The World Is Her Oyster

Author and PBS Host Karen MacNeil Talks Wine

by Sao Anash

Karen MacNeil looks like a young Katherine Hepburn and has much of the legendary Hepburn’s moxie and strength. And, while Karen MacNeil is not a movie star — at least not yet — she is a fixed star in the world of food and wine literature and television. The author of the best-selling wine book, The Wine Bible, MacNeil’s face is also familiar to lifestyle television lovers who look forward to her nationally televised weekly series, Wine, Food, and Friends with Karen MacNeil on PBS.

Recently, I had the rare pleasure of asking MacNeil about her two loves: wine and the written word, and she proved to be as passionate and humble in her private life as she is on the page and on television.

Why would anyone in their right mind undertake writing such an amazing, yet voluminous and thorough book like The Wine Bible?

Love (for wine). Or maybe it was insanity. I have always been the kind of person who, given a choice between tackling something easy or something difficult, chooses the latter. In all honesty though, I had no idea how massive a project The Wine Bible would be until I was already in deep. In the end, The Wine Bible took 10 years to write, and when I started the project I had already been to every major wine producing country in the world and most of the smaller ones.

In the book you write about having worked a harvest with vineyard workers in California. Can you talk a little about that?

It gave me a huge appreciation for California’s harvest workers, most of whom are Mexican. There is no question in my mind that the California wine industry simply would not have achieved the success it has were it not for these people. As for the experience itself, it was grueling but also very satisfying. There’s nothing like looking at a quarter of a ton of grapes that you picked with your own hands. Of course, each of the guys I worked with picked two tons in the same time I picked a quarter of a ton.

I love wine, too, but sometimes I fear that I’ll tire of it eventually, or get burned out. Do you ever worry about that?

I am absolutely never bored with wine — nor will I ever be. Wine is the world’s most compelling beverage, and a perfect reflection of history, culture, and gastronomy.

Do you recall the first wine that you ever had that left an impression on you?

A Bulgarian red that cost 79 cents. I was 15 and on my own; I had my own apartment and I drank a glass of wine every night with dinner. That red was in the sale bin next to the cash register of the local wine shop. I was so intimidated by the wine shop that I never progressed farther inside. For two years, I simply bought what was in the sale bin next to the check-out counter.

You don’t use numbered scores when you rate a wine. Why is that?

I consider myself a writer, not a critic. Inside every writer is the hope that someone will actually read their words. To use a numerical system would make no sense for me — it would mean no one would read the words I work so hard to write.

What would you say to someone who is intimidated by the process of ordering wine from a wine list, or buying wine at a wine shop?

Have the courage of a 4-year-old standing for the first time in Baskin–Robbins. At some point, we all just have to have the courage to try pistachio or mango or mint chocolate chip. If one can do it with ice cream when one is four, one can do it with wine when one is 24.

What are some of your favorite food and wine pairings?

Alsace riesling and guacamole is pretty great. Corn on the cob slathered in butter with a white burgundy is fantastic. Grilled lamb chops and côte rôtie is very soul satisfying.

Can you tell me a little about the wine program, of which you are the director, at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone?

Three years ago, I helped create the professional wine program at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley. I am the first chairperson of that program. We like to think of it as the Harvard of wine education in America. Students are, on average, in their forties and from diverse backgrounds. The classes are from one to five days in length, depending on the topic.

What are you working on now?

My newest project: a new book! September 1, 2006 is the release date for my new book, which is named the same as the TV series: Wine, Food, and Friends with Karen MacNeil.

4·1·1 For a complete listing of program times and details of the show Wine, Food, and Friends with Karen MacNeil, visit For more information on MacNeil’s wine courses, visit MacNeil’s latest book, Wine, Food, and Friends with Karen MacNeil, will be released this August, but pre-release, autographed copies can be ordered by contacting Catherine Seda at

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