Karen MacNeil on Surprising Wine Regions, The Wine Bible, Her Glassware, and More
April 06, 2021
Written By Coravin
Coravin sits down with renowned author, journalist, wine educator, speaker, and consultant, Karen MacNeil. Karen has won over many hearts and minds with her best-selling wine book, The Wine Bible. The Wine Bible is used and recommended by every top wine school, hospitality school, wine diploma program, and even the Court of Master Sommeliers in the U.S.
To write The Wine Bible, Karen did extensive primary research herself and visited every major wine region of the world – tasting over 10,000 wines. The Wine Bible grounds the reader in the fundamentals of wine while layering in informative asides, funny anecdotes, definitions, tips, maps, and more.
Karen’s accolades don’t end there – she’s the only American to have won every major wine award given in the English language including the James Beard award for Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year, the Louis Roederer award for Best Consumer Wine Writing, and the International Wine and Spirits award as the Global Wine Communicator of the Year. We’d also be remiss to gloss over her Emmy award-winning PBS series Wine, Food and Friends with Karen MacNeil or her bylines in more than 50 newspapers and magazines. Read Karen’s full bio here.
The Wine Bible is now available on the Coravin marketplace and our conversation with Karen is below.
Wine Regions and Innovations in Glassware with Karen MacNeil
Lindsay Buck, Coravin Marketplace Manager: Today I'm talking to renowned author, journalist, wine educator, speaker and consultant Karen MacNeil, who has won many hearts and minds over with her single best selling wine book, the Wine Bible. It is hands down my favorite wine book. I encourage anyone with the slightest interest in wine to buy a copy. It is available on our marketplace at Coravin.com. Welcome, Karen. How are things in Napa Valley?
Karen MacNeil: Oh, it's beautiful here today. The vines are getting ready to grow.
LB: That's awesome. What phase are the grapes in right now?
KM: They're still dormant at this point. But starting at the end of this month, they should start waking up and beginning to bud out which is always a beautiful time in the Napa Valley.
LB: It feels like spring is coming, that's for sure. Did you have a feeling the Wine Bible would become such a big deal when you were first writing it?
KM: No. In fact, you know, the first print run of the Wine Bible was something like 8000
copies, and I said to the publisher, “Don't print that many. I only have like 25 friends.” The first edition took 10 years--10 unpaid years—to write. But not for one minute did I think that I would ever sell so many copies. The Wine Bible has now sold over a million copies. I didn't write it to make money. It was a labor of love all those years.
LB: Yeah, you can, you can read that. You can feel that when you read it that it is definitely a labor of love. So you do have some playful analogies in the book. So I have to ask if you were a wine. What wine would you be?
KM: Oh my god. I don't know. I sometimes think I'd be a Riesling because I'm so precise. I'm maniacal when it comes to research. I'm willing to spend months hunting down an answer. But then I think, No, I’m not a Riesling. Maybe I’m more like Pinot Noir. Or maybe I could be some kind of blend. I could take the best of Pinot Noir, the best of Cabernet, and the best of Riesling.
LB: So you're constantly tasting wines, what's the wine or wine region that's most surprised you lately?
KM: Well, the biggest surprise was that before COVID stopped all of us from traveling, the last place I traveled to was a winery in the Himalayas, in the Tibetan cultural area of China.
Chinese wine regions in general are pretty shocking. Ningxia, which is sort of the Napa Valley of China, is on the cusp of the Gobi Desert. You take three planes into central China to even get there. The recent issue of the Wine Enthusiast talks about Norway and Bolivia as potentially groundbreaking new wine regions. So yes, there will definitely be some interesting wine regions to look out for.
One of the interesting things about the global expansion of wine is that even as of the 1950s, books with titles like Wines of the World, were essentially about just two countries: France and Germany. France and Germany were considered the two greatest wine producers and every other country—even Italy and Spain-- were considered peasant wine regions. The United States wouldn't have been written about it all. South America, forget it. And nothing about Australia or New Zealand. So the world of wine, during our lifetimes, has gotten enormous. I mean, until recently it was unthinkable that a place like China would ever produce fine, expensive wine.
LB: So what grapes are they growing in that region that you visited?
KM: Mostly Cabernet and some Cabernet Franc, a little bit of Merlot. There are also producers who make Chardonnay, but the Chinese love red wine and they don't really like cold beverages. So you never see white wines that are crisp and meant to be served cold.
LB: That's interesting. So it's a warmer region?
KM: Ningxia on the cusp of the Gobi desert is a warm region. And that's why it does so well with Cabernet and Bordeaux varieties. In the Himalayas, it's pretty cold, especially at night. But during the day, you get this intense luminosity, because you're 8,000 feet in elevation. Sometimes, walking in a steep vineyard, you can barely breathe because there's so little oxygen at that altitude.
LB: How has the wine industry changed for the better or worse in the past 10 plus years?
