High on the Vine: Wines for Thanksgiving

Bacchanalia sommelier Andrew Harris offers advice
Andrew Harris of Bacchanalia

When Andrew Harris of Bacchanalia celebrates Thanksgiving with his family, he does so in a way that would make any wine enthusiast jealous. After enjoying a breakfast tradition of ham souffle—layers of white bread, ham, and cheese topped with cornflakes and melted butter—the sommelier, alongside the rest of his family, gathers in his uncle’s 7,000-bottle wine cellar to discuss, debate, decant, and ultimately drink.

“It’s an all-day event,” Harris says.

For those of us with less experience or smaller (read: nonexistent) cellars, picking wines for Thanksgiving can present a serious challenge. With so many foods, preferences, potlucks, and people, what’s a host to do? Harris sat down with me to discuss etiquette, pairings, and what he’ll be drinking this Thanksgiving.

What’s the first question people should ask themselves when they know they’re having a blowout dinner and want to serve wine?
The first question I would ask is “Who’s your audience?” Is it going to be mom and dad and the aunts and uncles who don’t care about wine? In my family, wine is a huge deal. We start with a bubbly or a light rose, move into lighter whites and heavier whites and then lighter reds and heavier reds. On the other hand, my girlfriend’s parents are not as serious. They don’t course their meals or go into a wine cellar and talk for hours with every person in the family to decide what the first bottle should be.

So look at your market. If you’re going to have serious wine people over, you’re probably going to need serious wine.

What matters more: pairing wine with the turkey or with the sides?
It depends. You can go either way. You can focus on the turkey, which has a big, beautiful, salty complexity with a good amount of body. It’s lean with minimal fat. I always go for a big Napa Valley or French Chardonnay. That same wine will go great with anything that isn’t super, super fatty. Or if you know what people are bringing for sides, pick out specific ones like Cranberry sauce. I immediately go to a Brouilly, a light Beaujolais wine [from Burgundy, France] which brings out the cranberry flavor, adds a strawberry complexity and has some minerality in the backbone to tie it all together.

Thanksgiving typically involves lots of people, so when it comes to wine, that can create budgetary concerns. What matters more: more wine and mid-level quality, or less wine and higher quality.
I think you have to find a happy medium. At my household, so we’re going to have 6,8 or 10 bottles of Chablis [a crisp, minerally Chardonnay from France] or Brouilly around the table. It’s still quality wine and will pair nicely with foods because of its acid structure. For the medium and higher-end bottles like Pahlmeyer or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, there will only be one or two lying around.

What will you be drinking this Thanksgiving?
This year I’ll be spending it with my girlfriend’s family, so I have a couple in mind I’ll be taking. I have a bottle of 2002 Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape. I’ve been looking for a good excuse to drink it. I also have a Shafer Red Ranch Shoulder Chardonnay, which will be my turkey wine. I’ll grab some middle of the road stuff — some Oregon pinots from Maysara Asha Pinot Noir and some Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuisse. And I have a bottle of La Marca Prosseco because we always start with bubbles.

When you’re going to someone’s house, how do you know how much wine to bring?
I figure one bottle an hour. I’ve found that usually being the only sommelier at the party, people will look to see what’s in my glass, and then reach for that bottle. With the middle of the road stuff, I’ve noticed that if I don’t drink them, nobody else will. So in the first part of the day, I’ll start with the medium-priced whites and then put out the medium-priced reds.
It’s really up to me on when I want to break out the really nice wine. If I know we’re getting to the house at noon and eating at 4, I’m going to open the nice red at 3:30, so by the time dinner comes, I’m drinking the really nice wine with the food. If anybody wants to drink faster than that, they can bring their own wine.