Blind-Tasting Thanksgiving at the Chevskies, 2008

This was the second year in a row that my wife and I hosted the "day-after-Thanksgiving" party for our friends at our historic home in Palo Alto - hopefully two years in a row means "tradition".

This time we focused on making the juiciest turkey possible (free-range willie bird from AG Ferrari that we brined for 24 hours in salt-herb-and-spice solution), stuffed with oranges, lemons and herbs from our garden, accompanied by home-made gravy (infused with Pinot Grigio) and oven- and grill-roasted autumn vegetables (beets, carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, shallots, brussels sprouts with sea-salt and dressing drizzled on top).

Our friends brought various appetizers and desserts: home-made cheese spreads (zesty!), marinated cooked grapes (tasty!), crab cakes (always satisfying!), pickled veggy salads (interesting), bean & walnut salad (yum!), stuffing (of course), pumpkin cheesecake (delicous), pecan pie (sweet), and more things I can't remember. So it ended up being plenty of food, with a manageable amount of prep for Rona and me, and tons of left-overs!

Guests started showing up around 6:45pm, and by 7:30 they were all in.
And thus the blind-tasting contest began.

Blind Tasting

Depending on the crowd, I'd vary the rules. This time, I pre-announced all 5 wines, and challenged the teams to identify which bottle was which. In the past, I had also experimented with not pre-announcing the wines but instead asking guests to rank them by price - which is always a lot of fun too!

Generally speaking, while this group of friends enjoy wine occasionally, they are not wine experts or connoisseurs. In fact, one is much more likely to catch some of them drinking vodka, tequila, mixed drinks, and even home-made moonshine, while dancing to loud Russian, Jewish, and Italian music from the 80'es (some of which is actually pretty good) than with a glass of Cote Rotie (though I am single-handedly attempting to change that - Felix is showing early signs of wine aptitude :)

This time I picked 5 wine types that I thought would pair well with the Thanksgiving dinner, and at the same time educate my friends a little bit.

Wine Menu
  • Riesling, Kabinett, from Maximin Grunhauser Abtsberg 2007, Mosel, Germany ($23)
  • Pinot Gris Bollenberg from Chateau d'Orschwihr 2005, Alsace, France ($18)
  • Beaujolais-Villages from Domaine Des Vignes Des Jumeaux 2002, Beaujolais, France ($12)
  • Cotes du Rhone from le Clos du Caillou 2006, Southern Rhone, France ($14)
  • Pinot Noir from High Pass Winery 2002, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($30)
I divided guests into two groups - men and women, and asked Russ and Elena to captain their respective teams. I find the "men vs women" battle-of-the-sexes to be the most fun.  Rona (my wife) and I administer the blind-tasting with the respective teams, keeping the opposite-sex spies away, and making sure no peeking at the labels takes place. 
After about 30 min of tasting and re-tasting, with lots of back-n-forth and crazy suggestions about wines that were not even on the list (from Roman, who also stated that my Comte cheese tasted like canned fish), disclaimers that some players only know vodka (from another Roman), debates as to whether Pinot Gris is a white or a red (!!!) but still plenty of lip-smacking satisfaction from the all the vino and cheese, both teams were ready for the unveiling.

With the score sheets collected, I directed everyone to the kitchen where I tallied up the scores on the blackboard.

Both men and women named the whites (Riesling and Pinot Gris) and the Cotes Du Rhone right. But they made opposite picks of the Beaujolais vs the Oregon Pinot Noir. Women seemed very confident and were taunting men, who really struggled with the reds this time.

And the results?
The women were right.
Husbands lost, to women's deafening cheer. Alex (who loves wine) was particularly distraught - he kept saying that he had got the wines right, and that we was ultimately swayed in the wrong direction by his less discerning compadres. Felix also attempted to make a similar claim. All fell on deaf ears, as women victoriously posed for the camera.

I had a tie-breaker round ready to go, but it was not necessary this time. It's the 2nd year in a row when women beat men. More generally, out of the three "men vs women" blind tastings I have done, all three were won by women -- hm...

I also asked the crowd for what wines they preferred during the tasting.
Men overwhelmingly preferred the Cotes du Rhone (to their surprise, since they mostly drink California wines), but Felix also noted the Riesling (yeah!). Women liked the Beaujolais, the Oregon Pinot, and the Riesling about equally, with Julia (Felix's wife) preferring the Beaujolais.

My personal favorite was the Riesling, with Cotes du Rhone as #2. When I told Alex that the Cotes du Rhone was only $14, he was pleasantly shocked!

Now that we got the juices flowing, everyone was eager to start the feast! Felix (our turkey carving specialist) expertly handled the turkey, and indeed it came out very juicy.  Complimented with Pinot Grigio-enhanced gravy and cranberry sauce and stuffing by Julia, everything was delicious.

I was now trying every single wine that we had blind-tasted, seeing which one matches best with the food. I also brought out another high-end Oregon Pinot - a 2005 Pfeiffer Blue Dot Reserve (sold only at the winery for $60) - a super concentrated Pinot that tasted of pure black cherry and cassis juice - huge pinot (devoid of any shyness or complexity).

So which one do you think was the best wine for the food?


According to my taste buds:
  1. Riesling - best match by far. The sweet and sour in the wine really was perfect with the turkey feast.
  2. Oregon Pinot Noir and the Beaujolais both too big for the food (lighter versions of either would have matched better). However, Rona noted that the Beaujolais was very good with the roasted root vegetables (not sure I agree).
  3. Pinot Gris was too honeyed, viscous, and round for the food. In general, a fat and boring wine for this food.
  4. Cotes Du Rhone was way too big and meaty -- it would have paired far better with steak.

So there you have it - somewhat unexpected result - Riesling (Kabinett level sweetness, with lots of minerality present in wines from Mosel) takes the top spot as a Thanksgiving wine (as far as my palate goes). I wrote about it in a previous post, describing it as an ideal match to spicy chinese food - so Riesling is quite a flexible wine! I would have expected the Pinot to have been a better match for Thanksgiving, but that's the awesomeness of food and wine pairing - there are always new turns and pleasant surprises!

Keep exploring your taste buds, and Happy Thanksgiving!


Anonymous said…
For me, choosing a wine for a meal with friends is more like choosing flowers for your buffet or music for the evening. Its romance can be diminished when subjected to too much analysis. If the wines are great, they are great. If a wine is not, move on to the next one with little regard.

On social occasions with food and wine, I subscribe to right-brain appreciation. The wines taste better.

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