Bill McCleary (above) is one of the helpful folks who might catch sight of you staring in bewilderment at the rows of bottles in the liquor store today, while you look for something suitable to serve with the Thanksgiving turkey.
As a wine and beer consultant at Surdyk’s, McCleary is going to hear a lot of people say, “It’s poultry, so I have to serve white, right?” and “Aunt Susie’s not much of a wine drinker, so nothing too out there, okay?” and, especially, “The budget’s a little tight, so let’s stick to around $10 a bottle.”
For all us $10-and-under seekers, McCleary has some advice that shouldn’t be news to anybody these days. But every time I hear wine experts say it, I ask them to repeat it just so I can hear it again: “If you’ve got a pocketload of money, well, you don’t need to spend it. Expensive isn’t better. It’s not the case with clothes or cars, and it’s not the case with wine.”
On the Thanksgiving table, especially, McCleary says, less expensive Merlots and Pinot Noirs are going to be more at home. These tend to be softer, lighter, less tannic.
“Traditional foods tend to be heavy and creamy and well seasoned, so [the wine choice] is not so much about the protein as it is the kinds of flavors we surround those meats with. You’ve got a lot going on there,” McCleary says. “You don’t want wine that’s too robust and going to compete too much, like a Cabernet or a Barolo, something that’s pretty heavy.”
For something a little unexpected, look for one of this year’s crop of Beaujolais Nouveau. “They’re kind of charming, with the richness we have at Thanksgiving.”
A traditional Thanksgiving meal is a strange bird, if you’ll forgive the pun. It’s more complex than anything we’d normally serve, but not necessarily more formal. Nobody I know serves it in courses. Rather than choose one wine for the whole meal or one for each course, a host is far more likely to set a selection of wines out on the sideboard or the counter and let everybody find something to their own liking. McCleary recommends having a red, a white, and either a Rosé or a sparkling wine available.
While a light red wine can be a nice complement to all the richness on the groaning board, when choosing a white you can play up similarities rather than differences. Look for whites with what McCleary calls “warmth and charm, with a honeyed core; not a sweet wine necessarily, but a creamy one.”
He steers customers away from something like a Sauvignon Blanc, which can be particularly acidic, citrusy, and dry, pointing them toward a Vouvray or a Chenin Blanc. “They can be sweet or dry and there are some nice ones from California.” And an oaky, buttery Chardonnay might be just the thing.
If your traditional Thanksgiving table includes ham and sweet potatoes, think sweet wine as well, looking to Gewürztraminers and Rieslings.
While most of us associate Rosés with hot summer nights or our parents’ lawn parties, McCleary is excited about people making out-of-the-box choices like that (and, yes, high-quality box wines are fine now, too). Look for a dry Rosé, which will be full of red, fruity, berry flavors without any tannin at all.
Nothing says celebration like sparkling wine, which makes an excellent addition to the Thanksgiving table, not just for a toast but right alongside the food. “Opposites attract,” McCleary says. And a dry, effervescent, refreshing Prosecco or Cava is certainly the opposite of most Thanksgiving meals.
That refreshing effervescence is one of the reasons beers work so well with a heavy meal. “I would stay away from heavier roasts — the stouts and the bocks — I just think that’s too heavy,” McCleary says. “If I were going to grab a beer, it would be a pale ale, a German or Czech pilsner because it’s going to have a crisp, more neutral taste.”
Mike Dombrow at Lake Wine and Spirits agrees that lighter beers are the best choice for the holiday. He likes Brewery Ommegang Hennepin Farmhouse Saison. “It’s a little heavier than Pabst,” he says with a smile, “but a lot tastier.”
If you reach for a cider — and what a great idea, huh? — make it a true Normande cider, like a Cider Dupont. Dombrow likes the way crisp ciders act as a counterpoint to our heavy, sweet turkey dinners.
“You could certainly go with the old standby Pinot Noir,” Dombrow says. “But why not ask your wine person or beer person, ‘What are you drinking this year?’ It will spur conversation.”
That’s a great question. So, Mike Dombrow, what are you drinking? “What I’ve been drinking for the past couple years is Black Bubbles Sparkling Syrah from Jed Steele. It’s not sweet at all but it has a lot of fruit with it and it tends to marry with everything well.” He also likes a Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains, a “really beautiful, unique, light-bodied wine.”
In the end, however, looking for the perfect Thanksgiving wine pairing is a fool’s errand. “We place way too much emphasis on crafting that special pairing moment,” Dombrow says. “Especially when you’re dealing with a very unique American experience that is a hodgepodge of everything.” That describes Thanksgiving to a T.
“There’s no way to screw it up, but there’s no way to do it perfectly, either. Just have fun with it and try to go off the beaten path. Find something that someone else likes and leave yourself open to it and don’t worry about screwing up.
Bill McCleary tells the story of a couple who came into Surdyk’s last year, clutching a New York Times article and looking for a Barbera or a Nebbiolo. “I’m thinking, ‘This is all wrong,’” McCleary remembers. “It’s going to be too heavy, too dry. It’s going to be young and rough, not the kind of thing you could just relax and enjoy. But the customer is always right.” So he recommended one, thinking he’d never see those particular customers again. But, sure enough, the couple sought him out a few weeks later — to tell him how grateful they were for the wonderful recommendation. “Maybe you can’t make a wrong choice,” McCleary says.