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The Pour Man: Pinot Noir, the sure thing

Pinot Noir grapes yield wine with luscious fruitiness good match for turkey. | Chip Chipman~Bloomberg

Pinot Noir grapes yield wine with luscious fruitiness, a good match for turkey. | Chip Chipman~Bloomberg

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Updated: May 9, 2012 10:04AM

We had a pool table in our basement, and when my older siblings asked if we could have a Ping-Pong table, too, our dad went out and bought an 8-by-4-foot sheet of plywood, painted it forest green, then edged it and crossed it with precise white lines.

He fashioned a frame that would hold the board snugly in place on the pool table, and on the morning of Thanksgiving the net came down and the green board got draped in an enormous white tablecloth.

My six older siblings, 10 older cousins, four aunts and uncles and the occasional adult guest guaranteed that I would never score a seat at that table. I was happy just the same to sit at the kids' table and drink all the pop I could handle. I will never forget those Thanksgiving days and nights, my loud and joyful family packed around that big table, the comforting loop of "Heart and Soul" played, and played again, by two young musicians sharing one piano bench and one keyboard.

I did not drink wine then, but another thing I will never forget are the screw-top jugs of Gallo Hearty Burgundy that appeared seemingly out of nowhere, like the white tablecloth. If only that wine had been made exclusively from Pinot Noir grapes like the real red Burgundy in France, it might have been a great match for turkey, cranberries, stuffing, sweet potatoes, green beans with mushrooms and french-fried onions, and our family's most celebrated side dish, rutabagas.

This was in the days when wine was for special occasions, and it usually arrived in a glass vessel formidable enough to hold loose change. A quick rinse and you've got a bedroom bank the day after Thanksgiving. Who knew what was in that red table wine of the 1970s, and who cared? It was a celebration, a holiday, a time to reflect and be grateful - a time for wine.

Thanksgiving is still all of those things, but we no longer want just any wine. We have more options now, and we're curious. We want to try a few different wines and we want them to make the food in our single most-anticipated dinner of the year taste even better than it did the year before.

We experiment, but we always return to the sure thing: Pinot Noir. It's the bridge wine between white and red, and it can be full of luscious cherries and strawberries, but also figs and the essence of violets, earth, smoke or game. Pinot Noir is a silky wine with soft tannins that won't leave your mouth dry and chalky after a spoonful of spuds.

Of course, some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world come from the Burgundy region of France. But Pinot Noirs from the New World - particularly our slice of it - might be a better match for turkey and the trimmings if only for their prevalence of bright fruit.

There's also the patriotic quotient. You have 364 days a year to drink French wines. On this day, especially on this day, honor thy pilgrims and drink American.

To make the most of that fruit, stick the wine in the refrigerator 20 minutes before you pop the cork, and serve it in bowl glasses to get the most out of those lovely fragrances.

And don't serve several bottles of the same wine. Instead, serve a bunch of different Pinot Noirs so that everyone can have a little taste of each and decide which one they like the best. It will all get drained, if not during the round of second scoops, then during the post-meal shenanigans.

We don't have any up-and-coming piano players in the family anymore; these days we have an abundance of guitarists and drummers. It's been decades since I've heard "Heart and Soul" plunked out on a piano on the fourth Thursday of November, and I'm thankful for that (although to hear it just once, not in a loop, would bring back nice memories).

Sure, we have some recurring themes in our after-dinner music and wine drinking, but we call that tradition. We introduce new material now and then, but we always return to the stuff we know best - the stuff that works year after thanks-worthy year.

Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail

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