Start with the bubbly

Your guide to Thanksgiving wine buying

By Dr. Mike Rosenberg

Photo: A big, fruity Zinfandel will complement any Thanksgiving feast

The Big Feed is right around the corner, and you gotta buy wine. Since you’re the classy individual that you are, you actually give a rip about how the wine goes with food and you don’t want anyone to pour a glass of wine, take a sip, and go, “Um… ew.”

Thanksgiving wine buying can be challenging. At a standard dinner party, there’s usually a general theme or national cuisine from which you can pull ideas. A traditional Thanksgiving meal presents you with a bunch of flavors beyond turkey that usually don’t play well with grapes. Cheesy casseroles, sweet potatoes, various beans and legumes, yeasty rolls, and other homestyle favorites create a riot of flavors that simply aren’t conducive to a pause and savor pairing.

Your goal instead is to treat Thanksgiving like the gluttonous feast it is. We’re shooting for a selection of “good enough” wines to please a range of palates, yet give people enough options so they’re not making wine runs after the salad course. Here are the Naked Vine’s three steps to success:

First: How many wine drinkers at the table?

Get a rough count. Even if you have guests who have expressed that they don’t like wine, budget for them anyway. Assuming it’s too late to uninvite them, they’ll probably end up sneaking a glass or two anyway because they “just want to try it with food.” Worst case scenario: a couple of extra bottles get left over for slugging during cleanup.

I subscribe to the 80 percent rule. Let’s say you’ve got 10 guests. Eighty percent puts you at eight bottles. Each bottle holds five glasses of wine, so you’ve got 40 glasses total to go around. In my experience, heavy and light imbibers tend to balance each other out. Adjust accordingly if you are cooking for a number of true teetotalers or if you know that you’ve got some professional lushes like your narrator at the table. Also, since most people bring at least one bottle with them, you should have a comfortable cushion.

Second: Start with the bubbly.

My one hard-and-fast rule for Thanksgiving beyond the above proportion—start everyone off with bubbly. Toasting the start of the meal with a glass of bubbles wakes up everyone’s palates and appetites and gets everyone in a good mood. Also, since you generally don’t pour full glasses of sparkling wine, you’ll likely only need an extra bottle or two, max.

I’d recommend something like the Gruet Blanc de Noirs from New Mexico or my old Spanish standby Freixenet Extra Dry. Again, nothing complex—think crisp, refreshing, and food-friendly. Some of your guests might also prefer bubbles with your first course, whether it’s soup, salad, or something else.

Third: Taste the rainbow.

Now we get to the actual wines for dinner. We’re not going to mess with course-by-course pairings. That takes too much energy and, besides, you might have to make a mad dash to the kitchen, frantically searching for your copy of the Dayton City Paper to fan the smoke detector, which is still sounding incessantly after you left your oven mitt on the burner.

In most cases, I’d suggest getting three different types of wine. Why three? Like I said—we’re doing wine in broad brushstrokes here, and people like to sample. Think about basic flavor profiles. We can immediately rule out super light whites like pinot grigio. They’ll get run over by the feast’s flavors. On the other end of the spectrum, avoid highly tannic or oaky wines like most American cabernets or Chardonnays or big rustic French and Italian wines. We don’t need complexity to get in the way of the stuffing. The three profiles I use are…

Fruity and Flavorful Whites—For the white wine drinkers, I’d suggest whites with a lot of fruit flavor and usually a little sweetness. I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving Riesling. Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling and Kung Fu Girl Riesling are a couple of easy to find choices. If you’d like to go German with your Riesling, look for bottles that are labeled “Trocken,” which means dry.

Light, Comfortable Reds and Rosé—Good middle of the road, “keep on pourin’” wines that pair up with almost any sorts of food, be it meat or fowl. I love my rosé, but for this occasion, avoid those beautiful, delicate flowers from Provence. Go with a fuller, more fruit-forward bottle— perhaps something from Italy like Villa Gemma Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo or a South American version like Montes Cherub Rose of Syrah from Chile.

If you can’t bring yourself to buy pink wine, then another quality option here is Beaujolais, specifically, Beaujolais-Villages. Thanksgiving is also the one time of year that I find it OK to buy Beaujolais Nouveau, which is usually released around then. Don’t get suckered by a sale and buy last year’s vintage, though.

Big, Boomin’ Reds—Because every table will have at least one person who likes to drink big ol’ reds, don’t leave them out. My go-to wine when I need something big, fruity, and rich is good old California Zinfandel. Seven Deadly Zins, Ravenswood Vintners Blend, and their other $10 cousins should do nicely. If you want to look beyond California, a Garnacha (Grenache) like Los Rocas from Spain or a Cotes-du-Rhone like M. Chapoutier will certainly fill the bill without giving folks big mouthfuls of tannin.

In my previous eight-bottle example, I’d probably get two bottles of the whites and three bottles of each of the other two categories to start with. I find that folks tend to lean red as the night goes on. Obviously, you know your dinner guests better than I, so jigger as necessary. And remember—while you can send leftovers home, all remaining wine stays with the house!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Mike Rosenberg
Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at or visit his blog at

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