What did it take to create The Wine Bible, a 700-page masterwork on wine? What makes The Wine Bible so different from other popular wine tomes? How did the pandemic make it much harder to research and write this latest edition of this book and what creative methods did the author use to overcome those obstacles?
In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible.
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Three of you who are based in the U.S. are going to win a personally signed copy of Karen MacNeil’s terrific new book, The Wine Bible.
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- Why did school become an oasis for Karen in her childhood?
- How did Karen convince a judge to let her live on her own at the young age of 15?
- When did Karen have her first introduction to wine?
- What drew Karen to make the move to New York City at 19?
- How did Karen’s passion for writing keep her motivated through hundreds of rejections?
- How did Karen make her way into the closed-off, male-dominated world of wine in the 1970s?
- What were the biggest lessons Karen learned from the leading wine writers in her early career?
- How did the quest to be a better wine writer lead Karen to move across the country to Napa?
- Where did the idea for The Wine Bible originate, and how did it come to be published by top New York publisher Peter Workman?
- Why was Karen initially against the name “The Wine Bible”?
- Why does it take Karen years to publish each new edition of The Wine Bible?
- What makes The Wine Bible different and more relatable than other popular wine books?
- What was the hardest thing for Karen to leave out of The Wine Bible?
- How did COVID make it much harder for Karen to reach the people and wines she needed while working on the third edition of The Wine Bible?
- I loved hearing the behind-the-scenes stories of what it took to create The Wine Bible, especially with so many entries, maps, illustrations.
- I know from personal experience that it’s a much different read from other popular wine tomes, more conversational and engaging.
- Karen is no stranger to overcoming obstacles, and she used that scrappy tenacity to press through the pandemic and complete this major work.
Start The Conversation: Click Below to Share These Wine Tips
What I loved and was fascinated by was the whole world of gastronomy, including beverages. - Karen MacNeil Click to tweet
I could teach myself about tea, coffee, and beer but wine was hard to teach yourself about. - Karen MacNeil Click to tweet
I had the idea that being in and around vineyards would make me a better wine writer, and I think it has. - Karen MacNeil Click to tweet
The Wine Bible doesn’t cut any corners. It’s laced through with concrete information, even in the simplest sentence. - Karen MacNeil Click to tweet
Over 20 years of writing about wine, I’ve worked hard to build a golden Rolodex. - Karen MacNeil Click to tweet
About Karen MacNeil
One of the foremost wine experts in the United States, Karen MacNeil is the only American to have won every major wine award given in the English Language. In a full-page profile on her, Time magazine called Karen, “America’s Missionary of the Vine.” Karen is the author of the award-winning book The Wine Bible, the single bestselling wine book in the United States, with more than 800,000 copies sold. She is the creator and editor of WineSpeed, the top digital newsletter in wine in the United States. Known for her passion and unique style, she conducts seminars and presentations for corporate clients worldwide. The former wine correspondent for the Today show on NBC, Karen was also the host of the PBS series Wine, Food & Friends with Karen MacNeil, for which she won an Emmy. And finally, Karen is the creator and Chairman Emeritus of the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America, which has been called the “Harvard of wine education”. Karen has just published the third edition of her award-winning book The Wine Bible, the single bestselling wine book in the United States, with more than a million copies sold.
- Connect with Karen MacNeil
- Unreserved Wine Talk | Episode 91: The Wine Bible’s Karen MacNeil on Women and Wine
- Diary of a Book Launch: An Insider Peek from Idea to Publication
- My Books:
- My new class The 5 Wine & Food Pairing Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Dinner And How To Fix Them Forever
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Thirsty for more?
- Sign up for my free online wine video class where I’ll walk you through The 5 Wine & Food Pairing Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Dinner (and how to fix them forever!)
- You’ll find my books here, including Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines and Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass.
- The new audio edition of Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass is now available on Amazon.ca, Amazon.com and other country-specific Amazon sites; iTunes.ca, iTunes.com and other country-specific iTunes sites; Audible.ca and Audible.com.
Karen MacNeil 0:00
The world of wine is now a really big place. I’m a very rigorous researcher. I will spend two weeks on one little fact within a sentence within 30,000 sentences to be sure that I know something really. The Wine Bible doesn’t cut any corners. I’ll give you an example. I mean most people would say something like: when wine glasses were invented, comma, bla bla bla bla bla is true. The Wine Bible sentence would be: when wine glasses were invented in 1615, comma, da da da da da is true. It’s really laced through with concrete information, even in the simplest sentence. And so it takes a while to figure those things out.
