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Talking Turkey: All Hands on Deck
By Michael Franz
Nov 20, 2005
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Thanksgiving dinner involves lots of twists, ironies and challenges for lovers of food and wine.  We could all use a few new ideas for responding to these challenges, and this column will give you a sense of how each of us at Wine Review Online deals with the day.

Let's start by considering those twists and ironies.  In one sense, Thanksgiving is the culinary highlight of the year in North America, since many more people cook ambitiously for this meal than any other during the year.  Indeed, millions of Americans who barely cook at all feel obliged by tradition to work for many hours preparing this exceptionally elaborate meal. 

Yet, in another sense, Thanksgiving is a culinary lowlight, since nobody with working taste buds regards turkey or its typical accompaniments as high-end dishes.  The meal is perfectly adequate when deftly prepared, but that is about all we can say for it when speaking candidly.  We enjoy it more because of the memories it rekindles and the people it convenes than because of the way that it tastes.  If you disagree, then tell me the last time you saw turkey or cranberry sauce or stuffing or candied yams on the menu of a good restaurant at any other time of year.

A second twist stems from the fact that Thanksgiving is both the best and the most difficult day for wine in America.

In one sense, it is the greatest day of the year for wine in the United States, since far more people taste wine with this meal than with any other.  In terms of mass consumption, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day are all about beer.  And though millions of revelers taste Champagne or sparkling wine on New Year's Eve, most are preoccupied with dancing or smooching rather than contemplating their annual glass of bubbly.  By contrast, Thanksgiving is the one day of the year when vast numbers of Americans taste wine in the optimal way: seated at a table with food, and with food that is familiar, so that the wine can lay claim to their attention.

However, the unfortunate fact is that wine is confronted with a wickedly difficult challenge on its big day.  The array of dishes involved in a typical Thanksgiving dinner poses a famously tough test, and almost any wine you can imagine is going to run afoul of something on the table.  Acidic wines that work with the cranberries then seem thin when hitting a rich stuffing or shrill when tried with sweet potatoes.  Rich, ripe wines that hold their own against the stuffing then come off as fat and oafish when meeting white turkey meat (or those damned cranberries). 

Even if you just forget about the side dishes and focus on the turkey when considering wine selection, you are still not out of the woods.  The guest who only wants white breast meat has a pretty subtle (even austere) dish, and would best be served a white wine--and a pretty light, simple one at that.  By contrast, those who love dark leg meat well slathered with gravy are sorely in need of a red wine--and a fairly gutsy one at that.

Tempting though it might be, ditching the turkey or substantially altering the meal isn't an option.  Aunt Minnie would burst into tears right there at the table.  And Uncle Otto, who, sadly, regards John Madden as a culinary authority, would make a scene when he didn't get his drumstick.

Something must give, and it ain't going to be the food.  So, what is a wine lover to do?  I put that question to each of the contributors to Wine Review Online--but with an unusual wrinkle. 

There's certainly no shortage of expert advice on wines for Thanksgiving, but the approach you'll find in your local newspaper is probably skewed by pressures that are exerted either by the writer's editor or readership.  Specifically, writers are at pains to recommend wines that novices can locate, afford and understand.  Consequently, you'll often see newspaper columnists recommending wines like Beaujolais Nouveau or mass-market Chardonnay.  And that's fine.  But do we really believe that the writer will actually drink Beaujolais Nouveau with his or her meal?

No way.  So, what I asked our contributors was this:  What do you drink in your home with this meal?  Their responses appear below in alphabetical order.  You'll notice entries from two newcomers to this site:  Patrick Comiskey and Leslie Sbrocco, whose talents will grace WRO on a regular basis starting in 2006.  I'll close with a brief comment on each of the responses.

Michael Apstein:

For Thanksgiving, I follow the advice of Bob Harkey, who is a man with a keen palate and the owner of Harkey's Fine Wines, a wonderfully eclectic wine shop in Millis, Massachusetts.  Bob's recommendation is to "match the wines with the guests, not the food." 

He and I agree that the Thanksgiving meal is the single hardest event for selecting wine.  First, there's the food.  The diversity of flavors from sweet potatoes to savory stuffing is a challenge for any individual wine.  Then there are the guests.  Family members whose tastes run to white Zinfandel sit next to very serious wine lovers.  But this is not the occasion to open special bottles--unless you've selected your guest list very carefully.  So even if you and your spouse love great red Burgundy--a superb choice with turkey--you'd be wise to save it for another meal.  Someone might go into cardiac arrest if Aunt Sarah plopped ice cubes into her Musigny, and as the one who provided the wine, it might well be you.

