IF ZINFANDEL WERE a guy, most women would want to date him. That is how Karen MacNeil likes to talk about wine. It is the relaxed tone that runs through her 13-part public television series, Wine, Food & Friends. It airs in the Baltimore area on Maryland Public Television at 1 p.m. Saturdays.
She can speak in another voice, that of the published expert, author of The Wine Bible (Workman Publishing Co., 2001, $19.95), a woman conversant with Brix, astringency and malolactic fermentation. That voice can be heard at the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America in California's Napa Valley, where she teaches. It is one she might use with her husband, Napa Valley winemaker Dennis Fife, discussing one of his vintages.
I have heard both and, like many kitchen sippers, am more comfortable with her casual mode, the one that demystifies wine.
I like, for example, her ploy of matching the personalities of movie stars with characteristics of different types of wine. Julia Roberts, MacNeil says, is "as sweetly irresistible and as un-threatening as a luscious large-harvest riesling." Tom Hanks, she says, is a merlot, an "everyman with whom all of us are very comfortable."
I spoke with MacNeil by phone a few days before she flew into Baltimore in mid-March to promote her television series and to preside over a dinner at the Charleston restaurant given by chef Cindy Wolf and her husband, Tony Foreman. I also heard her speak to a gathering of wine writers in the Napa Valley during a symposium that I attended there earlier in March.
When describing a wine, she says, she has a vision of who is listening, of who the audience is. When she depicted zinfandel as a hunk, she was, she said, writing an article for the readers of California's Sunset magazine, an audience she figured was primarily female.
Her Public Broadcasting Service series has episodes pairing wines with Texas barbecue and with Mexican food, and offers wine tips for dating couples. The audience for this series, MacNeil thinks, is composed of people who are "intelligent but not in the wine business. They live well, but are not affluent, and are looking for some friendly advice about wine." That depiction, Dan Sonnett tells me, is an accurate representation of him and his wife, Shannon. The Sonnetts, who live in Upper Marlborough, appear in an episode of Wine, Food & Friends in which MacNeil helps the couple construct a wine pantry in their basement.
MacNeil insists on calling it a wine pantry, not a wine cellar, because "the idea is not that you are gathering wines for a collection, but rather something to have on hand so you don't have to run to the store every time you need a bottle of wine."
Sonnett says he and his wife bought into the pantry concept because it fit their stage of life and they liked MacNeil's unceremonious approach.
"We want to have enough knowledge about wine to have some fun with it," Sonnett says. "We are not saving up for a real expensive bottle. If somebody went down to our pantry and opened a bottle, we wouldn't lose any sleep over it."
Sonnett and his wife operate a video production company, Sonnett Media Group, in Silver Spring and have an 18-month-old son, Tyler. As Sonnett spoke with me on the telephone last week, in the background I could hear his son pulling pots and pans from kitchen cabinets.
"At this phase of our lives, when we have people over, entertaining becomes very casual," Sonnett said. "If we talked about the `espresso flavor' of pinot noir, our friends would probably look at us sideways, like we have had too many," Sonnett said.
The experience of putting together the wine pantry has given him confidence, Sonnett said. "We found a pocket of wine we like, sauvignon blancs from New Zealand, and we are exploring around that."
Being featured on the television series (they were referred by an acquaintance who knew someone on the Wine, Food & Friends production team) also netted him a nice wine rack and about a case of free wine left over from the filming. Now that he has a pantry, he said he tends to buy wine in bulk, about once a month.
But more than anything else, the time they spent hanging out with MacNeil, the laid-back expert, has given him and his wife a fresh, liberating slant on wine, he said.
"I realized that it's not about being king, knowing more than anyone else. It is about finding new ways to enjoy wine."
Back in California, MacNeil admits that when she leads her culinary students through the forest of wine, she lies. Initially she tells them it is very easy, that anybody can learn about wine. Later she tells them that there are complexities. But by then, they are confident and more than willing to trudge onward, she says.
She takes the same slant with her television show. "People love to learn," MacNeil says, "but they don't want to be preached at."