What’s the better Thanksgiving wine: a $3,000 Burgundy or a $10 Sauvignon Blanc? A collector with a stupendous cellar explains his surprising answer.
Holiday Wine Guide
My family loves Thanksgiving more than any other holiday. In the act of giving thanks for our many blessings, we Ryders do on a grand scale what we naturally do best: eat and drink. And, truth be told, we’re pretty fair country cooks too. We originally hail from Louisiana, where cooking is the national pastime and food is the subject of daily gossip and debateand not a few fistfights.
Our Thanksgiving menu has grown over the years, as our ranks of children and their children have swelled; while new dishes have been added, none get deleted because some constituency refuses to allow it. So now we typically have two 20-pound turkeys, one slow-smoked and one roasted; dressing with corn bread and sausage; pan gravy enriched with Madeira; onion pie; squash casserole with ground beef and cheese; baked sweet potatoes, sweet potato casserole and potatoes au gratin; asparagus with mushrooms and cream; green beans amandine; corn maque choux; and a few kinds of cranberry sauce. These menu details are important to understanding the dilemma faced by serious wine drinkers.
Oh, we are that too. Years ago, shortly after I gave up collecting baseball cards, I took up the fundamentally similar hobby of collecting wine. I did it as an intellectual pursuit and an escape from the daily drama of the business world. This was in the late 1960s, when collecting wine was not particularly fashionable, so it was a relatively inexpensive habit. I made one very smart move: I adopted a strategy and stuck with it. The strategy was “best wines, best years.” So, for four decades, I bought the world’s greatest wines in their finest vintages, and by the time they reached their prime, we were sipping outrageously expensive wines with a paltry cost basis. This wine collection became the raw material for our long and continuing search for the perfect Thanksgiving bottle.
Let me first tell you about my rookie mistake, so we get it out of the way and you don’t make the same one. When I started getting serious about wine, everyone followed rules like “white wine with white meat, red wine with red meat.” Turkey was white meat, so we assumed we needed a white wine, and the white wine of the moment was Chardonnay. I spent a good four years trying to make this square peg fit into a round hole. I bought light, lively Chardonnays and big, oaky ones. I bought French and I bought American. And all were overwhelmed by the Thanksgiving meal. Why? Look at the menu above: Thanksgiving is a wine nightmare. There are so many big, bold and wildly contrasting flavors surrounding that turkey that no simple, simpleminded rule is going to work.
My next mistake was trying to overwhelm The Meal with wines of impeccable quality. We had Bordeaux first-growths like Château Lafite-Rothschild and cult California Cabernets like Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, all in their best vintages. Those superb wines were substantially diminished by the cacophony of flavors on the plate, and I hate myself to this day for the abuse I inflicted upon them. They were too delicate for The Meal, and I should have known it.
But over the years, I had trained many collaborators in The Meal. They are my wife and our children and their spouses, and they are smart, with well-practiced palates. They began bringing Malbec from Argentina, Shiraz from Australia, Beaujolais Nouveau from France. Quite sensibly, they almost never paid more than $15 a bottle, and I was knocked out by the quality they found for the price. Many of those wines, with their bold, fruity flavors, withstood the assault of The Meal much better than my fancy stuff.
Our Thanksgiving wine program has evolved to this: We cook and drink together for a couple of days leading up to the holiday. I carefully select a case or two of great old wines that are ready to drink to teach us a lesson about the wisdom of our elders. My four children and their spouses bring a few bottles of their latest discoveries, and we line them all up in a logical tasting sequence. We sip and compare and play loud music and cook. Sometimes we drink a bit too much and burn the beans or some such, but it doesn’t really matter because we are having so much fun.
These tastings give us the chance to try some of the world’s greatest wines and experience a few epiphanies. One of these occurred four years ago, after a few younger family members expressed an interest in Pinot Noir. They brought about 10 bottles from the Santa Rita Hills and Sonoma County of California and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The juicy wines were full of cherry and raspberry flavors and, except for an herbal quality that marred some California choices, we agreed they were terrific.
But then I did something sneaky. I opened two Burgundies; fabulous ones, from the extraordinary 1990 vintage—a La Tâche from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and a Vosne-Romanée Les Beaux Monts from Leroy. They were beyond delicious. They redefined the discussion of what great wine is and taxed our combined vocabularies. Despite their delicate texture and lightish color, their flavors were deep and nuanced—black cherry and strawberry with hints of mushroom, truffle and tea. They made the New World wines seem big and rough. Then I broke the bad news: The Les Beaux Monts cost about $500; the La Tâche, about $3,000. There was some anger at the sheer effrontery of the pricing, but in the end perhaps an understanding that in every aspect of life, perfection commands a premium.
With The Meal itself, we now follow a clearly focused approach. We usually concentrate on two types of red and two types of white. For the reds, my first choice is usually Zinfandel, that most American of wines, and my second the Syrah- and Grenache-based wines of France’s Rhône valley. The Rhône valley is home to some of the world’s greatest wines, but unlike Burgundy, it is also a source of great bargains, particularly the Côtes-du-Rhônes.
The whites we have come to choose are Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer. Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand’s Marlborough region has citrusy flavors reminiscent of grapefruit; it’s refreshing and delicious and makes our stuffing stand up and take notice. As for Gewürztraminer, some people dislike its floral, almost pungent flavor, but a good Gewürz is full of beautiful notes of lychee, peaches and grapefruit. We prefer dry or very slightly sweet varieties with The Meal. My favorites are from Alsace, but there are very good ones from the U.S., too.
So that is the secret to how we found the perfect Thanksgiving wine. But here is the most important thing I learned in my decades-long search: When you are with your family in a place you love, sharing good food and good fortune, any wine is perfect.
Thomas O. Ryder, a longtime magazine publisher, lives in Connecticut and eats and drinks with enormous enthusiasm.