Serious Eats: Drinks
5 Essential Thanksgiving Wine Tips
Let's talk about Thanksgiving wine. I know, I know, Thanksgiving is weeks away and you're still taking the cotton cobwebs and jack-o-lantern lights down from Halloween, but that's exactly why we should talk about it. You can't start boiling potatoes and you can't start washing salad greens, but you can—and should—get ahead when it comes to wine.
We'll have bottle recommendations for you starting later today, but first: five essential Thanksgiving wine tips.
Tip #1: Buy Early, Store Safely
If you have a wine fridge, a cool spot under your stairs, a basement, or a safe closet that isn't anywhere near a heater, you can stock up on wine now, and not have to worry about it for the rest of the month. In fact, if you can afford it, it might make sense to buy enough wine now for not just Thanksgiving, but any parties you have planned for December, too. That way, you can take advantage of case discounts at your local wine store—or just save yourself a trip if the best wine shop in your area isn't super convenient. You will drink better wine if you buy it at a specialized shop you trust, rather than last-minute at the grocery store.
Once you've gathered your bottles, be mindful of temperature. Don't store wine anywhere that could get over 75 degrees. Don't store it on top of the fridge. Don't store it next to the oven in a pretty wine rack. Don't store it near the fireplace. Under your bed could be good—but not if you stick a space heater there to warm your freezing toes.
Tip #2: Buy Enough
Buy enough wine. You don't have to open it, so as long as you have a safe storage place (see above) you might as well stock up at the beginning of the frequent-entertaining season. Now's the time to make your guest list and start figuring out how much wine to buy.
The Long Version, With Math
A safe rule of thumb is to figure that each guest will consume one to two drinks per hour. If you're focused on wine and not serving cocktails before dinner, assume you'll need enough for an hour of appetizers before dinner (in case that turkey takes a little time getting up to temperature or Aunt Mary arrives late.) Then consider years past: did dinner last 20 minutes and then everyone went back to the football game? Or did Uncle Bob tell stories for so long that everyone ended up eating third and fourth helpings? Are you day-drinkers (and eaters) or is dinner after sundown?
Multiply the number of hours you plan to entertain times the number of guests times two drinks per guest, and you've got the number of glasses of wine you might need. If you're serving standard 750-mL bottles, it's safe to assume you'll get about four glasses per bottle, so divide your glass number by 4 to find out how many bottles you need.
Got that? Guests x hours x 2 = glasses.
Glasses / 4 = bottles.
So if I'm hosting six people and planning to have a half hour of pre-dinner snacks followed by a dinner that lasts about an hour and a half, I can figure 6 people x 2 hours x 2 drinks per hour = 24 glasses / 4 glasses per bottle = 6 bottles. For 6 people.
Which leads us to:
TLDR...The Short Version, No Math
To be honest, you can probably just skip the math and plan on one bottle per wine-drinking person, unless your crowd happens to drink way less, start way early, or party way late. If Thanksgiving is a full-day, lunch-to-midnight-snack affair for you, you may need more, but most people don't tend to drink more than a full bottle per person at a dinner, no matter how long the evening goes.
But you know your crowd better than I do. And you might want to take everyone's keys and get the guest room ready.
Once you know know the number of bottles you're aiming for, you may be wondering how many different bottles you need. If you're entertaining more than, say, 6 or 8 people, and your crowd is really into wine, you may want to get duplicates. Go for 2 or 3 of each bottle you choose, rather than choosing 8 different wines. That way you can open a second bottle just around the time that most of your guests have tasted and decided they really liked something...and before they've realized that Cousin Andy hogged the last glass. Thanksgiving is about bounty!
Tip #3: Look Out for Flaws!
We were reminded of this lesson last year, when we hosted a big Thanksgiving dinner for a group of sommeliers and beer experts. When we went to open one of the bottles we were particularly excited about, we poured it in a glass...and it was corked. Unservable. Musty. Cardboardy. Wet sock-y.
It shouldn't have been a surprise: at least 1 in 20, and maybe more like 1 in 10 bottles of wine is corked. Having backups will make sure you have lots of delicious wine to drink.
Not sure how to identify flawed wine? Here's our handy guide.
Tip #4: Got Other Wine Supplies?
Now—not the day before Thanksgiving when you're figuring out how to get your turkey thawed—is the time to make sure you're all stocked up on the rest of the stuff you need to serve wine.
Got enough glassware for everyone, including an extra glass or two in case a stem gets broken? My go-to glasses are the almost unbreakable Forte collection from Schott Zweisel. We've used them—and washed them in the dishwasher—going on four and a half years now, and almost all have survived. I've had cheaper glasses in the past that managed to break themselves in the sink, on the counter, if you looked at them wrong...I've saved money by having stemware I don't need to replace all the time. That said, I've seen some killer deals on wine glasses at Costco, so that's worth considering if you're really trying to buy in volume.
Need a good corkscrew? Our favorite these days is the totally-affordable Truetap Doubled Hinged Corkscrew, but if you prefer to make things truly low-effort, the Metrokane Rabbit lets you slide a cork out of a bottle while barely lifting a finger.
One more thing: a lot of wines really benefit from a bit of extra air, and the easiest way to serve those is to dump them into a decanter. It doesn't have to be a cut crystal heirloom; in fact, it could just be a water pitcher, but it's nice if the decanter works to expose the wine to a little oxygen. If you have a big crowd coming for Thanksgiving, it might make sense to have two. I've been using this one for years. It's nothing fancy, but it gets the job done.
I don't recommend using those quick-decanting aerator gadgets. While they do add air to wine, they can actually push the aeration too far too fast, stripping the wine of some of its brightness and aroma. Take your time and do it the old fashioned way, and you'll get to see more of how the wine evolves.
Tip #5: Aim for the $weet $pot
What should you spend on Thanksgiving wine? Not too little, and not too much.
Too little, and most of your money goes to the cost of the glass bottle, the cost of the label, the cork, the shipping, the taxes, the marketing and sales efforts. Which doesn't leave a ton of cash for the quality of the juice itself.
On the other hand, this isn't a meal that really is made for a super-pricey wine. There's a lot going on: turkey has a pretty easy-going personality, and stuffing can help the best wine taste even better, but there's also that green bean casserole, the salad with vinegar and pomegranate seeds, the sweet potatoes with pecans and brown sugar, the brussels sprouts, etc. A lot of flavor going on.
Last year we opened a special bottle of Burgundy and a more affordable bottle of Beaujolais. The Burgundy was wonderful—but in the chaos of the meal, the crowd and the many different dishes, we felt like the wine wasn't really given a chance to show itself. It would have been better saved for a small dinner party, a simpler meal designed to let the wine be the center of attention. The $20 Beaujolais we opened, on the other hand, was just right: yummy, easy-drinking, great with almost all the different dishes, but not so serious that it required our full attention.
Looking for specific bottle recommendations to pair with your Thanksgiving feast? Here you go: