With the increasing globalization of wine sales, consumers continue to have greater access to a broad selection of wines, which is fantastic, but can also become very confusing, and at times, overwhelming. The challenge seems to arise in the wine aisle, when facing a shelf of Malbecs, for example, and having absolutely no clue on how to gauge the stylistic difference from one vineyard in California to another, much less how a Malbec from Chile might compare to one from Argentina. In this first interview with EorC, Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible begins to demystify the process for readers, and offers tips of discernment.
Q: What is your first memory of being fascinated and/or captivated, by food and wine?
I loved food from the time I was a young child. By the age of 13, I’d made at least 500 applesauce spice cakes, just to see how little differences in ingredients made big changes in flavor. I started having a glass of wine every night with dinner at the age of 15. (Just a glass!) Wine’s ability to transform a situation always impressed me.
Q: There really is a set of fairly straightforward principles that help demystify the art of food & wine pairing. You teach terrific courses on the topic. Can you describe a few fundamentals that will assist people when they are trying to figure out what style of wine to pair with which food?
Go with your instincts for affinities…it’s amazing but all of us recognize affinities…it’s the reason we instinctively know to put cream in our coffee not basil in our coffee. In the best of circumstances, when certain wines are paired with certain foods, the result can be downright thrilling.
I have an admission to make. I don’t think every wine always needs to be perfectly matched to a food, or vice versa. That said, it’s certainly true that extraordinary flavor affinities do exist, and that most of us have had at least a few of those “wow” moments when the wine and food combination was unbelievably good.
How do you create those moments? Ultimately, taste preferences are highly individual. It isn’t easy. A meal rarely highlights the flavor of a single food, and many dishes present countless variables. So where does that leave us? To me, it leaves us squarely in the realm of instinct. And good instincts can be acquired.
Here’s what I’ve discovered. Match delicate to delicate, robust to robust. It only makes sense that a delicate wine like a red Burgundy will end up tasting like water if you serve it with a dramatically spiced dish like curry. Dishes with bold, piquant, spicy, and hot flavors are perfectly cut out for bold, spicy, big-flavored wines.
Decide if you want to mirror a given flavor or set up a contrast. Chardonnay with lobster in cream sauce would be an example of mirroring. Both the lobster and the Chardonnay are opulent, rich, and creamy. But, delicious matches can also happen when you go in exactly the opposite direction and create contrast and juxtaposition. That lobster in cream sauce would also be fascinating with Champagne, which is sleek, crisp, and sharply tingling because of the bubbles.
Think about flexibility. The Wine Bible has a great section on how to taste in a way that maximizes the sensory impact of a given wine.
Q: You interact as a wine educator and consultant with consumers, members of the wine industry, and as an expert to the media. What was your objective in publishing “The Wine Bible?” What information were you aiming to convey, and to which audience(s)?
My aim was to make learning about wine effortless. Throughout the writing of The Wine Bible, I remembered very clearly how hard it was to learn about wine from the books I had access to.
Q: How important is temperature and location when storing wine at home?
VERY. AND, the more expensive the wine, the more these things count. Wines forced to mature too quickly show a sharp, exaggerated curve of awkward development, followed by dramatic deterioration. In order for wine to develop properly and with stability, a fine wine must mature slowly over a long period of time. Scientists say this happens best when wines are kept at about 55 degrees F.
Scientists also insist that violent swings of temperature [which can adversely affect wines] are detrimental. When the cork begins to dry out, air may begin to slip, in oxidizing the wine, and sunlight, which is harmful because ultraviolet light causes free radicals to develop in wine, results in rapid oxidation. Finally, vibration may be detrimental [of note to people who live in earthquake zones].
Also, speaking personally, I wouldn’t leave a great wine in a hot trunk for even 10 minutes.
Q: What difference does the style of wine glass make while tasting a wine?
Glasses DO matter. In general, people should use the best glass they are not afraid to break.
Q: What types of wine glasses can you suggest for those with “Champagne taste,” while operating from a “beer budget.”
Today, dozens of great brands are available. Go to a good wine store and see what feels good in YOUR hands.
Q: Screw tops: Do they have any impact on the quality of the wine?
No. Not on quality. If anything, screw caps may preserve quality better than corks.
Q: You are the Creator and Chairwoman of the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, which has been called “The Harvard of Wine Education.” How would you describe the wine education programs you offer through Karen MacNeil & Company?
We do highly customized private seminars that are based around a tour of a given wine region.
Q: What are some of your most significant “Aha!” moments in your experiences with food, wine, travel, and life?
Too big a question…there were so many “aha” moments. Food and wine lend themselves to “aha” moments, which is part of what makes them spellbinding….
Karen MacNeil’s book, The Wine Bible, is available for purchase in our Inner Compass Lifestyle Store.