Natalie MacLean 0:51
Absolutely. And yet, it’s more useful because of the density of information that is still not yet overwhelming.
Natalie MacLean 1:05
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine, love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places, and amusingly awkward social situations? Well that’s the blend here on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie Maclean. And each week, I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please. And let’s get started.
Welcome to Episode 209. What did it take to create The Wine Bible, a 700 page master work on wine? What makes The Wine Bible so different from other popular wine tomes? And how did the pandemic make it much harder to research and write the latest edition of this book? And which creative methods did the author use to overcome those obstacles? You’ll hear those tips and stories in my chat with Karen McNeil, author of The Wine Bible. the single best selling wine book in North America, with more than a million copies sold. Karen’s just published the third edition of this book and it’s gorgeous. Three of you in the continental US are going to win a personally signed copy of her book. The reason for restricting it to the continental US is that this is the publisher’s shipping regulations in terms of where they can send prizes to. But stay tuned in future episodes there will will be prizes for everyone. So to qualify for winning a signed copy of The Wine Bible all you have to do is email me at [email protected] and let me know you want to win. I will choose three people randomly. Now a quick update on my upcoming memoir Wine Witch on Fire: Rising From the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation and Drinking Too Much. Last week, my publisher asked me to write a Dear Reader letter to accompany the digital review copies that will go out to long lead media, like magazines that have deadlines three to six months before publication. So this letter is meant to be a personal expression of what the book means to me and who it’s for. So I thought I’d share this letter with you now.
Dear reader, thank you for your interest in my memoir. In 2012 I lost everything: my career, my marriage and my health. I consider taking my own life. An online group of rival writers tore apart my professional reputation than they dismantled my body part by part in public, revealing the corrosive chauvinism in the underbelly of the wine world. My story draws back the curtain on the slick marketing encouraging women to drink too much, from wine mom memes to little black dress labels. It also dives into the real life impact of online mobbing and the particular vitriol women face when they blaze their own trail. I didn’t want to share this story. I couldn’t even look at the notes I’d locked away for years was to exposing to shameful. I’d be vandalising my own privacy. A decade later, I was inspired by memoirist Glennon Doyle’s advice, “Write from a scar, not an open wound”. But why even write about it after the healing is done? Poet Sean Thomas Doherty had the answer, “Why bother? Because right now, there’s someone out there with a wound in the exact shape of your words”. After talking with many women in my field who had similar stories, but no outlet to share them, I decided to write this memoir. A book can travel so much farther than I can with a message about resilience. Rest assured, this isn’t another misery memoir. Come along with me to my boozy girlfriend get togethers, some dating adventures with zero effort man, and several spicy meals with the man who eventually becomes my Cinder fella. By the end of the book, I hope you’ll feel as though we’ve been chatting over a glass of wine or two at the kitchen table. As I share my experiences perhaps you’ll remember your own and reflect on them in a new light. We both feel a fire growing inside us that can help us weather life’s worst vintages and come out with stronger, deeper roots. Cheers, Natalie.
PS. Here’s the elevator pitch in that deep, husky movie announcer voice “A powerful writing a powerful memoir about how one woman resurrects her life and career in the glamorous but sexist wine industry. This is a true coming of middle age story about transforming your life and finding love along the way.”
Here’s a review from Steven Hollinger, a beta reader from St. Louis, Missouri. “Reading this book made me turn inward and reflect a lot over my career. Did I help facilitate some of the negative things Natalie writes about? If not, did I witness similar behaviours and what did I do or not do? My favourite aspects of this memoir: Natalie’s wit and intelligence, sense of humour in spite of everything. Her ability to get inside her head than out again. And sharing the experience of lessons learned. As a former wine snob, I find her writing superb. Her ability of self reflection while inviting the reader to think about their own experiences is unique and wonderful.
Thank you, Steven. I posted a link to a blog post called Diary of a Book Launch in the show notes at NatalieMaclean.com/209. This is where I share more behind the scenes stories about the journey of taking this memoir from idea to publication. If you want to win one of three signed copies of The Wine Bible, or if you want a more intimate insider seat beside me on this journey, please let me know that you’d like to become a beta reader and get a sneak peek at the manuscript. Email me for both at [email protected] Okay, on with the show.
