How not to muck up the wine at Thanksgiving

Five rules from Cellar 13’s John Passman
Thanksgiving Wine
Wine picks by Cellar 13’s John Passman

Photograph by Evan Mah

When I asked John Passman at Cellar 13 to pick five quick and easy wines to pour at Thanksgiving, he responded in the way that, looking back, I should have expected from someone of his talent. “My thoughts on Thanksgiving wine are a little more complicated (or simple depending on how you look at it) but I’m sure we can quickly come up with something,” he wrote.

Indeed, there’s nothing easy about serving wine to a wide cast of characters, from judgmental relatives to novice drinkers who would be just as content with a cold Bud Light. Factor in a dinner spread that swings from savory to sweet in a single bite and that pulls from almost every spice in the cupboard and you’ve got a pairing nightmare. That’s why Passman has a simple approach: “Just drink what you like and be aware that aren’t a lot of ideal matches,” he said. Below, a few tips on what to do (and what not to do) on turkey day.

Don’t open that special $200 wine you’ve been saving.
Fat chance your grand cru Burgundy is going to jive with a plate that has 12 ingredients, 7 spices, and pickled vegetables. Save that bottle for a simpler meal (with simpler flavors) when it can shine. As Passman puts it, complex wines call for simple foods, and complex foods call for simple wines.

Stick to $15 to $25 a bottle.
If you’re hosting the entire family tree, you’ll want to stock up. Quantity over quality (within reason). With smaller groups, you can spend more per bottle.

Look for wines that are low in tannins and brimming with fruit.
This isn’t the time to open something earthy,” Passman says. “You want more pure fresh fruit.” He suggests a medium-bodied Zinfandel from California’s Dry Creek Valley, a region that tends to produce lighter, lower alcohol styles than top-tier producers like Turley.

Consider Pinot Blanc or Gewürztraminer from Alsace.
“Cranberry sauce doesn’t go with anything, but if you’re working with brown spices, whites from Alsace really pick them up well. Those wines also work well with turkey or ham,” Passman says. Light, cru Beaujolais from Fleurie or Chiroubles could work for a red (and they fall in the right price range), but not any from Morgon, which are darker and earthier.

Avoid the following wines.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux are too high in tannins and are too earthy. Burgundy is fine, but once you hit the cranberry sauce or the sweet potatoes, you’re done. You could go southern Rhone but don’t get too rustic. Sancerre doesn’t make a lot of sense either (too dry and minerally). You want more richness and body, he says. Looking to pop some bubbly? Avoid Blanc de Blanc Champagne (made with all Chardonnay) because they’re too lean and minerally. Pick a Champagne made with Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier for more body.