A good Thanksgiving guest has one responsibility and one elective. The responsibility is to carry out with good will whatever tasks, if any, have been assigned. The elective (and let’s face it, good manners would call this a responsibility, too) is to bring a little something for the hosts.
That little something can be a box of chocolates, hand towels or the like; always appreciated. But if the hosts enjoy wine, what better gift than a well-chosen bottle?
Before selecting a wine, it’s worth reiterating the two ironclad rules of giving: First, the gift is for the hosts to enjoy at their leisure. You must never give a gift of wine with the expectation that you yourself will enjoy it. Hosts may choose to open the bottle with you, in which case you may be pleasantly surprised. But they are never obliged to do that, because it is a gift for them, not a treat for you.
Which leads to the second rule: A good gift must be something that your hosts will value. Even better, something you also value. This precludes regifting, unless you know for a fact it is something your hosts will enjoy.
More often with wine, you may have no idea of their tastes. In that case, the all-purpose, can’t-go-wrong gift is a bottle of Champagne. Any bottle is a nice gesture, but a good bottle, not necessarily expensive, is even better.
In the lower price range, about $30, Duval-Leroy Brut is a fine choice. A step up, around $50, offers more nonvintage choices. A name brand, like Bollinger Special Cuvée, or an excellent small producer, like Pierre Péters Cuvée de Réserve, offers a wonderful selection. And if you really want to make an impression, a magnum is the way to go. Billecart-Salmon makes a terrific brut rosé, but it will set you back around $170 for the magnum.
If even a lower-end Champagne exceeds your bank account, plenty of thoughtful gifts are available for around $15. At that price, it’s hard to find a better value in white wines than a good Muscadet. Top producers like La Pépière, Jo Landron’s Domaine de la Louvetrie, Luneau-Papin and Domaine L'Écu all sell bottles in that range. Any number of good Italian reds are available for around $15, too. A casual search at that price finds a Rainoldi Rosso di Valtellina, a nebbiolo wine from Lombardy, and a lively Barbera d'Asti Tre Vigne from Vietti.
Want a story to go with your gift? Get a bottle of dry, earthy Lambrusco, the real thing, not the sweet junk wine that was so popular in decades past. You can tell your hosts how, in Emilia-Romagna, dry Lambrusco is the wine of choice with the fatty, filling cuisine. Come to think of it, Lambrusco would be great with the Thanksgiving feast, too. Look for good producers like Rota, Saetti, Lini 910 or other small growers recommended by your wine merchant.
For something completely different but entirely in season, try cider. Not a can or a six-pack but a cider elegantly packaged in a 750-milliliter bottle. Wonderful Normandy ciders from producers like Domaine Dupont and Eric Bordelet are not hard to find, and superb American producers like Farnum Hill, Foggy Ridge and West County all offer terrific choices.
Certain wines are associated with the Thanksgiving season, like zinfandel and Beaujolais. I’m not a big fan of overwhelming zinfandels that pack an alcoholic wallop and taste like jam syrup, but plenty of producers are making precise, delicious zinfandels that would be welcome at my table. Vine Starr from Broc Cellars is a spicy, light-bodied delight for around $28. Ridge Vineyards makes a range of excellent midweight zins for $25 to $50. Carlisle’s old-vine zinfandels are a little more expensive, around $50, but they are uniformly pure and fine. Dashe and Frog’s Leap are also worth tracking down.
Beaujolais comes by its association because Beaujolais Nouveau, the quaint custom of making an easy wine from the just-completed harvest, is always released the third Thursday of November. Mass-market nouveaus tend to be more confectionary than interesting, though you can find some good ones from small producers. Personally, I’d stick to cru Beaujolais, a more serious wine that can combine complexity with joyousness. Good producers like Michel Tête, Jean-Paul Brun, Julien Sunier, Dutraive and many others sell for around $20 to $30.
If you want to spend more and buy American, your options are many. Mayacamas, which made great, long-lived Napa cabernets before it was sold in 2013 (we'll see what the future holds), is available in the 2007 to 2009 vintages for $50 to $100. Those will be memorable bottles. Other Napa cabernets that would make superb gifts include Corison, Dominus, Smith-Madrone and Heitz Cellar. These bottles will run anywhere from $40 to $150 depending on which producer you choose.
I love syrahs in the fall, and California syrahs have improved significantly in the last decade. Favorite producers include Qupé, Arnot-Roberts, Wind Gap, Copain, Bonny Doon and Enfield. These may run $30 to $80. Oregon pinot noirs have also improved and become much more consistent. Look for producers like Eyrie, Big Table Farm, Soter and Belle Pente for $25 to $50.
For something a bit out of the ordinary but historically resonant, Madeira makes a wonderful gift. It was a classic Colonial-era beverage because of its ability to withstand long ocean voyages intact. The Rare Wine Co. issues a Historic Series of Madeira, which are excellent representations of the various styles that were popular in Colonial days, from surprisingly dry to lusciously sweet. They run about $50 a bottle.
Sometimes nothing will replace a bottle of booze. I personally prefer the spicy liveliness of rye to the smooth sweetness of bourbon. Rye went from being the quintessential American whiskey in the 1940s and ‘50s to nowhere by the end of the 20th century. Now, in just a few years, it has become so popular that the stocks of aged whiskey have been largely drained. Younger ryes can nonetheless be delicious. Jim Beam Straight is the real deal, for around $30 a bottle. But if you want to go local, many small distillers around the country are making their own versions. Here in New York, Van Brunt Stillhouse in Brooklyn makes a fine rye, as does Tuthilltown in the Hudson Valley. Either runs about $35 for a half bottle.
Not to be overbearing, but it’s essential that you remember to give freely without the expectation of partaking. If you yearn for a taste, buy two.