Natalie MacLean 7:49
Time magazine called Karen MacNeil, “America’s missionary of the vine”. The former wine correspondent for The Today Show on NBC, Karen was also the host of the PBS series Food, Wine and Friends with Karen MacNeil. And she won an Emmy for that show. She is the creator and chairman emeritus of the Rudd Centre for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America, which has been called the Harvard of wine education. Karen has just published the third edition of The Wine Bible and it is the single best selling wine book in the United States, probably North America would venture, with more than a million copies sold. She joins us now from her home or office perhaps in Napa Valley. Karen, welcome. I’m so glad you’re here with us.
Karen MacNeil 8:36
Hi, Natalie. It’s just a pleasure to be with you. And I’m actually probably a little closer to you than I normally would be. I’m in a little cabin up in the Hudson River Valley of New York State. So it’s raining here, but it’s beautiful.
Natalie MacLean 8:52
So you’re already squaring yourself a way to work on the fifth edition, I guess. Just kidding. I can imagine what a feat. Okay, so before we dive in to The Wine Bible and your wine career, I would love to hear about your remarkable childhood, Karen. There were no books in your family home as I understand it and no one was even expected to finish high school. So what motivated you to excel academically?
Karen MacNeil 9:23
I don’t know. I did grow up very poor, and in a not very wonderful household to say the least. As you point out there were no books. There was no music. Was really a very difficult and almost oppressed well, very oppressive childhood. So much so that I ran away from home at the age of 14 and a half. Why anyone has will, determination, I am not sure. I do know that one of the things that helped me remarkably was that I was very good in school. I was a really diligent kid. And you know,school for me, most kids often don’t like going to school, I loved going to school. Every minute I could be out of my own house, and in an environment of learning was wonderful for me. So I would say that school saved me in a sense.
Natalie MacLean 10:22
It would probably be wasn’t a waste as if home life wasn’t so great. School was safe and you were affirmed for your assiduity for being a student. Okay, so you’re diagnosed with polio when you were just six years old and bedridden because of it as you mentioned you left home ran away at 14. How did you manage to convince a judge to let you live on your own at just 14 years old?
Karen MacNeil 10:47
Yeah, you know, you can’t legally live alone at that age. And I was terrified of being put in a foster home, which I nearly was. But because I was a good student, I was able to convince the judge – when I look back on this now I think oh my goodness – I was able to convince the judge to allow me to live on my own and his stipulations were as long as I could maintain a straight A average and support myself. And I thought, okay, I can do that. And so starting by this time, I turned about 15, by the time I was in front of the judge and you know he assigned me a parole officer who would check in with me every few months. And I worked in high school before school after school and two jobs on the weekends. And because I was terrified of that foster home, boy, I still maintained my A average. And the way this maybe connects to wine is so at age 15 you know I would be at night, but I would have a glass of wine as I was doing my homework. And I didn’t have any adults around to tell me not to. And to me, it seemed like the most civilized thing in the world to have a glass of wine. I mean, it had been almost shut in. So I don’t know how I got this idea, I think it was really from reading novels, that elegant people drank a glass of wine. Of course, I was drinking an 89 cent Bulgarian red.
Natalie MacLean 12:21
You got to start somewhere. Oh, that’s fabulous. What a remarkable story. I mean, this is like movie material, Karen, because we all know where you are now. That rise is incredible. So then at 19, you moved to New York City. What drew you to the Big Apple especially you were still very young?
Karen MacNeil 12:42
You know, we all are probably thankful for youth and naivety. Because if you really knew what you were in for right, you would never make certain decisions. But with a 19 year old brain, I decided that yes I should go to New York and I should try to be a writer. I had never taken a writing class. I didn’t graduate with a degree in journalism. But somehow I felt like writing was one of those things. Lucky for me that if you can do it, nobody asks you for your degree in journalism or what writing classes you took. Still it was really hard to break in to the New York publishing world and I lived in a fifth floor walk up in part of New York known as Hell’s Kitchen For good reason. Is that near Chelsea or where is that? Yeah. Today, it’s pretty nice. It is Chelsea, but in the 1970’s it was a kind of a scary place. And you know I collected 324 rejection slips which I thumbtacked to the wall of my apartment.
