Wine Time

5 Thanksgiving Wines Under $20 or "You Opened the Merlot Without Me?"

Come November each year, nearly everyone in America (of a certain age) remembers the line from Barry Levinson's 1990 classic film Avalon: "You cut the turkey without me? You might as well have stabbed me through the heart!"

Gabriel Krichinsky's hyperbolic lament has come to embody the family mishegas (that's Jewish for craziness) that we generously serve up each year as we give air-quote "thanks," whether we are the grandchildren of eastern-European Jewish immigrants like the current generation of the Krichinsky family (and like me and my brothers), or all-American southeast Texans (like my wife's family).

But there's another, equally important line, uttered by Gabe's sister-in-law, Eva, that reflects the now upside-down gastronomic tradition handed down to us by the Pilgrims.

"We never have turkey the rest of the year," says Eva plaintively before Gabe and his family arrive, "but now we have to eat it." (Here's the YouTube link; Eva's line is at the very beginning.)

And here's the not-so-dry rub: What wine do we pair with a meal composed of — for the most part un-wine-friendly — foods that we only eat once a year (or maybe twice, if you're like our southeast-Texas family, who serves the exact same menu at Christmas)?

Then throw another monkey wrench into the works. And I’m talking about my Texas family here. My southern-California Jewish family? Don't get me started!

In Orange, where we will be spending our Thanksgiving holiday (not Orange County, California, mind you; I'm talking about the Golden Triangle), Aunt Gladys only drinks "sweet" wines; Pawpaw has got to have him some "big red" wine; Nanna prefers sparkling wine while she's cooking the meal; and my wife can't have any wines with too much acidity because, when combined with a big meal like the Thanksgiving feast, they will give her heartburn.

It's my (self-appointed) job to provide the wines for our family's Thanksgiving gathering. And so I spent Saturday visiting my favorite Houston retail wine outlets in search of wines under $20 to pour a week from Thursday for our holiday repast at my in-law's place in the shadow of Chemical Row.

Italian Sparklers

Not everyone likes sparkling wine, but bubbles are mandatory during the holiday season (especially when Nanna needs a little relief from all the "pickin'" that goes on at any big family gathering like Thanksgiving).

As much as I love the Houston Wine Merchant for its service and the salespeople's fantastic wine knowledge and passion, Spec's is your best bet for sparkling wine. It has the widest selection and the lowest prices (especially when compared to supermarket shelves).

And when it comes to sparkling wine, Italy is your best go-to for under-$20 options: Prosecco still offers your best value for quality (look for DOCG as opposed to DOC wines), and Moscato d'Asti is great — low cost, low alcohol — for sweet-wine lovers. Saumur from the Loire Valley in France and Crémant de Bourgogne from Burgundy are also good bets.

The Houston Wine Merchant does have an old-school Prosecco from an organic grower that I really love: The Ca' dei Zago Prosecco Col Fondo (but it weighs in at slightly higher than $20).

Argentine Reds

I'll be honest: It's really not my thing, but…I recently tasted the Bodegas Esmeralda Tilia Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendoza, a bottle that I picked up (yes, I actually buy the bottles myself) at the Houston Wine Merchant for around $10.

This wine was fresh on the nose, and had good red and berry fruit in the mouth and an elegant but not overbearing oakiness in the finish (again, not my thing, but, hey, whatever gets you through the night, right?).

Spec's has a huge selection of well-priced reds from South America, but if you're unfamiliar — like me — with Argentine wine, the salespeople at Houston Wine Merchant are ready to hook you up.


I'm not a fan of sweet wine or sweets in general. But at Thanksgiving, Riesling is such a great wine to have around.

Like our family's Christmas feast, Thanksgiving is a time when I pour wine for a lot of people who "don't like wine" or who only drink wine on special occasions.

When intelligently selected, Riesling can appease both the wine snob and Aunt Gladys in one fell swoop.

Spoiler alert: The Dr. Frank semi-sweet Riesling from the Finger Lakes (in upstate New York) is my No. 1 wine recommendation for Thanksgiving this year. At Spec's it's sold for the same price (around $15) as it is directly from the winery.

This wine is clean and fresh, varietally correct (in other words, it tastes like classic Riesling), and it's low in alcohol, which makes it ideal for day-drinking. And it's American, gosh darn it!

Spanish Whites

There's no better value in low-end white wine today than Spanish whites (although Portugal is gaining fast).

It's pretty tough to miss with Albariño from the coast, which is generally vinified in stainless-steel vats, thus ensuring freshness and clean notes of citrus and white fruit.

And more and more, excellent, value-driven white wines from the interior are finding their way to our market here in Texas.

On Sunday night, I brought a bottle of the Vevi Rueda to an early dinner playdate with a family whose boy goes to pre-school with our girls. It was the top wine of the pre-Thanksgiving flight I poured for my guinea pigs.

At around $15 (Houston Wine Merchant), the contents in the bottle delivered on every level: fresh nose, fresh fruit in the mouth, healthy acidity and clean finish. (Off the record, this is what will be in my glass this year in Orange; a José Pastor import, it's even got hipster cred.)


Merlot, the ever-maligned and misunderstood grape variety.

Ever since Paul Giamatti uttered the famous line "I'm not drinking any [expletive] Merlot," in the 2004 film Sideways, no balding, thirtysomething, self-effacing failed novelist would ever be caught red-wine-handed drinking Merlot.

If ever there were a holiday for Merlot (and especially Californian Merlot), it would be Thanksgiving. It's almost always a crowd-pleaser; it can deliver great value; and it's one of those familiar faces that nearly everyone is happy to see at his or her Thanksgiving doorstep.

Over the past few decades, California Merlot has shifted away from the "fruit-bomb," super-oaky, flabby style that drove wine hegemony in the ’80s and ’90s.

Today, an aggressively competitive marketplace and a coming-of-age among California winemakers offer us a wider range of food-friendly expressions of this crowd-pleasing grape, which can be grown nearly anywhere in the world (except for Texas) with great success.

It's not really my speed (as I like to say euphemistically), but my top pick would be the Markham Merlot at Spec's for under $20 (it actually costs less at Spec's than at the winery). The oak is restrained, the style is balanced and the fruit is moreish in the mouth.

But whether you shop at Houston Wine Merchant or Spec's (where a search on the website this morning yielded nearly 600 different bottles of Merlot under $20), you'll find an overwhelming selection of great values for wines that both Pawpaw and Uncle Tim, who sips "Crown and Sprite" as he smokes our turkey, will like.
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Jeremy Parzen writes about wine and modern civilization for the Houston Press. A wine trade marketing consultant by day, he is also an adjunct professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy. He spends his free time writing and recording music with his daughters and wife in Houston.
Contact: Jeremy Parzen