Sunset Wine Editor Sara Schneider takes us inside the tasting room

by Linda Hubbard on December 2, 2015

After teaching high school English for 10 years, Sara Schneider, currently Sunset magazine’s Wine Editor, did what she describes as a “crazy move.” She enrolled at San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy.

“Normally, I make a plan,” she said, sitting in her office filled with bottles of wine. “I didn’t know what I was going to do when I graduated.”

An externship at a small food and wine magazine, Bay Food, pointed the way. Twenty years ago, she joined Sunset as a copy editor, before becoming Food Editor, where she initiated the Western Wine Awards and the Sunset Wine Club. When it was decided the magazine needed a full-time wine editor, she jumped at the opportunity.

Interestingly, before attending the Culinary Academy, Sara had little knowledge of wine. “I grew up in a conservative, tea-totalling household,” she explained. “My interest grew as I began editing wine articles, which were initially all done by freelancers. Writer Karen McNeil [author of The Wine Bible] was one of our contributors, and we started tasting together. She was a mentor to me.”

We were curious about how she separates her personal preference for varietals from her professional duties. For example, she told us she prefers domestic over European wine and is not a Chardonnay fan, although she fancies alternative whites like Grenache Blanc, Pinot Blanc and Albariño.

“I’m asked to judge various competitions,” she said, “and Sunset’s competition brings in about 50 judges. You learn to taste the wine and determine objectively if it’s well made.”

When judging, Sara is sometimes asked to taste 90 wines in a day. “We really have to pace ourselves,” she said. “We taste over a couple of hours, starting with the heavy reds in the morning. We often use roast beef to help wipe out the tannins. When tasting whites, we use celery and neutral bread.”

Sara explained that there is the option of spitting out the wine when tasting. “There’s more of a challenge when doing wine and food pairings. You’re more obligated to swallow.”

To Sara, wine is “endlessly interesting.” “To me, it is intellectual, emotional and sensual. I don’t know anything else that hits those notes.”

Editor’s note: This is our final conversation with Sunset editors, which earlier this year included visits with Food Editor Margo True and Garden Editor Kathy Brenzel. The magazine will be leaving Menlo Park and moving to its new location at Jack London Square in Oakland the first week in December.

Photo by Irene Searles (c) 2015

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