And I was writing about everything trying to get published, right. So I was working all day working. At night, I apprenticed myself to a literary agent for free. And then it late late night, I was writing articles about women’s issues and poetry and politics and all kinds of things. And nothing sold. And I looked at all those rejection slips every day. One day, I had this brilliant idea. I thought that I should try writing about food because I loved food. And also because I was on food stamps and my diet was terrible. Food Stamps don’t buy you a lot. But my theory was that if you started writing about food maybe people would give you samples. So I saw this as a way of improving my diet. And in fact, people did give you samples. And one day in those days in New York, there were a lot of Jewish delis. And in these Jewish delis, there would be enormous blocks like two feet by two feet white blocks. And the first time I saw one of these I asked this deli man what is that and he said like lady what part of America are you from. You kno, that’s butter. And I thought, wow. And these were fabulous farm stead butters. So I did a taste test from all these Jewish delis and I wrote a piece on butter that was published in The Village Voice was my first piece. I got paid $30. I was ecstatic. Ecstatic. I mean.
Natalie MacLean 15:20
It was a prestigious publication too.
Karen MacNeil 15:23
Yeah. And as you would know and anyone watching who’s a writer would know that you know all you need is that one first break in journalism. And then you can say to the next magazine, you know, my piece was just published in The Village Voice. And and so it goes. So yes, butter.
Natalie MacLean 15:43
Butter. It begins and ends with butter.
Karen MacNeil 15:45
I bought a bottle of champagne with my $30 and drank the whole thing. Which champagne? Pommery, I do remember that exactly.
Natalie MacLean 15:54
Wow. Wow. That is such a great, great start. Great story. So then you had I don’t know if this is chronological, but you had a stint at True Romance True Secrets magazine. How did that help you as a writer?
Karen MacNeil 16:07
Well, at this point I was you know able to get a few freelance pieces published every month. But that money – $30 notwithstanding – is certainly not enough to pay a New York City rent. And so I was still working every day as a telephone receptionist, as a maid, as a bus person in restaurants. And I decided I really had to get closer somehow to writing to publishing. And so I answered this ad one day in the newspaper for an assistant editor. Now, I had never been an editor. I had no idea. And so I went to this publishing house called McFadden Women’s Group and met with an editor and she said, okay I’m going to give you a piece and I want you to edit it, make sure you know, get every mistake that is in this piece. And so I said to her, I’m sure I could do that. I don’t know standard editing symbols, though. But I can mark everything that I think is wrong. And she said, that’s okay. We’ll teach you standard editing symbols later. But here you go. So I sat in this room. Anyway, I actually did edit the piece really well. And she said, okay you know now memorize these symbols. And then she said, we like your work, you’re hired. And then I discovered that I had just joined a group of women’s magazines that specialized in that one was called True Romance, True Secrets, True Love, True Experiences. There were seven crews. And they were in their day, unbelievable magazines. They had huge circulations. True Stories had a circulation of 5 million women, which was big in the 7os. And the only last upshot of this was, I remember, I got paid $125 a week. And I knew I wouldn’t make a whole lot of money because publishing is like writing you don’t. You know, you want to make money you I don’t know go into finance or something. But I was desperate to be good at writing the headlines of these articles. Because if you were a good headline writer, you got paid $25 for a week. I was desperate to be good at headlines and I was awful. So I never got the extra $25 a week.
Natalie MacLean 18:35
Well, I guess that would be sort of almost like click baity. But I guess that wasn’t your forte. You’re more I think you’re more in depth than that, Karen. And it worked out in the end for you. So you started to learn about wine while you were still in New York and in a really unusual way. How did that come about?
