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Crowd-Pleasing Wines and Thanksgiving Memories

The holiday is a time to think of family and drink what you like
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 14, 2012 10:30am ET

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?

Brian Peters
Broomfield, CO —  November 14, 2012 1:27pm ET
The last few years, there have been 2 wine staples at our table for Thanksgiving...Caymus Conundrum, which seems to go with everything and a wine most non-wine drinkers enjoy, and a Loring Wine Company Pinot, for which I use to email Brian Loring and ask him for his recommendation on a particular vineyard/vintage but now we find we like them all and it doesn't really matter which one!
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  November 14, 2012 3:25pm ET
Tim......Your description of your family's Thanksgiving day & dinner was priceless. You'd be amazed at how many families (mine included) can relate to your experience as a kid. Sounds like something Charles Dickens would have written. And Norman Rockwell must be smiling down on your family for providing him with a vivid image for a future Saturday Evening Post cover drawing, to share with the angels.
Terrance Rooney
San Francisco, CA —  November 14, 2012 4:12pm ET
Tim, I know you're from Indiana, and I'm from Iowa. Thanksgivings were much the same, i.e. no wine except for my maiden aunt who liked white port.

Now in California we like to have both Beaujolais Nouveau as a tradition, and a great Zinfandel for more serious drinking. So many excellent Sonoma County Zins to pick from. Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay just don't make it for me.

Terry Rooney

Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  November 14, 2012 4:33pm ET

Thanks for the comments everyone and for joining the conversation. Thanksgiving brings back a lot of memories for everyone. Some bad, mostly good I hope.
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  November 14, 2012 5:13pm ET
Tim: For this year's Thanksgiving dinner I'll be taking some Schramsberg Brut Rose 'Mirabelle' for before & during dinner, followed by a few bottles of Orin Swift's 'The Prisoner' zinfandel blend. The zinfandel will denote my being held PRISONER at the in-laws house for the whole day, LOL !!!!!!
Greg Rush
St. Louis, MO USA —  November 16, 2012 8:41pm ET
Tim - greetings...we are loyal fans of all things W/S, for W/S guidance/insight over the years has been invaluable. In your tasting notes for the 2010 Seghesio Zin we note that your recommendation states 'best from....2014 - beyond.' Please advise if your guidance has changed and perhaps why? We have some in the cellar and certainly may, as odd as it seems, try a Zin along-side.......well, sides, as you suggest :)

Warm wishes and Happy Thanksgiving,

John Padgett
Melbourne Fla —  November 20, 2012 10:48am ET
Hope you have a great Thanksgiving.

The following question has nothing to do with your column but trying to send you all an email is tricky,so here goes:

The top 100 has become different and more towards price the last few years.Any thought given to 2 top lists by price range.You could only allow me 50 characters for my wine knowledge and it would be too much but it really seems like you are trying to find the best 90 pointer, less than $25 wine to include in the list.

I'm not asking for Petrus,etc.but Marcassin pinot is on my Bucket List and rated 50th.Is Shea really better ,graded lower? Do not want your job,can not do your job,just asking.

Have a wonderful day and while I'm at it,a Merry Christmas too.

Don Clemens
Elgin, IL USA —  November 27, 2012 1:43pm ET
I had to laugh (quietly, at my desk) while reading the first few paragraphs. I was raised in Ottawa, IL, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. It's amazing how similar my childhood Thanksgiving memories parallel yours. After a stint in Yountville, CA, I eventually moved back to the Chicago 'burbs. Life now very much parallels your current situation. The turkey is more interesting, the cranberry dressing (NOT CANNED SAUCE!) is an evolutionary experience, and - if we have a green bean casserole, it is made with fresh haricots vert, fresh mushrooms in a home-made cream sauce and crispy fried shallot rings. The desserts reflect the same sort of evolution. Thanks for the smiles you gave me!

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