Home > History of Wine > “Certain opinionated turkeys disdain red wines on Thanksgiving Day”: A history of Thanksgiving wine recommendations from the 1930s through 1970s

“Certain opinionated turkeys disdain red wines on Thanksgiving Day”: A history of Thanksgiving wine recommendations from the 1930s through 1970s


I decided to look at the history of Thanksgiving wine recommendations after waves of wine lists appeared in my email, were published on blogs and in newspapers.  My sources include the newspaper archives of both ProQuest and Genealogy Bank.  Despite widespread searches the majority of the articles recommending Thanksgiving wines appear to have been published in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. It turns out that the broad recommendation of wine for Thanksgiving was not always the case.

What a beautiful turkey. 1950. Image from Classic Film. Flickr.

What a beautiful turkey. 1950. Image from Classic Film. Flickr.

The repeal of Prohibition on December 5, 1933, meant that Thanksgiving narrowly remained dry that year.  In fact the Alcoholic Beverage Board of New York state worked that Thanksgiving Day to make sure no one would be deprived of a legal drink upon repeal.[1]  For the first legally wet Thanksgiving of 1934, merchants did advertise wine and liquor for the holiday season.  These advertisements were more about the availability of liquor and wine as in the Hearns’ “Million Dollar” sale in New York where they suggested “Let’s make this Thanksgiving a happy event.”[2]  In Washington, DC, the Livingston Market listed “Pure California Wines” as part of its Thanksgiving specials.[3]  In this post I move away from advertisements to survey newspaper articles that recommended specific types of wines for Thanksgiving.  The period of interest starts with Repeal in 1933 through the establishment of regular newspaper wine columns in the 1970s.

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the subsequent demand for both domestic and imported wines put the market through a state of great change.  It was reported that more than 100,000 tons of grapes rotted on the vines during the 1932 crop in California but the entire crop of 1933 was sold.[4]  There were but few recommendations for Thanksgiving wine during the 1930s.  In one example, Phylis Belmont of the Los Angeles Times responded to a reader’s letter to suggest a “nice dry sherry” served at room temperature to go with the soup.[5]  For the turkey she suggested a “haut sauterne” or a Madeira which she felt was “much neglected these days.”  The Washington Post food editor Alice Clayton visited Colonial Williamsburg to gather her holiday suggestions for 1938.[6]  She felt there might be a revival of interest in 18th century food so she suggested a period menu to be accompanied by Madeira.

This brief period of resurgence in wine was soon to be tempered by the outbreak of World War II.  Overseas the Third Army took a break from their foxholes in France to spend Thanksgiving in a shelled out village eating turkey and drinking wine found in a nearby cellar.[7]   Back home the White House followed with simple menus served without wine.  War time difficulties meant that European wines could not be easily imported.  Martha Ellyn in her “Platter Chatter” for The Washington Post noted that as a result the American industry had “rallied to the wine cause” in 1940.[8]  To accompany her menu for a Thanksgiving dinner she suggested “mellow sherry” and “crystal clear champagne” from New York State.

WINE CHANGES WAR DISHES INTO "FOOD FOR KINGS". 11/08/1943. URL: http://gogd.tjs-labs.com/show-picture?id=1136924164&size=FULL

WINE CHANGES WAR DISHES INTO “FOOD FOR KINGS”. 11/08/1943. URL: http://gogd.tjs-labs.com/show-picture?id=1136924164&size=FULL

The domestic wine industry soon took a hit right before Thanksgiving of 1942.  The U.S. Government requisitioned 300 of the 900 special tankers used to transport Californian wine to the east coast.[9]  In addition, all grapes suitable for the production of raisins could no longer be used to produce wine.  Domestic port, sherry, and muscatel wines were produced from these grapes.  It was these sweet wines that were the largest selling type since Repeal.  European and other domestic grape varieties were still allowed to be pressed for wine.   There were still significant stocks of wine in warehouses and at stores so turkey dinners were not a loss for an accompaniment.

Taylor Wine, New York State. 1947. Image from Classic Film. Flickr.

Taylor Wine, New York State. 1947. Image from Classic Film. Flickr.

