Ian Becker has worked in the restaurant industry for much of the past 15 years, and is currently the manager of Arlequin Wine Merchant, the sister store of Absinthe Brassiere and Bar in Hayes Valley. Ian’s interest in wine began as a waiter getting through undergrad while studying journalism. Ironically it was sports writing that brought him to the Bay Area, where the food and wine call was too much to resist. Most days you can find Ian at Arlequin, where he continues to search for the classic and unique wines of Europe and California.
Choosing Wines Worthy of Your Thanksgiving Spread
I love to think of wine as food.
Now, before you think I’m just a crazy drunk, who drinks his meals and it’s time to organize an intervention, what I mean is that I often think of wine as a product of the vineyard, like the apple from the orchard. Thinking of wine from this angle—well, let’s call it fantasizing—makes it all the more available to me, giving heightened pleasure to actually drinking it.
It’s fun to think about the hot sun in Provence when drinking a rosé from Southern France, or the fog-lined rolling hillsides of the Sonoma Coast while enjoying a Northern California syrah. Okay, you’re right. I’m a nerd.
This type of geeking-it-out thinking hits me the hardest when the seasons change. With this in mind, there’s no greater American culinary celebration of the harvest than Thanksgiving. And while for me it’s almost impossible to plan a meal without building each bit of the menu off which wine I’m serving, traditional Turkey Day fare can make finding the “perfect” wine and food pairing a real challenge.
But don’t be afraid—you are not alone. Just keep the following bits of advice in mind, and you’ll be sure to have a great diner, even if your Aunt Sally brings that green-bean casserole again.
Buy the Best Beaujolais
Look, clearly I love ringing in the seasons as much as anybody—but just like parachute pants, perhaps we should leave Beaujolais Nouveau in the 1980’s time capsule where it belongs. Since the mid-1950s, producers of this wine that is made from gamay noir grapes grown just south of Burgundy raced to be the first to hit markets in Paris, England, and here in the States. But in 1985, the third Thursday of each November was established as Beaujolais Nouveau release day. A pretty savvy marketing technique for this whole-berry fermented wine that has no tannin and smells of bananas, since it lands just in time for us Americans to have it with our turkey and stuffing; never mind that it has only been six weeks since the grapes were harvested!
Now, I know that your Uncle Terry always brings a couple of bottles of Duboeuf to Thanksgiving each year, and it’s part of your family’s tradition and all, but seriously, maybe Uncle Terry should do the dishes this year, too. Well, you don’t have to be that mean, but give Terry a call and tell him you’ll bring the Beaujolais, and shock the whole family with a wine that has been aged and crafted with the type of care that a meal like this deserves.
In other words, Cru Beaujolais. Look for names like Brouilly, Fleurie, Chénas, and Morgon. All of these areas in Beaujolais still produce light-bodied gamay that will pair very well with dry turkey, but they will also posses the completeness of a wine you’re looking for. And if Uncle Terry tries to call you a snob for bringing something different, simply find the word “Beaujolais” on the label, point to it and tell him not to break any of Mom’s china while he’s busy busting suds.
Know Your Audience
I grew up in Southern Ohio in a big, German-Catholic family. Indeed, my people like to drink. One year I brought back a few bottles of grower-produced Champagne for a pre-meal toast. And while I was walking around the table filling glasses, I saw a few of my aunts immediately drop ice cubes into their flutes.
”Next year,” I mumbled to myself, trying to regain my composure, “it’s cava for you two.”
The bottom line is that they simply didn’t care about the things that made this wine special to me, and who am I to make them? But more importantly, why should I have to pay for it?
The next year, I brought some great crémant (French sparkling wine not from Champagne) from Alsace that cost much less. I still enjoyed it, and so did my aunts’ ice cubes.
Know the Menu
I’ve had Thanksgiving dinner at seven different homes in the past seven years, and no two have been exactly the same—not even close. One year we started off with guacamole, another with Dungeness crab and oysters, and last year nearly each dish contained bacon—guess where I’m headed back to this year!
My point is there’s a good chance you’re going to someone’s house who is going to serve something a bit different than what the Pilgrims ate. And if your host was nice enough to tell you details about the menu in advance, and it seems like there are a lot of different flavors competing for attention, go with wines that won’t try to outshine the competition. With high acidity and lean mineral tones, gruner veltliner from Austria can be a safe bet that will pair with almost anything. For reds, the low tannins and high acidity of pinot noir from the Old or New World can also avail loads of possibilities.
Drink What You Like
It’s the most important thing to remember. Don’t freak out, it’s just fermented grape juice.
If you like hugely oaked Napa Valley cabernet or austere cabernet franc from the Loire Valley, do it up! You’ve earned this day of pigging out. Relax and enjoy it.
But this is not only a day to revel in gluttony, it’s also a day to share. One person brings a big jammy zinfandel, another an aged Barolo and yet another a vintage Champagne. Who’s the loser? That’s for you to decide.