Skip to content

What Wine for Thanksgiving? A Machiavellian Approach

2011 November 18
by Mike

One upside to no longer having a regular wine column is that I didn’t have to write a piece this year recommending wines for Thanksgiving. The annual Thanksgiving round-up is a staple of American wine journalism, and it is also an exercise in futility. Thanksgiving is a meal that just doesn’t lend itself to tidy wine pairings;  too many dishes, too many contrasting flavors. Then there is the gluttony factor: On a day devoted to excessive eating, how much attention is really going to be paid to the wines, anyway?

It occurred to me some time ago that we—wine writers—have done readers a disservice with all this fussing over what goes best with turkey and the trimmings. Instead of framing Thanksgiving wine pieces around food pairings (a square peg, round hole problem), I think it would be much more helpful to offer tips on matching wines to the guests. And let’s be honest: if you are a wine enthusiast, what you opt to pour on Thanksgiving is probably determined in part by who’s joining you, how much they know and care about wine, how much they are apt to drink, and how well they hold their alcohol.

With this in mind, I’ve come up with a few suggestions for Thanksgiving wine/guest pairings—just some very basic, Machiavellian guidelines for ensuring that the appropriate wines end up on the table:

-if your guests have little or no interest in wine, keep the wines relatively cheap

-if your guests are going to be drinking hard liquor during cocktail hour and are likely to be flush in the face and very exuberant by dinner time, make the wines even cheaper (as in Yellow Tail cheap)

-if alcohol is likely to fuel an argument (you know how families can be), go with lighter, lower-octane wines, such as Beaujolais or German Riesling

-if, on the other hand, everyone gets along better when tanked, serve an inexpensive but potent Zinfandel and pour it early, liberally, and often

Of course, apart from the Beaujolais and the Riesling, these are not very appealing options for a wine geek who wants to drink well on Thanksgiving, which brings me to a delicate issue that almost all oenophiles confront at some point: Is it ever okay to follow Richard Nixon’s example (and talk about a Machiavellian figure!) and secretly serve yourself one wine while serving your guests another? I have certainly wrestled with this question; because my wife occasionally visits here, it would not be in my best interest to disclose how I answered it. I will only say this: if you choose to go the Tricky Dick route, the wine that you open for yourself should be very carefully hidden, and make sure its color doesn’t contrast too sharply with the color of the plonk that you are pouring for the rest of the table. That, or dim the lights sufficiently so that no one will notice.

So do you pair Thanksgiving wines only to the food, or do you also try to match them to the guests? Any strategies you wish to share? And while it is hypocritical of me to ask this question since I wouldn’t answer it myself, I’ll ask anyway: have you ever served guests one wine and yourself another, better one?

21 Responses leave one →
  1. November 23, 2011

    Robin, that’s a great approach. I’ve done something similar at potluck cocktail parties; I’ll bring something I want to drink and immediately give myself a good pour. But I did get outfoxed at one such party a year ago. I’d turned a friend on to a terrific Vouvray that I’ve talked about here, the Aubuisieres Silex. I brought a bottle of the Silex to a party that this friend and his wife were also attending. I poured myself a glass as soon as I arrived, but when I went back for a refill, I discovered that they had basically hoovered the entire bottle. He laughed at me when I went back looking for more. Some friend, right?

    Dan, Beaujolais is my old standby; you can’t go wrong with it (as long as it is not Duboeuf, of course!).

    Al, I agree–it’s silly to get worked up about Thanksgiving pairings; with so many dishes and contrasting flavors, you can put pretty much anything on the table.

  2. November 23, 2011

    No kidding; Glen, sounds like a challenging Thanksgiving in store. I hope the wines make it past the censors.

  3. JPH permalink
    November 22, 2011

    Dang, Glen’s out there taking one for the team.

  4. Begriff permalink
    November 21, 2011

    Hard to go wrong with a good Beaujolais for Thanksgiving. They’ve still got the ’09 Jadot Beaujolais-Villages for cheap at my local shop. That may be the way I go this year.

