From the Vineyard: Wines for Thanksgiving

Though Thanksgiving is considered the quintessential American holiday, it obviously derives from the harvest celebrations of people who live off the soil in cold climates all over the northern hemisphere.

We’ve made it our own with native animals, vegetables and fruits, notably the turkey, potatoes, corn, squash, beans and pumpkins, maple syrup and pecans; though a few immigrants, like butter, wheat flour and Brussels sprouts, are invited.

The beverages aren’t typically native, however. Pure American wine grapes don’t make wine palatable to most people; barley and hops are imports, and so are apples, even honeybees for mead.

Native people did make a beer from corn, and if you venture into the southwest far from the Pilgrims’ territory, the locals made pulque and other alcoholic beverages, if not Tequila.
Assuming you don’t want to make corn beer, you turn to our European ancestors for beverages, but you can take an American twist.

Beer was popular in early days not only for the taste and buzz, but because it was safe: boiling the water purified it. Most sources of water were then suspect by the time we had civilized the place. Obviously, craft local beer is now being made everywhere, excellently.

Likewise, whiskey made from native corn and other grains was also free of germs, though it had other ramifications.

Cider was safe, too. It was made from imported apple seeds; think of Johnny Appleseed. A historical figure, John Chapman was a nurseryman who introduced cider apple trees to much of the old colonies and new states. The slight alcohol helped preserve it, too.

Wine was an elite beverage initially, being expensive and imported from Europe. It only became popular after immigrants from wine-loving countries like Italy brought along their tastes.

Writers, who have little else to do and have to come up with Thanksgiving stories, argue endlessly about what to drink with Thanksgiving dinner. But after more than 50 years of consideration, I say drink what you enjoy.

Not to be completely nihilistic however, I can suggest a few options. For one, offer multiple choices. We always start with bubbles, and as with all the choices, they should be American. That no longer means, necessarily, California. New York, Michigan, New Mexico, Washington and Oregon as well as other states all make great bubbles and they range from bone dry to sticky sweet.

I find an off-dry wine best for a crowd. Extra dry is distinctly sweet, but so called bruts have just enough sugar.

Red or white? I’d offer both. It’s a good time for a classic California Chardonnay, and if you like those butter bombs, a relatively new wine called Butter from JaM Cellars is likely stacked up at your local wine source.

America’s favorite red is Cabernet, perhaps a bit tannic for a meal with sweet potatoes and turkey breast.

I’d go for Pinot Noir or maybe a mysterious blend that is sure to be juicy, sweetish and mellow. It’s also now legal to drink rosés year-round, and those who consider Zinfandel America’s grape (though it comes from Croatia) have an obvious choice.

Does anyone drink dessert wines—or even have room after a big dinner? A fine American spirit—Bourbon, brandy or applejack—seems more fitting.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Paul Franson lives in Napa Valley, CA.

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