We’re thrilled to launch INDUSTRY INSIGHTS, a series of interviews with compelling individuals in the food and wine world. Through this program, we will share insights and varied perspectives from those who are actively engaged in the art of elevating experiences, whether it's through education or hospitality. Our first interview is with Karen MacNeil, one of the foremost wine experts in the United States. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Wine Bible, recognized as “the most comprehensive and authoritative book on wine written by an American author.”
Karen is also the creator and Chairman of the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley. This is where I met Karen, as one of her students in the intensive Wine Immersion Program in 2011. Karen has a knack for presenting wine in an engaging and down to earth manner, making you crave even more wine education and yearn for opportunities to truly experience wine in a serious way. It is in this spirit that I’ve decided to kick off the program with an interview with Karen. As accomplished as she is, there is a certain genuine, authentic feeling you get when you interact with her. It is a breath of fresh air, especially in a field that can be daunting to navigate with the amount of information available and plethora of personalities.
People often attribute success to having great mentors. Did you have any mentors who had a profound effect on you? If so, who were they and how did they shape you?
Regrettably, I had no wine mentors. When I began in the business 35 years ago, I knew of only 2 or 3 other women in the entire U.S. wine industry. We were all about the same age, so none of us could act as a mentor.
I DID have a business mentor, however, and he’s still my business mentor. Looking back, I think this was actually more important than a wine mentor. He helped me figure out complex issues, many of which were financial. Interestingly, today, I often get the same kinds of questions from younger women who want to know how and what to charge for their expertise.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
That I ran away from home at 14, and worked to put myself through the rest of junior high school and high school—as well of course, as through college.
What are you most passionate about?
Wine, Travel, Great Tea. Great hotels (I know that seems funny, but I love old fashioned grand hotels).
Where do you derive your creative inspiration?
No idea. I just think hard about an issue and sometimes an inspired notion will pop into my head.
What are your top tips for effective entertaining with food + wine?
Two tips: serve homey foods (who doesn’t like homeyness?) and always serve many different wines so that guests can have a really phenomenal sensory experience.
Would you ever consider making your own wine for commercial production?
Probably not. I was once married to a wine producer. I know how hard it is.
Which wine regions do you think are underrated?
Spain, Sicily, Slovenia.
Nothing compares to experiencing wine in its home region with the people who crafted the wine. In all of your wine travels, where did you find to be the most welcoming, fascinating, and enriching as it relates to experiencing wine? For the wine novice, is there a particularly good place to begin wine exploration in the U.S. and abroad?
I’ve had SO many incredible experiences in wine regions all over the world, from Germany to Australia. I don’t think I could choose just one! My advice: be very serious about tasting. The “doors” of wine open widely for people who are serious. People who aren’t really serious never have the greatest experiences. One good place to start: Oregon.
The wine industry continues to evolve in dramatic fashion. How do you see the wine industry evolving over the next 5-10 years?
Since the financial downturn, it’s been hard to predict anything concrete about the industry. What I do hope is that the culture of wine drinking in America continues to deepen…
I understand you are working on the final phase of the 2nd edition of The Wine Bible. Can you give us a glimpse of what to expect?
I hope it’s not boastful to say I think it’s going to be Really Good. I am a tireless researcher and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to articulate wine in a way that makes it enchanting. The NEW Wine Bible will be unlike any other book written. Look for it in early 2014 (we think).
Karen MacNeil Accolades
Karen MacNeil received the highest honor awarded to a wine professional in the United States when, in 2004, the James Beard Foundation named herOutstanding Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year. The following year, she joined award winners Morley Safer (60 minutes), filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, and winemaker Robert Mondavi by being named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. In 2006, the organization Women Chefs and Restaurateurs presented Karen with theWomen Who Inspire Golden Goblet Award. And in 2007, Karen was honored with the Wine Literary Award by the Wine Appreciation Guild for her substantial contribution to the literature of wine, joining laureates Hugh Johnson, Robert M. Parker, Jr., and Jancis Robinson. In 2008, The International Wine & Spirits Competition recognized Karen as “the voice that has most effectively communicated wine and spirits to the public” by awarding her the global trophy for Communicator of the Year. And in 2010 Karen was inducted into the Wine Media Guild Hall of Fame for her “significant contribution to the body of wine writing and education.” Lastly, Karen MacNeil has won an Emmy for her PBS television series, and has been named a“Woman of Achievement” by the State of California.