Happy Accidents 

In pursuit of cheap holiday-appropriate whites, we found an unsung bargain hidden in plain sight.

You can look at the task of pairing wines with holiday meals in one of two ways: 1) Consider the meal a special occasion and therefore an opportunity to carefully ponder the flavors in the dishes you're serving, decide on the most complementary varietal, and select a few bottles of the finest example of said varietal you happen to have in your vast wine cellar. Or 2) realize that all you really need is an ample supply of something cheap and decent that even wine agnostics will find pleasing. It's a moment when many die-hard red-wine drinkers break open bottles of white — simply because white wine is often more of a crowd-pleaser, and it tends to pair better with turkey and other traditional holiday fare.

In order to confidently recommend a few good whites for Christmas, we held a casual tasting on Thanksgiving at the home of my mother-in-law, a former wine columnist herself. I brought two Kendall-Jacksons: the 2008 Vintner's Reserve Riesling ($12) and the 2008 Vintner's Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ($11). Sue provided a third wine: the 2008 Sutter Home Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc ($5).

The Sutter Home brand doesn't get a lot of positive ink in wine publications, and when I myself have written about the label, it's usually been in the context of recounting Sutter Home's lucrative but now much-maligned White Zinfandel experiment of the 1970s. Poetic justice, then, that the Sutter Home Sauvignon Blanc was the sleeper hit of our Thanksgiving tasting, earning comments like "bright aroma" and "soft and nice" with its vegetal, tropical notes and whiff of bubble gum. It was definitely quite a bit lighter than the Kendall-Jackson, in which our Token Winemaker detected bright fruit and an abundance of both acid and alcohol.

The Kendall-Jackson Sauv Blanc was my favorite of the day — though, for a sweeter white, I'd certainly recommend giving the Kendall-Jackson Riesling a try. It's made with 83 percent Riesling and 12 percent Gewürtztraminer, but our super-tasters were somehow able to detect its 2 percent each of Muscat and Chardonnay (Viognier accounted for the final 1 percent).

The instantly recognizable names in this tasting are a nod to the fact that 2009 was a very good year for mass-market wines (Columbia Crest earned "Wine of the Year" from the Wine Spectator for its Cabernet Sauvignon). The economy helped the cause of any winery selling wines under $10, and it's generally the biggest producers that can afford to offer their wines for cheap. That may change in 2010, however, on the heels of a harvest that saw grape prices plummet; perhaps this recent buyer's market will open the door for independent producers.

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