With the end of the war and elimination of price control the Wine Institute noted that by Thanksgiving of 1946, the sales of Californian wine had reached an all-time peak.[10] The continued post-war increase in wine consumption meant that the Thanksgiving of 1950 set yet another record.[11]  That same year the per capita consumption of wine was just above 4 bottles per person per year.  The high volume of Thanksgiving and Christmas wine sales meant the holidays represented a significant part of an American’s yearly wine consumption.  It was suggested that the Federal tax of liquor at $9 per gallon versus $0.60 per gallon of sweet wine and $0.15 per gallon of table wine were encouraging consumers to switch to wine.  Approximately 75% of Thanksgiving wine sales were for sweet wine but there was also a marked increase in champagne consumption with 70% being domestically produced.

Despite the general preference for sweet wine, Thanksgiving menus and the suggested wines quickly gained complexity.  Paying deference to French wines yet noting the French did not extensively eat turkey, June Owen of The New York Times called on Sam Aaron of Sherry Wines & Spirits for Thanksgiving wine recommendations in 1956.[12]  Sam Aaron recommended a light Burgundy from the Cotes de Beaune like a Pommard, Volnay, or Savigny.  While a carafe of Beaujolais “would do very nicely” a white Montrachet or Meursault would “fit the occasion”.

In 1958 The New York Times published “A Bottle for the Bird” which may be the first article devoted exclusively to Thanksgiving wine recommendations.[13]  It contains recommendations from several wine and food experts.  Frank Schoonmaker felt red or white wine would go with turkey but it was the stuffing that controlled the decision.  Thus chestnut based stuffing should be matched with red wine and oyster stuffing matched with full-bodied and dry white wine such as Meursault or white Hermitage.  As for German wine he recommended Forster Kirchenstuck.  He also enjoyed pink champagne from California.  For red wines he picked finesse and fragrance over power.  This would include Chateau Margaux, a wine from Valpolicella, Italy, or a Gamay de Beaujolais from California.  James Beard preferred Hermitage with warm dark meat “because of its earthy roundness, offers a perfect contrast.”  For cold turkey he recommended Meursault, Pouilly Fuisse, or Mosel.  Sam Aaron reiterated his white Burgundy choices but suggested for chestnut stuffing that a claret from St. Emilion would be an excellent choice.  Michel Dreyfus suggested St. Julien, St. Emilion, Nuit St. Georges, and Chateauneuf du Pape for an unstuffed turkey.  He went sky high when there was truffle or chestnut stuffing: Chateau Lafite, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Haut Brion, Corton, Romanee St Vivant, or Chambertin-Clos de Beze.

In contract to the hedonistic suggestions of The New York Times during the 1950s the Los Angeles Times focused on rules during the 1960s.  Thus in 1962 we find simple recommendations for a dry white wine such as a Sauternes or Chablis for the turkey but a red wine for the dark meat and stuffing.[14]  Champagne and sparkling Burgundy were recommended for a gala.  More importantly were the directions on how long to chill the wines, when to open them, and how to pour them such that the label was visible to the guest.  Four years later it was noted that choosing the wines for the meal could “be as much fun today as it was in Jefferson’s time.”[15]  However, the “safe” rules that had developed over centuries were a good start.  This included red wine with red meat and white wine with seafood and poultry.  Under the section “More Rules” it was suggested if you “test the safe rules” you should understand the characteristics of the wines.  The rules began to crack by 1968 for the recommendation of “authorities” was qualified by “if it suits your taste”.[16]  In what was perhaps a domestic fashion, grape varieties were mostly suggested: Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Traminer, Johannisberg Riesling, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Gewurztraminer.  Of course sparkling Burgundy was still recommended.  The following year of 1969 saw the rules thrown out the window with the “primary standards for choosing wine are your own taste and preference, despite what purists say.”[17]  A similar slew of varieties were recommended as well as transferring half-gallon bottles to “a decanter for a dressier appearance.”

