When I was a kid there was never wine on our Thanksgiving table. This was the Midwest in the late 1960s and if anyone drank anything it was a highball or a beer. Thanksgiving was always at my great-grandfather Lemuel's house and to my memory it seemed like a hundred people were there. Lemuel was not a kid person, even though he sired an imposing litter that spanned three generations. He scared me to death.
There was so much food on that day we actually ate twice, right around lunch time and then again at dinner. In between, the adults played cards or napped, while the kids were shoved out the front door even if it was freezing outside. (It was good for ya!)
It was a pitch-in meal, so what the spread lacked in quality, it made up for in quantity. There was always turkey, overcooked of course, and usually a ham. We were never without a vat of butter masquerading as mashed potatoes or vegetables simmered beyond recognition with several pigs' worth of bacon. There was a legion of pies made by women who never measured a thing. A Martha Stewart Thanksgiving this wasn't, but the memories are still warm.
Flash forward 45 years later and 2,000 miles west and the annual Thanksgiving feast is in San Diego with my wife's family. The crowd is still big—this year about 35 people from three different generations flying in from as far away as New York and D.C.—and the spread is smaller and healthier. And a lot tastier, I must modestly admit as the sous chef.
It helps that we brine the turkey overnight now. Last year's bird was brined in cider, star anise and cinnamon but we try something new most years. Some things we're not allowed to change. Our corn bread, sausage and Fuji apple dressing has been filibustered into a permanent appointment, as much as I'd like to experiment.
And there's plenty of wine now, especially with the youngest generation coming of age. They're willing to try different wines and generally favor red, which works for me. I bring a few gems from the cellar for the serious wine lovers to share but most of the crowd simply wants something that tastes good and doesn't clash with the food. (You know, like most of America.)
As Thanksgiving approaches, I keep a short list of recommendations handy for tasty wines that are widely available. I might get asked by those coming to our meal or friends and family gathering in the Midwest. Yes, even in small town America people are drinking more wine than they used to back when I was a kid. With that in mind, here are a few of the wines that you have a good chance of finding on the local retail shelves.
I'm thinking crowd-pleasers, not the Gewürztraminer or dry rosé I might prefer. Chardonnay may not be the optimal wine with the Thanksgiving menu, but this is a holiday about making people happy. Bogle Chardonnay California 2010 (89, $10) is surprisingly complex for the price, offering crisp citrus-laced mineral and honeydew melon flavors. Sterling Chardonnay Central Coast Vintner's Collection 2009 (88 points, $14) is floral, fresh and snappy and has vibrant acidity.
For reds, I think Pinot Noir with the meal. Two that you might find include Pali Wine Co. Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County Huntington 2010 (90, $21), which is ripe and supple and loaded with fruit, as well as the graceful and polished Villa Mt. Eden Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2010 (88, $20.)
Maybe because it's such a uniquely American grape, I enjoy Zinfandel at Thanksgiving. It may be too big and zesty for the turkey, but it's great with spicy stuffing, cranberry sauce, yams and many of the accoutrements. Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County Sonoma 2010 (90, $24) is a racy wine that's jammed with raspberry and pepper.
I don't normally think Merlot with Thanksgiving but the Frei Brothers Merlot Dry Creek Valley Reserve 2010 (88, $20) is a Zin-lover's Merlot, zesty and spicy and offering ripe red currant fruit. And like it or not, people still love Merlot.
Those are just a few wines you might discover locally. Do you have a favorite crowd-pleasing wine for Thanksgiving?