Sunset's wine columnist offers a magnum of wisdom

Savor a new book of tips and more
SARA SCHNEIDER

Karen MacNeil has voiced her expertise about wine in this column for four years. From aromas to corks to vintages, she has explained wine's enigmas for connoisseurs and novices alike.

Behind the scenes, MacNeil has been writing a comprehensive book on the subject, from growing to making to understanding wines worldwide through history, culture, and food. For once, she got all the space she wanted to bring her passion to the technicalities of wine. The Wine Bible ― nearly 10 years in the making and more than 900 pages long ― will be in stores October 1 (Workman Publishing, New York, 2001; $19.95; 212/254-5900 or www.workman.com). In it, wine is alive ― scientific and sensual at once. And drinking it becomes a simple, unpretentious, delightful practice. Below are a few excerpts from MacNeil's pragmatic advice.

Buying wine

If you're trying to describe to the clerk the kinds of wines you like and you're at a loss for words, think about foods. Wines can be big and juicy like a steak; fresh and light like a salad; or spicy and bold like a Mexican sauce. It isn't necessary to use technical wine terms; in fact, they can get in the way. One day, wanting an adventure, I asked a wine clerk to give me a wine like Robin Williams. Amazingly enough, and without a minute's hesitation, he did.

Storing wine

Wine doesn't care if it's stored in a $10,000 custom-built cellar, in a damp basement, or between shoes in the closet, as long as three things are true: (1) The environment is cool. (2) The bottle is lying on its side or upside down (but not standing upright). (3) There is no direct sunlight.

Pairing wine with food

Beginning in the 1980s, wine and food pairing became something of a national sport. Restaurants offered wine and food dinners.... It was all very exciting. But as time went on, what started out as an exploration meant to heighten enjoyment began to border on the neurotic.

The problem with this sort of approach is that it has very little connection ― today or historically ― to how we actually behave when we cook, eat, and drink.... We sometimes choose wines as much to match the mood as the food.

That said, it's certainly true that extraordinary flavor affinities do exist, and that most of us have had at least a few of those "wow" moments when the wine and food combination was unbelievably good. How do you create those moments?

Ultimately, taste preferences are highly individual. So where does that leave us?... Squarely in the realm of instinct. People who pair wine and food together well don't have a set of rules as much as they have good instincts. And good instincts can be acquired. It's simply a matter of drinking lots of different kinds of wines with different kinds of dishes and paying attention to the principles that emerge. After years of doing precisely that, here's what I've discovered:

• Pair great with great, humble with humble.

• Match delicate to delicate, robust to robust.

• Decide if you want to mirror a given flavor or set up a contrast.

• Think about flexibility.... Though chardonnay is wildly popular, it's one of the least flexible white wines with food.... For maximum flexibility, go with a sauvignon blanc or a dry German or Alsatian riesling.... The most flexible red wines either have good acidity, such as Chianti, red Burgundy, and California and Oregon pinot noir, or they have loads of fruit and not a lot of tannin.

• Saltiness in food is a great contrast to acidity in wine.... Saltiness is also a stunning contrast to sweetness.

• Desserts that are sweeter than the wine they accompany make the wine taste dull and blank.... Wedding cake, for example, can ruin just about anything in a glass, though happily, no one's paying attention anyway.

The price is right

Realize that no price is too little. You don't have to spend a fortune to drink good wine.... Wine professionals often buy very reasonably priced wines. [They] care about what's inside the bottle and the cheaper the price, the better. It's often people who don't know a lot about wine who pay enormous amounts for it, hoping that price will be some sort of assurance. It doesn't really work that way. Unlike cars and stereo systems, there are very good wines at all prices.

Sunset's Wine Club