Q & A with Karen MacNeil
The wine educator talks about the power of passion, food and wine pairing 101, and three wines to pour in a pinch.
By Steve Heimoff
Wine Enthusiast: What's the secret to making wine understandable?
Karen MacNeil: Any reasonably intelligent person should be able to understand wine, and it's my job to present it in a way that's engaging. The first people I ever taught were waiters. Teaching them is very difficult. After making lots of mistakes, I realized that if you're passionate, you'll draw people in.
WE: Do you think that being a woman influences the way you teach?
KM: When I started out, I was an outsider. In those days, in New York, there were four men who counted. I became part of that group, on the unspoken agreement that I didn't talk or offer my opinion. I had to figure out, how was I ever going to write? These guys had every magazine locked up. So I needed to see things they didn't see, to have a different voice.
WE: What do you think of the 100-point system?
KM: It's a helpful consumer device. On the other hand, if you're the kind of person who lays awake agonizing how to write in a wonderful way, why would you give people something that causes them not to read your words? I do have my own little scoring system, but in my writing, I don't rank wines.
WE: Where are the world's best values?
KM: If you have an adventurous palate, Spain. If you have a comfort palate, I'd say Australia.
WE: What's the most versatile food wine?
KM: Three whites will cover you in any circumstance: sparkling wine or Champagne, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. The most under-valued reds are Syrah and Grenache.
WE: Are there versatile wine foods?
KM: Poultry is extremely versatile. Pasta. Root vegetables. The way to make a food wine-friendly is to keep it basic. A simple grilled chicken breast is a lot more wine-flexible than a chicken breast with cilantro and salsa.
WE: Do you think writers sometimes go overboard in wine-and-food pairing?
KM: Yes. For years, I never wrote about wine and food because it was such an intellectually messy topic. It set up a whole other level of rules, and you could just see people's heads spinning. But with my last book [Wine, Food and Friends with Karen MacNeil], I came to see that what's interesting is if you can get out of the rule idea and talk about taste affinities.
WE: What's a good wine and food affinity?
KM: Alsace Riesling and guacamole! I love the contrast of the fattiness of the avocado and the acidity of the Riesling.
WE: What would I find in your cellar?
KM: It's eclectic. There are no perfect cases. There'll be some fabulous old López de Heredia from 1955, or single bottles of Australian and Alsatian wines. It's a mishmash.
WE: And in your fridge?
KM: Champagne or California sparkling wine. I drink a glass every night.
WE: Where do you find the time for it all? Do you like the craziness?
KM: I do. When I left New York, I thought, I'll move to wine country and lead a quieter life. But you take who you are where you go. If you put me down in Fiji tomorrow, within weeks I'd have a million projects!
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