So here's my short list of wines that will please everyone at the gathering, and, as a dividend, go well with most everything on the table:

Prosecco, a breezy Italian bubbly made from the grape of the same name, is fruitier and softer than Champagne, but still has plenty of edge to hold up to food.  You'd be surprised how easy it is to drink throughout the meal. 

Real Beaujolais (not candied Nouveau) from the 2003 vintage, such as Jadot's Château des Jacques.  It will please Aunt Sarah, but its complexity and length will also please--and surprise--the wine fanatics.

Finally, Riesling.  People are scared to order Riesling because they don't know if it will be sweet or dry, but put a good glass of it in front of them, and your guests will love it.  And it's probably the single wine that goes with the widest spectrum of food.

Gerald Boyd:

The Scots have a ceremony where a tartan-clad orator, mumbling the words of Bobby Burns, dramatically plunges his dirk (a little knife carried in the top of the stocking), into the haggis, a Scottish delicacy that has one thing in common with a Thanksgiving turkey--they're both stuffed.

Stuffing...dressing...they're basically the same thing.  It just depends on what part of the country you come from.  My family enjoys a simple, lightly seasoned stuffing that's cooked in the bird.  More traditional recipes call for sage and other herbs, while some people prefer cornbread stuffing or even (gulp) oyster stuffing.

Now, with haggis, you know what you're getting (sometimes), so you're safe if you pick a nice red wine, say Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon.  The structure and fruit of Cabernet Sauvignon goes with the barley and organ meats that make up haggis, but is usually too hard and angular for the likes of turkey with all the trimmings.

So, what wine to pick for a traditional Thanksgiving meal of white and dark meat, savory gravy, sweet cranberry sauce and (again, gulp) candied yams, various veggies and--if you're at my table--a little artery-clogging number called creamy onion casserole?  I usually throw caution to the wind and settle for a young Beaujolais or light Pinot Noir.  And for those demanding their wine be white, there's always Viognier and Pinot Grigio.  Fact is, with so many flavors and textures, just about any uncomplicated light and fruity wine will do.

One more thing.  During the past few years, we've been taking the Thanksgiving meal with my youngest son and his wife.  Kristin likes a vegetarian meal now and then, so at their house you get a choice between real turkey and tofurkey, a soybean concoction that is a bit of an acquired taste.  And for tofurkey, Kristin recommends "a nice Oregon Pinot Noir or any wine you would serve with a turkey dinner."  By the way--she doesn't recommend the tofurkey gravy.

Now, what did I do with that haggis?

Patrick Comiskey:

To paraphrase Life Magazine writer Jane Howard, if Thanksgiving were a part of the body, it would be the lap.  After all, most of the dishes are baked, roasted, or thickened on a stovetop, obliging the daylong churning of ovens and other engines of comfort and warmth.  Even the main event, the turkey, is famously loaded with tryptophan, the sleepytime amino acid that makes this holiday one to curl up into.

Coziness in wine takes different forms, of course.  There is the relatively uncomplicated warm and fuzzy--a category that corresponds to what I call my happy puppy wines, bottles that are simply too smooth, fruity, sweet and delicious to resist.  Most American Chardonnays fall comfortably into this category, as do many Australian Shirazes; positively the best domestic choice, however, is a good old fashioned, jammy, broad-shouldered American Zinfandel.

Coziness also has a lip-smacking, mouth-watering variety, rich in attack but leaving a clean impression.  For me, few white wines achieve cozy with more panache than the ones with bubbles in them.  Having a bottle of Champagne or domestic sparkling wine on hand, especially one with the yeasty aromas of freshly baked bread, amounts to the very definition of celebration.

Young cru-Beaujolais, particularly from the 2003 or 2004 vintages, are irresistibly generous at the table and work especially well with an exotic spicebox.  (Beaujolais Nouveau in my opinion, while often delicious, is less successful with food.)  For a wine with a little more stuffing, seek out Barbera from Alba or Asti, or its more gripping cousin, Dolcetto.

Finally, there is the beckoning coziness of warm food, savory spices, and oven-melded complexity.  For still wines, there's no question that Oregon Pinot Gris fits this bill, with a little spice and a little acid to add some satisfying complexity.  For something a touch more exotic, try Anderson Valley Gewürztraminer, which has an inherent spiciness, and autumnal quince and apple flavors.  For reds, look to wines with a little spice.  Gigondas and Vacqueyras offer Grenache-based blends that come in at a fraction of the price of its neighbor, Chateauneuf du Pape, and are generally softer and more approachable in their youth.

