Not that honesty has a whole lot to do with Thanksgiving—the English colonists had only the best intentions for the native Americans! giant inflated cartoon characters floating above our major metropolitan areas aren’t patently terrifying! spending hours watching creepy uncle Chester get slowly sloshed and ever more touchy-feely is a great way to spend a Thursday!—but let’s tell the truth for a second here: The traditional Thanksgiving meal is, typically, more enjoyable for what it represents than for what it actually tastes like. (An exception: Two years ago I reviewed my mother’s Thanksgiving feast for Philadelphia Weekly, for which I work as restaurant critic. It was a spectacular meal, and the details are linked up here.) But in general, rather than the food, I personally prefer to focus on the fact that Thanksgiving brings so many American families together at least this one time each year to hopefully put aside their differences and past grievances for that one day (if not to forget them entirely, because to expect that would be just about as emotionally honest as the claim in some families that stuffing from the box is actual food, which, I’ve always felt, it isn’t. Unless you’re a hamster or a gerbil, in which case it’s Michelin-three-star-level grub).
So I take it back: Thanksgiving is about burying the past, moving on with your life, and breaking bread with family. The only problem is that the traditional foods are frighteningly easy to prepare poorly, and they are often done so by members of the family who don’t really spend all that much time cooking the rest of the year. As a result, one of two things tends to happen: Delusions of culinary grandeur set in, and recipes that absolutely in no way should ever be attempted by a kitchen novice are, well, attempted; or, conversely, the sort of inexplicable family Thanksgiving traditions that should have died years ago are rolled out yet again for their annual airing, like grievances on Festivus. There’s a reason, after all, why so many of us will spend Thanksgiving afternoon getting sauced: In order to choke down the inevitably overcooked and under-seasoned turkey, which, if we’re honest, I think we can all agree is hardly ever worth the effort it takes to prepare, what with most people buying birds that were given a life of as much freedom to move around as Buffalo Bill afforded the senator’s daughter in his basement pit in The Silence of the Lambs, and so genetically modified and selectively bred that their breasts account for an insane percentage of their total weight, because, bewilderingly, so many Americans still consider white meat to be the best part, an assertion that’s about as logical as anything that comes out of Dr. Ben Carson’s mouth. (If you haven’t had a chance to hear his thoughts on the real origins of the pyramids in Egypt, you’re missing out. Google “Ben Carson, Pyramids,” and be prepared to laugh and cringe in equal measure.)
But don’t get me wrong: I love Thanksgiving. I just wish the food were (a) easier to prepare well, (b) not as susceptible to shortcuts as it typically is (sweet potato casserole fashioned from canned sweet potatoes is pretty much guaranteed to crush your soul), and (c) easier to pair with wine.
Which is what I want to focus on here: The beverage-pairing issue. Because each year, I’m asked—really, every wine professional is asked this question, and just like the annual rolling out of Christmas music on the radio, it happens earlier and earlier every autumn—what to pair with Thanksgiving dinner. (Personally, I’m partial to a Benadryl and a few tumblers of good Bourbon, but that’s just me, and I definitely don’t recommend that to anyone. Because, well, it’s terrible for you.)
When it comes to pairing wines (or any other beverages) with a meal, tradition and common sense dictate a progression from lighter to richer and white to red, all in an attempt to not burn out your palate and because most meals proceed in that manner anyway—you’d likely never really start off a meal with a ribeye and Cabernet and then move on to gorgeously briny raw oysters and Champagne. We just don’t eat like that.
But on Thanksgiving, the sheer range of traditional foods, and the overwhelming amount of it all, means that you have two options: You can either drink in any order you choose and throw drinks-pairing orthodoxy out the window, which I’m actually a big fan of, as orthodoxy in any endeavor, be it drinking with dinner or your belief in the spirit in the sky, tends to lead to ideological inflexibility and a calcification of the intellect; or you can make yourself crazy and try in vain to find the pitch-perfect progression to frame your imbibing throughout the meal. Which is a big waste of time on this particular holiday.
So on Thanksgiving, I plan on starting off with a couple-three Martin Miller’s Gin cocktails (with tonic, in a martini, maybe a gibson), alternating between the shimmeringly clean, juniper- and citrus-tinged beauty of the classic bottling and the higher-alcohol-yet-still-impeccably-balanced Westbourne Strength bottling (90.4% alc.) which features more prominent licorice aromas and a remarkable palate flecked with ginger and an endlessly complex array of botanicals, all carried by a texture that is nothing less than velvet. Both are exemplars of why this is such a phenomenally exciting time for gin-lovers, and embodiments of everything that I love about the spirit: It’s range of expressions, its delicacy and power in perfect harmony in the best examples, and their versatility in cocktails. From there I’ll be moving on to a bit of whiskey, maybe a WhistlePig or an Angel’s Envy; or an homage-to-the-season rye old fashioned stirred up with a bit of Tap 357 Canadian Maple Rye Whisky, the sweetness of which is fantastic in this cocktail.
Properly lubricated (and at this point in the evening, I tend to begin quoting, with gusto, Al Pacino’s portrayal of Lt. Col. Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman, bellowing, with ever greater vociferousness, “Where’s the booze? Flowing like mud around here!” which, yes, is as awkward as it sounds, but not nearly as awkward as when I start punctuating my declarations with his iconic “hoo-ah!” by evening's end ), it’s time to sit down to dinner, and the procession of beverage-perplexing dishes that makes its way down the table. So because of the range of flavors and textures at Thanksgiving dinner, I recommend having an assortment of drinking options available.