Karen MacNeil 18:51
Yes. You know at some point you a few years go by and I was now regularly published in food. It was the great heyday in the US of magazines. Gentleman’s Quarterly, Elle, Mirabella. New York was full, New York Magazine, full fabulous magazines. And so after a couple of years you know I was writing about food for the New York Times for all of the top magazines. And what I secretly realized though is I didn’t want to become I don’t know I didn’t want to try to become an expert in Italian food or French food. What I really loved and was fascinated by was the whole world of gastronomy, including beverages. Well you can you know the four great beverages of history are tea, coffee, beer, and wine. And I could teach myself about tea and coffee and beer. But wine was hard to teach yourself. The books that then existed were written by British authors. They were very dry. They assumed a familiarity with European geography that I didn’t have. And they were kind of classist you know. All of those writers let you know that they had gone to Oxford or Cambridge. And I couldn’t understand those books. And yet, there was also no way into the wine industry because there were no wine classes, even in New York. In those days, retailers didn’t do tastings couldn’t do tastings legally in New York. So there was no way in unless if you were a young person unless you had a lot of money or parents or someone who turned you on to great wine. And I didn’t have any of those things. So in back then, most of the wine writing in the whole country in all of the United States was controlled by five or six men. And they wrote for everybody, even the women’s magazines like Vogue where you would think a Vogue would have a woman wine writer, But no, a man wrote the Vogue column. And producers from all over the world would fly into New York to do tastings for these men, you know. Chianti Classico producers on Monday and the Port producers on Wednesday. It was astounding. So a friend of mine was one of these men and he knew how much I wanted to learn about wine. And so he asked the others if I could taste with them, if I could be a part of this group be invited to these tastings.
And was this Alexis Bespaloff?
Yeah, the late Alexis Bespaloff, a very wonderful writer and a wonderful man. And he convinced the others. And so the deal was yes I could come and taste with them on the condition I didn’t talk.
Natalie MacLean 21:40
Oh my gosh.
Karen MacNeil 21:44
I know it is unthinkable. I didn’t talk for many years. You know, I didn’t. Natalie, I didn’t want to talk as in give my opinion. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t have an opinion about wine. I didn’t know enough to have a good valid opinion about wine. But what I did want to do was ask these men questions. I was full of questions. I wanted to know why red wine was red, you know, every basic question in the universe. And the way this connects back thoug, is that I remembered late many years later, when I began to write the first line of The Wine Bible, I remembered so clearly all the issues that were confusing, all the questions I had had, everything that didn’t make sense to me. And The Wine Bible was in some ways formed around those questions which I knew if I had them lots of people had them. So anyway, I shouldn’t say this, but The Wine Bible has outsold all of the books that all of those men have written.
Natalie MacLean 22:45
Yay. Kudos to you. It’s outsold because of the, I mean, unparalleled scholarship and creativity that you invest in that book. I mean we’re going to get to that. But I mean that just is well deserved.
Karen MacNeil 23:01
Thank you. You know what I did really learn from these men though and I am so grateful for this. I learned sort of how to comport myself, how to think about wine. They were really good thinkers. They concentrated on wine enormously. They’d really loved wine. They were very serious. There was no chatting. It was not fun. You know they were really, truly professional in their demeanour. And I adopted that way of being because I wanted to be like them. And I’m really grateful for that.
Natalie MacLean 23:36
Yeah, it sounds like they were very rigorous in their tasting, like these different regions and people were coming into present. So that’s great, what a great foundational story for how The Wine Bible is kind of organized. So when and why did you decide to move from New York to Napa?
Karen MacNeil 23:54
Yes, one day two things happened. I was in the Rainbow Room, which had just been redone. The famous Rainbow Room. At top of Rockefeller. Yes, glorious views. It was all very fancy. And there I was at a black tie event. I had my small little purse with my little notebook inside the little purse. And I remember they had poured they were pouring this fantastic white Burgundy and I took out my notebook and was writing a note and all of a sudden the unreality of that hit me. I thought, what am I doing all dressed up in the Rainbow Room passing judgement on this wine when I’ve never been in this vineyard? I don’t know these people. I don’t know all the work that they went to. I should not be passing judgement on this wine. I am too far removed. I’m in a nightclub in New York. And at the same time in New York, I realized that for all of its wonderful nests as a place to be when you’re young, as I was getting older I was thinking ah I don’t know that I think New York is the place to get older. I mean, I was still very young at this point so I’m not sure why I was worried about that. But I became convinced that in order to be a better wine writer, I needed to be closer to grape vines. Even not making the wine myself that somehow being in and around vineyards would through osmosis or something would make me a better wine writer. And I think it has.
Natalie MacLean 25:44
Indeed, indeed. And so I guess, Napa at that time would have been the clear choice with back in the 70s or 80s, in terms of its development as opposed to Oregon or New York State or Washington.
Karen MacNeil 25:56
Yes, I could have gone anywhere, I suppose. But I knew a few people in Napa. I had visited on research trips and I thought I could live in Napa.
Natalie MacLean 26:07
We all could. We’ll live vicariously through you, Karen. So now let’s talk about The Wine Bible. Tell us the story of how it came to be, how it got its name, because that’s interesting, too.
Karen MacNeil 26:18
Yes. So one day I was sitting in my office, which was my apartment of course. New York, right. Very expensive. No one has a separate office. And the phone rang. And the person said, hello, this is Peter Workman. Would you like to have lunch? I was speechless. I mean I knew who Peter Workman was but I had never met him. He was a legend. He died about a decade ago. But he was a legend in New York publishing as being one of the most creative and astounding true publishers of great traditional New York publishers. And I said, okay, and he said great so maybe here. He gives this name of a lunch spot in Soho. So off I go. And he says, I really liked the article you wrote yesterday in the New York Times Magazine section. It was an article on food. An article on lobster rolls and New England sandwiches of all things, right. So he said, I love the way you write. So what book have you always wanted to do? And I thought, this cannot be happening to me. Because this is like sitting at the old idea of sitting at the drugstore counter and being discovered by Steven Spielberg. And I thought, oh my goodness. So I said, I don’t want to write a book. And he said, that is the wrong answer. Peter Workman and what book have you always wanted to write. And of course he was thinking that I would say, because he had read a food piece, that I would say I want to write a book on risotto or something, right? And I said, Okay, you’re right. That’s the wrong answer. I do want to write a book about wine. And he said, wine. Well, we’ve never published a book on wine. They were very famous for the silver palate cookbooks and so many other types of books but especially the Workman cookbooks are great. So anyway, he said okay wine all right wine it is. Can you have it ready in a year? And I said absolutely. I knew now I was supposed to say yes.
So anyway, the year’s up and I call them up. I said, Peter, I’m sorry but it’s not done. So he said, okay well take another year. Anyway, this went on for eight years. And every year we would go out to dinner. He loved wine. So we would go out to some fancy restaurant. He would take me out. We would order a great bottle of wine. And he would say, no promise me you’re not just sitting around in your pyjamas or something. I would be like, no. Peter, I promise you I’m really working on it. But it’s bigger than what we originally thought. So at the end of about now nine years, The Wine Bible’s done. It’s this big manuscript. And with great trepidation, I go down to his office and bring it to him. And I’m terrified at this point. Because what if you know the small advance money I had gotten at run out long ago. I essentially made six cents an hour for nine years writing this. And I thought, what if he doesn’t like it? You know, what will I do. Throw myself off the roof of the building. So anyway, I’m sitting there terrified, quiet. And he’s flipping through it. Just and his face is revealing nothing. And I’m thinking, oh God, I’m sunk. This is awful. Anyway, he looks up and he says it’s fantastic. And we’re going to call it The Wine Bible. And I said, absolutely not. First, thank you Peter but we can’t call it The Wine Bible. That is too big of a statement. I mean you know keep in mind that I’m not known at that point as a wine writer. I’m still known as a food writer. And I’m like, that’s too big. We can’t say that. And he said, well pparently you did not read your contract very well. Because if you did, you would know that a book’s title is considered part of its marketing not part of its content. So you actually don’t have a say. And he said, I trusted you for 10 years about everything that’s inside this book. Now you have to trust me. And he was right.
Natalie MacLean 30:41
Yes he was. It becomes The Wine Bible. Is like an audacious title. But obviously, it has lived up to that title. But it just reminds me the other day, I heard the story how John Legend got his name. Probably not a good comparison. But anyway, he was John Stevens but another musician said, no you’ve got to have a big stage name. He goes absolutely not. And then he thought about it that. No, I’ll live up to it. And you and the book certainly have lived up to this big title. Alright, so now it’s in its third edition, more than 700 pages, covering all the major regions on the planet, with maps and food pairings and glossaries. It’s in colour, it’s gorgeous, and yet not intimidating. So this is the third edition you talked about. The first edition was eight years. And you had a second edition, obviously. How long did it take to create the third edition?
Karen MacNeil 31:34
The writing only took five years? So I’m getting so fast.
Natalie MacLean 31:39
Wow. You’re just speeding along there, Karen.
