Thanksgiving Wine, a Guide for Hosts and Guests

Each week, Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 drops by with Serious Grape. This week, some welcome advice, whether you're hosting or attending a holiday dinner.

"It helps to remember that what your guests will talk about the next day is not the wine."

People start sending me queries about Thanksgiving wine in September. Every year, I'm struck all over again by how completely stressed out people get about what wine they should pour to go with the turkey. It is worth mentioning at the outset that traditional Thanksgiving fare goes with pretty much everything—sparkling wines, rosés, whites, and even reds. It's actually difficult to find a wine that is awful with turkey, mashed potatoes, and Parker House rolls.

Still stressed? How can you conquer your wine anxieties if you are hosting a Thanksgiving dinner? And if you are a guest, how can you help lower the stress even more?

If You Are Hosting Thanksgiving

It helps to remember that what your guests will talk about the next day is not the wine. They'll be talking about the conversation and the food. Some of them may dimly remember they liked the wine—but these guests are rare. Of course you want to serve something tasty, but this is not the time to spend a lot on a wine, or pull out a great wine treasure. It's all too easy to intimidate your guests with the announcement that the wine they are about to gulp down is expensive or highly regarded by major wine critics all over the world.

As the host, your main job is to make people feel comfortable at the meal. I know from first-hand experience that a little wine knowledge goes a long way with dinner guests. Keep the wine you pick and the way you serve it low-key. That means you should go with something you know you like, or go with something recommended to you by a trusted merchant or friend that is well within your budget. If you are looking for recommendations for particular bottles that fit into the low-key low-cost philosophy of Thanksgiving wine, you can check out my list of wine choices that cost under $20 on my own blog.

If You're a Guest

You can be guilty of unwittingly adding to the stress of the occasion simply by showing up with a surprise wine gift in hand. This sounds crazy. Who wouldn't like a gift of wine? The problem is that Thanksgiving is one of the most orchestrated meals of the year and your hosts have probably spent a considerable amount of time arranging the menu and obsessing about the wine pairing. They're also tired. You walk in with a Cabernet and they panic.

What do they do with it? Serve it? Keep it? Many hosts find what to do with wine gifts as stressful as the dinner itself.

As a guest, you can make sure you're asked back year after year by taking one of two approaches when it comes to gifting wine. First, you can show up with something that is always in high demand at holiday dinners: sparkling wine from California, from Spain (such as Cava), from Italy (such as Prosecco), or (if you are feeling flush) Champagne. Nobody minds opening a bottle of sparkling wine before dinner or with the first course, and even if it never gets opened at this meal, your hosts will be grateful for it at some point between now and January.

The second option is to show up with a bottle of wine and when you hand it over, clarify that it's for later. Two great wines for this purpose are rosés and robust red wines. With the rosé, hand it over and say "this is for you to enjoy with leftovers this weekend." With a robust red, hand it over and say "you'll be so sick of turkey by Monday that I brought you something to have with pizza next week." No matter which of these approaches you take, you'll know that you didn't make your hosts feel that they had to open the wine with dinner and disrupt their careful plans.

Whether you're a host or a guest the most important thing to remember is that Thanksgiving is a time for celebrating the fall season with friends and family. Just relax. Pour yourself some wine and raise a glass to everyone at your table. No matter what you serve, it's going to be great.

If you're still anxious about Thanksgiving wine choices or holiday wine etiquette, share your concerns in the comments. I promise I'll respond to any questions—and you'll probably get even more great advice from other Serious Grape readers.