Given the tradition of the holiday, Wine Columnist Lettie Teague of The Wall Street Journal recommends keeping it American and highlights several under-the-radar US wine regions worthy of attention.
on wine: lettie teague
THERE IS ONE day of the year that we celebrate our collective American-ness with a large piece of poultry and (hopefully) a nice glass of wine. I’m talking about Thanksgiving, of course. While there are other important days on the American calendar (Labor Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July), none has a specific ritual of consumption like this particular one.
Illustration by Marc Rosenthal for The Wall Street Journal
The wine served at Thanksgiving is a perennial topic among wine professionals. The same questions are posed over and over again. Should the wine be paired with the turkey or with the sides? Should it be red or should it be white? Should it be pricey or should it be cheap enough to serve an army of cousins? To which I say: Most of all it should be American. The wines of this country have evolved quite impressively over the last couple of decades. I’d like as many of them as possible on my table this year.
Of course, there are obstacles inherent to such a quest. The biggest of these is distribution. Wineries in states that aren’t well known for their wine cultures, like Colorado and Maryland, are invariably small and may lack the means, or even the desire, to distribute their wines beyond their state borders. And some states, like Texas, require wineries to obtain permits to sell outside their borders, making it almost impossible for non-residents to buy their wine. (With a state like Texas, I wonder if that’s the point?)
“I look forward to the day when the diversity of American wines on the table will matter as much as the size of the turkey.”
Each state also has its own shipping rules about how much (if any) wine can be sent to individuals. Some wineries are more flexible than others about bending the rules. A map on the website of the Wine Institute, an association of California wineries and wine businesses, shows which states allow the shipment of wine to out-of-state buyers.
Despite such challenges, when I shopped online and at actual stores, I was able to pull together about 20 wines from 10 different states. Sometimes I only found one or two wines from a particular state. Sometimes I had to make a selection out of thousands of possible candidates (e.g., in California). Then I staged a tasting with a number of friends. The following is a brief snapshot of the wines that we liked from each state, in alphabetical order. The wines I’m including would all pair well with turkey—and they’re all reasonably priced.
The Grand Canyon state ranks pretty high on my list of unlikely places to grow wine grapes. Yet there are more than 80 wineries in Arizona, including a recent entrant, Arizona Stronghold vineyards. Founded in 2007, Arizona Stronghold is located in the northern part of the state and produces a wide range of varieties and blends from grapes that they grow and buy (some from California). The 2010 Arizona Stronghold “Mangus” ($21) is an aromatically inviting blend of several grapes, including Sangiovese. It has lovely red fruit and a bright acidity that holds up well to rich food.
The largest wine-producing state in the country does everything well, and one wine better than anywhere in the world: Zinfandel. From dense, chewy structured reds to delicious fruit bombs, Zinfandel is considered by many to be the most American of grapes. Perhaps for that reason alone, it tends to show up on a lot of Thanksgiving tables. There are quite a few that I’d choose, though two that I particularly liked were from the same winery, and offer two different styles of the grape. The 2011 Ridge Vineyards Ponzo Zinfandel ($26) is a high-toned, vibrant and structured red, while the 2011 Ridge Vineyards Paso Robles ($26) is ripe, lush and thoroughly hedonistic.
The state that gave this country its favorite potatoes does an increasingly good job with popular grapes, such as Riesling. The Sawtooth winery (seemingly named after the mountain range) is located in Idaho’s Snake River Valley region and turns out both reds and whites. The 2011 Sawtooth Riesling ($10) is a bright, pleasant off-dry wine with tropical fruit notes and a very fair price.
“I might have thought this was Champagne if I didn’t know it was from Massachusetts,” said a friend who attended my tasting. He was referring to the 2006 Westport Rivers Brut RJR Cuvée ($29), a sparkling wine produced predominantly from Pinot Noir (about 60%) south of Fall River, Mass. Never mind that Fall River is a town whose name has long been associated with mills, not grapes. The Westport Cuvée is a rich, slightly sweet and rather toasty wine that, according to the winery’s site, has been enjoyed by three presidents.
As a Midwestern native, I found it particularly gratifying to discover a Michigan Riesling for sale at my local wine shop. It seemed like a particularly profound illustration of just how much American winemaking has progressed in recent years. One of the better-known labels in the state is Left Foot Charley, a winery rather fittingly located in a former insane asylum. (Winemaking is a form of insanity—fiscal or otherwise.) The 2011 Left Foot Charley Dry Riesling ($19) is sourced from several Michigan vineyards, all credited on the back label. It’s a very sane example of the grape, marked by sweet-tart flavors and a mineral finish.
I have a friend who likes to bring New Jersey wine to my house. She always apologizes when she does (and often with good cause) but sometimes the wines aren’t bad at all. In the past year I’ve had a few New Jersey wines that were actually good, particularly those from the Outer Coastal Plain region, located in the southeastern part of the state. The 2011 Bellview Winery Traminette ($14) was a recent pleasant surprise—a white wine made from Traminette, a hybrid grape that tastes and smells like Gewürztraminer, its parent grape. It’s spicy and lightly off-dry—a pleasant aperitif, and perhaps a standard bearer of Traminette in the Garden State.
Sparkling wine from New Mexico has become fairly mainstream thanks to Frenchman Gilbert Gruet, who founded Gruet Winery near Albuquerque. Mr. Gruet was born in Champagne and his label has been producing sparkling wines for over 20 years. The winery, run by Mr. Gruet’s children, uses the same grapes as the Champenois (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir), but sells at American prices. The salmon-colored Blanc de Noirs ($13), a dry wine with a pleasantly fruity nose, is the same price as Prosecco but is more complex.
There is so much good wine made in New York right now, especially from the North Fork of Long Island and the Finger Lakes, that it’s hard to describe the diversity in just a few lines. Riesling is the chief grape of the Finger Lakes, and just about everything is grown on Long Island’s North and South Forks, though Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc dominate. I’ve been particularly impressed with the bounty of good Long Island Sauvignon Blancs in recent years. While there are many notable examples to choose from, one of the most reliable is made by Macari in the town of Mattituck. Their 2012 “Katherine’s Field” bottling ($17) is a citrusy, fresh and well-rounded white.
It’s hard to achieve fame and fortune on a single grape, especially one as fickle as Pinot Noir. But Oregon’s winemakers have done wonders with Pinot in the past 40 years, and terrific examples abound—so many that it seems almost arbitrary to single one out. The 2008 Z’Ivo Eola Amity Hills Pinot Noir ($28) struck me as a particularly good example of an Oregon Pinot. Neither too flashy nor overly ripe, it’s full of earthy, savory and minerally notes. It’s also under $30—rare in an Oregon Pinot.
Washington enjoys an embarrassment of riches; nearly every grape seems to do well in its vineyards. But while the fame (and the money) is made in the reds (mostly from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot), Washington also produces some terrific white wines. The 2011 Buty Winery white blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle ($22) is one particularly outstanding example—a rich, full-bodied, beautifully balanced wine.
While the size of the turkey and the number of side dishes will always take precedence, I look forward to the day when the diversity of the American wines on the table will matter almost as much.