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

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

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

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

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

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

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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