A Table For Two had the pleasure to welcome the best-selling, award-winning author of The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil.
For Episode 5, from Napa Valley, we welcomed our special guest Karen McNeil, the award-winning and best-selling author of The Wine Bible.
As the world of wine is changing, you will hear about Karen McNeil view on these changes but also how difficult it is to write well about wine, what makes wine so intriguing, and, of course, her answers to the Pivot Questionnaire.
[AA] It’s a pleasure to welcome for the fifth episode of “One on One with…” the famous Karen McNeil. Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today, because I know you’re very busy working on the third edition of The Wine Bible. I have a copy of the second edition and it stays not very far from me, all the time, because the writing that you have is just amazing. At the beginning, I want to do a quick bio, just a few pointers for people to get to know you a little bit more. So, by the age of 14 you left home, very independent it seems, to go through junior high, and high school and afterwards for college. You had an inkling for the world of gastronomy and you wrote your first article at the age of 19 in The Village Voice. Was it on gastronomy? On food?
[KMN] It was on butter.
[AA] On butter! That is the French or the American butter.
[KMN] It was American butter. In those days, I lived in New York City. I live in Napa Valley now, but in those days in New York City, there were old delis where butter was sold in big blocks, like a big boulder and the deli man, the delicatessen man, would take out a big knife and cut off a huge chunk of butter. And these were butter from cows, fabulous cows in Up State New York. And it was the best butter. Butter is no longer sold that way in the United States anywhere. So, I missed that butter.
[AA] You can still find it in Europe, though.
[KMN] You can.
[AA] After this first article, it took you about eight years, through self-studies, because you moved towards wine. Why did you decide to choose wine more than food?
[KMN] I think in part because it was intriguing, because it was difficult. You know, food, you felt like you could master somehow, right? You could become the world expert on risotto. Or you could investigate the cuisines of Lebanon or Morocco or Spain. But wine was elusive. It was hard to figure out. So, in the early years, I don’t think I realized how hard it was to figure out. I just thought “Oh, this is intriguing”. I kept wanting to know more. And it just pulled me in, I guess.
[AA] Afterwards. So, I’m jumping forward because I know the late 70s and 80s were kind of difficult for a woman to work in the world of wine. In 2004, you received the James Beard award for the outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year. And then you won an Emmy Award for your PBS television series “Wine, Food, and Friends with Karen McNeil”. And there are many more awards. One of the top 100 most influential person in the World of Wine. Somehow what would very much interest our audience as well is if you were to describe yourself, if you were to introduce yourself using wine metaphors.
[KMN] Hmm, using a wine metaphor. I’m tempted to say complex. I’m as a person, I’m very precise, I guess. One of the reasons that the Wine Bible has done so well, I think, is that I’m a relentless researcher. I’m very precise about facts. I like it when things are right. And I’m very hard working. So, I would be some kind of exact, but I’m also a little quiet and introverted. Maybe I’d be Pinot Noir or something.
[AA] What makes wine so interesting? What attracts you the most in a wine? Not in the world of wine but in a wine in particular? Because you’ve been tasting wines from all over the world. What attracts you specifically?
[KMN] I think it’s the duality of it being delicious on the one hand, but being a mystery and intellectually impossible to pin down on the other hand. I’m coming to you from my office. And in my other office down the hall is where our tasting room is. And even after all these years, for 35 years, I’ve tasted 3,000 wines a year, so that’s 100,000 more than 100,000 wines, but every time I taste the wine, I still wonder why this wine tastes exactly this way. So, no matter how much you know, or think you know, you are constantly reminded that you don’t really know. That it is a mystery, and I like that about wine. I hate it when people say they want to demystify wine. Like “No, that would be terrible.” Then it would become Coca Cola. That doesn’t have any mystery.
[AA] As you travelled in almost all the wine growing countries in the world, your view of the of the world of wine is complete not just in secondary research but directly because you encountered these people. What makes it also very interesting to travel to these places because you could get the bottles in Napa and try them there. What is so special about meeting the people?
[KMN] It’s interesting that you don’t really understand Ribera del Duero until you wait for a million sheep to cross the road and we don’t really understand Argentinian Malbec until you see people tangoing. I don’t know why those things are so important, but wine is always the product of a culture, and a way of being and a way of drinking together and a way of eating and a way of life. And when you are there, somehow the wine begins to make sense in a way that just sitting at your table it’s almost there but the last 2% is to experience it, if you can, in its country of origin. It’s one of the things that is sad right now. I had this spring trips planned to Croatia, Georgia, Rioja, Sicily, and they’re all gone like I couldn’t go on any of them. I’m really sad about that because I was looking forward to delving into those cultures more.