Mary Ewing-Mulligan:

Nothing goes with everything on the Thanksgiving table, and besides, the holiday is about enjoyment and gratitude, not perfection. 

My main criterion for the wines I choose is that they not be heavy; they need to cleanse the mouth and offer a refreshing counterpoint to all that food.  As a child, I discovered that gnawing on a celery stick would "make more room" in my stomach, so that I could continue enjoying the food even after I felt full.  My adult equivalent is high-acid wines.

Among red wines, I have enjoyed Barbera from Italy--not the rich, expensive, oaky kind, but the low- to mid-priced, crisp, tart-fruit ones--and Loire Valley reds such as Chinon and Bourgeuil.  They all have enough flavor that they're not wiped out by the food, and they have a valuable "digestif" property. 

Among white wines, I've enjoyed Alsace Pinot Gris, which is one of the most versatile white wines with food, and Spätlese-level German Rieslings.  And to their considerable credit, the Rieslings even stand a slight chance of tasting good with those miserable yams.

Paul Lukacs:

It's America's holiday, and for many families the one occasion during the year in which they pull out all the stops when making dinner.  So it only makes sense to serve American wines.  Opening imported wine on this day seems unpatriotic--like serving fois gras instead of turkey, or crème caramel instead of pumpkin pie.

I've found over the years that many different American wines work well, just so long as the whites aren't too light-bodied and the reds aren't too tannic.  I'm particularly partial to California Chardonnay (this is one meal at which oaky, tropical-scented ones work), Oregon Pinot Gris, California (particularly Dry Creek Valley) Zinfandel, and Long Island Merlot.

Ed McCarthy:

Since Thanksgiving is such an important day for me, I always try to serve some of my best wines, whether we're hosting or our relatives/friends are the hosts.  I always start with a great Champagne or two, often a magnum.  This gets everybody in a festive mood.  My next wine is usually a fine, mature white Burgundy (or mature white Bordeaux, but usually Burgundy).  Then I'll follow with two or more mature red Burgundies.  For me, white and red Burgundy go best with turkey.

What I never serve are Zinfandels or Beaujolais of any kind, even though these wines are often suggested by various journalists.  These wines are just not exceptional enough for a day such as Thanksgiving.  This is one of the few days of the year that demands our best wines!

If the gathering includes a few people who don't appreciate great wines, I'll include some less "important" wines, such as Barbera d'Asti/Alba, but I'll always serve wines that I will personally enjoy.

I like to end with a Port, usually a tawny Porto, nothing too heavy (that is, if anybody has any room left for another wine!).

Leslie Sbrocco:

From savory stuffing to sweet potatoes and tart cranberry sauce, the unlikely combo of Thanksgiving flavors can do a tango on your tongue.  (Let's face it; it's not about the turkey.)  To tame the culinary cacophony, I reach for aromatic, oak-free whites sporting a whisper of sweetness and ultra-smooth reds with light, supple tannins.

It is the season to overindulge, so my table will be packed with options including spicy New Zealand Gewürztraminer, crisp German Riesling, several older Burgundies and, just for fun, some hot Spanish reds from Toro.  I'll sandwich all of that between elegant Rose Champagne and decadent late-harvest Condrieu.

Yum.  Let me get the Tums.

Marguerite Thomas:

At the risk of sounding like a bubble head (I seem frequently to be yearning for fizz of one sort or another) I think that the Thanksgiving meal--with its bizarre mix of foods--is the perfect holiday for popping the cork on sparkling wine.  In my fantasy life, we drink fine Champagne throughout the meal: from the caviar canapés (passed by the servants, of course) to the dozens of Belon oysters on the half shell, followed by the brace of grouse air-lifted in from Scotland (Krug Rosé, please); we'll finish with praline-pumpkin pie in a dark chocolate crust, and flutes of luscious demi-sec.  I have much to be thankful for in my fantasy life. 

In real life, I'll open a bottle (or maybe two) of Champagne somewhere along the way, but otherwise I contemplate offering an array of sparkling wines in a variety of styles, prices and places of origin.  Something crisp and brut to go with the salted nuts and olives; a somewhat fleshier style along with rosé for the turkey and trimmings.  Perhaps this is the year to try Brachetto d'Aqui--seems to me it's refreshing enough to go with the turkey (especially the rich dark meat), and the hint of sweetness will tie in with the sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. 

Come to think of it, in my real life there's plenty to be thankful for too. 

Robert Whitley:

I really didn't have a tradition or ritual attached to Thanksgiving wines before I moved to California in the early 1980s.

That was about the time that California wines were making inroads among wine enthusiasts and not a lot was known about many of the smaller, esoteric producers.