In 1970 the Los Angeles Times asked UCLA lawyer and wine instructor Nathan Chroman for Thanksgiving suggestions.[18]  He felt a traditionalist would serve chilled sherry or for more sophistication, a Madeira.  This marked a turning point in the Thanksgiving recommendations of the Los Angeles Times for Nathan Chroman began writing for the paper in 1971.  His first Thanksgiving column led off with a charge for Bordeaux.  Noting the heavy vintage dependence he proceeded to detail each vintage between 1967 and 1945.  His all red wine suggestions must have attracted negative feedback because he published a second set of recommendations two weeks later.  His article begins with “Certain opinionated turkeys disdain red wines on Thanksgiving Day” then suggests Chardonnay from California and Chablis from France.  He provided an overview of production differences, recent vintages, and rankings.  For the casual drop-in guest that will only eat cookies, nuts, and fruit he recommended sweeter wines such as from Mosel, Rhine, and Sauternes.

Gallo, Grenache Rose. 1960.  Image from it's better than bad. Flickr.

Gallo, Grenache Rose. 1960. Image from it’s better than bad. Flickr.

While Nathan Chroman was sure to review California Burgundy[19] he informed his readers of the wide range of wines suitable for the holiday meal.  He noted selections available from Spain, Chile, Australia, Argentina, Israel, Portugal, South Africa, Mexico, Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Russia, China, and domestically from Oregon, Washington, New York, and Pennsylvania.[20]  He felt that if you taste through some of these wines early on then you could decide what to serve to your guests.  For most articles Nathan Chroman recommended specific wines such as the 1969 Chappellet, Cabernet Sauvignon[21], 1972 Mayacamas, Late Harvest Zinfandel[22],  and 1968 Hanzell, Pinot Noir.[23] Nathan Chroman took a sharp change in 1976 when he recommended nothing but Sherry with Thanksgiving turkey.[24]  He countered those who might think he had “gone bonkers” by noting the Spanish and English would think him “both civilized and sane.”  Ignoring the American taste for Bristol Cream Sherry he recommended those of Tio Pepe, La Ina, Duff Gordon, and Gonzalez Byas with a Manzanilla particularly for the turkey.

The Washington Post and the New York Times were largely silent during the 1960s but began to make Thanksgiving wine suggestions in the 1970s.  This was due to the writings of Frank Prial at The New York Times and William Rice at The Washington Post.  Frank Prial felt that “A meal is good when the wine flows freely.”[25]  He was less concerned with specific wines, rather that there was enough wine to serve and that it was chosen based on previously tasting it.  He felt the wine selections available in America were the best in the world.[26]  This included imported wine and the ever increasing quality of domestic wines from California and New York.  He suggested that if the bounty was overwhelming than a slightly chilled Beaujolais would work well.

William Rice felt the Thanksgiving meal was one with no wine rules and that you should serve “the wine that is closest to your heart, or closest to a price that suits your pocketbook.”[27]  The sheer diversity of dishes, from acidic cranberries to heavily spiced stuffing, meant that no one wine could match.  That stated he personally preferred a slightly chilled Beaujolais, Gewurztraminer from Alsace, and even red wine from St. Julien.  For large groups he recommended the half-gallon and gallon sizes of Californian wines.  He took time to comment on the fad for sparkling Burgundy which he felt was of poor quality.  For William Rice “once a year” was “once too often”.  In 1978 William Rice was still against that “far-out choice of some wine fanciers”, sparkling Burgundy.[28]  He found the Ste. Michelle rose from Washington “more satisfactory.”  The following year he even recommended several nearby wines from Maryland and Virginia: Montbray, Boordy, Provenza, and Meredyth.[29]

The post Prohibition recommendations of wine for Thanksgiving reflect the increasing diversity in imported wine and the development of vineyards throughout the country.  Wine recommendations were difficult unless there was focus on matching a specific part of the Thanksgiving meal.   If there are any consistent trends it appears that chilled Beaujolais was a fallback for any meal, Californian jug wines were great for large gatherings, and love it or hate it, sparkling Burgundy was always lurking.  Robert Lawrence Balzer wrote specifically about bringing respect to what he described as one of the most “tarnished ladies” of the wine trade.[30]  He felt that to openly recommend sparkling Burgundy in 1969 flew “in the face of a silent conspiracy of wine snobbery”.  He found that “some pretty poor stuff” palmed off from France had ruined its reputation.  In truth there were excellent French and Californian versions that made Thanksgiving festive.  For Robert Lawrence Balzer the most basic reason for serving sparkling Burgundy is that the bubbles cut the heavy gravy to make it lighter thus “making the whole meal taste better.”  And I thought it was about the stuffing.