[AA] Ever been to Lebanon?
[KMN] I have not. I’m so sorry to say because I know that it has a very ancient wine, tradition and wine history.
[AA] Because in the Wine Bible you mentioned the Phoenicians very often.
[AA] So probably it would be a good idea to add the trip in the future.
[KMN] We are going to do in this new third edition of The Wine Bible, we’re going to do a much bigger section on wine in the ancient world, and how important wine in the ancient world was and how wine was thought about in the ancient world. So, I assure you Lebanon will be mentioned as Lebanon, not necessarily just those Phoenicians.
[AA] Excellent. We’ll get back to the third edition in a second, but before I wanted to go back one second on your writing. For those who haven’t read the book, The Wine Bible, I would a thousand percent recommended because it reads wonderfully. Every chapter is like a story on its own. And I was wondering about how difficult it is to do good writing, good wine writing?
[KMN] It’s very difficult and not enough people do it. A lot of people writing about wine just want to impress you with what they know. And that’s very easy kind of wine writing and it’s also very boring and not good writing. I work really hard at trying to be a good writer and I’m relentless about revising my writing. To me, if you say salt and pepper, it’s different than saying pepper and salt. There’s a different rhythm. It’s the same idea but it’s a different rhythm. So, you can imagine a 5,000-page manuscript with someone who’s thinking about every single sentence. But, if you do it fairly well, if you get to the point where you can do it well, then it makes reading very easy, and people tell me all the time The Wine Bible is so easy to read. It’s like it carries you along. That’s from the hard work of writing.
[AA] Which writers have influenced you?
[KMN] You mean not in wine?
[AA] Yes. Probably not Dostoyevsky.
[KMN] He’s maybe influenced me in life but not in writing. I think for every writer, part of becoming a good writer is developing your own style. So, you have to be careful that you don’t inadvertently take on someone else’s style. One thing that I’m always telling my staff, they don’t write things for the Wine Bible, but they write other things like we do a wonderful newsletter, a free digital newsletter called WineSpeed. And I’m always saying to my staff, think about Hemingway: shorter sentences. If you have five ideas in one sentence, it’s going to make the reader very tired, very quickly. It is much better to have short, crisp, high energy sentences that have one big idea.
[AA] So that probably is why it’s easy. It’s an easy read and entertaining read, The Wine Bible.
[KMN] There’s a very big difference between British wine writing and American wine writing. I write in a very conversational tone. People think, “Oh, I feel like I’m just sitting there with you and you’re just talking to me.” And so, I’m very careful not to use technical terms when a conversational term will do. You don’t have to say the wine was overly phenolic. Right? You can say the wine tasted hard. It’s important to use plain speaking so that it’s inclusive, so that everyone is like “Oh, I get it. This wine is a little hard. It’s not soft. I understand that.” That’s very easy to understand. Whereas if you say the wine is overly phenolic that leaves a lot of people out.
[AA] Was it done on purpose at the beginning or just came to be like that?
[KMN] Oh, no, very much on purpose. Because, again, it’s a challenge for a writer to take a complex subject like wine and talk about it accurately, and well, in using plain English. Anybody can take a complex subject and write about it in a complex way. The skill is can you take a complex subject and write about it in a simple way?
[AA] For the third edition, what is going to be different? Is it the content? Is it the context? When is it due?
[KMN] It won’t be out until 2022 and I think it will be a lot better. I keep growing too. I’m becoming a better and better writer, I know more about wine. So, it will have not only other chapters like Croatia, for example that we haven’t had before. But I’ll be even better at explaining certain ideas. And then of course, all the chapters will be updated. Certain places like Australia, which is what I’m working on right now is very different than it was even five years ago. Some places remain very much the same like Bordeaux. But it will be bigger, not much bigger because it’s already pretty big. But it will be even better.
[AA] There’s a lot of changes happening in the world of wine. There’s a lot of changes happening in the world in general. We’ve been reminded by that through the latest events and crisis that we’ve seen in the US with the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you see any changes or is isn’t going to be like before people talk about it, and then things just kind of die out? You think this time it may be different?
[KMN] I think in terms of diversity in the wine industry, we really will see a lot of change. There used to be very few, in particular African Americans in the US wine industry. Today, it’s still a very small amount, but there’s at least a critical mass of people who are talented and who are vocal and who are not going to let us slip back. And not just African Americans, there are Caucasians as well who feel that diversity would be a much better thing. I’m somewhat more worried, in a sense worried, about Latina women. Latina women are a very important force in the wine industry, but you never hear about them. They are not organized so to speak. And that’s a real shame. I think there hasn’t even been one yet, not one Latina woman through UC Davis. And in the Napa Valley, there’s only one Latina woman who is a winemaker. And she’s an assistant winemaker.
