Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine critic, has written the paper of record’s annual Thanksgiving wine recommendations column for the past 16 years. Although the bottles change from year to year, the fundamentals of his advice remain the same: Offer both white and red, don’t bother with pairings or expensive bottles (unless you’re having a small gathering), and, most importantly, have enough bottles on hand to quench a crowd’s thirst—Asimov recommends one bottle per wine-drinking adult. For some food and drink writers, annually pumping out holiday content can elicit eye rolls, but Asimov takes the task sincerely and seriously; his charge, year in and year out, is to assure people that everything will be OK.
Asimov’s bottle picks themselves have also remained relatively consistent in style, though he admits gradual shifts have taken place. In 2004, he recommended a lightly sweet Selbach-Oster German riesling, and put the kibosh on zinfandels for their high alcohol content, saying they could “make it tough to pull your head up for dessert.” By 2010, he allowed for Mendocino’s Dashe zinfandel at 13.5 percent ABV, and he told me that he’s lately become hesitant to call for most rieslings, because it can be difficult for consumers to gauge their residual sugar level. Lean whites with good acidity and dry reds from all over the world are recurring themes, though in recent years, his tasting panel has become partial to several Finger Lakes reds and rosés.
Just before his 16th annual Thanksgiving column dropped, I talked shop with Asimov about the particular responsibility of recommending wine to all of America on one of the most American holidays, how his advice has evolved over the years and what he believes the fourth Thursday of November is really about.
We’re talking a few weeks before Thanksgiving, when it can seem like you have to write yet another holiday wine article. How do you handle this annual requirement?
As it happens, I’m sitting here writing my Thanksgiving wine column as we speak. But at The New York Times, there will be no eye-rolling on the topic. It’s a big fucking deal! I think it’s an interesting challenge—and one that’s not restricted just to Thanksgiving, but for a lot of service journalism—to say the same thing over and over again, while finding different ways to say it. I’m not phoning it in. It doesn’t really trouble me that 16 years in, my essential advice remains more or less unchanged, because I think the ideas were pretty good to begin with.
Fair. I can admit that I’m letting some of my own holiday-season food writer fatigue slip in. Why don’t we back up—tell me more about what goes into writing your annual Thanksgiving wine column. How do you make your picks?
My colleagues and I get together for a mock Thanksgiving meal before the real holiday. All of us bring two bottles, we try all the wines, and give each other a lot of shit. It’s very fun. The only rules are one white or rosé and one red, though sometimes that gets stretched to include a sparkling rosé or even a cider or orange wine. And we put a price cap of $25, because in my imaginary Thanksgiving dinner, which is suspiciously like my actual Thanksgiving dinner, there are about 30 people; I’m not going to be buying fancy wines. If you want to spend a lot of money on wine for Thanksgiving, you probably don’t need my advice.
How concerned or not concerned are you with recommending something new every year?
Let me start by saying that I think the stylistic characteristics are what’s important—the actual specific wines I talk about from one year to the next are much less so. I know that if people see a boldfaced red, they tend to focus on just that one recommendation. So I try to include a lot of wisdom from the past about alternative bottles to the ones we tasted in a specific year, and I’m always hopeful that people don’t get too fixated on whatever we like in one year.
As far as my personal evolution, I think at one time I believed that moderately sweet German rieslings were a great thing to serve at Thanksgiving, and over time, I’ve decided that’s not a great idea, because they’re such polarizing wines, as good as they are, and also because if you don’t have the right one, they can be a little cloying. They’re fine as part of a series of wines, but not if you’re just picking one white for the meal.
Do you ever feel constricted in terms of what you can and cannot recommend for readers? Has there ever been something you wanted to recommend, but felt like you couldn’t?
We have no restrictions beyond those that we create for ourselves. I’ve happily recommended bottles that might be considered unorthodox, like a Portuguese natural wine back in the early 2000s when few people had even heard of natural wines. The problem is, if you’re recommending very specific wines like that, they’re not easy for many people to find. That’s why I try to include—now that we have the benefit of many years of doing this—a lot of alternatives to the very specific wines. But in general I don’t feel constricted at all. If I think a wine works, I’ll say so.
So what does make a wine work, or not work, for Thanksgiving?
I believe the No. 1 duty of any wine, period, is to be refreshing, and that is especially true for Thanksgiving. Because you’re eating so much food, you want wines with a good acidity and a lot of energy. I don’t want overpowering in one way or another—sweet and fruity, flabby whites, big oaky or tannic wines—and I don’t want high-alcohol. You’re drinking a lot of wine over a long period of time, and the meal itself is tiring anyway. So why would you want to add another ingredient that will speed up the coma you may find yourself in?
Have you seen the progression of your recommendations change over the years?
I don’t think the audience for this column changes much, and it runs from people who don’t know much about wine at all, to people who are experts and know more about certain categories than I do, and everyone in between. So it’s an eternal challenge for me to find a way to write that will at least not turn off either end of that spectrum.
As far as the Thanksgiving column goes, it really just serves as a reminder to people so they don’t have to overly fret about how to prepare for the holiday. That’s the overall message—don’t sweat it. It’s not about which wine you buy; it’s more about whether you have enough of it. It’s more about fellowship, family and tradition. Hopefully this column helps people relax about what’s not that hard of a chore.
What are you personally drinking for Thanksgiving this year?
As it turns out, I don’t know yet! My wife and I are traveling to Modena, so probably some nice Italian reds.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.