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.

If America has a first lady of accessible wine education, it's Karen MacNeil. Author of the best-selling The Wine Bible (400,000 copies and counting) and chairman of the prestigious Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, she was also wine correspondent on NBC's Today Show, has contributed to over 50 national publications and magazines and works as a private wine education consultant for clients like Merrill Lynch and American Express. On top of all this, she still manages to make wine with her husband Dennis Fife, owner of Fife Vineyards.

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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