[1] MULROONEY BOARD GETS NO HOLIDAY: Works on Thanksgiving Day So That No …New York Times (1923-Current file); Dec 1, 1933; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010) pg. 10
[2] Display Ad 13 — No Title New York Times (1923-Current file); Nov 22, 1934; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010) pg. 13
[3] Display Ad 5 — No Title The Washington Post (1923-1954); Nov 23, 1934;  ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post (1877-1997) pg. 6
[4] OPENNG OF WNE MARKET ENDS GRAPE SURPLUSES: Entire State Crop of 1933 …Hall, Chapin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Feb 8, 1934; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) A2
[5] What to Do About Redecorating Bedroom Belmont, Phylis Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 28, 1937; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. D13
[6] Williamsburg Menu Suggests Holiday Feasting: Hearty Meal Of Older Day … By Alice Clayton. The Post Food Editor. The Washington Post (1923-1954); Nov 22, 1938; ProQuest
[7] HOT TURKEY CHEERS THIRD ARMY SQUAD: Men Leave Muddy Foxholes for Amazing Meal, Topped By GENE CURRIVAN By Wireless to THE NEW YORK TIMES. New York Times (1923-Current file); Nov 24, 1944; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010) pg. 16
[8] Martha Ellyn’s: Platter Chatter An All-American Meal From Wine to Dessert The Washington Post (1923-1954); Nov 12, 1940; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post (1877-1997) pg. 13
[9] Vintners’ Woes: Grapes Go to War as Raisins; Wine Tank Cars Haul Oil; … Wall Street Journal (1923 – Current file); Nov 20, 1942; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Wall Street Journal (1889-1996) pg. 1
[10] DECONTROL BLAMED FOR LIQUOR SLUMP: Dealers Report 30 to 40% Dip in … New York Times (1923-Current file); Nov 22, 1946; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010) pg. 41
[11] TABLE WINE SALES IN RECORD VOLUME: Pre-Thanksgiving Purchases …New York Times (1923-Current file); Nov 23, 1950; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010) pg. 67
[12] Food: With the Turkey: Wine Should Be Light Table One –Nut Stuffing Suggested for Bird By JUNE OWEN New York Times (1923-Current file); Nov 20, 1956; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851- 2010) pg. 60
[13] A Bottle for the Bird New York Times (1923-Current file); Nov 23, 1958; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010) pg. SM66
[14] Wine Adds Elegance to Gala Feast Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 15, 1962; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. D17
[15] Thanksgiving Wine Selections Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 17, 1966; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. H28
[16] Thanksgiving Wine Steward Has It Made Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 21, 1968; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. R24
[17] Buy Wine Now for Holiday Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 20, 1969; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. H32
[18] Factors in Choice of Wines Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 19, 1970; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. L32
[19] TURKEY TEAMMATES: Multiple Wine Companions CHROMAN, NATHAN Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 16, 1972; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. G21
[20] BEST SELECTION: Shopping Early for Holiday Wine CHROMAN, NATHAN Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 4, 1973; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. E10
[21] Red Wines to Serve With Turkey: TURKEY WINES CHROMAN, NATHAN Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 19, 1973; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. F4
[22] Give Thanks for Zinfandel CHROMAN, NATHAN Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 21, 1974; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. M12
[23] Wines to Team With Turkey CHROMAN, NATHAN Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 9, 1975; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. M26
[24] There’s a Sherry in Your Future–on Nov. 25, to Name the Date CHROMAN, NATHAN Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 18, 1976; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. J40
[25]Wine Talk Prial, Frank J New York Times (1923-Current file); Nov 16, 1977;  ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010) pg. C16
[26] Wine Talk Prial, Frank New York Times (1923-Current file); Nov 23, 1977;  ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010) pg. 44
[27] The Right Wine Rice, William The Washington Post (1974-Current file); Nov 18, 1976; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post (1877-1997) pg. E24
[28] But What Wine Goes With Turkey Rice, William The Washington Post (1974-Current file); Nov 20, 1978; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post (1877-1997) pg. E14.
[29] Choosing The Wine For The Feast Rice, William The Washington Post (1974-Current file); Nov 18, 1979; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post (1877-1997) pg. F6.
[30] THE WINE CONNOISSEUR Balzer, Robert Lawrence Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 23, 1969; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. 48

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