considered cranberry sauce in a glass) is right for everything and everyone. The sheer number of traditional dishes with sharply contrasting sweet, savory, tart, earthy, and gamey tastes, all served together, amounts to a culinary mash-up. Turkey pairs with a lot of reds and whites, but sweet potatoes with gooey marshmallow topping are a real wine flattener.
Do what I do: Put out a bunch of highly versatile wines—bubbly, red, white, and rosé (see short list below)—so people can chose for themselves. The best choices are bright and fruity, and they are low in tannin, oak, and alcohol. They should have enough acidity to keep your palate perked up through the long, long meal, so, of course, you’ll want to have seconds.
How much does who’s coming matter when you pick wines?
More than you’d think. One of my aunts drinks only California chardonnay, so what’s the point of pushing gewurztraminer on her? Diverse groups of friends and fussy relatives raise all kinds of considerations. Do you have a vegan cousin who won’t drink a wine fined with egg whites? Don’t fight the flow; go with it. Do your best with what you know about your audience, and they’ll appreciate it.
Should I splurge on expensive wine?
It’s a waste. Thanksgiving isn’t the time to pull out a special, fabulous bottle. In the midst of the inevitable multigenerational chaos, it won’t get the attention it deserves. Having plenty of wine on hand is far more important, which is why I budget no more than $25 a bottle. (Save your big bucks for New Year's Eve.)
Bubbly to start, or bourbon, the all-American spirit?
I go for bubbly—it puts everyone in an up-beat, celebratory mood, can be drunk through the entire dinner if you want, and takes the steam out of family squabbles and political arguments far better than liquor.
Can you focus on the “giving” part of Thanksgiving with your wine choice?
Sure—pick a wine that donates part of its proceeds to charitable causes. Each bottle of the fruity, dark-cherryish 2012 OneHope Edna Valley Reserve Pinot Noir ($24) funds programs to prevent heart disease.
Is craft beer totally out?
Not at all. But I draw the line at hideous seasonal brews like pumpkin ale. You’ll have your favorites; I’ll stock up on basic Brooklyn Brewery lager for football watchers and Ommegang Abbey Ale to offer at dinner.
Aren’t we forgetting history?
I know where you’re going with this. Cider was colonial America’s drink, and fortunately it's back in fashion, with cideries popping up all over. Light, crisp and refreshing, cider’s apple-y taste blends well with everything on a Thanksgiving table. Two East Coast examples that won't disappoint: sparkling, crisp 2013 Bellwether King Baldwin, from New York’s Finger Lakes ($16); richly fruity Farnum Hill Extra Dry from New Hampshire ($15).
What bottle should I bring to a Thanksgiving host?
Here’s a hint: Don't choose the latest fad wine made from a weird varietal. Thanksgiving isn’t the time to force people to try your current wine obsession, unless, of course, you’re spending the holiday with wine geek friends (lucky you). Instead, bring bubbly. It’s always appreciated.
Does anything go with pecan pie?
Sadly, no. Forget trying to match wine to anything so tooth-tingling sweet. Although maybe this is where you could try that small-batch bourbon you scored.
So what’s on your short list?
Here are the six I’ll be pouring.
Bright, fruity, classy, it comes from the Napa Valley, where the winery is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
This tangy, citrusy, vibrant wine is from a pioneering winery in the Finger Lakes.
Richly textured, with notes of tropical fruit and minerals, this is an Oregon crowd pleaser—even to chardonnay lovers.
Bright red fruit flavors make this pinot rosé positively gulpable. I also like the idea of serving a wine named “all together” for this feast day.
Fresh, light-bodied, but packed with fruit flavors, this California wine from a grape known as Napa Gamay resembles a light Beaujolais.
Of course, there will be a pinot. With juicy, spicy-cherry flavors and bright savory notes, this one from Oregon’s Willamette Valley is delicious. The region is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first pinot noir vines planted there, surely something to be grateful for.