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The Wine Expert: Karen MacNeil

Meet the author of America’s most famous book on wine.


by Lowell Downey

Karen MacNeil is such an expert on wine, she wrote the book on it—literally. That book, The Wine Bible, has sold more than 600,000 copies and is the go-to guide for all wine fans—from master sommeliers to moms and pops, and everyone in between. Here, the St. Helena resident talks about her groundbreaking book, plus how to taste, what to taste, and whether you can ever overswirl.

Q: When you set out to write The Wine Bible, did you think it would become such a revolutionary book?

A: I had absolutely no idea. I didn’t write it with the idea of sales in mind, so I had absolutely no expectations. The first edition took 10 years to write, and 10 years is a long unpaid time on a project, especially today, when people write blogs in three seconds. One of the reasons I think people like it and one of the reasons I liked writing it is that it is a book at the intersection of wine and culture, gastronomy and history. I mean, as a learner, I have an appetite for those subjects that is quite endless.


Q: What inspired you to start writing?

A: When I started learning about wine in the 1970s, it was nearly impossible to find answers. There were no classes. Retailers didn’t ever do tastings. I was forced to read dozens of books, most of which were, in a sense, right out of the 1950s British school system. They were by British authors who often assumed a familiarity with European geography and a basic familiarity with wine, which most Americans, including myself, just didn’t have. And so, writing The Wine Bible was writing the book I wish I had.


Courtesy of Roederer Estate

Q: Do you feel like you now have the knowledge you once sought, or is there still a lot to learn?

A: One of the things that happened as I learned more about wine was that the chasm of questions opened even deeper, and I realized, “Oh, man, there’s even more to know.” It’s a good thing I didn’t feel that way when I started out because then, I never would have embarked on the journey. I don’t know why it is that way with wine; we all feel like we should have instant mastery. It isn’t that way with anything else. Not with relationships or driving a car. Wine has a learning curve. Just being on the journey should be good enough, and it is.


Q: What new wines or unusual varietals would you recommend people try?

A: Napa and Sonoma have become similar to European wine regions in the sense that we have a generation of people who only have drunk the local wines because the local wines are so good and so numerous. With that said, one of the things that I love about wine is that the more you broaden your experience, the more you fall in love with just about everything.

So for example, you could go way out on a limb and try Txakolina [pronounced “chocolina”] from the Basque Country, or Pinot Gris from Slovenia, or orange wines from the Republic of Georgia. Even if you go way out there, these wines will not only be new experiences but also will reinforce what you know you already love.


Q: In Wine Country, blends are increasingly popular. What’s your take on this trend?

A: Blends are a very good sign about the developing culture of wine in America. Once you master the ideas in isolation, once you know what Cabernet tastes like on its own, then the kaleidoscope can really start, and you can watch how things swirl together in unpredictable ways. So blends definitely are a more sophisticated step. I also think there’s an unpredictability to a blend that makes it exciting. You never quite know if that 3 percent Petit Verdot made any difference.


Q: How should people approach a tasting?

A: There are some practical and not-so-practical things. For me, I have to be well-rested, and I have to drink a lot of water. I like to think of myself as an athlete; my body has to be in good shape. If you’re a woman, there can’t be any perfume or other extraneous smells, and you can’t have a big purse because you can’t hold glasses, swirl them, take notes, all that stuff, and cart around a big purse. I always go fairly well dressed; I actually think that vintners spend more time with people whom they perceive to be serious. In my experience, if you go professionally dressed as opposed to looking like you just stepped out of a gym, you get vintners’ special attention. After all of that, I would say to have a plan. There’s probably more wine there than you can taste. Even though it’s tempting, your palate will do much better if you decide to taste just one type of wine.


Q: Should we swirl wine or not?

A: Swirling is never bad. You cannot overswirl a wine. There’s probably only one exception to this rule, and that’s extremely old and fragile Burgundy. Just about all wine will benefit from air.


Q: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve seen committed in a tasting room?

A: The single biggest mistake I see at tastings is that people rinse their glasses with water between wines. A drop of water has a huge dilution impact on the wine to come. It’s like putting a drop of water in a vinaigrette that should actually only have olive oil and vinegar in it. Once you have water in your glass, you’re probably never really getting the right wine; you’re probably tasting a slight aberration of the wine. It’s actually better to have a drop of the former wine.


Q: What other bush–league moves have you seen in tasting rooms?

A: When a winemaker tells you before a tasting that the wine is 60 percent Cabernet, 30 percent Merlot, 5 percent Cabernet Franc, and 5 percent Petit Verdot, you’ll sometimes see people shake their heads as if to say, “Oh, I can totally taste the Cab Franc,” or “Yes, there’s definitely 60 percent Cab in here.” There’s just no way you really can tell. It’s hard to predict what a wine will taste like by knowing its varietal makeup. Blending is nonlinear, even for winemakers. It’s why they never have a recipe. It’s why they actually physically have to make a whole bunch of blends every single year.


Q: How do you approach wine descriptors?

A: Making fun of wine language is something that even The New Yorker loves to do. But really, we don’t have a choice. We must use metaphor. There is nothing else. Wine is not its own language in the way that food is. With food, if you give someone a cherry and you ask him what it tastes like, he’ll tell you it tastes like a cherry, and we call that cherry-ness. Tasting notes are largely a way for each of us to try to put wine into words so that we can remember it. Here’s the thing, though: Tasting notes were never intended for other people. The main purpose of a tasting note is to allow the taster to try to create an evocative memory so that he or she can remember that wine.


Courtesy of Schramsberg Vineyards

Q: Which regions should we be keeping an eye on?

A: Northern California is in a big transition period. The newer areas are getting very good; the classic areas are making the best wines they ever have. It’s a period of growth and refinement all over Northern California. I sometimes take European and British journalists with me around California, and they are shocked by what’s happened in just the last five years. It’s a great time to be here—and to be drinking. karenmacneil.com.

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