First, of course, is sparkling wine, which is amazingly versatile alongside meals like Thanksgiving, cutting through heavier dishes and framing the lighter ones. I’ll personally be reaching for Jeio Prosecco, Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut, and Gran Campo Viejo Cava Brut Reserva and Brut Rosé: All four are food-friendly, wonderfully complex, and delicious…and they each retail for $15 or less. For a bigger spend that still represents amazing value, check out the Freixenet Casa Sala Gran Reserva Brut, a Cava that proves that, with top-quality fruit and generations of know-how, the great sparkling wine of Spain has the potential to be a show-stopper. This one certainly is, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you find a store that carries it, stock up on it and enjoy it over the never decade or more. Also look for the Cleto Chiarli Figli “Vecchia Modena Premium Mention Honorable” Lambrusco di Sorbara Secco, which reminds me of rose petal, cherry, fig, and, just barely, a bit of meatiness. Beautiful!
Among white wines, confound your guests’ expectations, and instead of going for a big, oaky Chardonnay, try something like the vastly under-appreciated Bordeaux Blanc, whose blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, is custom made for a meal like Thanksgiving). Château Carbonnieux Blanc 2012 is a lanolin-, mineral, tarragon-, and grapefruit-peel-singing wonder; and Château Graville-Lacoste Blanc 2013 is more classic Sauvignon Blanc in character, but with added notes of tarragon, shiso, and mineral. For domestic SB, I tasted the fabulous Ehlers Estate 2014 the other week and swooned over its bracing and beautifully structured flavors of apricot, fennel bulb, and white flower. For a heartier style, look for any vintage of Robert Mondavi Winery’s Fumé Blanc, which year after year is a winner. Also: The excellent Pinot Gris from J. Vineyards and Winery, which is easy to drink an entire bottle of, either on its own or with dinner.
You cannot go wrong with Austrian Gruner Veltliner, a great German Riesling like the Schloss Saarstein Riesling Spatlese Serrig Schloss-Saarsteiner 2013, Torrontes like the wonderful 2014 from Alamos (think nectarine, jasmine, and lemon verbena), and aromatically complex whites from Greece like those from Parparoussis. Alsace is always a great go-to for Thanksgiving dinner (or any dinner!), and the Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Blanc "Les Princes Abbés" 2012 and Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling "Terroir d'Alsace" 2013 are phenomenal.
Rosé is always a key component at Thanksgiving, and this year I’d love to have La Villa Barton Côtes de Provence 2014 with its salmon color and lovely cherry and orange oil notes, or the equally delicious cherries, raspberries, herbs and spice of the E. Guigal Côtes du Rhone Rosé 2014. Michel Chapoutier’s Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Rosé 2014, with its cranberry, wild strawberry, and spice, is terrific, too. (Their Blanc is also a perennial winner, as is their red. If you see them, buy them immediately.) Or stay stateside and check out the phenomenal Stinson Vineyards Rosé 2014, a mouth-watering, Mourvedre-based beauty from Monticello, Virginia, with vivid acidity and flavors of green apple, passionfruit, and spice.
Among reds, great Pinot Noir is always a good call because it likely won’t overwhelm the turkey, plays nicely alongside the stuffing, and has enough acid to stand up to the cranberry sauce. In that regard, I’d seek out COBB Wines, or Fulcrum, or Gary Farrell, or Three Sticks, or MacMurray Estate Vineyards, or Inman Family Wines, or Paul Hobbs. And if you can get your hands on one of the Pinot Noirs from Kutch Wines, you will be more than thrilled that you did: Jamie Kutch is a magician with the grape variety, and he is crafting some of the most profound bottlings around. Of course, if you have access to good red Burgundy, you’ll set yourself up for a great Thanksgiving, too. Or Austrian reds like Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch. Or German Pinot Noirs, which are about ready to have their moment of well-deserved fame. Or the remarkable wines of Portugal's Tejo, which I predict are soon going to become as widely beloved in the US as they deserve to be--in terms of deliciousness, value, and food-friendliness, they are hard to beat. I'll be running full reviews of a number of specific bottlings in the coming weeks, but for now, if you see any bottles of Quinta do Casal Branco 2012 or Quinta do Casal Monteiro "Forma de Arte" 2011, buy up everything you can. Also look for Anderra Carmenere 2013, which is priced at less than $10, so you can buy a case of it, and whose flavors are beyond easy to love.) And beer--we cannot forget beer! But that's a whole other post for another day.
So, really, you’ll need a huge table for all of this wine. And we’re not done! Because with all of the food so typical of Thanksgiving, agita is sure to ensue, which means you’ll need to wash is all down with something. Rum is always a great idea, and I’ve recently been really impressed with the Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva, a complex beauty from Venezuela that speaks of warm brown sugar, vanilla, and caramel—straight-up in a glass and you’re good to go. Or end it all with a shot of Fernet-Branca and a nap. Which, come to think of it, is a good idea after such a full day of eating and drinking. Just make sure to bring your nicest pair of sweatpants for when that happens. They make you look a lot classier when you pass out on the couch afterward, snoring and bloated. And that, in the end, is what Thanksgiving is all about: Sharing a meal with family, pretending to ignore the ugly origins of Plymouth Colony and instead focusing on the “fact” that the Pilgrims and Wampanoag apparently got along famously and shared no rancor or animosity or distrust whatsoever, and drinking a little bit too much in the process to blunt the taste of turkey breast. And, of course, looking good in your best pair of sweatpants.