    (BTW Mike’s columns turned me on to the rocking Dupeuble Beaujolais, which I now grab whenever I find it. Its distribution is spotty out here on the plains, but it used to be nonexistent, so Kermit Lynch seems to be doing what he can.)

    I too have done Robin C’s trick at holidays. When visiting someone who’s likely to offer meh wine, bring something nicer (but not ostentatiously nicer), open and pour. This ensures you & spouse/S.O. enjoy a good glass to kick off the festivities.

  5. Robin C permalink
    November 20, 2011

    When my husband and I are invited to the house of people who traditionally serve Yellow Tail we bring a moderately good bottle and a corkscrew and open it immediately and pour full glasses for ourselves before setting it out for the others. We’ve never done this at home but we know someone who gives his wife cheap wine and drinks the good wine himself.

  6. Glen permalink
    November 19, 2011

    Tough call for me seeing as how every year brings different obstacles and locales. Last year, for example, was a very “in the family” small affair. Only four of us had oneophilic tendencies, while the others would not imbibe for the life of them (religious restriction). In lieu of this I took my finest wine in the house and shared it earnestly with the few, boasting it as the great totem of joy and good fortune–once it kicked in.

    This year is a beast, a hell of a conundrum. We are attending dinner at a household who looks a spirits of any kind with remarkable loathing. I fear they will let this impede my, and other outcasts in my family, bringing of wine. In such a scenario you would think I would submit, leaving my bottle(s) at home. No. Far from it. Instead I will bring a bottle or two that cost no more than an hour or two worth of work. This way I can risk the troubling reality that the homeowner’s rage will annihilate the bottles on site; down the drain or broken at the bottom of some garbage can. If said attack happens, it won’t be the end of the world. And if this homeowner accepts are oneophilia, we at least have wine.

    The myriad of food is cloaks even powerful fruit bombs, if you ask me. What matters is being grateful there is wine at all.

  7. Dan McCallum permalink
    November 19, 2011

    I’ve turned to the Beauj more often than not. But I’ll append another suggestion to the frivolist:
    Lambrusco- really, it works.
    Happy Thanksgiving all

  8. November 19, 2011

    On the sneakily hiding the “good” wine, I usually don’t bother. I open what I want and if it goes to fast or to people who don’t/won’t appreciate it, such is life. It does happen now and again, but it’s usually when one of our guests is a particular wine geek and takes it upon himself to Bogart the good stuff for himself and those in the know. There’s always lots of wine, so it’s never really been an issue.

    On the Thanksgiving wine pairing “issue,” I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t really matter. I wouldn’t serve a California Cabernet or Bordeaux at Thanksgiving, but other than that I’m a contrarian and think the meal is pretty flexible. I sort of like the American theme just because, and we’ve had high octane zins (Carlisle and such) that I think worked just fine, and I also think Rhone reds go pretty well. Family permitting, it should be a fun day, not to be taken to seriously.

  9. November 19, 2011

    Jack, that sounds like a fun Thanksgiving tradition, and a very generous one. And glad to hear that no 07 CDPs will be on the table!

    Stoat, I like that lineup, and I loved the line about your in-laws and the ice cubes!

    David, I meant that something Yellow Tail or a cheap, potent Zin would not have much appeal for a wine geek, and particularly not one looking to drink reasonably well on Thanksgiving. A good Beaujolais or Mosel Riesling would, of course, be welcome. And, yes, some non-wine geeks are certainly open to more esoteric fare, but my wife’s relatives sure aren’t!

    Michael, great line about the beer aficionado and the Dorito; you guys are giving me some good laughs here! That is irritating when it happens. Here’s something that happened to me recently: I brought a bottle of a well-known, fairly pricey California pinot noir to a party. It wasn’t a wine that I particularly enjoyed, which is why I brought it to the party. Anyway, the host instantly recognized the label, said “No way are we serving this,” and took the bottle and hid it. I’m assuming she drank the wine herself sometime later. It was a pretty cheeky move, I thought. Anyway, Zins that I like: Ridge, particularly the Geyserville and the Lytton Springs; Dashe; Green & Red; the Montelena Zinfandel; and Nalle (Nalle makes low-alcohol, elegant zins–completely anomalous and very enjoyable).