[AA] Because you’re very vocal about diversity and the position of women. You wrote reports on the situation and position of women in the wine industry. Are you hopeful for the future?
[KMN] Yes, I am. When I began, there were no women in the wine industry. Almost at all the tastings in my first 20 years I went to I was the only woman, and now it’s almost 50/50 anywhere in the world, including some of the most prestigious people in the world. If you think of someone like Jancis Robinson, right? Without a doubt the most famous British wine critic. Lots of women in Asia. Lots of the top people in Asia are women in the wine industry.
[AA] Like Jeannie Cho Lee.
[KMN] Yeah. Jeannie Cho Lee is a really good example. It’s still complicated, though, because it’s an industry where, when you’re dealing with colleagues, you’re drinking. And alcohol changes the picture between men and women very quickly. You’re also often drinking and you’re sometimes drinking at night. And so, the lines of appropriate behavior can be blurred very easily. So, it’s tough, you have to be careful. And women in particular have to have their guard up almost all the time.
[AA] We’re getting close to the conclusion. So, there’s a couple of things I want to talk to you. First of all, I asked a couple of friends if you had any questions to ask her, what would it be? So, two of my close friends asked me the following questions. Rory Ramsden is a marketing guru, but he was a chef and he loves wine, he lives next to Bergerac and he is an Englishman. His question is what do you enjoy most about what you do and why?
[KMN] What do I enjoy most? I enjoy giving presentations, teaching to a huge audience of people. For most people, if you said “All right, stand up and talk about a Bordeaux and the Napa Valley to 500 people for the next hour.” Most people would be like, “I don’t want… No”. And for me, I’d be like “Oh, let me get up there.” I love that. I love that because teaching is so raw. You have real immediate feedback. You can tell by looking at 500 sets of eyes if what you’re saying is inspiring, stupid, making sense, not making sense. And you can also see people’s eyes when a light bulb goes on when they finally understand an idea. So, I absolutely love that. I’m mostly an introverted person, but that’s my extroverted side.
[AA] The second question is from Jaime Araujo from Trois Noix. She says that you have been a champion for Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, and it hugely benefited Napa. And she was wondering the reason for it. Was it personal preference? Was it a business savvy decision? Or it just came like that?
[KMN] That’s such a good question. Thank you, Jamie, for that fabulous question. Of course, Araujo has been known for its great Sauvignon Blanc and now, Accendo, their new label is also known for incredible Sauvignon Blanc. I would say it was because it was for so many years the underdog as a grape, the underdog under Chardonnay. And I thought… That bothered me, maybe as an underdog myself at one point. But also, I love those wild flavors, I love Sauvignon Blanc’s precision and intensity and I always say it’s the grape variety that’s wearing stiletto high heels with a little tattoo somewhere. You know, it’s got a real definitive personality and it’s so reflective of its place. And I’m just so thrilled that people like the Araujo family are now treating Sauvignon Blanc, wonderfully growing it in great spots, making it with real care. Because now we see this whole culture of extraordinary Sauvignon Blanc that didn’t even exist in the Napa Valley 15 years ago.
[AA] And to finish the interview, like we always do, the famous Pivot Questionnaire. So, it’s the first answer that comes to your mind. The first question is: what is your favorite word?
[KMN] Favorite words?
[AA] What is your least favorite word?
[AA] Your favorite virtue?
[AA] Your favorite quality in a man?
[AA] Your favorite quality in a woman?
[AA] What is your favorite curse word?
[KMN] Damn it.
[AA] What sound or noise do you love?
[KMN] Birds in the morning.
[AA] What sound or noise do you hate?
[AA] What is your favorite drug?
[KMN] Drug? I don’t know. I guess I would have to say wine although I don’t think of it as a drug.
[AA] What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
[KMN] To be a linguist.
[AA] What profession would you not like to do?
[KMN] To be a taxi driver.
[AA] What plant or animal would you like to be reincarnated in?
[KMN] A cat.
[AA] Last question, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
ABOUT ONE ON ONE WITH…
One Special Guest – One Heart to Heart Conversation
It’s an interview with no preset format. We can talk about anything related to gastronomy, the culinary world. It’s all about the story of the guest, her origin, her patch to creativity, her struggles and many more. The only thing that remains the same from one interview to the next is the Pivot Questionnaire at the end. You’ve been forewarned…