Epcot's 2008 International
Food & Wine Festival

Wine School

October 4, 2008

Presenter: Karen MacNeil
Wine Educator,

Author of "The Wine Bible" and "Wine, Food and Friends"

Featured Subject: Napa Valley Wines

Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor, AllEars®


I attended the Epcot Wine School led by author and wine educator Karen MacNeil on Saturday, October 4, 2008, held in an upstairs lounge of the Festival Center (formerly the Wonders of Life pavilion). I will say this at the outset -- if all the Wine Schools are this informative and well-presented, they are well worth your time and money.

Those who have attended Epcot's Food and Wine Festival over the past years may recall that the Epcot Wine Schools used to be all-day affairs, starting at 9 a.m. with a continental breakfast, followed by a hearty lunch, and concluding at 4 p.m., all for the price of $150. I had never attended the day-long event due to the time commitment, but this year when I saw that the Wine Schools had been significantly scaled down to just three hours, I thought I would give one a go. (Never mind that even though the school went from seven hours to three, with no meals now included, the price only went down by $25!)

When I made my reservation for the Wine School, the cast member at Disney Dining told me the event would be in the Festival Center, but when I called a week or so before my trip to confirm my reservations, I was told that I had to be at Epcot Guest Relations a half-hour before the school was to begin. I was confused by this, and decided to visit Guest Relations that morning to verify where I should be and when. To his credit, the cast member admitted that he didn't know, but vowed to find out. After a 10-minute wait he returned from the back office with a sheepish look. No one, he said, knew the answer to my question, and he suggested I go to the Festival Center to find out. Argh! The Festival Center, which is a LOOOONG walk from Epcot's Guest Relations (from all three of Epcot's Guest Relations, in fact: the one outside the front turnstiles, the one just opposite Spaceship Earth and the location at International Gateway). But slog my way to the Festival Center I did, where I posed my question to several cast members yet again. And still no one knew the answer. Eventually, a cast member there told me not to worry -- just to return to a particular door which leads to an upstairs area at about 15 minutes before 1 p.m. and she would escort me to the Wine School. That was all well and good, but I do think that a few weeks into the Festival, SOMEONE in the area should have been able to answer my question definitively.

Karen MacNeilAs it turned out, the reason for meeting at Guest Relations outside the park is because admission to the park is included in this event. Some guests were told to meet there, and were then escorted to the Festival Center. If only someone would have explained that sooner, I wouldn't have wasted about an hour of my morning (and who knows how many hundreds of steps) trying to figure out where I needed to be and when.

In any case...

At about 12:40 p.m. I dutifully returned to the appointed door at the Festival Center and found several other participants already waiting. A cast member checked us in, but we had to wait for the attendees who were being brought from the various Guest Relations locations. When they eventually arrived, some red-faced, out-of-breath and annoyed that they had gotten the same confusing run-around I had, we were taken, in small groups, up the tiny elevator that leads to the upstairs lounge areas of the pavilion.

The Epcot Wine School I had signed up for was originally billed as covering Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, so I was a bit surprised when I entered the room and noticed that six of the wine glasses set at the places were filled with white wines, not red. No matter, really, it just made the experience a Napa Valley Wine School, instead of Cabernet Sauvignon Wine School. I was more surprised that there were 12 -- count'em 12! -- samples of wine at each place. This promised to be an interesting experience if anyone just guzzled their wines, and didn't use the approved method of just taking a sip and then spitting it out!

Long tables were set facing the front of the room, classroom style, with the instructor Karen MacNeil, looking rather school-marmish with her spectacles and flip chart. MacNeil broke the ice as we "students" assembled by talking a little about her own background -- she's chair of the Professional Wine Studies Program at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, as well as an author and host of the PBS television program, "Wine, Food & Friends." In other words, she knew her subject matter.

MacNeil started the program by having us taste a few of the white wines "blind", trying to identify the particular varietal to begin with. Once it was established that we were sampling a range of six sauvignon blancs (the aggressive "bad" girl of white wines, as MacNeil put it), we went through and tasted each wine, discussing not only its individual characteristics, but also WHY it had those characteristics, and what it was about the treasured 30-mile strip of California real estate known as the Napa Valley that gave those wines certain traits.

Once we had gone through all the whites (which ranged in price from a $15 bottle of Raymond Sauvignon Blanc to a $40 bottle of To Kalon Fume Blanc), we moved on and tasted all the reds, which were, no surprise, cabernet sauvignon. There was a very respectable Raymond cab at $35/bottle, all the way up to a $120 bottle of Far Niente -- and the stops in between were all quite delicious, too. Along the tasting way we digressed and discussed a variety of related subjects: how a chemical called pyrezene causes the greenish color in some sauvignon blancs, what tannin really is, how some wines age -- or don't -- in the bottle, and much, much more.

I won't bore you with all the details of the particular presentation MacNeil made -- if you attend an Epcot Wine School yourself the subject matter will surely be different. But I will say that if you ever have the opportunity to attend a presentation by MacNeil, go -- she is not only well-organized and extremely knowledgeable, she has a warm personality and is very entertaining, with the ability to impart not only "book-learning" but her deep feelings for the total wine experience. I do not profess to be any sort of wine "scholar," but I learned more in her class than I even expected to. She covered not only how to taste the wine samples before us, but also WHY the wines tasted the way they did in a way that made me pay attention and WANT to take notes.

Apparently our program was originally supposed to last from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m., at which time MacNeil was to attend a book signing downstairs, and the students were to be "sobered up" with a mini-reception of hors d'oeuvres from 3 to 4 p.m. However, the entire group was clearly enjoying the class, as was MacNeil herself, so it was allowed to run longer, eventually winding up around 3:45, which led to MacNeil hurriedly scrawling her signature on our "diplomas," as servers rushed through the room distributing the appetizers they'd been holding for nearly an hour.

The Epcot Wine School cost $125 per person (plus tax) and included theme park admission (although when the class was over, cast members were on hand to escort non-ticket holders OUT of Epcot). As I stated at the beginning, I felt this experience was well worth the money -- the format of the presentation, even though abbreviated from past years, is quite appropriate, and the caliber of the presenter, at least at the Wine School I attended, was first-rate. Based on this experience, I would not hesitate to sign up for another Epcot Wine School, and would definitely recommend it to anyone who has an interest in learning more about a particular varietal or wine region.