Karen MacNeil 31:42
Yeah, I’m just speeding along. But you know there are two reasons why. One is the world of wine is now a big place. It’s a really big place. It’s a very global place. And second of all, I’m a very rigorous researcher. I will spend two weeks on one little fact within a sentence within 30,000 sentences to be sure that I know something really right. And you know The Wine Bible also in a sense it doesn’t cut any corners most. I’ll give you an example. I mean most people would say something like: when wine glasses were invented, comma, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah is true. The Wine Bible’s sentence would be: when wine glasses were invented in 1615, comma, da da da da da is true.. Terrific. I mean, it’s really laced through with really concrete information, even in the simplest sentence. And so it takes you out to figure those things. Absolutely.
Natalie MacLean 32:47
And yet, it’s more useful because of the density of information that is still not yet overwhelming.And let’s talk about this. How does it compare, what makes it different do you think from the big tomes, the major works that are out there, a lot of which come from the UK but elsewhere as well? What makes The Wine Bible different in your opinion?
Karen MacNeil 33:08
Well, two things. It’s the first big American book. In a sense, it’s the first big book that was not done by a Brit or someone in Europe. And that may seem like it doesn’t make very much difference. But I think we have, and I will include Canada in this, we have a different way of being. It’s different in North America than it is in any of the European countries or in Great Britain. The books that you and I would have first had were often very much wine tomes. They had stripped out food and culture and fascinating side issues and history and religion and art. And for me, it was all those things that made wine makes sense. You know I wanted to know that I don’t know, in New Zealand, there are 25 sheep for every winemaker or I don’t know.
Natalie MacLean 34:10
I love those fun facts that sparks a conversation. Like someone can carry that off to dinner and say did you know?
Karen MacNeil 34:16
Yes. And they’re revealing of a place. They’re revealing of a culture. And in a sense they’re revealing of all of that kind of material is revealing of terroirs and communities. So I put all that stuff back in to a big book. I also think that there’s an underlying. In many of the big books in the past, there is an underlying elitism. I was at Petrus tasting the 1982. Too bad you weren’t there.
Natalie MacLean 34:52
That sort of wine porn or whatever you want to call it. Like sometimes we get that on social media. It’s like it’s not useful. It’s just too bad you don’t have my life.
Karen MacNeil 35:01
Exactly. And I think you know in North America, we are less inclined to think in that classist way. I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge. I wasn’t on their wine teams. I didn’t have a father who had cellars of vintage Port. And so I think that my more conversational and modern tone I would call it a more modern tone. It just resonated more quickly with people. They’re like, wow, this this woman is really. She’s a woman like me. And people write to me and my team all the time saying I just love the conversational way you write about wine, as if I’m sitting right there in the kitchen with you. And that always makes me feel great.
Natalie MacLean 35:52
Absolutely. And that’s what makes it approachable. Because you don’t have to read it from start to finish. You can just open it anywhere. And you know these little quick facts and sidebars are just like snippets of conversation. I love that. Like an aside that you might have at a dinner party. It’s just, I mean, you can start anywhere. So it’s not like, oh, gosh, where do you know? When am I gonna have time to read that? It’s really approachable. Although you know approachable sometimes has a bad rap as a word and so it is breezy when it comes to books or wine. So I don’t mean it in that way. I just mean it’s not so overwhelming that you wouldn’t want to dive into it anywhere.
Karen MacNeil 36:32
Yes and you know I think, too, that most wine books are either sort of for beginners and then they talk almost in baby talk to you. Or they are for people who are so well grounded in wine already that only they can even read a paragraph and know what’s going on. And so The Wine Bible also was one of the first books that spanned knowledge levels. It was you know fascinating. And like beginners would say wow I didn’t know that you realize this is how this works. This is so interesting. And at the same time, it was so academically rich that people who really knew their wine also were fascinated. Because almost everybody’s wine knowledge is very Swiss cheese like. You know you might know a lot about Napa cabernet but know nothing about Austrian Gruner Veltliner or the reverse or whatever. So The Wine Bible was very solid. Even people who knew a lot about something would be immediately intrigued by other chapters that they didn’t necessarily know a lot about.
Natalie MacLean 37:44
Yeah, it’s holistic. And the world of wine is growing. So what was the hardest thing to leave out? Was there a particular region or topic that you just said I can’t do this or this is going to be you know seven volumes?
