Paola Embry has noticed a prolonged celebration.
The COVID-19 pandemic had changed everything. Indoor dining was shuttered or severely limited across the country. Traditional family gatherings around the holidays were canceled or limited. But with vaccines and reduced cases, this year’s holiday season feels more like normal.
Embry, CEO and wine director at Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix, noticed this with the drinking habits of her customers. Specifically, their choice of wine.
“We went from a full stop to 100 miles per hour,” Embry said. “Once we opened, the floodgates opened. People who were stuck at home were just like, ‘Let’s go out,’ it’s been very festive with people going out.
“We’ve sold more Champagne than ever before. People are in a celebratory mood. It’s hard keeping Champagne in stock, we did 18 months worth of sales in six months.”
This week, a pair of award-winning sommeliers and a distributor give their wine recommendations and observations on what consumers have embraced this year ahead of Thanksgiving.
As the co-founder of Phoenix Selections, James Perry has a unique view on which wines have gained traction in the market in advance of Thanksgiving and the holiday season. He hears from wine store owners about what customers are buying, and what they want on their shelves. He also hosts in-person tastings with customers, and gets their immediate reaction to the wines he’s poured.
“While what I’m hearing leads me to believe chardonnay and pinot noir will still sit on lots of Thanksgiving tables, there are some things that are encouraging in terms of growing popularity of other varietals,” Perry said. “It’s easiest for me to speak to the wines that are moving for us.
“With reds, we’re seeing lots of gamay movement. I think taking a variety with a similar fruit profile to pinot, and adding some weight and minerality is appealing to folks. I’m also seeing some grenache movement, as well. With whites, it seems like the more acid the better these days. We’re moving lots of sauvignon blanc from everywhere: California, France, New Zealand and South Africa. We only have a few in the book, but I’m also hearing lots of viognier mentions and, of course, everybody wants bubbles this time of year.”
Sommelier Gracie Peter joined the sparkling wine and Champagne chorus. The director of operations and beverage at LouVino in Louisville, Kentucky, hosts a class to help customers decide what goes on the Thanksgiving table.
“At my wine class, we always discuss what to drink with Thanksgiving,” Peter said. “There is so much you can do. The go-to for me is sparkling wine. Especially if you’re with family. Especially this year. It’s time to celebrate coming together maybe for the first time in a few years for a lot of families.”
Late November is a time normally reserved for Beaujolais nouveau, but Embry expects wine lovers to have to adjust again as many growers and producers kept their wines local and didn’t ship them overseas this year.
“Cru Beaujolais is my go-to for Thanksgiving,” said Embry, who manages a wine list with 1,800 labels and over 12,000 bottles. “There will be a lot of shipments coming, but not until January. Some producers are keeping it in Paris. What is out there is amazing value in super old vines; I say to go for those. It also doesn’t cost much and is a great value for magnums.”
As a self-professed pinot noir snob, Peter dials it in when it comes from Oregon, which also happens to be her father’s favorite growing region.
“That’s really my go-to for family,” Peter said. “With lighter style reds, even if people don’t usually drink red, they can get on board with it.”
Like the dinners she hosts at LouVino, where she likes to “dive in deeper” and present some unexplored varietals and regions to customers, Thanksgiving with your family and friends could offer a wider audience with which to try new wines. She said a younger wine consumer is interested in “crazy indigenous varieties and different regions.”
Croatia and Hungary offer what she said are “delicious and inexpensive options.”
Something Perry has taken notice of with the younger wine drinkers is a willingness to experiment. He’s seen an interest in the story behind the wine lately. At tastings, he’s spent less time in discussion about tasting notes, and fields more questions about the social responsibility of a winery or their approach in the cellar.
“It’s seeming like just about anything goes with millennials,” Perry said. “I don’t know that any varietals matter so much as how the wine is made. Natural wines are hot. But beyond that, any wine sales staff that can point folks in the direction of minimal intervention winemaking. Customers seem to be finding appeal in wines made using native yeasts, no fining and no filtration.”
What they’re drinking
Gracie Peter singled out A Tribute to Grace Grenache 2019 ($30), winemaker Angela Osborne’s consistently awesome wine from Santa Barbara.
She also said a zinfandel made by carbonic maceration “reminded her of Christmas.” Try the Forlorn Hope Zincenzo 2020 ($35).
Embry favored white wines from Sicily for their versatility and affordability. They have flavors of “apple, light orchard fruit and some salinity.”
For an Italian red, she said the Vietti Barbera d’Asti and the Vietti Barbera d’Alba ($19.99) offer a “great gateway” into the country’s wines. “The Alba have a little darker fruit, while the Asti are a crunchy red fruit.”
If white Burgundy is too expensive, she recommended an aligoté. It’s the third grape of Burgundian whites, and is refreshingly light.
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.