    Miguel, great point, and yes, if Clos du Bois is what they like–well, give them what they want!

    Tyler, good advice, but are you willing to replace the bottle of, oh, d’Angerville if a certain relative of Kathy’s makes a move on the bottle and fills her Riedel to the brim, as is her custom? If so, I’ll be sure to put a bottle of d’Angerville on the table!

  10. Jack Bulkin permalink
    November 18, 2011

    Mike I make a large Thanksgiving dinner annually for displaced or people w/o local family locally. For years I have opened less ripe Zinfandel and CdP that I feel work well with the Bird and trimmings. I would not open a high octane wine no matter how much the Emporer of Wine loved them. 07 CdP’s will not be poured.
    : )

  11. stoat permalink
    November 18, 2011

    mr schildknecht reminds me to pick up a couple bottles of saumur “pierres frites” in case the albarino runs low!

  12. stoat permalink
    November 18, 2011

    nothing on the typical thanksgiving table goes with anything else… why get fastidious about the wine?

    we will be having cremant de bourgogne from guillon, escencia divina albarino, and bourgogne rouge 2009 from fougeray de beauclair. delicious and fitting as far as I’m concerned, but no reason to have a stroke when in-laws drop ice cubes in.

  13. David Schildknecht permalink
    November 18, 2011

    What means this “APART from the Beaujolais and the Riesling these are not very appealing options for a wine geek”? My family and guests have never gotten tired of the diverse delights encompassed by those two, nor has the sole wine geek at our Thanksgiving table, i.e. I. Unless one has something against decidedly light reds or obscure cépages, a Piedmontese Grignolino or Jura Trousseau makes a lovely alternative to Beaujolais. (It’s amusing how often wine geeks with access to a full repertoire tend to assume that friends and family should be served something ubiquitous, which contradicts the premise that your typical Thanksgiving guests don’t much know which wines are esoteric and which well-known, they just expect from you something delicious.) An off-dry Loire Chenin could certainly stand-in for Riesling once in a while.

  14. michael permalink
    November 18, 2011

    I also wanted to add that this strategy of yours works at any dinner party. The sleuth in us must suss out if the hosts have any knowledge of wine or enthusiasm for it.

    Nothing is more frustrating than bringing a great bottle to a party, only to the host accepting it, and putting it on the table next to the Turning Leaf, Fetzer and 2buckchuck and then some beer afficianado cracking open your $100 burgundy cause a Dorito got stuck in his wind tunnel.

  15. November 18, 2011

    Ah, the Thanksgiving wine article to end all Thanksgiving wine articles. Finally, all that was needed to be said about these was said.

    But yes, I agree to keeping a bottle aside for yourself if it’s what you like. Obviously, if asked, share it, but when you have an uncle and aunt who love Clos du Bois Chardonnay while you might enjoy a Garnatxa Blanca brought back from a small winery in Northern Catalonia, you’re best leaving them to their choice and not fighting it.

  16. michael permalink
    November 18, 2011

    Great advice, especially about alcohol fueling arguments! That is why I go with Zins at 15.8 percent! Get the party rolling!

    I would appreciate your thoughts on some of your favorite zins?

    I just had a J.Dusi Zin that was a great value for $32.

  17. November 18, 2011

    Mike, yes, you hit on the wine geek’s classic problem of entertaining large groups.

    If you ned a more diplomatic route, try uncorking an array of wines from the old world and the new all at the same time–including your Tricky Dick bottle. Put them all out on the counter and the chances are that your guests who aren’t that into wine will not move in on your diamond in the rough, dismissing it as too angular/tart/tannic/thin etc. And if they do, well, maybe you have new reason to strike up conversation with that particular cousin. Wine is for sharing, after all, right? And I’m sure you’ll be thinking of me as the wine vanishes before your very eyes…

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. The Wine Ethicist - My Wine Broker
  2. The Wine Ethicist - My Wine Broker
  3. The Wine Ethicist - My Wine Broker
  4. The Wine Ethicist | Mike Steinberger's Wine Diarist

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS