The Second Defining Element of Great Wine

To me, all great wines have flavors—whatever those flavors are—that are precise, well-defined, and expressive. So in this, the second installment of my series, What Makes Great Wine Great? I want to address what I call precision in wine.


Imagine an old style radio where you can dial in the frequency. If you don’t dial in perfectly, you can still hear the music, but the sounds integrity is lost in static. However, when you get the frequency just right, the music takes on a special beauty because it is precise.


Wine works the same way. I can’t tell you the number of wines that miss the mark on greatness—not because they had raspberry flavors when there should have been cherry or something as silly as that—but because the wine in question was muddled, dulled and diffused.


Interestingly, sensory scientists themselves often analogize flavor to sound. Is flavor X a whisper or a shout? they will ask in an experiment. Using sound as a metaphor, I would offer that a great wine has a flavor that is the precision equivalent of a church bell in the mountains. In fact, I once shared my theory with Aubert de Villaine, the proprietor of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy, France. He smiled. “A church bell in the mountains, but only in the morning,” he advised.


What can cause a wine to lack precision? Too much alcohol and too much oak are leading culprits. But given two well-made wines from two above-average vineyards in the same good year, it is not clear why one wine might be more precise in flavor than the other. There is only the final experiential evidence that one wine indeed IS more precise than the other, and that such precision demarcates a great vineyard site.


I’m sure the monks of Burgundy would have thought so. And please tell me what YOU think… leave me a post.



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The Biggest Wine Question of All Time

I’ve always found it remarkable that few wine books address the issue of what makes great wine great. That’s probably the biggest WINE QUESTION of all time…yet, startlingly, almost no one talks about it. Fifteen years ago, I started thinking a lot about this idea, and back then, I came up with five characteristics that I thought all great wines shared. I wrote about them in the original Wine Bible.


I have since expanded my thinking. I now think there are nine characteristics that all great wines share. The NEW Wine Bible, out in the Fall of 2015, will have a chapter devoted to them. But, here as a preview, is a series I call The Elements of Greatness. In this video series, l’ll blog about each one of the nine elements of greatness, starting with the first one—distinctiveness. I hope you enjoy the video.





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As every wine store in the country fills up with Champagne and sparkling wine, I’m still left wondering why an estimated 40% of all sparklers are sold between now and New Year’s. Forty percent! That means people (at least, Americans) still think of bubbles as celebratory…and not for every night drinking. What a shame. Is there any question that Champagne is one of the best wines with a whole range of common dishes from creamy cheeses to grilled salmon?


I admit, I’m a big fan of sparkling wine and Champagne. I have drunk a glass of bubbly every night for the last 25 years. (Doing so has been, among other things, indispensable to motherhood; and the source of all patience.)


Still, the idea of Champagne-only-for-the-holidays drives me crazy. I’ve come up with a few theories as to why we’re stuck on that idea. But first, I want to know your thoughts.


And check out my piece on this topic in the October issue of The Tasting Panel Magazine.


Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for lots of fun and educational tidbits and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more great videos.

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The Back Label: 10,000 Hours Works Magic

Have you ever worried about how you’ll remember a wine’s flavors and aromas after several days have passed?  Well, as it turns out, all it takes is 10,000 hours.

What’s your favorite method for remembering the taste of your favorite wines? Leave me a comment and let me know.

Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for lots of fun and educational tidbits and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more great videos.

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On The Voice of a Place and On Being Swept Away

Swept away by Quintessa


Today I had a moment that jolted me back to an essential emotion in wine. It was early in the morning and I was having coffee with Agustin Huneeus (senior) who along with his wife Valeria and son Agustin, own the Napa Valley estate Quintessa.

I remember the first time I drove by Quintessa’s “front door”—an immense stone arc wedged into an entire hillside. Immense and rugged, it seemed to whisper: deep inside here lies something you want to taste.

It was an invitation from a rock–and thus, as I’ve come to understand–the best kind of invitation possible.

Because it was the place that spoke.

No one knows better than a wine journalist how cliché this can be. Even some fifteen dollar merlots have back labels heralding the wine inside the bottle as an “expression of a place.”

After 35 years in the wine business, though, I have come to know irrevocably that most wines are not in fact the “voice of a particular vineyard.” They may be good wines, they may even give a lot of pleasure.

But only great vineyards have a distinctive character that can actually be felt, intuited, realized.  In a great vineyard, you can stand on that ground and feel the current going through you—sometimes before you ever even taste the wine.

