Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, Emmy-winning host of the PBS series Food, Wine and Friends, and founder of the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, has won almost every major award in wine writing and wine education. She has been named Outstanding Wine Professional of the Year by the James Beard Foundation, Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council, and inducted into the Wine Media Guild Hall of Fame. Now she is entering the world of digital publishing as acting editor in chief of The Daily Sip, the e-newsletter of Bottlenotes.com, an online community of more than 140,000 budding wine enthusiasts in their 20s and 30s. As she steps into the world of Internet publishing, I asked MacNeil about writing for an audience that is just discovering wine, the changing nature of publishing, women in wine, and a few of her favorite wine regions.
In your words, what is Bottlenotes?
Bottlenotes is an online community for avid wine enthusiasts, a place to learn a lot about wine and connect with other wine lovers. It skews younger and more female than sites such as eRobertParker. It is more casual and not quite as scientifically oriented.
How does writing about wine for an online community differ from writing for a print publication or a book?
I need to make sure that the voice of The Daily Sip synchs up with the young, hip person who is just now falling in love with wine. I think I understand that voice very well. I have been presenting wine in small, fascinating, easily understandable bits for 20 years. Part of being a good wine writer is being a good teacher; teaching has trained me to understand how much information people can absorb about wine in one sitting.
Women account for 75 percent of wine sales in the U.S., yet most wine publications are styled for men. How do you write to appeal to the female audience?
One of the challenges of speaking about the wine industry is that there are two distinct industries: one for collectible wine and another for what we call “beverage wine.”
Most wine magazines are devoted to collectible wine, expensive wine that is capable of aging—and indeed, capable of improving with age, of which men purchase the lion’s share. “Beverage wine” is a term commonly used for inexpensive wine purchased for every-night dinners. It’s meant to be drunk right after purchase. There’s no exact price cut-off, but I’d put this category of wine at less than $14 a bottle today. Bottlenotes doesn’t give vintage assessments or a comparative look at the 2000 Chateau Lâ Tour and the 2000 Château Margaux. The site focuses on beverage wine, the sort of wine women buy when picking up food at the supermarket.
Ruth Reichl recently took on the role of editorial adviser at Gilt Taste. What does it suggest about the changing nature of food and wine publishing that people of your and Ruth’s stature are now directing the editorial at these sites?
It suggests that the Internet is where a lot of the editorial action is these days. It suggests that people like their information in short bites. It suggests that speed and immediate availability of information are more critical than ever. It may also suggest that young, innovative Internet companies realize that behind the scenes they need a real “Rock of Gibraltar” like Ruth to give guidance and gravitas to what they are doing.
I remember meeting Ruth 20 years ago at a winery in Napa Valley when we were both young reporters working on separate stories. We both had huge notebooks and were researching for several days. I write in large format (The Wine Bible is 910 pages) and if you think about Ruth’s collective work, it is thousands of pages long, which makes it interesting now to turn the binoculars around and create short work for immediate consumption.
Yet nothing is ever lost. An e-newsletter may seem quick and casual on the surface, but the reader is seeing only the tip of the mountaintop; underneath is enormous depth and breadth of knowledge.
In the introduction to The Wine Bible you thank your professional peers in a paragraph naming most of the major wine writers at the time of the book’s publication. Is such a succinct list possible today?
Yes. Despite the dynamism bloggers have brought to wine writing, there is still a core of people who really know their stuff. I’ve always loved the company of people who go deep into their subject.
Is there a wine or a region you have recently discovered or rediscovered that particularly captivates you?
I recently came back from Argentina and was particularly impressed with Argentinian Malbec. I am always enthralled with California sparkling wines and think they are one of the best values in the world today. Also, a lot of people feel Australia has lost luster, but I went to Australia and had some of the most amazing Shiraz and Shiraz blends. So much that we see is from a few big players, yet there are hundreds of small producers making excellent wines. I am always happy to drink everything from Spain. It’s where I learned about wine in the early '70s. Last year’s big discovery was Slovenia. The country is sandwiched between Italy and Austria and they produce fantastic, lean, crisp, mineral driven, racy kinds of wines, particularly the white varieties like pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc.
Do you have plans for a revised edition of The Wine Bible?
I’m in the process of revising it right now. It’s a big book, and I am updating every chapter. It will take at least another year to finish.
What else would you like readers to know?
This is an exciting time for wine. When I started writing about wine, I was the only woman doing it. There were no schools, no consumer classes, and certainly no female winery presidents, marketing directors, journalists, or sales people. Every tasting was for the 10 men in America who controlled wine writing and me (a friend snuck me in).
The landscape has changed tremendously in the last thirty-five years. In 1972, I was assigned by a magazine to write a story on Cava. I flew to Barcelona after being in touch by mail with the winery I was to visit. When I arrived at the airport, it seemed that no one was there to pick me up. I spoke no Spanish at the time. I waited for four hours. Eventually, I went up to two men and asked something about getting to the winery. With a look of shock they hollered, “You’re the wine writer from America!” It was inconceivable to them that the wine writer from America would be a woman.
Bottlenotes and my new involvement in Internet publishing shows just how much more open the door is for women in wine. The door opened slowly at first, but the Internet has exploded the pace and has to some extent democratized wine. Thirty-five years ago, a 25-year-old (of either sex) would not have had a voice in the world of wine. They would not have made it into the inner circle of wine people with experience, access, and money. Today the Internet has done a complete end run around all of that. Everyone who can buy a bottle has a voice.
What I personally hope to do is help all those emerging voices. Internet or not, wine is still confusing. It takes time to know it well. A good wine teacher can make a huge difference. I’m hoping to be that teacher; and Bottlenotes is one of the best avenues.