When my mom turned 70 this year, my siblings and I threw her a six-course wine dinner. We all cooked, but the wine, that was up to me. I picked 13 bottles, from California sparkling to late-harvest zinfandel. I told everybody why I liked the wine, a little something about the winemakers I've met and how I picked each bottle to match the food. Maybe it was because we had, you know, 13 glasses of wine, but I thought things went pretty well. So I plan to do the same thing for Thanksgiving. Here's what we'll drink, and here's a practice run for what I'll say about each one.
For the record, I tried to talk the cook into doing an Italian feast for Thanksgiving. It's so much easier to match the wines. But she wasn't having any of that, so we're stuck — at least from the wine guy's perspective — on the Island of Misfit Toys: turkey, ham, a cheese plate, giblet gravy, potatoes both orange and tan, green bean casserole, sage stuffing, pumpkin pie. The most innovative thing we're doing is cranberry streusel cake from our friend Karen MacInerney's mystery novel, "Berried to the Hilt." (Recipe follows.)
And because everything but the cheese plate and dessert is hitting the table at the same time, I'll break the wine into three broad categories: Before, During and After. Suggested retail prices are shown in parentheses. Feel free to ask questions with your mouth full.
My goal here is to get the buzz going early so you'll think I'm making sense. So with the cheese and fruit and bread before dinner, we're going with crowd favorites: bubbles and cold, cold white.
• Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi Brut Sparkling Wine ($9.99): From our last tasting, I know this family likes the sweeter, fruitier, California-style cheap champagne over the bready, drier French style. This is not an insult. You like what you like. This is cheap champagne that doesn't taste or look cheap. It has enough acid and enough fizziness to complement creamy cheeses. But more important, it's fun.
• Mumm Napa Brut Rosé ($24): The yeasty notes and finer bubbles I like, the hint of sweetness you like. And bonus notes of cherry and strawberry for us both, plus a coral glow for eye candy.
• Napa Cellars Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($18): Winemaker Joe Shirley and I sat outside a South Austin taco trailer for three hours swishing and spitting through his portfolio. Isn't that pretty? Then he drove through a tornado warning on his way to Dallas. That makes for a good story. But the better story is that the refreshing limeade swirl of his sauvignon blanc went equally well with pork, beef and avocado tacos. It's also a good bottle to demonstrate the fact that a screwcap doesn't mean cheap wine.
Here's the hard part: finding something that goes with dry white turkey meat and the gamier dark meat, plus gravy that's salty and fatty and cranberry sauce that's puckery-sweet. Now throw in smoky, fatty, salty ham. This calls for finesse, for a lot of chardonnay, a little riesling and a few bottles of pinot noir, the wonder grape. Plus one wine to keep the peace.
• Snoqualmie Naked Chardonnay 2009 ($12): The chardonnay grape gets a bad rap because some California wine technicians turn it into oak-soaked butter bombs. This organic winery leaves the grape alone, and it's refreshingly light with a little citrus peeking through. Not too sharp for turkey, but bright enough to slice through the gravy.
• Stag's Leap Karia Chardonnay 2008 ($35): One step up in power and technique, Stag's Leap shows how scraping a little butter across a slice of toasted oak can make your wine taste as toasted and juicy as the bird.
• Seven Hills Columbia Valley Riesling 2009 ($14): This is crisp, a little sweet, with some drying mineral notes. And at 11 percent, it's lower in alcohol (looking at you, brother-in-law). Your instincts will tell you it goes with the poultry, but its acidity will cut through the fat in the ham even better.
• MacMurray Ranch Central Coast Pinot Noir 2007 ($23): The winery carries the name of the actor Fred MacMurray, and his daughter Kate is the label's ambassador. When she visited Austin, she and I talked about how much we liked her dad in "The Caine Mutiny." The movie is so saturated with color, and his character is nuanced and complex. The wine is, too. I think of it almost like perfectly balanced cranberry relish. (Do not take a sip and ask me who took the strawberries, Bogart.)
• Byron Nielson Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008 ($34): Byron winemaker Jonathan Nagy's wife is a winemaker, too. He said they don't compete, and they give each other advice and encouragement. This wine brings some dark cherry and a lot of warmth. This wine makes everything on the table get along. What does our family have in common with this wine? Absolutely nothing.
• Peter Lehmann 'Layers' Red Wine 2008 ($15.99): For you, baby sister, an Australian shiraz blend, because you know what you like to drink, no matter what you're having to eat. Dad, take a sip of this one, too, because it has a healthy dose of the mourvedre and tempranillo grapes that make the Italian-style reds you like. This is a lot more of a brawler than the "Layers" name suggests. With this many grapes in one bottle, there's bound to be a fight. What does our family have in common with this wine? Absolutely everything.
What we have here is pumpkin pie and cranberry streusel, and I'd recommend a 2009 Kenya AA (no cream or sugar) to sober you up, because you are SO not proper Puritans. Also because nothing beats coffee with dessert. But we're talking about wine, and I love port, so let's try this:
• Graham's 20 Year Tawny Port ($51.99): This one is nutty and raisiny from age and slow exposure to oxygen. (Insert joke about Dad here.) The "20" is the average age of the ports used in the blend. The flavor — like sorghum over hot biscuits — wraps itself around the creamy sweetness of pumpkin pie.
But cranberries? Hey, we've opened 10 bottles, so drink whatever feels right. And let's do this again at Christmas.
Emmeline's Award-Winning Cranberry Streusel Cake
For the cake:
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. table salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
11/3 cups sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup fresh cranberries, chopped
For the streusel:
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 Tbsp. butter
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup fresh cranberries, chopped
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter and flour a 9-inch-square baking pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg and salt.
In a separate large bowl, beat the butter, sugar and vanilla on medium speed until well-blended. Reduce the speed to medium low and add the eggs one at a time, mixing until just incorporated.
Alternately fold the flour mixture and the sour cream into the butter mixture, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Add the chopped cranberries with the last addition of flour, then spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Tap the pan gently to release any air bubbles and bake for 40 minutes.
Prepare the streusel by combining brown sugar, flour and cinnamon in a medium bowl.
Add butter and mix with a fork until the ingredients are well-blended and form small crumbs. Stir in the walnuts and cranberries.
After the cake has baked for 40 minutes, sprinkle the streusel evenly over the top and continue baking until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, another 10-15 minutes.
— Austin mystery writer Karen MacInerney, from 'Berried to the Hilt' (Midnight Ink, $14.95)