Editor Lettie Teague flies to D.C. for a summit on the best wines for this most American of feasts.
California red wine
Credit: Getty/Bastian Lizut / EyeEm

This is the time of year when everyone in America eats the same meal and asks the same question: what wine to serve? Even those who may have successfully matched wine with food all year long seem terrified by the responsibility of choosing the right Thanksgiving wine. Maybe it's the sheer magnitude of the meal: while it's easy enough to find a wine that will go with one dish, what about one that will suit 10 or 12? Or maybe it's because Thanksgiving's main attractions--turkey, stuffing and yams--are foods that few people think about the other 364 days of the year. How do you pair wine with food you almost never eat? In search of answers, I flew down to our nation's capital for a roundtable discussion with four men who make their living matching wine with food. The discussion took place at DC Coast, with the restaurant's David Wizenberg as host; joining us were Michael Flynn of Kinkead's, Michael Nayeri of Galileo and Mark Slater of Citronelle. Here are the highlights.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for picking Thanksgiving wines?

Flynn: Cranberry sauce is definitely the biggest challenge; its acidity and its bittersweetness are both wine killers.

If you had to pick one wine for Thanksgiving, what would it be?

Wizenberg: Because people have such a range of preferences, I've always offered a kind of buffet of both food and wine at Thanksgiving, although if I had to pick just one wine, it would be Zinfandel.

Why Zinfandel?

Wizenberg: I think that a rich, spicy red with a lot of fruit up front, like Zinfandel, can stand up to the rich foods of a typical Thanksgiving dinner.

Nayeri: Actually, I think that an Italian Dolcetto d'Alba would be nice. Or a Nebbiolo for the same reasons that Zinfandel works. All are spicy and have a lot of ripe, lush fruit.

Slater: Or even a Côtes-du-Rhône red, slightly chilled, would be good. Because Thanksgiving is a heavy meal, I think that if you serve a heavy wine, everyone is going to be asleep by three o'clock. However, if I had to suggest a single wine it would probably be a light, fruity one like a German Riesling. It's an incredibly versatile wine; German Riesling not only goes with the food but also makes everyone happy, and it isn't overly alcoholic. I think that a perfect Thanksgiving wine would be a German Kabinett Riesling from a great producer like J. J. Prüm.

Flynn: To me, the perfect Thanksgiving wine would probably be a Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma, maybe a Marimar Torres bottling.

What about California Chardonnay, America's favorite white wine? Will it work?

Slater: I think we all agree that California Chardonnay is a wine that can actually ruin a meal.

Wizenberg: Don't turkey and California Chardonnay both have some sort of chemical substance that puts you to sleep?

Flynn: I think you need a wine that will balance out all the flavors and textures of a Thanksgiving dinner, and to me California Chardonnay doesn't. While Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon stand on their own quite well, they are not necessarily very versatile wines.

What about other white wines? Do you serve both red and white? Is there an ideal number?

Nayeri: Three. You might want to start off with a sparkling wine with a splash of Chambord for a nice cranberry color. And then maybe move on to a Sauvignon Blanc, followed by a light red wine like Dolcetto. After dinner, since there's football on TV, I'll probably have a beer.

Flynn: I'd say you should serve at least three wines: white wine as an aperitif, a wine during dinner, preferably red, and Champagne after dinner.

Wizenberg: I like to start with white wine and Champagne, build up to a Zin with the main course and then finish with a dessert wine like a late-harvest Zinfandel that lets everyone down gently.

Slater: Since I'm the only one here whose restaurant is open on Thanksgiving, I have two answers. At home, I might drink a Riesling, while at the restaurant I suggest that customers try different wines by the glass with each course. Oddly enough, Thanksgiving is not a big wine day at Citronelle. We don't sell many bottles; instead, we actually sell lots of iced tea--and a lot of cocktails, particularly old-fashioneds.

We've only talked about red and white wines, but what about rosé? Is that an alternative?

Flynn: Most people think of rosé as a wine for the spring and summer. In the winter, they're thinking red wine.

You mean drinking rosé at Thanksgiving is like wearing white shoes after Labor Day?

Wizenberg: Sort of. I think a rosé might go well, but I think the white Zinfandel business really hurt the image of rosé in this country. It's one of the things that would keep a lot of people from buying rosé at Thanksgiving.

Let's talk price. How much money are you willing to spend on a Thanksgiving wine?

Nayeri: I'd spend between $30 and $35 at a restaurant, and I wouldn't pay more than $10 to $15 for a wine I'm serving at home. Last year I bought a 1994 Fratelli Casetta Barbera d'Alba for about $10, and it was perfect. I just picked it off the rack at the wine store! The family was happy, everyone was happy, and that's what really counts at Thanksgiving.

Flynn: I'd probably gauge how much to spend by the company I'm keeping. Even so, I wouldn't go beyond $25 a bottle. I think you can really do well for that amount of money. Last year I had a 1996 Turley Aïda Zinfandel, which admittedly costs a lot more than $25 [it's about $75 a bottle], but I really just wanted to taste the wine.

Slater: I didn't work at the restaurant last year. I took the day off. We drank a lot of Bollinger Special Cuvée [$30] and later switched to a 1997 Carmenet Reserve Sauvignon Blanc [$16]. We didn't have any red wine at all.

Wizenberg: I think that a $15 to $25 bottle of wine is, for most people, a special wine, and I think you can find an excellent bottle in that price range. Last year we started with a 1994 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs [$25], followed by a 1996 Sanford Pinot Noir [$22] and then went on to a 1997 Turley Old Vines Zinfandel [$25]. I do think Mark's choice of the Carmenet was an excellent one, particularly since that wine has some Sémillon in it, which gives it roundness and helps balance the acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc. And I have to say I'd definitely find out what Michael Flynn is serving before I accepted an invitation to his house for Thanksgiving.