Questions with Elin McCoy

Snooth interviews a wine-writing great


Elin McCoy needs little introduction. She is a well known wine writer with a long history. Her articles have graced the pages of Food & Wine, The New York Times, Bloomberg Markets, as well as Zester Daily.

One of Elin's best known works must be her recent book entitled, “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste." This fascinating take on "the most powerful critic on earth" is a must read for any wine lover, and we're giving away a copy today!.

In association with Zester Daily, Snooth is running a great promotion, we are giving away a title from a Zester Daily contributor each day with a grand prize winner taking home the whole collection. Click here for details, and enter today to win your copy of Elin's book.

Photo courtesy Zester Daily
Snooth: Which came first, a passion for writing or a passion for wine?

Elin McCoy: Definitely a passion for writing! I decided to become a writer when I was five years old and wrote a poem while riding in the car on a family trip. Naturally, my wine passion came a little bit later.

Snooth: What was your epiphany moment with wine? Do you remember the wine that sparked your imagination and do you remember what first steps you took in pursuit of your new found passion?

EM: I’ve had several wine epiphanies. The first was a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse – I don’t remember the producer – when I was 14. My father had taken me out to dinner at a French restaurant in Chicago and allowed me to have a small glass of the wine he’d ordered. I felt incredibly grown up sipping it, paid close attention to every taste and smell, and vowed to learn more when I was older.

Tastes of Mayacamas Cabernet and Heitz Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s convinced me to write something about California wine, which didn’t have much cache on the east coast at the time. I joined a tasting group, started visiting wineries and ended up co-writing my first wine book.

My first taste of DRC’s La Tache, in 1981, taught me that wine could be truly profound, with layers and nuances of flavor and a sense of terroir that I didn’t know existed. I started trying to track down every wine that someone had called profound.

Snooth: The current generation of aspiring wine writers face a new paradigm with many wines now priced out of the reach of most people and fewer professional writers to act as role models. What advice would you give to someone who aspires to fill your shoes?

EM: First: Learn to write. The principles of good writing are the same, no matter what subject you write about. Start a blog and write about what you are discovering to help you find your own voice and style. Go beyond the `I went to this winery and here’s what I tasted’ approach or tasting notes with references to every possible fruit. Look deeper and find your own angle.

Second: Know what you’re talking about. Read, travel, ask questions, drink, gain experience. If you live near a wine region (and wine grapes are now grown in every state), get to know your local wineries and winemakers.

Third: Develop your palate. Taste as much as you can. Whenever possible, try two wines side by side to train yourself to identify differences and similarities and find out what intrigues you. You can do this with inexpensive wines, just as well as with expensive ones. Frequent wine bars where you can taste amazing wines without having to buy a bottle. Go to free wine store tastings. Form a wine tasting group with other serious tasters.

But, and this is a big but, don’t just taste wine in a vacuum. Drink it with food. Order it in restaurants. Look for context. Once again, experience is everything.

Fourth: Learn to recognize a good story. The best wine writing today goes beyond wine reviews with (usually boring) tasting notes. Instead it aims to illuminate the world of wine – people, places, issues like climate change, business and more. Be curious. Track down what’s compelling and timely – a new under the radar winemaker with a fascinating background,  how wineries in a region are coping with climate change, etc. See wine as a big picture.

Fifth: Think like a journalist. Be skeptical. Don’t just embrace the latest new thing. Develop a code of ethics for yourself.

Sixth: Be humble. No matter how much you know, there’s always more  to learn.

Snooth: Do you look back and see that there has been a golden age for wine or are we in a golden age for wine now?

EM: I don’t spend a lot of time trying to identify "golden ages’’ for anything. Certainly, it was less expensive to learn about Bordeaux and Burgundy 20 years ago, before prices really started to skyrocket… But back then there was a much narrower range of wines available. Today, we can buy fascinating wines from an enormous variety of grapes and regions and producers, many of which weren’t on the shelves as recently as five years ago. Given the diversity of wines and wine styles today, now is the golden age.

Snooth: Do you believe in the notion of the “American palate”? Why or why not?

EM: I do think there is some truth to the idea of  "the American palate,’’ but I believe it’s changing. Ten years ago, when I moderated tastings for American consumers, most of them preferred the wines with plenty of upfront fruit, a hint of residual sugar and a big, mouthful of flavor.

Snooth: What will the next break out variety or region be?

EM: I wish I knew!

I do think climate change is pushing the boundaries of where wine grapes can be grown, so I expect to see some surprising places emerge as new regions.

In Europe, I think Portugal, Slovenia and Greece will become better known – if they keep their prices down. I’d like to think that Bordeaux will make a comeback among hip sommeliers, because contrary to popular belief it offers plenty of great wine bargains.

For grape varieties, I see native grape varieties continuing to gain more and more recognition. Varieties I’d like to see break out are:
Reds: Aglianico
Whites: Muscadet, Fiano

Snooth: What wines are you drinking more of lately?

EM: Since it’s summer, I’m drinking more whites and rosés than usual. I’m rediscovering Soave, enjoying Aligotes from Burgundy, sipping Muscadet and gulping down my favorite rosés from Provence, which I far prefer to any other rosés.

In reds, I’m drinking Cerasuolo di Vittoria from Sicily,  a DOCG blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola, the great 2009 Beaujolais and Loire Valley reds.

Snooth: What wines are you drinking less of lately?

EM: I’m drinking fewer wines from California, made from Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Cabernet, and avoiding Argentina.

Snooth: What is your desert island wine and what would you want to pair with it?

EM: I always hate this question because I really wouldn’t like to be limited to only one wine. Not to mention questions of logistics: Is there refrigeration? Is it a hot tropical island where only coconuts and fish are available? Do I have to cook myself, etc?

That said, my first pick would be red Burgundy. I could be happy with any of a number of bottlings: especially from J.F. Mugnier, Christophe Roumier, or Armand Rousseau.

I would drink it with perfectly grilled wild salmon, with my special Pinot Noir and shallot sauce and a ragout of several varieties of wild mushrooms.

And I’d have a delicious grower Champagne on hand to toast my rescue from the desert island.

Snooth: What was the last wine that reminded you how special wine can be?

EM: I’ve just gotten back from Bordeaux, where I tasted dozens of spectacular wines. But drinking 1983 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild poured from jeroboams at a dinner in Lafite’s cellar was truly special. It wasn’t just the taste of the wine (which was fantastic, by the way), but also the context, which reminded me how much the specialness of wine has to do with bringing people together. The dinner followed a competition among eight university wine teams and was relatively small – about 60 people. Some stood up and sang, including Baron Eric de Rothschild, and we all danced among the fermentation vats to music played by a small band, as plenty of ’83 Lafite flowed.

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