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When a Creature of Habit Breaks with Tradition
By Robert Whitley
Nov 15, 2007
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I confess I'm a creature of habit on Thanksgiving Day.

Others may choose to bake a ham, roast a duck or cook a goose, but I talk turkey. Gotta be a fresh bird, although my mother and grandmothers all made do with frozen. But I've been brainwashed by the Whole Foods phenomenon; what can I say?

Still, I stick with my mom's stuffing recipe. Stale wonder bread. Loads of chopped onions. An entire stalk of celery. Poultry seasoning. Lightly browned sweet and hot Italian sausages. A whole stick of butter, and golden currants.

Fresh cranberries (if people only knew how easy it is to make cranberry sauce from fresh cranberries, but that would let the air out of the 'fresh' cranberry sauce boast), baked yams slathered with butter (hold the marshmallows), crunchy green beans (sorry mom, they really don't have to be boiled until they disintegrate) and pumpkin pie.

Once a year this is my idea of fine dining. With the wine pairings, however, I run amok. There are the obvious selections, and the not so obvious.

Most obvious of all is the suggestion, promoted by wine merchants from coast to coast, that Beaujolais works best with roasted turkey. There is a small amount of truth to this claim, which you will hear ad nauseum if you wander into a wine shop and ask which wine to purchase for Thanksgiving.

Beaujolais is a lovely food wine, and its fruitiness certainly stands up well to the mountains of salt that seem to get ladled into nearly every savory Thanksgiving dish. But think about the timing issue. Thanksgiving comes at a time when merchants are floating in an ocean of nouveau Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages (the highest-volume Beaujolais produced).

Of course they want to sell you on the Beaujolais-with-turkey pairing! Tune it out. Beaujolais is fine if that's what you like, but for me it's nothing more than an aperitif on the big day. Personally, I prefer other aperitifs.

St. Supery makes a delicate, slightly sweet Moscato ($21) that would also serve as a dessert wine, although probably not with pumpkin pie. As an aperitif, Moscato provides a counterpoint to salty snacks. Since my family and friends like to bring hard salamis and cheeses as house gifts to be served before the main event -- usually while watching football in the den -- an off-dry starter wine is often the perfect accompaniment.

Michele Chiarlo's Nivole Moscato ($18), from Piedmont's Moscato d'Asti appellation, is a splendid Italian rendition, slightly effervescent and perfumed nicely with the scent of apricots and tangerines.

If you can't be persuaded to go slightly sweet with your wine before dinner, a fruity dry rose such as the Vina Robles Roseum ($12) would make an excellent alternative. Or a Beaujolais-Villages. My current favorite is the 2006 Maison Louis Jadot ($12).

As the table is being set I always place stemware for both red and white wines. I do this for two reasons. Some guests, no matter what, prefer to drink red wines with dinner. Some prefer whites. You could be serving prime rib; it wouldn't matter. To each his own. Every good host aims to please on Thanksgiving Day, and you are serving up conviviality as much as anything else.

This is a palatable option when putting on a turkey feast, for this is one form of fowl that is extremely versatile.  What I strive for in my wine selections for the main course is balance - heavier whites and lighter reds.

This is one occasion that screams out for a rich Chardonnay. One San Diego winery, Fallbrook, produces a luscious, rich, oily Chardonnay from grapes grown in Monterey's famous Sleepy Hollow Vineyard. The Fallbrook Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay retails for about $25.

Other outstanding Chardonnays for this stage of the feast include many of my current favorites: Nickel & Nickel 2005 Searby Vineyard Chardonnay ($40) or the Patz & Hall Napa Valley Chardonnay ($36). More modestly priced Chardonnays, such as the Girard 2005 Russian River ($22) or the Flora Springs 2006 Napa Valley ($20), while perhaps not as profound or ageworthy, will be equally satisfying.

If you are looking for even less expensive wines that would still have the complexity and heft to deal with the strong flavors of the Thanksgiving table, dry Australian Rieslings are a good alternative. The 2006 Peter Lehmann Riesling ($15) from South Australia's Eden Valley and the 2006 Knappstein 'Hand Picked' Riesling ($15) from South Australia's Clare Valley are outstanding examples of the genre and widely available.

For a red wine I am particularly prone to hauling Pinot Noir from the cellar at Thanksgiving. The chilly days and nights make me gravitate naturally toward red wines, but I'm not quite ready for heavy Cabernet Sauvignons or Bordeaux. Syrah is about as heavy as I would go. And I reject Zinfandel altogether because of the extraordinarily high levels of alcohol coupled with the likelihood of consuming copious amounts of vino over the course of a long and elaborate Thanksgiving dinner.

Currently on my radar are the exceptional Ken Brown 2005 Pinot Noir ($30) from Santa Barbara County and the Patz & Hall 2005 Chenoweth Ranch Pinot Noir ($55) out of the Russian River Valley. For drinking now, the Ken Brown is a better bet.

I also recently had a good tasting experience with the 2006 Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir ($22) from Australia's Yarra Valley. This may well be one of the finest Pinots to be had for around $20. Don't be put off by the screwcap. They are becoming more common on red wines from New Zealand and Australia and are no measure of the quality that's in the bottle.

If you absolutely must have a more powerful red, one of the finest Syrahs I've tasted in the past year was the 2001 Columbia Winery 'Red Willow Vineyard' Syrah ($30) from Washington. It's absolutely stunning, but it won't be easy to find.

Both of San Diego County's major wineries - Orfila Vineyards in Escondido and Fallbrook Winery in Fallbrook - produce Syrah that retails in the $25 range. I mention both because in each case they represent the best red wine produced from estate vineyards. And they're both world class. Best inexpensive Syrah is the Concannon 2005 Livermore Valley ($15), hands down.

Last but not least, there is the matter of dessert. You say pumpkin pie, I say Tawny Port. A 10-Year-Old Tawny will do just fine, and Graham's ($35) is by far my favorite. It's a bit pricey, but a little bit goes a long way. And the brown spices marry nicely with my homemade pumpkin pie.

Next, I recommend a short nap, which is another bit of my own personal Thanksgiving tradition.

Bon appetit!