Karen MacNeil, 5.31.19
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
A little more than 40 years. I started in New York City in the 1970s where I had moved to try to become a writer. I lived in a fifth floor walk-up in Spanish Harlem. After collecting 324 rejection slips, my first article sold to the Village Voice newspaper. The article was on butter (of all things). That piece opened the door and within a few years I was writing about food and wine for many national publications.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
When I began there were no wine schools or classes. There was no way to actually learn about wine other than try to read the great British critics like Michael Broadbent. The situation was especially hard if (like me) you had very little money to buy wine experimentally. Nonetheless, I decided that there had to be some sort of way to grasp this incredible world and so I began to study wine on my own. At the time I was drinking Bulgarian reds, Liebfraumilch, and anything else that cost less than $1 a bottle in a wine store.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Teaching people about wine in an easy-to-understand way.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
Name any of them and I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced them. The 1980s and 1990s were a very sexist time and I was one of only a handful of women in wine on the East Coast.
How can we as women become aware of our prejudice and change our behavior?
Start simply by being self aware.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
Dozens of studies now show that teams operate better, more efficiently and at a higher level when women are involved. I also hope we’ll have more humane workplaces.
What change do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
More women in high paid leadership positions.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
Dress like the CEO from Day One. I know it’s not politically correct at the moment to suggest that women should tame the way they dress. But I think it’s naïve to assume you can negotiate a contract or salary (especially your own) wearing spaghetti straps and a short skirt. Every top professional—men as well as women—learn to “look the part.” I’d also say women should develop the ability to look intently and directly at people and not look away when they talk. And develop a strong handshake. A limp handshake is death in any business.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
Equal pay for equal work. Access to the same exciting opportunities.
What ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
I try to hire women and women from different ethnic backgrounds. When I choose people to be on panels with me, I always try to choose a few women as well as men.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
I’m afraid I don’t like the phrase “Wonder Woman.” It reminds me of a comic book character. To get ahead, women can’t become caricatures.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
Zelma Long, Cathy Corison, Celia Welch, Beth Novak, Barbara Banke, Jancis Robinson, Naoko Dalla Valle, Francoise Peschon, Carole Meredith, Pam Starr, Linsey Gallagher, Emma Swain, Martine Saunier, Katrin Naelappa, Ann Noble, Michaela Rodeno, Lisa Perotti-Brown. I could go on and on. Truly, the number of great women in the wine industry today is astounding. Why do I admire them? Because they never take no for an answer.