‘Wine Bible’ author Karen MacNeil talks wine trends, history and mysteries

Author Karen MacNeil comes to Soif Wine Bar in Santa Cruz on Thursday.
(Via Lowell Downey)

Now in its third edition, “The Wine Bible” is one of the best-selling books on wine of all time. Author Karen MacNeil comes to downtown’s Soif Wine Bar on Thursday at 7 p.m. in an event hosted by Bookshop Santa Cruz, Soif, Santa Cruz DJ, the MAH and the Santa Cruz County Chamber to celebrate the updated classic with local oenophiles.

As the title suggests, “The Wine Bible’’ contains everything you need to know about wine. Within its nearly 800 pages lies a treasure trove of wine knowledge and lore. When the first edition was published in 2001, it was the result of a decade of meticulous, passion-driven — and largely unpaid — research by writer Karen MacNeil, and nothing else like it existed. Now in its third edition, “The Wine Bible” has earned its place as a masterpiece and is one of the best-selling books on wine of all time. This Thursday at 7 p.m., MacNeil, hosted by Bookshop Santa Cruz, Soif, Santa Cruz DJ, the MAH and the Santa Cruz County Chamber, comes to Soif Wine Bar in Santa Cruz to celebrate the updated classic with local oenophiles.

A Q&A with writer Karen MacNeil

But as MacNeil looks back on its path to publication more than 20 years ago, it seems like a miracle it exists at all.

When MacNeil was starting out as a young writer in New York City in the 1970s, she already knew she wanted to write about wine. Several obstacles confronted her. At the time, a small number of men controlled almost all of the wine writing for almost every major magazine and newspaper — even publications targeted at women like Vogue and Good Housekeeping.

She also faced an industry Catch-22: She needed to get a story published before anyone would hire her to write, but without getting hired there was no way to publish a story. “I collected 324 rejection slips,” she said, “writing about everything, not just wine, before my first piece was published.”

Then there was the enormous cost of fine wine. How could she grow her knowledge and palate to become an expert if she couldn’t afford many of the most sought-after bottles on her meager freelancing income?

Finally, MacNeil got an unorthodox break that allowed her to bust through the (wine)glass ceiling. At the time, five men reigning over the wine communication business held weekly tastings of elite wines sent in by producers from all over the world. One of them, Alexis Bespaloff, a columnist for New York Magazine and author of several books, was a friend of MacNeil’s, and he convinced the others to let her join their tastings. They agreed, under one condition: She was not allowed to talk.

“Of course, from a feminist standpoint, it’s horrific to think about something like that,” MacNeil said. “But I would take that deal again in a heartbeat because I got to try all these remarkable wines from around the world.”

This experience helped kick-start her writing career in earnest, and over the next decade MacNeil became a well-respected food writer. However, she felt she understood how hard it was for the average American to learn about wine, and wanted to write something that would help make wine more accessible to them.

More than a decade later, in the early 1990s, the opportunity she had been waiting for came calling when Peter Workman of Workman Publishing, famous for publishing major works like “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” read a story by MacNeil in the New York Times Magazine. He took her out to lunch and asked her if there was a book she had always wanted to write. The rest is wine-writing history.

A book this size can be intimidating, but MacNeil’s approachable, engaging and distinctly American writing voice makes “The Wine Bible’’ a pleasure to read. Pop-outs describing wine-adjacent points of cultural interest punctuate the colorful pages, describing, for example, how paprika became Hungary’s signature spice; Ernest Hemingway’s many visits to the old Rioja bodega Paternina in Spain, often with a bullfighter in tow; and what a Canadian bench is, and why they are ideal environments for vineyards.

Readers tell her all the time that they feel as though MacNeil is having a conversation with them, and she says that’s intentional. Through all three editions, she has kept an imaginary reader in her mind and written directly to her: “It’s not a real figure, it’s an imaginary person who happens to be a woman. She’s about 40, very smart, is a wine drinker, but doesn’t know anything about wine. And I tell her the story.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Author Karen MacNeil
Karen MacNeil, author of “The Wine Bible.”
(Via Lowell Downey)

Lookout: How has the wine industry changed over the past 20 years?

