If your family is anything like my family, Thanksgiving dinner is governed by ironclad rules and customs. One is that my mother, out of sheer perversity, will muster her annual argument in favor of trying a new cranberry sauce recipe. Each year my sister and I will lobby hard and successfully for the same one we eat every year, while shaking our heads at her gall.
An additional rule that I don't intend to break this Thanksgiving is to only drink wine from American producers. Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday where New World foods take center-stage. Why shouldn't what's in the wineglasses follow suit, particularly ones that marry well with the traditional Thanksgiving flavors of turkey, sage, sweet potatoes, and even tart cranberries?
Weight is an even more important factor than flavor when thinking about what wines to buy. Thanksgiving dinner usually contains a number of rich, starchy things: potatoes, both sweet and mashed, squash and stuffing. And of course, all sensible people are going to eat much more than they usually do. A quantity of heavy food needs beverages that feature bright fruit and are light-bodied enough to cut through all the starch.
It's a shame that the one truly American grape, zinfandel, is generally too full and alcoholic to suit Thanksgiving. Zinfandel isn't native to the U.S. - no quality wine grapes are - but it immigrated to the U.S. a while ago and changed notably in the process. Another non-native boy made good is Riesling, a grape that is often trotted out by wine experts as the Thanksgiving wine, as it could possibly pair with perplexing dishes such as marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes. If this appeals, there are some lovely ones grown in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
My virtual lack of a sweet tooth makes it hard for me to enjoy more than a glass of off-dry wines; since quantity is a consideration for Thanksgiving, each year I look instead to pinot noir. Cool locations on the west coast produce light-bodied pinots redolent of red fruit.
Oregon's Willamette Valley is a fertile hunting ground for good pinot noir. I've had good luck with the Yamhill Valley Vineyards 2005 Estate Pinot Noir, a nice little wine with judicious use of oak and ripe red fruit. I've also enjoyed Brandbourg Pinot Noir 2005, from the Umpqua Valley in Washington - it's spicier than one would expect for a pinot, but elegant and food-friendly. However, at $24, it's a bit more expensive than I would like to serve in bulk to all the aunties, uncles and cousins. It is possible to plunk Yellow Tail between the turkey and the cornucopia centerpiece and return to the kitchen during the meal to "check on the pies" in order to fill your glass with the good stuff.
No - I would never suggest you do that! Instead, angle for a case discount on Ramsay North Coast Pinot Noir 2006 from Oakville, a cool AVA in California. It strikes me as a lovely example of a New World producer letting the grape speak for itself rather than succumbing to the temptation to make it perform circus tricks, like pushing the vines into big yields or growing it in too hot a climate. Like any good dinner guest, this wine is undemanding and charming; it shows a youthful palate of strawberry and raspberry and a touch of leather and pepper. It would play nicely with the cranberries, and cut a lot of the richness in the food. I wish it were less than $16, but at least you get what you pay for.
I could be trickier with my white wine recommendation and offer an overlooked varietal from a tiny producer, but let's get serious and admit that chardonnay is the queen of the white wines in the United States. A chardonnay that is more steely than opulent ought to be served for Thanksgiving, unlike the big, oaky, tropical fruit-laden monsters California puts out. These embody a real signature style, and one that can be appreciated on any other day but Turkey Day.
Just as with reds, white wines from moderate climates rein in alcohol and body, resulting in more refreshing wines. The North Fork of Long Island is one such area, and one that is really coming into its own. The 2005 Paumanok chardonnay from this area is a clean and fresh wine with apple and pear flavors and a touch of citrus, gravel and oak.
Thanksgiving isn't for being tricky. Of all the American holidays, it is the most bound by family rites and rituals: the ceremonial turkey, the tasteless yet vital side dishes proffered by relatives, like green bean casserole and wiggly canned cranberry sauce that mysteriously retains the ridges from the can long hours after it is set on a plate. These are the things we drink to when we raise our glasses.