Agustin said it best. In the Napa Valley where making the best possible cabernet sauvignon is what nearly everyone talks about (and it’s a worthy goal), he has only ever wanted something else. He has wanted to witness the flavor of Quintessa; to see what the place wanted to reveal.

The same is true of Bill Harlan (owner of Harlan Estate and BOND), who at age 74 has just bought more than 850 acres of rough, secluded woodland high in the Mayacamas mountains of Napa Valley to plant vineyards to make a new wine called Promontory. Walking the ridges that bordered the property, he could feel that this piece of ground had something pent up inside it. Something that could be (needed to be) captured and expressed through wine.

That is great wine’s mystery and miracle. What else allows us to taste the earth so intimately? Grape varieties, presses, barrels, winemaking techniques–and everything else that constitutes contemporary wine talk—are rungs way down on the ladder of importance. They are means not ends.

And so I for one, want to stand in more vineyards and just try to listen; I want to taste more wines and hope to be swept away by the sense of the place.

Please see my article on this in an upcoming issue of The Tasting Panel magazine, and check out my regular column “One Woman’s View” in Somm Journal.


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The Amazing World of Long Meadow Ranch

Bill, Bob and Lucy the draft horses at Long Meadow Ranch

I just spent the day with Ted Hall who I think is among the top ten game-changers who are advancing the culture of wine and food in America. Hall, a Stanford MBA and longtime McKinsey executive, owns Long Meadow Ranch, a project he started with his family 25 years ago. Project is the only word I can think of but culio-vinosphere is probably better.

I caught up with Hall in his offices above the LMR winery/olive oil facility. Behind him on the bookshelf were two hefty volumes. Alas, not Robert Parker’s The World’s Greatest Wine Estates, but rather: Practical Stock Doctor (not a Wall St. term) and Keeping Livestock Healthy. The books speak volumes for Hall is at the epicenter of a new way of thinking about food, wine, and our connection to the earth. This idea is sometimes called Farm to Table, but it’s rarely executed with complete integrity. (No chef, you can’t put tomatoes on your hamburgers in January if you’re really a Farm to Table advocate). Hall not only walks the talk, but he’s created a completely integrated loop. His friend Peter McCrae, owner of Stony Hill Winery, calls the Long Meadow Ranch universe an “Organic Conglomerate.” It includes several hundred head of cattle (and lambs) who feed on grasses that grow on Hall’s lands that aren’t perfect for wine grapes or olive orchards. The vineyards are 100% organic and have been since the late 1980s, and the vines are part of an integrated system with thousands of olive trees. Both crops share the same tractors and production facilities (made of rammed earth), and both benefit from the ranch’s extensive composting system. Nitrogen-fixing cover crops are extensive and vegetable gardens are everywhere. And what to do with all this bounty? In 2010 Hall opened Farmstead restaurant—a restaurant that is now so packed that virtually every bit of the ranches’ grass fed beef and organic vegetables go to support it.

Sitting in Farmstead today, I watched as many people (including me) enjoyed the sensational steak tartare—raw, knife-chopped beef with capers, mustard, and a raw egg. This is a dish I used to eat in the French countryside 30 years ago but would not think of eating anywhere in the U.S. today because our food now travels too far through too many chemical and bacterial worlds before it gets to us.

But I had just seen the bulls wandering near the vines at Long Meadow Ranch, and just watched the chickens in their large coops near the vegetable garden. It was like Europe a century ago, when food and wine were fulfilling and satisfying… when there was no fear that what gave you life could also make you sick. And so, at Farmstead, steak tartare has come back to us and in that coming back is a whole new future.

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The Back Label – Sauvignon Blanc on Valium

Welcome to my brand new video series, “The Back Label with Karen MacNeil.” Check out my YouTube Channel and learn how stiletto heels and cat piss relate to one of summer’s most drinkable wines.

And remember these informative videos and much more, are available every Wednesdays and Saturdays for your learning and enjoying pleasures.

Finally, I’m active on Twitter (@KMacWine) and Facebook, so friend and follow me to stay up to date with my activities in the wine world, and please encourage your students and colleagues to do so as well!

My best,


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My Conversation with Antoine–The Future of Araujo


Araujo Estate Eisele Vineyards

Last week I met with Antoine Donnedieu de Vabres, CFO and acting general manager of Araujo, under its new ownership by Bordeaux’s Chateau Latour. The acquisition—for an undisclosed amount rumored to be around $80 million—took place last June. But Araujo has been a largely silent place since then. Indeed, when I visited, I didn’t expect to do much more than simply meet Antoine. The two hour conversation and tasting that ensued surprised even me.

