Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. I expect you’ll discover more about wine writers that you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories and review our wines. What better way to obtain media coverage than to learn their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is also part of an ongoing series that is being featured monthly by Wine Industry Network. Last month’s interview featured Erin James, Senior Editor of Sip Northwest Magazine.
KAREN MACNEIL is one of the foremost wine experts in the United States. Karen is the only American to have won every major wine award given in the English language. These include the James Beard award for Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year, the Louis Roederer award for Best Consumer Wine Writing, and the International Wine and Spirits award as the Global Wine Communicator of the Year. TIME Magazine called Karen “America’s Missionary of the Vine.” In 2018, Karen was named one of the “100 Most Influential People in Wine.”
Karen is the author of THE WINE BIBLE, the best-selling wine book in the U.S., with more than one million copies sold. She is the creator and editor of WineSpeed, the top digital newsletter on wine. Known for her passion and unique style, she conducts seminars and presentations for corporate clients worldwide. The former wine correspondent for NBC’s Today Show, Karen also hosted the PBS series Wine, Food and Friends with Karen MacNeil, for which she won an Emmy. And finally, Karen is the creator and Chairman Emerita of the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America, often called the “Harvard” of wine education.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
I began writing about food for many national magazines and The New York Times in the early 1980s. Through that I realized that what I loved was gastronomy as a whole, including beverages. There’s no more compelling beverage than wine, and so I began studying wine intensely, and eventually writing about it.
Was it difficult breaking into the wine writing business back in the 1980s? What specific challenges did you face?
I actually began to try to work in wine in the late seventies in New York. At the time, the city had 7 million people and there were three women in the wine business. It was impossible to break-in especially if, like me, you were also young. And there was no way to learn on your own. Back then there were no wine schools, no degree programs like WSET, no public tastings. Wine writing and communications were controlled by a small coterie of five men who wrote for every newspaper and every magazine from The New York Times to Vogue. Eventually (it’s a long story), these men let me taste with them on the condition I didn’t talk. I took the “deal.” And I didn’t talk for 8 years even though I tasted with them almost once a week.
What are your primary story interests?
Everything related to wine and wine and culture.
Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? If not, why not? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face?
It’s much harder than in the past. But both then and now, it helps to be a really good writer. I work as hard at writing as I do at understanding wine.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
All of the things I’m tempted to say really shouldn’t be said unless it’s at night and everyone has some wine.
What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?
That wine exists in a rich context of people, places, history, culture, and food. And also that reading about wine can actually be enlightening and fun, as well as educational.
If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be a linguist studying ancient languages or an anthropologist studying ancient food systems.
Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?
I have a full-time staff of three and an extended staff of six more. We research wine worldwide and do so with a lot of rigor. We taste in our offices in St. Helena 2 to 3 times a week, usually from 4 pm to 6pm. Winemakers sometimes bring their wines in and join us. We discuss (and sometimes argue about) the wines and take notes of course.
Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?
Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?
I post lots of short pieces on social media. I think keeping a wine conversation going in the culture at large is helpful to wine consumption and wine enjoyment.
Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?
I am a writer and have written about wine for 35 years. I usually taste at least 3,000 wines a year, and I’ve visited most wine regions in the world. I think of myself as a good researcher. I HOPE all of this means that I have some influence. But I would not call myself an influencer. I don’t actually know any “influencers”, so I don’t know how much they know about wine.
What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?
Send emails with helpful specific information and facts, rather than sweeping marketing messages like “we are trying to make the best wines possible.”
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
They understand how to be concise and they are time sensitive.
Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?
I would have liked to have known and tasted with Frank Schoonmaker, Alexis Lichine, Gustave Niebaum, Rosa Mondavi, George Yount, and Napoleon (the latter to discuss the impact his laws had on the evolution of French vineyards and wines).
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
Exercising, cooking, drinking wine.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
Too many to write about!
Pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner
I already drink a glass of Champagne every night (and have for 20 years). I can’t give that up. Let’s see, for a red every night for a month—a top Willamette Valley pinot noir.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Favorite recipe/pairing?
Madeira and chocolate chip cookies.
Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”
CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 10th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).