Missionary of the Vine

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Wine is not a drink normally associated with Texas barbecue, which is exactly why Karen MacNeil was at Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano, Texas, pouring bottles of it for a group of ribs-chomping patrons. "Now, that's good. I can't believe that's wine," said a brawny man as he sipped a glass of California sparkling wine in place of his normal beer. MacNeil, author of the best-selling book The Wine Bible and host of a series on wine that debuted in the fall on public television, was delighted. Turning the average American on to wine is her mission in life.

Although the U.S. is the fourth largest producer in the world, most Americans are still uncomfortable with wine. The nation ranks No. 34 internationally in terms of per capita consumption. The French, No. 2, drink more than six times as much, according to Adams Beverage Group, an industry research group. (Natives of tiny Luxembourg top the list.) MacNeil, 50, who has been writing about wine for 25 years, says the U.S. is still developing its own approach to wine. "We aren't France, with its cafes where you hang out and sip wine. Nor do we like the rather pedantic British approach to wine, with its superior manner of discussing vintages." Instead, she says, Americans are seeking a more casual relationship with wine drinking, something she hopes to encourage in her 13-part TV show, Wine, Food & Friends.


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In each episode, MacNeil, who is in charge of the wine-teaching program at the Napa Valley, Calif., campus of the Culinary Institute of America, introduces wine to a different audience: a Mexican cooking school, couples on first dates in restaurants, shoppers at a cheese store. Instead of delivering lectures and lapsing into winespeak, she relies on the spontaneous reactions of her guests to get her message across. When she does talk about wine, she uses unconventional, even coquettish language: a Cabernet is "like Sean Connery, masculine and meaty"; a Sauvignon Blanc is "the bad girl of white wine, with mismatched earrings and stiletto heels."

"Karen brings wine down to earth but is still serious about it. She demystifies and educates at the same time," says Doug Shafer, president of Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley, whose Cabernet Sauvignon MacNeil has compared to the sensation of wearing "cashmere pajamas."

MacNeil wasn't born with a silver corkscrew in her hand. She grew up in a working-class Boston family, contracted polio at 15 months and was paralyzed until she was 8. MacNeil ran away from home at 14 and put herself through high school in Reno, Nev., by waiting tables in a coffee shop and cleaning hotel rooms on weekends. At 16 she began having a glass of cheap wine with dinner every night, an escape from her daily struggle to survive. "When you have no money, food and drink become an inordinate pleasure," she says. In 1972 she drove across the country to New York City with $6 in her pocket "to become a writer."

Her first article — published in the Village Voice — was about the best New York delis in which to buy butter, and it sparked a career-forming epiphany. "I realized this was what I loved, the world of flavor," she says. She educated herself about the industry by writing food and wine articles for women's magazines and making trips to wine-producing regions in Europe. In those days, wine was very much a man's world. MacNeil found herself excluded from tastings and was once left waiting for three hours at an airport by Spanish winemakers who, unaccustomed to the idea of a woman wine writer, overlooked her in the terminal. But dogged perseverance finally got her admitted to the inner circle of wine critics, and in 1991 she signed a contract to write a book on wine for Workman Publishing Co. in New York City. MacNeil ended up spending 10 years on the project, producing the 900-plus-page Wine Bible in 2001. The book, which covers in an unpretentious style all aspects of making, drinking and enjoying wine, has sold 246,000 copies and is in its 10th printing. MacNeil's entire life is defined by wine — she even lives at a vineyard in Napa Valley with her winemaking husband Dennis Fife. And although individual wine consumption is gradually increasing in the U.S.--up 11.2% since 1991--that is not fast enough for MacNeil. "It is as if most of the world didn't know about chocolate," she says. "You want to tell everyone about it."