KM: If I can go back a little further, I would say that the United States really has a wine culture now. Even 30 years ago, there were jokes about being able to get a good wine in New York and San Francisco, but the middle of the country was a big flyover zone. Today there are great wine bars and restaurants with fabulous wine lists throughout the whole country. Also, the industry is much larger. Thirty years ago, I felt I knew almost everybody in the wine industry, it was so much smaller. In New York City, when I began, there were maybe three women in the entire wine industry. And that has certainly changed. It’s also a much more exciting and sophisticated industry today.
LB: What do you think the catalyst has been for that change in the last 20 years?
KM: It’s grown slowly and organically; there wasn’t a single event that caused it to happen. As you know, once you fall in love with wine, you’re always in love with it. Nobody ever says, I'm moving on.
Nobody falls out of love with wine, they just get in deeper and deeper. And then they tell their friends, and then every time someone comes over, instead of a scotch or a beer, they take out some great wine they just found. So I think the industry grew by virtue of a core group of people who had a real passion for Europe and European wine. And each one of those people told 10 people and those 10 people told 10 people and, and it grew very naturally in that way.
LB: I started in the wine business 13 years, 14 years ago, 15 years ago, and it's amazing how it's just wine has just become a much more ubiquitous part of the culture, you know, and like you said, like young people, even we can see in our market research studies for Coravin is that it's shifting way more millennial, like our consumer base. So I think people's tastes seem to be improving to see evolution.
KM: People who were born in the 60s were maybe the very demographic in the U.S. who had parents who drank wine. Most people before that had parents who were spirits drinkers. Today, Millennials who are wine drinkers often have parents who were wine drinkers.
LB: So switching gears a little bit, you have a new glassware line. Can you talk about that a little bit and your inspiration behind it?
KM: Yeah, its been so exciting. The new line of glasses is called Flavor First. They came about because one day I found myself thinking about how glasses are named for wine regions--the Burgundy glass, the Bordeaux glass and so on-- or they're named for varieties—the Sangiovese a glass, the Chardonnay glass, the Tempranillo glass and twenty more. And I wondered, how many people can explain the difference between Sangiovese and Tempranillo? As I thought more about the complexity and irrationality of wine glasses, I found myself wondering, why can’t glasses just be based on flavor? Because flavor is something everybody understands. Then came the hard part because if you designed glasses based on flavor, exactly what flavors would those be? And how many glasses would you need to have? I began to think about all the wine students who I have taught over the years, and I realized that when you ask people, what kind of wine they like, they usually say something very simple, like: I like big reds, or I like creamy wines. In the end, the thjree glasses I arrived at are called: Crisp & Fresh, Creamy & Silky and Bold & Powerful. With those three glasses, you can cover 99.9% of all the wines you might drink. They’re made in Germany, and were just released a few months ago. I also wanted wine glasses that had a wide foot, a thin rim, were dishwasher safe and cost about $10 a stem. The world does not need another $50 a stem wine glass.
LB: They're beautiful. Now I have to ask you, what's on the docket for you travel wise post-pandemic?
KM: I'm hoping to go back to Rioja, and Sicily, and also go to the Republic of Georgia and Croatia. Croatia is a really up and coming wine place. And the Republic of Georgia is just one of the most ancient wine cultures. It's one of the early domestication sites for wine along with Armenia, Eastern Turkey, and northern Iraq and Iran.
LB: Okay, and what are they making today in a place like Armenia?
KM: One of the best grapes is called Areni. A-R-E-N-I, quite a delicious red. There's also some sparkling wine made in Armenia, that is absolutely fantastic.
LB: So our company mission at Coravin, is to change the way the world experiences wine. I know you've had many wine experiences, but can can you tell us about a favorite wine experience that you've had?
KM: Hmm...You know, for me, wine can never be divorced from the culture in which it exists. And so the very best wine experiences are threaded into culture, which is why travel is so important. When I was writing the second edition of the wine Bible, my editor happened to call me and she said, Where are you, by the way? And I said, I'm in Argentina. And she said, Well, what are you doing? I said, Well, right at the moment, I'm learning how to tango and she laughed, and she said, "oh, come on, what does that got to do with Argentine wine?" And I thought: everything.
It's why people love Italy so much, because it's really easy to fold yourself into that fantastic culture and when you do, every wine tastes just a little bit more delicious.
LB: So, I know you're hard at work on the third version of The Wine Bible, so maybe just tease us with any additions or things to come in that version.
KM: Well it will be the biggest one yet (coming in 2022). As we were just saying the wine world is expanding. But I think what causes people to like The Wine Bible is that it describes complicated scientific ideas in plain English. A lot of wine books are written by subject experts; they know their subject, but they're not necessarily good teachers or good writers. I work really hard at both being a good teacher and a good writer.
LB: Right. And to write without pretense, right? And you're not. You're not so much trying to impress the reader, but you're trying to get the message across. And I always, as I've told you, I've been a big fan of the book for a long time. It was the first book that I sold when I was managing the Best Cellars Wine Stores in Boston, and that was, that was the only book that we sold. But I always loved it. So I encourage everybody to get the second edition at Coravin.com and, as always, a pleasure talking with you, Karen. I hope everybody checks out the Wine Bible. Thank you so much.