As I explored my new environs, I became fond of the Pinot Noir from Chalone, the small winery dedicated to Burgundian-style wines in the hills of Monterey County.  Dick Graf's work with Pinot Noir was exciting for its time and created a buzz for Pinot Noir from California that hadn't existed until then.

Chalone also made a Pinot Blanc and a Chardonnay, and I found the Pinot Blanc particularly refined; to my taste it was a better wine than the Chardonnay, though in recent years Chardonnay has caught up and overtaken the Pinot Blanc at Chalone.

For my first Thanksgiving in California, I had friends over and served both the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Blanc at the same time.  It marked the first time that I served both a red and white wine with Thanksgiving dinner.  It worked exceedingly well and became my habit as the years went on.

Guests were always surprised to see both wines on the table at the same time and the buzz about the wines added to the conviviality of the occasion.  I no longer reserve this spot at the Thanksgiving table for Chalone--though the wines are certainly worthy--but you can bet that guests at my Thanksgiving table will always have a choice of white or red with their turkey--and usually they choose both!

Michael Franz:

Michael Apstein's approach seems perfectly sensible, and though it could be difficult to match wines to guests if the guests are quite different from one another, his choices seem quite promising.  I wonder if Aunt Sarah will read this and conclude that she has been denied Musigny on grounds of "no pearls before swine," but that's Michael's problem!

I'm not sure what frightens me most about Gerald Boyd's response: the dirk, the organ meats, or the tofurkey.  In any case, his focus on relatively simple, fresh wines that are likely to be free of oak seems very sound.

Patrick Comiskey's approach is appealingly hedonistic.  None of this Kennedy-style, black-and-blue football stuff for him!  The stress on soft, soothing wines makes sense for the occasion and also for providing wines that can be enjoyed even by guests who aren't aficionados.

Even if you love big, burly wines, Mary Ewing-Mulligan's hankering for lighter wines will make sense to you if you reflect on two things: what you feel like at the end of this meal every year, and how sincerely you promise yourself that you will never again eat so much!

Paul Lukacs and I have been squabbling for years about his nationalistic take on the day, so I'd be a fool to pass on this opportunity to get in a few whacks.  As one who usually serves French wines, I'd note that the first Thanksgiving pre-dates the founding of the United States, and according to traditional accounts, the occasion involved foods and participants of different nationalities.  Additionally, I'd observe that the holiday is also celebrated in Canada, but perhaps Paul is one of those who regard Canada merely as "America's Attic."  (Canadian friends, please send any notes of outrage directly to Paul, eh?)  To Paul's credit, he may have sniffed out a shortcoming in my patriotism when he observes that "opening imported wine on this day seems unpatriotic--like serving fois gras instead of turkey...."  I confess that if I were a Thanksgiving guest in the home of someone courageous enough to pitch the turkey in favor of fois gras, I'd likely swear allegiance to them on the spot.

Ed McCarthy seems the most enthusiastic about the holiday of any of us, and perhaps the most generous in terms of readiness to crack into really great wines.  I cannot help admiring his willingness to torpedo Beaujolais and Zinfandel (which are darlings of some critics but usually too grapey to achieve real excellence), as well as his exclusive recommendation of European wines.  I believe Ed is correct in finding Burgundy the best red match for the meal, and though I prefer Alsace Riesling to his choice of White Burgundy, we could probably work out our differences during the deportation process mandated by a future Lukacs Administration.

Leslie Sbrocco wins the medal for sheer excess and mad abandon, which are causes very dear to my heart.  I cannot imagine that anyone would object to her approach, with the possible exception of the poor guys who work the recycling truck that serves her neighborhood.  Those bins are going to be heavy!

Marguerite Thomas gets lots of points for decisiveness.  Sure, lots of different wines can work on Thanksgiving.  But Marguerite knows exactly what she wants--and she wants bubbles.  If you think it would be odd to have nothing but Champagne during the meal, I'll gladly take your seat at her table.

White or red for Thanksgiving?  The only correct answer is "both," as Robert Whitley recommends.  Americans who only drink wine occasionally often like only white or red, and a good host must respect--if not share--their exclusionary leanings.  And since wine newbies often harbor the false notion that wine pairing is very precise and difficult, this meal offers a great chance to demonstrate that very different wines can achieve closely comparable success with a single set of foods.

In closing, let me offer thanks to all of our writers for giving us a peek at their Thanksgiving practices.  If you wish to respond to their ideas or are willing to share your own thoughts on wines for Thanksgiving, please write to me directly atmfranz@winereviewonline.com