I will write a longer piece on Latour’s Araujo for the inaugural issue of SOMM JOURNAL this June. But, here are a few small excerpts of my conversation with Antoine.

KM: Many consider Araujo the equivalent of a Napa Valley First Growth. What are Chateau Latour’s plans for the estate?

AD: This estate is a place to which we can relate. Araujo wines have always been wines of balance and finesse. We are not going to change that. There is no revolution happening. The Eisele Vineyard in particular was in perfect condition when we bought it.

KM: There have been surprisingly few French acquisitions or start-ups in the Napa Valley. For Chateau Latour, why now?

AD: Napa Valley is at an interesting point in its evolution. There is a lot of history here, but the valley is simultaneously building its future. At the same time, this is a moment in Chateau Latour’s life when it is not afraid to expand its horizons, and to take an adventure apart from Pauillac and apart from France.

At the end of the conversation, we tasted four Araujo wines including the 2012 Eisele Sauvignon Blanc, and the not-yet-released 2011 Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon. Here are my notes:

ARAUJO Eisele Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (Napa Valley, CA) $100
Simply gorgeous. Napa Valley’s answer to Haut Brion Blanc. Absolutely no green flavor whatsoever, but rather an explosion of minerals, salt, brine, and something akin to dried flowers. More round and less taut than many past vintages…which only serves to make it feel more hedonistic. This is one of the SBs (along with Rudd, Vineyard 29, Arietta, Quintessa and others) forging a new, top-class direction for SB in Napa Valley.

ARAUJO Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (Napa Valley, CA) $ to be determined; the 2010 Eisele was $450
A great cabernet has the power to consume you… it seems like it’s drinking you rather than the other way around. Every atom of this wine screams purity, intensity and aliveness. For me, however, the best part of all was the fact that (what I call) the wine’s “center of gravity” was way back. The wine made you wait and wait and wait—almost as if you were drinking it in slow motion—before the luscious finish finally began to arrive

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Exciting New Projects Afoot!

Karen MacNeil, author The Wine Bible

Dear Friends and Fellow Wine Lovers,

I have a score of exciting new projects in the works right now. Check them out:

• The NEW Wine Bible—after 5 years of research, writing and tasting 10,000 wines, I FINISHED IT! Look for it to come out Spring 2015. The old Wine Bible, still going strong, is the best selling wine book of all time in the U.S.

• “Bible Study with Sister Karen”—a hilarious new way of wine education Saturday-Night-Live style. Check it out on my YouTube channel and subscribe to see all of Sister Karen’s fascinating and hysterical wine lessons.

The Wine Bible Interactive Facebook page: Fascinating facts on wine, contests (you could win!) and more.

• Cab on the Couch with Karen MacNeil—Think The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson meets modern wine. With a no holds barred approach, I interview the top names in the wine biz as they sit on a couch, live on stage. A perfect event to embed in a larger wine festival.

• Improving Your Sensory Ability—a new interactive, fun seminar joins the roster of one-of-a-kind interactive seminars I give for corporations as well as small consumer groups. Let me devise a private seminar for YOU. Please contact

Finally, I’m active on Twitter (@KMacWine) and Facebook, so friend and follow me to stay up to date with my activities in the wine world, and please encourage your students and colleagues to do so as well!

My best,


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What Green Means

At the fantastic New Zealand Winegrowers master class and tasting on Tuesday with Oz Clarke, Ted Lemon, and Mike Weersing, I found myself thinking about what green means. Anyone who comes away from a tasting of New Zealand sauvignon blancs has probably written the word 20 times on their tasting sheet. (I certainly have). But it’s clearly ridiculous to use the single word “green” to cover a huge range (and quality) of wines. So, when it comes to sauvignon blanc, what does green really mean and can’t we telescope down to metaphors that are more specific? More on this in a moment…

First a pet peeve. The same sophomoric approach to green in sauvignon blanc extends to cabernet. I hear people all the time—people who should know better—use green pejoratively to mean that the cabernet in question is de facto poor quality. Hello? Green is woven into the DNA of cabernet’s flavor. And why is it that a sense of garigue (dry resinous herbs), chaparral, pine, green tobacco, sage—or any other of a myriad of greens—is bad? These constitute many of the flavors that reverberate through great Bordeaux. But some would say these are inferior…My god; should everything have to taste like cherries? I hope not.

Back to sauvignon blanc, I recently made myself a chart of the good ways in which green can manifest itself. (The wines I tasted yesterday, reflected many of them.) I’m sharing the chart below.

What suggestions for additions do you have? I’d love to get a conversation started about “good green”!

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