I'm not sure whether to be pleased or alarmed by the fact that people have been asking me which wine to drink with Thanksgiving dinner for more than a month. On one hand, it is wonderful that people seem to anticipate the holiday with such relish. But on the other hand, there is more than a hint of agitation among the questioners. Many seem to feel highly pressured to pick a wine that is absolutely perfect, as if they fear that selecting an imperfect wine will detonate the occasion just as surely as botching Granny's stuffing or talking politics with Uncle Bart.
I'm confident that I can set you up with a wine that almost everyone will like, but first I want to give you a few reasons to chill out. For starters, the whole business of pairing wines with foods has become absurdly over-legislated, with too many writers insisting that only one particular wine is a proper match for such-and-such a dish. The truth is much less confining: As long as you select a good wine that is symmetrical with the food in terms of robustness (i.e., its weight and flavor intensity), you'll almost always come up with a pleasing match.
Second, there is no such thing as a perfect match, at least in the sense that no single pairing will strike everyone as optimal. This is not to say that everything is subjective, because there is genuine objectivity to the robustness rule. However, once you've achieved general compatibility in terms of robustness, the detailed interplay of wine and food flavor nuances is largely a matter of taste.
Third, the idea of a perfect pairing presumes that there is a single food for the wine to match, whereas, in reality, there are usually several foods on one's plate, each carrying different textures and flavors. This is especially true at Thanksgiving, which is such a culinary cornucopia that the very idea of a single perfect match is reduced to nonsense. Can we come up with one wine that marries perfectly with austere white turkey meat as well as sweet candied yams and acidic cranberries? Fat chance.
So, what should you do? There are three basic possibilities: You can select a wine you already know you like and hope for the best, or place a range of different bottles on the table and encourage people to graze through them, or focus on a wine type that is inherently versatile with different foods. All three are sound strategies. If you are enjoying good food and drinking a wine you love, how bad could the match really be? And since Thanksgiving dinner is already a celebration of abundance, why not give people a chance to find their own favorite among a white, a light red, a rose and a sparkler?
In my own home, I almost always use an amalgam of these approaches, placing several bottles on the table to account for different tastes, but also encouraging guests to try Pinot Noir--partly because it is remarkably versatile and partly just because I love the stuff. It is delicate and low in tannin, so it won't overwhelm the turkey, but it also has plenty of flavor to stand up to gravy and stuffing, as well as enough acidity to hold its own with cranberries and salad. Moreover, it has recently become possible to enjoy excellent renditions without breaking the bank, with American producers leading the way in making moderately priced Pinot Noir the most improved of major wine categories.
Brief reviews of standout performers priced at or under $20 are provided below in order of preference, with approximate prices and D.C. wholesalers indicated in parentheses:
Olivet Lane Russian River Valley 1997 ($20): Pure cherry and strawberry fruit, with lovely silky texture. (DOPS)
Villa Mt. Eden Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Vineyard 1997 ($20): Lush and soft, but framed and firmed by a perfect dose of classy vanilla-scented oak. (Forman)
Martin Ray Winery California 1997 ($20): Succulent black cherry fruit with soft tannin and perfectly balanced oak. (Bacchus)
Echelon Vineyards Central Coast 1998 ($14): A wonderful overachiever for the price, with a remarkable combination of concentration and purity. (Wine Source)
Ramsay Winery California "Lot 9" 1997 ($14.50): Intense fruit and creamy texture make for a complex, satisfying wine. (Bacchus)
Mont St. John Cellars Carneros 1997 ($18): Interestingly rustic, with excellent intensity and depth of flavor. (Franklin)
Witness Tree Vineyard Willammette Valley Oregon 1997 ($20): Lovely fruit with a judicious touch of oak and a faint earthy touch make this a remarkably complex bottle for the money. (Washington Wholesale)
Moshin Vineyards Russian River Valley 1997 ($15): This new kid on the block shows very pure flavors and smooth texture reminiscent of much pricier wines. (DOPS)
Mirassou Vineyards Monterey County Harvest Reserve 1996 ($16): Complete and highly satisfying, with impressive richness and well-measured hints of oak and spices. (Washington Wholesale)
Michael Franz will be answering questions Wednesday at noon on washingtonpost.com.