Karen MacNeil: The gravitational pull of wine has changed dramatically. It used to be very European-centric, and then there was the rest of the world — what people would call “the new world.” But today, and I think even in the last five years, people realize that it’s one enormous entity now. There are places like Croatia and Great Britain that have absolutely valid, fascinating, fabulous wine industries that need to be written about and that need to be recognized as on par with all of the old established countries. China alone proved that. Once really fine wine was being made in China, the see-saw dipped to a more even position around the world. I wanted to cover places like China, Japan, Great Britain, Croatia and Israel. My first book didn’t even have a chapter on Israel.

Lookout: Is there a particular chapter in the new edition that stands out to you?

MacNeil: I wanted to also do a chapter on wine in the ancient world because I’d never read a good chapter about that. We know that wine is ancient, but I wanted to know — where is the oldest wine from? What is the oldest evidence of wine? You can read anthropological and archaeological studies, but it’s hard to understand all of that as a layman would. Anthropologists and archaeologists talk about time very differently. When I was researching that chapter, I realized one day that the Neolithic period is different in different countries around the world. I actually had to make myself an enormous diagram to figure out what happened when, in what period and in what country, because the Neolithic period in China starts much earlier than it starts in Armenia and Georgia.

I’m really proud of that chapter. I love finding areas that are so confusing that it takes a person who is as determined as me to get in there with all this messy information, try to make sense of it and write about it beautifully.

Lookout: What are some of the challenges of writing a book like this?

MacNeil: One hard thing to know is, if you’re writing about Bordeaux, for example, where do you stop? You could write a whole book. In fact, it would be easier to write a whole book. What is hard is knowing what is not essential. You want to include what people need to know, want to know and would find fascinating to know, while leaving out elements that really belong in a book on just that one region.

Lookout: What’s one interesting thing you learned while researching for the new edition?

MacNeil: I learned so many things. That’s the other reinforcing thing that keeps you going on a long book — and this one only took 4½ years. I will tell you two things that I wrote about, but don’t have answers.

One is, why are there white wine glasses? Who decided to make white wine glasses smaller than red? Is white wine somehow inferior to red? That makes no sense. I have researched that a lot and I cannot find the first person who invented white wine glasses. I can only tell you that white wine glasses are, in my opinion, completely silly. They imply that white wine cannot be as complex as red and we know that’s not the case.

The other interesting thing I’ve never been able to find is the origin of the case. I know when wine was first put in bottles, which is in the 1780s in Portugal. Ports were the first wine to be put in cylindrical bottles to be laid down. But who invented the case, and why 12 bottles? Why not 10? I can note that the configuration of three by four is very physically stable, so you can stack cases on top of each other. The closest I can get to an answer is that a case weighs about 35 pounds, which is about what a man can carry repeatedly without being exhausted, with no wasted energy. But still, I don’t know. There’s also the philosophic idea of the 12 apostles, a dozen eggs … 12 is an interesting number metaphysically.

As I’m researching, I come across things that are staring right at you. We see cases of wine every day. I see white wine glasses every day. Sometimes part of the fun of writing is taking something that’s right there and asking, “But why is that?”

Lookout: Are there any wine trends that you’ve noticed while researching for the most recent edition?

MacNeil: I like the fact that wine is actually not very trendy. It moves slowly. Fine wine must move slowly because viticulture moves slowly. It takes years to establish a vine, years to understand how to take those grapes and make them into great wine. So you see long waves of a trend. For example, the emergence of the popularity of rosé has been happening for a good eight years now. You see those kinds of things, but wine, thankfully, isn’t something that changes minute to minute.

One very long trend that I like to see is how America has become a much more sophisticated wine culture along a kind of sweep of history. It’s been happening for 30 years now. And that’s fascinating to me. There’s so much more excitement about wine in the U.S. today than there was 30 years ago.

Karen MacNeil, hosted by Bookshop Santa Cruz, Soif, Santa Cruz DJ, the MAH and the Santa Cruz County Chamber comes to Soif Wine Bar in Santa Cruz this Thursday at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $5.

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