Karen MacNeil 37:56
Yes. Someone the other day asked me where’s the Wisconsin chapter? I said, its in the Cheese Bible. I mean I’m sorry, Wisconsin, and I’m sorry, Romania, and Bulgaria, too. You’re not in there. But you know not to truly make fun of that because wine so many interesting wines are made in even you know places that are not covered widely. But I had to leave something out because it’s already more than 700 pages. And at some point, when a book becomes close to that publishers can’t bind it very easily. And they want to put it into two volumes. Well if you put a book into two volumes, you may as well cut your sales you know down by nine tenths because people just don’t want to carry around two volumes. They don’t want to take two volumes with them on their vacation to Italy. They don’t want to take two volumes and throw it in their trunk so that when you’re going around to wineries they can flip through it. So I didn’t want a two volume book. And I had to leave out places that I felt I could in part because perhaps like Romania and Bulgaria for example those wines are not widely distributed in North America.
Natalie MacLean 39:13
So true, relevancy does help especially if you’re primarily targeting a North American audience, even though the book is sold worldwide. So you had to taste, if I have this numbers correctly, you taste about 8000 wines for the research for this edition, costing more than $168,000. How did you manage that?
Karen MacNeil 39:32
It was not easy. Because one of the things that I have worked hard to do over 20 years now of writing about wine is to have sort of the golden Rolodex. I’m sure you’re the same right over time. You get to know at one point these were Rolodexes, now they’re in our computers but you have contacts worldwide. Do you know who to call to get certain facts and or certain wines even? And when Covid happened all of a sudden, everyone’s Rolodex sort of fell apart because now the person who you were trying to reach in Tuscany who used to head up the Chanti Classico consortium, there was no Chianti Classico consortium. Now it was shut down and people had moved on. And so all of a sudden finding who was who and where people were and how you could get access to both wine and information was much harder. But luckily, I think importers and of course I couldn’t travel it which was. I mean I had done a lot of the travelling for Wine Bible three. Luckily I did before COVID. But in order to get wines to taste, whether they were sent to me as samples or I had to buy them, either way I had to contact importers directly. And even then sometimes the wines that we needed to taste were held up on container ships somewhere in the Atlantic or in the Pacific. So it was one of the reasons this Wine Bible took even five years to was just getting access to all of the great wines of the world was harder than it had ever been before.
Natalie MacLean 41:29
But you don’t shy away from challenges though, Karen. So I guess you you muscled your way through it.
Natalie MacLean 41:40
Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my chat with Karen. Here are my takeaways. Number one, I loved hearing the behind the scenes stories of what it took to create The Wine Bible, especially with so many entries and maps and photos and illustrations. Two, I know that from personal experience, The Wine Bible is a much different read from other popular wine tomes. It’s far more engaging and conversational. And three, Karen is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. And she used that scrappy tenacity to press through the pandemic to complete this major work.
In the show notes, you’ll find my email contact, the full transcript of my conversation with Karen, links to her website and books, and where you can find the live stream video version of these conversations on Facebook and YouTube Live every Wednesday at 7pm. You’ll also find a link to my free Ultimate Guide to Wine and Food Pairing. That’s all in the show notes at NatalieMaclean.com/209. Email me if you have a sip, tip, question, or would like to win one of three signed copies of The Wine Bible, or want to be a beta reader of my new memoir at [email protected] Maclean.com. You won’t want to miss next week when we continue our chat with Karen. In the meantime, if you missed episode 91 go back and take a listen. That’s my first interview with Karen from two years ago. She shares some great stories during that chat too. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite.
Karen MacNeil 43:16
A couple of things that I notice are a proliferation now of business cards and organisztions that are things like Wine Goddesses, Wine Chicks, Wine Witch. The most recent one, which I don’t think I shared with you, but just stopped me in my tracks said Wine Ho. I mean, I didn’t. I felt like my whole body just crumbled when I saw that. And I thought language is very powerful. Language marginalizes. Why anyone would demean themselves by using these kinds of terms. I don’t know, can you ever become the CEO of a wine company if you’re a wine chick. Maybe, but I wouldn’t vote yes.
Natalie MacLean 44:16
If you liked this episode, please email or tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who’d be interested in the wines, tips, and stories we shared. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week. Perhaps a complex California wine in honour of Karen.
Natalie MacLean 44:41
You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full body bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at NatalieMaclean.com/subscribe. Meet me here next week.
Unknown Speaker 44:59