Tasting Wine with Karen MacNeil

Of the 112 PR pitches I received in connection with the National Restaurant Show, there was exactly one that got my attention: a wine tasting with Karen MacNeil at the Oneida booth, featuring their new line of Sant’ Andrea crystal stemware (available only to the restaurant trade).

fullsizeoutput_98cKaren is the author of The Wine Bible, which is 1,000 pages of rock-solid insight and info covering every grape, region and varietal and more. It is my go-to source every time I open a bottle or get curious about something. It’s just a great book to have around for fast, easy, smart wine look-ups. Plus, Karen drinks a glass of sparkling wine every single day, calling it “the perfect way to separate the work day from the evening,” and THAT is something I can get behind!

For years, I sent wines to her for her book updates and classes, but we’d never actually met in person, so I thought it would be super interesting to talk and taste with her – and it was!

fullsizeoutput_987While I do know a lot more about wine than I did six years ago (when I knew almost nothing), it’s a never-ending topic, and I love hanging out with people who are great teachers – and Karen is most certainly one of those people. Here, I’ll share the most interesting points from the tasting with Karen.

  • Choosey Users Choose Fantastic Words Karen MacNeil has one of the most finely tuned sensory vocabularies of anyone on the planet. The words and analogies she uses to describe flavors, aromas, textures and other aspects of wine are precise, thoughtful, accurate and evocative – it makes tasting so much more fun and interesting! Here are a few examples:
    • Tasting Roederer Estate Brut Sparkling, Anderson Valley: she looks for “that snap of freshness from the fruit” and “precise bubbles.” She likened Champagne (and other wines made in the Champenoise method) to “a sword wrapped in whipped cream.” She also talked about the “tension” of Champagne and that “sword / whipped cream” analogy evokes tension itself. Brilliant, if you ask me.
    • On flutes versus wine glasses for sparkling: “A flute emphasizes the texture of the wine, while a glass emphasizes the aroma,” says Karen. So true, and personally, I prefer a wine glass, because I loooooove the aroma of sparkling wines! I kind of wish my whole house smelled like Champagne, actually.
    • Tasting Clif Lede Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Napa Valley: Because Sauv Blanc is known for its “greenness,” Karen compared it to lentils or snow peas. I’ve heard “grassy” or “green peppery” and it’s fun to hear new food analogies. She also explained how almost all Sauv Blanc is stainless-steel fermented and aged – and how oak can bring a weird creaminess to it. There is oaked Sauv Blanc – it’s often called “fumé blanc” — and if made very carefully and correctly, it can be nice, but too much oak on an SB and it’s toast.
    • Tasting Trefethen Chardonnay 2016, Napa Valley: Karen explained how much manipulation is possible with Chardonnay. There are a lot of decisions a winemaker can and needs to make in the cellar, from bâttonage (stirring the settled lees – or spent yeast cells and other solids, like tiny bits of skins or seeds – back into the wine while it is fermenting), to sur-lie aging (aging the wine with the lees), use of oak and type of oak (American, French, new, used, neutral, etc.), malo-lactic fermention, etc.
    • Tasting Cristom Mt. Jefferson Pinot Noir 2015, Willamette Valley, OR: Having just immersed myself in Willamette Valley wines, I know how popular the region is right now and Karen agreed, telling us how over 500 Oregon wines had been entered at the Decanter Wine Awards in London (and took home 36 awards).
      She also talked about Pinot Noir – which is naturally a very light-colored red wine — and how color saturation does not have anything to do with flavor intensity. She also talked about body – or the “weight” of wine —  comparing light, medium and full bodied wines to skim, 2 percent and whole milk. Genius. (The body comes from alcohol level, FYI.)
    • Tasting St. Supery Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Napa Valley: Karen talked about how the tannins for which Cabernet Sauvignon is so known, come from the seeds and skins of the grape and about how tannin also is a natural preservative in wine – which is why so many Cabernets age so well! She also explained the two manifestations of tannin: as a bitter flavor, like espresso or dark chocolate, and as dryness or “astringency.
    • On glassware: This is a super interesting topic to me, because I think some of those glass styles for specific varietals are just total bullshit.  But it was a natural question for discussion, seeing as we were at the Oneida booth, tasting from their newest crystal stemware line.

Karen questions a lot about glassware and here are some of her comments:

“I’m not sure white wine glasses should be smaller than red wine glasses.”

“It’s not clear why Burgundy glasses have a wider base because Pinot Noir oxidizes so quickly.”

“I’m not sure that all of the shapes make sense. I don’t see getting out a specific glass for every type of wine.”

“The reason you want to hold a glass by the stem and keep your hands off of the bowl of the glass is so you can swirl your glass.”  (Me: Also, so you don’t get your filthy paw prints all over the glass, because then it just looks dirty and nasty.)

Even cooler, Karen is doing some hard-core research on glassware – historical and sensory – to try to get to the truth of all those shapes and sizes.

So, thank you, Oneida, for the invitation (and Sant’ Andrea line is beautiful), and thank you, Karen, for a fun, educational and inspiring tasting! Take a look at The Wine Bible if you want to learn more from Karen, or sign up for her WineSpeed newsletter here – it’s a fun, quick read.



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