Eating local is a well-practiced mantra for many Americans.
In these frenzied last days before Thanksgiving, farm-to-table inspo reaches dizzying heights as we stagger through farmers markets, hurtling into one another with totes heavy with heirloom turkeys, artisanal pies, and topiaries of Brussels sprouts.
But when it comes to wine, locavorism lacks a similar romantic appeal. Deliberately choosing to narrow one’s wine choices can stifle curiosity for faraway wine regions and the new experiences they bring.
For a holiday as quintessentially American as Thanksgiving, an all-American — or better still — an all-regional wine selection can be a joyful celebration of the abundance and excellence of this country’s winemaking. We’re blessed with a landscape of American wines more sophisticated, varied, and regionally distinct than ever before. And certainly, the thousands of independent and family-owned wineries that have flourished across this country deserve far more fanfare than they receive.
Big-brand wines from established wine regions offer a breadth of distribution, consistency of taste, and accessibility, especially during the holidays. But they can also disconnect consumers from the realities of wine as an agricultural product — crops vulnerable to climate and weather variations and linked indelibly to the livelihoods of families and communities.
“Agriculture is hard,” said Zach Morris, a sommelier and co-owner of Bloomsday Cafe and The Fancy Wine Shop in Society Hill, “and when you see these families producing something from the soil for generations and generations, there’s something deeply resounding, giving deeper context to holidays like Thanksgiving.”
When considering American wines for Thanksgiving, “I would actually start right here in Pennsylvania,” says Morris. People tend to think of winemaking in states like Pennsylvania as nascent, he suggests, but “there are agricultural families dedicated to quality winemaking here.”
Galen Glen Winery in Andreas at the edge of the Lehigh Valley AVA is one of Morris’ favorites. Representing seven generations of farmers that have worked this family estate, Galen Glen makes “world-class wines — particularly riesling, grüner veltliner, and some lighter-bodied reds — where you can feel real soul,” he says.
Mural City Cellars, also featured regularly at The Fancy Wine Shop, is a winery in Kensington that handcrafts wine from grapes sourced predominantly from small, family-run farms located within a 300-mile radius of Philadelphia.
Alongside his own wines, “my Thanksgiving table is always full of local wines from around the region,” says Nicholas Ducos, winemaker and cofounder of Mural City Cellars. Bubbles from Dr. Konstantin Frank in the Finger Lakes of New York or merlot from RGNY in the North Fork of Long Island count among the roster of East Coast wines he recommends. “I absolutely love wines from Beneduce Vineyards in northern New Jersey or Camuna Cellars in Philadelphia who make [wines, ciders, and meads] from local fruit and kosher, too,” he says.
In lieu of traditional sparkling wines like Champagne, Ducos often kicks off Thanksgiving festivities with regionally-produced pétillant naturel, colloquially called “pet-nats,” an ancient style of sparkling wine that has undergone a dramatic resurgence over the last decade, particularly among natural-wine enthusiasts. Often sealed with a bottle cap rather than a cork, pét-nats are fun, fruit-forward, and easygoing alternatives to Champagne. “In terms of price, regional styles of pét-nats made from local grapes are often half the price of a good Champagne,” says Ducos. Northerly latitudes and the cool-to-moderate climates of wine regions in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York can yield brilliantly fresh, pure-fruited white and red wines that are particularly well-suited for Thanksgiving.
Adam Sparkevicius, manager of the beer and wine shop inside The Richmond Shops IGA, often recommends high-acid, fresh-fruited whites like riesling or unoaked styles of chardonnay. The Fishtown Crossing bottle shop highlights a thoughtful selection of local, small-production and natural wines alongside a wider range of wines, beers, and ciders.
Riesling from the Finger Lakes region in New York, especially bottles with a touch of residual sweetness, are particularly good accompaniments to a Thanksgiving meal suggests Lamar Covert, a Philadelphia sommelier, wine educator, and founder of the CYL Hospitality Group. “I look at wine like a condiment to food,” explains Covert. “So many Thanksgiving foods are intensely savory, salty, and full of umami-rich flavors. You need acid to cut through all that savoriness.”
In turn, “the saltiness of the meal accentuates the fruit profile of riesling, mellowing out some of the acidity and bringing out the fruit,” he says.
At Galen Glen, cool-climate grapes like riesling gruner veltliner are grown in “beautiful ancient sea beds not too dissimilar from escarpments in Chablis,” says Morris. “The wines are lean with acidity, but with a richness and ripeness that work well with richer cuisine while still refreshing you so that you’ll want to keep going back for more,” he says.
For red wines, Sparkevicius often recommends lighter-bodied, bright-berried reds with integrated tannins that lend structure to Thanksgiving foods without overpowering the menu. “A big Napa Cab with heavy tannins will just pile on to what’s already such a heavy meal,” he explains. Pinot Noir from France or California, as well as gamay from Beaujolais are popular Thanksgiving wines, but wines from small producers in regions like the Willamette Valley in Oregon can offer exceptional quality at comparatively lower prices, too.
Closer to home, Covert urges more Americans to consider cabernet franc. Many wine lovers know cabernet franc from France, says Covert, either blended into Bordeaux-style reds or from the Loire Valley. But few realize that “America, particularly New York and Pennsylvania, are in the running for some of the best cabernet franc in the world,” he says. Compared to “bigger, jammier expressions of cabernet franc from warmer climates, dark-cherry flavors in regional cabernet franc can be distinctly crisp and refreshing.” With just enough tannin to cut through fat and protein, they’re peppery with “a spicy, smoky profile that pairs well with anything that has a char on it,” he explains.
As a hyper-local replacement for something like beaujolais nouveau or even cru beaujolais, Ducos suggests the bright cherry and cranberry flavors of Chambourcin, an under-the-radar hybrid grape with native American and French parentage. Mural City Cellars sources Chambourcin from farmers in Vineland and Swedesboro in New Jersey — just 20 minutes outside of Philadelphia.
Beyond their gustatory pleasures, local and domestic wines can be meaningful investments in our local and domestic communities. “It’s an exercise of sustainability that’s often the missing piece of the natural wine conversation,” says Morris.
Drinking local can be remarkably affordable, too. “People are always surprised that we make our wines by hand and from local varieties — we still hand-cork every bottle — but sell many of our wines for under $20,” says Duros.